Getting off the Beaten Track
Have you ever felt like you traveled through a country and didn’t really get to really experience its culture? Getting off the beaten track is one way to experience the unique culture of a region, and Bolivia attracts a lot of visitors who’re eager to taste and feel that culture first hand.
If this is your first trip to South America, or any region, you might be wondering how to immerse yourself in a new culture and the right places to go in that area you want to explore.
Julian has found a way of traveling that he loves. In fact, he’s made traveling a way of life. This week I interviewed him about his work with Gaia Pacha, but I uncovered the method he’s used to experience many different Latin American cultures on a deeper level during his many years of travel. Here they are for your benefit. Enjoy!
Are You Like Julian?
Jessie: So where are you from Julian?
Julian: I was born in the States. When people ask me where I’m from, I guess the easiest answer is New York, but I also say I’m from “Las Americas”, because I’ve lived outside the States for 8 years of my life.
Jessie: What’s your family history?
My mom was born in Colombia, and my dad was born in Pennsylvania, as was I.
Jessie: What did you study at university?
I majored in History and minored in Political Science and Latin American/Caribbean Studies.
Finding a Base in Bolivia
Jessie: Why did you decide to come to Bolivia specifically?
I’d been living in Panama for two years as a volunteer. I was in a program with over 40 other volunteers. We all came at the same time, though we all lived separately in our own little towns.
When it was time to leave, I decided I wasn’t going to go back to the States yet, so I kept travelling and went to Peru and Chile. I found out about Sustainable Bolivia and it looked like it aligned really well with some of my ideals and what I wanted to do. So I took it as an opportunity to get to know Bolivia.
Jessie: So you found Sustainable Bolivia online?
I actually heard about Sustainable Bolivia from someone. Someone mentioned it to me, a friend or my father. I had written down the name somewhere and then I looked it up afterwards.
Connecting Through a Work Placement
Jessie: Who are you volunteering with right now?
The organization is called Gaia Pacha. It’s an environmental organization that runs environmental awareness campaigns in Bolivia.
Jessie: What kind of work have you been doing with them?
I took over an environmental education and animal trafficking awareness campaign, which entailed editing/creating a workshop. We did the workshop a couple weeks ago. The workshop was open to the public. We had over 30 participants. All of them were at least university students. Some were older and some professionals came, too.
Jessie: So does the organization work with animal rights?
There are a couple of people working on business and entrepreneurial responsibilities with banks, recycling and resource management awareness.
Then there are small events all the time at ferias, during the dias del peaton (pedestrian days) doing awareness campaigns. “No gracias, tengo mi bolsa” is their campaign to encourage folks to use re-usable bags.
Jessie: So your Spanish is pretty good, right? Has that helped you a lot in the work that you’ve been doing?
Yeah. I think that because I arrived with a certain level of Spanish, I was given more responsibility. Whereas I can see that if I had arrived with less Spanish at this organization or another organization, it might have been harder for them to find things for me to do. I also had experience giving workshops and running seminars and other things. They asked me if I wanted to do that. I had already done a lot of talking in front of groups of people in Panama.
Taking Time out to Explore
Jessie: Has three months been enough time to get your teeth into Bolivia?
I didn’t feel like I was in Bolivia until this last weekend when I really got a feel for the culture here. And I think that’s because I spent too much time in the city. These last few weekends I’ve been travelling and going on more hikes.
Last weekend I went to Mizque and I was finally surrounded by Quechua speakers. Feeling that culture, it was like, “Now I’m in Bolivia!”
I have a lot of Latin American friends and Bolivian friends – Chileans, Brazilians and Argentines that live here, but I wouldn’t say I was exposed to the culture, even though I was exposed to a lot of Bolivians. I was very happy in Mizque.
Jessie: What kind of things did you do while you were in Mizque?
Well we spent the whole first day on the train-bus! It was a 9 –hour journey. It was supposed to be 6 or 7!
The journey was super beautiful, because there are just the tracks and the countryside. No road, a few houses here and there. You go through valleys, a lot of small towns. There’s a lot of scenery and people that you don’t see from a car or other modes of transport.
The journey took longer because the tracks were covered with sand and dirt in places. Towards the end, we had to get out of the train-bus and shovel. I was happy to do it. It was a really nice experience.
The next day, we went for a hike and came down into Mizque, and then came home on the bus. It took three hours instead of nine. Five of us went, including Angelica, who’s from there. We stayed at a friend´s house on Saturday night, and had breakfast with them.
Jessie: What other places have you been to and enjoyed?
I’ve been to Arani, all over the mountains that are part of Tunari National Park. I just went up to different entrances and then explored a little bit. I’ve been up by Apote, Pico Tunari, Toro Toro. But I’ve only spend three weekends of my time here outside of Cochabamba. I went camping in Apote with a group of boy and girl scouts, Toro Toro and Mizque. Aside from that I just took day trips into the mountains, exploring.
Expanding Your Network Once You Arrive
Jessie: Have you met most of your friends here at Sustainable Bolivia, or through work…?
I’ve met people through Kasa Muyu, and here (Sustainable Bolivia). And even the people who aren’t volunteers that I’ve become friends with, I’ve met here at the different events – like Angelika. I met her here at the language exchange, and then I’ve been hanging out with her and others.
Jessie: How has your experience here compared to your experience in Panama?
It’s super different, because in Panama I was living in a small town. I lived with a family for a couple of months and then moved out into my own place, but I was still part of the town community. I was the only volunteer in the town, and I would meet up with other volunteers now and again. Maybe like once every two weeks or once a month. We’d go and hang out in the town, go give a seminar somewhere, or explore some part of Panama.
Creating a Rough Plan
Jessie: What are you planning to do next?
I’m applying for jobs for March-April. I have been travelling so far on some money that was given to me after finishing my volunteer service. That money’s running out now and I’d like to work for a while. I’ve applied for a job in Alaska, fighting fire in the forest.
My initial plan is to go down to Chile and into Peru to meet my Dad in the Amazon. I think I’ll go to Iquitos for New Years, spend a couple of weeks there and then see if I have enough money to keep travelling. If I don’t, I’ll go back to the States for a month or two until I start working again.
I’d like to see if I can come back here in February or March. Just to visit, because there’s so much of Bolivia I haven’t seen. I haven’t been to La Paz or Santa Cruz. I’d like to do Death Road or Samaipata. Not spend too much time in the city, but explore the more rural areas.
It’s been a really good time here. I’m used to moving, so I’m okay with leaving. I know I’ll be back and will see certain people. I enjoyed the time I spent here, the people I’ve met. I learned a good amount, which is what I was looking for. To learn and grow, and I got that here.
I’ve learnt a lot about myself and culture. I use everything I experience to reflect and improve myself. Learning new things about new cultures helps me figure out what’s important in my life and what’s important to me.
Being Open to Feeling Into a New Culture
Jessie: What do you like about Bolivian culture specifically?
That’s a hard question, because generally it’s part of Latin culture and there’s so many things I like about Latin culture that I see here. The emphasis on family and community, having strong bonds, families living together, always making sure to stay in touch. Focus on meals and food.
Bolivian culture specifically… I guess I would say – although this is more related to Andean culture – that I really have come to respect their stoicism. You can tell that there’s a layer that people don’t show outsiders. Some people might call it being more closed, but I think it’s more guarded because of things that have happened in Bolivia’s history. But it’s a guardedness that comes with strength, which I admire.
I would describe it as a humble, calm, strong peacefulness. I see this in a lot of people outside the city, because in the city people are using more of a Western model of culture – caring about money and their job, etc. That’s what I’ve seen in Bolivian culture and what I’ve liked.
I feel a little sad that I haven’t had the chance to get to know more Bolivian culture, and I’d like to when I come back. That’s more my jam, after being in Panama, especially travelling through Peru and Chile. The way I travel is without any particular plans. I have ideas of places I’d like to go, but I when I get to a place, I get to know people there and ask them where to go.
From there, you are open to their network. It’s like travelling through people, so you get to know places from a local’s perspective.
In Peru I have a friend with a farm three hours out of Cusco, so I went and spent a week and a half with him. I met a lot of people through him and was able to travel on after that. That’s my regret here, that I didn’t experience Bolivia in that way, on a deeper level.
Reaching out to Friends and Strangers
Jessie: When you go to places that are more remote, how do people respond to you? Do you approach them…?
I think you always get what you put in. So when I arrive at a place, I’ll always say, “hi” to everyone. Not because I feel like I have to, but because I want to.
I usually stop somewhere, at a restaurant or a store because I have to buy something, then I see if I can start up a conversation and talk to people.
Once I start talking, they are usually curious as to why I’m there and ask me questions. And through that, they get a sense of what I’m looking for or why I’m there and often help me or suggest certain things.
If I’m at a hostel or home, that’s always a good place to talk as well. You can share stories with other travelers or people from there. Or ideas….
Learning the Language Is Key
Jessie: Have you traveled to places where Spanish isn’t the main language?
No I haven’t – on purpose. I would like to go to South East Asia, for example, but I feel like if I don’t speak the language, I wouldn’t be able to travel the way I do. For me, social interactions are such a big part of my travels. If I didn’t speak the language, I feel like I’d be moved towards the tourist circuits, and do what most foreign people do there, just because there wouldn’t be other options – to talk to people. I’ve tried to make a point of knowing the language, pick up a little of the language or go with someone or meet someone who knows it.
That’s how I like to travel. Like in Peru, we wouldn’t have been able to walk from my friend’s farm to Machu Picchu if I didn’t speak Spanish. Me and two friends were taking small paths through small towns and stopping in each town and if we didn’t say, “I’m trying to get to Santa Teresa…. Is this road taking me to the right place?” It would have be difficult.
Exploring on Foot
Jessie: So how many miles did you walk?
The first day we walked 30 km, and then the next day, a little less. 10-15. My friend’s farm was over the other side of the mountain from Machu Picchu. It was close enough. There were footpaths and a couple of landslides we had to make our way over, but it was fairly easy territory. We had lunch and dinner and stayed in the different towns on the way.
I did a lot of hiking in Panama, too, and got to know the mountains. A few times, I would set off on foot with others to another town, hiking there. Asking for directions, and going through the forest.
Please Share Your Comments
What are your methods for traveling through new countries? Do you enjoy going off the beaten track, or do you prefer going to all the most popular sites and cities? Let us know your thoughts in the Sustainable Bolivia Social Club or on our Page.
To connect with Julian, click here.