Learning la Cochabamba


Michelle and Alex, from Sustainable Bolivia, greeted us as we escaped exited immigration at the Cochabamba airport. They had smiles from ear to ear, which was instantly comforting after having to persuade immigration officers to grant us visas for nearly an hour. After embracing like we had known each other for years, we hopped in a taxi that took us to the place we’d soon call home for the next four months: la casa de Villa-Gomez.20120714-182934.jpg

A petit woman no more than five feet tall named Esparanza met us at the gate. Bienvenidos, she spoke softly, kissing us each on the cheek before leading us inside.

Esparanza Villa-Gomez is the mother of three children, Gustavo, Gigliana, and Gigliola, and they all live in su casa. Gigliola has a daughter, Laura (also said lao-rrit-ta), age seven, who lives in the house as well. The children, aside from Laurrita, are all grown and work in the city. Each day, the entire family meets around the dining room table for lunch – Bolivia’s main meal – from noon til 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

On the night we arrived, Michelle and Alex joined us for tea, bread and cheese with Esperanza. Jeremy did most of the talking, as my espanol is in its early stage of development, and we introduced ourselves to our host mother and colleagues at Sustainable Bolivia.

Our house is incredible. Jeremy and I were repeatedly exchanging high browed glances at each other as we were shown around. Upon entering through the main gate, you step into a garden, pristinely manicured to every corner. A cement pathway leads you past lemon trees, aloe, jade and more to the front veranda. The house is three stories high and painted white inside and out. There are two giant living rooms, a large dinning room, a small dining area, a large kitchen, an office, two bathrooms and four bedrooms. We have our own room on the second floor next to Esperanza’s. We have a real bed, a shower, a flushing toilet, closets to hang clothes, and there is a woman that comes once a week to do the laundry! Did I mention there’s wifi in the house too?? I think we must have slightly embarrassed Esperanza by our dropped jaws and wide eyes, but we couldn’t help it. We were expecting something a bit more rustic to say the least. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to have electricity let alone wireless Internet. But we are very thankful and somewhat relieved. With all the other warnings we’ve been given about the dangers of the city, it’s nice to feel secure and comfortable at home.


En la mañana, Alex met us again to show us how to use the local transportation to get to the city center and to Sustainable Bolivia office. “It’s just two blocks downhill to the main road where you’ll catch the 134 truffi to La Plaza Sucre.” There are no bus stops, so we stood on the side of the road and waited for a truffi to pass that had room for three. It costs 1.7 bolivianos for all the city buses (roughly $0.25). However, Jeremy may have to pay for two seats as he could barely squeeze himself into the narrow rows made for people half his size.

The office of Sustainable Bolivia doubles as one of their ‘volunteer houses’. They manage about 30 volunteers from many different countries and place them in all sorts of volunteer jobs in Cochabamba. Volunteers who opt out of the home stay option, stay at one of these volunteer houses, which seem to be a more hostel-like environment. Once we were checked in by Erin, our manager, we were taken on a speed walk tour through the city and given the most important dos and don’ts of Cochabamba.

Explore the markets and eat all the fresh fruit you can peel
Talk to people (they are very friendly, most of the time)
Bring empty beer bottles to the corner stores to be refilled (1 liter of beer for 15 bolivianos = $2).
Hike the 1200 stairs to el Christo, in the mornings only
Exchange money in the streets, not the banks (better not to know why)
Always carry a photocopy of your passport and visa in case you are investigated by the police and taken to their holding cell – apparently not a big deal, it’s just their “process”….

Walk alone or in small groups at night
Take a taxi you didn’t call for
Avoid the bus station at all times
Beware of pick-pocketers in La Cancha (the large market)
Cross the street without looking – traffic stops for no one
Drink the water
Trust directions from anyone unless you’ve heard the same thing twice
Carry anything on you that you couldn’t bare to lose in case held at gun point by a robber

By the end of our 30 minute tour, we had no idea where we had been or how we had made it back to the office. But we made plans to start spanish lessons immediately and meet with the Bolivian Amphibian Initiative on Monday.

Our few days here have been quite the head rush (although that may just be the altitude). Right now we’re just looking forward to having the weekend to explore and really get to know this place called Cochabamba.