Name: Meghan Butler
Location of Study: Sucre, Bolivia
Program of Study: Regular Spanish Program
A brief personal bio:
I am a rising junior at Notre Dame. I am an International Economics and Arts and Letters Pre-professional major. On campus I am involved with College Mentors For Kids, Harmonia a cappella Choir, Voices of Faith, and College Democrats. I am originally from Madison, Wisconsin, and I am excited to see more of the world outside of the dairy state.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
As a pre-professional and international econ major, Spanish is an absolutely integral part of my education at Notre Dame. Both in the world of medicine and economics, a fluency in Spanish is becoming more and more vital to successful communication, whether it is with patients or scholars in your field. I studied French all through high school, so I was a bit behind the curve when I decided to jump into Spanish courses. Although I overcame my initial struggle of accidentally answering my Spanish professor in French, I still have a long way to go to increase my Spanish fluency.
Next semester I will be studying at UPAEP in Puebla, Mexico. In addition to needing to use Spanish to communicate with my teachers and classmates, Spanish will be required of me while I am doing rounds with Mexican medical students at various hospitals in the area. This summer I will also be doing research on Mental Health Economics in Bolivia. In order to effectively learn from the patients, doctors, and policymakers I interview, I will need to gain experience conversing with native Spanish speakers.
This summer grant will allow me to increase my conversational skills so I can effectively communicate in Spanish, both in the immediate future, and with potential employers, patients, and friends down the road.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
This summer I hope to build upon the grammar and vocabulary I have acquired at Notre Dame and to become comfortable understanding and speaking Spanish conversationally. I hope this experience gives me the skills required successfully carry out my summer research, and to hit the ground running in Mexico, so I can gain as much knowledge scholastically, and personally as possible through my continued studied of the Spanish language. I would also like to gain an understanding of Bolivian culture, politics, and policy, especially with regards to mental healthcare distribution and funding. I intend to make the most of this experience by pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and striving to gain a broadened perspective and worldview.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- At the end of the summer, I will be able to converse comfortably in Spanish with native speakers.
- At the end of the summer, I will have a deeper understanding of how healthcare, and more specifically, mental healthcare, is distributed in Bolivia.
- At the end of the summer, I will be able to read and comprehend scholarly articles on healthcare and health policy in Spanish.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
While in Bolivia, I will be researching Mental Health Economics. This will push me to improve my conversational skills and to reach out to various groups of people in order to conduct interviews and gain an understanding of the Bolivian Healthcare system. I will also need to read a large number of articles on the topic in Spanish.
While in Bolivia I will be volunteering at the Gregorio Pacheco Psychiatric Hospital. Here I will gain conversational skills by interacting with patients, and I will also gain insight into the differences in healthcare practices in America and Bolivia. I also hope to volunteer at a local childcare center, and to take advantage of various cultural activities offered through the school including dancing and cooking lessons.
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
!Buenas Tardes! Its my third day in Bolivia and I finally have internet! I left Wisconsin on Saturday, took 3 planes, and finally arrived in Sucre on Sunday. My family picked me up from the airport and we took a taxi to the house. The houses are difficult to describe, all the houses and stores are connected by a big white wall, and there are doors in the wall that open up onto stores, houses, and patios. The house I live in is about a 20 minute walk from downtown Sucre.
I walked into the house a little white dog ran up to me barking with two kids close behind shouting !Amiga! !Amiga! We introduced ourselves and then I was shown to my room. My new hermanos “helped” me unpack- happily finding the candy I brought for them in the process, and then we played Disney Board games like “Pedro Pan”. After playing for a bit, my family took me to a cute little restaurant where I ate meat for the first time in 10 years (in Bolivia it’s not very common to be a vegetarian)!
Next we went to El Parque Bolivar, a huge park downtown. Apparently every Saturday and Sunday they have a kind of fair where kids come with their parents. There is everything you could imagine at the fair, horses to ride, food, candy and ice-cream, little miniature cars that kids can rent and drive around, miniature easels where kids can paint, and bounce houses- sooooo many bounce houses. I have literally never seen so many bounce houses in one place in my whole life! I’ve never seen anything like it.
After going to the park we got ice-cream, took a taxi home, and I collapsed into my bed. It was an amazing, if exhausting first day.
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
I have officially finished my first week in Bolivia. This week has had it’s ups and downs, but I’m starting to get my feet under me and to feel more comfortable in my new home. I still have some kinks to work out, but bit by bit things are starting to get more routine and comfortable.
There’s a lot to get used to here, from zebras as crossing guards to becoming comfortable sloppily speaking Spanish. Luckily for me though, it seems like I picked about the most welcoming, warm city in South America.
Sucre is a smallish city with lots of families and businesses. Tons of people I have met here have told me that Sucre is there favorite place in Bolivia; of course there may be some bias in the sample selection. But everyone I’ve met here has been very generous, friendly, and encouraging of my Spanish speaking. At first I was a bit shy to use my Spanish, but this quickly faded as cabdrivers and storeowners kindly (if somewhat dishonestly) complemented my speech. Sucre provides a very unintimidating environment to practice Spanish.
My one big difficulty so far has been that because Sucre is a popular tourist town, there are many opportunities to slip back into English. Because English is taught in schools, pretty much every educated person knows at least some of the language. Because of this, a lot of people are eager to practice their English with me. This is bad because I know if I’m having trouble remembering a word in Spanish I can use the word in English there’s a good chance that whoever I’m talking to will understand me.
To remedy this, next week I am going to try to be much stricter with myself, and when I don’t know the word in Spanish I want to use I’m going to try to find another way to express what I mean, or use a dictionary to look the word up. I’ll learn a lot more Spanish this way than if every time I have a question I just say como se dice ‘dresser’. I’m also going to ask that when I don’t get a word people explain the meaning to me in Spanish instead of just telling me in English.
I’m also going to try to spend more time actively listening to the conversations around me. Because it takes effort to understand what is being said, I often find myself spacing out and thinking in English, but I know I am missing out on a lot of learning opportunities from my surroundings when I do this.
Hopefully making these and a couple other changes this week with help me to be a more efficient and effective language learner.
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
This week I began volunteering at the psychiatric hospital in Sucre. The hospital is the first and largest mental health institution in Bolivia, and is therefore a landmark of sorts in the town. My Spanish professor told me that it is common to refer to citizens of Sucre as ‘locos’ in reference to the psychiatric hospital.
This nickname is meant in jest but it also reflects some of the current sentiments concerning mental health in Bolivia. As in the United States, there is still a large amount of stigma and misinformation surrounding mental health in Bolivia. It will be interesting to be to compare and contrast attitudes about this topic between the two countries and to have the opportunity to get a closer look at the two different healthcare systems and their treatment of mental health.
I was unsure what to expect when I walked into the mental health hospital for the first time. The hospital main building is large, teal, and antiquated with palm trees springing up in front of a connecting wall that encloses patient housing and other buildings of the hospital. When you first walk into the building you enter a waiting room not unlike a hospital in the U.S. After being checked in you can then enter the grounds of the hospital itself. Almost all of the buildings of the hospital are original colonial structures. The grounds are really beautiful, with stunning architecture and big lawns peppered with palm trees.
To be honest, the psychiatric hospital is a strange picture. The regal, colonial architecture rambles across a significant area of Sucre. It is very beautiful, but parts of the grounds have fallen into disrepair, walls have peeling paint, bricks are overturned. The hospital has the air of something very beautiful that has been a bit forgotten or that has been let fall to the wayside. The patients of the hospital wander across its lawns, some with their faces screwed up in confusion or frustration, some with sad eyes looking off at something no one else can see, and some with happy faces turned up to the sun or studying the space around them. They all have different struggles and are headed in different directions, but much like the hospital itself, each one gives off the air of being a bit lost, a bit broken, a bit forgotten.
My first day at the hospital was a bit shocking. I hadn’t anticipated how painful it would be to see so many people in one place struggling with issues that their society doesn’t yet understand, and fighting against wounds and pain that no one else can see. Mental health is a tough subject. Psychiatric diseases can be completely debilitating, but instead of leaving your body weak and useless, they attack your mind or even your soul. It was uncomfortable to see so many adults reduced to a childlike state of dependence and incapacity.
In the coming weeks I hope to become a bit more comfortable at the hospital so I can learn from the people around me and hopefully help out a bit or at least make someone’s day a bit better.
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
Time is flying by here; I can’t believe I have been here for a month now! There is so much to do every day I feel like I never sit down, and I struggle to write these blog posts because I have so much to say I never know where to start.
Before coming here, I felt like I could understand the whole world simply by reading books and journals or listening to the accounts of others about their experiences in different cultures. I now realize that you can listen to anecdotes, and memorize facts about foods and customs, but it’s impossible to really understand cultural interactions and different societal expectations unless you live with them.
There are striking differences between the social norms of Bolivia versus those in the U.S., from the obligatory kiss on the cheek greeting, to how here, regardless if you are 17 or 27 you need to ask for your parents’ permission to go out with your friends, and you most likely have a curfew.
One of the differences that I find the most amusing is how couples interact with each other, and with each other’s families. The first week I was here I felt like I needed to wash my eyes with Listerine! You can’t walk a block without seeing couples canoodling, on the backs of motorcycles, park benches, blocking the way to your doorway as you awkwardly jingle your keys hoping the pair in your path will pause in the throes of their passion to let you into your yard. It felt like a weird flash back to middle school with pimply and brace-faced pubescents unabashedly smooching in front of the garbage cans behind the gym or in line in the cafeteria.
But here, the plain daylight romances are not limited to those of us who are still in training bras, praying for a chin hair, or starting to realize they should probably be wearing deodorant. Those couples are of course still present, but are joined by others who not only have full figures and facial hair, but probably also have jobs and taxes to pay.
At first I was confused by all the pairs, and didn’t understand why no one, not even little grandmas or women with small children seemed to be at all bothered, or even to notice the astounding amount of PDA surrounding them.
I asked my friends and family here and they explained to me that because the majority of people live with their families until they get married, and families are often strict about when and for how long ‘novios’ can be in the house, people end up taking it to the streets. And weirdly enough, many people actually find the PDA completely appropriate; because it is out in public, family, friends, and neighbors can keep an eye out for who’s with who and can be confident that nothing fishy is going on. My friends tell me that because of this, it is virtually impossible to cheat on your girlfriend, because even if your girlfriend herself doesn’t see you, it is more than likely that at some point, a neighbor, family friend, or aunt will happen to see you holding hands with someone else, and your parents will be getting a phone call.
It was a bit odd at the start, but as things go I suppose people not being shy about showing how much they care about each other isn’t such a bad thing to have to get used to.
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
Sometimes when I’m talking to a shopkeeper in the market de campasinos, or speaking with one of the patients at the psychiatric hospital, all of a sudden I can’t understand a word they say. At first I thought I was going crazy with sporadic lapses in my Spanish comprehension, but I soon realized I wasn’t struggling for a lack of Spanish, but for a lack of Quechua. Quechua is the second most spoken language in South America after Spanish. Quechua is an indigenous language that many Bolivians speak, especially in the cities of Potosí, Cochabamba, Tarabuco, and of course, Sucre.
Quechua is most commonly spoken in the countryside. For that reason, it is common to hear it in the marketplace where campasinos come to sell their produce. I also hear Quechua with some of the older patients in the psychiatric hospital. I have a little friend in the hospital from Cochabamba who slips into Quechua from time to time when we are talking. She has promised to both teach me Quechua, and Cueca- a dance traditional to Cochabamba.
Quechua is not used exclusively in the countryside. It manifests itself as a form of slang in the city as well. Some people in the city either learned Quechua in school or from a relative from the campo, but many of my family and friends who don’t speak the indigenous language, still use certain words colloquially.
Two of the words I’ve heard the most often here are wawa and jatari. Wawa means baby or kid, and I hear it used about equally as niño, the Spanish equivalent. Jatari roughly translates to lavantarse or get up in Spanish, but is used more specifically to say give me space or move out of the way. Luis, the father of the family I’m staying with here explained these words and others to me. I have a small notebook full of all the new words I learn in Spanish, and I am slowly starting to accumulate a list of useful words in Quechua alongside it.
As for the ‘community interaction’ questions surrounding slang and colloquialisms, I don’t necessarily have specific responses. I’ve talked both to people my age and older with regards to the use of Quechua in the city, and received pretty much the same response from both groups. Many people in the countryside speak Quechua along with Spanish, and often solely Quechua, but Quechua carries over into the city as well, and there are a couple of words that pretty much everyone uses and understands (like wawa and jatari). It’s appropriate to use these words wherever, although there are a couple places where it is especially common to hear Quechua. In the past this type of language wasn’t common in businesses and banks, but with Evo Morales as president, this is changing. With his emphasis on preserving Bolivia’s history and protecting the rights of campesinos, it is now required that private businesses and banks have at least one person present available who can converse in Quechua.
I think the use of Quechua mixed in with everyday Spanish is a testament to the diversity and depth of Bolivian culture. People come from different backgrounds, some descended from Spanish conquistadores, some from other countries in Europe and North America, and some from indigenous groups. Although there are many differences in cultures, customs, beliefs, and languages, everyone has at least a few words in common, que chala.
Reflective Journal Entry 6:
(cultural issue task)
In addition to studying Spanish while I am here, I am doing some preliminary research for me thesis. I am interested in healthcare systems in developing countries like Bolivia, and more specifically in the allocation of resources for mental health. So far I have conducted about seven interviews and have heard some very interesting perspectives on the topic.
Conducting these interviews definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone with my Spanish. I think it probably feels a bit weird to go up to a random person you don’t know and pepper them with questions in any language, but it’s even worse when you speak with the adequacy of a third grader who was dropped on their head a few times as a baby.
At first I felt really nervous to talk to people, but this quickly faded as everyone I talked to was suuuper nice and lots of people had big opinions on the issue.
I’ve learned a lot with regards to the climate surrounding mental health and the faults in the current allocation of mental health resources. I also have a clearer idea now about what direction I might want to go with my thesis.
The most basic answer to the question of whether adequate resources are being allocated to mental health issues is a big no. In Bolivia, if you don’t have money it can be extremely difficult to acquire general health services for yourself or a member of your family and even more difficult to acquire mental healthcare. As one woman I talked to simply put it: Here, if you don’t have money and you get sick, you die. This is a very foreign concept coming from the states.
One of the most interesting things I have noticed so far, is that although Sucre is considered to be a very conservative town (people haaaate Evo Morales), everyone I have interviewed so far has told me that healthcare is a human right and that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that it’s citizens are provided for. Everyone I have talked to thus far has also told me that the government is the only institution with the capacity to provide such resources on a large scale. I thought this was interesting considering many of my more conservative classmates at ND believe that the U.S. government is not equipped to provide healthcare despite the fact that our government is much more long standing and economically stable than the government in Bolivia.
I wonder how much this sense of social responsibility has to do with the strong catholic identity of Bolivia and how much it has to do with the fact that people here see cases of extreme poverty every day- there are people without electricity, food, or potable water, it’s common to see people teetering along with a lame leg behind them and a quivering hand stretched out in front of them for a peso or a cigarette, children not so different from my own little brother of five years old lay curled up on the cold concrete with a ragged shirts pulled all the way down over their bare feet and near frozen tears in their eyes.
If everyone was forced to look this type of suffering in the face and see what it’s really lie when a government won’t or can’t provide for its people I wonder if there would be some changes of opinion.
Cultural immersion task- preparation of a typical dish
One of my favorite foods here in Bolivia is Pique a lo Macho. This dish is basically a mountain of French fries covered in pretty much everything you could think of. There are slight variations of the dish depending on what’s in the kitchen, but it generally looks pretty much the same. There are usually green peppers, chicken, beef, hot dog pieces, hardboiled egg, and a sweet brown sauce. I’ve eaten this food in restaurants and homemade in my house and it never disappoints. Only in Bolivia can french-fries count as a main meal.- no complaints from me!
The dish is called Pique a lo Macho- pique is a form of the verb picar- to cut, and macho is just what it sounds like. Pique describes the dish because it is made of lots of cut up meats and vegetables, and it is ‘a lo macho’ because it is generally a bit spicy so only macho people can handle it.
Pique a lo Macho is a really fun food very unique to Bolivia, and is one of my favorites. The food here is delicious and very different from what I’m used to in the states. When asked to define Bolivian food, my friends here will tell you it’s sopa and segunda (soup and then a main meal) and there is always meat, potatoes, rice, and of course llajua. Llajua is a salsa made of tomatoes and a pepper called locoto. It’s super yummy, and it’s always a mystery as to how spicy it will be. Llajua is served with everything here- a table without llajua is like a table without salt and pepper in the united states. We eat llajua with everything, not just with main meals like chicken or meat, but with french-fries and everything in between.
Another flavor typical to Bolivia is ahi. Ahi is a powder made from a pepper that comes in variations of flavors from sweet to spicy. Sauces are commonly made with this and it’s also very delicious.
I’m so happy I’ve had the opportunity to try so many new foods here. I know I’ll miss it all when I have to head home!
I can’t believe I’m writing my last blog and that I’ve been here for 2 months! I have a flight this afternoon to La Paz where I will stay for a few days with a friend before I head back to Wisconsin. I still haven’t fully accepted the fact I’m leaving. My house in Bolivia has come to feel like a second home. I’m going to miss the dogs chasing me when I try to run in the mornings, and trying to bite my feet when I’m on the back of my friend’s motorcycle. I’ll miss running to the plaza ten minutes late to meet my friends to eat papas rellenos or salteñas. I’ll miss my Spanish classes where my conversation practice was always full of the latest gossip. I’ll miss chasing the kids around the garden pretending to be a zombie craving cerebros. I’ll miss my friends from the psychiatric hospital, and everyone I’ve had the chance to meet here.
I’ll take a minute to describe another cultural event before I start to tear up thinking about leaving. Yesterday I went to the alasitas with my best friend here. It’s a festival that is most famous in La Paz, but has a presence in Sucre also. Nearby a church the streets are full of stands selling food (hamburgers, beef heart, tamales filled with pork), candy, drinks (horchata is my favorite- bright pink and coconut-y), and millions of tiny little things. People buy miniature cars, houses, and figurines that symbolize the things they want in the coming year. They then go to the church to say a little prayer or have a mystic bless them.
I bought my friend a tiny briefcase full of American money because she wants to travel and work in the states. She bought me little diplomas in Economics and Medicine to help me do well with my studies in the coming year- whew now I’ll for sure graduate. We also each bought each other a miniature rooster. When you buy someone a rooster it means they’ll have a good boyfriend soon. My friend and I are in agreement that Bolivian boys are the worst, so we decided we need all the help we can get.
After picking out our little things for luck we headed to a fortune teller. I’ve had my future read in coca leaves before- ( learned I’ll be closer to God soon and have a foreign boyfriend, and return to Bolivia), and it was super fun so I decided to do it again. This time instead of coca leaves I had it read with silver. There’s a big pot of molten silver (tin really) and you spoon out a huge ladle-full and quickly dump it into a bucket of cold water. The fortune teller/ gitana then scoops it out and looks at the shape to tell you what your future will be. The gitana’s accent was a bit difficult to understand, but I think I got the gist of it. He gestured at different bumps and curves in the silver telling me I’m going to travel very soon, do well in school, have a new love, and that everything will be very tranquil up till 2016 at least, also I should be coming into some money soon haha. He also told me that I’d definitely be returning to Bolivia. According to the fortune teller and the little presents my friend gave me my future is looking bright. Right now I feel sad leaving Bolivia, it’s been an experience I will remember my whole life. I’ve learned more than I ever could have imagined, not just about Spanish, but also about a culture and a lifestyle. I’ve made friends here that I know I’ll have for life and I’m going to miss them something awful. But I’m going to choose to believe the fortune tellers and have faith that not to long from now I’ll get to come back- it’s the only way I can make myself get on that plane. I’m eternally grateful that I had this opportunity.
Chao for now- nos vemos pronto ☺
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
Before going to Bolivia, when I thought about ‘learning a language’ I thought of flash cards and grammar charts. Actually being in a country where they speak the language you want to learn is completely different. At times I was frustrated with the pace I was learning- I wanted to just magically be fluent right away. This of course did not happen, but by the end of the summer I did make big gains. This was largely because wanting to be able to converse with your friends is a much bigger motivation to study than having a grammar quiz.
Living with a family and having Bolivian friends definitely encouraged me to understand cultural differences. I also had the opportunity to go to many festivals and concerts that illustrated unique aspects of Bolivian culture.
My goals before I started my program were to be able to converse comfortably in Spanish with a native speaker, have a deeper understanding of mental healthcare in Bolivia, and to be able to read scholarly articles in Spanish. I am now comfortable conversing in Spanish. I also learned a ton with regards to mental healthcare in Bolivia through my volunteer work at the psychiatric hospital and interviews I conducted with regular citizens and government officials. I still find it a bit difficult to read some scholarly articles, but with a dictionary on hand I’m getting better and better.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
I had an amazing SLA grant experience. I’d never really had the opportunity to travel much before, so this program really gave me the chance to broaden my horizons. I now understand that you can’ t just learn a language by poring over textbooks, and that the most fun and best way to learn about both a language and a culture is by getting involved in the community and putting yourself out there.
I’m not sure I would say that my SLA changed my worldview as much as broadened it. I now have a better understanding of a culture different than my own and can understand expectations and customs with much more clarity.
To someone who is considering applying for an SLA grant I would say definitely go for it! I would also suggest picking a small town over a big city. I studied in a small town but also visited a big city, and in the city it’s very easy to get away with using English all of the time. Another benefit of a small town is that you really get to know people there and get a chance to feel like part of the community. My last bit of advice would be don’t be afraid to be outgoing, I wouldn’t have had nearly as good of an experience if I hadn’t made the friends I did!
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
Next semester I will be studying in Mexico, so the Spanish I learned over the summer will be completely necessary. All of my classes will be in Spanish and I will also be taking a Mexican culture course. I plan to continue taking Spanish classes when I can. I also would like to take advantage of internship opportunities in Spanish-speaking countries, that wouldn’t have been open to me if I had not studied Spanish in some depth. Spanish will also be important in a future career as a doctor or in international economics. Beyond that, Spanish opens the door to communicate with a whole part of the world I never knew before, from scholars to friends.