For me, Bolivia, after only two weeks (which is a bit too short), represents an non-limited conviviality, sharing and unmatched generosity…But also a fantastic gastronomy (in Cochabamba in any case), breathtaking landscapes and an abundant culture in all its forms. However, Bolivia is all about enormous inequalities as well as important social difficulties in correlation with politics and small minorities. Although we have some “clichés” about South America, it remains a poor region of the world by its means but so rich in culture and in generosity! We can learn a lot from it! Through LifeTime Projects I had the chance to work in two different places.
The first is a “state” orphanage for 25 children with disabilities from approximately 6 to 15 years old: a sad picture. Their disabilities are diverse; they go from diction problems to consistent mental disabilities or Down’s syndrome. You can understand the attention necessary for each one of them. However, there is a lack of people working there and that despite the presence of social workers, speech therapists, physiotherapists and a doctor; each child lacks attention, most of them are neglected, left on their own even though they are not independent… I was able to play my part in bringing some individual attention to a maximum of children by playing with them and helping them in their daily life or simply by showing them my affection. The local team needs simple but very important advice to improve the hygiene at the orphanage (even just a little bit), the development of each child and everyday life at the orphanage. I saw some very hard things there, but was able to share special moments with children unable to communicate. I played football with a child who cannot walk, I took the time to help him, and to see his smile lighten up was priceless.
The second orphanage, Nuestra Casa, is a centre for girls from 7 to 15 years old who have suffered sexual assaults, mostly from within their family unit. Nuestra Casa is a haven of peace and quietness that is full of hope for these adorable, independent and very smart cuties. Their sad experiences have inevitably left their marks, but their strength and their courage are amazing and we can learn a lot from their attitude towards their trauma. At Nuestra Casa, interaction is easier than at Maria Cristina orphanage, the girls are kind, endearing, full of good will, independent, polite and terribly cute! The orphanage works as a micro-society: with only 3 social workers, everything is impeccable regarding the housework, the kitchen and the tidying. Each girl has a role to play in the maintenance of the orphanage. One day, a seven years old girl dragged me to mop the floor in the showers at 9 am in the morning. The oldest girls are in charge of the cooking. All of the tasks are designated by a well organized worktable. Of course the girls love to play, paint, do my hair (they all wanted to have my hair and every day, I was able to change my hairstyle…to my greatest joy!), paint my nails, dance, chat or simply laugh! I spent most of my time there…and it’s crazy how you can get attached to people in only two weeks! The worst thing is that this orphanage hardly benefits from any government funding (only about 10 cents per girl and per day, which even in Bolivia is nothing) and survives thanks to donations from LifeTime Projects and other goodwilling sources.
Nothing could be that perfect without the supervision of the two directors who watch over the girls and are truly remarkable. One day we went to the park, a trip for which they had saved up money. What a joy to see the happiness on these girls’ faces! It was a really good day; it was a change from their daily routine, a life in which they sometimes get bored of. They got to swim with me in the swimming pool at the park, at 7 degrees! Needless to say I couldn’t feel my legs anymore and the next day I had a cold but they were, on the contrary, in great form which proves that they are very strong.
I also had the chance to visit an orphanage for babies during one Sunday (exceptionally, because usually you have to work there for at least 3 months to be able to visit…) This is the policy of the director of the orphanage who considers that the babies must not be, once again, “abandoned” by the volunteers, which is debatable but absolutely legitimate.
I enjoyed these two hours of intense happiness shared with these 7 month to 5 years old babies… I even wanted to bring one in my suitcase with me, but they told me that it wouldn’t go through customs! I shared thousands of hugs with them; I saw thousands of bright smiles and lived one very emotional moment when I left. It’s crazy how we can get attached to people in such a short period of time! These children were all taken in by the social services in extremely poor conditions and from horrible places such as bins or plastic bags… Some of them need surgery because they have been burnt by their parents who did not “want” them. The positive point in the midst of all this tragedy is that the orphanage is impeccable: the hygiene, the activities proposed to the children by the wonderful educators and the healthy food. It is a haven of peace for these children who have everything they need (except a family of course), the director is awesome and extremely attentive to each person.
During the week-ends and my free time, I was able to celebrate the 14th of July at the Alliance Française in Cochabamba, go twice to “la Cancha” (a gigantic and legendary market), have breakfast outside to discover the culture. I also had the chance to try out the Bachata, the local dance in vogue, which I loved! I also went to the Bolivian equivalent of our 14th of July during which you can taste a lot of delicious dishes and see the fireworks etc… And of course, you can’t visit Cochabamba without stopping off at the Cristo!! It is absolutely beautiful and similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro but apparently bigger! Anyway, it is still very impressive and the view over the city is splendid. I would describe life in Cochabamba as very peaceful and relaxing. The city is surrounded by mountains and it’s simply magical. Everybody is nice…Everybody is helpful and smiley even when life is hard!
Life is inevitably very cheap for Europeans. 1€ = 8 boliviano, which is rather appealing. The Bolivian salaries are obviously much lower. You can go outside and have lunch for less than 2€, though I was told not to because I would get a tummyache! The climate is different to ours, it was winter while I was there but such a very different to ours!! There were incredible changes of temperatures, from 4 degrees in the morning to 27 in the afternoon: let’s just say that you need to bring a lot of jumpers but also a lot of sunscreen because, in altitude, the sun is very strong.
Concerning security, Bolivia is considered as one of the safest countries, or rather the least dangerous country, of Latin America. Personally, I didn’t have any problems. The inhabitants told me to “be careful” and gave me instructions but I never felt unsafe. You only have to be careful and not go out dressed like a “tourist” or with some money or a phone in your hands (especially not a Smartphone!). Bolivia is like any poor country where people may be envious of foreign wealth and therefore steal. But at my 16 years of age, I was told to be careful and was accompanied the first days because life and security is better than independence.
I came back from Bolivia with a suitcase full of food and local souvenirs that I was able to buy really cheaply. However, I also came back with a lot of priceless things which is much more important! The smiles and laughs of the children in my heart, the feeling of having brought my help and most of all, memories that make you dream and will make me reenlist for longer next year, in order to explore and help even more.
I am so grateful and admirative towards the whole LifeTime Projects team, the non-profit organization with whom I left and who took care of me before, during and after my adventure, in a caring and motivating way. I could not have lived such a beautiful experience without the awesome Lifetime Projects team. It turned out to be the project of my LifeTime that I am going to continue because I was too sad to leave!