Patrick Hebbert - General Journalism Projects in Bolivia
It was hard to imagine what to expect on my way to Bolivia. Of course I had seen pictures, researched the landmarks and read about Cochabamba, the city where I would live for the next two months, but I never felt like I really had a true idea of what to expect.
I had chosen Bolivia out of a desire to see some of South America. I initially whittled my choice down to Bolivia and Argentina, but the chance to visit a country that so few people really knew much about, or had really heard of (one friend signed my going away card by wishing me luck in Borneo) gave the place such an air of mystery that I knew I had to see it for myself. Two months were stretched out in front of me to soak up as much of this country as I could.
I found myself feeling surprisingly awake after the 17 hour flight from Gatwick, and blinking in awe at the great mountain range that rose over the northern side of the city of Cochabamba, and still felt in a bit of a daze as I was whisked away in a taxi to meet my host family by the Projects Abroad staff. Though Marielle was happily chatting to me on the ride over, I couldn't help but stare at the streets and people of Cochabamba, finally getting that overawing first taste of Bolivian culture.
Meeting my first Cochabambinos
I was first dropped off at Casto Roja to meet my host family, Cynthia Villa Lobos, her daughter Erika and her grandson Christian. The apartment itself was beautiful and had some stunning views across the city, with the Christo Concordia stretching his arms on the horizon (a surreal view that I had during my morning showers almost every morning). The Villa Lobos family themselves were extremely welcoming. Forever making sure I was well fed, inviting me to their mammoth card game sessions and even taking me to meet their extended family, who lived in and around the city.
It became clear from time with them how important family is to Bolivian culture, and I really did feel accepted in to it. I was even treated to the immortal phrase 'mi cases es tu casa' from Cynthia's nephew, on one of the many family meals I was invited to.
Cochabamba: A city of contrasts
My time abroad seemed to be divided chiefly between discovering the city of Cochabamba and seeing what I could of the country on the weekends. Cochabamba itself was a fascinating city. A mixture of the tall sleek buildings and rough and ready houses that made up some of the poorer areas, all presided over by the great Christo Concordia. It is a city that likes a party as well, a fact proved by the booming noise and white hot lights of the stadium as the city celebrated its anniversario during my first weekend.
Though life here did take some getting used to (blazing heat over September and October is not something we're familiar with in England), it didn't take me long to be start catching taxi trufis and walking the streets like I'd lived there for years, with those gorgeous mountains a constant reference point if I ever did lose my way. There was always something going on as well. During my time there I visited my first wine festival, saw the sprawling La Cancha market, made the steep climb to see the Christo, and wiled away many hours with other volunteers from all over the world, finding out about many countries beyond Bolivia.
Meeting so many other volunteers, as well as Bolvians, gave a hugely mixed and international group of friends. It was particularly comforting to go through the Bolivian experience with so many others who were also on their first visit. Together we made the most of Cochabamba, as well as traversing the country, and many of us remain in touch.
The Journalism project itself was totally unique to anything I had done before. As a journalism volunteer I was based at the Projects Abroad office on calle hamiraja, writing for the 'Cochabanner', a magazine devoted to the social and historical culture of Bolivia. I found myself writing articles ranging from the Bolivian national snack, Saltena, to the 'Water War' protests that engulfed the city in 2000.
Not only was I writing for the magazine, but also proof reading, photographing and even delivering it around the city, all accompanied by the wonderful Ximena, who ran the magazine. I had the fortune of being the sole journalism volunteer, so whilst I was able to go out and research my articles myself Ximena was always on hand to offer advice and chat generally about Bolivia as a country. She had some fascinating stories, being a former political journalist herself, and gave me some great insights in to Bolivian life. I felt very lucky to be able to work with her.
The Bolivia experience
Projects Abroad included all volunteers in a number of events to bring all the volunteers together. These ranged from breast cancer awareness days, to Zampona workshops, to a fascinating evening of Bolivian culture held at the offices - leading to my first experience of anticucho de corazon...something worth googling if you're curious.
Though at two months my stay in Bolivia was one of the shorter ones of the other volunteers I met, there is still far too much to list here. Travelling the country I saw sights such as the beautiful city of Sucre - where a trip out for a few drinks can lead you to, the dense forests in Chapare and the near desert like Toro Toro, the stark contrast of the geography of these places gives an idea of what a varied country Bolivia is.
Toro Toro in particular was a real highlight. This national park combined arid landscape with deep freezing caves, dinosaur footprints, and a walk along a river bed. Sadly I didn't make it to the two biggest attractions, the Salt Flats and the Lake Titcaca, but all this has done is foster a fierce desire to return one day to fill in the gaps from my first visit.
Some people say that travelling the world and seeing the variety of life changes you. I'm not sure whether I'm really in a position to judge that, having really only been away for a comparatively short space of time. What I can say, however, is that the wonderful things I saw and experienced and the people I met will always stay with me. Volunteering abroad does not carry a single regret.