Our time in Bolivia has been rich with new experiences and interesting relationships. Being here for an extended period of time, as well as volunteering, has given us a deeper appreciation of the culture and the people who live in Bolivia. Our first month was spent volunteering with Up Close Bolivia, a family run organization that is involved in many social projects in their community working with vulnerable populations such as women, children, and people with mental or physical disabilities. Emma, a caring, humorous Brit, along with her Bolivian husband Rolando, run the organization with their two teenage children Belle and David. It has been a privilege to see first- hand the impact this family has had on their community. They live one half hour outside of La Paz city in a sleepy little village called Jupipina overlooking a river, fields of flowers, and the Andes Mountains. Colibri (Hummingbird) campground is also on their property and many tourists stay for a few days or a few weeks in little A-frame cabins just below where we lived. There is a constant flow of people through the Mendoza’s doors on any given day. We were welcomed into a community of 14 European and 3 Bolivian volunteers who soon became our friends. Many parties, movie nights, and pot luck suppers enabled us to get to know each other quickly. Our kids jumped right in and had a blast socializing with this gang. We were sad to say goodbye to all of them as they travelled back to their families for Christmas. A few stayed on and we celebrated Christmas with them as well as with several local families. The overwhelming hospitality displayed by the Mendozas to many young foreigners and locals alike made our stay particularly memorable.
The girls and I spent our time volunteering in a preschool. We organized gross motor games for children, as well as helped with their daily care. There are no ugly babies in Bolivia, I guarantee! We fell in love with their beautiful round faces, brown sparkling eyes and impish ways. Another program we assisted with was a state-run social services center, Albergue, where children are cared for until their families are stable for them to return. Many come from very abusive homes or have been involved in human trafficking and are happy to have a diversion away from the stress and sadness in their little lives. It was rewarding to be able to coax smiles and giggles out of them with games and activities. I also worked alongside other physiotherapists at a horse therapy project for special needs children at the University giving them experience riding horses and improving their gross motor skills, fine motor skills and attention deficits. Social and emotional support was provided to these families by volunteer psychology students on campus. The program was run by a lively, dedicated vet named Felix, who ended up winning the Golden Bolivian award for all of his volunteer contributions to kids in La Paz. Television crews showed up one day to film us all celebrating with him. I was pulled aside for an interview to discuss his work, but the news crew quickly recognized my confused face as they fired questions at me in Spanish. Emma came to my rescue and took over the interview.
Mark and the boys spent their month working at the La Paz Zoo which was situated in Mallasa, a twenty minute bus ride away. The boys worked with a Bolivian vet, Emerson, who was in charge of animal enrichment projects and feeding while Mark shadowed the other vets on staff who oversaw animal health. The boys also got involved in some soccer coaching as well as helping to run activities for the older children at Albergue.
Fourteen years ago the women of Mallasa (the Mallasa Mother’s Group) banded together to blockade the road preventing all of the garbage from La Paz to pass to Mallasa where it was being dumped. These women transformed their village and successfully were able to clean up their backyard which eventually became home to the La Paz Zoo. Now Mallasa has a huge influx of visitors from La Paz every weekend and on holidays to visit the zoo and recreate in the beautiful parks. What a story of bravery and determination about women who are often marginalized in Bolivian society.
It is difficult to be a woman in Bolivia. Statistics are staggering of physical abuse in the homes. A large number of women suffer from some form of domestic violence and as a result, many are leaving their husbands to raise children on their own. The women of Mallasa are a brave group of women who not only advocated for cleaning up their backyard, but also started the Valley of The Moon Children’s Center with the help of the Mendoza family. Women run and operate the preschool and hire mainly single mothers to teach as “Tias”.
Tias are trained in early childhood education before starting work at the center. In the past, many of these children were left at home alone all day while their mothers worked to be able to feed and clothe them. When the center opened a lot of the students were malnourished as their mothers did not have the money or energy to care for them properly. Over the past fourteen years the preschool has become a huge success. The children are fed extremely well during the course of the day. Their daily routines enhance healthy social skills as well as stimulating the children’s minds and bodies with various activities. Recently they had one of their graduates begin university in La Paz, a very rewarding time for the Mendoza family to see the results of years of support. Many of these children are now thriving with consistent nutrition and healthy social routines. The volunteers assist with meal preparation and distribution as well as leading creative and physical activities for the children. Because we were here in December, we participated in the year-end graduation ceremony as well as the annual Christmas party. Mark was dressed as “Papa Noel” to give out gifts to the children that the girls had helped to purchase and wrap. He was a good sport and only made a few kids cry with his satin outfit and freakish beard.
We really enjoyed La Paz city, a crazy city of 1 million people buzzing with traditional and modern culture side by side. The city was built in a canyon at 3200 meters altitude climbing to 4060 meters up steep mountain sides. El Alto, another city of over 1 million, is on the altiplano above and flows right into La Paz below. Seeing the Chilitas (country women) dressed in their traditional clothing consisting of a bolar hat, decorative shawl, sweater, pleated skirt, and a working apron over top,never got tiring. The women carry children and produce on their backs in colourful cloths, walking many miles to sell their products. We saw them up at 5:00 am waiting by the side of the road for a bus to take them to sell their produce at city markets. Several gondolas or “telefericos” have been installed in the city to aid in moving people between the altiplano (flat highlands) and the valley below, assisting somewhat in the crazy flow of traffic.
Unfortunately, the big city of La Paz ran out of water the week we arrived. This created a lot of sickness among the volunteers as well as stress for the Mendoza family. Water rationing was in place for several weeks until holding tanks were ready to collect rain water and to store water when the taps were running. People were very upset with the government because there was no warning until the reservoirs were almost completely empty. Late rains and reduced glacial melt are part of the reason that the reservoirs got to a critically low level. Friends of ours were without water for 22 days at their homes. They had to line up with buckets once a week to get water for household use and everyone was buying drinking water. For the first few weeks our taps were turned off for a few days at a time, so we were saving water to flush toilets and wash dishes. It made us appreciate our water back home.
A special surprise for my kids was having their Grandmother travel half way across the world to be with us for a month over Christmas. My Mom will be 79 in February, and I am very proud of her bravery and sense of adventure at her age. She participated in all of our trips, travelling to the Amazon after Christmas, sleeping under a mosquito net in the jungle, floating down the “pampas” river to watch all the birds and animals in the jungle. We also spent several days in the Salt Flats of Bolivia seeing the amazing landscape to the south- salt flats the size of Belgium, deserts, geysers, hot springs, lagoons full of flamingos, snow-capped Andes Mountains, and active volcanoes. It was a great month with many wonderful memories. Acclimatizing to the high altitude is very difficult for young people, but Mom adapted very quickly, resting for the first few days to get used to the thin air. There was only one incident where I walked too quickly up an incline for several blocks to reach the teleferico and it took her all day to recuperate. Well oxygenated air is something we all take for granted!!
Our interpreters Justa and Willy were our guardians while we lived in Jupipina. They helped us organize taxis, book trips, and attempted to teach us Spanish. The kids all learned very quickly, but Mark and I struggled with our old brains and poor memories. I thought I was doing pretty well, but the kids told me I was just saying English words with an unusual accent. Justa, a kind, authentic soul, was willing to help us day or night. She welcomed us with open arms and supported us in our volunteer work on the days she wasn’t teaching flute lessons at the Conservatory or playing in the La Paz orchestra. It was Justa who was worrying about us getting home from the Salt Flats when all of the roads were closed for the Dakar race, a South American cross country motor-cross rally race that was cruising through the city with thousands of participants. Willy organized many opportunities for the boys to play walleyball (volleyball in a squash court) and indoor soccer with his friends. These two were also our tour guides around La Paz teaching us how to use the teleferico, the mini buses, and taking us to El Alto, the dangerous city on the plateau above La Paz ( picture scarecrows hanging from the powerlines to warn thieves of the communal/vigilante justice system).
One of the first people I met in Bolivia was a young 26 year old gal named Cassandra. She ended up being a wonderful role model and soccer coach for the girls. I was assessing her knee injury at a charity event in the city when we quickly got to know each other and she offered to help the girls with some soccer skills. She shared with us her journey as a young girl playing soccer in Bolivia before many girls were playing the sport. Cassandra along with her Dad started a soccer academy for girls and created a whole series of skill based training programs which eventually led to the first professional woman’s soccer team called the Ninfas. Not only can this girl play soccer, but she was Ms. La Paz a couple of years ago and recently got an audition for “The Voice”. You can look her up on YouTube under Cassandra Camacho to listen to her recently recorded cover songs. It was a privilege to meet this gal who also cooked us a lovely authentic Bolivian meal on Christmas Eve.
Willie has been our right hand man. He organized several beautiful dinners for us, two at the home of his parents. We also attended a championship professional soccer match between the two top Bolivian teams with Willie and his Father. What an experience to hear the cheering of crazy fans and to watch very dramatic players play soccer. The fans were singing, throwing confetti, releasing yellow smoke bombs and chanting. Somebody was getting “injured” on the field every few minutes. The captain was taken off on a stretcher in the first few minutes of the game but came back on soon after to play the whole game. We were very fortunate to have Willy as our interpreter as his volunteer work with Up Close coincided exactly with ours. He has worked several years for the UN in Bolivia as well as for UNICEF and is hoping to one day be the head of volunteers in Bolivia for the UN. Working with our crazy crew may have changed his mind….
Christmas day was spent with several volunteers and families that live in Bolivia. One family has been living and working in Bolivia for 14 years. They have established a program for women working in the brothels across from the International Airport. Sadly, many of these girls have been sexually abused at a young age and or have run away from home with no means to support themselves. Within 48 hrs of leaving home, most of them find themselves in prostitution. Some of these women are also single Mom’s and are trying to make money to clothe and feed their children. The program at Sutisana is multifaceted. Women are given counselling, workshops on computer skills and self care, hot lunches, child care, after school support for their children and a chance at a new career. A sewing workshop has been established where beautiful purses, shirts and bags are created. Selling these products gives these women a steady salary as well as health care benefits for their families. The women are supported as they chose, with courage, to step out of a way of life that is very demoralizing for them and their children. Lives are transformed as they realize they have options and are no longer slaves to a way of life they have lived for so long. We visited their workshop a few times and helped count inventory in their store. They also have an online store that will ship to Canada☺
I really knew nothing about Bolivia before we arrived and I was very surprised at the diversity in landscape as well as culture. On our trips out of La Paz we saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. The Salt Flats and Lagoons to the south full of flamingos were spectacular with volcanoes and Andes Mountain ranges in the background. Rurrenabaque in the heart of the Amazon was also unbelievable. Cruising down the Beni River and observing all of the diversity of wildlife in the wetlands was very surreal. The kids counted over 100 Caiman along the river and many squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, exotic birds, capabara ( picture giant size rats without tails!!!), and several groups of pink river dolphins. Isle Del Sol was like stepping back in time with no cars, chilitas dressed in traditional clothing tending to donkeys, llamas, and sheep, Inca ruins (including a human sacrificial table) and very little infrastructure on the island. This island sits in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the largest fresh water, alpine lake in the world.
We thought the quality of food in Bolivia was very good with all of the produce and meat having intense flavour. Carrots, potatoes (all 400 varieties), chicken, fruit all tasted fantastic. A typical Bolivian dinner included rice, at least two types of boiled potatoes, corn, and a bit of meat. This high carb diet was challenging for my slow metabolism! Although the food tasted great, their cuisine was very basic and didn’t have a lot of variety.
Leaving Jupipina was like leaving home all over again. After two months, we all felt very comfortable in our little green house in the mountains. Sadly we said goodbye to the Mendoza family, Justa, Willy, the remaining volunteers, and pressed on to the next part of our journey.
Following a two and a half hour ride in a taxi down the death road highway, we arrived at our new home, La Senda Verde. The lush green jungle at 1200 meters was a sharp contrast to the hoodoos and alpine landscape in La Paz. A world full of exotic animal sounds greeted us at the wildlife refuge once we crossed the river on a rickety swinging bridge. We stepped into a long corridor that was enclosed with chain link fence. It became apparent very quickly that we were the ones encaged and the animals were free to roam. This refuge is home to 700 animals and was established because of a need in Bolivia to find a safe home for animals that have been trafficked. All the animals were trafficked as pets and confiscated by officials. Due to the possibility that these animals could infect a healthy population of wild animals, Bolivia has a law stating that they are not allowed to be released. The animals are extremely well looked after and for the most part are happy with their new homes. Wheelbarrows full of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat are brought in daily. The volunteers looked longingly at all of the food that was wheeled past, as our food was good, but very basic and high in carbs. One morning I could smell banana bread cooking and was really looking forward to having it at lunch. There was no banana bread on our table for lunch or supper but the next morning the macaws and parrots were treated to banana bread for breakfast.
To be honest I wasn’t too keen about spending two weeks shlepping out cages and feeding wild animals. It was outside of my comfort zone to have parrots landing on my head and shoulders and various species of monkeys crawling all over me, but the volunteers we met made the whole experience worthwhile. Once again we got to know another amazing group of 30 people who came from many parts of South America as well as Europe. There were even two Canadians there with us. Caring hearts attracts these kids to this type of project. They loved the animals and were very kind to old ladies like me too! We took turns cleaning dishes, feeding and observing the various animals. The prep kitchen was buzzing with people three times a day at feeding time. There were over 11 different species of monkeys alone with the majority being the intelligent Capuchins. They also had a huge contingency of several different species of parakeets, parrots, and macaws. I woke up to “hola” and sexy whistling each dawn which I thought was coming from Mark but eventually realized it was the birds making all the fuss. Some of the more unique animals were the tapir, capybara, margays, ocelots, toucans, puma and spectacle bears. Vicky, the owner, had recently recorded a sad story of one of the bears who was beaten in Cochabamba and as a result lost his eyesight. Senda Verde was asking the government to pass a law to protect these rare bears and to name the law after this particular bear so that his suffering would not be in vain.
It was surreal to walk to our house and have a spider monkey climb up wanting to snuggle for a few moments. Some of them fell asleep in our arms. We learned that we had to be cautious with a few of these animals because one in particular had a bi-polar personality and could switch from a loving pet to a crazy wild beast in a matter of seconds. Sylva was the Spider Monkey that I tried to stay clear of. Hannah was enjoying a hug from her and just finished saying how incredible it was to get hugged so tightly by a monkey when Sylva had a tantrum and started biting her on the arms. My brave girl just stood there and waited for Sylva to calm down. Another volunteer lured Sylva away and Hannah was able to escape with only small injuries. On another occasion the front door was left open and Luke and Hannah were upstairs reading. They looked up to find a spider monkey swinging from the balcony inside the house. Luke managed to shoo her out the door before she got into too much mischief. We were pretty sure it was Sylva as we witnessed her checking all of the latches to see who had left their door open. I also gave a wide berth to the spider monkeys at the vet clinic because they liked to pee on me from a distance and some had exceptional aim.
We all fell in love with Maho, a baby howler monkey who was being monkey-sat by Emily, a Swiss/American volunteer. We were not sure who Jacob enjoyed spending time with more Maho or Emily. He spent countless hours wrestling and running after Maho and hanging out with Emily. Since Maho had the same colour of red hair as Jacob we were thinking that perhaps they were related….. Jacob’s behaviour often resembled Maho’s as well…hmmm
Did I mention that they had a rat problem there? The refuge was situated beside a river and with all of the food available the rat population was thriving. I have a huge fear of rats, so I found it very uncomfortable eating dinner and watching a rat crawl up the outside screen. Thankfully the rats mostly kept to areaswhere the food was plentiful outside near the feeding areas and animal prep kitchen, but there was also an incident with rats in the human kitchen too ahh………..
I survived the death road on a downhill mountain bike. What a beautiful, scary experience, but the t-shirt was well worth it. Hundreds of people used to die every year on this road which was the main highway connecting the low lands to La Paz as it was only 3 meters wide in sections with 400 meter drops off the edge. Passing a bus on some sections was almost impossible. Again, I was proud of my brave girls who navigated with little problem. Naomi did one end-o over the handlebars and Mark fell off his bike at one point but fortunately it was early on in the trip before the stakes got high! The boys had ridden the road earlier on with kids from Up Close so it was just the four of us left to conquer the road along with my adopted daughter, Nina from Edmonton. We started with 6 inches of snow at the top and ended in the jungle at 26 °C, a change of altitude of over 6000meters. What a day of adrenalin and excitement. The views were spectacular and well worth risking my life for.
The grand finale of our time in Coroico was riding the Flying Fox zip line at 85km/hr through the Amazon canopy hundreds of meters above the valley floor. We waved to the puma at Senda Verde as we whizzed over the reserve below, a thrilling end to a great time in the Yungas region of Bolivia. After two weeks at the wildlife reserve we returned to La Paz for a final farewell BBQ and birthday party for Naomi with Willie’s family. We also hit our favourite cafe, Cafe Del Mundo, which the kids had been dreaming of while eating rice and buns at Senda Verde and said farewell to our two lovely adopted daughters Emily and Nina. We flew on to Miami for a five night lay over to restock our wardrobes and make plans for our trip to South Africa.