Expat Stories: We Took Only What Fit in Our Luggage to be Volunteer Missionaries in the Bolivian Jungle

by Anonymous Female - From USA
(Guayaramerin, Beni, Bolivia)

1. How did you first hear about Bolivia and/or become interested in Bolivia as a possible place to live?

My (ex)husband and I saw a mission DVD featuring a jungle boarding school near Guayaramerin. They were in need of teachers and construction managers. I am a teacher and my (ex)husband was a construction manager. We felt called to fill the need and contacted the organization. We volunteered there for six years.

2. Where are you from originally and why are/were you considering living overseas when you first took Bolivia into account as an option?

I am from Illinois/Michigan. My (ex)husband is from South Africa. We wanted to do mission work in South America and the school in Bolivia seemed a perfect match.

3. Which languages do you speak? If you do not speak Spanish, has this made adjusting to, and living in Bolivia more difficult for you?

I speak English and Spanish (now). I knew basic Spanish before I went to Bolivia, but it took two years of immersion before I actually felt fluent. There were lots and lots of tears in the learning process, but the biggest blessing was being the only English speakers on campus for an extended amount of time and being left in charge of the school. It was sink or swim and I couldn’t be more thankful in retrospect. My (ex)husband was already bilingual when he arrived in Bolivia (English and Afrikaans). Since it was his third language, it proved easier for him to learn Spanish than it does for most. It took him about a year to go from absolutely nothing to teaching classes in Spanish.

4. Did you come here as an individual, couple or family?

Went as a couple.

5. Are you planning to live in Bolivia short-term or long term?

I love Bolivia and would consider working there in the future. We were there for six years and now I am teaching Spanish in the States.

6. Do you work or plan to work or start your own business in Bolivia?

I don’t plan to start my own business. I would consider working there as a teacher again if things worked out.

7. Is Bolivia the only country to which you contemplated moving, or did you consider other choices? If so, why did you ultimately choose Bolivia?

At the time it was the only country we considered since we were answering a specific call to be missionaries. Now I would consider living in several places: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru...

8. What steps did you take to research about Bolivia to prepare yourself prior to arriving?

Since we were moving to Bolivia to be missionaries, we talked to other missionaries serving at the school where we would be working. There were few other resources in 2005.

9. What do you miss most about your home country?

Difficult question. Now that I live here, I miss things from there. But during the first several years when we didn’t have electricity on campus, I remember missing cold drinks and fans.

10. What do you like/love/appreciate most about Bolivia?

I love the laid-back attitude of the “cambas.”

11. Did you relocate on your own, or do you work for a company that relocated you to Bolivia?

We relocated ourselves. We only took what would fit into our luggage.

12. If your plan is/was to retire in Bolivia permanently, how did you prepare financially, and in other ways to make that possible?


13. For those of you who have lived in Bolivia for at least 6 months, now that you are here, what have you learned about Bolivia that you did not know before?

The “American way” is not always the best way or the right way. Be open-minded and willing to learn from other cultures.

14. Is there anything about Bolivia that turned out to be very unexpected to you?


15. What special skills or attitudes do you think a person or family needs in order to ensure their stay in Bolivia is enjoyable/successful?

Flexibility, patience, positive attitude

16. Is there any reason you would NOT recommend Bolivia as a place to live, work or retire?

It’s not the States. If you want to live in the States (or elsewhere), stay there. It’s going to be different, so get over it.

17. What is the most negative aspect about living in Bolivia in your opinion?

People automatically thought we were rich because we are white. We lived as volunteers. We spent about $50 a month on ourselves. In many ways, I am far more comfortable socializing with a family of 8 living in a one-room hut than I am with a well-to-do family or other expats living in a fancy apartment in the city.

18. What are some of the most positive aspects about living in Bolivia in your opinion?

Slower-paced (if you allow it to be). In general, Latino cultures tend to be a little warmer and more open.

19. Have you faced any unexpected difficulties while living here? Were you able to overcome those obstacles? Are they serious enough to cause you to want to leave?

There are obstacles anywhere you go. Nothing was ever serious enough to make me want to leave. Frustrating - yes, but that’s all. I left for personal reasons.

20. If your children moved overseas with you, how did you prepare them for the differences in lifestyle or culture shock?


21. For future potential expatriates who are considering living in Bolivia, what advice would you give them (how to prepare, what to bring or not bring, etc.)

It completely depends on the lifestyle they are seeking in Bolivia. You can get almost everything you want/need in the cities. But I’m a bit of a minimalist, so probably not the best to answer this question.

22. What are some of the things that were most difficult for you to accept or adjust to in Bolivia?

It was hard for me to deal with the red tape of Bolivian paperwork. But I learned that being firm and being nice goes a long way.

23. Prior to moving here, what aspects of living in Bolivia would you have liked to know more about or have more assistance with? Is there anything anyone could have done, or informed you about that would have made your choice to move to Bolivia, the relocation process itself, or your initial adjustment period easier, less stressful, less frightening?

Again, different situation. As a volunteer missionary in the jungle, there was a lot that was hard and not much anyone could have done to prepare me more.

24. Hindsight is 20/20. If you could go back in time to the months before you moved to Bolivia, is there were anything you would do differently to prepare for living in Bolivia?

I think I would have tried to take my Spanish classes more seriously. Nothing can compare with being able to communicate effectively with the local people. It creates more bridges than you can imagine.

25. Just for statistical purposes, had you heard of BoliviaBella.com or Expat Services prior to moving to Bolivia? If so, which parts of our website were most helpful to you? What information would you like to see added for future potential expats?

I have a vague recollection of seeing something about it, but again, it was a number of years ago that we moved to Bolivia.

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