After the White House announced in May that Malia Obama decided to take a gap year before beginning her studies at Harvard University, everyone had opinions – ranging from those who called it the “ultimate sign of luxury” to those agreeing with her choice. The First Family didn’t provide many details about what 18-year-old Malia planned to do on her year off, so when she was absent at public events at the tail end of 2016, people were naturally curious. But thanks to Mery Vaca – a director at ANF –we now know that Malia missed some public appearances because she spent October and November in Bolivia.
When Vaca first heard rumors that Malia paid a visit to Tiquipaya, Bolivia, she remembered reading an article reporting that President Barack Obama’s daughters would take a trip to Bolivia and Peru. After a bit of sleuthing, Vaca learned that Malia enrolled in Where There be Dragons’ Andes and Amazon program – a three-month program that costs upwards of $14,000, according to Univision. The immersive program features “intensive Spanish language courses, trekking through a wide range of ecological backdrops, exposure to remote indigenous communities, and an extended home-stay.”
It’s not a completely surprising choice for Malia, who speaks Spanish. When she and her family went to Cuba in March 2016, she served as an interpreter for her father during a visit to a Havana restaurant. A day after Pete Souza’s image of Malia and Obama speaking to a chef went viral, Obama commented on it. “You know, her Spanish is much better than mine,” he said in an interview with ABC News’ David Muir. “And I’m hoping that she has a chance to get entirely fluent.”
According to the New York Times, guides who led Malia’s group across Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range learned that they’d host an important American dignitary. However, they mistakenly thought it was a blonde woman. “There was a blonde girl and we assumed she was the important one,” guide Gregorio Mamani told the NYT. However, Miriam Zurita – the owner of Villa Esperanza who saw Malia on Election Day – had a hunch that the woman who entered her eatery was Malia.
“When I saw her, she caught my eye because of how tall she is,” she said. “We’re pequeñitos, so I told my husband: ‘She looks like Obama’s daughter.’ But he didn’t believe me. Later, an American man reserved a room so that the group could see the television, and since we have cable, they watched the elections. Malia was here until midnight eating several of the 51 varieties of pizza we offer.”
Though the White House has yet to confirm it, Bolivian media reports that President Evo Morales helped keep the trip under wraps. Supposedly, President Obama reached out to Morales and asked the government for cooperation to keep his daughter safe and to protect her privacy. Morales and Obama have a somewhat strained relationship. As the NYT reports, Morales has wanted to meet with Obama for a long time. However, ejecting the Drug Enforcement Administration, the American aid agency, and the United States ambassador likely hurt his chances. “I thought that I’d get along with President Obama,” he said. “We both come from social sectors that have been excluded, humiliated, discriminated against, and marginalized. I had high hopes that a Black man and an Indian, pardon the expression, would get along.”
Yet, it seems Morales granted Obama’s supposed requests. Still, reports say that Malia wasn’t afforded any other special privileges during the trip. She cooked, cleaned, and did other chores. And much like the other participants of the Andes and Amazon program, she either stayed with a Quechua family or learned more about the indigenous community.