I’ve heard the phrase many times over, but that barely covers it. If that piece of advice were more comprehensive, it would be “Don’t drink the water, or eat the fruits and veggies, or the milk, don’t brush your teeth with the water, and use hand sanitizer after washing your hands…regularly.” As my academic director told us on the first day, “Treat the water like it’s diluted shit.” She also informed us that our program, out of all SIT programs (that have sites around the world, including Africa and Southeast Asia), has the highest record of illness. So, Cochabamba is basically a petri dish of bacteria and parasites.

That being said, I’m glad I’m here. Of course it’s difficult. I’ll probably get sick. But what little I’ve seen of Cochabamba so far is very genuine. Our first night here, we participated in k’oa, a traditional Andean gratitude ceremony. We thanked each of our successes and our ability to be here, using different physical symbols (like wool, coca leaves, flowers, small wax figurines) to represent different parts of our gratitude and wishes. Then we burned it. It’s believed that the smoke rises to Pachamama (essentially Mother Earth), in an offering to her…it was awesome. Nearly every Bolivian we’ve met so far reaches for a hug first, not a handshake. The streets are insane (pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way), but I have yet to see any accidents, or even a close call. They know when to stop for other people.

There’s an advantage to each challenge. I think of my rule of thumb for hiking: I’ll enjoy any distance, as long as I know I get to see something beautiful at the end. It’s the same with Bolivia: it’s scary, but I’m looking forward to exploring this chaos to find the beautiful vista hiding around the corner.

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