Thursday, November 5, 2015

A smile is the same in every language by Ella Guthrie

If you walk down the Witches Market in Bolivia, you can’t miss the amount of little stone talismans and amulets being sold at most stalls at most corners. Each talisman has a different meaning, owls bring wisdom, tortoises bring longevity, stars bring good luck, condors are for safe traveling, the fish brings health and the toad brings money. The one that sticks out the most for me is the sun: The sun is meant to represent the sun's energy, it’s meant to bring happiness and positive vibes, which if anyone knows me, knows that’s what I’m all about. I’ve been carrying one around with me my entire time in Bolivia.

The positive vibes are needed sometimes when working on the projects for Youth Empowerment. We work with children ages 3-17, primarily in two centres which are situated in impoverished and frankly quite dangerous areas of La Paz. The first one is in a place called Las Lomas, which has a high crime rate and children get into drugs and alcohol quite young, the second is in a district called Alcocholla, in a tiny place called Alpacoma, the streets are made of dirt and the district is majorly made up of Brick factories and they line the path to the brightly painted centres. Most children who attend this centre and live in this area are in work in the factories from the age of 8. As you can imagine, waltzing into one of these places is more than a little daunting, in my first experiences I couldn’t help feeling completely mentally unequipped for what I was going to deal with.

Nerve ridden and a little panicked, the first time I properly immersed myself was when I found myself alone, in the middle of Alpacoma. My other team members were running late (Being on time is not a thing amongst Bolivians) and I had nothing to arm myself with apart from my haphazard spanish and a smile. The awkward directions and instructions made me feel uneasy, and I started to wonder what I was even doing trying to help here when I couldn’t even understand what was going on. It can be quite easy to let little things get you down when you’re so far from home in a culture which is completely different from you, and where you don’t even know how to ask for self-raising flour in a supermarket (turns out it’s no easy feat) and it can be quite hard to keep a happy head and a positive attitude, but there’s one thing I’ve realised you can do to propel this, and it really is as simple as smiling.

The sun might be a burning ball of fire, but the energy that comes from the kids is something to rival it. Their happiness and excitement that doesn’t seem to waver, and their smiles show me how happy and carefree they can be, despite their surroundings. They’re always willing to play with and talk to you and discover what it is you know; their energy is contagious, and being around them makes me realise that a smile really is the same in every language and that no matter how I’m feeling inside, spending a few hours with their mischievous grins is all I need to perk me up and make me realise why I’m here and why I love it.

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