Why Bolivia?

I’ve traveled to quite a few places around the world, and the list of places I want to visit is probably a mile long, but I have to be honest in saying that the Plurinational State of Bolivia wasn’t even on my radar.

So how did I end up booking a month-long trip to La Paz? First, it’s important to state that I am not in Bolivia solely for a vacation. I’m here to complete the practicum requirement for my Master’s degree in Global Health.

Northwestern’s Global Health program partners with a fantastic organization called Child Family Health International (CFHI). CFHI specializes in developing/coordinating public health practicums and international medical rotations for students around the world. CFHI will recommend programs based on each student’s needs and interests, but the student has the final say in program selection.

I am vegetarian and have some chronic health conditions, so living in the bush in Uganda for a month simply wasn’t an option. After speaking with CFHI staff, they recommended their programs in New Delhi, India, La Paz, Bolivia, and Ecuador. I’ve been to New Delhi several times, so it wasn’t my top choice. Yes, I’d be able to easily find food and I have family there to help me out when needed, but I really wanted to understand what it’s like to work in a country or culture that I know nothing about. We spend a lot of time in this master’s program learning about the challenges and ethics of working in an unfamiliar culture and I wanted to put those lessons into practice. So that left Bolivia and Ecuador. There wasn’t a significant difference between the programs, but La Paz won based on two points: it’s a major city and it doesn’t have mosquitoes. If there is a single mosquito within a 10 mile radius of me, it will find me and bite me. I am that person. So the idea of working in a tropical zone without being subjected to mosquitoes and all the nasty diseases they carry was VERY appealing!

cerebral-malaria-aint-nobody-got-time-for-that

I can’t say I regret my decision in any way, shape, or form. I’ve only been in La Paz for a few days, but it’s a beautiful city and my host organization has assigned me to a very interesting project (which I’ll discuss in future posts). Despite the altitude sickness, I wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work. I can’t remember the last time I felt this way!

Say hello to my little friends

Altitude sickness is real, and it’s a monster.

La Paz sits at 3,460m (approx 12,000 feet) above sea level, whereas Chicago is only 181m (approx 594 feet) above sea level. I had some serious adjustment to look forward to. As recommended by my host organization, I am taking Acetazolamide to assist with the adjustment. But even with this medicine, I’ve been experiencing headaches and “GI discomfort”. (“GI discomfort” is code for puking on the street in front of my local coordinator, on the day that I met him. File this under things that will cause me embarrassment until the day I die.)

Any time I walk uphill/upstairs, no matter how slight the incline, my heart races faster than a horse at the Kentucky Derby, I get shortness of breath, and my lungs feel like they’re on fire. I might not be in the best shape of my life, but under normal circumstances I can easily walk up a few flights of stairs with no issue. I walked up one flight of stairs today and immediately looked/felt like this:

Heart Jumping Out of Chest

No, really. If my Fitbit could speak, it would have shouted “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

Luckily, I’m staying with a Señora who knows a thing or two about altitude sickness. First, we re-arranged my diet so that I’m eating a good breakfast, a heavy lunch, and a very light dinner. Going to bed on a full stomach at such a high altitude is a gateway to that “GI discomfort” I mentioned earlier. Second, she’s been pumping me full of a concoction made from coca leaves steeped in hot water.

Coca Leaves

I had no idea that coca leaves have medicinal properties. Tony Montana never talked about that in Scarface! Seriously, though, this “tea” has been really helpful, especially with the headaches and nausea. I wouldn’t recommend relying on it alone, but in combination with the Acetazolamide, it’s been very effective for me.

I should fully adjust within the next 2-3 days, but if you read about an American tourist exploding in La Paz…

I belong among the wildflowers

Welcome to my humble abode! I’m a naturally curious person who loves to learn, which means that, like 95% of all people on online dating sites, I love to travel. I like exploring places I’ve only read about, learning about other cultures, and eating all the (vegetarian) foods!

Maybe someday I’ll get the chance to write about my previous travels, but for now I’m starting with Bolivia. I’m spending the month of March 2018 in La Paz to complete the practicum requirement for my master’s degree.

I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures and I look forward to reading your thoughts/comments!

Header image credit: Taylan Apukovska

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson