When he was in high school, he went on a six-month exchange to Germany, where he attended a Waldorf school, learned German and gained new insights into living in another community. Meeting new friends, deepening his language skills, and learning a new culture paved the way for a desire to expand his knowledge of the world upon graduation.
That experience “set the stage for a love of international travel,” Charlie says on a late-night call from his current post, in a mountain town in Bolivia. This year, Charlie is on a Rotary Youth Exchange in Bolivia, living with host families, immersing in Spanish language learning, and getting to know a new culture. “It was my goal to become fluent in four languages by the time I graduate college,” Charlie says.
With a goal of building a business career, Charlie applied to 13 colleges last year and deferred his acceptance to CalPoly, where he wants to study entrepreneurship and business. He’s already running a business of his own, in fact – a photography business through which he provided exquisite images from Sacramento Waldorf School life and community when he was still in high school. In Bolivia, the photography is one way he opens doors to new people and new worlds.
Before he ventured off to Bolivia, Charlie immersed in a 15-hour Spanish immersion course. He arrived in Tarija on August 24, 2019, after 30 hours of traveling. Tarija is the southernmost, relatively large city, with a population of 234,332 people.
“I love it,” says Charlie. “It’s both a city and a province, at about 6,000 feet elevation. When you first get here, you don’t really notice it; it’s like going to Lake Tahoe. It’s only when you start running that you realize how high you are.”
Tarija has a moderate climate. It’s summer now in the southern hemisphere, and the rainy season is in full force, Charlie says. He arrived in their winter, which was “beautiful, clear all day every day, beautiful sunsets. I came in knowing it would be a little more temperate than the Sacramento climate. We are 4x closer to the Pacific Ocean than we are to the Atlantic Ocean, even though we are on the eastern side of the Andes. There is very little wind. I’ve never been in a place that is so far from water.”
Fifteen miles to the west are the Altiplano Mountains, which rise to nearly 13,000 feet elevation. But where Charlie is, the climate remains dry. “The river is empty all the time. It creates a city that has a whole color scheme that is fascinating to me, lots of red dirt, lots of dusty gray tan super crumbly dirt. I love it. it’s just so beautiful.”
Given that it’s summer in Bolivia, school finished a few weeks ago. Everybody is traveling, including Charlie.
During his year abroad, he’ll live with three host families in total, who also have children exchanging in the United States. All the families are somehow connected with Rotary, he explains.
“You build relationships with your family. It’s dynamic, tight-knit. There are family events and dinners. We eat together every day at 1 or 1:30 for lunch, and then 8:30 for dinner. The family dynamic is really nice. My host mom is a doctor, the ranking doctor at a clinic here, my host father is a civil engineer, I have 2 host siblings here, a 2-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. Being the oldest sibling brings out so many things that, as a younger sibling my whole life, I’ve always wanted to be. You get to be the role model. It’s something I really enjoy.”
Charlie says the family visits friends for weekend lunches, and on Sundays, the grandparents come to visit. Sundays are leisurely days, with late rising and drawn-out festive lunches. “You get to see unique parts of culture, meet interesting people,” he says.
“We do something different almost every weekend. But I also get to explore on my own … I can walk to anything. It’s a short walk to the central square,” Charlie says.
That’s where he takes pictures of churches or pigeons around the fountains, palm trees, kids throwing food to the birds, vendors selling peanuts and wearing traditional clothing. People travel to the city center with produce to sell.
“It’s a fascinating experience to see markets like this,” Charlie says. “In the U.S., we have huge issues of food thrown out if it’s not perfect. I don’t think I’ve seen a perfect apple or banana yet but they are the most delicious ones I’ve ever had. Food is not wasted. There is a certain respect for it because not everybody has enough.”
Charlie’s goal this year is to “get as far away from home as possible – not necessarily physically, but culturally, technologically, to push those boundaries as far as I reasonably could.”
Taking a gap year, says Charlie, “is about pushing my boundaries and experiencing something that gave me perspective. Coming to a country where the entire wealth of the country is a quarter that of Sacramento is fascinating.”
He’s also learning to be comfortable with discomfort. “I can’t be afraid to not understand what people are saying. I have to be ok with taxi rides at night in the most different, large, and dark cities I have ever seen. Around every corner are new sights, sounds and smells which pull me in and show me something new every day.”
He also has to become comfortable with the disparity between people. “There are many people who live in sub-par conditions and struggle a lot. However it doesn’t affect how people interact with each other. It doesn’t affect how people judge or don’t. It’s just people living normal lives. And the faster you realize that when you arrive, and you recognize these are people who want to meet me and I want to meet them, learn something from each other, puts you on the path to success as an exchange student,” Charlie says.
“My Spanish isn’t great,” he admits. “It’s a work in progress, just like relationships are with new people and experiences. Photography is incredible for me because it crosses all boundaries. Everybody wants their picture or a picture of their son or daughter or their house. It’s such a cool way to cross borders, or an ice breaker.”
“As Waldorf kids, by the time you’re around this age, you’ve done basket weaving, you’ve done gardening, you know how to plant a plant you know how to do advanced math and physics,” he says. “When people ask,‘Do you know how to do this?’, you can say, ‘Sure I’ll try it’. We have such a can-do attitude, which prepares us to excel in just saying yes.”
That kind of positivity, which he learned at Sacramento Waldorf School, Charlie says, “makes your life better, and it makes you a more successful person. Whether traveling to countries that you never thought you would go to and meeting people you never knew you would, having the can-do attitude and the flexibility that all Waldorf students grow into is priceless. It’s what makes you smile. A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.”