Care in Bolivia by David Millar
Why did I decide to volunteer with Projects Abroad on a Care Programme in Bolivia? This is a question I was often asked while in Cochabamba by Projects Abroad staff, staff at my placement, other volunteers and my host family. I certainly didn’t have a prepared answer but something made me go there and whatever it was, I will always be thankful that I did!
I have always considered myself to be a caring type of person and someone who takes pleasure from helping others. I was born and brought up in Scotland where I still live today, with my wife Jayne. My work for the last 15 years has involved residential property, both letting and selling and I think sometimes I hadn’t really considered the impact that long hours & stress had on my family and my own happiness.
We have no children and while our families are not rich, they are comfortable financially and don’t rely on our support in that sense. I have often thought about how fortunate we are and that it would be good to help others with a greater need. Knowing a surveyor in Edinburgh who travelled to work in Peru, helping develop communities established to house street children, I spoke to him at length about his experience and was fascinated by what he had to say. I have always loved to travel and experience new cultures and so I began to investigate opportunities with the same organisation for volunteering in Peru.
It wasn’t possible for me at the time and so when looking into alternatives, I found Projects Abroad. The great benefit of Projects Abroad for me was that they effectively work all across the world and are completely flexible with the length of volunteers work placements. Having decided on signing up with Projects Abroad I was still keen to travel to Peru or another Spanish speaking country in South America as in May 2009 I started to take Spanish lessons in Edinburgh. I can’t say exactly why, but when I read more about Bolivia and specifically working in Cochabamba it just felt that this was the place for me!
On Monday 19th October 2009 at approximately 10.00am, I took the 5 minute walk from my house in Scotland to the train station and 4.5 hours later arrived in London. I switched onto the Tube (London Underground) to head to Heathrow Airport for my 1st flight to Sao Paulo (Brazil), 2nd flight to Asuncion (Paraguay) and then the final flight to Cochabamba, arriving at 12.00noon on Tuesday 20th October 2009.
With little sleep and constant travel of almost 31 hours, I was probably a little bewildered when I came through customs to be met by Juan from the Projects Abroad office. My inability or limited ability to speak Spanish was probably the last thing on my mind as we sped through the city streets in the back of a taxi, headed to my new temporary home and the waiting “Host Mother”, Sra. Bertha de Pareja.
What I particularly remember is the midday heat and all the new sights and smells of a new destination although realising that I was not there for a holiday! We arrived at a modern apartment building with security gate, on a quiet street corner and Juan took me up in the elevator to meet Bertha. I was aware that Bertha was an elderly lady who had recently lost her husband and that her 3 grown children all lived away from home. Although I didn’t travel to Cochabamba to party every night, I did worry slightly that I may feel an obligation to stay home and be with Bertha or do things with her which would possibly impact on my free time and ability to catch up with other volunteers.
Very quickly, it became clear that this shouldn’t have even crossed my mind and while I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations and time together, Bertha is a very capable and determined lady who has a range of interests and was out of the house as often as at home. I had my own key for the apartment and could come and go as I wanted although I think it was only right to show respect for Bertha as my host in a new country with different cultures.
Bertha is a wonderful cook and I often think of the tasty treats she served up and my delicious cinnamon tea. I was lucky enough to meet both of Bertha’s daughters and her son along with all of her grandchildren on several occasions and special mention must go to Nicolas & Guidito who were adorable and presented me with a Bolivian football shirt on my departure for home.
In my mind, I was something of an “unusual” volunteer as aged 39 I was much older than nearly all of the other volunteers and Projects Abroad staff and also I was only going to be in Cochabamba for 3 weeks! Projects Abroad generally suggest to volunteers that they take a day or two to acclimatise and rest and then have their orientation of the city and work placement visit but I was keen to get working as soon as possible so asked Projects Abroad if I could do the orientation and work visit on the day of arrival. After my first meal with Bertha and a quick shower & change, Freddy from Projects Abroad arrived to take me out into the city and show me around the beautiful city of Cochabamba.
This was my first experience of Micro’s and Truffi’s which were to become my mode of transport to work and around the city. Think old fashioned mini busses with colourful decoration inside & out for Micro’s and people carriers/vans with seats for Truffi’s, neither of which were designed for people of 6ft1 in height! We headed out to Ciudadela SEDEGES in the late afternoon which is approximately 6.5kms out of the city, towards the town of Quillacollo. This is a government run orphanage where I would work for 3 weeks. Many volunteers only work part of their day in the morning or afternoon but because I was there such a short time, I asked to work “double shifts”, going back for lunch with Bertha and then returning to work in the afternoon.
It’s still difficult to say if my first day of work was a great start or perhaps gave me a false sense of how things would be. In the mornings I was to work in the Guarderia or La Escuelita De La Benvenida which is a Nursery or Kindergarten set up and funded by a previous volunteer. All of the children under 5 who were not taken to school, attended every morning and were split into two groups of the slightly older one’s taught by Tia Anita or Ana Karina, to use her formal name.
I worked with Ana and another volunteer Michelle from the USA helping with the class of around 10 children. The youngest children or bebe’s were taught by Sylvia and she was helped by Lena & Brooklyn who were both volunteers from Belgium. Lucy the Doctor was there to make sure all of the children had any medicine required or to deal with various cuts and bruises they got. That first day we all got to go out on the Orphanage’s bus to an ice cream parlour in the city which had a play area on the top floor and my first duties were to make sure the children were ok playing on the climbing frames and didn’t escape down the staircase!
My second job was to almost get lost in a huge ball pool, trying to find the children’s socks and shoes. We did get the chance to all sit down together and feast on lovely ice creams and it was a lot of fun to watch the children eating and wearing almost as much of their treat! Once we made sure all the children were counted, we got back on the bus to Ciudadela and the happy faces told me that this was something they didn’t often get to experience.
I loved working with the children and it was obvious that they adored Ana, who as a mother of two herself, was clearly devoted to helping the children and showing them so much love and care and they certainly responded to her. We joked that I was the children’s new favourite Tio as there are not so many male volunteers but I think it was clear that Ana was the one whom the children wanted to be with. It was also quite funny when I realised that hairy arms and a mobile phone would fascinate the children in equal measure although the novelty soon wore off!
The work was demanding at times but rewarding and it’s quite a while since I was given “homework” each day but Ana needed the volunteers to help a little with ideas and preparation for the classes. I am sure that helping with the class of Haves, Antonio, Adrian, Betty, Katerina, Willy, Jasmin, Diego & Manuel taught me as much as it did them. On my last day at Ciudadela the children had made me a card and it was so touching, that in such a short time, they seemed to be sad that I was leaving but happy to have known me.
As I also had to say goodbye to the other children and staff and Ana & Lucy who I had loved working with everyday, the reality hit me and I cried all the way home on the Truffi getting some rather strange looks on the journey. When I arrived back at the apartment, Bertha saw me and in her effort to comfort me she started to cry and I think we spent most of the afternoon in tears! I tried not to flood the Projects Abroad office when saying my goodbyes but it was difficult to leave new friends even after such a short time together and I had special cause to thank Carmen & Freddy*.
I will remember the children, new friends, my hosts, the other volunteers, homework, the food, La Paz, the inmate from San Pedro, Lake Titicaca, El Alto = Mars, the cinema, La Cancha, the weather, the mad dash to the airport, falling off a ladder and landing on my chin/breaking my elbow(* see above) but most of all, Cochabamba!! Until the next time…