By: Curtis Abney
It has officially been 4 months since Lindsay and I arrived in this chaotic yet beautiful country of Bolivia, and a lot has happened… to say the least. And I will be the first to say that not all of it has been particularly fun. In the last 2 months especially, Bolivia has continued to find ways to break me. But my story is not one of complaint, nor is it one of failure. It is one about revelation.
I have had to deal with the loss of many things here in Bolivia. Most of them rather insignificant, but losing my wallet 2 months ago surely takes the cake for being the most stressful. I am not quite sure how it happened, but I know the public transport system here can be a black hole for people’s belongings. Whether or not items are accidentally misplaced, or surreptitiously stolen is up to debate. It is a rather hopeless feeling being in a foreign country when you have no identification, no cash, and no method of taking out money. The feeling is exaggerated when you try to speak to police about the issue and are forced to accept that a lost wallet to them is just a drop in a very large and more demanding bucket. This was the first time in my life I had actually lost something of importance, and to be honest, I had no idea how to cope with the situation. I called friends exasperatedly and paced the streets of La Paz for hours trying to regather my senses, and nothing seemed to bring me relief. It was a rather restless night.
The next day I went to the Canadian Embassy and reported the issue, got my passport legally copied, and had a new credit card being sent immediately. It was relieving to know that whatever I had could be replaced, but I still carried the sting of having lost my wallet in the first place. However, I discovered a way of coping that was better than any medication: traveling. That very afternoon I decided to hop on a bus to Chile with a friend for a surf trip and immediately my worries about my wallet disappeared. When I was finally sitting on the ocean shore, feeling the warm sun and the soothing roar of the surf, all of my worries about my situation in Bolivia vanished, and I never looked back.
About a month later, I was in for another surprise. Once again I was sitting on a bus, watching as a frantic elderly man shouted for the bus to stop so that he could get off immediately. I didn’t think much of his rapid departure until I got off at my stop three blocks later to realize my camera was gone. Realizing my camera was stolen destroyed me – not just because of losing the item itself, but because a large portion of my work in Viacha was comprised of photography. This seemed to be the one thing I could offer the team, and now it was lost to the hands of a thief. But even though I had felt so defeated, I was comforted by the fact that it was just a camera. I still had breath in my lungs, I was surrounded by friends in beautiful Santa Cruz, and I still had a weekend of activities ahead of me. The optimism of wanting to enjoy my time in Santa Cruz quickly trumped my feeling of loss.
Unfortunately for myself, life had other things in store for me here in Bolivia. I suffered a back injury that ended up keeping me from my favorite sport for nearly 2 months. My USB where I stored all my photos and all my work for the municipality caught a virus, and all of the documents were erased. We had to miss an important event at work and subsequently lost the trust of one our Bolivian supervisors. Yet, in the midst of all of this, I held true to my optimism. After dealing with so much loss and disappointment, I had no choice but to challenge my role of playing the victim. I taught myself not to find identity in my belongings, nor in my workplace. I liberated myself from the feeling of being useless by channeling my energy into doing the jobs I did have well. I wrestled with being involved in projects at work that I did not wholeheartedly support or believe in, by supporting other projects on the side that I did believe in. All of the things that weighed so heavily on me, I surrendered.
How I coped with all of this is actually really simple. I made a list of all of the things that I have to look forward to in Bolivia, whether they be events, travels, arrivals of visitors, birthdays, etc. and allowed myself to be excited for these things. I reached out to the most important people in my life and refocused on things that are actually worth missing. I set goals for myself that allowed me to find new meaning in my work. Most importantly, I retained my optimism. There is a famous quote by Rohit Pandita that says, “I am enjoying my life because things aren’t going the way I planned”. No statement could be truer of my time here. Very little has gone according to my plans, and yet, I am still enjoying it. I am still grateful to wake up every morning and be greeted by the Altiplano sun. I am still excited for the future adventures that await me in this country, and for the days that I get to play beach volleyball with my Bolivian friends. Life is still a precious and rewarding gift – and no loss of belongings will change that for me.
For people who are preparing to travel or to experience life abroad, I hope you are prepared to be broken. It is a good thing to be prepared so that your world doesn’t absolutely crumble when you lose a camera. I also hope that you are excited for the wonderful adventures that await you, but are willing to have nothing go according to your plans. I hope that you are able to face your trials with an unwavering optimism that allows you to persevere through even the darkest and most defeating chapters. And I hope, above all else, that whatever you face abroad teaches you in one way or another, that this amazing ride of life is such a beautiful gift.
“It takes a lot of optimism, after all, to be a traveler”
~ Paul Theroux