Chris Turner - General Care Projects in Bolivia
The best way to convey how I now feel about my time in Bolivia would be to tell you one fact. That fact being that every day when I get out of bed I miss Bolivia, and more specifically Cochabamba. However, I don’t mean to mislead you into thinking I don’t enjoy my life in England right now, yet it somehow just comes up a little short whenever I compare it to my South American experience.
This presents a stark contrast to how I felt on the 4th of March 2007, aboard a plane from Miami to La Paz, with my ipod and my friend Will as my sole link back to England. At that point, despite all the information received, I really had no idea of how my specific experience was going to be. Yet from the minute that we left the Jorge Wilstermann airport, my anxieties were alleviated by the minute. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Carmen Copa, who runs the Care Project that I would be working within. We were driven by taxi through the streets of Cochabamba (an experience in itself) until we arrived in Plaza Colon, the most picturesque and central of all the open meeting areas that are interspersed throughout the city. We were to be living on the 11th floor of the tallest residential apartment block in the city, with the Morales family (sadly no relation to Evo, the president of Bolivia).
At this point, I should make reference to the fact that the only Spanish phrase I knew was ‘dos cervezas por favor’. Undoubtedly useful, but also somewhat limiting if our host family ran out of beer. As such, I was somewhat concerned about the fact that I was also aware that our host family were likely to speak little or possibly no English. However, from the moment we crossed the threshold we were warmly welcomed into the arms of a wonderful family. All of the members of the family that lived in the city were waiting for us in the kitchen and we were quickly introduced to 10 members of the family whose names I instantly forgot. Our room had an amazing view of the city and I swiftly felt my fears residing.
The next day I was taken to work for the first time, at the Centro Canarito. This is a day centre for children from the area surrounding ‘La Cancha’, the huge market that Cochabamba boasts. The Centre aims to provide educational support for the children, as well as being a place for the children to go to avoid them simply wandering the streets when their parents are working. Happily, I was accompanied on my first day by Carmen; else I would never have found the place. The Centro Canarito inhabits two tiny rooms on the edge of La Cancha, with no sign outside or any recognition of what goes on inside the heavy iron door that blocks the way to the centre. The children are looked after by four women from the local area, headed up by Nilda. It’s worth noting that Nilda has the last word in all disputes between the children, and can be used as a very effective threat…as in ‘If you keep doing that, we’ll go and see Nilda’. Simple, yet effective.
The number of children that turn up varies daily, with almost five times more children registered than the normal turn out of around 40. My role varied between helping the children with their homework, playing football with those without studying to do, or trying to organise games for the younger children who don’t attend school. Once again, the language barrier turned out no to be a problem, as the children had a remarkable way of conveying whatever they needed. I also learnt more from speaking to them than I could of from any classes or language books. The only slight problem was that they enjoyed talking in Quechua so that we couldn’t understand. Sadly, my knowledge of Quechua is still non existent, and I remain convinced that it may in fact be a made up language, created solely to torment foreigners.
Cochabamba is a great base for trips to other parts of Bolivia, as well as other South American countries. Whilst you may not travel in style, you can be assured that each trip will be an experience as well as not too stretching for your wallet. My recommendations would be the mines of Potosi, the salt flats of Uyuni, the city of Sucre, and the jungle area surrounding Puerto Villaroel. Although, bear in mind that if any Projects Abroad workers suggest that you should enter the ‘Senor Puerto Villaroel’, male ‘beauty’ competition you should give a firm shake of your head and ignore them for the rest of the night. I however, ended up in my pants in front an entire village for a whole evening, competing against four other Bolivians for the title of ‘mas guapo’ (most handsome). To add insult to injury, I didn’t even finish in the top three!
I had such a great time in Bolivia that we returned to the country twice more in the next three months we had set aside for travelling, and I honestly felt like I was leaving a new home when we finally departed. Cochabamba is a fantastic city with wonderful people and a culture that cannot fail but impress all. Whilst I was fortunate to be able to sample this culture for an extended period of time, I wish that it could have been longer. Anyone looking for a city that provides non stop entertainment, amazing food, enthralling people, and a great nightlife should have no hesitation in heading to Cochabamba.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.