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Volunteer Overseas in Cochabamba, Bolivia
By: Ashley Ruszkowski (justin) 2012.04.01


Working with a variety of organizations in 7 countries, BaseCamp offers tailored volunteer training and mutually benefiting placements. Volunteers work in schools, social and healthcare programs, building projects, as well as conservation work with wildlife. Travel with a purpose. See website.


Making the Connection in Bolivia

Her eyes were hidden under her bowler hat. She was sleeping underneath a leafless tree, her baby's lips reaching for her breast. It was a Saturday afternoon at the Plaza 14 de septiembre in Cochabamba, Bolivia. While watching this full–figured Aymara woman, I was interrupted by the church bells tolling noon. It was time for me to head back to Hostal Jardín.

It was July. I had left the humidity of Pittsburgh for the temperate winter in the Andean valley, to lay bricks and mortar in a town called Vinto. I was one of nine students on a three–week University of Pittsburgh Global Service Center project to Bolivia, the most underdeveloped country in South America. We had come to do construction work at Vinto's Hogar de Ninos (home for children). We stayed at Casa de Retiros (a retreat for politicians, evangelists, and volunteers) while we worked. On the weekends, we ventured to Cochabamba and Isla del Sol to relax, explore, and write.

Prior to Bolivia, I had never been sick from breathing in dust and fumes. I had never smelled urine for hours while digging in the remains of an old outhouse. Yet the greatest challenge of the journey was making connections with the people of Bolivia.

The first day at the Hogar de Ninos, Marco came strutting towards us wearing Levi's jeans that were inches too short and oversized tennis shoes with fraying, untied laces. He had a serious face, which made him look intimidating, for an eleven–year–old. He was the oldest at the hogar, and when he turned twelve he would have to leave.

Marco volunteered to help at the work site when he saw the familiar face of Felix, el maestro, the local construction expert. Felix only worked when volunteers came to Vinto to do construction work. He coaxed the kids and us, the volunteers, "Un poquito mas. . .mas ladrillos ahi," and we walked to our posts where stacked bricks rested in a heap. Marco obeyed Felix for a moment and then scurried off, sliding out of the hogar gate. He had a short attention span and rarely followed directions. An hour later Marco returned as if he had never left and continued mixing cement with dirt, now telling me what to do. "Un poquito mas, un poquito mas...mas polvo aqui." Marco handed me his shovel. I smiled and began shoveling.

The last day at the hogar, Marco pulled out his toy camera from his back pocket. He hurried around the work site taking photos with the camera, red and plastic with yellow buttons, and a manual winding mechanism. He did not ask anyone to pose or smile. He took snapshots, kneeling on the ground to get the perfect angle of us piling into the "trufi" (a flat–front van). Marco stood up from his kneeling position, blinked several times and watched the trufi slowly drive down the dirt road. We were on our way to Cochabamba and we weren't turning back. Marco went back to shoveling.

<img src='/images/11-02/bolivia3.jpeg' alt="" border=0 align="left" hspace=8 vspace=5> QUE LINDA
The group spent the weekends in Cochabamba; I spent most of my time in the plaza, sharing benches with various Cochabambinos.

I recall the communal newspaper stand where a man asked a woman wearing a pleated skirt and a colorful shawl over her white blouse if she could understand the newspapers. "No hay Quechua," he said to her, explaining there was nothing in her native language on the newspaper stand. She continued to stare blankly at the newspapers written in Spanish.

A week later on a Saturday, a small, sun–spotted gentleman with thinning, slicked–back hair called to his friends while shaking his hands in the air, "Mis Gorditos, como estan?" ("My fat little friends how are you?") The buttons on his gray wool cardigan pulled across his slight belly as he chuckled. Two men sat on a bench and watched their friend approach. They rose to greet him with a hug while asking, "Old man, can't you walk any faster?"

I laughed out loud when I heard this. As I walked away from the plaza, an envious feeling grew inside of me. I wanted to meet my friends at our usual bench and smoke a cigarette and read the newspaper together. I wanted that lifestyle.

We drove to the town of Colomí to try Bolivia's best empanadas. Colomí was a twenty–minute drive from Cochabamba. The town had a fallow peach orchard and mountains with ripples that looked like the wrinkles on an elephant's belly. Roofless homes with dirt floors were spaced generously in the open Colomí terrain. Crumbling walls with bare insides were standard Colomí homes.

There were unsupervised children running around in the fields and dirty pigs with ropes around their necks walking aimlessly in circles. A woman held bright red strawberries in her worn hands. She offered them, but as I started to pay with my Bolivianos, I remembered I shouldn't eat fruit that I couldn't peel.

In the distance, a bicycle rider bundled up against the wind pedaled across the patchwork terrain. When the elderly man approached the trufi I could see the pedals had been removed from the bicycle. He held onto the handlebars and sat on the seat while he went through circling leg motions. He occasionally put his feet down and pushed off the ground to pick up momentum. Somehow, he made progress across the land. The wheels still turned as he continued towards his destination.

After Vinto, Cochabamba and Colomí, we spent our final days flying to La Paz, riding across Lake Titicaca on a fisherman's boat, and finally relaxing on Isla del Sol. The island was surrounded by deep blue water, scattered land formations that looked like pebbles in the distance and a fence of snow–capped mountains glinting under the sun. At the wharf, groups of young boys offering to carry travelers' belongings clustered along the path.

Alvarcito was one of the most persistent. He followed me until I finally handed him my luggage, and then he proceeded to tell me his history as a luggage carrier. He told me he knew five languages just by talking with the tourists and by carrying their bags up and down the trail. He also told me he was blessed with Incan strength.

We made it to the top of the ridge and stood side by side, catching our breath for a moment. He extended a hand towards me, but I was looking at the gorgeous, burly summits of the Andes across the lake, the terraced vegetation on Isla del Sol and the white church that peaked above the sprouts of green bushes. I didn't notice Alvarcito's gesture until he poked one of his fingers into my leg.

"Que bella es la tierra, verdad?" I said, trying to bond with Alvarcito by commenting on the beauty of his island. Again, looking for that connection. He didn't answer. I reached into my pocket and pulled out ten Bolivianos. He rushed down the mountain to greet his next client.

Hostal Jardín was located on Calle Hamiraya in Cochabamba. The hostel attracted volunteers, professors, students and families. There was a laundry sink and a clothesline next to a little brown house that was tucked behind the hostel building. The door to the house was cracked open and noises of silverware and plates clicking together snuck through. A radio buzzed quietly.

I heard voices from inside the house. It was a whisper, maybe, singing along with the radio. The clicking of the plates and silverware ceased, and then I heard a faint sound of a mop plunging into a bucket. I turned my head and saw the crack in the door widen. Doris, the servant, slipped through the doorway, mop in hand. Our eyes met immediately and she nervously smiled.

Doris was nervous about interacting with the travelers, and her carriage said that she felt inferior. Her shoulders hunched slightly forward and her eyes shied away from conversation. Doris lived behind the hostel and was able to clean her small brown house after she tended all the other rooms.

Doris put down her mop and approached the laundry sink where I was scrubbing my clothes. Doris pointed at my black sweater soaking in the sink. "Voy a limpiarlo." She was going to clean it.

"No, no, Doris, esta bien." I would clean my own clothes. She smiled. Her teeth were lined with gold.

"Linda, la Virgen de Santa Cruz, cuando vas a regresar?" She called me la Virgen de Santa Cruz because she said I resembled a bathing goddess who had been sacrificed by the Incas. I guess I was flattered. She asked if I would return one day. My choices were to smile and say yes, or smile and say no. I smiled and said, "Yes, I'll come back."

A younger girl came back to the laundry sink. Her name was Lulu. She had noticed me talking with Doris and was curious. Lulu was a helper at Hostal Jardín, but she was leaving to return home to Sucré. Lulu was very short for her eighteen years and spoke mumbled Spanish.

"Un regalito para recordarte?" She asked me for a gift in a whispered slur. I was surprised by her request. I was washing my laundry and talking with Doris and now I had Lulu asking me for a gift. I was not hesitant to give but was startled by her approach.

"Que quieres, Lulu?" I asked her what she would like.

"Un pantalón tuyo, una camisa tuya." A pair of pants and a shirt.

After lunch, a knock at the door interrupted my conversation with my roommate Emily. We were showing each other the gifts we had bought for our families at La Concha, the local market. Our bags were overflowing with presents. Lulu entered our room and instantly looked overwhelmed by the amount of stuff two girls could have. She sat on my bed and I held up items I had separated from my bags to give to her.

"Pantalón? Una camisa?"

"Sí! Sí!"

I continued to hold up items since she seemed excited with what was presented to her. She started kissing me on both cheeks, thanking me profusely. Then I caught her eyes looking at my bag on the floor. She wanted more. Greed had surfaced, and what she didn't have now she wanted. I had packed less than the other travelers and still I had more than Lulu. I continued giving until the thought entered my mind, What about me?

I saw her sad eyes looking at my makeup case. I had already given her half of my makeup. What I had given her would be the items she wore home to Sucré. My work clothes, makeup, and shampoo–these materials would separate her from her friends in Sucré. Now she knew where I was from. A gift turned into a glance through the window that shows what possessions make of us.

There was both beauty and sadness in the encounter with Lulu, in the Plaza 14 de septiembre scene and in my conversation with Alvarcito. If I went back to Bolivia, I would be sad that nothing had changed. The Hogar de Ninos still unfinished, Doris still working at Hostal Jardín and the elderly man still riding his bike without pedals. These small instances and subtle encounters defined my relationship to the land and the people of Bolivia: hopeful, a little distant, and above all, honestly felt.

Photos by Eric Lawrie, Mary Altier

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Student Travel Europe, Global Travel, Paid Internships, Volunteer Overseas, Youth Hostel