By Olivia Zhu2014-06-19 10.45.15

My biggest accomplishment this summer was being able to call the mountains of Bolivia home. Far away from the lecture halls of Duke, I encountered a profound, alternative education that included everything from learning traditional dances to working in a rural hospital laboratory to raising pigs.

Of course, living in Bolivia for two months had its challenges, like a diet in which potatoes were considered vegetables, repeated food poisoning from chicha, the local alcoholic drink consisting of fermented corn, lack of a consistent water source, many near-car accidents, and most of all a deep-seated machismo, but I feel that these were all almost inextricable aspects of a culture that left such a positive impression upon me.

El Hospital Pietro Gamba in Anzaldo, Bolivia

El Hospital Pietro Gamba in Anzaldo served over 69 rural communities in Bolivia

Of course, the inextricability of such factors posed a problem for me as an intern at El Hospital Pietro Gamba encouraging sustainable development to promote public health. Although 80% of children had head lice, a vast majority contracted repeated gastrointestinal bacterial infections, and countless had scabies, the community seemed to get along contentedly. Regardless, with support from the Foundation for Sustainable Development and DukeEngage, my sponsor organizations, I leveraged the relatively new running water system, implemented only 25 years ago, to set in motion a comprehensive lice campaign, to obtain government funding of soap in public restrooms for at least two years, and to create preventative medicine informational materials.

The majority of my education, though, occurred outside the scope of my project. Most importantly, I’ve learned to openly embrace different forms of learning, like relaxation or soccer, that energize me to wholeheartedly pursue my rigorous biophysics career, which I am so fortunate to have at one of the best universities in the world.

The idea of the Aymara New Year illustrates my mentality poignantly: on the first day of the Aymara New Year, traditional Bolivians wish for health, prosperity, and happiness, just as we do in the United States. However, they have a deeper connection with Pachamama, or Mother Nature: on New Year’s Day, they wake up early in the morning to stand on the ground barefoot, awaiting the first rays of the sun. They believe that watching these rays rise above the horizon and light the earth will bring them energy for the entire year. In this, the Aymara New Year represents both personal aspiration and attenuation with the environment.

Similarly, I now aim to maintain a balance between self and surroundings: I hope to be more attuned to the world around me rather than single-mindedly submersing myself in quantum physics, as I believe that varied experiences will infuse me with energy in whatever I pursue. Now, back at Duke for the start of my junior year, I’m excited to begin blogging again and to continue my adventures and education here on campus.

The Aymara sunrise on June 21, 2014.

The Aymara sunrise on June 21, 2014.