Up next on our Latin American Expat Series is Amanda from Amanda Cox Design. She is a Canadian who currently lives in Sucre, Bolivia. She works in international development and has a passion for learning about new cultures. She enjoys traveling to less well-known and touristy countries. Her work often takes her to “developing countries”, where she enjoys traveling to nearby cities on vacations and weekends to get to know the area.
Please provide a little introduction about yourself and when and why you decided to start your blog.
My name is Amanda, and I’m originally from Canada. I studied industrial (product design) but then decided that I didn’t really want to create pretty items for the 1%. That led me into the world of international development. I am currently on my 3rd international placement, which happens to be in Sucre, Bolivia. I started my blog as a way to share my stories with friends and families back home. I have since started including some posts about expat life and international issues. I also focus more on “developing countries” where I live and travel, which is not very common in the “travel blog” sector.
How long have you been in Bolivia? How long do you plan on living there?
I’ve been in Bolivia since August 2016. I’m planning to leave soon (in May 2017), so I can start really looking for jobs back in Canada. My partner is also on a one-year sabbatical, so it will be good for him to go back and resume his work at the clinic.
Where did you live before coming to Bolivia?
Before this job, I lived in many different countries. I have worked at placements in Ghana, Bangladesh, and Nepal, for 3-4 months at a time. In between, I normally live in Ottawa, Canada – my hometown. Right before leaving, I was working for the Canadian Government in a contract position in Ottawa.
What made you decide to move to Bolivia?
I moved to Bolivia specifically for my current position. I had been to South America two years before and had enjoyed my time. Although I had visited Bolivia before, it was only for about 2 weeks and I had never been to the city where I was going to live (Sucre). I also didn’t really speak Spanish. My friends convinced me to apply for the job anyway since it was a perfect mix between my background in industrial design and my experience in International Development. I submitted my application, and the rest is history.
What was the visa process like?
Thankfully, my organization has helped me a lot with visa processes. It can be quite complicated in Bolivia, with many trips to various offices, with different paperwork, and lots of photocopies! Fortunately, my organization took care of it once I arrived, and I now have a one-year “Cortesia” visa and a local resident ID card. However, before leaving Canada we had a bit of trouble. Since my boyfriend was coming with me, I needed to show proof of marriage. The catch is, we’re not married! So, how were we going to do that? We ended up having to do a lot of things; like contact, the tax department in Canada, rearrange lease agreements, open a joint bank account, etc. so that we could get a notarized document in Canada saying that we were a common-law couple. Thankfully, that worked, and we were able to come to Bolivia without any problems.
How do you make a living?
I work in international development. That means that I work on contracts in various countries for different lengths of time. Although I am normally hired by a Canadian organization, I’m contracted to work with a local partner NGO. My current role is with technical college in Bolivia. They focus on restoring the historic city and teach skills like carpentry, metal work, and plumbing. My job is to help them open a store to sell some of their products. Since I’m a volunteer, I don’t get paid a lot. However, I do get paid a monthly amount (that isn’t taxable), and all my big expenses like flights, rent, and medical insurance are paid for by the organization. I have also started doing some freelance writing on the side to help pay for vacations and such.
What is the average cost of things in Bolivia?
Bolivia is an incredibly cheap place to live. For example, you can take a taxi anywhere in the city for $1, and a bus to a city 4-hours away for just $4. Our place is a bit expensive, but it’s possible to get a one-bedroom apartment for about $200/month. Most restaurants also have happy hours and other specials, like a $4-5 “menu del dia” with soup, main course, dessert, and a juice for lunch.
What have you learned since becoming an expat in Bolivia?
I have learned a lot about myself, which I think is the biggest benefit of traveling. Specifically, I have learned about what I really need in the workplace for me to enjoy life. I’ve recently discovered that it’s more important for me to be productive and get things done, as opposed to having a great organization and a great goal but not accomplishing much in my role. I think that working with a good team and a good manager is essential to my overall satisfaction in life, and this is something I will make sure to seek out in future opportunities.
What is your favorite thing about being an expat in Bolivia/Sucre?
I love the lifestyle here. Everything is really easy. I can walk anywhere in the whole downtown and I never need to rely on transportation unless I’m going to another city. In fact, my office, the grocery store, the movie theater, and my gym are all basically in the same building (which is only a 10-minute walk from my house). I often struggled with a long, stressful commute in other countries but I’ve never had that problem here. It’s also fun that there seems to be a festival, fireworks, or a marching band every single week, even though nobody is really sure what is being celebrated!
What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Bolivia/Sucre?
I think the worst part about being an expat in Sucre is that it’s a small city. If you don’t speak Spanish well, you need to make international friends. Unfortunately, most people are tourists and just passing through for a few days or weeks at a time. This can make it a bit hard to meet people and make friends when you first arrive.
What do you miss most about home?
I guess everyone misses their friends and family, but I don’t really get homesick in that way. Probably what I miss most is junk food, lol. I love bagels with cream cheese from Tim Hortons, and you really just can’t get that here! I also miss being able to plan and organize. I have adopted the “go with the flow” attitude, but it can sometimes be a bit frustrating when things don’t happen at the speed or time you were hoping they would.
Do you speak Spanish fluently? What has your language process been like?
I definitely don’t speak Spanish fluently. I had taken a few classes before we left, and my boyfriend spoke zero Spanish when we arrived. However, my organization paid for some Spanish classes, and we decided to take 2 hours every afternoon after I got home from work. This lasted months. It was sometimes frustrating, but now I feel pretty confident. It’s difficult when watching TV or in a group meeting because people speak quickly, but in a one-on-one situation, I can hold my own.
What did you do to meet people and integrate into your new home?
I found this to be really tricky. So, I focused on quantity instead of quality. I used many different methods when I first arrived, and just waited to see “what stuck”. I made one friend on InterNations (an expat website), one friend on Instagram, another at the gym, and more through some Facebook groups. I’m also really glad that the other volunteers in my city are really nice, so we all hang out and help each other out.
What custom/ habits have you found to be the most different from your own culture or have found to be the most difficult to adjust to?
I think the biggest adjustment is to the cultural perceptions of time and relationships. It’s not really important here to be on time or make definite plans. Your boss might tell you one thing and then decide on some new project the next day, or your friend might show up at the bar for drinks an hour late. It’s not seen as rude and you need to learn to be flexible or you’ll go crazy.
How do you feel that the people of Bolivia see you? Are you treated any differently?
I think it’s pretty obvious I’m a foreigner with my blonde hair, whereas my boyfriend with dark hair and slightly darker skin may be viewed as “Latino”, even though he’s not. Like most countries, people assume that Westerners have more money and will sometimes charge you higher prices in places like an outdoor market. However, I haven’t been treated badly by anyone. I especially like the people at my work who know I’m stilling working on Spanish. They often come and talk to me so we can have simple conversations in Spanish to help me improve, which is really nice of them.
What is a myth about your adopted country?
A lot of people think that South America is dangerous. They may not even know where Bolivia is on the map, but they have a perception that it’s unsafe anyway. Perhaps it started with drug issues in Mexico or Colombia and then has been expanded to include every country, which doesn’t make sense at all. Bolivia is totally safe. My little town of Sucre is so quaint you would never worry, even if you were walking alone at 3 in the morning. I use my fancy phone while walking down the street (just like all the local kids do), and I’ve never had a problem.
What is your favorite dish in Bolivia?
I love cheese and carbs, so I would have to say my favorite dish is a cheese empanada. Lots of airy pastry around a cheese filling – yum!
What advice would you give someone when traveling to Sucre/Bolivia?
I always tell people traveling anywhere that they shouldn’t have any expectations. What I mean is that normally if you have expectations then you can be really disappointed when they turn out to be false. However, if you come with an open mind, then you’ll get to experience things how they really are. I hope people won’t just think Bolivia is poor and dangerous. I want them to come see it for themselves. Not everything is perfect, but there’s a lot of interesting aspects of the culture, and beautiful places to visit if you just give it a chance.
Where to Connect with Amanda