I never particularly wanted to go back to high school, but here I am. Back in public high school. Bolivian public high school. I just finished my third week teaching English in Sorata, Bolivia and I can say with full confidence that I am learning more than I ever did when I was actually in high school. Sorata is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone and many people are related in one way or another. Almost everyone here speaks Aymara (an indigenous language common to the area) and Spanish is, to many, learned as a second language. The town’s population is similar to Yellow Springs, with around 3,000 inhabitants. It is nestled on a valley in the Andes and is closely surrounded by other mountains, including the snow-capped Llampu mountains which are the pride of the town. Narrow dirt or dusty cobble-stone streets are lined with small kiosks where kids often go to buy candy and popsicles. The plaza lies in the center of town, about a block from where I am living. In the center of the plaza there is a carefully maintained and gated park which is only open to the public on holidays. On Saturdays, people come to the plaza from other mountain communities in order to sell or trade things like mangoes, carrots, coca leaves, homemade cheese, and various colorful and strangely shaped potatoes.
I live in a boarding house not too far from the plaza. The boarding house or “internado” serves as a weekday home for twenty high school aged students. Classes are not actually taught here so the internado functions moreso as a home for students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend high school–because of distance or financial stability. The internado students stay here during the week in order to attend classes at the public high schools and many take the long trip home for the weekend. While they are living at the internado, the students also take turns cooking and cleaning, do their homework, play volleyball or soccer, and sit in on English classes (taught by me). The internado is fairly new and is supported by various organizations, from Quaker communities in England and the U.S, to NGO’s in Norway.
In addition to cooking, cleaning and teaching at the internado, I also teach English in Sorata’s two public high schools. In total, I teach about seventeen different classes a week and, because of this, I now know the majority of the town ages eleven to eighteen. Some classes are easier than others; at one school I usually pronounce words and phrases, translate simple journals, and check homework, in another I teach full classes on my own which is very exhausting. Last week we worked on possessive pronouns and the verb “to be” in the past, present, and future tenses. Classes are taught in Spanish, so in order to teach basic English, I must rely on my basic Spanish skills. I am the only fluent English speaker in the town (that I know of) and while this has probably forced me to improve my Spanish, it is also incredibly frustrating and can, at times, be more than a little alienating.
This language barrier, however horrible, has made me realize just how important language can be in connecting with others. But by offering help when needed, sharing meals, being present, and just trying to understand people, I have also found ways to connect despite not speaking fluent Aymara or Spanish. Since being here, I have learned so many interesting (historical, political, social, etc.) things about the town and I am excited to learn much more throughout the next few months.