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A whole new world

Amanda Peña | Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Exposure to situations where one is vulnerable and uncomfortable can often enhance one’s perspective on various life issues. This summer, the Kellogg Institute gave me a unique opportunity to travel outside of the United States for the first time to Cochabamba, Bolivia. My transition from “first” to “developing” world was only temporary. However, I have been deeply humbled and forever changed by my experiences in the country that challenged my personal and professional development.
At first, I was shocked by how similar Cochabamba was to my hometown in Los Angeles – high automobile traffic, an abundance of restaurants and street carts, smartphones and casual dress styles. I was perplexed by how this country could be considered developing if it seemed almost like living in the U.S. My preconceived notions about Bolivia were very ignorant and naïve; all of my prior research had painted a vastly different picture of the country.
It wasn’t until I took a trip out to one of Bolivia’s rural districts with my organization when I realized what “development” actually meant and how experiencing discomfort and vulnerability can alter your perspective.
Imagine a life without electricity, drinkable water or automobiles. You use a hole in the ground as a makeshift toilet and you work in the fields from the age of five. Your eight-year-old son slaughters the livestock and your thirteen-year-old daughter already has a baby. That is a typical story for most families living in the rural municipality of Morochata, Bolivia. For them, those circumstances do not infringe on having a happy and complete life.
For nine weeks I interned at el Centro de Capacitación y Asesoramiento Multidisciplinario (CECAM), an organization in Bolivia that helps develop communities with few-to-no resources. Among their initiatives, their Eco-Casa Campaign intrigued me most and gave me an avenue to complete a huge project.
The Eco-Casa Campaign produces solar cookers, energy-efficient stoves/ovens and dry-composting toilets for impoverished families in Morochata to reduce health and environmental issues in the area. Because CECAM is a fledgling NGO, they have few economic resources to produce these appliances at a low enough cost for families to invest in.
I fundraised over $4,000 to open a non-profit restaurant to generate Eco-Casa project funds for the organization. On the surface, our restaurant project’s success may seem to have been the highlight of my summer, but in reality it was my struggles and the lessons they taught me that I am most proud of.
I had never understood what living with a scarcity of resources actually meant, and when I visited Morochata, I struggled with fetching water, hiking through the mountains for hours to reach the nearest house and squatting over a hole in the ground to use the bathroom. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, and watching children of roughly seven years old herding sheep and cows ripped my heart out.
After interviewing one family, the Fernandez family, in their tiny, adobe shack, I was served the biggest slice of humble pie. They prepared dinner for our group – corn and meat (from their freshly slaughtered cow) – and invited us into their home. They could not fathom a life without laboring in the fields, nor did they understand what more a person could need besides their family, a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. To me, it seemed like they simply lived to survive. But to the Fernandez’s, I was the one who didn’t understand how to live.
The thought perplexed me and I began to reflect on my own life. What do I want to do with my future, who do I hope to become, why am I interested in development? In the end, I found myself more confused and depressed than when I started. To my friends and family back in the U.S., I was doing big things and changing the world, but in Bolivia, I was just a small nobody visiting the country. By indulging in another culture’s rich history and exotic landscapes, and fostering close relationships with others, I found new interests and experiences that changed my worldview significantly. Limiting my access to widely-available Internet and the American working culture taught me to slow down and take the time to smell the roses.
It is often the case that we go through life performing the same, mundane activities simply because we feel we have to, and many people never discover their passions or time to enjoy their life. Sometimes we need a magic carpet to take us beyond the walls in our life to experience a new world that motivates us to become better people. Find your magic carpet and don’t be afraid to enjoy the view from beyond the walls.

Amanda Peña is a junior sustainable  development studies major with a
poverty studies minor. She can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.