Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Bolivia
International phone service to and from Bolivia is relatively good in the major cities. Volunteers do not typically have telephones in their homes and may not have them in their work facilities. Most have access to a telephone company office at their sites or in their departmental capital where they can make and receive calls, as well as send faxes, when necessary. Collect calls can be made from most phones, and AT&T, MCI, and Sprint calling cards can be used from some phones. International long distance is expensive, however, and most Volunteers find it more convenient and reliable to communicate via electronic or regular mail.
More and more Volunteers are either bringing their own or purchasing cellular phones and service at their own expense when they come to Bolivia. Cellular service is generally available only in and near major cities, not in the rural areas where most Volunteers live and work. Peace Corps/Bolivia does not provide cellphones or service, as every site must be accessible by regular phone service or shortwave radio. Bolivia only uses cellphones with DSM or TDMA technology.
Housing and Site Location
They live in houses with usually 3 or more people per bedroom.
Living Allowance and Money Management
During training, your room and board will be provided by your host family. You will receive a small weekly “walk-around” stipend in local currency (bolivianos) to cover transportation expenses from your host community to scheduled training events and other basic expenses (an occasional restaurant meal, snacks, postage, Internet cafè fees, etc.).
You are expected to live at the same level as the Bolivian people in your community. After you swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, your monthly living allowance, which is provided in local currency, is intended to cover your housing, utilities, household and personal supplies, clothing, food, job supplies, transportation, recreation and entertainment, and miscellaneous items. The amount of the allowance you receive is based on the cost of living in the area or region to which you are assigned. If you receive free housing or food, your living allowance may be slightly reduced.
Peace Corps/Bolivia will open a savings account in your name at a bank near your site and provide you with an ATM card. Your living allowance will be deposited in your account by the first working day of every month.
Volunteers receive three additional allowances. First, you will receive a modest vacation allowance and two days of vacation leave for each month of service (excluding training). After taking the Volunteer oath, you will also receive a one-time settling-in allowance to cover the initial expenses of furnishing a house or room and purchasing basic supplies, which might include a cellphone. Finally, for each month of service, the U.S. government sets aside $225. This readjustment allowance is a lump sum, made available to Volunteers upon completion of their service, which permits them to resettle in the United States.
The Peace Corps highly discourages you from relying on gifts or savings from home to supplement your monthly living allowance. The effectiveness and quality of your experience depend, in some measure, on living at the level of the majority of the people in your community. However, we encourage you to use vacation time to visit other areas of Bolivia and South America, and you may want to use personal funds for such travel. We recommend that you bring a credit card or traveler’s checks in lieu of cash. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted throughout South America.
Peace Corps regulations prohibit Volunteers from accepting gifts of property, money, or voluntary services directly. Such gifts can cause confusion about the role of the Volunteer, who might be perceived as a facilitator of goods and funding, rather than as a person who is working to build a community’s capacity to help itself and to identify local resources. You are not permitted to solicit materials or funds for your community during your first six months at site so that you have time to engage the community in project identification. To ensure that any request for funding or donations is appropriate for your project and your community, you must have prior authorization from your project director and country director.
The Peace Corps has a mechanism in place for you and the communities you work with to access U.S. private-sector funds. The Peace Corps Partnership Program, administered by the Peace Corps’ Office of Private Sector Initiatives, can help you obtain financial support from corporations, foundations, civic groups, individuals, faith-based groups, and schools for projects approved by the country director. To learn more about the Partnership Program, call 800.424.8580 (extension 2170), e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.volproj
Food and Diet
As a Volunteer you may choose to prepare your own meals or arrange for board with your host family, a neighbor, or a local eating establishment. Your diet will vary according to your site location, as every region has its traditional foods and specialties. Rice, potatoes, and pasta are available almost everywhere. Meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables may be scarce depending on the season and your site location.
It is challenging, but not impossible, to maintain a strictly vegetarian diet in Bolivia because of the seasonal and regional variations in the availability of certain foods and local customs. Most Volunteers find that exercising flexibility in their dietary preferences simplifies and enriches their experience.
As a Volunteer, you will be responsible for arranging your personal and work-related travel and for transporting personal belongings, supplies, and project-related equipment to and from your site. All Volunteers are required to use public transportation when available. Public transportation varies widely; while taxis, minivans, and buses may be available at some sites, some Volunteers may have access only to local cargo trucks. Some sites have daily public transportation to and from major cities, while others have access only once or twice a week. We urge Volunteers to always choose transportation with safety in mind.
Conditions for bicycle riders are very poor in Bolivia. Roads are often bumpy and narrow, shoulders are rare, and unexpected hazards (potholes, uncovered manholes, etc.) are commonplace. Also, motor vehicle operators tend to show little respect to bicycle riders.
That said, Volunteers in some rural sites may request a bicycle for work-related transportation. If the request is approved, the Peace Corps provides a one-time allowance for the purchase of a bicycle and a helmet, which you are required to wear at all times when riding. Volunteers are responsible for the cost of all ongoing bicycle maintenance and repair. Volunteers in cities are not eligible to receive bicycles because they have access to reliable public transportation.
Bolivia is a physically demanding country. Travel is usually long and arduous. Twelve-hour or longer bus trips on dusty roads and great temperature fluctuations (due to extreme elevation changes) are not uncommon. Volunteers must be willing and able to adjust to difficult physical conditions.
Geography and Climate
About the size of Texas and California combined, Bolivia boasts outstanding biological and geographic diversity, ranging from the frigid treeless plains of the altiplano (12,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level) to the temperate and fertile valleys to the stark and unforgiving desert of the Chaco to the tropical jungle lowlands a few hundred feet above sea level.
At nearly 12,000 feet, La Paz is the highest national capital in the world. While some visitors experience problems related to the altitude, most Volunteers adapt to the altiplano’s heights within several months.
The altiplano’s alternating hills and flatlands are punctuated with breathtaking, snow-covered mountain peaks that reach nearly 21,500 feet. The highland valleys, such as Cochabamba, are generally temperate and contain some of the most fertile soil in the country. The hot, dry expanses of the Chaco are reminiscent of the high desert plains of the Western United States. Bolivia’s lowlands feature steamy forests and swamps, along with the bugs, high humidity, and relentless downpours characteristic of the tropics.
Seasonal changes in weather are marked more by the amount of rainfall than by extremes in temperature. Generally, during the rainy summer season (November to March), altiplano temperatures are cool, valley temperatures moderate during the day and cool at night, and lowland temperatures very hot and humid. There can be severe flooding at this time of year that washes out roads, making transportation to and from Volunteer sites difficult. The climate is generally drier during the winter season (May through September), with less extreme weather in all zones (i.e., mild days and cool nights in the altiplano and high valleys and less intense heat and humidity in the lowlands).
Most social activities revolve around daily and special community events. Volunteers are often invited to share family and community events such as birthday parties, local holidays and festivals, sports activities, or just chatting over tea. Integrating into your community is the key to an enjoyable and rich experience as a Volunteer. By spending time in your community and building solid relationships-through both your work assignment and interaction with Bolivian neighbors, shop owners, and other community members—you will have greater opportunities to participate in social activities.
While extensive training will prepare you, you will need to develop a keen awareness of Bolivian culture and customs. Many social events include alcohol consumption. Volunteers are expected to avoid excessive use of alcohol, which is often the determining factor in Volunteer safety incidents. You have to exercise continual, careful judgment under sometimes difficult circumstances, including social pressure to drink to excess.
The Peace Corps prohibits the use of all illegal drugs, including marijuana, and any form of coca ingestion by Peace Corps Volunteers and trainees. Any use thereof is grounds for termination of Peace Corps service. The government of Bolivia, with the support of the United States, has taken a strong stand against the illegal cultivation of coca and the use of illegal drugs. Bolivia’s stringent antidrug law mandates stiff prison sentences and does not differentiate between using and dealing drugs. Any invitee who uses illegal substances should not accept an invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Dress in Bolivia is more conservative and more formal than in the United States, and Volunteers should follow the example of Bolivians in attire at their work site and in their community. You will be working as a development professional in Bolivia, and inappropriate dress may make Bolivians less receptive to you.
During training, and as a Volunteer, there will be very few occasions for men to wear jackets and ties and for women to wear dresses. In classroom and office settings in cities and larger rural communities, attire should be conservative to casual: khakis, dockers or nice blue jeans, button-down shirts with collars, polo shirts, casual skirts (knee length or longer), blouses, etc. Also bring plenty of casual clothes that you would wear in nonformal settings (e.g., jeans, T-shirts, work boots) for use after work or while in the field. Clothes should always be untorn, neat and clean.
Women should not wear halter tops, low-cut blouses, miniskirts, and other revealing attire. While young Bolivian women in the larger lowland cities do wear such clothing, cultural stereotypes regarding American women are exacerbated by revealing attire and oftentimes this leads to unwanted attention or harassment. This is especially true outside of major cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz. Similarly, ripped or patched jeans, tank tops, flip-flops, and shorts are unacceptable for men and women during training and in any professional or office setting in Bolivia.
Pierced ears are acceptable for women. Younger Bolivian men in the larger cities occasionally wear earrings. Male Volunteers should not wear earrings, especially outside of major cities. Other body piercing is not appropriate for Volunteers in Bolivia. Hair and beards should be neatly trimmed and clean at all times.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter. It is an important issue that cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Bolivia Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to continual safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Bolivia. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being. It is your responsibility to inform Peace Corps/Bolivia of your whereabouts. For some independent adults this may be frustrating, but is of utmost importance.
Rewards and Frustrations
Volunteers in Bolivia must demonstrate a great deal of flexibility and maturity. It takes considerable sensitivity and effort to establish your credibility both as a professional and as a member of your community. With most Bolivians, you will need to develop friendly social relations before you can proceed with satisfactory work relations.
The challenges and rewards of Peace Corps service depend in large part on an individual’s attitude and commitment, and each person’s situation is different. Still, there are some common occurrences that you are likely to find annoying or frustrating at some point, such as having to repeatedly explain your role as a Volunteer to people, lack of technical support from your counterpart or supervisor, numerous delays during the course of your work and daily life, lack of privacy, gossip about you, and perceptions that you are a wealthy foreigner.
Other frustrations faced by Volunteers result from inadequate infrastructure, including poor roads, infrequent and unreliable public transportation and communications, and lack of access to water and sanitation facilities. Volunteers also occasionally get impatient with or bothered by uninformed community health and hygiene practices, antiquated educational approaches, an inappropriate dependence on external resources, and lack of community organization.
Successful Volunteers demonstrate a high level of self-motivation, a willingness to make personal sacrifices, and the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. An optimistic attitude and a sense of humor are also essential characteristics of successful Volunteers.
There are few more enriching experiences than living and working in a new culture, interacting with people different from you, and developing an awareness of diverse values. Most Volunteers find that the rewards of Peace Corps service far outweigh the challenges. Volunteers in Bolivia report strong gratification from developing new technical and language skills, discovering formerly untapped personal strengths and abilities, broadening their global perspective, deepening their cultural understanding, and helping others live happier, healthier, and more productive lives.