Up Close Bolivia, volunteering in La Paz

On this trip I was very keen to volunteer and most of the research I conducted before I left was into volunteering. I did this at Aldea Luna, which was my first stop, and I kinda knew that I wouldn’t have time again in Chile and Argentina due to the amount of places I wanted to visit. Upclose Bolivia was one I was particularly keen on as it would give me the opportunity to work at a zoo, I’ll cover the specifics in another post, as it has been something that I’ve wanted to try for a long long time. A few weeks before I was due to arrive in Bolivia and thanks to references from Kelly and Dave I was accepted to the programme. In this post I talk about my time in La Paz. If you would like to read about the zoo then read this post.

Just rolling back a little, as the last few posts have been a little disjointed in terms of time line and the reason being is that I couldn’t cover 6 weeks in one post, as I’ve not talked about my first few data in La Paz.

When we arrived in Uyuni all of us from the Salar de Uyuni tour realised we didn’t want to stay there long so booked our places on various night busses. Benny and Emma decided to head to Sure and the rest of us headed to La Paz. I was tired and confused when we arrived in La Paz at 5am and jumped in a taxi with Michelle, Ruben and Niklas which dropped is at our various hostels. Mine was kind enough to show me straight to my bed and I had a restless few hours. I gave up on sleep and the hostel manager suggested a few things for me to do. One was the Red Cap city tour and as I’ve said before it’s good to help you get adjusted to the city. Niklas joined me and we met the others and Nathalie, a friend of Michelle’s after, heading up on the Teleférico to the El Alto market. We also brought Death Road tickets but I didn’t end up going because I was still awake at 3am and I’ll talk about this in my El Choro trek post.

The next day I extended my visa and hung out with the girls as I was feeling rather sheepish. We were tired after a week of little sleep and when I got back I found out the police had looked through all of my things as the two rather rude Germans, just these guys most Germans I meet are lovely, had been caught smoking weed. It creates a weird atmosphere which was weirder than it already was. I ended up going out for tapas with Nathalie that night, you can see the results in the La Paz food post. The next day I met up with Andrea who lives in La Paz who I had made friends with online. We went to a few bars on a very cold and wet night and then a club and the others joined. At 2am I decided to call it a night as I needed to go to to Upclose for 10am.

One thing that is really important here is the weather. I don’t think I explained how cold it was when we arrived. Bolivia was having some really unseasonal weather. From January to May there is rainy season and this was the dry season, where it is not supposed to rain! It was also unseasonally cold, despite it being winter. It’s normally sunny all day, warm when the sun shines and cold at night as it’s kinda a desert. It was so cold actually that they couldn’t run the Uyuni tours due to the cold and this added to my mood as I thought I was in for 5 weeks of this.

I awoke early on a cold and wet day and followed Vary’s instructions to the letter. Vary is my amazing coordinator at Upclose Bolivia who always replied in minutes if I had a question and thanks to Vary that I managed to go on most of the hikes in La Paz, see the earlier posts. I got a trufi, a shared taxi, to Jupapina which is a small town just to the south of the city. I was greeted by the lovely Vary and met David, Jazmín and Fabioand was shown to my room. I nearly cried as I realised I would have a private room for the next few weeks and it was so nice to unpack. I sat on the bed for the next two hours enjoying the solitude before I was given a welcoming lunch and met everyone. But before I introduce everyone let’s see some photos of Colibrí Camping, which is a campsite also run by Emma and Rolando, who I will also introduce shortly.

The above pics are from the Verde House which is where I lived for 5 weeks. Below is the rest of the camp site.

At the dinner I met the Belgium couple who were Work always at Colibri Camping. And Marcelo and Mariana who work at the campsite full time. There were probably other people there but I forget as it’s been a few weeks. That evening we had a pizza and movie night where I got to meet everyone again and it was a really nice introduction. the pizza is from a local Italian restaurant and is delivered by taxi. I found this out one night when I was headed into La Paz and the taxi that picked me up dropped off a pizza. He then pulled up outside the restaurant, beeped the horn and a waiter came out to collect the money. One thing I’ve noticed during my stay here is how trusting people are and also how honest they are in paying.

I think the stop was exactly what I needed after 4 months plus of travelling. The chance to unpack and just stop somewhere, to have a room of my own and not sleep with strangers snoring or waking me up at stupid times of the night was amazing. I really took advantage of the solitude but the weather was still freezing. I went to my room at 8pm every night and I didn’t realise it at the time but I was pretty grumpy for the first week. Again I think this was to do with fatigue and just needing to relax and watch Netflix was amazing.

The next day Vary took me to my first project, the horse treatment centre. She also showed me zona sur which would become my second home, helped me by socks and food from the supermarket.

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t enjoy the horses. The people there were lovely but I’ve grown up around horses and I now definitely know they are the one animal I do not enjoy being around. I had applied to work exclusively at the zoo but on my application I talked about my experience growing up around horses and I probably confused things. It also didn’t help that my first zoo shift was cancelled so I went back to the horse centre. This mainly involved me cleaning out the stables for 9 horses. I hated doing this as a child and I hated it now. But for me I wanted to learn new things and being around horses I wasn’t learning anything. After the forth shift I spoke with Vary who instantly changed my schedule so I was exclusively working at the zoo. I do want to just clarify that this is a personal choice and opinion. Pippa and the others loved working with the horses and they do good work there so check the website for more information-I won’t detail it here. I am just being honest with recording my time travelling.

After my first morning with the horses Vary took me back to Colibri and there I met Raquel my Spanish teacher. Upclose Bolivia can also arrange Spanish lessons and this is something I wanted to take advantage of whilst staying in one place. Raquel is Bolivian and a really great and patient teacher. Especially with me as I find it difficult to remember words. I’ve realised I’m like a child learning a language and the only way I learn is pure exposure to it and repeating things when I see them. This means most Spanish speakers end up handgun out with a toddler, but I suppose when it comes to me there is not much difference for English speakers either. But after another 20 hours of lesions I have a much better understanding of how the verbs work which is a testament to Raquel considering no one has been able to do this before.

The campsite and volunteering accommodation are situated above the Valley of the Flowers, so called because it is where the locals grow flowers for th markets. It makes for beautiful views and in my first week I took a trip down to the river, which is a little stinky as it runs through La Paz.

This is the river from the valley floor.

And some sunset pics from the trek back up to the campsite.

When I arrived Emma, Rolando, Bell and David returned from holiday. Emma is British and runs Upclose Bolivia and Rolando is Bolivian and manages he campsite. They are both heavily involved with the loca community and they managed lots of projects between them. Emma moved here for three months as per of her PhD and is still here. Rolando was great always with a smile and making sure I got in all of my early morning taxis. Bell and David are their children and the first thing I need to say is how welcoming the whole family is. By the end I did feel as if I had a second family and all of them are so happy to help out whenever they can. One day I was at the supermarket trying to return a razor that didn’t work-you won’t believe how hard it was but luckily David was there and stepped in to assist. He was a big fan of the World Cup and invited us to watch all the games. Bell was also great at giving me travel advice, tips on where to eat and where to buy things. She also taught me a lot about politics, education and how things worked in La Paz, providing me win information I wouldn’t get otherwise. I personally think she would have a great career in politics considering her fair and strong opinions.

We were all invited to their house for Jazmín and Fabiola leaving dinner, everyone gets a goodbye meal and it’s a really nice touch. You are also five a symbol, a chance to reflect on your time volunteering and the family and Vary also give you feedback. It’s something I’m not used to doing in England but it’s great and I rank it alongside Bolivians saying hello and goodbye to everyone in the room as they arrive and leave. One kiss to the cheek for women, which is standard in South America, and a handshake or hug for the men. It’s actually really good as I saw Vary do it at a party and it immediately breaks the ice. You don’t sit there thinking “who are those people”? But I’ve digressed and the tacos that evening were delicious.

I could talk more but this is one of the highlights of the stay, feeling part of a community and learning more about the culture. Previously on the trip I’ve met people but because I move so fast I’ve not had the opportunity to feel part of anything and if you are planning a long trip here, or anywhere, I’d really advise if you can to stay in one place for a while. What’s great about this is that we were not in a compound mikes away from anywhere, but on the edge of a city and were free to roam. We had to get to the volunteering ourselves which meant getting to grips with the mini-busses. And working with local people.

The minibuses in La Paz are special. Outside of the teleférico there is little in the way of formal public transport. What you have is a million minibuses. Now there is some form of regulation, it’s not completely random. So like busses each mini bus displays its destination in the window, normally multiple so you can see where it goes. You can either wave one down, they will tend to beep at you or just open the door wherever it happens to stop, red light, roundabout etc and open the door and jump in. You can even ride shotgun with the driver if you want. When you want to get off just shout something in Spanish. Esquina Por Favor is normally the best, not Escooner which is a long running joke that I will dearly miss. And the striver will stop. If you are at the back the bus will empty out so you can get off and everyone jumps on again. There are no seatbelts and they drive fast but carefully and it’s a bumpy ride. I will truest miss them. And at 2 Na it’s a bargain. I knew I was here a while when in central La Paz I walked out into traffic and jumped on a bus stopped at a light, I even got acknowledged for my Buenos Noches. But this is one of the many things La Paz has to offer. Zona Sur is great and there is so much more than staying in the centre of the city and I think you can see that reflected in my other posts.

Jumping back to the family there are also three dogs, one is called Tilly who became Pippa’s favourite and Phoebe, smelly cat, because of her farts and you can see her below. I didn’t get any shots of the dogs.

During my time there were lots of people who came and went. Sharon and her 10 year old son John, a fine gentleman in the making. Sharon is from the US and she sponsors a Bolivian girls education. She was only able to meet the girl for one day so decided to volunteer for two weeks with John. After which her husband and two younger children joins them for a two week holiday where they got night-busses and experiences Bolivia. I was so impressed and they told me at their leaving party that there is never a good time to do something and it’s still good experience for the children even when they are young. If you wait to do something it may never happen and I wholeheartedly agree. Sharon and John worked with me at the zoo, along with Mathaus, a high school student form the US who was visiting his grandfather.

Michele and Darik moves into the house on the third week. They are staying for eight weeks and replaces the Belgium work aways. Pippa and I had a really fun time with them and all quickly made friends, made especially easy with Dariks very British attitude to beer. At Pippa’s leaving party with her Bolivian friends Darik became my designated drinker because I had to go on a hike early the next day. It’s a task he took to well and I’ll call on him in the future if I need the service again.

For the World Cup Pippa and I were invited to the ambassadors house to watch the quarter final. Luckily it was a win but it was so nice to have the invitation extended.

We watched the semi final in the bar with the family, their British friend amad Michelle and Darik who helped to console us after the loss. There were many more pole and many more things, I’m not sure I introduced Pippa properly, but this is becoming too long and I hope it’s given a flavour of what I did in La Paz. I’ll write another post for my animal pics of the zoo as that is another huge section. But here is us at the leaving party.

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