Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Getting Up Close to Bolivia

Before I left the UK I had toyed with the idea of setting up some volunteering but not knowing exactly where I would be and if I would be able to commit to the minimum amount of time some organisations expect you to stay made things tricky.

While I was in Chile I realised I would have time in Bolivia. After emailing a few organisations but to no avail I had almost given up on the idea. Tas and Kris the couple I met on my second Pachamama tour suggested I try contacting Up Close Bolivia as they were planning to volunteer with them for a month.

I checked out the website and was impressed with the range of projects volunteers can work on, so to cut a long story short I was accepted and arranged to do a two week stint.
Up Close Bolivia works on the concept of ‘reciprocidad’, which is at the heart of Andean culture. It is all about giving back and contributing in a way that enriches the person giving and the person receiving. It was this aspect that really appealed to me.

The family-run enterprise was set up by Emma, an ex-volunteer from England, and her Bolivian husband Rolando. For the last 10 years they have welcomed volunteers and visitors and are committed to helping develop sustainable, community-led development projects and environmentally-friendly tourism that benefits their community.

I had been in La Paz a few days before my placement was due to start to acclimatise and get my bearings. I would be living in Jupapina, a small village just south of La Paz, for the duration and my first mission was to get there. I considered getting a colectivo but was unsure if the driver would take me and all my baggage. Instead I plumped for the easy option and booked a taxi.

 I stayed in the house on the left
I arrived at Emma and Rolando’s home, the volunteer accommodation is based in the grounds of the house and was greeted by Rolando, who took me to my digs, which I would be sharing with Tas and Kris. After almost three months on the road it was weird to have a room to myself and also know that I would be in one place for more than a couple of nights – I could actually unpack!
I had a welcome session with Anahi, who is a coordinator for Up Close Bolivia. She took me through my schedule for the next 14 days and explained a little more about the projects I would be helping in. I was also given a tour of the village, the centre of which is just along one main road and got to meet some of the shopkeepers.

Jupapina is beautiful and is surrounded by mountains. I certainly liked being out of city and back in the countryside. One similarity I noticed between here and the village I grew up in is how friendly everyone is and when you pass someone on the street you’ll say hello to each other.
My first task as a volunteer was to help paint a mural in the new square, Plaza de las NiƱas, in the village. I’m no artist so I left the drawing to other more capable people and I just coloured in. However, I did get to draw some stick men! We just about managed to finish the mural in time for the official opening ceremony.

I also got to work at Fundacion Porvenir, which is an equine therapy centre, just down the road into the valley in Jupapina. The centre provides free therapy to children with physical and mental disabilities.
I was a bit apprehensive about helping here because I don’t particularly like horses and am a bit scared of them. However, the role of the volunteer here is to play with the children before they ride the horse and assist where needed when they are on the horse.
During my first session I was thrown into the deep end when Humberto, who runs the foundation, asked me to hold onto the lead of one of the horses. Up until this point the horse had been very well behaved, but as soon as it was in my control it somehow managed to unclip itself from the lead. Thankfully it decided not to go galloping off into the sunset and I was able to hand over the reins as it were to one of the other more experienced handlers.
As I can speak a bit of Spanish I was able to play games with the children while they were on the horses, such as holding up flashcards of colours or numbers and getting them to tell me what each was.

I enjoyed my time helping and although I was only there for six sessions I got to know the parents and children as well as see the difference the therapy has on their lives. Many of the children have to make long journeys just to get to Jupapina. Haydn, one of the other volunteers created a film about the work of the foundation and it can be seen here.
As well as this, I was placed in a children’s centre in Mallasa, the next town on from Jupapina. It is a community run centre for local children, many from poor backgrounds, aged six months to four-years-old.

I helped in Tia Lucy’s class with the babies, who were all very cute. My help here usually involved supporting Lucy by cleaning up after the breakfast and lunch, wiping noses, playing with the children and often having to move the ones who had strayed from the mat back onto it.
Mallasa is also a great place for getting chicken that has been roasted over a wood burning fire. For 15 Bolivianos you can get a piece of chicken, rice, roast potatoes and roasted plantain. The chicken cooked this way has been some of the best I’ve had, the skin goes really crispy and the meat underneath is beautifully moist.
The last project I was able to help in was the zoo, which is situated just outside Mallasa. The zoo mainly houses animals, which have been trafficked or mistreated so all except for the lions are indigenous to Bolivia. The lions were rescued from a circus as animals are not allowed to perform in circuses in Bolivia.
My job as volunteer was to help Emerson, who comes up with inventive ways to keep the animals entertained and stimulated. At the zoo we had to wear a fetching beige jumpsuit, being only 5ft I knew that the chances of mine fitting would be slim. However, after signing in I was allowed to have a special jumpsuit suitable for pint sized people. I’m still fairly certain it was one for children!

During my sessions at the zoo I helped lift turf to replant in the tortoise enclosure, I really enjoyed this as we got to go in the enclosure and one of the tortoises was very curious and kept coming up to me. I also helped create boxes out of egg trays and then covered them in llama wool. The boxes were filled with various entrails from a donkey and we got to hang them up in the puma enclosure. When the pumas were released we got to watch them grab the boxes and eat the contents.
In addition to the volunteering, I also took the opportunity to improve my Spanish by having 10 hours of intensive one to one lessons for 850 Bolivianos. Anahi organised everything for me and my teacher was Sonia. She was lovely and by our last session I was feeling more confident with my speaking, which is the area I was having most frustration with as I found I usually understood what people said to me but often didn’t have the vocab to respond.
Overall I really enjoyed my experience with Up Close Bolivia and even though in two weeks it felt like I’d barely scratched the surface it gave me a great insight into Bolivian culture as well as some of the struggles. Emma, Rolando, Anahi and the other volunteers were great and so helpful they really made me feel like part of the family.

Despite the times when it felt like Bolivia was trying to break me (there were instances when my bowels didn’t know whether they were coming or going and I managed to catch one of the worst colds I’ve had in about five years) I would definitely like to return, but for longer next time.

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