I can’t wait to see the calendar turn to September. August saw me visit far too many hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies. When one health problem went away, another came along right after. Nearly the entire month, I’ve been on at least one antibiotic. Believe it or not, there are even more medications that I couldn’t find for the picture above, or had already thrown away.
One of the questions I get most often from curious friends and family abroad, is about what sort of difficulties I face in Bolivia. By far the hardest part about living in Bolivia is how physically demanding the country can be at times. The altitude and the cold of Bolivia can be very strenuous, but most of all, staying healthy in Bolivia is very difficult.
As part of volunteer orientations for Sustainable Bolivia, I teach volunteers of how to stay safe in Bolivia. Above all, I make sure every volunteers is informed about responsible and necessary personal safety practices. Every volunteer gets more or less the same speech.
However, when I speak to health concerns individuals may face in Bolivia, I tend to alter my rundown a bit. Particularly when it comes to the fact that anybody from abroad will get sick. Luckily, most who are starting longer stays in Cochabamba already have faced the reality that they’ll be sick. I try to be as realistic as possible, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell a bright-eyed young volunteer that they will get sick, even if they’re only staying for a month.
So, What Sorts of Health Concerns Exist?
First, Bolivia is home to a number of pretty nasty little intestinal parasites and amoebas. These can keep you inside all day with vomiting and diarrhea and do not typically go away by themselves. Without the necessary antibiotics and treatment, they can lead to longer term intestinal and liver damage.
Second, tap-water in Bolivia is unsafe to drink, and can lead to giardia and other illnesses. Unsafe water can make its ways into the fresh jugos and licuados that make living in Cochabamba so wonderful. Boiled water is safer, but not always safe. High water-content food like lettuce, strawberries and sometimes tomatoes can present health problems to foreigners.
Third, there are germs, bacterias and illnesses like Typhoid and Yellow Fever that foreigners just aren’t exposed to in their home countries. Individuals from abroad nearly always have a reactionary illness from something simple, if only because their immune system has never seen some of the bacterias that live here.
Fourth, and most important, is that food is often handled poorly in Bolivia. Meats and cheeses in particular, are rarely refrigerated in the markets of Bolivia. Many of the vendors in markets do not have the means to refrigerate food that needs to stay cool or cold. It presents a prohibitive operating cost, and would force them to raise prices of their products. The low prices are their only real advantages over the few “western” supermarkets that exist in the city.
What Sort of Precautions are Needed?
Though adequate precautions vary greatly from one person to the next, I would strongly recommend that you try and get an idea of where your food originates. With this information, you can get a much better idea of how it may have been handled, and how fresh the food is.
One volunteer, an older woman from Argentina, indirectly taught me this lesson earlier this year.
Typically one is brought up to believe that a diet strong in fruits and vegetables is what can best keep you healthy. Contrary to that belief, she refused to eat almost all fruits and vegetables. Rather, her diet consisted almost entirely of processed foods.
Despite eating foods that are not considered very healthy, what she did have a complete knowledge of where her food came from. And that is terribly important in Bolivia. For despite being cautious about what I eat outside of my home, I still ended up getting Typhoid fever this past month. I was even vaccinated before starting my trip to South America. That’s not to mention a throat infection, a mystery allergic reaction, and nerve irritation in my ribs.
To this date, of the dozens of volunteers and foreigners that I’ve met in Bolivia, this woman is the volunteer who stayed the longest amount of time without getting sick. She stayed for a bit over two months. I’ve known several people that did not last two days.
Not that I necessarily recommend that every foreigner that comes to Bolivia should eat only processed goods. In fact, I typically encourage individuals staying a long time to try the various kinds of street food Bolivia has to offer. But every individual should be conscious about the choices they’re making when they eat, and understand the history of their food can bring health problems further down the road.
Still, anyone staying more than two weeks will get sick here. It’s important to realize that. But a little bit of caution can go a long way to staying healthy over the long run.