When I entered the Miami airport on the return trip from my experience in Bolivia, I felt like my mind was flipping somersaults in a state of utter confusion. I was staggered to hear passengers speaking in English. The words sounded strange to my ears. They just weren’t as lyrical as the Spanish language.Language was by no means the only obstacle in this still-continuing process of readjusting to life in the United States. Bolivia can seem like a completely different world in which nothing—from the unity of the family life style to the traffic regulations—resembles the United States.
So, I experienced the familiar phenomenon of culture shock, but I also came across this feeling in an unexpected form that I had not imagined before my three-and-a-half-month stay in Bolivia. This form of culture shock arose from Bolivia’s amazing diversity, which had impelled me to study there with the School of International Training (SIT) as opposed to in Argentina or Costa Rica with one of the Lawrence affiliated programs. In spite of my awareness of Bolivia’s diversity, I assumed that my feelings of culture shock would cluster along the fringes of my study abroad experience, rising to intensity as I entered and exited Bolivia. I was astounded and sometimes pained when the unsettling confusion associated with culture shock re-echoed in the movement between urban and rural areas within Bolivia. For me, culture shock reached its peak within the country, uncovering both the economic and cultural implications of Bolivia’s staggering diversity.
In my opinion, the rich and varied fabric that defines Bolivia sets the country apart from Argentina. Bolivia, however, has ties to Argentina that go beyond a shared border. Like Argentina, Bolivia is also being wrought by an economic crisis.
Bolivia has repeatedly been described as a country rich in natural resources, but without the industry necessary to exploit its natural wealth. The mining industry collapsed during the 1980s as the government tested yet another economic reform. Bolivia is no longer able to expect profitable returns from Argentina, where it had exported the majority of its natural gas reserves.
The livelihood of the farmers who raise coca, which is a green, oval-shaped leaf used in native rituals and in the more well-known case of cocaine production, is increasingly threatened as the United States demands eradication of coca fields in order to remain tough in the drug war.
Miners, coca growers, and other blue collared workers tend to be from an indigenous background. The poverty of the indigenous people has induced creative attempts at survival. Countless market vendors line the streets of the cities. Vendors selling similar products cluster around the same section of the market. Sometimes five vendors all selling potatoes compete for sales. Others, typically young children, offer their services polishing shoes. Some street children attempt to wring a meager living out of music, playing a stringed instrument made from an armadillo’s shell called a charango. Other children keep their hands wide open in a plea for spare change while they sit in a large group around a motherly figure.
The economic disadvantage of the indigenous people continues to be a very visible reality, especially as Bolivia plunges into an economic crisis, with soaring unemployment and underemployment. Bolivia has a two tier social system in which those with European ancestry dominate the top of the scale while the indigenous people remain at the bottom. This system has endured through Bolivia’s history of violent revolutions and presidents who only managed to hold power for several months.
Yet, to some extent, Bolivia’s current economic crisis cuts across social classes by affecting citizens of diverse backgrounds. The other university students from the United States and I stayed with upper middle class families who, as I learned, could not escape from the economic crisis in all instances. My host family, for example, was forced to close the factory that they owned and consequently had moved from a mansion to a spacious house and finally to a crowded apartment within the short span of four months.
A sweeping movement of all types of people has been spurred by the economic crisis. Wealthy European families move to progressively more economic homes. The indigenous people with fewer economic resources migrate from the country to the city where they hope to find an outlet for survival in either the informal market of vending or domestic service.