Today is our last day of work in Viacha and looking back I can say that we never knew what to expect when going to work. Since we arrived, our supervisors included us in all kinds of outings and activities. Our work had to do with promoting cultural attractions, so they tried to show us all that Viacha has to offer.
In one of our first weeks, we arrived at work and our boss asked us if we’d like to go to a slaughterhouse, so we hopped in the van and drove to a completely empty field. We then found out that we had come for the inauguration of the construction of a slaughterhouse run by the municipal government. Community members and government officials came out for the event. There were speeches, music, and some important figures broke clay pots full of beer on the cornerstone. The highlight for Curtis and I came at the end, our first apthapi, an Andean tradition representing abundance. Everyone brings a bundle of food to share and lays it out on the ground. The food usually consists of potatoes, cheese, corn, cassava, and chunos (dehydrated and frozen potatoes). On this day, we were particularly lucky because we were offered handfuls of pasta and pieces of pork.
About a month ago, we joined some archaelogists as they began to document the many Incan sites in Viacha. We climbed hills and combed farmers’ fields for pieces of pottery. We found some neat pieces with designs and distinct indentations. Another day, we crawled through a tiny hole in a hillside into an Incan tomb. There were some bones in the doorway, which were probably human, but we didn’t investigate any further.
In February, all of the local military groups and a few interested citizens piled into the coliseo for the choosing of the queen of carnaval. Curtis and I went to help set up but an hour before the event began my boss asked me if I’d like to participate. We had a good laugh until we realized that he was serious. I decided to participate after much resistance. There were three categories: traditional dress, bathing suit and evening gown. I did the first two, putting on six skirts and carrying a bowler hat that didn’t quite fit on my head. Since I hadn’t practiced, I imitated the traditonal dance, morenada, causing Curtis to fall off his chair from laughing so hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t qualify for the crown because I left my evening gown at home that day. Overall, this experience was quite memorable and it contributed to the atmosphere in the office as we recounted the story over and over again.
In the same month, a terrible tradgedy occurred in El Alto, a satellite city of La Paz that we pass through to get to Viacha. We were on our way to work one morning when we saw thousands of protesters marching down the highway. We understood that they were parents demanding better infrastructure and services in their children’s schools. At lunch time, I went to get my haircut. The barber had the TV on and it showed images of the El Alto city hall in flames. We later learned that the protesters had arrived and started trashing the building, burning documents and furniture in the process. There was speculation that this was more than a group of concerned parents voicing their concerns and that the protesters had a hidden, political agenda. In the end, most of the people inside the building were able to escape through back windows; however, six people did not make it out. They went to work expecting a normal day and ended up losing their lives for no reason. Their deaths hit close to home as we thought about our friends working in the city hall in Viacha.
One surprisingly satisfying day that we had in Viacha was when Curtis and I helped to clean up a local park. Parque Jaya Phuch’u was built a few years ago with financing from the municipal government. It features a giant slide, a BMX track, volleyball and basketball courts, picnic tables a lake, and a giant chess game. It’s one of the best parks I’ve ever seen but it needed some maintenance. In preparation for Children’s Day, Curtis and I walked around the park documenting and photographing all the upgrades that needed to happen. We volunteered to pick up all the garbage in and around the lake. Even without equipment, we didn’t have any trouble collecting trash around the outside of the lake. Accessing the garbage stuck in the reeds in the middle of the lake posed more of a problem. The only way we could reach the garbage was by swan boat. The pedals and steering mechanism were rusty but we grabbed some sticks and headed out. It took all day to fish the garbage out of the lake but it was sunny and we enjoyed being out of the office. We had a lot of fun trying to manuever through the reeds, and the lake looked a lot better when we were done.
Another day, when we were out behind Viacha’s cement plant searching for Incan pottery, I was chatting with another intern, Jess, who is in Senegal through the magic of Whatsapp. She said: “Your internship seems cool. You guys are always off on random adventures.” I thought that summed up my experience pretty well. Yes, we got to learn about community economic development and contribute to a project, but some of the most memorable experiences for me will be those random adventures. On those days, we got to interact with people, hear stories, share food, and laugh a lot. Many parts of this internship felt very surreal. I often had to pinch myself because I couldn’t believe that I was living and working in Bolivia with people who I didn’t know six months before. I think that with more time and reflection, I will realize just how much I learned over the course of this internship. For now, I am just grateful for the people we met and all the crazy, random experiences that we shared.