Arriving into La Paz International Airport at almost 4km above sea level was, literally, dizzying.
On the approach, the plane had to ascend in order to land, swooping over shanty towns of corrugated zinc and matchbox-like houses tucked in the folds of the Andes.
As I lifted my rucksack in arrivals, I soon realized how thin the air was. Glad that my school had its own text books and I only had to carry a few of my personal favourites, I struggled with my load through immigration.
“The motive of your visit, Señor?”
“Work. I’m an English language teacher.”
Passport stamped, I started my onward journey to Cochabamba, a little lower in altitude and a lot more tropical than the lofty capital.
I never imagined on my CELTA course that I’d end up teaching in Bolivia, the heart of South America. South Korea maybe, where the big bucks are, or a ‘safer’ choice like Italy.
But then, the whole world wants to learn English, so there’s no shortage of opportunities.
In the mornings, I taught conversation classes in the local university.
“Chreeeeese!” (Chris) the students shouted warmly. “What’s ‘gringo’ in English? We’re so happy to have a gringo teacher! Now you can teach us the real English!”
Bolivians are informal, affectionate and very, very enthusiastic about learning English.
We’d discuss everything – football, Che Guevara, Bolivian beer... and once they got to know me better, they confided their hopes and dreams for Bolivia and for themselves, and what they like and don’t like about gringos.
Afternoons were spent in a leafy suburb in a private school, with armed guards on the doors who didn’t let students in if they were ten minutes late.
Here, I got to know the ‘other’ Bolivia, the upper classes of European descent who felt more affinity with me as a foreigner than they did most of their fellow Bolivians.
In this private school, lessons focussed on formal business English, negotiation and presentation skills, and preparation for official exams. I couldn’t help but wonder if one of my ambitious students was in fact a future president.
Three years in that beautiful country and it was time to return to Ireland. Poncho-clad, I arrived into Dublin airport, with memories that would last a lifetime. Of course, it was grey and raining.
I’d a job lined up in a language school in central Dublin for the New Year. Yet, as I dashed from the arrivals hall to the stop for the Derry bus, I was already wondering where in the world I’d go next.
Chris Mac Bruithin has taught English in Bolivia, Norway and Hungary, as well as Derry and Dublin.
He currently works as Academic Director of Foyle International, where he trains new teachers on the University of Cambridge CELTA course. To find out more about a career in English Language Teaching, contact him at email@example.com.