Interview: Jason James from Cochabamba, Bolivia

Jason James in Bolivia

Jason James in Bolivia

OID: Tell everyone about yourself: where are you from, what made you passionate about development, what is your area of concentration?
Jason James: I’m mostly from New York although I also lived in India for a total of 7 years and in Los Angeles for a total of 6 years so I can’t exactly narrow it down to one place. Growing up poor often made me wonder about the root causes of poverty, but it wasn’t until I was 12 and living in Bangalore, India that I really began to think about development. There, I saw the rapid economic growth with outsourcing and call centers, and many shiny new buildings bearing Western names; yet I was surrounded by the extreme poverty of the slums. Ever since then I have been trying to learn more about economic growth and how it can be managed so as to benefit everyone. My concentration is community-based development because I believe that organizing communities to take charge of their own development leads to more holistic and inclusive growth. I am mainly interested in working in Latin America because of the trends in community organizing there (but that is a topic for another post!)

OID: Where are you this summer and what are you doing there?
Jason James: This summer I am in Bolivia as an intern with Sustainable Bolivia. SB is an organization that connects international volunteers and interns with local Bolivian NGOs. I work for a group called PAI Tarpuy which reaches out to street kids to help them develop social and job skills. They also run a youth center where kids of all ages can come to get help with homework and to play games. For the three weeks I’ve been here, I have been helping with the youth center but I hope to begin helping with outreach as my Spanish improves.

OID: How did you get your internship?
Jason James: I got the internship by searching online for organizations in Bolivia and applying through their website. It helped that one of my classmates, Morgan Blackburn, worked with the same organization last year and put in a good word for me. My intermediate level Spanish skills and my tutoring experience also helped me get the specific position with PAI Tarpuy.
Jason James bargaining in the Cochabamba market

Jason James bargaining in the Cochabamba market

OID: What are your initial impressions of Bolivia? How is the Spanish different than what you’re used to?
Jason James: Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and from my time in Cochabamba it is clear that people are poor, but at the same time I haven’t witnessed extreme poverty; that may be more common in other cities or in rural areas. People seem really friendly and generally happy. The pace of life is much slower than say NY or DC – one exception being the chaotic driving where lanes and lights are seen merely as suggestions not laws. There are highway blockades almost every week for some protest or other so bus trips are always a risky proposition.
There are tons of open air and sidewalk markets with individual vendors shopping their wares – you can get just about anything from the sidewalk stands from Bolivian pastries to A/V cables to all 3 seasons of game of thrones in Spanish. Speaking of the Spanish, in Bolivia there are a few differences which mainly stem from the heavy indigenous influence especially from the Quechua language. For example, while most Spanish texts translate avocado as “aguacate,” in Bolivia it’s “palta”. Also many people here don’t roll their “rr”s instead they pronounce it like “sh.” An interesting phrase I hear a lot is “no vés” used as a filler generally to mean something like “you know/see what I mean?”, or like the Canadian “ey?”

View of the Cristo de la Concordia statue from Jason's house

View of the Cristo de la Concordia statue from Jason’s house (this is the largest statue of Jesus in the world)

OID: Are you happy you decided to spend your summer outside of DC and what do you think will be the best part about this experience/has been the best thing so far?
Jason James: Spending the summer in the field with the actual people that development is supposed to help rather than at headquarters in D.C. has been a great decision so far. I wanted to get some practical experience closer to the ground and I’ve been able to learn a lot about different people and communities and what they think of my future profession. Many of the people I’ve encountered have very mixed views (much like myself). Only a couple of people I’ve met seem to believe making a lot of money is important. They see the need for investment from outside but they are keen on protecting their way of life. Apparently, this was one of the reasons McDonald’s didn’t fare so well in Bolivia. For the next two months, I’m looking forward to learning more about the lives and perspectives of everyday people and seeing where I might fit in and be helpful.

OID: Do you think this experience will help you, once you start looking for a job?
Jason James: I didn’t have any real previous development work experience nor had I been to Latin America, so this internship can’t hurt. If I was the HR person reviewing my resume I would definitely look very favorably on this experience. Regardless of future job prospects, I can see myself packing my bags after graduation and moving here. With all the people I’ve gotten to know and will continue to meet, I’m sure I can find some meaningful opportunities for development work here.Can’t get enough of Jason James? He has his own blog, which can be found here:–find more of read more of his adventures, and see even more photos of beautiful Bolivia!