10. What tips do you have to adapt to Bolivian life?

The realities of developing countries include: poverty; unreliable communication and modes of transportation; low standards of personal and public hygiene; social outcasts and cultural differences. As a result, you may at times experience culture shock or just feel really frustrated that your daily plans are undermined by logistical problems such as frequent transport strikes or when the wifi collapses for no apprent reason. We encourage you to share this with other volunteers who may be experiencing the same feelings or with the UP CLOSE Bolivia team – we may or may not be able to resolve the problem but at least we hopefully can reassure you.

Cultural do’s and don’ts: La Paz is a conservative city. People are generally very polite and helpful although they can be quite shy at first, especially in areas where there are few tourists. However, there are times, such as in queues, where these good manners seem to disappear!

Greetings are very important: Try and learn some greetings even if you have the most basic Spanish! Most encounters are characterized by shaking hands or kissing (one cheek on left hand side). It is important to greet and also to say goodbye to people. Try not to be too loud or to swear (if you know the right words in Spanish) as in Bolivia this can be very offensive. Do not drink alcohol in the streets or in public places – apart from at fiestas.

Bartering and tipping: Bartering is not so intense here as in some Asian countries and usually only takes place in tourist shops, not local community shops. Tipping in restaurants is moderate, there is no fixed %, and about 10% is fine. Taxis are not tipped.

Dress code: When working in the projects wear comfortable and casual clothes that you don’t mind getting messed up. Short shorts or skimpy tops may offend the local people in Mallasa and Jupapina.

Other Helpful Tips From Past Volunteers

  • Local project staff may be very shy at first. Be patient – by the end of your time volunteers are often overwhelmed by their warmth and hospitality. Be proactive the first few days and offer to help. The local staff maybe shy of asking you to do things as they don’t want to appear pushy.
  • It’s quite useful to have a daily stash of cereal bars. If you’re feeling a bit ill (or have a limited veggie diet) but still need something to eat, they’re ideal.
  • Always carry a bottle of water; the altitude is very dehydrating.
  • Take small things, postcards, leaflets, badges to give to people at local projects. It helps to break the ice.
  • You might go through various emotions during your stay. Be aware of other volunteers, so give each other time to talk things through, and be prepared to listen to each other.
  • Don’t worry if volunteer programme information doesn’t seem to make very much sense before you travel – it all fits into place once you’ve seen the project!
  • Grasp opportunities as they arise, as it may be your only opportunity.
  • Relax and go with the flow – not everything will go as expected.
  • Travel light and have a small rucksack for day-to-day use.

Taking photographs – guidelines

  • Many Aymara people in the streets may be very wary of having their photos taken and react badly – some believe that a photo takes away part of their soul. It is often easier when you have established some kind of relationship with them, after a conversation, or buying something from their stall for example. Ask to take their photo, but don’t be surprised if they say no. Often dance festivals or parades (NOT demonstrations!) are good places to capture the colour and vibrancy of local culture as lots of people will be snapping away and the dancers expect to be photographed.
  • Always ask permission to take photographs from the project staff or community authority figures.