Uncomfortable learning

As the guide straps a headlamp onto my helmet and instructs the group on how to turn the light on, I can’t help but think: what the hell am I doing here? I triple check to make sure the oversized belt fastened around my baggy waterproof jacket and pants is secure. After Isaac, the guide, has given equipment to everyone in the group, we make our way to the tracks and start down them. “Listos?” he asks, and I smile and nod in response: Ready as I’ll ever be. Despite the nerves, I am actually quite excited for what is to follow – how many other chances will I have to enter an active mine?  We slowly duck into the tunnel, shuffling ahead in our heavy boots. As we enter, the bright daylight is swallowed by the mine’s darkness. Startling, I suddenly realize that there is no sunlight underground. My nerves are a little more real now, and I think, Is there less oxygen here? My eyes are up, following the weak light from my headlamp. I am alert, but not alert enough to hear the outgoing wagon of minerals coming our way. “Muevate!” shouts Isaac in a polite warning and we step to the rocky gap between the track and tunnel wall. Three men zoom past us pushing a wagon full of minerals. They are hunched over the wagon, which we are told weighs almost a ton, pushing it over split tracks. This is real work, real life. We continue back along our path, and I have the chance to once again ask myself: what the hell am I doing here?

Studying abroad can be a fun, amazing and enlightening experience. Most importantly, however, it should be uncomfortable. There are many challenges that come with the experience, but these are important to accept and consider. With the wisdom of four weeks in Bolivia under my belt, I have felt more uncomfortable than I thought was possible, and I think I’ve learned a few things along the way.First, assume you know nothing, because that’s  probably the case. Second, practice patience, and most importantly, be comfortable in the uncomfortable.

Regardless of how much studying you did on the country, history, culture and language, what you think you know is wrong. The United States has a pretty bad reputation in most countries and part of that has to do with its arrogance. There is nothing worse than foreigners who come to a country or community and assume, speak or behave as though they know the identity and experience of that place and its people. Events are experienced so pluralistically that even seemingly straightforward “facts” can be untrue to certain people. I have learned so much from my host family, including things that are contrary to what I learned within my classes. Keep an eye out for learning opportunities. Always question the facts.

Every country, community and culture has its own pace. Readjusting to the place you are in is imperative to feeling more at home. I have found that Cochabamba, the city in which I stayed, runs at a slower pace than I am accustomed to in either New York or Williamstown. There is a three-hour break in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. During this time, the entire city shuts down and all its occupants return to their homes to relax. This can be maddening when you are used to a distinct boundary between work and play. Luckily, a forced midday nap is not a terribly difficult adjustment to make, but it is indicative of the larger structures that a foreigner has to adapt to in order to have a deeper understanding of the culture.

One immediate and significant sentiment that comes with being a foreigner is the feeling of being out of place. The reality of travelling in South America is that one has an extreme privilege just to be here. This realization comes with a perspective and firsthand view of the difficulties of surviving in certain places. The United States has had such a damaging role in many countries, so as a North American and representative of the United States, there is a real guilt in knowing certain histories. There is also the guilt of being another example of the disruptive hand that foreign involvement and globalization has on the world. This conflict is a necessary part of the experience. Along with it come questions of reciprocity and justice. Is it possible to not just take knowledge from a culture, but to contribute? How might this reciprocity be completed in a non-colonial manner? Many other questions and conflicts follow.

This dilemma is naturally and intentionally at the forefront of my experience as a foreigner. The most fruitful way to travel and live abroad is to challenge oneself to revel in contradiction, be conscientious and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Zatio Kone ’16 is a psychology major from New York, NY. She is studying abroad in Bolivia.