Story and photos by Megan Dougherty
I reached the summit of Mount Tunari and turned around to take in the view. The icy wind blew through my jacket as I filled my lungs with the thin oxygen atop the 17,060 foot-tall mountain. It was Bolivian Independence Day and our team of American youth leaders celebrated by climbing Tunari with some local church members. Carefully finding solid footing amidst the shale, I took in the vastness of the Andes Mountains’ snow-dusted peaks. Looking down, I saw the miniature-looking streets and adobe-colored buildings of Cochabamba, Bolivia—my home for the summer.
I had traveled the 5,562 miles from Eugene, Oregon, to Cochabamba with a team of 12 other college-age students volunteering with the Bolivian branch of WorldVenture, an organization that works with Christian churches around the world. My team and I were part of the Collegiate Christian Fellowship at the University of Oregon and we had spent months preparing for our summer in South America. Our goal was to share sports-focused curriculum with Bolivian leaders who wanted to create Bible school sports camps for kids. These camps incorporated sports heroes, soccer drills, and Bible stories to teach kids values such as perseverance, strategy, and sacrifice. Over a span of nine weeks, I taught soccer drills and led small conversation groups to help facilitate these camps.
Sports camps are a new concept in the Bolivian Christian community. Many churches view athletics as corrupt and secular—a breeding ground for aggressive competition and arrogance—and have disassociated themselves from anything sports-related. But recently, several churches have begun opening up to using athletics as a tool for ministry. My team and I were excited to partner with these churches, to work with kids, and to share our faith.
In between leadership trainings and teaching groups of 100 kids to kick a fútbol, the other volunteers and I were able to relax and experience Bolivia with some of our new local friends. We all lived with host families and were connected with young adults our own age in a Bolivian youth group. Before long, we developed friendships by attending group meetings, learning to play wallyball, and laughing about our attempts to communicate—Spanish-English dictionaries in hand. When someone suggested we climb Tunari together, our group began looking forward to another incredible experience with these new friends.
On the morning of the hike, we woke up early and gathered our supplies for the day. Like true Oregonians, we outfitted ourselves with layered clothing, sturdy shoes, and a surplus of water. As our American group climbed into the bus traveling to the Tunari trailhead, we discovered our Bolivian friends had prepared much differently. Instead of boots and North Face sportswear, they wore dress shoes and t-shirts, and carried liters of soda as fuel for the challenge ahead. We prepared for our trek with the intention of conquering the mountain; they prepared just enough to enjoy the journey.
After navigating rocky bluffs and choppy footing, we reached the halfway point to Tunari’s peak. Sitting down near a lake that fed the icy mountain stream we’d been following up the mountainside, my companions and I pulled out the water bottles and food from our backpacks and began passing around snacks, including plastic cups full of Fanta and a half-eaten apple. Our American group had packed extra because we knew sharing is more than just a kind gesture in Bolivia—it’s a cultural demonstration of acceptance and friendship. Sharing resources is a fundamental aspect of Bolivian life and has deep roots in indigenous culture. This expectation is based on the idea that if one person has an abundance of resources to share, then everyone survives. Getting used to this custom required constant attention during the first few weeks of my time in Bolivia. If I poured myself some water at the dinner table, I first offered water to everyone else. If I wanted a spoonful of llajua (a pepper and tomato sauce) to flavor the first course of soup that was served before every afternoon meal, I first asked if anyone else would like any. While climbing Tunari, this also meant I shared the special dark chocolate bar I had brought to motivate myself. I was happy to do so because this small act of sharing symbolized one of the many aspects of Bolivian culture I hoped to adopt as my own.
While hiking steadily upward, I was stunned by the brilliant Andes Mountains. This trek was the first time during my trip that I had ventured outside Cochabamba’s city limits and witnessed rural Bolivia. In the city I had eaten llama empanadas, yet here I hiked alongside an entire herd of llamas. Despite my best attempts to coax them, the animals only allowed me within a ten-foot radius. The llama, as a source of meat and wool, is an ancient indigenous resource that is still depended upon in modern society. In many ways similar to this, Bolivia is a great mix of paradoxes. The environment is urban and rural, the culture modern and indigenous. In the midst of the bustling city, cars honking and billboards flashing, cholitas (indigenous women) navigate through the crowds and traffic in traditional thick skirts and bowler hats with children fastened to their back by multicolored woven cloths called aguayos.
Scaling the final quarter of the trail, I wouldn’t have minded being a small child strapped to someone’s back rather than continuing on foot up the steepest part of the climb. We found ourselves needing to stop and catch our breath every few steps because at a 17,060-foot elevation, the air has less than half the amount of oxygen than it does at sea level. Some times were more difficult than others to breathe, but this just meant I gained more opportunity to stop and look at the scenery. I was in awe of the sky-shattering mountains, but also of the perspective I gained while looking down on Cochabamba. The city looked small, yet it held countless experiences and memories that have shaped me and left me changed. My time in Bolivia was a journey, and as I took in the spectacular vista of my summer, I was breathless.