Creighton University Student Reflects on Bolivia
by Merijke Coenraad Author
Creighton University student reflects on her summer enrichment experience in Cochabamba, Bolivia
By the time I landed in Cochabamba, Bolivia, last summer it had been more than 50 hours since I left home in Juneau, Alaska, and I found myself in a country that was more foreign than anywhere I had visited previously.
It wasn’t so much that I was farther from home than I had ever been, but more that I was in a country about which I knew so very little. In my naiveté, I had some preconceived notions, including thinking Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and is controlled by an elite European upper class, although the majority of the population is indigenous. As I set foot on the tarmac in Cochabamba, sitting 8,500 feet above sea level, I couldn’t imagine how my views would be altered over the next six weeks.
Moments after I landed, I was swept through customs, picked up my luggage and blindly followed someone whom I had previously known only as a name on a piece of paper: my host sister, Nayra. Twenty of us Creighton University students would be living with local families during our stay in their homeland. I lived with Nayra, 27, who had a marketing job with a multinational consumer goods company, and her mother, Betty, a pediatrician at the local hospital.
I was brought to Bolivia by my love of Spanish and a deep desire to experience a new culture. Through classes both at the Maryknoll Language Institute and with Creighton University professors, I was setting off on a path of discovery in a country that welcomed me with wide-open arms.
Studying at the Maryknoll Institute meant complete immersion into Bolivian society. I lived and conversed with Bolivians. Spanish classes each morning were the four toughest hours of my day. They brought on every emotion, from laughter to tears, although, thankfully, it was more laughter than tears. In the afternoon we students took one of two courses taught by Creighton professors: “The Church in Bolivia” and “International Political Economy.” I chose the former. My classes gave me the opportunity not only to learn about the Church in Latin America but also to experience it twice a week through community-based learning trips around Cochabamba, such as visiting a training center for lay catechists, where indigenous people are empowered to serve their communities.
My views of the Church were expanded as we read through documents from the Latin American bishops, who emphasized certain aspects of the Second Vatican Council, including the preferential option for the poor and the image of the Church as the People of God. Living in one of the economically poorest countries of Latin America, I heard the call to live more simply. In Bolivia, my learning was no longer just about a test or a quiz, as it had often been for classes in the United States. I had to put it all together: at home, at school and on the streets. But there was no lack of people to help me.
My greatest lessons came from the country itself. Bolivia shared with me the importance of beauty and love. Physical beauty was omnipresent, from the top of Mount Tunari to the Amazon Basin, but there was more intangible beauty in the people, which they share through the love they give to everyone and everything. Even though I was an outsider, my host family warmly welcomed me and would do anything for me. I often found books that Betty thought I would enjoy and extra blankets on my bed for the cold nights.
I will never forget my last night in Cochabamba. I sat on Betty’s bed watching television with her and Nayra and they told me that if I ever want to come back to Bolivia, all I need is a plane ticket because I will always have a home, food and most of all a family.
It has been a few months since I left Bolivia, but I can still remember the exact route that I took home every day from the Maryknoll Institute. I can visualize walking through the park and staring out my window at the Cristo de la Concordia, a statue on the hilltop of the city. I still shudder at taxi rides that made me want to never get in a car again, and every time I brush my teeth with tap water I catch myself thinking about how my host family can’t drink water without boiling it to kill the parasites. Some Bolivians don’t even have running water but have to depend on trucks delivering it.
By the end of my trip, my preconceived ideas of this country were shattered. Although many Bolivians are materially poor, they rejoice in the little they have and rely on each other to keep going. Although there is a strong presence of the powerful European upper class, Bolivia elected an indigenous president and people once oppressed have begun to find their voice.
In Bolivia, I accomplished my goal of greatly improving my Spanish, but more importantly, I learned about a culture that perseveres with love. I learned to laugh at myself and to find joy in simple pleasures. Even the smallest children taught me to be grateful as they played on the orphanage steps with nothing more than soda caps.
Bolivia is far from my home but it will forever be in my heart, and I will carry its lessons no matter where I find myself next.
– Merijke Coenraad is a senior at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., with a double major in elementary education and Spanish and Hispanic