Utrecht is home to many nationalities. Every week, DUIC features an Utrechter with a different background. The concept was inspired by ‘180 amsterdammers’.

Pass on the Utrecht mentality to Bolivia

Sylvia Ortega Azurduy – foto: Marlot van den Berg

“Tourists don’t often come to Bolivia, but I was a tour guide for small groups”, explains Sylvia Ortega-Azurduy. “I was lucky enough to meet people from all around the world.” At the age of 24, Sylvia was doing a degree in language and tourism, and taking tourists on guided tours of Sucre and Potosi at the weekend. (“Everyone in Bolivia should experience the work in the underground mines!”)

Sylvia describes herself as an average student with an above-average gift for languages. She spoke fluent English, French and German. A Belgian couple complimented her on her French but told her she had a ‘dreadful’ accent, inviting her to attend a language course in Brussels. “I said yes without thinking; clients were always inviting me to do things.” But these people were serious. Three months later, Sylvia got a letter saying that she’d been accepted on a language summer school at the University of Brussels. “My mother just said: ‘Discuss it with your father’, and my father said: ‘No way’. This was my cue to say: ‘Why not?’” What if her father had said yes? “I wouldn’t have gone”, she laughs. “I was far too scared!”

She arrived in Brussels on 2 August 1990. “I was gobsmacked. I’d only ever seen Europe on television.” She couldn’t believe how quickly people poured out of the metro stations. “Within 60 seconds, I was all alone on the platform. Where had they all gone? Now I’m one of them!” Sylvia went to stay with the Belgian couple she’d met, who treated her as if she were their own daughter. The Bolivian found it difficult to get used to the prosperity. “People just threw away fridges, sofas and chairs!” She vetted what she came across and took anything she thought was okay.

The three months in Brussels turned into three years. Sylvia took two Master’s degrees and met her now-ex-husband at a party. A Dutchman. They flew to Bolivia to get married. Her mother was impressed. “You don’t see men helping in the kitchen in Bolivia”, she laughs. They decided to move to Utrecht; Sylvia spoke a bit of Dutch and was enjoying the European lifestyle. Utrecht wasn’t that different from Brussels. “I just feel a bit smaller here.” She loves Wilhelmina park. “I still find it incredible that you have such a peaceful park in a busy city.”

Learning from each other

Education is always beneficial. This is something Sylvia’s parents taught her. So when she found herself with a job but time on her hands in 1998 (before she had children), she founded the Ayni Bolivia-the Netherlands Foundation. The Foundation organises projects to support people, mainly young people, in Bolivia. “Bolivian families tend to have five or six children. Many parents don’t earn enough to pay for them all to go to school so they just send the boys, who they think have more time for their homework.” Sylvia set up a special computer course for girls. Her next dream (for which she still needs sponsors) is a training centre in the city of Tarija, where young people from Utrecht could do an internship. “I’d love them to pass on the Utrecht mentality. Knowledge on its own simply isn’t enough; you have to put it to use.” So what is this mentality? “Planning, being disciplined, working towards your goals. In Bolivia, young people have a ‘seize the day’ mentality. They don’t even have diaries.” Sylvia thinks that the training centre will be good for both sides: “The Bolivians can learn to get on with things, and the Utrechters can learn to take things easy.”

Name: Sylvia Ortega Azurduy
Date of birth: 20 April 1966
Place of birth: Oruro, Bolivia
Motto: ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’

Allemaal Utrechters is a series of interviews with people who moved to Utrecht from another country. We ask them about their background and their impression of Utrecht, revealing the true diversity of our city. The ‘Allemaal Utrechters’ series is a collaboration between DUIC and Culturele Zondagen, and has been made possible with help from Stichting Dialoog and the Municipality of Utrecht. We hope to showcase every nationality in Utrecht.

Click here to view the other articles.

Article by Annabel van Heesbeen.