Tag Archives: La Paz

And then there were two Higgis on tour

My blog has taken a back seat in recent weeks (and I’m too busy to do anything about that now), but I thought I’d post an update now that I’m no longer travelling solo!

My sister Kate has just arrived in La Paz after an epic 36 hour journey from London. We’re only going to spend the next couple of days here in Bolivia, just long enough for me to show her where I spent most of my time as a volunteer: outside of La Paz in Jupapina and Mallasa.

After that we’ll be bussing it to Peru to cram in as many touristy things as we can before Christmas, including Machu Picchu on 20th December. Hopefully the rainy season is kind to us. Then we’re spending Christmas in Buenos Aires, New Year in Rio de Janeiro, with a stop at Iguazu Falls in between. It’s going to be a fun four weeks!

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Bolivia, Week Eight and time to say goodbye

I thought about a few ways of writing this blog post, but in the end I’ve decided to do a separate review of my time in Bolivia and just stick with a chronological account of my last week here – starting with a special Sunday in La Paz. 

Sunday 4th September in La Paz was El Día del Peatón (The Day of the Pedestrian), which meant that no cars were allowed on the roads between 9am and 5pm – amazingly this applied to the whole city, including all the way out to Jupapina, 45 minutes from the centre. 

For us this meant that there was no Porvenir session, so Justa accompanied Lizzie, Lucy, Malte and I into the city (via the teleférico). She guided us through the empty streets towards the centre, pointing out lots of places that had shaped her life in La Paz – mostly focused on music. 

When we reached the city’s main street, El Prado, it was full of life. There were stalls selling all manner of things, which I suppose isn’t uncommon, but there was also music and impromptu football games, art classes, skate parks, trampolines and lots more. Four of us stepped into a football game with some teenagers and despite my and Justa’s best efforts to make it a close game, Malte ensured that we won with a couple of fierce finishes (“they need to learn how to lose”). 

Afterwards, Malte left us to go into El Alto, so I spent the rest of the day with the three girls. We decided to do the Red Cap Walking Tour and even Justa learned a thing or two. We had lunch at a fancy vegetarian place and then spent a pretty unsuccessful hour browsing the market. As 5pm approached we returned to El Prado and enjoyed the unique atmosphere of the day. 


Monday started with my penultimate Spanish lesson and then we spent the rest of the day preparing for the week ahead. I made some paper aeroplanes for the Children’s Centre and covered a balloon in papier-mache to make a head for the Albergue. We also went to the local florist to buy plants for a new garden at the Albergue. 

I had another Spanish lesson on Tuesday morning and this concluded my 20-hour package in Bolivia. My final ciao to Sergio was the first of the week’s goodbyes. 

Nikki and I gave an English class in the afternoon and we spent much of it preparing for Thursday, when the students would be conversing with some real English speakers (the other volunteers).  

At the Albergue we split the group of girls into two – half of them started outside in the garden and half made papier-mache heads in the classroom (they switched roles half way through). I stayed inside the whole time as the papier-mache expert (despite my familial horticultural support). 

In the evening we all went to the stunning home of Raul and Fabiola (parents of Maria Paz from Porvenir) for a pizza party. And it wasn’t just any pizza; it was homemade on their indoor BBQ and absolutely delicious. Raul even accommodated Lucy’s veganism! For dessert we had a sweet pizza, with toppings including peanut butter and chocolate!


During the night I found out that Bell is desperate to be mentioned in my blog, so this sentence is just for her. 

Oh yeah, Tuesday was also my birthday! At the end of the night I was treated to a chorus of Feliz Cumpleaños and presented with a Bolivian football shirt from the gang – thanks guys! 


The Mendozas also brought a cake with (lots of) candles and this was the result:

Wednesday was my last day at Centro Infantil and everyone there made it very special for me. In the middle of the morning, everyone gathered together and I was brought to the front. The Tías then led the children in a song while they all waved at me. It brought a tear to my eye (not the first time I’ve said that in this blog). Then Lionel was the first class representative to step forward, hand me a card and give me a big hug. His classmates followed and I was quickly overwhelmed by them climbing all over me! There was brief lull as they dispersed before children from the other four classes came forward and repeated the routine – card, hugs, climbing! I was really touched by the reactions of the children and the words of the Tías.

Our best laid plans for Wednesday afternoon at the Albergue changed when we learned that a Bolivian dance company would be performing for the children instead. We played football and volleyball for almost an hour while they got ready and then we were treated to the show. It was a bit surreal for the most part, although the Michael Jackson medley at the end was decent. 


I had a rare lie-in on Thursday morning, but I was up and at it by 9am ahead of my last English class. We set the children up in a kind of speed-dating format and asked them to find out things about each other and the guest volunteers. 


For the boys session at the Albergue, we spent the first hour outside in the garden. 



Then we went into the classroom and the boys papier-mache’d balloons, ready to paint them as heads next week. Before I left, I got some handmade leaving presents: a giraffe from the boys’ class and two tiny shoes from the girls (the blue one representing Bolivar and the yellow one for The Strongest, the two biggest football teams in La Paz). 


That night we went into San Miguel for dinner at the Taj Mahal restaurant. The food was excellent and I even treated myself to a beer. 

When I woke up on Friday, it finally dawned on me that I was leaving Up Close and Jupapina in a matter of hours (Saturday would be a 6am start in La Paz, so I decided to stay in a hostel in the city on Friday night).

I spent the morning hurriedly packing my things, before it was time to go to Porvenir. In some ways it was a standard session, but it was tinged with sadness. We made up for it with lots of pictures (on various phones, so more pictures may follow) and Facebook friend requests. 

In the evening, I made my way into the city by bus (another sign of how far I’d come – the opposite journey on arrival cost me 70Bs, but this time it was 2.60Bs). I dropped off my bags in the hostel and met up with Justa for my last night in La Paz. We stayed out late for dinner and a few drinks and it was a really nice way to end the week. 

Bolivia, Week Five

After four completed weeks, I’d hit the half way point and was settling into a routine – nine sessions a week over three projects – but all that was about to change.

New arrivals

First off, we welcomed two more volunteers to make a total of five. Malte joined us from Hamburg and Lizzie (from Sale!) returned to work with UpClose after spending several months here in 2012.

Telegraph article

Monday is normally my day off, but after a weekend of procrastinating I still had an English lesson to plan. But even that had to take a back seat after I received this email from Kaya (the volunteering organisation who arranged my trip).

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I quite enjoyed answering the Telegraph’s questions – finally writing down what I’d told dozens of people over the last few months. A few days later, I learned that they ran the piece in the online edition (here), but I’ve also posted my full response on my blog (here).

Teaching English

Aside from my unexpected cameo in the national press, the English classes dominated my week. Although Justa assured me that nowhere near 50 students would show up, I wasn’t so sure (hope for the best, plan for the worst as Jack Reacher would say). But, as ever, Justa was right and we only had seven. The lesson was mainly for me to gauge the students’ level to plan future lessons and I found that all of them were beginners or even complete newcomers.


Teaching on Tuesday/Thursday means I won’t be at the Children’s Centre on those days, restricting my attendance to just Wednesday morning. This week, however, it was agreed I could miss that session as well, so that I could plan not just my next English lesson, but my next series of lessons. I was fairly happy with my progress until I found out I’d be flying solo for the next two – it was time to start scripting instructions!

Thankfully my preparation for Thursday’s class paid off. I had 11 students this time and it went well, even when I introduced a game of 21’s (the non-drinking version).

Albergue

We made flags to celebrate El Día de la Bandera and did origami in the classroom sessions, but this week’s highlight came on Wednesday. We played a game that I first played a few years ago at a Higgi family get-together. I don’t know if it has a name, but the children took it in turns (randomly, based on the roll of a dice) to dress up in a huge jumper, scarf, hat and gloves and then use a knife and fork to cut pieces from a bar of chocolate against the clock. It probably sounds a bit daft, but the children really enjoyed it!


After that we exploded more volcanoes – I think we broke our previous record and got the eruption about 12 feet in the air!

Good food!

On Wednesday evening, Laura, Constança and I had the pleasure of accepting a dinner invitation at the house of one of the Porvenir families. Their daughter has provided me with some of my favourite moments of my trip (eg the sack race from week two) and the parents are incredibly nice people. To our delight, we also discovered that they’re pretty handy in the kitchen and I enjoyed the best meal I’ve had in a long time (I had fourths). We had a very enjoyable night – thanks again Raul and Fabiola!

Thursday was party night in Jupapina, but it was also tinged with sadness as it was Laura’s despedida. Everyone contributed some food apart from me (beer, wine, coke and lemonade instead) and we had a nice little feast. The guest of honour finished it off in style with a delicious chocolate cake.

And that nearly brings the blog up to date. After a relatively uneventful Friday session at Porvenir, I packed a bag and went into La Paz to catch the overnight bus that I’ve typed all this on. My next blog will hopefully have lots of pictures from the Salt Flats!

Bolivia, Week Four

My fourth week started with a Monday morning Spanish lesson and it seems as though I tricked Sergio in our first lesson, because he came back armed with books and music that were far too advanced for me!

Volcanoes in the Albergue

The big day finally arrived; after two weeks of making, fixing, painting and decorating volcanoes, it was time for them to erupt. I was nervous that it wouldn’t work or impress the children as we hadn’t done that much testing, but I needn’t have worried. The first collective “woooow” as the vinegar and bicarb soda mixture spewed upwards was a joy to my ears.

They were still just as attentive after an hour, but unfortunately we were running out of ingredients. I made sure the last one was the most explosive and the children scattered as it sprayed all around. More volcanoes next week!

At this point I’d like to add a photo or video, but the Albergue has very strict and very sensible rules to protect the children’s privacy, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they were very excited. Here’s one of a volcano though: 

In the two classroom sessions, we made musical instruments, such as maracas (decorated toilet rolls with rice inside), tambourines/panderetas (plates with bells) and guitars (half a bottle with elastic bands). Very creative. 

Children’s Centre

I was in the “babies’ room” for the first time (I think their toddling skills should allow them to bear the name). Every day is a learning experience for me, especially with a different age group. There are lots of toys and balls to keep them entertained, but some of them only want what another child has, which means that I spent most of my time getting in between scrapping toddlers. Lifting them in the air seems to be a guaranteed winner at the nursery, but again, if you do it for one…

The next day I was with the pre-infant class, who 2-3 years old. They can do most things themselves, but often choose not to. The tía in the class is new and left me with eight children for about ten minutes – when she came back they were climbing all over me, each trying to get me to read the book they had chosen.

For our morning activity (with two classes on Tues/Wed), we made tambourines and sang songs (los pollitos dicen) – right up my street.

For Thursday I was in the kitchen and helped prepare lasagne (washing up is helping, right?) It was easily the best meal at the nursery so far and I was disappointed not to get seconds. On the same day, Constança started at the zoo and she “painted piñatas for a spider monkey’s birthday” – such a great sentence.

Teaching English

We had our weekly planning meeting on Friday morning and the headline for me was that I would be teaching English twice a week. On one hand, I was happy to be able to put my CELTA training into action, but it was still daunting. Partly because I didn’t know what to expect, but also because of the preparation involved, which is very different than for less academic and more playful sessions. Justa put me at ease by telling me about previous classes and saying that she would be present for the first lesson. That went out of the window when she found out later the same day that more than 50 students had signed up!

Porvenir

We spent the afternoon at Porvenir and had a typically quiet Friday session. One of the children, Zaira, likes to play with the soft balls, particularly the ones that she sees the other children playing with. When I reached out for her to pass me a ball, she simply sat down in my outstretched hand, much to Constança’s amusement!


Saturday’s session at Porvenir was probably the most tiring yet. The most energetic children were there early and kept me busy, before everyone joined in with some organised games and some yoga.

The next day I was at Porvenir on my own as Laura and Constança had gone to Lake Titicaca. I really enjoy spending time at Porvenir, but after this session I was really tired. A really lovely thing happened when a parent invited the three volunteers for dinner at their home (knowing that Laura would soon be leaving).

The afternoons were supposed to be for planning my first English lesson, but I mostly spent them in bed or watching the Olympics. We all went out to the local pizza place on Saturday night and I got to know the new work-aways, Helene and Alison from Scotland.

Bolivia, Week Three

This week was all about coming and goings… and the zoo!

Comings
This week started with the arrival of some more volunteers, which means I’m no longer the new guy.

Australian couple, Ani and Bill, joined us on Monday – they’re backpacking for a few months and decided to offer their services for a week after seeing an Up Close advert in their hostel in La Paz. I think it’s an amazing way to break up a long trip and experience something other than the typical tourist spots.

The next day, Constança arrived from Coimbra in Portugal (via Madrid and Miami), but it wasn’t all plane sailing. Given the delays and the fact that her luggage didn’t arrive for more than 48 hours, Constança dealt with everything amazingly well – including the altitude, time difference and being thrown straight into working at the schools!

Volunteering

Having more volunteers will open up extra projects, but for this week it just lightened the load and gave me a couple of sessions off.

I was only in the Children’s Centre once this week; helping in the kitchen for the fifth time out of six. The nursery was happy to welcome the new recruits and they were happy to pitch in by helping the Tías in they classrooms and Maxima in the kitchen.

The Albergue, on the other hand, is not a place for any more comings/goings than necessary, so Ani and Bill didn’t join us here in the afternoons (as they are only volunteering for one week).

On Tuesday and Thursday, the niñas and niños painted their volcanoes (which were mostly unrecognisable from the ones they made the previous week, because we took them home and fixed/re-made them over the weekend!) Next week, we’ll hopefully be getting them to erupt!

On Wednesday, we attempted to play dodgeball with all the children, but there were just too many rules to make it work. They were all excited that there were muchas pelotas to play with, but it was chaos. Much more successful was the netball-type game we played next, because there was only one rule – you can’t move with the ball. It’s a more inclusive game here than football because you have to keep passing and involving other people (with a wide age range and a mixed group, the older boys tend to just keep the football).

At Porvenir, we volunteered as a five for the first time and had two pretty relaxed sessions (the Saturday session was cancelled due to a public holiday that nobody seemed to know about in advance). The skipping ropes were popular this week, even with one of the grandmas!

Away from the volunteering

My Wednesday morning off coincided with Megan and Dane’s, so we made an early start to go to the Valle de la Luna. There was a sort of other-worldly feel about the landscape, but the 45 minute circuit was plenty of time to see everything.

Afterwards we went to the zoo in Mallasa and I was pleasantly surprised. A lot of the animals have been rescued and are there to be rehabilitated, meaning they don’t always look their best, but the conditions seemed quite good. Their headline animal is the puma and from what I saw it isn’t short on food.

There are a lot of animals and we whiled away a couple of hours there – the monkeys were my favourite (obviously) and we got pretty close to the condors.

With Saturday’s session at Porvenir cancelled, the four other volunteers decided they wanted to go to the zoo, so I went along for the second time in four days (it only costs 5Bs or 50p). Laura had also been before and showed us to a few parts of the zoo I had missed on Wednesday.

This included the alpacas and vicuñas – the latter seemed to take a liking to us and one charged across the enclosure straight away. Two minutes later when all seemed calm, it jumped again and Laura managed to take this action shot!

I had a Spanish lesson on my other morning off – it was with a new teacher (new in both senses of the word), so he had to start by gauging my level again and he seemed pleased with what I could do. I enjoyed the way he used different media to teach, with a couple of short videos to watch (including a Toy Story Short and The Butterfly Circus).

On Thursday, all the volunteers and work-aways got together for a meal, and Laura did really well cooking for eight for the first time. It was nice to get everyone together as we’re all usually busy and spread out across three houses. We had burritos, Megan provided chocolate cake (having perfected her altitude baking) and then we played some games, like Uno!

Goings

Sunday was the last day for the four Australians – Megan and Dane from the campsite and Ani and Bill as volunteers – so we marked the occasion by going bowling. It might have been my suggestion but everyone seemed to have a really good time; it was new and different for most people!

Afterwards, we ate in the MegaCentre food court and then went to The Dubliner for some happy hour Guinness! It was a good end to another good the week, although it was sad to say goodbye to some new friends.

Bolivia Extra

The last post was basically an overview, but while I’m blogging and have some free time (and after several nice comments) I thought I’d add a few extra details.


My first day in La Paz was the first time I’ve really been affected by the altitude – it’s higher than the Himalayan trek I did in 2009. Jupapina is a couple of hundred metres lower, but even a few stairs can leave you out of breath. Unfortunately, I don’t think living in the Andes is going to make me a superfit runner as it’s just too high, but daily life is easily manageable if you take it easy.

Apart from that, the weather is pretty much perfect and incredibly consistent. There’s rarely a cloud in the sky and every day has been nice and warm. Out of the sun, the temperature drops pretty sharply to about 0°C at night.


The day before I started my volunteering, I went to a football match at Estadio Hernando Siles (the world’s highest international football stadium and subject of some controversy).

It was a La Paz derby in the cup, Bolivar vs The Strongest – the latter is my adopted team because:

  1. the name!
  2. their colours are the same as my university and work teams’
  3. they seemed popular with the kids around the city
  4. they have a player called Pablo Escobar
  5. this was how the fans arrived 90 minutes before kick off:


The match itself was a bit disappointing; the pitch made it difficult to play decent football and the players definitely tired in the second half. It finished 0-0 and went straight to penalties, with The Strongest winning the shootout 3-0. It’s safe to say that the fans outshone the players.


I’m based in Jupapina with the Mendoza family (who run Up Close Bolivia). There’s a large family house, 3 smaller houses for volunteers and work-aways and then a campsite on the same grounds. I share a house with Danny, who’s worked here for two years, although we don’t seem to see that much of each other.

The Children’s Centre and Albergue are a 10 minute drive away in Mallasa (20p by bus or £1 by taxi), whilst Porvenir is just a 5 minute walk down to the bottom of the valley.

It hasn’t been the completely immersive experience I’d been pre-warned about because everyone at Casa Mendoza speaks English. I’m going to have to push myself harder to get as much Spanish conversation in as possible before I go to Peru in September.

I don’t think Bolivia wins many culinary awards, although I’m getting by so far. One of my first meals in La Paz was this very big but very thin beef steak with eggs, on top of mounds of rice and potatoes.

On my first day in Jupapina I was invited to have lunch in Casa Mendoza with the family and workers. I’d already mentioned that I had a dodgy stomach and no appetite that day and that wasn’t helped when they served stomach as the main course (I wasn’t the only one who didn’t eat it!) The next night we went to the local pizza place, which was really good, and I’ve also eaten nice meals at a couple of upmarket places in San Miguel (Italian and Indian). I haven’t done much in my own kitchen yet (no change there), but the fruit and veg here is really good.

Speaking of San Miguel, I discovered the MegaCentre on Saturday. It has all sorts of things in addition to the standard shops and food court, such as bowling, ice skating, paintball and we watched Jason Bourne in the most luxury cinema I’ve ever been in.

Finally, I should say that I played chess against a one-eyed man outside a local shop. He’s there most days and I’d spoken to him a couple of times before we played. Which reminds me, we’re due a rematch.

Two weeks of volunteering in Bolivia

I’ve been living in Jupapina for almost two weeks now, but it feels like longer. I’ve met so many people (mainly children – it’s so hard to learn everyone’s name) and been kept really busy.

Volunteer-wise, I think it’s going pretty well. The first day was a bit overwhelming, as I learned about the three projects I’d be working on and found out that two of the three existing volunteers were leaving pretty much as soon as I arrived! That just left me and Laura (also from Manchester and here 3 weeks before me) and I think we’ve coped quite well – although to be fair to Laura, I’ve taken a backseat a lot of the time while she’s taken the lead with her superior Spanish. I also have to mention Justa, the volunteer coordinator, who has been incredible – not least because she’s juggling that role with her many other commitments and battling against illness for the last week.

So let’s go over the three projects I’ve been involved in:

1) Valley of the Moon Children’s Centre

We spend three days a week here, 08:30-13:00, during which we’re responsible for two hours of activities on two of the days. As above, I’ve not been that involved in much of the planning or explaining activities (yet), but it’s been a lot of fun interacting with the kids (as Tío, which means uncle, or Miguel) – particularly the obstacle course we did on my first day.

The rest of the time is spent either in the kitchen or with the pre-infant class. The kitchen is ok and you get double portions for lunch (not always a good thing), but you have to do things exactly as Maxima says or else you have to watch her redo them. I’ve only had one morning with the pre-infant class and spent a surprising amount of time trying to get them to eat. Playtime was great though and I look forward to more of it.

2) Albergue Children’s Home

This is a facility for vulnerable children who have suffered violence and abuse and they stay from anywhere from a day to three months. We’re also here three days a week, from 14:30-16:30. Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent in the classroom (with girls and boys separately) and we’ve been doing arts and crafts with them so far – making and designing masks in the first week and papier-mâché volcanoes this week. Wednesdays are outside and football is easily the most popular activity (and there are some really good players). We’ve also done a treasure hunt and some sports day type races (sack, egg-and-spoon, 3-legged) with mixed results!

The children are aged from 5 to 17, so it’s difficult to get activities to suit everyone, but they’ve generally responded well. The older girls seem particularly mature and have helped us handle the class at times (two volunteers with limited Spanish and 25 girls is a challenge!) The reactions of some of the younger children has been overwhelming and it’s amazing how quick you bond with them.

My highlight so far is helping Percy with his papier-mâché and getting his over-the-top gratitude and his secret handshake.

3) Porvenir Equine Therapy Centre

The start of my volunteering coincided with the start of a new 10-week cycle at Porvenir. 15-20 children (aged 2-16 with a variety of disabilities and behavioural issues) come to the centre three times a week, accompanied by various family members. Living with a disability in Bolivia can be challenging for the whole family, so this foundation is like a sanctuary for them.

The children each get 15-20 minutes on a horse and some receive physiotherapy and I’m told by the experts that some have shown remarkable progress in just two weeks. The rest of the day is an opportunity for everyone to enjoy themselves in what is an incredible setting – visually stunning and very peaceful, but also a very loving and supportive environment.

For the parents it’s a chance for them to socialise together, while there is lots to keep the children occupied (not least the dozen other children plus me and Laura). It’s a joy to watch the kids having fun, particularly for the parents.

Our role is nothing to do with the horses (obviously), but we help to ensure things run smoothly, help people get to know each other (using name tags and playing games) and keep them entertained (more games and even some yoga). A lot of my time has been chasing footballs to stop them going near the horses.

For the first two sessions, we were joined by some people from the department of human rights who spent a lot of time with the parents. Listening to them was quite emotional and highlighted how much this place means to them.

This has been the project where we’ve had the most time to spend with individual children and families, and again it’s amazing how quickly connections form. My highlight so far was during the sack race, when the girl with the most serious physical disability was helped by her dad to complete her turn and it literally brought a tear to my eye.


For those that are wondering what happened to the football coaching I thought I was going to be doing, it’s because the projects are prioritised and depend on the number of volunteers. But I’m happy and feel privileged to be able to work on the above projects.

Away from the volunteering, it hasn’t been too difficult to adjust to living in Jupapina. The main street has the daily essentials (although the butcher is hardly ever open when you need it) and Mallasa (where our midweek work is based) is not far away. I’ve also just discovered San Miguel’s MegaCentre and it’s only half an hour to get to La Paz.

The first weekend, I joined three others (Laura and an Australian couple, Megan and Dane) on a hike down from Muela del Diablo, which was largely successful until we had to cross the valley’s dirty river in our bare feet.

View from Muela del Diablo

This weekend we went into La Paz to see the University’s annual dance festival. It was essentially an endless parade of dancers and musicians down one of the city’s main roads. They had some crazy costumes, full of colour, and everybody was having a great time.

I’ve had two Spanish lessons so far, but I’m not sure my Spanish has improved a lot. Porvenir will provide me with the best chance to practice (so many nice people).

Looking ahead, there will be more of the same, but there are new volunteers starting this week, so I won’t be the new guy any more. I’ve got next Sunday and Monday off, so I may get away on a trip somewhere.