Volunteer stories : Annie D., General Care Projects in Bolivia
When I think back on my time in Bolivia in the summer of 2010, I have very fond memories and undoubtedly spent some of the best days of my life there. Almost all my friends and family know that it only takes looking at one of my pictures taken there to throw me into a nostalgic mood. There was never a dull moment, whether I was at my care placement or spending time with the other volunteers, many of whom quickly became great friends of mine.
At the start, however, as cheesy as it may sound, I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for and I don’t think anyone can really imagine what their time in Bolivia will be like until right at the end of the placement.
I don’t think I have ever been as physically tired in my life as I was when I arrived into Bolivia in May. After two long flights from London to Miami and then Miami to La Paz, having spent seven hours waiting in Miami due to delays and having not slept in almost thirty hours, I arrived in a very cold La Paz in what felt like a dream. What hit me initially was the freezing temperatures, the altitude and the sheer number of people that continually come up to you trying to insistently sell all kinds of things. Nevertheless once I left the airport in a tiny “trufi”, squashed in with thirty other people having had my suitcases hurled onto the roof of the van, I was stunned by the amazing views of the city and the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
I am very lucky in that my mother tongue is Spanish and, although I speak English at home, I understand Spanish well (or at least the version spoken in Spain) and I was very glad of this. Nonetheless I would definitely not let a lack of Spanish knowledge deter anyone from travelling to South America. It is so easy to pick up and all the volunteers help each other out as well. I would recommend starting some lessons before your travels as well, or definitely bringing some essential vocabulary books to have at your disposal when no one around you seems to speak any English. Anyway after a very confusing and long eight hour bus ride I finally made it into Cochabamba and was very happy to be met by Carmen from Projects Abroad who took me to my host family.
In the first couple of days all I seemed to do was sleep, however the more time I spent with my host family the more lovely they seemed. They were incredibly welcoming and I immediately saw how polite and generous Bolivians can be. They definitely helped me to settle in quickly and I cannot thank them enough for everything they did for me. My host mum’s cooking was also excellent. Despite not failing to follow the Bolivian custom of having about four different carbohydrates per meal (get used to rice, potato and pasta next to each other!) I definitely tried some things I hadn’t in the UK, like ox tongue and heart kebabs, but everything tasted great.
In the first few days I received a tour around Cochabamba from one of the local staff, which I found invaluable since I would have been completely lost otherwise. I don’t think anyone can go to Cochabamba and not fall in love with it. It really has everything you need, from the perfect climate (during their winter), to the biggest, cheapest market where you can literally find anything you could want and more (La Cancha), to spectacular views (from El Cristo), to a great night-life (Pimienta brings back hilarious memories).
My main placement was working in the Ciudadela Orphanage, on the outskirts of the city, in the afternoon from 2pm - 6pm for two months. This was a particularly challenging placement because the orphanage is so poor it can barely afford helpers and the few members of staff that do work there are understandably very overstretched and exhausted due to long, hard hours and low pay. This means being assertive, taking control and being imaginative and creative are essential in my opinion. The centre is really in need of any help anyone can provide, so it’s great when volunteers choose to help out here some afternoons as well, if their main placement finishes before lunch.
Despite being hard work I absolutely loved my time at the orphanage and frequently express a wish to return. The kids are just amazing, they are so funny and sweet (most of the time!) and just seeing how happy they are when you come to their little “casita” every day makes the experience so incredibly rewarding. They didn’t just smile or call your name (which quickly became “Tia Annie”) when you arrived; there would be screams, shouting, waving, running and about ten tiny children all grabbing onto any body part of yours they could find so that you couldn’t even move every single day.
As I said you can just about do any activity with the kids, so there is a lot of freedom and anything that is fun but vaguely education and, above all, structured and organised will really make a big difference. Without extra help, a lot of the kids simply watch TV all afternoon or spend some limited time outside, but don’t really have anyone to guide them. I had about ten children in the casita when I was there, mostly around five or six years-old, although the smallest was a massively cute little one-year old called Fernandito.
I found that all the kids loved colouring and drawing, so after some cleaning and tidying up we did that most afternoons we would play different games outside, usually in their playground area. I also helped the older kids with homework and did some English tutoring, which was also very rewarding, especially when I saw a little nine year-old in my casita improve her literacy skills a lot.
One of my highlights from the project was towards the end when, with the help of other volunteers, we managed to redo the area behind the casita, transforming it from a sort of waste-land with overgrown plants and a lot of rubbish to a pseudo-garden with a painted wall with all the kids’ names and hand prints. I hope it made the place more child-friendly and created a happy atmosphere to play in while leaving them something to remember me by. I know I won’t forget any of them and despite working there being very sad and moving, the children always made me laugh and they made me realise that, at the end of the day, they were just like any other kids. This strength and resilience really amazed me.
Aside from time spent with my host family and with the children at Ciudadela, I had an incredible time travelling at weekends with the other volunteers, including bravely cycling along the “road of death”, visiting a traditional dance festival in La Paz, venturing into the “jungle” and, probably most memorably, following in Che’s last footsteps along the “Che trail”. I could write a whole essay about any of these trips and anyone who travels here will have countless funny, unique experiences that could probably “only happen in Bolivia” as we kept telling ourselves.
After my two months in Cochabamba, I travelled around almost all of Bolivia and then went to Argentina, Uruguay and finally Peru; all with people I had met while volunteering. Although I did things I had always dreamt of and went through some unforgettable experiences like paragliding over the sacred valley, going deep into the mines at Potosi and walking for four challenging, exhausting days to reach Machu Picchu, I still think my most special experiences were definitely in Bolivia and, above all, Cochabamba.
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