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My Best Unexpected Experience

(Archived Article)

by Melanie Takefman

I have yet to meet a gringo in Bolivia who planned to live there. Yet, those who do live in South America's poorest country are invariably happy where they are.

For five months, I taught layout and web design skills in Tarija, a Bolivian city of 135,000 inhabitants near the Argentine border. I worked at Mujeres en Acci¢n, a non-profit organization that runs educational programs for poor women and children.

I arranged the internship through a program called Netcorps, a Canadian government initiative that sends young people with technical savvy abroad to teach computer skills. Though it is a volunteer position, all expenses are paid by the government. Only Canadian citizens or landed immigrants are eligible to apply.

Logistics of the internships are arranged by 9 different NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The Canadian NGO matches the applicant's skills with the needs of their partner organizations abroad.

My education and work experience fit with the program requirements and my heart was set on Costa Rica. So, while my brain completed a bachelor's degree in snowy Montreal, my heart was longing to laze on heavenly beaches, dance salsa and sip drinks made of mysterious fruits until the sending NGO lost my application.

After my initial rage, I found another Netcorps internship through a different NGO, Oxfam Quebec. Instead of balmy beaches and Latin lovers, I was headed for Bolivia, the land of.... well, I didn't know.

The few Canadians who know anything about Bolivia talk of drug wars, poverty and unforgiving terrain.

If you judge by statistics alone, Bolivia is underdeveloped. What I discovered was a country of fun-loving, unassuming people whose friendships lured me away from my native Canada, one of the world's most "developed" countries, for almost a year. Moreover, they instilled values in me that were lacking in my privileged life.

On October 16, 2001, I landed in Bolivia with five equally perplexed Canadian interns. No one knew what to expect. Tarija is the most isolated region in Bolivia, a country itself land-locked in the heart of South America.

I shared an apartment with two other interns. It was located downtown next to the central market, had three spacious bedrooms, a kitchen and a large living room/dining room. The latter earned our pad its party house reputation.

Though our luxurious apartment cost about U.S.$ 275/per month, Oxfam footed the rent and also shelled out Can$ 609 to each of us for "living expenses." This was a king's salary in Bolivia. We each saved several hundred U.S.$ in five months.

Not all Netcorps interns have everything prepared for them when they arrive in their host country; each sending NGO has a different policy.

At Mujeres en Acci¢n, I was welcomed as a person, not as a position. My colleagues wanted to hear stories about my family, marveled at my pictures of Canada and contemplated what my media-naranja (half-orange or soul mate) would be like.

Twice a day, the staff shared tea and bread. This was a wonderful management strategy: Because we respected each other as people, work proceedings ran smoothly.

In North America, we party when work permits. Bolivians work when fiestas permit.

Each year before Lent, Bolivians succumb to hedonistic pleasures in a week-long party known as Carnival. Bolivians are usually reserved; during Carnival, however, couples kiss in the central square as children pummel them with water balloons and shaving cream.

While words cannot describe the feeling of dancing with hundreds of people in the rain for three days straight, I can say that our world would be a better place if we allowed ourselves an annual release like Carnival.

The fact that partying is cheap in Bolivia facilitates this state of mind. Tarija is a wine-producing region and a decent local bottle costs Can$ 3.50. An array of fresh fruits and vegetables can be had for pocket change. Shopping at the colourful markets amidst ladies in traditional dress is more stimulating than surveying frozen meat under the fluorescent lights of a grocery store.

Bolivia's unforgiving terrain is a nature lover's paradise. Over and over, I felt that I was the first person to lay eyes on a jagged peak or mountain stream.

On the road that winds through the eastern cordillera of the Andes between Tarija and Sucre, giant cacti cast shadows onto steep canyons as the sun sets a deep haze of purple.

After a day at the Salar de Uyuni, a giant salt plain, you can sit in a green pasture surrounded by violet snow-capped volcanoes and unwind with no one but a herd of llamas.

My gringo friends and I agree that Bolivia's lack of tourism and Western influence is what made the trip so special.

Five months wasn't enough for me. After my Netcorps contract ended, I travelled in Brazil for two months and returned to Bolivia to teach first aid at Mujeres en Acci¢n's residence for teenage mothers.

Because of the financial perks and practical work experience, I think that Netcorps is the best way to live a culture.

If you're not eligible, urge local NGOs or MPs to create a program like Netcorps. The Canadian government continues to expand the program because it gives Canada a great image abroad, promotes sustainable development as well as lasting links between Canadians and their host countries. In March 2003, Netcorps will celebrate its 1000th internship.

Also, NGOs like VSO and Oxfam offer other work exchanges. While you may pay airfare, inquire about accommodations with the host organization. They might house you if they are affiliated with a residence.

While my liver continues to recover from one too many fiestas, I try to infuse my Canadian life with the value that Bolivians place in one another.

I know now that I was meant to go to Bolivia. So, save your Costa Rica for retirement, and follow your destiny.


About the Author
Melanie Takefman returned to Canada in August 2002. She is the editor of Eve magazine and the assistant editor of Concordia University's Thursday Report 

This is an archived article
Some details and organisations mentioned in this article may no longer be applicable