Thursday, May 15, 2014


On the 5th of April 2014, seventeen UK volunteers left their comfortable homes and lifestyles behind for the dizzying heights of the Bolivian altiplano, all excited to start on various different development projects with International Service in La Paz. These are the observations and reflections of just one...

Body shock!
Upon arrival at El Alto airport, and after travelling over twenty hours from the UK I was jet-lagged, aching and, worst of all, struggling to catch a breath of the Andean air. Varying between 3,600m and 4,100m above sea level it is general advised to arrive in La Paz by slow ascent by road, to allow your body to adjust gradually to the change in oxygen and air pressure. No such luck for me; I stumbled straight from the aircraft into the sparse air with the only immediate relief being the descent of a few hundred metres from the airport down to the centre of the world's highest capital city. For the first few days cat naps were frequent, headaches occurred often, copious amounts of coca tea were consumed and I came to accept that breathlessness after simple tasks such as getting up out of a chair would be the norm. Tackling the urban hills of La Paz felt not too dissimilar to the last leg of a 10k road race but I'm sure I'm not the first person the Paceños have witnessed panting and wheezing at the side of the road, nor will I be the last. They say time is the best healer, and signs of acclimatisation finally peeped their heads above the parapet after a few days. Molehills felt less like mountains and the temptations to take the bus everywhere were gradually overcome however it is unfortunately still not uncommon to get out of breath whilst climbing one flight of stairs from time to time, and therefore the morning minibus is definitely justified.

The heights of La Paz are enough to make anyone dizzy
No hablo español
In preparation for moving to Bolivia I did two things; bulk-bought Imodium and downloaded the top-rated language app Duolingo. Using the highly effective guilt-trip pedagogy I was harassed with daily email and push-notification demanding I complete my fifteen minutes of Spanish practice each day. However, when I arrived in La Paz it was immediately apparent that my ability to translate phrases such as "yo soy un pinguino" and "el gato bebe leche" from Spanish into English, and vice versa, would not get me very far in my attempts to communicate with the Paceños. I am not criticising the app, which is by all means a useful tool for grasping the basic structure of a language, but it was clear that a combination of formal tuition and immersion into a Spanish speaking environment were necessary for me to be able to communicate in Spanish to any great ability. Several weeks in and my español, and my confidence in using it, has vastly improved thanks to daily practice and several language lessons per week. However with limited vocabulary I am still faced with the challenge of communicating on a daily basis, particularly within the children centre where I work.

Triweekly lessons have proved essential for improving my Spanish, but I believe several daily encounters with Susanna, my local caserita, to buy snacks are equally as important.

Niños, por favor!
By far the most challenging aspect of my work in the children centre is the language barrier, and any other challenge can nearly always be related back to my lack of ability to communicate effectively with both the children and the educators. They say in London you are never more than 10-feet away from a rat, but in my children centre, on the outer edges of El Alto, I am never more than 10-feet away from my crib sheet of common useful phrases such as "sientense por favor" (sit down please), "lavense las manos" (wash your hands) and "ordenemos el lugar" (let's tidy up). Without that and the help of my team leader and cooperante I would be utterly tongue-tied! While it is okay to cuddle the children and let them play with my ever-fascinating blonde hair from time to time I feel that as a result of experiencing difficulty in giving orders to the children that often my position of authority is often undermined. What's more, any attempt at developing a relationship with the educators in the centre is hindered by my inability to converse with fluency. What is particularly frustrating is that I am not able to communicate my ideas for lessons, activities and behavioural management with them and as a result sometimes my ideas are misinterpreted or dismissed.  Moreover, without any teacher training and limited classroom experience it has been a challenge to develop lesson plans and activities for use within the centres, and in particular knowing what tasks and activities will be appropriate for the children in that age group. However, through a combination of observing the teaching styles of the educators, scrolling page after page of Montessori lesson plans on the internet and the guidance of my team leader, cooperante and other volunteers the lesson plans are slowly but surely coming together and by the time they are ready hopefully my Spanish will have caught up too!
Assisting with an art activity in Portada Triangular
And finally,
Being away from home, family and friends, a busy work load and the occasional culture clash makes for an emotional self here in La Paz. But what is even more emotional, and yet hopeful at the same time, is to visit the children battling against cancer in the Hospital del Niños. On our first visit we had limited resources and so spent the time on the ward talking with the children and getting to know them and their families. It was apparent that many of the children were not being stimulated, and their quality of life could be described as poor due to the lack of variety in their day to day lives on the hospital ward. It was decided we would encourage literacy on our subsequent visits and we got to work on preparing some activities for the children which would enable us to assess their dexterity and literacy skills in order to tailor further activities for them. I have felt a great sense of satisfaction in knowing that our visits are welcomed and anticipated by the children, their parents and their siblings, but even more so knowing that the children are engaged in worthwhile activities which offer them some respite from the difficult and painful medical treatments which they regularly undergo. I hate to sound cliché, but we are all too often overwhelmed by the negative energy created from own problems in life and work that we forget about those in situations worse than our own. To see these young people, smiling in the face of such adversity, is a reminder not to take anything for granted and has given me the ability to see beyond the struggles of altitude sickness, language barriers and homesickness and make me realise what an incredible opportunity I have been given to be here in La Paz just now.

Written by Ruth Clark
Edited by Desirée Benson

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