Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 6 February 2008

Greetings from Bolivia

Having spent nearly a week in Bolivia, and over a week with my B47 compadres, I can say with the utmost certainty that this is where I am supposed to be. So much has happened since I left Ivy Street for my far-flung Staging adventure (in Crystal City…one zip code away) on January 27th. I won’t bore you all (or myself again) with the details of Staging. Bottom line: we got yellow fever shots, sat in a window-less room and got to know each other.  Our flights from DC to Miami to La Paz were uneventful, and we soon found ourselves at 13,000 feet, struggling to lift our bags off of the baggage claim.  We raced through customs and immigration and on to the domestic terminal to catch our flight to Cochabamba.  We all breathed easier in the pressurized cabin, and were able to take in our incredible surroundings for the first time.  Snow-capped, twin 20,000 foot peaks, Illimani and Huayna Potosi, loomed in the background as we flew east towards the Coch valley. Soon after leaving La Paz, we saw the vast altiplano give way and crumble into a mess of rugged peaks and valleys.  The flight was short—35 minutes—and we were met by a rowdy bunch of current PCVs screaming and waving signs as we deplaned. Pictures were taken that I’m sure will be used to embarrass us 27 months from now as we say farewell to Bolivia. We loaded up the bus and headed for our hotel in downtown Coch.  We were left to rest up after traveling overnight, and some of us ventured out into the streets—only to be met with water balloon attacks from all sides.  It’s Carnaval here in Bolivia (not quite as wild as Rio, but people still get pretty excited about it) and somehow the tradition has evolved over the years to call for an all out war upon perfect strangers in the streets.  Anything goes. Water balloons, super soakers, buckets of water, sometimes some other not-so-pleasant liquids… Gringos are an especially coveted target, so we quickly learned to be ever-vigilant and also to retaliate!   We moved into our host families on Saturday afternoon, and I’ve been busy getting to know my family, dancing in a Carnaval parade here in the barrio and unpacking. We had Monday and Tuesday off this week because of Carnaval, and training will officially begin on Wednesday morning. It looks like our 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST) are going to be really busy. March 24th is our site announcement date, and April 18th is the day we “swear in” to become official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs).  We are technically Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) right now.  I think that’s enough acronyms for right now… We have already had lots of interviews—language, host family preferences, project interests and skills, etc. Now it’s time to start getting down to work. It looks like I’ll be able to design my own self-directed study program during our morning language lessons (4 hours a day!).  I am hoping to include Quechua into my program, as well as to conduct some interviews/research projects about a few themes I have an interest in…more details on that later.  On Sunday night, many of us from the B47 training group (a fabulous cohort, if I do say so myself) got together to watch the Super Bowl and eat pique macho, a traditional Cochabambina dish. It was nice to hear about how every one else’s homestay is going.  I am really enjoying getting to know the other trainees in my group, as well as my new Bolivian family—Los Saavedra.   On Tuesday, I attended a fiesta at my friend Natalie’s home.  There was a barbecue, lots of firecrackers (cohetillos), blue hairspray, a huge water fight, confetti, karaoke and lots and lots and lots of comida.  It was a great way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.  It has been raining a lot, but the sun is finally out today, and it’s beautiful. The mountains that surround Coch are awash with green right now, and the streets are filled with Carnaval revelers.  With that, I’ll leave you now. I don’t have many pictures yet to post, but there will be some coming, I promise!  Lots of people have asked about mail, and I’m told that the Bolivian postal system is quite reliable, albeit slow.  It takes anywhere from 1-3 weeks to get letters and packages delivered, but they almost always arrive! Check the contact section of my blog for my current mailing address.  If you plan on sending anything other than a letter, make sure it’s less than 4 pounds—or else I’ll have to pay a truckload of bolivianos to get it out of customs.  Make sure to declare “nothing”, or “nada” as the value on the customs forms…even if it’s worth $5. It’s also rumored that if you write “cosas religiosas” on the package, then no questions are asked. J Oh, Latin America… I’m not able to get to the internet that often, and I’m sure once training is in full swing it will be even more difficult to find time, but I’ll do my best to stay in touch. Please just bear with me as I settle into this new world.  Love to you all from the Andes…



  1. So excited for you!!!!!! Can’t wait to read more! And see pictures! LOVES!!!!

  2. What fun to read your first impressions of Bolivia! When Sylvia and I first visited La Paz in 1973, we were astonished, when after several cloudy days, we awoke to a clear morning and our first view of majestic snow-clad Illimani looming over the city. Barbara McBride asked whether you were living where flip-flops or muk-luks were appropriate. I presume that Cochabamba is Chaco country (not Gran Chaco)! I hope you have pictures of yourself with blue hairspray to display next to Victor’s similar photo. Que Viva Carnaval! Abrazos, D

  3. Helen –

    So happy to hear you made it safely and are attending to the priorities in life: food!

    Bolivia sounds incredible; I can’t wait to hear/see more.

    Since I can’t throw a water balloon, I’ll throw a snowball in your honor 🙂

    Much love,

  4. Good, good, good. The spirit of the Andes is already trickling into Fredericksburg:) Despite how much I’ll miss your presence here, you have left a “Helen residue” on me that will last a lifetime. I will enjoy keeping up with your progress and travels, and will send word when my bank account(ok, and credit card) have the resources to fly me to your new world. The fun and festivities sound like a great time and are very similar to what my friend said is going on in New Zealand right now. Sweet! I can only wish I had the writing skills you do, but we’ll see how my blog evolves. 🙂 hasta una otra letra…xo …haha, don’t know if i said that right!

  5. you are living the dream, sis! i am so happy for you. you are changing the world and i could not be more proud to be your friend. take lots of pictures and we can’t wait to see you again someday 🙂 🙂 love you lots!

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