On June 21st, 2015 our group of 12 high school students, 2 adult mentors, and 2 staff members departed for a 3-week experience in Bolivia and Peru. Participants were each responsible for writing about each day of the program, keep checking back for more posts, this is just part 1 of our blog series!

The Youth Ambassadors Program with South America (YAPSA), a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by Amizade. This exchange program offers a unique opportunity for a diverse group of young people from Bolivia, Peru, and the North Central Appalachia region of the United States to travel, learn about another culture, develop their leadership skills, and become empowered to make positive changes in their communities.

June 21- 22

Our first few days were busy with airplanes, airports, and lots of waiting. However, the group was jittery with the excitement of getting to know each other and looking forward to the trip! 

From Pittsburgh to Miami to La Paz to Cochabamba, we were finally greeted by the smiling faces of our Bolivian leaders- Jean Carla Costas and Ariel Flores. After settling into the hotel in Cochabamba for some much needed rest and showers, we were ready to get started.

June 23

After a restful night at the hotel in Cochabamba, the group woke up ready to get out and explore the city that would be our home for the next week!

It’s been a busy day so far. Breakfast in the hotel and then a trip on the teleférico up to El Cristo. There were some nervous comments getting on but we all made it and what a view. What a view! It was the perfect way to be introduced to the city. 

We headed off for a buffet lunch with papas, pollo, ensaladas y mucho más. I didn’t hear any complaints. We were able to hit the atm and exchange to bolivianos on the walk home. 

I was we’re proud to be a part of the after lunch orientation and discussion about observations. The participants had very good points (I’ll let them tell you about those). We are getting ready to go to dinner and meet our host-families. ~Jason Bell

June 24

Last night we attended a celebration of the San Juan festival where we met our host families and enjoyed traditional foods such as chorizo sandwiches. The students expressed nerves and excitement before we arrived, but as soon as they met their families, everyone was relaxed and put at ease. Today started with breakfast at our host families and time to explore with them until after lunch. Many students went on walking adventures around the city, and two (Zach and Sam) even braved the wilds of the ubiquitous Bolivian trufi (mini city bus). After lunch, which everyone reported to be hearty, we listened to a presentation by a Bolivian earth scientist who lived and studied in the U.S. While his subject matter was… Mystifying to some, many students drew important lessons from his personal life story. Then we went to a truly bizarre multi-level arcade-meets ice cream-extravaganza where we gorged on sundaes and salchipapas (fries with sliced up hot dogs) and played Dance Dance Revolution. I think we all slept soundly again last night. Today we are off to the market and on a tour of downtown… Stay tuned!  ~Anne Marie Toccket

June 25

Today was our most eventful day yet! The vans began to pick the pairs up from their host families at 9:15 AM and the whole group came together at “La Cancha,” which is called the largest “open air” market in South America, despite it being largely covered by awnings at this point. At this incredible market that covers nearly 20 city blocks one may find everything from hand made cloths (sweaters, blankets, etc.) to different types of foods that are prepared right in front of you to all kinds of handmade instruments. Participants collected all sorts of these items as they moved through the narrow, yet expansive aisles. We were all notified ahead of time that it is possible, and recommended to bargain with the vendors. Some were initially apprehensive to engage with the vendors to negotiate lower prices, especially those who have little Spanish knowledge to begin with. An additional concern was the possibility of pickpockets. Everyone was warned prior to departure of the increased risk to be pick pocketed in the market. This led to mixed results, many chose to pack more compactly, while others elected to bring their day packs in order to better conceal their valuables. After spending nearly 2 hours within the confines of “La Cancha,” we headed back to the vans to enjoy another incredible lunch with our host families.

Each family provided a unique dish and it was exciting to converse with others about their meals. Following some free time with the families, the vans returned for our second group outing of the day around 3:30. When we all met up around 4 PM, one of our Bolivian guides, Ariel, who has a degree in tourism, gave us an intriguing tour and historical overview of the center plaza in Cochabamba. We learned about the incredibly historic and beautiful Cathedral that was built in 1571. It was exciting to move around on our own and take quite a few photos. The church is still actively functioning and provides regular services. After the Cathedral we moved into another, smaller downtown market. Here you will find many varieties of fruits and vegetables, as well as quite a few types of meats. As an exciting side note, the roof of this market was constructed by “Eifel,” who was responsible for the Eifel Tower. After, we dispersed for a brief time to explore the square and its surrounding area. To finish off the evening we explored a final market, with souvenir items, then to a small, quaint restaurant that serves almost exclusively empanadas, save for a few drinks and desserts. Quite the exciting day in any book, and we look forward to so many more to come. ¡Hasta mañana amigos! ~Crede Strauser

June 26

So the first part of our day at CEOLI consisted of a tour around the facility. CEOLI is absolutely amazing. The foundation is aimed to helping kids with disabilities, intellectually and physical – helping them integrate into society and the family. They want to be a support system for the kids and families.
CEOLI Goal: to get society to accept the children as any regular child- “if we change the minds of society to give these kids a chance, the kids will be able to work better and do so much more with in the community & society”
The CEOLI facility is special because they don’t focus on schooling and hospital style treatment for they have found that those are not as effective as their system of teaching them life skills. The kids learn to take care of themselves (dressing themselves, brushing their teeth, house care, social skills, making cards and jewelry, all which are applied in real life). I think that everyone was in awe of what was being done at CEOLI. Their message was powerful because they believe in showing the community what kids CAN do rather than focus on what they can’t do by highlighting their skills not their disabilities. No wonder they’re so successful with the progression of their kids.

After a wonderful tour and some down time we’re going to go begin service by painting walls. Adiós!

The second half of our day at CEOLI!
We served at CEOLI by painting the facility so that it would look nice & be able to be rented out for parties and events so that the organization can make a profit that in turn can be used towards the kids in CEOLI. Yes, the fumes were awful but everyone powered through and got the job done. Every one was beyond awesome and we got to listen to Crede sing the entire time, haha! It was an amazing day being able to serve at CEOLI and learn about their cause, definitely touched some people. All in all we had a great day first day of service together. 

Now some of us are off to spin class and then maybe some karaoke?????  ~Erin Guy

Stay tuned for our next post to read about our final days in Cochabamba, helping to build a wall for the Cohachaca school, and then onto Peru!