Tag Archives: religion

The world’s worst volunteer? Trying to be good in Sucre

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Run by friendly monks, this Catholic retirement home was my first volunteer placement

AFTER THE MONKEY INCIDENT, IT was a no brainer that I wouldn’t volunteer with animals. At least for the moment.

I’d hoped to teach English but with limited Spanish ability it wasn’t going to happen. ‘Where do they need help?’ I asked Stefano, the volunteer co-ordinator at the Sucre Spanish School.

A day later I found myself sitting and holding the hand of a little lady with weathered skin, poker straight white hair cut to a bob and a delighted smile ornamented with the odd giggle. She reminded me a little of the special needs adults that my parents care for.

It was a hopeless situation, a no starter of a conversation. Her lips clung around gunked-up false teeth as she mumbled away quietly. I tried to understand, really I did, but even with a clear pronunciation, the likelihood is I would have only understood marginally more. I felt stupid and sorry as she looked directly into my eyes, pleading me to respond with something other than ‘no entiendo’ or ‘no se’. It was frustrating.

Having met a few other characters and warm grandma types, I joined a mini Good Friday procession within the grounds of this Catholic old people’s home. Led by cloaked monks we shuffled along stone corridors, stopping regularly to repeat and respond to their calls. Finally we arrived at a little chapel.

More chanting, more singing. When people knelt or crossed, I bowed my head. I’m not really sure why, but it felt like the right, respectful thing to do.

I left the place smiling having spent the last half hour eating an early dinner with three Colombian monks who joked and chatted and pulled out  some kung fu moves. All a little surreal.

But my time at this place was short-lived. I wasn’t ready for the old people’s home just yet.

Another couple of visits and I was crawling the walls. Actually, no, I was simply sitting and smiling at old people, trying to talk, being grandly ignored when they couldn’t understand me, pushing the odd wheelchair, taking someone for an occasional walk and sitting in on Catholic rosary bead sessions where the repetition mixed with a good dose of tiredness nearly lulled me to sleep. Sitting up. Maybe the old people’s home was the right place for me after all.

I never like to let people down and I’m not one to shirk from a challenge but I felt as though I was making absolutely no difference. When I’d first arrived at the old people’s home I’d been waiting upstairs for my contact, Luis, when another monk lost in his own world suddenly saw me and got a bit of a  shock. ‘I thought you were an angel!’ he had exclaimed, throwing his hands up. What he probably realised pretty quickly is that I’m just another rubbish human being.

Because I quit. Sort of. I switched to a kindergarten. The orphanage was full; everyone, it seems, wants to help out disadvantaged kids. But the kindergarten needed help so I opted to give that a go. Second attempt at trying to do something useful.

My Spanish teacher had told me to stop struggling and Stefano easily arranged the transfer so that the very next day I started at a kindergarten, helping out babies and toddlers who possessed a similar level of language ability to me. I felt less stupid, less judged.

But I’ve never been a big fan of children, so would spending time volunteering in a kindergarten help switch things up?

Teaching teenagers in my previous life was just another way for me to challenge my fears and address any prejudices (and boy, did it work, because I met and taught some of the most fun(ny), open and interesting young people in the world). I got over that one. But babies and children?

In all honesty, its babies that I have more of an aversion to, with their strange, wrinkled skin and fragile fontanelle that has me running any time a friend asks me to hold their precious, little child. Dropping things is a reality in my life. Therefore, I avoid holding babies. And it’s not just the fragility, it’s the constant cry, puke, shit, sleep cycle. It just doesn’t work for me.

I suppose, when they smile I start to melt a little, but really, if I could honour the agreement I made with my sister when I was in my teens, any baby of mine would be in her care until it was past the six month mark and actually did something interesting. Do we still have a deal, Adilia? I’m only half-joking.

So here I was in Sucre on my second volunteer placement in a kindergarten full of little terrors aged between one and three. It was a way for me to see whether I was capable of warmth, whether I could deal with wiping snotty noses, with getting jelly and slobber stains on my clean trousers, with observing tantrums and playing repetitive ball games.

And of course I could. I guess I fell in love a little with each of the pre-school monsters, even the stern, trench coat wearing screamer. How could I not? He was the coolest kid in there.

Isn’t she a great mama?’ the kindergarten owner Doris asked a two-year old girl who had become totally attached to me. She just clung on tightly, wrapping little arms and legs around me. Maybe I was actually being helpful, and maybe I was starting to be okay with kids too. Only my fear of teeny babies to go.

And then I got sick. Of course. I should have guessed. Bolivia was continuing to punish me with a low immune system. With gleeful germs from the coughs and splutters of innocent kids whizzing around the kindergarten, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before I picked something up.

Ah, I tried. Thanks for the opportunity.

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Filed under bolivia, south america, volunteering

5 ways to be Bolivian

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Dress code

TRAVELLING TO BOLIVIA AND WANT to blend in with the country folk? Here are a few tips on how to be less of a gringo, more of a local.

  1. Women, wear your hair in two plaits and dress in colourful, full skirts that reach a little past your knee, swish as you walk and leave people wondering whether you’re a little chunky or just layered up. Men, wear a wide brimmed hat.
  2. Hang out of bus windows whenever you stop or slow down to check out what’s going on.
  3. Believe in God. 82% of Bolivians are Catholics and when they question you on your faith, it’s often easier to say that you’re Christian (or any other religious denomination) rather than agnostic or atheist. Cross yourself any time you pass by a church or shrine or holy statue, whatever your age. Don’t, however, forget about Pacha Mama. Throw the odd bit of food or dribble some drink on the ground before you indulge, and every now and then sacrifice a llama or llama foetus in her honour.
  4. If travelling with a child, sling them on your back in a swaddling of bright coloured material that completely conceals them. Actually, carry any large bulks in this way and confuse people as to whether you have a child or vegetables or just a mass of material on your back. Keep chickens and other livestock separate but still covered so that if one of your hens decides to poke her head out and start pecking at a gringo’s shoes in the aisle of a crowded bus, it gives them a sufficient fright to behave on public transport. It may even raise a smile. Talking of which, don’t give out smiles too easily. Be a bit reserved, restrained. You don’t know who you’re dealing with, especially when it comes to bushy-tailed travellers, so err on the side of caution and observe these strange creatures from a bit of a distance.
  5. Guys, to deal with working at high altitude stuff your cheeks with coca leaves, so full that it lumps out and could be mistaken for a growth. Make sure you use a catalyst with the coca leaves so that your lips go a little numb.

There are of course lots of other things you should do to blend in. Unlike other South American countries, llama hats and woolly jumpers aren’t the exclusive outfit of gringos (although pick carefully). It’s cold here so everyone needs some llama love.

What else? Erm… eat meals that consist of double carbs, always something potato based alongside rice. Don’t understand vegetarianism and feel completely confident that taking out the main hunks of meat in a soup before dishing up will suffice for those fussy eaters.

And more seriously? Survive on a salary of 20Bs.-30Bs. per day (that’s US$2.87-US$4.30). Send your kids out to beg or shoe shine at known tourist spots or set them to work down the mines because although they are sacrificing their education, you need the money to survive.

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Filed under bolivia, culture, food & drink, random, south america, uncategorized