Mira Shah - Dentistry in Bolivia
My experience in Bolivia was far from what I anticipated. Never did I imagine a month in Cochabamba, Bolivia to be so life changing and eye opening. From the beautiful scenery to the exotic culture, Bolivia is a country that beams with life and literally takes your breath away. I had made my decision to participate in a dental placement with Projects Abroad to both enhance my knowledge of dentistry and further strengthen my application to university in the coming years.
I was certain that I wanted to visit South America to improve my Spanish and because I think it is a continent that is still mysterious and undiscovered. On deciding which country to volunteer in I was stuck between Bolivia and Argentina. I chose Bolivia out of the two, because it less well known and I thought I would benefit more from my experiences there. I was not disappointed!
As expected I was both nervous and anxious about spending a month alone in Bolivia. It would be the first time I would truly be away from home, and having not spoken Spanish in over four years I was worried about a language barrier I might encounter. I was also faced with the usual fears; what if my host family does not like me, what if I do not make any friends, what if I am not fed enough (being a vegetarian I was worried about whether or not my host family would be able to cater for me).
I arrived in Bolivia after a very long 36 hour flight from London and was immediately blown away by the beautiful mountains surrounding Cochabamba. I was met by a member of the Projects Abroad team and taken to my host family, where I was welcomed warmly. I immediately bonded with my family who could not have taken better care of me during my time in Bolivia. My host mum, Vicky, was married with two children, Valentina aged 4 and Luciano aged 18 months. They were a lot of fun to be around, but also gave me enough freedom to explore Cochabamba by myself or with other volunteers.
In terms of food, I had no problem whatsoever! My family were brilliant and provided me with a very tasty and healthy vegetarian diet. I also learnt a few vegetarian Bolivian recipes, which I used when I returned home. Spending time with my host family was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Bolivia!
The next morning I was introduced to my project supervisor, Rocio, who showed me around the town centre and familiarised me with the public transport system. The transport in Cochabamba is crazy and very very different! There are six different modes of public transport, four of which have their own designated routes. For travelling to and from work, I used the “260” truffi, which is like a small minibus. At first the idea of travelling around by myself using public transport was daunting, but within a week I had familiarised myself with my truffi route and enjoyed it thoroughly. Public transport definitely gave me an insight into everyday life in Cochabamba.
My Dental Placement
My placement took place in a government funded hospital, Centro de Salud-Chavez Rancho. It was a small hospital consisting of a dentist and two doctors. The hospital treated pregnant women and children aged 1 to 5 years under “el seguro SUMI” scheme. This is a government funded system that provides free treatment to pregnant women and infants who cannot afford to pay for dental or medical treatment. I was told that next year, the hospital would begin to treat men too.
A typical day at my placement would begin at 8.30am and end at 12.45pm. I assisted the dentist, Dra Camacho in treating patients. I was in charge of washing and sterilising the surgical instruments, patient care, oral hygiene education and fluoridation. As the weeks progressed, I was more involved in treatment of patients and assisted the doctor with anaesthesia, periodontics and tooth extractions. On average we treated 5-14 patients a day. The doctor was very friendly and explained each procedure to me, enthusiastically answering any questions I had.
I was amazed at the type of treatments I saw, all of which were performed with very basic equipment. Every other Wednesday, the doctor and I would visit a local nursery and fluoridise the children’s teeth. I was shocked with the condition of the teeth I saw, as the majority of children had a minimum of three cavities and brushed their teeth only once a day!
Maria Christina Orphanage
The most life changing part of my time in Cochabamba was at Maria Christina, an orphanage for mentally disabled street teenagers. Although this was not part of my placement, I volunteered to visit the orphanage and fluoridise the children’s teeth. I was taken there by Rocio, who used to work at the orphanage and she assisted me in treating a total of 56 children in one single afternoon. This was quite an achievement!.
On arriving at Maria Christina I was overwhelmed by the poor condition of the orphanage and warmly welcomed by the children who hugged and kissed me, excited by “la doctorita’s” visit! I was amazed by the appreciation these teenagers had for everyday life, something that many of us in the Western world take for granted. I was especially moved by the happiness I saw in two children when I told them they could help me treat each child by holding the cotton rolls containing the fluoride gel.
Free time in Bolivia
During my free time in Cochabamba I visited La Cancha, which is the largest market in Bolivia. This chaotic market contained everything you could possibly imagine; from fresh fruits and vegetables to hand crafted musical instruments! It was full of vibrant colour, exotic smells and the sounds of the local Quechua customers haggling. I also visited el Cristo de la Conchordia, which is the largest statue of Christ in the world and offers a spectacular view of the city.
During my final weekend, my host family took me to Quillacollo, which is a town close to Cochabamba. I was amazed to see the difference in life quality and atmospheres between neighbouring towns. We visited a church of the local saint and had a tasty dinner at “el campo”. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to visit Toro Toro, which is a national park six hours away Cochabamba. I would definitely advise spending longer than a month in Bolivia, as there is so much to do!
I would strongly recommend Bolivia to anyone, especially those who are nervous on embarking on their first placement abroad. The country is surrounded by a friendly atmosphere and the staff at Projects Abroad are very helpful. I have made some life-long friends in Cochabamba, and the experiences we shared have definitely changed my life.