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Changing Perspectives

Christina Luongo
Bolivia

Thinking back to those first few months of adjusting, I remember the countdown I had going on in my head: Only 22 more months to go… that’s not so long. I love Bolivia! It was my mantra for survival, which would help pull me out of bed every morning. At the time, it seemed like the days just dragged on. I had yet to find my niche with work, and I wondered if I ever really would. I was just a strange gringa (Westerner) in an even stranger land. There were days spent staring at walls. Countless books read during the rainy months. Recipe experimentation to pass the time (by the way, butter-free, egg-less cookies are not the best idea). Rehearsing excuses to avoid eating yet another boiled papa (potato) or, even worse, freeze-dried potato known here as chuño. I always needed a daily dose of alone time to decompress and take in the new world around me.

Then one day it all changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t the stranger trying to find a place to fit: I was adopted into a family of 137 at the local orphanage. Work, life, and friendship all grew into part of my daily rhythm. Time began to fly by.

And now as my days in the highlands of Tiraque come to a close, I have been spending every possible moment that I have foregoing the neurotic housecleaning that took up so much time in the beginning so I can hang out with the kids. Where the American in me used to say, I must be doing something productive, now I don’t care if we sit around watching the clouds pass, as long as some of the children are by my side. I can’t remember the last book I’ve read or the last moment I had to myself. I only bake when surrounded by tons of little (somewhat clean) hands, and we use whatever ingredients we are lucky enough to come by. I look forward to a plate of boiled papa, or any potato derivation, as long as it is eaten in good company.

One of the oddest experiences I had during the first month in my site was going to the wake for a man I had never met, the brother of the woman who owns the town stationery store. A neighbor took me because she thought it would heighten my cultural understanding. We walked into the front room of the family’s home, and right there, elevated on a table, covered in a white sheet, was the figure of a man I had never known, surrounded by neon purple lights and wailing women. We all sat around the body and were served popcorn. It was a surreal experience—more like a night at the movies than a wake from my American perspective.

Three days ago, I revisited that scene. Only this time, instead of an unknown older man, the wake was for one of our boys. Tito, 15 years old, about to enter the fifth grade… and we lost him to suicide. I believe suicide is nothing more than a cry for help, but in a place like Tiraque, people are unaccustomed to asking children how they feel or what they dream of, and cries for help can only get lost in the blowing of the wind.

There was a time when the orphans were just a mix of smiling but nameless faces. When I was so overwhelmed with a new language, new culture, new life, that I couldn’t keep a single name straight…and of course I was at a disadvantage because being the only gringa around, all of the intimate details of my life (true or untrue) were immediately known by all.

And now I really know these kids. Ana and Mari have shared their adolescent love lives with me while baking thousands of cookies. I am helping Limbert reunite with his sister for the first time in 10 years. I taught tae-bo to Hilda, Maritza, and Sulema; Samuel and Daniel taught me to dance cumbia. The teenagers and I have discussed professional opportunities and sexual health. We’ve celebrated birthdays and Christmas. I’ve given workshops to their families on gender issues and nutrition. We roofed a greenhouse at Wilder’s together. We ate freshly harvested fava beans on the dirt floor of Filimon’s kitchen, staying warm by the heat of the wooden stove. We spent days riding around the campo (countryside) in an overcrowded car, playing like a family on a road trip, while Isaac took on the role of family dad. And now we are grieving the death of a loved one together.

Every trainee wonders, “What is a typical work schedule like?” That question always makes me smile, because although I had a daily routine, I never really felt as if I was working. Chatting with the women and girls during club meetings, cooking with the kids, making sure their nutritional intake continues to improve—none of that feels like work. There isn’t a day when I wake up and wish I could just crawl back into bed again and forego my responsibilities.

The crazy thing about the Peace Corps is, now that everything has fallen into place, it is time to move on. The countdown to the end of my service continues; but now, as I have just three weeks left, instead of wishing the time away, I’m trying to squeeze out every possible second.

These two years and these kids have given me more than I had imagined possible. Even though the Peace Corps had been on my mind since high school, I never conceptualized how it would feel to be at the other end of these 27 months. Tiraque has become a home, the people at the orphanage a part of my family. I’ve learned to love in a way more profound than I’ve ever known before—how to be an older sister, a mentor, a friend. These last two years haven’t been about work at all; they’ve been about life, in all its depths, full of laughter and tears.

Christina Luongo (Bolivia)

Christina Luongo served as a nutrition education Volunteer in Bolivia from 2002-2004. She then took a third year position as the education project specialist and spent a year supporting fellow Volunteers and traveling throughout Bolivia.

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