Navigating cross-cultural communication and creating connections and opportunities for collaboration

By Lisa Mak

It has been three months since I arrived here in La Paz, Bolivia, marking the midway point of my internship, and it has been an adventure every step of the way. Coinciding with the new year, this has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my time here so far, as well to set new goals for the remainder of my internship (as well as the rest of the year). While I have lived abroad and travelled overseas to many different places, I have never experienced a place quite like La Paz, and Viacha is even more foreign. The landscape of the Altiplano alone is completely unlike anywhere I’ve seen, with vast plains stretching out across the horizon only to be met with ominous mountains, creating a sense of isolation that is eerily beautiful.

selfie-with-james-on-train-tracksSelfie with James while we were exploring the countryside outside Viacha one day.

Adding to this is the novel experience of working in the municipality of Viacha. It is a buzzing hive of activity, with ministry workers, citizens, and other visitors passing through constantly. However, despite the seemingly hecticness of the municipality, the work-culture here, as a derivative of greater Bolivian culture in general, is fairly relaxed. Every morning, I am welcomed and greeted by handshakes, hugs, and kisses from my colleagues. My co-interns and I are in different departments, and as a result, I have had the pleasure of meeting various people and departments I otherwise may not have had the opportunity to meet. One thing my co-interns and I have noticed within the municipality is that despite the personal relationships between individuals here, there seems to be a lack of professional relations and connections across the different departments. There is a lack of interdepartmental communication, and collaboration is virtually non-existent.

Selfie with Gladys and Edwin.jpgSelfie with my supervisors, Gladys and Edwin, in the Department of Environment office.

While I am learning a lot here – the context of Viacha, the culture and customs, the issues and solutions, amongst a plethora of other things – what I am learning most and is proving most difficult is Spanish. While I do have an intermediate to high-intermediate level of the language, I am still learning and the language barrier is very much a present and constant obstacle for my own communication, hindering not only my ability to express myself as eloquently as I would like to, but also limiting the content or subject matter I am able to discuss. This limited capacity of communication, therefore, affects what I am able to do, who I am able to speak with, how I am able to interact, and consequently, my ability to establish more meaningful connections and relationships.

group-photo-on-viachajames-dayMy co-interns and the Department of Planning celebrating Viacha’s anniversary (which also happened to be James’ birthday).

It is interesting to note the parallels between my own struggles with communication and the lack of communication between departments within the municipality. Just as my challenges with communication results in me having to work much harder, the lack of communication across different departments also hinders the planning processes and project outcomes for the municipality.

I am very fortunate and grateful for my co-interns, not only for their companionship, friendship, and support throughout this incredible experience, but also for their language abilities. Both James and Ingrid are fluent, native Spanish speakers, and at often times, act as a dictionary, if not, translators for me. Having them as resources and collaborators have definitely made my experience here much less of a struggle. While I still have to work harder to compensate for what I lack in language skills, I would have had a much more difficult time if it were not for them.

fam-bbq-at-titosWeekend barbecue with our colleagues from the Department of Planning.

As we interns come from different parts of Canada, with diverse cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds, we represent a wealth of knowledge for each other, as well as the municipality. This is evidenced by the fact that we are all working in different departments. This diversity has been incredibly valuable since we are able to collaborate, share knowledge and ideas to better identify issues, and create more innovative and effective solutions. Through collaborating, we all gain greater access to more information in more efficient manners. We believe more communication and collaboration is something the municipality can greatly benefit from as well.

fam-photo-at-la-muelaFamily selfie on an outing to La Muela del Diablo. I am incredibly grateful for these wonderful humans. I could not have asked for a better group of people to share this experience with.

In a way, being in different departments, has allowed the interns to facilitate interdepartmental communication and collaboration. Our projects are multifaceted and interdisciplinary in nature, requiring the help, information, and expertise from multiple departments. We hope that through these interactions, linkages can be created and strengthened, so that these connections will remain long after we leave, facilitating more communication and collaboration between departments with improved outcomes for the municipality and its residents.

My experience in Viacha has definitely been a steep learning curve, as I continue to learn and develop personally and professionally. And as I move forward in my role here, gaining new experiences and knowledge, I am also building and enhancing my own capacities and capabilities. Similarly, as we interns progress and continue our work here, we also hope the capacity within the municipality can be increased and improved. I have come to realise that this internship opportunity truly is a mutual learning experience between the interns and the host organization, perhaps more so in my case than in others. My struggle with Spanish is mirrored in the municipality’s lack of communication, while the emphasis on the importance of collaboration among my peers and myself is reflected in our work and projects, and thereby enabling and encouraging interdepartmental collaboration. Not only have I grown through this internship, but perhaps our presence here can be the ripple effect that will see a wave of change in the municipality’s approach to communication and collaboration.

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