5 Things I Learned Working With Indigenous People

Introverted, task oriented, punctuality freak, don’t-waste-my-time kind of guy. That was me, in a nutshell, when I first arrived in Bolivia, two years ago.

This whole time I’ve been working with indigenous university students, mainly from the Chiquitano ethnic group, from lowland Bolivia. From the very beginning I was aware that I’m dealing with people coming from a completely different background than my own and that I have to be open-minded.

This has been both challenging, as there were things that at times would drive me nuts, and fulfilling, as I got to peek into a very distinct worldview, which ultimately had an influence on my own way to see life.

Here are five cultural differences and things that I have learned during this time:

1.The value of community

Chiquitanos are people oriented. They live together, eat together, do life together. Their identity is built on a community that involves the extended family, friends and fellow villagers.

After two months living with a host family, I rented an apartment on my own. I’m jealous of my privacy and of my time alone and that is hard to grasp for my friends. Why would anyone want to live by himself?

2.Birthdays are important

I don’t usually celebrate my birthdays, yet I had three birthday parties the first time I turned years in Bolivia. And none of them was organized by me.

Whatever their income level is, people tend to spend quite a lot of money on birthday parties. Also, they do their best to attend their relatives’ parties even if that means taking a 7 hour bus trip back to their village.

Moreover, there is this funny tradition all across Latin America, where you are supposed to bite your cake and people will try to get your face into it. First time I was caught off guard.

3.Time is relative

My grandfather placed a high value on punctuality and so did my father. And I took it to the next level, where at 7:58 I get nervous if people are not present for the 8:00 meeting.

The Chiquitanos, just like most hot-culture people, don’t get as stressed out about time as I do and if there is something that brought me close to a nervous breakdown, than this is it!

Someone once invited me to a barbecue, so I asked him what time it would start. He told me 9am. So I said “That early?”… to which he answered “Yes… 9, 10, 11…” So I went there at 12 and I was the first one to show up.

I believe punctuality is important but I know I get way too stressed over it. Sometimes I envy my Chiquitano friends for being easy going and not caring about time as much as I do.

Visiting a Chiquitano village

4.Visits last long

If you invite people over, make sure you have enough time because it is not going to be a short visit. And if you invite people for lunch they might stay for dinner as well.

I’m used to meeting with friends for a set time and for a specific purpose. This is not the case among Chiquitanos. They value time together, enjoy each other’s presence and they like to make you part of their daily lives.

5.Listen to the sound of my people!

They play loud music you can hear from blocks away. I come from a place where you are taught not to disturb anyone with loud music or noise, so at first my reaction was “Don’t they care about disturbing other people?” and “What if someone calls the police.”

But apparently neighbors genuinely don’t mind loud music and no, no one is going to call the police.

Also, a lot of them own huge sound systems that can literally serve a whole village. And to this day it is still beyond my ability to understand why would someone need that.

Fast forward 2019. I’m still introverted, task oriented and I still value punctuality. I’m just a milder case now.

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