As part of the GDST Difference, each year we offer a number of travel scholarships to students taking a gap year or travelling in the summer before their university course. Over the coming weeks, we will be publishing articles written by recent winners of a scholarship. They will share with us their experiences and insights from countries across the globe.
We begin with a report from Emily Burton, now an alumna of South Hampstead High School.
During my gap year, I spent six months travelling and volunteering in South America. One of the definite highlights of this amazing trip was the time I spent volunteering for Up Close Bolivia, funded by my GDST Travel Scholarship. For six weeks, I lived in a village called Jupapina near the capital city of La Paz, 3600m above sea level.
Nestled in the Andes, Jupapina is a semi-rural, peaceful green oasis, part of an area known as the ´lungs of La Paz´. The village is watched over by the Muela del Diablo (Devil´s Tooth) rock. The clouds hang low in the morning because you are so high up, and when the sun comes out its extremely strong due to the altitude. I was there in January and February, during Bolivia’s summer but also its rainy season, and once every couple of days the heavens opened and the heaviest rain I have ever seen came crashing down, often with small bullets of hailstones and loud thunder.
The weather is as unpredictable as the country itself. One of the first things we were told was that Bolivians love going on strike, so you never know when public transport will be working, nor when the shops will be open or closed. On top of this, I had arrived in the midst of political angst, as Bolivia’s president Evo Morales was due to hold a referendum on whether or not he should be allowed to stand for government for a third time in a few years; a contentious topic which divided the country- visible in the countless ‘si’ and ‘no’s graffitied on every wall.
Transport around Bolivia was certainly an experience - jumping on the crowded minibuses to get around, crying ´esquina por favor´ whenever I wanted to get off. The traditional cholita women are a captivating sight, with their huge skirts and bowler hats, often with a baby on their back too. All this just added to the sense of adventure I felt discovering this new country over six weeks.
Up Close Bolivia is an independent organisation run by Emma and Rolando, an English/Bolivian couple who set up this initiative as a way of supporting the local community in Jupapina and the nearby town of Mallasa. For the past eight years, they have been receiving volunteers from all over the world.
The first ones I met were Emily and Jamie, two girls from New Zealand, and Lily, from Belgium. We were the first four volunteers of the year to arrive and everyone at Emma and Rolando’s seemed pretty excited about it.
I landed in La Paz at night time so I had no idea of the view I was going to wake up to, but the next morning I looked out of the window to this (see image, left).
The volunteers live in beautiful little cabin-style houses in the grounds of the home of the Mendoza family - Emma from Manchester and Rolando from La Paz and their two kids David and Bell, as well as three dogs, two chickens and one cat!
The family have also created a campsite on the lower level of the ground, called Colibri Camping. Different travellers would pass through every day so there was always someone new to meet.
Apart from pitching up a tent, there are also two cosy tipis and tipi-shaped cabin to choose from, as well as various hammocks and a multi-purpose marquee which we used for everything from yoga to volunteer potluck dinners.
Equine Therapy at Fundación Porvenir
Every volunteer who comes here gets the chance to work on various projects, and our work here really does have an impact. During my time volunteering, I was able to get involved a few different projects in the nearby town of Mallasa.
The first place I went was the equine therapy centre Fundacion Porvenir, one of only two such centres in Bolivia. On a plot of land down in the valley below Jupapina, the initiative provides free equine therapy courses, involving horse riding as therapy for children with problems such as ADHD, hyperactivity, autism and cerebral palsy. The course lasts ten weeks and is free for the participating families, who often travelled long distances three times a week so that their children could receive this treatment.
The effect of this type of therapy is amazing. Once off the horse, the children are often much calmer and many have a better sense of coordination or can focus more easily on different tasks. Since I didn`t have experience with horses, unlike some of the other volunteers who had come specifically to offer their skills within equine therapy, I worked with the children before and after their riding sessions, playing with them, showing them how to pet the horses, practising physio and chatting to their parents.
The kids were so sweet, as were their parents, who were so caring and dedicated. It was clear to see that coming to the centre in its beautiful natural settings benefitted them as well. The horses were gorgeous Arab horses brought over from Argentina and named after Greek semi-Gods. While I was there we had a new arrival, Hermes!
We worked with a team of professionals, from paediatricians to psychologists who are so devoted to the cause and together with us volunteers, we made a great team. Our time spent at the Fundación was always positive, enjoyable and humbling.
The second project I worked in was the Albergue. It’s a temporary children´s home in Mallasa for kids age 0-18 from vulnerable backgrounds, who are unable to live at home due to their circumstances. They come to the albergue for a maximum of three months until the situation is resolved. Unfortunately, the sad reality is many are there much longer. All the children have their lessons and activities in the home and are not allowed out, so I think whenever we came it was exciting for them to have people not only from outside the albergue but also from outside Bolivia.
These kids were amazing. Some were balls of energy, others quiet and withdrawn but curious. Over time I got to know a lot of them and it´s difficult when you see how much they want our affection. We weren’t supposed to hug the children as they could quickly form attachments with the volunteers who keep coming and going which is distressing for them.
Every week we had to meet and plan sessions we would run with the kids; being a youth leader back at home I have many games up my sleeve which we often used in our sessions. We volunteered at the home three times a week: on Tuesdays, we ran activities for the girls, aged between 7 and 17, on Thursdays the boys. We taught them about our countries, traditions and customs and encouraged them to teach us theirs. I won’t forget the day another volunteer brought in some books in English and we read them to the kids in both English and Spanish - they were absolutely mesmerised and begged us to do an ‘English week’, so we did!
Wednesdays were sports days in which we were faced with the challenge of organising more than 50 children on all ages into some sort of activity. We came to realise that their favourite thing to do was just running around outside, throwing and kicking balls, probably because it’s the time when they are most free and in control, so we often let them run wild. Seeing their delighted faces was one of the best parts of our week.
La Valle de la Luna nursery
Lastly, every morning I worked in the Valley of the Moon children´s centre, a nursery set up a few years ago, by Emma and fellow mothers in the area, for children aged 6 months to 4 years. Part of the reason was that parents worked and usually had nowhere to leave their children during the day so would often lock them at home. Now they could bring their kids to the centre where they are fed breakfast and lunch and can play to their hearts´ content.
Before the nursery was due to start back, we spent time painting murals and hopscotches for the kids, as well as polishing and varnishing doors and windows to make it a cleaner and more colourful place for the children.
There were around forty kids and five classes, each led by a ´tia´, or teacher. The kids in my class were aged 2 and 3 and they could sometimes be a challenge to work with! When I arrived in the morning at 8.30, there´s always a few of them having a meltdown after being dropped off by their parents at the gate. It often took the entire morning -and all of mine and my tia´s energy - to calm them down. This didn’t stop the kids from being unbelievably cute though, with their animal-shaped backpacks, all wrapped up in their miniature alpaca-knitted jumpers and cardigans.
At 12 o’clock the volunteers would help serve lunch, and getting the babies to eat was one of the hardest challenges! We usually staggered out exhausted at 1pm, once they had been put down for their naps. Overall it was clear the nursery really needed our help so despite the difficulties at times, I felt like we made the tias’ lives a lot easier and were helping the centre run much more smoothly.
Apart from these three main projects, I also worked in La Paz for a week. We made toys for the lions and pumas out of wood, tyres and string which was fun, and in general it was a good contrast to the other projects, but I soon decided it wasn´t for me… I was traumatised after seeing a donkey carcass on its way to being fed to the condors - not a sight for those with a weak stomach!
You´d think with this busy schedule, there wouldn´t be much time for exploring and sightseeing, but when the country shut down for four days in February for carnival, we had plenty of time to get into the spirit. The Thursday before carnival was Conmadres night, essentially Ladies´ Night in Bolivia. All the women go out and you´re supposed to have a conmadre, a sort of partner that you hold hands with and you don't let go all night! All the female volunteers went out and had a ball- we came back covered in streamers…
On the Saturday of carnival, all the volunteers went on a day trip to Oruro, where the biggest and glitziest carnival parade in Bolivia is held to rival Rio, supposedly ´the place to be´ for carnival in Bolivia. The costumes were so elaborate and some terrifying! Each group was from a different region in Bolivia, reflected in their costumes and dance. The spectators went crazy - everyone spraying each other with silly spray (you have to wear a plastic poncho if you want to protect yourself). At one point, I ran onto the parade to get some selfies!
The following two days of Carnival were dedicated to water fights in Bolivia – we’d get a taxi into town and find ourselves surrounded by kids with water pistols and teenagers throwing water bombs from passing cars. The streets were like a battle ground and nowhere was safe, especially not for a bunch of gringos like us. At home, we had a huge water fight, volunteers against the family.
Then on the final night of carnival, everyone in Bolivia makes blessings to Pachamama (mother earth) by decorating their houses, cars and shops with balloons and streamers. At sundown, we made a bonfire and burned a huge pile of offerings for Pachamama: sweets, coca leaves (leaves that cocaine is made from, you chew them to relieve effects of altitude) with our wishes on for the year, sugar blocks representing love, money, success, health etc., llama fat for good luck (lucky it wasn´t a new house we were blessing, otherwise we would have had to buy a dead llama foetus to bury…), herbs and spices, all burned on the bonfire then buried on grounds of the house.
Carnival was a lot of fun and it was also so interesting to see and learn about the spiritual beliefs of Bolivia and the importance of Pachamama- whenever anyone had a drink over those four days, they would pour some on the ground first as if to thank her.
Another festival that was going on for the whole of February was Alasitas. It is a huge market in La Paz, with smaller ones all over the country, that sell miniature everything- mini cars, houses, babies, marriage certificates, briefcases full of money, all small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. You´re meant to buy anything that you want for the upcoming year, then get it blessed by a priest and it will come true! I got my palm read in the market, bought a ´maleta de milionario´ full of money, credit cards, passports etc. and a miniature driving licence!
Bolivia is such a fascinating country and my time there was unforgettable. I hope to return to Jupapina one day to visit the Up Close Bolivia family and possibly take on the role of volunteer coordinator. There´s so much more I could say but I think I´ll leave it here. I couldn´t recommend coming to Bolivia more, and I´ve loved experiencing it through Up Close. I’m really grateful for the funds I received from the GDST, which helped make this incredible experience possible.
Read more about GDST Travel Scholarships.
Visit the Up Close Bolivia website.