After graduating high school, I set out to Bolivia in Peru, chasing those exact emotions. I quickly found myself out of my comfort zone in Bolivia, which at the time was Latin America’s second poorest country. I traveled in a Gap Year group of 12, called Where There Be Dragons, where we strayed off the normal, beaten path and trekked through rural parts of Bolivia, getting to know new cultures. I was able to witness poor conditions in all social sectors: health, education, the environment… a lack of infrastructure, corruption, you name it. Although I witness poverty around me, I was infatuated with the amount of hospitality, love, and happiness the Bolivians showed me. I stayed in some of the poorest conditions - sleeping on a pile of potatoes in a closet of an adobe brick house, going to the bathroom wherever I could find a discrete place within the community, taking cold, cold bucket baths, eating on the dirt floor sharing scraps with guinea pigs… while at first these things seemed extreme and shocking conditions (especially when that cold bucket hit your back), I eventually became accustomed to it. I actually enjoyed it. It was such a simple way of living. There were no material goods, objects or anything else that got in the way of my enjoyment of the company that surrounded me. We were happy with what we had and what we had were each others stories, jokes, laughs, smiles, and joy. By building relationships with my home stay family and community members, I was able to get a better understanding of the needs within the community, but also of their strengths. One learns how resilient people are. How strong and determined they are. Traveling is one thing, and living and communicating within a community is another— I learned the importance of building trustworthy relationships as it is the key to the hearts of the community and the key to change. My home stay experiences are always invaluable ones, ones to learn and grow from those you are exchanging with.
My home stay in Cedro Galan this past week was just that. I was able to spend time in the community getting to know a family of 6 (same number as mine). I slept in a room with the 4 children — I was on a mattress on the floor with one of the younger girls, while the boy Juan was on his own little board in the corner and the other 2 girls sharing a bed right next to mine. On the other side of the tin sheet wall were the parents sharing a twin sized bed. If you stepped right outside our rooms was the living room, which consisted of 2 metal chairs, a few boxes to sit on, a small fridge, and a tiny TV in the corner. If you walked outside and to the other small tin room you found the kitchen, which consisted of a wood “counter” and a fire pit to do the cooking…. no stove, no oven, no fancy steel appliances. But the food was good. I mean really good! Jessenia, my host mom and BFF, is one mean cook. The food usually consisted of rice and beans but she was always able to add amazing flavors and twists to the Nica diet.
During our time together (waking up at 5am, going to bed between 8-11pm) we discussed community needs, her visions for a business and for the community, brainstormed ideas for the clinic and for a trash collection system. When we weren’t busy dreaming we played card games after card games. They taught me a new version of poker that kept us occupied for hours upon hours. Might I add, I had no electronics with me all week, just one backpack filled with a few pairs of clothing, a deck of cards, and a notebook. Another simplicity. By removing technology, which at times can be toxic, I found myself living far more in the moment. No Snapchat, no Instagram, no Facebook— no need to let other people know what I was doing — the only worry I had was whether I was going to win that hand of cards. It truly is liberating and peaceful, yet exhilarating to be able to live in the moment and not worry about what other people were doing, or feel the need to tell everyone in the world via Snapchat. Truly, living in the moment. Enjoying each moment. Each laugh. Each exchange.
By Natalie Ball