Vamos a Colegio

This Monday I started my first day of classes in Bolivia in the school, or colegio as they call them here, named Franco Boliviano. I would have to say that so far the first day of school would have to be the most extreme culture shock that I have experienced yet. The idyllic classroom scene of students sitting calmly in their seats awaiting instruction from a teacher certainly was not the case here, in fact it was quite the opposite. For example, In my first class, art, me and the other exchange students walked in, were introduced, then the class was left to their own devices for the whole period. This meant that the vast majority of the time was spent chit chatting with each other and doing things on their phone. When I say chit chatting it has the connotation of a subdued chat, but yet again this was not the case. There was a lot of yelling, loud laughing, and playful fighting amongst the boys.

Although I was repeatedly warned that the kids would likely be mean, possibly even making fun of my white skin and blond hair, I haven’t encountered this at all. Everyone has been extremely nice and excited to meet all of us. One of the most pertinent questions that they had for me was if I was a fan of the Oriente or Bloomings soccer team. Because my host brother had bought me an Oriente jersey I decided to side with this team, much to the uproar of nearly all of my classmates, who are Bloomings fans. Fortunately we were able to get past this quickly and move on to new things. Honestly in art, like most of my classes, I wasn’t really sure what we were doing. Some of the kids were cutting pieces of thin wood and building pyramids, don’t ask me why. The teacher didn’t really give us much instruction and for the most part just sat at his desk and did nothing.

After art, the other exchange students and I were talked into going and seeing the theater kids practice for the upcoming play instead of going to history, which I was apprehensive about but the other students assured us it would be fine. In the end we left the rehearsal to go to class, and the teacher really didn’t care, just like the students had said. Again, in that class we didn’t do anything, much like most of the other classes. One thing I really like about school here is that you get 15 minute breaks periodically throughout the day where you can talk to people and buy food. So far I have been buying lots of empanadas de queso, which are basically cheese and bread topped with powdered sugar. It’s a little weird, but I must say that the school food is infinity better here than in the US. After a couple more classes and breaks the clock struck 1 O’clock and it was time to go home for lunch, after almost 6 hours of school. The strange thing about Bolivia is that almost everyone goes back to their houses to eat lunch with their families. Here everything seems very family oriented to me, which is especially true in my family. Once we finished eating lunch we had just enough time for a short siesta, then it was back to school.

On Mondays and Tuesdays I have classes in the afternoon from 2:30 to 4:30. Honestly it was kind of exhausting. Everyone was incredibly loud and yelling, making understanding their already faster than usual and slang ridden Spanish even harder to understand. On top of this we had classes like chemistry where a lot of the vocabulary used is not the kind of things you learn in Spanish class. By the end of day one I was feeling a little bit down, asking myself how I was possibly going to get through a year of this. Luckily this feeling of despair was not long lived. Though the next few days were a little rough, here I am at the end of my fourth and I can honestly say that school is a lot of fun. I have really gotten to know some of the people in the classes, as well as the other exchange students. Though it is still a bit boring at times because there is a lack of work to do, there are always people to laugh with. Also, not to brag, but us exchange students have become pretty popular. All the time I have people come up to me to say buen dia and shake my hand or give me a kiss on the cheek.

I truly feel like I have begun to settle in here. Yesterday night I had what us Rotary kids call “the realization.” By that I mean realizing the fact that you are really doing it. I am really on an exchange in a foreign country, with a host family, doing things I’ll talk about for the rest of my life, and it is absolutely fantastic! It’s one of those feeling where a smile just creeps up on you and you couldn’t make it go away if you wanted to.  I think that now I am going to call it a night for writing. I’m sure in the next week I will have had a million more experiences to update my blog with so make sure to keep checking. I love and miss all of you guys,




First days 

You would think it would be a funny feeling getting on a plane to fly 6,000 miles away from your home town and say goodbye to your whole family for 10 months, but I must admit that during the vast majority of the 30+ hours of travel I didn’t fully comprehend that I would soon be in Bolivia. Of course near the end of the last plane flight the reality of the situation became apparent, and even the mention of being in Bolivia and meeting my host family got my heart pounding, but now that I am here all of my worries and fears have been vanquished. I worried my host family wouldn’t get along with me, but they are wonderful people who love to laugh and have a good time. I worried that I wouldn’t have anything in common with other students at my school, but the few I did meet already took a selfie with me and told me the cat in my Facebook profile picture was adorable. So far everything has been absolutely amazing.
Upon arriving at the airport I was greeted by my entire family (my host parents Sandra and Pablo, and my two host siblings Pablo and Camila) who were holding balloons and a big sign saying “Bienvenido Aaron,” finally fulfilling my dream of being greeted at an airport with a giant sign. After this the adventure really began. We first drove back to my host moms house where we went through what they call the first night questions so that I knew all the rules and expectations to follow. Then me and my host brother and father went out to get some delicious frozen yogurt. After that we picked up Camila from school, because she had to take a test, and headed off to my host dad’s house. On the way we picked up a ton if fruit from a street vendor ranging from pears to papaya to strawberries to bananas. The best part was that we got more fruit than I could ever think to eat for only 24 bolivianos which is under 4 US dollars.

After all that we ate lunch, which is the major meal in Bolivia instead of dinner. We had a traditional dish called Plato paceño with consists of choclo, which is kind if like corn on the cob but better, a patty of really yummy cheese, and another Lima bean like food that is called habas. Anyways it was fantastic. After lunch it’s customary to take a siesta but I called my parents instead because I only had the chance to leave them a short message earlier in the day. Finally I had a little down time where we watched James Bond (in Spanish) and played with my host dad’s two dogs. At the very end of the day we went to the mall and ate crepes, then returned home to watch a soap opera and sleep. 

On my second day I got the chance to go to the mercado, where there are hundreds of little shops that sell iteams from one dollar clothes to freshly slaughtered llamas. There we took my uniform to get it refitted so that I am ready to start school Monday! My host brother also got me a soccer jersey of his team, which happens to be the rival team of his father, so we are wearing the today when we see him. After that we went to eat lunch with my host mom’s extended family, which is where many of my pictures on Facebook come from. They were all really nice and interested in hearing about the US and teaching me a little about Bolivia. After that we headed to a soccer game between my host mom’s coworkers, but there I mostly talked to my host sister Camila. At the end of the day we went to a restaurant and ate empanadas de queso and ice cream, then returned home to watch the movie Macfarland in Spanish, but with English subtitles. 

I ended up waking up earlier than my host family so I decided to write this. I am sure today will be filled with even more adventures, as will Monday when I start my first day at Franco Boliviano, my school. This is all for now, but I already miss all of my family in friends in the states. I will keep you all posted!


9 More Days

Today I finally received confirmation of the last major piece of getting ready to leave: my airplane itinerary. I will be leaving Seattle at the crack of dawn on August 20th to arrive in Bolivia the following morning. All in all it will be a 19 hour endeavor taking me from Seattle to Phoenix to Miami, and then to my last destination Santa Cruz where I will be greeted by my host family. Receiving my ticket has truly put things in perspective for me. Before, the exchange was going to take place at some point in the near future, but now it’s a measurable number of days away. Being able to say “in 9 days I will be on my way to Bolivia” makes it feel all the more real. The next post I write will almost certainly be made from South America, so make sure to check my blog out in the next couple weeks to really see my adventure begin!

Preparing to Leave!

My name is Aaron Helms, and in the upcoming weeks I will begin my journey to Bolivia as a Rotary International Youth Exchange student. I’ll be living with several different families throughout my 10 month stay there, and participating in school and Rotary activities. The club that is hosting me is in the town Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which is one of the major cities in Bolivia with a population of 1.5 million. Coming from the small town of Bellingham, I’m sure this will be an interesting change of pace. The city of Santa Cruz is almost 6,000 miles away from my hometown, and situated in the tropics (Meaning the weather is going to be in the 80-90 degrees range most of the time.) Although I’ve done some research into the town, in all honesty I’m not really sure what to expect, making the upcoming trip all the more exciting. Even though the days are ticking down to the requested arrival date by my host club in Bolivia, which is August 21st, I still have not received an airplane ticket yet. My family is using a program called It’s Your World Travel which helps you to get a visa, insurance, and a flight. The person working on my paperwork says she expects to have my itinerary by tomorrow, so I will know the exact day that I will leave very soon. Regardless, within the next two weeks I should be beginning the adventure of a lifetime!

Its almost impossible to put into words the whirlwind of emotions that I am experiencing right now. First and foremost is excitement. Excitement to travel to a new culture and live with a new family. Excitement to finally see a world beyond the US, Canada and Mexico. Excitement to meet other youth exchange students from all over the world, and excitement for a million other reasons as well. But at the same time there is a small degree of apprehension. Its like waiting in line to get onto a roller coaster. You know that you are going to have a great time and be fine, yet you can’t quite seem to stop your heart from beating out of your chest. I’m a little stressed about pulling all of the little details together before I leave like dentist appointments and gifts, but I know it will all work out. Somehow I feel like I won’t end up packing until the night before leaving, but being on a time crunch is the best kind of motivation there is, right? All in all, the overriding thought in my head is “oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is really happening!”

My goal once I get to Bolivia is to try and write on here about once a week and include some pictures too, so hopefully you guys will continue to check it out and follow my experiences. I’ll keep you posted!!