Katy Fraser - General Care Projects in Bolivia
I sat down on one of the many mattresses that covered the floor and instantly I was surrounded by kids, a mixture of our girls from Maria Cristina and boys from a neighboring orphanage, all vying to sit next to me. The distribution of popcorn and dimming of the lights brought a hush because tonight was a very special night! Tonight was the first and only performance of Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood) performed by our girls. Despite some forgotten lines and a few missed marks the play went well and I was brimming with pride and extremely happy for the girls. I was particularly proud of the performance of our hero, the woodcutter, played by a normally tough little eight year old named Soledad who had spent all morning crying because she didn't want to perform. However on the night she bounded onto the stage and delivered her lines perfectly and raised a lot of laughs with the over enthusiastic use of her axe! After the applause died down it was chow time, and a frantic hour ensued as the volunteers tried to maintain order while distributing pizza, juice and crisps to over one hundred very hungry and excited kids. This was a magical night and one of my favorites whilst I was in Bolivia.
I came to Bolivia as a career breaker in search of a new challenge between finishing my old job and starting a new career in teaching. I wanted the opportunity to live in a different country and culture, to learn a new language, to travel around the country and most importantly to work with the children in the orphanage. My placement was at the Hogar de Maria Cristina, a large government ran girls orphanage on the outskirts of Cochabamba. The Hogar is home to about 50 girls of varying ages, with about a third of the girls suffering from mental handicap. The majority were between the ages of 7 and 10 who are taken into care for a variety of reasons - such as abandonment, domestic abuse or due to the death of a parent. I will be honest and say that work at the orphanage was tough - the children were brilliant and you couldn't help falling in love with them - however bureaucracy and the attitude of the local staff could be very frustrating. It was often very emotionally challenging working with the children who could one moment be testing your patience and then the next moment breaking your heart. But it was also a lot of fun too!
As a volunteer I worked for half the day and at the start of my placement my role was arranging activities and games for the girls to keep them entertained through the holidays, once the school term restarted my main job was to help them with their schoolwork. Although schooling is free and compulsory in Bolivia many of the girls in the orphanage had never attended school. Those lucky ones that had been to school, prior to arriving at Maria Cristina, were often well behind their peers and were in lower classes for their age group and as a result reading and writing were poor. After working it was bath time, which consisted of stripping the girls outside then pouring buckets of freezing cold water over them whilst they washed themselves and their hair - often with only washing up liquid, as this is cheaper than soap. Because the water was cold, washing could only take place on warm sunny days and as a result the girls often had to go several days with out washing when the weather was bad. Despite the hardships the girls loved bath time and would run around splashing each other and ourselves at every opportunity. A favorite game consisted of pouring a little soap into the flooded concrete around the sink area, then sliding down the sink area on their stomachs - fantastic fun! Once they were all clean it was usually time to eat again and time for the volunteers to go home. However my role at Maria Cristina was much more than just playing games with the girls. I spent a lot of time with individual girls comforting them when they are upset, caring for them when they were sick and simply just talking with them. With so many girls and so few staff the girls never got much one to one attention and I believe that giving each girl some of my time was probably the most important thing I did at Maria Cristina.
Volunteering in Cochabamba wasn't only confined to Maria Cristina and regularly opportunities arose to help out with other volunteer's projects. I was lucky enough to be involved in a child immunization scheme and the painting of another orphanage and a disabled centre. The strong team spirit amongst all the TAPA volunteers in Cochabamba, regardless of which project they were working on, meant that there were always willing helpers when we needed extra hands to take the girls on trips to the funfair or ice cream parlor or when we needed supporters to cheer the girls to victory in the inter-orphanage soccer championship.
My host family were fantastically welcoming and I was immediately part of the family - with my host Mama describing me as her new hija (daughter). As a member of the family I was expected to do my turn even when it came to helping them complete an order of school books which they were copying for the local schools - my wrists still haven't recovered from twisting ring bindings! Family life centered very much on lunchtime, where the whole family got together over the meal to eat and chat about everything from the youngest sons' dubious taste in music to world news, creating a brilliant family atmosphere.
What really made the experience for me were the other volunteers. They were a mixed group from many different countries and age groups. We had a fantastic social life and would meet up most nights for a drink and chat. There were tons of things to do in Cochabamba - bars, restaurants, night clubs, ten pin bowling, go-kart racing, cinemas, internet cafes, soccer matches, concerts, museums and the biggest most amazing market I have ever seen. You're never alone and should never be bored as a volunteer in Cochabamba! There were also amazing opportunities to travel with the other volunteers and see the area surrounding Cochabamba, the rest of Bolivia and neighboring countries. I was lucky enough to hold monkeys in the Amazonian jungle at Chapare, witness a political demonstration in the capital city of La Paz, clamber around looking at dinosaur footprints in Sucre, watch a spectacular sunset over Lake Titicaca, go to peach and bread festivals in Tarata and Toco, have a full scale water balloon fight with locals during the La Diablada festival in Oruro, ride a horse in the Atacama desert in Chile, sandboard down a massive sand dune and hurtle across the largest salt plain in the world at Salar de Uyuni, and much much more.
So what else can I say? Volunteering in Bolivia was an amazing experience and I will never forget a moment of it!