May 23, 2004: Headlines: COS - Bolivia: Michigan City News: Peace Corps Volunteer Deanna Ochs says there's no such thing as a quiet night in Bolivia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Bolivia: Peace Corps Bolivia : The Peace Corps in Bolivia: May 23, 2004: Headlines: COS - Bolivia: Michigan City News: Peace Corps Volunteer Deanna Ochs says there's no such thing as a quiet night in Bolivia

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Thursday, May 27, 2004 - 5:03 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps Volunteer Deanna Ochs says there's no such thing as a quiet night in Bolivia

Peace Corps Volunteer Deanna Ochs says there's no such thing as a quiet night in Bolivia

Peace Corps Volunteer Deanna Ochs says there's no such thing as a quiet night in Bolivia

Former Dunes ranger experiences whole new world through Peace Corps

Editor's note - Deanna Ochs, a former ranger with Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, recently joined the Peace Corps and wrote this article for Life&Style about her earliest experiences.

By Deanna Ochs

For Lifestyles

I'm beginning to think there's no such thing as a quiet night in Bolivia.

Or a meal wherein potatoes don't figure prominently.

Or a clean pair of shoes.

At 1 this morning, music from a nearby disco played loudly; occasionally, someone would crank it up for extra emphasis. Every once in a while, one of the abundant neighborhood dogs would begin barking, followed by a crowing rooster. At 2 a.m., I was awakened by a similar burst of life, and again at 3.

Yesterday, I and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers were dropped off at our host families' homes for three months of training before our two years of service. It was a strangely emotional procession. We had spent only five days together, cloistered in a relatively comfortable hotel. Still, bonds had formed. This would be our first night apart. I and one other volunteer were to be the last to be dropped off. At each of the 13 stops prior to mine, my anxiety level mounted.


The entire group, accompanied by our trainers, walked en masse to the first volunteer's home. His host family greeted each of us with a shy, but warm, "buena dias" and a kiss on each cheek. Their sincerity touched me deeply. We were taken, again en masse, to his room, where the walls were covered with colorful posters and drawings. They ranged from pictures of Winnie the Pooh to the Latin American version of Playboy bunnies. The effect, though bizarre, was festive and welcoming. The room was typical of the rooms each of us would have, mostly bare with concrete walls and floor. The bed stood starkly in the middle, boxed in by a mosquito net. I wondered how this tall American would sleep in a bed that was easily 6 inches too short for him.

Right now, however, it didn't seem important. The mood of the group was one of buoyant anticipation. When it came time to say goodbye and move on to the next house, each of us embraced our comrade. Tears flowed from my eyes, though I couldn't say why.

At each subsequent stop we went through a similar scenario. The comfort of the homes ranged widely. Some volunteers were escorted into very comfortable accommodations with stereo systems, TVs and shiny clean tile floors. Others walked to their rooms over dirt floors, where junk cars, dogs and pens full of squealing guinea pigs (a delicacy in the Bolivian diet) lounged.

But in almost every case, the family had gathered to welcome each of us. One situation was particularly touching to me. One of the more sensitive volunteers in our group had spent the morning crying after learning her family was standoffish and very strict.

Furthermore, they were said to have spoken very little Spanish - the language we were all striving to learn. Instead, they spoke Quechua, the language of one of the oppressed groups of indigenous people in Bolivia. As we walked closer to her home that afternoon, she grew visibly more tense. When we arrived at her host family's house, however, we were all greeted with an immense smile. The "Dona" (woman) of the house, when introduced to her volunteer, threw her arms around her and gave out a joyful cry. The two stood there in a tight embrace for several minutes. I stood by on the road with the other remaining volunteers choking back my tears. As one, we breathed a sigh of relief. Our friend, at least, was going to be in good hands.

Further along, we came to a stop where two large groups of Bolivians had clustered on either side of the road. To our amazement, we learned they were two different families waiting for their Gringos (here, the term "Gringo" is used affectionately to refer to white Americans.) As we climbed out of the car, smiles burst out all around. The remaining seven of us were crowded into the tiny living room of one of the families and offered a cool drink. As we sat, the father gathered his family around him and offered a toast.

"We do not have a large house with many nice things," he began, "but our hearts are big and our arms are open wide to all of you."

This time, my tears flowed freely.


Three hours after we had started, I and the last volunteer arrived at our temporary homes. Their houses were right next to each other and again we were surrounded by anxious Bolivian families. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I met the searching and not entirely friendly gaze of one of the women.

"Qual es mi Gringita?" (which one is my American), she demanded.

I sensed, though I clung to a faint hope that I might be mistaken, that I was her Gringita.

A month has passed since that memorable day. I have grown to cherish this teasing, quick-witted woman. Despite her occasionally harsh manner, she has treated me as one of her own family, hugging me to her often and (though I am older) affectionately calling me her daughter. I have learned that the night sounds fit Bolivia's vibrant life, and they disturb me less. Or, perhaps I am just too tired most nights to care.

I have begun to appreciate potatoes. They are, at times, the only food on my plate that I recognize (the skinny, curled chicken claw that showed up in my soup one day not withstanding). My Spanish language acquisition seems incredibly slow. I still stare at my host family in bewilderment when they speak to me. After a second repetition, they look at me and sigh, sometimes repeating their words with exaggerated pronunciation. After three tries, they give up and I wonder, am I the slowest of their eight former volunteers to pick up this language?


But yesterday, I began to realize something else about his unfamiliar land. We had been having rain for nearly four days straight. Many of the dirt and cobblestone roads were a nightmare of muddy, rushing water, that was in places several feet deep. A row of cobblestones down the center of my road barely poked up out of the torrent. I set out from my house to buy a packet of coffee, my one comfort here, from a small store about 10 houses away. Several clusters of Bolivians were navigating their way along the same exposed cobblestones toward me. As I passed each group, they carefully stepped around me, avoiding the deepest waters, and smiling politely as they did so. The serenity of each passing individual has left a permanent impression on me.

Soon, I came up behind an older Quechua woman. She was dressed in the traditional wide, pleated skirt that exposed much of her skin to the chilly air and splashing water. Her shoes were cracked in several places, showing leathery feet. Ahead, a car approached, also in the middle of the road, trying to avoid the deep water. I looked to my right and my left. Both sides were hopelessly flooded far into the cornfields. I felt a rising panic. Most times the cars here are indifferent to the people walking. Where would I go? The woman in front of me continued to move forward with dignity. Humbly, I followed close behind. The car came closer and closer, not budging an inch from dead center on the road. Again, I frantically searched the sides of the road for an escape. There was none. The woman, however, appeared undaunted. She strode forward, bound straight for the oncoming car. Suddenly, with only inches between it and the older woman, the car veered to the right, plowed into deep water and stopped cold.

My silent comrade, with me trailing close behind, continued down the center of the road past the car. I looked down at my feet. They were dry.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Michigan City News

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Bolivia



Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.