While living outside of your home country, you will invariably come across customs and lifestyles that are different from your own. You will eat new foods, make new friends and learn a new language, dance or tradition. And if you’re like me, you will learn that the key to success in a new environment is not only to show up, but also to dress up.
While volunteering abroad in Bolivia, I fell in love with the zebras walking the streets. Though not native to Bolivia, I passed by zebras every morning on the way to work, walked by them on the way to the store and on my way back from lunch. They helped me cross the street and always made time to chat. Before you ask, I fell in love with llamas and alpacas too, but it was the zebras that welcomed me into their herd.
For those of you who seem confused, I am writing about the people who volunteer to dress up like zebras around the city of La Paz, encouraging pedestrians to be careful and drivers to stop safely at zebra crossings. This city-wide initiative promotes kindness, safety and community spirit as volunteers not only help people cross the street, but also carry signs that say “set the right example” by opening doors, picking up garbage, waving to people stuck in traffic, and giving out hugs like they’re going out of style.
I fell in love with llamas and alpacas too, but it was the zebras that welcomed me into their herd.
One day, on my way out of the office, I had a chat with a group of volunteers and I can honestly say that I have never yet met people more excited to take part in the community than those three teens. Not only were they super enthused, but in the middle of our chat one ran off to help an elderly man cross the street while another carried his bags. If you don’t love zebras yet, you may need to go get your pulse checked— immediately.
One of my memorable experiences in Bolivia turned out to be the day I volunteered as a zebra with three close friends: one, a local Bolivian and two from Europe. I contacted the city, signed us up and waited for over a month before we got our date to participate. On the day, prior to heading out, we received training, including a role play game to discuss recycling, and a meditation session that ended with employees dressed as zebras handing us our costumes and welcoming us into the herd. We were reminded that while we were beloved by the children in the city, we also had to remember to give our waves, smiles and attention to people with disabilities, the elderly and those appearing most weary in efforts to brighten their day.
I then spent the rest of my day hugging, waving, smiling and dancing in the streets—as well as planning my “Think-Zebras-On-Abbey-Road” photoshoot (the result of which you can now enjoy above). At the end of the day our line of zebra volunteers and full-timers was the length of a block. All of us were sweaty and exhausted—but we never felt better.
During my time as a volunteer in La Paz, I took up numerous activities to stay busy, curb boredom and make it the best experience I could possibly make for myself. I attended a weekly language exchange event held at a local bar to make new local and foreign friends. I barely ever missed a Tuesday event and now, after my return home Tuesdays seem a little empty without them. At one point, I hosted a talent show at one of these events, where I invited a hypnotist to charm my audiences and tried my hand at stand-up comedy for the first time. By the end of my six months, I had written for a local magazine, acted the part of a zombie at a terrifying haunted house, and organized another talent show—this time with zero stand-up comedy (I learned my lesson). I did these things to meet new people and to challenge myself to try new things, which I don’t do enough of when I am living at home.
Though I was in La Paz to work on a project, I ended up learning a lot from these experiences, and it is those experiences that keep me smiling months later. As you work through your own volunteer abroad placement, remember that you can always take part in something great, important or just plain fun with other members of the community. It will definitely help you earn your stripes. Take it from an official zebra—I know what I’m talking about.
(Shout-out to my fellow zebras Joel, Jessica and Christoph and to John Oliver for bringing attention to our herd on Last Week Tonight.)Add this article to your reading list