A future foreign exchange student to Bolivia recently sent in this question through our forums:
"I am going to be a foreign exchange student in Bolivia starting August 1st. I'm very excited but also worried that I am ill-prepared. I am a 16 year old female from Indiana and will be living with 3-4 host families over my trip (Which will be around 11 months). I hear it is suggested to bring gifts, not carry many personal belongings, and use common sense (of course). I was wondering if you had any specific tips for me including clothes, personal hygiene products, beauty products, the language, schooling, and/or money. Thanks, Exchanger."
These are all absolutely excellent questions, that merit more than a short forum response.
What schools may be like in Bolivia
I would first suggest any potential foreign exchange student read through our section on education in Bolivia including what public education is like as compared to private schools. Bolivia doesn't have a huge middle class. A very large percentage of the population is very poor and a very small percentage of the population is wealthy. Anyone who can afford a private school avoids public schools, most of which are poorly managed, and severely lacking in infrastructure, furnishings and materials. Most foreign exchange situations take place with upper class or wealthy families, but isn't always the case.
Some of the most basic differences between schools in Bolivia and other countries: the Bolivian school year begins in February and ends in November or mid-December. There is usually a 3-4 week break in July (the coldest winter month) and the 2-month December to January break (summer vacation) takes place during the two hottest months of the year. Read more about the climate in Bolivia (described by region) so you'll know what kind of weather you might expect and plan the type of clothing you'll want to bring.
Most schools (both public and private) require uniforms. They may or may not require them of exchange students (but usually will) and these must be purchased by the student. Often the school makes the uniforms and the parents purchase them at the beginning of the year at the school. Some schools contract with a "confeccionista" (tailor or seamstress) and direct all parents to purchase their kid's uniforms from a specific one who already has the design and will embroider the school logo or emblem onto the uniform. Kids have to go for fittings and parents pay the seamstress directly.
Most Bolivian schools work on a two-shift system. The school-day is only 4-5 hours long. Kids might study from 7 or 8 a.m. until noon or 1 p.m. The afternoon shift usually runs from 2 or 3 p.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. Some schools offer additional night school shifts from about 6 or 7 p.m. until about 10 p.m. Some private schools are offering an option "doble escolaridad" system for students to study from 7 or 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Most foreign exchange students LOVE the fact that school is only half-day here. (Unless you're being placed at a foreign school like the American or British schools, in which case you'll likely study until 3 pm).
Social and cultural etiquette and stuff
"Exchanger" asks about bringing gifts for your host family. It's not really necessary to go overboard with that. Bringing one gift for each member of your host family is enough, and they don't have to be expensive. The thought really does count more than the dollar value of the gift. I would strongly suggest you read all of the pages we have on etiquette in Bolivia - but wait! They are long, but not a list of rigid rules so don't freak out!
Just consider them a good read and try to learn what you can from them and when you do live with your host family, be thoughtful, gracious, considerate and polite. Remember, if you get along well with them, you'll have possibly made friends for life, friends who will feel more like a second family. Many of my friends who've been foreign exchange students are still friends with their exchange families years later and they visit each other!
In fact, before you arrive in Bolivia, you have to mentally prepare yourself. Remind yourself that you are choosing to be a foreign exchange student precisely because you want to experience something new and different from your own culture. So during your time in Bolivia, if there are things about this culture that you absolutely detest, don't be complain-y, rude or judgmental. Simply remind yourself that people here are living life as they choose to. It just may not be as you would choose to. It is what it is.
You don't have to change, or adopt this culture, or attempt to change their ways. Simply follow your own beliefs while not being rude or conflicting with theirs.
Check out these pages on social etiquette and dining etiquette. Again, no two families in the world are completely alike. You won't apply or use everything you'll read on these pages. Just follow your host family's lead and when you have any doubts, just ask them! They'll be expecting you to have a gazillion questions. (In fact, they'll probably relish answering them). These are the pages where you'll learn about gift giving and a lot of other social and cultural stuff.
What to bring, what not to bring with you
Everything depends on what region of Bolivia you'll be doing your foreign exchange in. If you'll be at a school in one of our three largest cities (La Paz, Cochabamba or Santa Cruz) you can pretty much get anything here that you can get in the US or Europe including thousands of different imported products. Remember, you're here for a new experience so your likes and dislikes may change while you're here. Again, based on some of Exchanger's excellent questions:
When it comes to soaps, shampoos and conditioners, toothpastes, lotions and creams, hair care products, perfumes, deodorants, make-up and other personal care items, you really don't need to bring absolutely any of those because you'll find hundreds of national and international brands of all of these here (remember also that you if you're coming from the United States you can't bring any liquids over 3 ounces anyways). However, as they are imported items, you might find they are a little more expensive than in the US. If there is a specific brand you just love you can ask your host family before you come if they know if it's available in Bolivia.
What you should bring with you are things that you absolutely have to have, such as any specific medications you use, contact lenses, glasses, inhalers, insuline, and any toiletries you absolutely love or can't do without, like for example, if your skin is sensitive and you have to use special cosmetics that don't cause skin allergies because you won't find those readily here (and when you do they are really expensive). I don't suggest bringing huge amounts but do bring what you think you'll need for time you'll stay because some items (especially gels and liquids) cannot be sent to you in the mail by your parents if you run out. Girls, you know those um "hygiene products" only us girls use? You won't have any trouble getting them in large cities. In smaller cities you might and if you're doing your foreign exchange in a rural area bring a bunch - you won't find them at all.
Again, if you have any specific items you absolutely must have while here, ask your host family to research their availability for you before you come. A word of warning: when it comes to medications, they may tell you "oh you can get that here" but you should be aware that even if you can get an equivalent medication here, it may be of another brand. Consult your doctor on this.
If you'll be a foreign exchange student in one of our smaller cities or in a rural area, you might want to invest in bringing more of the items you need because cosmetics and personal care items are more expensive small cities and rural areas. In general, in rural areas you should bring a good supply. In small cities, you might be able to find them, but in addition to the higher cost of imported items, they may be even higher in these areas because they are imported into Bolivia's large cities and then re-transported to smaller cities and towns (if they are available at all).
If you like to use hair dryers, curling irons, or an electric razor, you should be aware that most of the electricity in Bolivia is 220V. Only La Paz is 110V. So if you bring any of those things you will also have to bring a set of adapters.
As to clothes, read our etiquette sections because you'll find information about what is considered "decent" and what isn't. Our climate section will also help you to know what type of clothing to bring, depending on what region you'll be in and the times of year you'll be here In general, teens in Bolivia follow US and European teen fashion trends in Bolivia's large cities. You'll see this most among the families who can afford to.
In smaller cities and rural areas, or if you are going to be a foreign exchange student at a public school or if you will be staying with a family that you know is not wealthy, be yourself, but try to be considerate of them. Don't flaunt your differences or your "perceived wealth". It could make them feel bad, especially if you'll be staying with a family that has other kids or teens. In general, if you'll be in La Paz or Cochabamba or anywhere else in Western Bolivia you'll find them to be a lot more conservative (in terms of how you dress) than in places like Santa Cruz.
In any case, you'll want to stay away from extremes. If you're into like, heavy goth or extreme hairstyles or colors, or extreme tattooing, make-up, or any extreme fashions you might want to consider toning it down just for the time you're here. You should always be true to yourself, of course, but if any of your extremes seem to be causing your host family any stress (or if your habits embarrass them in front of their friends when they take you places), taking a break for a few months isn't the end of the world. Think about how you'd want a foreign exchange student to dress or act if they were living with your family. Let's put it this way - don't make your host family regret sharing their home and lives with you :-) You are here for a NEW experience after all.
About money and exchange rates
The Bolivian currency is called the "boliviano". At the time of this writing (May 2010) the exchange rate is 7.07 bolivianos per US dollar. Our site has a whole section that talks about mone and banking. You'll definitely want to read everything about this before you travel to Bolivia: You'll find pictures of Bolivian money here. You'll find a currency converter on this page. Here's some really important information on how our currency works. When you get to Bolivia you'll need to exchange some of your dollars into bolivianos. Here's a page that explains how and where to exchange your money. Read our banking page for information on the use of ATMs and credit cards. If your parents ever need to send you money there are tons of Western Union offices here.
Also, to learn all about mailing letters and packages to or from Bolivia, be sure to take a look at our page on international couriers in case they need to send you other stuff.
Couriers and money transfers can be very expensive. If you have your own bank account in your country, your parents can deposit money into your bank account and you will be able to withdraw funds pretty easily using your ATM card here if it has a Visa, Mastercard or Cirrus mark on it. But keep in mind that your bank in your country will deduct a much higher withdrawal fee from your account when you make international withdrawals so you should keep them to a minimum.
For example: when I use an ATM in the United States to withdraw money from my US bank account, I am charged 50 cents. But when I use the same ATM card here in Bolivia to withdraw money from my US bank account, my bank charges me $9.00 (nine dollars). Ask your bank before you travel. Still, it costs less than having my parents or US customers send me money via Western Union or transfers!
Staying safe and staying in touch
In general, crime is on the rise in all parts of Bolivia. You should take the same precautions you would take in any large city anywhere else in the world. But in addition, you have to take some extra precautions as a foreign exchange student because as a foreigner, you'll stick out. This isn't meant to be scary. It's just that thieves target tourists and even though you'll be living with a family here for an extended time, you'll look (and act) like a tourist frequently. For sure anytime you go somewhere new you'll be looking all around, taking pictures, maybe buying souvenirs. Your host family will probably go out of their way to take you all kinds of new places.
In addition, Bolivia has a really different political atmosphere than other countries. And students (even high school students) are really aware of the political and economic situation. There may be frequent political discussions in their home and their parents may be very politically active. Foreign exchange students (and especially Americans) should 100% completely stay away from any protests, demonstrations, or any groups of people picketing or blocking a road and you should never ever participate in any of these things. So you should read up on this. Don't let anything you read alarm you. It's just something to think about.
This page has information on preparing for your trip. This page has some warnings about the different types of crime in Bolivia. This page has additional general precautions. If you are an American foreign exchange student, you might want to bookmark this page just for Americans. It's where we post US Embassy Warden messages which are basically updates, travel warnings, and messages about specific events that are happening around Bolivia or precautions to take.
And no matter what country you are from, both you and your parents can subscribe to our Blog. When you subscribe, you'll get instant updates automatically that show up on your email home page (if you use Yahoo, Google, Bing and others.) My blog updates automatically so that way, anytime I add a new page to this site, you'll know about it. And you and your parents will know immediately if there are any warnings or specific events you should be paying attention to while you're away from home.
Before you travel to Bolivia, you might want to check into some inexpensive ways to stay in touch by internet and be sure your parent's computer is set up to make cheap calls from their computer to your host family's home phone, or make sure they have Skype or Cheap International Calls with Rebtel - Save up to 90% or know how to chat online. In most urban areas of Bolivia you'll have no problem with internet access (if you don't have access to a computer at your host family's house) and internet cafés are really cheap. If you'll be in a rural area you may have some trouble with internet access.
Most importantly, please register with your country's Embassy or consulate in Bolivia as soon as you get here. That way, if something should happen while you're here, your embassy will know who you are, where you are living in Bolivia, and can contact your parents if there is any emergency. See my other website GoSouthExpat.com for a list and links to the embassies of other countries in Bolivia.
Learn everything you can about Bolivia
For more about Bolivia's history, geography, culture, traditions, population, environment and more, check out our Bolivia for Kids section. Even though it's set up to be easily navigated by kids (we use a lot of pictures for them) most of the pages the banners lead to are written to be understood by kids, teens, teachers and parents. You can also read our gigantic section on facts about Bolivia.
When you're ready to make all your travel plans, read all you can about visas, travel insurance, finding the cheapest flights, altitude sickness, yellow fever shots, and everything else you'll need to know if our plan your trip section. If you plan to brush up on your Spanish before your arrive, see these Spanish programs you can check out.
If you have any additional questions or worries about anything or need more information, post as many messages as you like in our living in Bolivia forum. You can also use any of our specific regional forums here. If you have any questions you'd like answered privately, use this private form to contact us. This is the BoliviaBella.com webmaster. Have your parents sign up to receive our free monthly newsletter.
If you ever have a problem while you are in Bolivia, your first points of contact should be always your parents, your foreign exchange program, and your country's embassy or consulate. If you're in Santa Cruz you can also visit the BoliviaBella.com office for non-emergency types of information. These are some of the expat services we provide.