Teaching in Bolivia by Louise Livermore
My placement in Bolivia - I loved it!
I was a volunteer at UMSS, The state University in Cochabamba where I taught English to first and third year undergraduates. I didn’t have any vast experience or qualifications, just a burning desire to spend some time with people of a different culture from my own.
As half the population of Bolivia is indigenous and the country has three distinctly different climate zones, each with its own tremendous landscape, it makes it a very appealing place to visit. I just wished I could’ve stayed for longer than my six weeks.
My Teaching Placement
Patrizia and Raquel, the university teachers who introduced me to their classes, were easy to get on with and most supportive of my efforts. The students I engaged with were quite diverse. As there are no fees at state universities, students may drop out and re-engage periodically, as their life styles dictate. It’s usually the mature students with families to support who do this. There are others can afford to complete their studies over three years from the age of eighteen.
One encouraging factor which made the classes successful was that the students remarked on how well they could understand my English accent. They in turn, spoke the slow, clear version of Castilian Spanish that Bolivians are known for, which made it easier for me to pick up some Spanish. As for their other, indigenous languages, Quechuan and Aymara in particular, these remain an exotic mystery to me.
I absolutely loved my time with the students and they often invited me to meet them for coffee, or to visit places they thought I should see. I spent an interesting Sunday with a student called Brenda and five of her Bolivian friends plus a couple of Japanese volunteers. Swimming pools are few and far between in Bolivia, so it was worth the bus trip to Quillacollo, then the hour’s drive up the rocky mountain road to discover a natural thermal spring feeding a crudely built pool. The rough concrete slide into the pool was very tempting but you had to remember to take your own bucket of water with you to lubricate the surface. Those who forgot could be seen grinding to a halt and in danger of shredding their costumes to bits as they edged themselves into the water.
When the time came for our last conversation lessons I was treated to several farewell parties. One set of students brought in food and chose music with English lyrics. As the first song came on they all laughed as Abba sang ‘I don’t wanna talk...’ Another class whisked me off by taxi to a traditional ice cream parlour where the flavoured creams are churned by hand in buckets of ice standing on the pavement. The ice cream is then served with cheesebread and huminta, a warm confection of creamed corn wrapped in a maize leaf.
My hosts - the fantastic Zembrana family!
Freddy from the local office in Cochabamba was the smiling face that met me at the airport and took me to meet Mariela and her family. Their apartment was modern and very comfortable. I even had a large hotel-like room with a private bathroom, but that may have just been my good fortune. I had the privilege of visiting several other houses in a neighbouring town where there was no flushing toilet and I believe that heating is in no way standard in people’s homes. So for me it was very easy to settle in and look forward to life Bolivian style.
Mariela or her father always prepared the main meal around midday and it invariably featured soup followed by a meaty dish, often with both rice and potato. Ah, the ubiquitous potato - they say there are 300 types in Bolivia and the potato market at La Cancha is a sight to behold. In the evenings we ate much more simply - usually bread, cheese and honey. I like cooking and had thought that I might get around to preparing something for my hosts but I found that I couldn’t recognise many of the food items in the store cupboard.
Then one morning at breakfast I saw a box of microwaveable Quaker Oats. When I told Mariela that we have these in England she gave me a sachet. As I looked around for a bowl to use she encouraged me to open it and put it in my cup. I poured the oats into my black tea. She was smirking as she watched me dutifully spooning into my mouth. The next morning, the Bolivian method was revealed. The biggest stockpot was simmering on the stove with a delicious smell of cinnamon, honey and milk. A scant cupful of oats was added and we all drank this lovely mix.
Touring Bolivia - so many must-sees!
Sad as I was to leave my life in Cochabamba, at least I wasn’t leaving the country straight away. In La Paz I joined a tour party. This was a chance to meet some backpackers and hear about their travels in other South American countries. They all had interesting stories but one thing that seemed to emerge was that their experience of La Paz and the other major Bolivian cities was quite a highlight. Not only was it a pleasant relief to arrive in a country that was much cheaper to live but the proportion of indigenous people gives Bolivia a rare distinction in a continent that is becoming ever more commercialised and developed.
Over ten days we saw the beautiful White City of Sucre; went down a silver mine in Potosi to take dynamite to the miners and offerings to Tio, the god of the mine ; enjoyed climbing over the wrecks in the train cemetery; visited the adobe home of a weaver who gave us a demonstration; slept in the Salt Hotel by the plains of Salar Uyuni, gazed at the beauty of lagoons tinted in stunning colours by mineral deposits; hiked on an Inca Trail and bought all sorts of hand made goods in the markets of La Paz.
Transport strikes, llamas, black maize, purple potatoes, coca leaves, they’re all part of life in Bolivia. Even the Day of the Dead and the famous death road are part of life in Bolivia! It’s a brilliant place full of the most friendly, modest people. I guess I’d say it’s a good place to have a safe adventure.
Volunteering with Projects Abroad
In conclusion I realise how very well the Projects Abroad organisation suited me. I felt fully immersed in a foreign world and yet fully supported by an unobtrusive network of staff. When I needed to adjust my flights, or have help to source things there was Ximena, Freddy and their colleagues available at the end of a phone or just a few blocks walk away from my lodging. The rest of the time I was able to fully experience the life of a would be English teacher and I was left to enjoy all that was on offer with just a few messages here and there about transport shortages because of strikes or some such advisory information.
My experience far superseded any expectations I had and has confirmed my intention to train as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher. A return to Bolivia is something I look forward to.