Tag Archives: volunteering

Doing my little bit for literacy levels in Bolivia

http://www.tourist2townie.com/culture-food/portraits-of-a-bolivian-book-fair-the-feelings-involved/

Big books, little kids and some high fives

So this was my last attempt at volunteering in Sucre. Third time lucky.

Realising he was still in town, I’d contacted Gareth of Tourist2Townie when I had arrived into Sucre to see about a catch-up and to gain some inside info on the city. He’d already been in Sucre for a couple of months getting acquainted with the locals and volunteering at Biblioworks, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving literacy and opening educational doors through building libraries, supplying books and training librarians in the poorest communities of Bolivia.

Literacy in Bolivia at first glance doesn’t appear to be terrible. Despite the country ranking number 101 out of 183, literacy levels come in at a reported 91%, just above Peru and Brazil (90%), higher than Ecuador (84%), but falling behind Paraguay (95%), Chile (96%) and Argentina (98%).

Despite this, illiteracy in Bolivia is, however, still deemed to be a big problem that is contributing to holding the country back from developing and improving their economic situation, something that Biblioworks echo in their mission statement:

We believe that where knowledge, literacy, and learning exist, people have the resources they need to solve social issues, maintain and strengthen their cultural identities, as well as to grow their community economically.

Gareth was involved in putting things together for Biblioworks’ first ever book fair. We could use all the help we could get, he told me. I asked him to let me know the time and place. I’d be there.

Saturday 14th April, 09:00. Posters decorated the town and Plazuela San Francisco was bannered up and ready for the occasion, La Feria de La Lectura. After a breakfast of sugar dusted buñelos and a warm trojori drink at the central market, I headed over to meet with the guys from Biblioworks. By coincidence I was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt. Turns out that yellow was uniform of the day. Tuned in, oh yeah!

School children threw themselves into all elements of the event. Small groups of boys group read together, classes played literacy games and competed with each other, kids wrote and listened and got inspired. It was beautiful to see.

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Out loud reading

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Literacy game play

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A longer term volunteer helps kids put their creative writing skills to the test

If I’m honest, my role on the day was pretty basic. Much of the time I photographed and videoed the activities. I gave out balloons. I handed out pens and paper to kids continuing a group story. I helped children choose books to read and then passed them on to someone who had a better grasp of Spanish. So although I again felt that I wasn’t really doing anything special or making a difference, being part of a group of volunteers felt good and as a whole we helped to make the event successful.

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Volunteers and school children at the event (me hiding at back right)

Hopefully some kids who might not have previously entered the world of reading and writing may now have sufficient thirst to pick up a book of their own accord or to write a story or a letter or whatever. Everyone certainly seemed to respond well. Focused concentration and big smiles punctuated the day (and I’m sure it wasn’t just the free balloons that did it).

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Filed under bolivia, costs/money, culture, south america, volunteering

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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Is paradise in Bolivia?

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Are you wearing anti mosquito spray?’ Cris asked suddenly in a curt manner, ‘because we don’t do that here, we’re an organic farm’. I flinched. Yes, it had been one of the occasions that I had used some of the dreaded DEET, but feeling ill and in real need of a hug, this question felt like an attack that put me into a naughty child headspace. This happy, hippy experience was threatening to be a whole lot less healing than I had hoped.

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The red rock face just above Ginger's Paradise

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The shaky bridge over to the start of the path to Ginger's Paradise

Twenty minutes earlier, together with four other travellers, I was dropped off after a two-hour journey on the verge of the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba Highway alongside a lone motorbike and a handcrafted sign set against a backdrop of red rock face mountains. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge that hung lazily across the Bermejo River, the gateway to a scattering of habitations, pretty mud pathways and a little organic idyll known as Ginger’s Paradise.

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The gringo house at Ginger's Paradise

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Downstairs sleeping options at Ginger's Paradise

We dropped our bags at a deserted, colourful house and, following instructions left pinned to the front door, walked deeper into a jungly landscape that started to twinkle with fireflies as dusk set in.

Cristobel, dressed in off-whites dirtied with smudges of soil met us along the path. His work on the land was nearly over for the day and he welcomed us with a smile and a handshake. And that cutting comment. I had to make a conscious decision not to let it affect my stay and my judgements, which was actually fairly easy because I did understand why it mattered.

During my short stay in Ginger’s Paradise I ate great, wholesome food and sung along silently to well-known songs and improvised guitar strums in the evenings. I listened to the chatter of insects and to the stories of my host and other travellers. I bathed in the river, dunked my head in fresh water and watched locals wobble across the bridge on their way to school and work. I got my elbows deep into soapy suds whilst I washed a stack load of sheets to part-pay my stay, and I played dominos with one of the children and a gentle, volunteering French couple.

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The bathroom at Ginger's Paradise

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Part-paying my way at Ginger's Paradise

Before I had decided to go to Ginger’s Paradise I did a little research on the place and most reviews I read were damning.

To clear a few things up, there is a cow that you can milk at the farm and chickens run around the grounds. There are compost toilets on site that are cleaned every day and as electricity is generated by solar and a bike hooked up to a charger, at times it can be temperamental. There isn’t a shower easily available (and it is a bit awkward to ask to use the shower in the main family house) but providing you embrace this rustic lifestyle, the river really is a beautiful place for a refreshing, calm morning wash. Foodwise I really can only be positive: I ate three hearty meals per day with predominantly home-grown and homemade ingredients.

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Hanging out with the chickens at Ginger's Paradise

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Outdoor toilet with views at Ginger's Paradise

Cris and Sol (the couple who run the place) are friendly but I assume that the constant turnaround of visitors has meant that at times they have to be direct, however, once you get involved and show some interest in what’s going on, they are chatty and warm and interested in people’s journeys.

Some people online complained about the constant pushing of products and activities that demanded an additional payment. There are indeed extras that you can buy and do at Ginger’s Paradise, including chocolate, Lulu hairwraps and jewellery lessons, and there is an additional cost for these. If you expect this, it’s less of a surprise or a problem.

Cris himself has come under some criticism. In response: he is undoubtedly a talented musician, he does love his chess, and in many respects he is pro-drugs, possessing a considerable understanding of weed culture.

Being so far from civilisation with a guy who declared his admiration for the serial killer Charles Manson (stating that he understood Manson’s reasons for killing soap stars in an effort to stop the dumbing down of society) was not something that made me particularly comfortable, but I quickly realised that Cris seemed to get a kick out of being controversial.  It certainly stirred up conversation. Really, in my humble opinion, his heart is in the right place, even if he indulged in playing Devil’s advocate. Some critics have been pretty harsh. I say just open your mind to different people and enjoy the eccentricity.

Some people stay a good few weeks or months working and living at Ginger’s Paradise, something Sol and Cris suggested helps one to really experience the spiritual and lifestyle benefits of the place.

A few days was the right amount of time for me. For now.

And the DEET spray didn’t make a reappearance during the rest of my stay there, although I did leave with some fat, raised mystery itches the width of my arm.

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Monkeying around

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Me and Martina had a connection. She kept playing with my hair.  She couldn’t stop hugging me (well, my head, more specifically). I thought it was love until, after less than an hour together, she switched her attentions to Gareth, an American forever-traveller in his late twenties. Sure, he’s a good looking guy, but come on! Fickle affection.

Martina is a chorongo monkey, one of many at the Centro de Rescate Monos or Paseo Los Monos – a sanctuary near Puyo for rescued monkeys, monkeys that have previously been pets (illegal in Ecuador) or who are orphaned following the hunting and killing of their parents, usually for meat. The idea is to reintroduce them to the jungle, but in some cases the damage and trauma to the animals is too great and they will remain in the care of the centre for the rest of their lives.

Asides from chorongo monkeys, the place is home to squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and white and black capuchin monkeys. Although housed in cages, many are given the freedom to roam around the grounds. There are also some coatis (Coati Amazonzo) – crazy, persistent and somewhat vicious creatures. The centre workers had to step in when one scrambled all over me, hanging onto my bag, undoing the zip and then biting when I tried to get him off. And then there are some turtles that currently live in an enclosure – something to do with the coatis attacking and ripping them apart and eating them.

I had wanted to volunteer at the centre ($100 per week and the work involves cleaning out the enclosures, developing the site and just spending time with the monkeys, amongst other things) but the place was full. A half day at the Paseo Los Monos as a visitor was my next option, so I paid my $2 entry fee. There isn’t a load to do as a tourist other than wander around and hang out with the animals and relax and watch the feeding sessions.

Pretty soon after I had arrived, Martina attached herself to me, wrapping her tail around my neck and massaging my head with her little hands. She stayed there as I strolled around the pretty woodland nature walk and down to the river. She fell asleep. It felt like having a ridiculously hot hat and scarf set, which, considering the high temperatures and humidity, was really quite unnecessary.

I have no idea of what suffering Martina had gone through, but she was clingy and affectionate and wanted to be close to people. I did wonder whether she could ever be rehabilitated back into the jungle, or whether she was too damaged and had got too comfy with human beings. After my Cuyabeno jungle trip where butterflies had captured my heart (there were some beauties at this place too), I thought I had moved on from my childhood monkey fascination. But it turns out no, I haven’t.

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Hanging out with the Hare Krishnas

I was in the kitchen with Druva, a young and well-travelled Colombian monk. We were preparing lunch – a feast of vegetarian food – for the other community inhabitants and volunteers. I had been prepped on proper kitchen conduct, which included never tasting the food (the first mouthful is for Krishna himself) and washing my mouth thoroughly with water before re-entering the kitchen if I had left the room to have a drink.

This was Finca Vrindavan, a little ashram based near Rio Negro, Ecuador (along the route from Baños to Tena) set in an isolated, lush, tropical setting. With focus on vedic philosophy, bhakti yoga and ecological principles, this place sounded like a perfect stop off from the backpacker trail.

You do know it’s a Hare Krishna place’, said the hostel owner before I left from Baños. I had guessed it would be. Whenever I had researched yoga ashrams in South America, they seemed to be run by Hare Krishna devotees. An older Canadian woman was concerned that I was going to be brainwashed by a forceful cult. ‘Aren’t you worried?’ she asked me. I wasn’t. I was curious and happy to go and do yoga in the jungle with some interesting people.

Arriving in Rio Negro, I was approached by Druva (Peruvian Druva, not Colombian monk Druva… I know, it’s confusing!), a gentle and welcoming character who shared a taxi ride up to the finca along with Rachel, an American resident of the community. Also going by the name Vrindavan Jardin Ecologico, this place has a few simple, pretty, wooden houses and a temple dotted around what feels like a bit of a spiritual, eco village.

Inside one of the huts up some stairs was my room. It was basic: a bunk bed, a wooden shelf, a window with a missing pane. Things felt a bit tired and unkempt. I learned that this estate was under a state of regeneration and repair; the dust in the buildings and vast blankets of weeds on the ground were confirmation of this.

The first evening I decided to go along to the 6:00pm ceremony which started with kirtan, a call-and-response chanting led by Colombian Druva, the rest of the attendees clapping and playing various instruments. We sat on a floor of woven reed mats in front of a decorative shrine with an ornately crafted wooden frame whilst Druva sang from a homemade pulpit style set-up.

Following on from this, he rang a bell and chanted in front of the altar, addressing the Krishna deity directly, before drawing the heavy red curtains and retreating to the side and deciding on the night time clothing for the statue. Whilst the rest of us sang along with an accordion style pull and push instrument, Colombian Druva disappeared behind the curtain to change the clothes and then gently placed the idol of Krishna into a crib. I found the attention and care given to this process, if I’m honest, quite bizarre, but then my own agnosticism and ignorance to this religious strand won’t have helped.

The final part of the ceremony involved Peruvian Druva reading from the Bhagavad-gita, an extended activity due to the constant translations from Sanscrit into Spanish and English. It was interesting, focusing primarily on the beliefs associated with karma. The analogy of carrying a ‘backpack’ of suffering through life was used to highlight how we each can truly feel the immediate effects of karma, but that by behaving with love and consideration for others (and not the self) we can lighten this heavy load. I also liked the concept that full renunciation of the modern world and materialism was not a prescription of the teachings, but rather that working with and using what you do have as a way to reach out to others is hugely effective.

So, back to the cooking. I had opted to help out in the kitchen whilst some others laboured away in the garden, clearing weeds and revealing streams and creating pathways. The change in that little section of the garden was incredible. It proved that with more help and perseverance, this place could be restored to its former glory. There were, however, a few grumbles from a few volunteers about the usefulness of some of the activities and who felt that more purposeful and structured work was needed.

Finca Vrindavan definitely isn’t a place that will suit everyone. The Hare Krishna element is not compulsory and there is no push to make you into a believer, so hopefully the religious part shouldn’t put people off of coming along to visit or volunteer. The 7:00am yoga session was a great way to start the day and re-inspired my own practice, but for some it was just too early. The communal dining was social but difficult unless your level of Spanish was proficient. The accommodation was pretty primitive and let in all manner of bugs (including funky fireflies that flash around on the walls and ceiling at night) and mini midgelike insects with the  itchiest of bites.

And cost is likely to be a sticking point for some. Paying  $12 per day (food and lodging included) to volunteer your time and effort is  something that can seem strange, but then most volunteering in South America carries with it a cost. Weigh it up and make your choice.

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