‘Altos y bajos’: a year in Bolivia

I’ve never been one of those people with a strong “vocational calling” or career direction. I knew I wanted to get a college degree, but I didn’t know what for. In the fall of 2017, I started at Goshen College. That first year I explored various majors such as elementary education, Spanish, sustainability and social work. After a fun, though very confusing and emotional few months, I decided to take the next year off in hopes of gaining some insight and direction. If there was one thing I was sure about, it was that I wanted to get better at Spanish. So, in August of 2018 I said goodbye to my friends and family, and the places I had always called home. I spent the next year volunteering with Mennonite Central Committee in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, living with a host family and working at a daycare as part of their SALT (Serving and Learning Together) program. 

That year that I spent in Bolivia was hands down the most challenging, humbling, eye-opening, colorful, and bittersweet year of my life. I spent 40+ hours each week at Guarderia Samuelito, a daycare on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, working as a classroom assistant and school nurse. My days started with greetings of “Profe Maria!,” ended with goodbye hugs and kisses, and were filled with dancing and games, tantrums and dirty diapers in between. At home, my host mom was very gracious, though particular in her ways, as she was a very experienced host. She could be a bit rough around the edges, but she showed her love through her incredible food and her endless presence. I spent my free time with my host siblings and nieces and nephews. Although I only lived with my host mom and brother, the house was always filled with friends and family. 

It was a year of highs and lows – altos y bajos. Some days I struggled to find my place and felt as though I was just a visitor, someone on the outside looking in. Other days I felt so loved and cared for that just imagining leaving brought tears to my eyes. It was a year of lessons and realizations, of the power of language and community, of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, of trusting and having faith, of being out of control and learning to be okay with that. 

At the beginning of my time I cried for the people and places I missed back home. When my time in Bolivia was over, I cried to leave the new friends, family, and homes I had made. The only solace in my sadness was knowing that the reason leaving was so hard was because of the incredibly deep relationships I had made. 

In July of 2019 I made the greatly anticipated journey home. When I arrived home everything was exciting – seeing friends and family and eating all the foods I had missed. But before I knew it, it was time to go back to school. Around the time I came back to Goshen, the excitement of being back was wearing off; I had to face the realities of returning to my “normal” life. Except nothing was normal anymore. 

When you go somewhere new, you know that it’s going to be new and different, which can be exciting and challenging, but that’s all to be expected. That means coming home, back to the familiar, should be the easy part, right? You know what you’re going back to and who’s there waiting for you. But things change. People change. You change. The place that you thought you were coming back to isn’t the same anymore, and neither are you. How are you supposed to slip back into place when that place no longer exists? And is that comfortable, normal place even what you want anymore?

I won’t sugar coat it. Being back has sucked. Deciding to take a year off after one year at college has made the return back extremely difficult. At the beginning of the semester,  I really struggled to find my place. I had friends and community here, but nothing was how I left it. Navigating relationships and the normal stress of college, all while dealing with the difficulties of re-acclimating to life here has been, and continues to be an everyday challenge. Though leaving and returning have been difficult I wouldn’t change anything about what I did. I truly believe that we only grow as individuals when we are put out of our comfort zone and face adversity. Without the “altos y bajos” I experienced, I wouldn’t have been put out of my comfort zone and grown in the ways that Bolivia allowed me to.

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Written by Mariah Gingrich, Contributing Writer

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