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Only in Bolivia…


Editor’s Note: Missioner Allison Dethlefs reflects on some of the cultural practices in Bolivia, both those that cause her frustration as well as those that she has been deeply touched by.

Nearly once a day, I find myself uttering the phrase, “Only in Bolivia…”

For my line of ministry work, I volunteer with a rural health foundation doing a whole host of jobs and projects. This means my daily schedule is constantly changing, and so that phrase has often become one of exasperation or frustration.

I have made list upon list of all of the things that drive me nuts about being here—cultural differences that after a year of living in Cochabamba have gotten under my skin, experiences that test me and also help me to see many of my own faults and shortcomings:

Only  in Bolivia…

• would traffic in the whole city shut down for a protest or parade on at least a weekly basis
• would meetings start two hours late one week and then thirty minutes early the next week, with everyone else magically knowing about the time change except for me
• would the lady who takes my order at a restaurant then promptly leave to go buy all of the ingredients for my meal at the nearby market
• would I have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to wait in line for an appointment at the public hospital, only to be told four hours later that the doctor I came to see wasn’t in that day
• would people feel so obligated to give me directions when I ask that I  have twenty people point me a different way and end up wandering in circles for an hour

But then there are the days that I find myself listing off all of the uniquely wonderful things about living here.

Only in Bolivia…

• would a couple of the vendors at the local market, whom I know by name, give me a box of oatmeal and a bag of tomatoes and onions from their stalls as Christmas presents.
• would a kid give up his seat on the bus without hesitation for an elderly woman because everyone is taught from the time they can walk that that is simply how things are done.
• would anyone eating anything anywhere – from an orange to a candy bar to a meal – offer to share it with everyone else in the room, even if that means splitting their food fifteen ways.

Living here has been full of frustrating moments, where I shake my head and wonder if I will ever understand this place. It has also been full of a thousand little moments that make me smile at the goodness of people and challenge me to grow in patience, understanding, and kindness. As I begin my second year living in Cochabamba, I am going to try to remember that no matter how long my list of frustrations grows, the list of joys, generosity, and goodness will always outweigh it.

Reflection Question: When something happens in your daily life that frustrates you, how can you remind yourself of all the uniquely wonderful parts of it too?

Allison has been serving in Cochabamba, Bolivia since January 2016.

Allison has a wide range of interests and loves including art, dance, long-distance running, baking, literature, and languages. She graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, NE, where she studied Spanish, studio art, and justice and peace studies. After serving and studying in Honduras, Peru, and the Dominican Republic during her university years, she chose to to dive into the new experience of long-term mission abroad.