Loma Alta, Bolivia
My volunteer story is really two in one: the work that I did in Bolivia and the cultural experiences that I had and then the spiritual growth that I experienced during my volunteer experiences. I volunteered in Bolivia from Sept, 1999 until December 2000 and at the Marian Shrine from Jan through July, 2001.
I arrived in Bolivia and was greeted by a Spanish and German volunteer from my site. The Spanish volunteer told me to, “speak Spanish.” We took a small bus into the nearby city of Santa Cruz and went to the market stalls to do the weekly shopping for the community. The market is expansive and people are there with big burlap bags full of carrots, broccoli, beans, grains, potatoes and yucca. We were able to do the weekly shopping for five people for about ten dollars. It was always interesting to go and see the big sacks which is a potato-like root.
We left Santa Cruz and headed to Montero, where we would catch another bus to head to our volunteer site. We had finished our shopping so we headed for lunch, my first Bolivian meal. I was introduced to the standard sopa y segundo or soup and a second course. The soup was usually a standard chicken or vegetable base with a grain called quinoa. The segundo was a plate with rice and salad and a big piece of meat, usually beef, served over the top. I’m a vegetarian so I usually had a plate with rice and french fries with a fried egg over the top of it all. I found it touching that the Bolivians worried if I was getting enough nutritional value. To drink, we had chicha, which is a drink made out of flour, water and sugar. After this, we took the collectivo, the bus, to our volunteer site.
The bus ride was about two hours from Montero. Our bus eventually came to the small village of Loma Alta, which means high hill. I met the other volunteers and the sister from Peru — she had left her religious community but people still called her ‘hermana’ or sister. Luckily, there was an American volunteer who had come to the States from Mexico when she was twenty. Those first days are kind of a blur. There was a lot of smiling and watching people. There were hand gestures and feeling like a child again. People would try talk to me and I smiled a lot. There were two months of classes left and I went with the American volunteer to the English classes which she was teaching and which I would be teaching in the coming school year. I sat there and took and learned vocabulary. I kept studying on my own and gradually, began hearing words that I recognized — an oral treasure hunt. There were times where I had no frame of reference, like the time we went swimming. The kids were trying to say things to me like swim, dive, fish and shark and I didn’t understand any of it and was worried about pirannah fish. One thing that helped was that I had taken French classes in high school but hadn’t been able to learn French. I knew that I tried to translate word-for-word the French I heard into English and this hadn’t worked. So with Spanish, I tried to listen to the whole sentence or idea and comprehend it this way and I think it worked better. It probably took me about two months to start understanding Spanish and about four or five to be able to communicate effectively.
Another help was that I saw other American volunteers from time to time. There were about twelve American volunteers at six sites in Bolivia and we met up for weekend-long retreats every three months and other times in between. It was great to be able to share our progress of learning Spanish and our experiences in our communities. We also took turns sharing how and why we had come to volunteer and our faith journey in general. It was helpful and influential to hear others’ roads to Jesus – what influenced them, what challenged them. Aside from one retreat in high school, I hadn’t experienced retreats or this type of faith sharing before and I found a new communion and community among other Catholic young adults.
There were other new experiences beside school, such as cooking on a wrought iron stove with two burners that was powered by a canister of gasoline. Then there was the buying of milk each day. Each volunteer had four teaching days and one cooking day where you were responsible for cooking the communal lunch and dinner. On this day, you would buy the milk from Senora Uneca and then you would pasteurize it by boiling it on the stove. This usually happened during lunch (because you had previously occupied the burners before this) and it became our lunchtime ritual that someone jumped up to turn off the overflowing milk. There was also the experience of going to church each Sunday and seeing the same people around you each time.
I arrived in September and the school year finished in November. There was a three-week study and testing period for those who hadn’t passed their classes or were borderline passing. Then we (me and five other volunteers) did a three-week summer camp for the children, called ‘Vacaciones Utiles’ or useful vacations. Then we had Christmas, which was an experience. There were novenas said in the weeks preceding Christmas and the children from summer camp sang Christmas carols early on Christmas Eve. Later in the night, there was a dance and people went from house to house until 2 a.m., eating and visiting. Christmas day, there was mass and presents were handed out to the children in the town. After Christmas, we had four weeks free to travel and I was able to see different parts of Bolivia and visit family in Peru.
I returned in February and started teaching English classes to sixth graders through seniors in high school and computer classes. The school had five rooms (they’ve added rooms on since) and the high school (ninth through twelfth grades) ran from 7:45 to 11:45. We broke for lunch until 1:45 and then school started for the afternoon. The middle school (from sixth through eighth grades) ran from 1:45 to 5:45. I had about 220 students in all and worked diligently to learn their names, which was difficult because there were many new names that I wasn’t familiar with, such as Yelena, Marianela, Julio Cesar and Dario. My Spanish was better at this point but I’m sure the kids had a hard time understanding some of what I said. They were patient and I give them credit for adjusting to teachers who aren’t wholly proficient in their language. It was neat to be able to work with all of the different grade levels and to see what interested each age. The sixth graders liked learning the animals, the freshman wanted to go outside every class and the seniors wanted to talk more about themselves and the world around them. I tried to actively engage the students as much as I could and would have them throw a paper ball to the next student they wanted to answer a question, used language flashcards or have students give each other commands of what to do. Besides English classes, the students had a normal curriculum of science, social studies and math. I was impressed that from sophomore year on, they took philosophy. The middle school students also took typing and a course called agropequaria, which was a type of gardening and farming course.
Most of the people in the village farmed for a living. As best as I could tell, they were subsistence farmers and lived off of what they grew – either corn, rice or yuca. I empathized with them because you would see farmers walking down the road that led out of town to their fields. The temperature was in the high eighties to ninety-some degrees and the sun was blazing for most of the year. I developed a schedule of jogging or walking about 2 – 3 times a week and the farmers would smile as I passed them. I think the farmers were amused at seeing an American girl jogging expressly for exercise, when their work necessitated long walks to get to their fields.
One thing that brought the village together was their faith. Faith in South America is a very active, visceral thing. During Christmas, there was a novena in the village plaza and the nativity scenes in people’s houses were set upon a bed of straw. During the Fridays of Lent, the town walked around the town singing with hermana, who carried a loud speaker and sang hymns. We stopped at different houses and said the Stations of the Cross. Easter week was a culmination of events, including a fire outside before Mass on Holy Thursday, staying in the church singing and praying for most of Good Friday and mass on Easter morning. During May, we sang and said the rosary in a different house each night. There was a traveling charismatic group called the “Mansion” who came to Loma Alta for the weekend and infused the town with their singing and prayer. These practices infused my own Catholicism.
For recreation, we played a lot of sports and board games. A Spanish volunteer started a Wednesday night volleyball and Friday night basketball league so this gave us something to look forward to. And it helped our own community get along better. We had Dutch, Spanish, German and American volunteers and I experienced cultural tensions that I had never experienced before. I had lived abroad but I realized I had never lived abroad without other Americans and I was the only American volunteer in my community for a year. But as the sports league progressed, it gave us something in common, which gave us something to talk about and share. This was one of the many tangible ways I saw Jesus’ love during my experience. I also felt his love when I would go into the church at night if I was feeling lonely or sad. I would think to myself, why didn’t I do this at home? But I had never had a church right next door to me and you have a real sense that you’re acting as Jesus’ arms and legs when you’re volunteering and this helped me to turn to him more.
Our community had weekly prayer , called ‘oracion.’ This also helped us understand each other better. Each person would be in charge of picking a theme and coming up with corresponding readings and songs. We talked about being missionaries and what this meant to our lives. Later, as my Spanish progressed, a Spanish volunteer and I started a youth group. We met Saturday evenings and tied in lessons of faith with games, like “Pin the Tale on the Donkey” and “Musical Chairs.” This meant a lot to me because I’d only had a youth group for one year in high school but I remembered the impact it had on me and now I could share my growing faith in the same way.
There were struggles and ups and downs in Bolivia but I did find more of my vocation to be a teacher, to continue working with youth, to initiate new projects and to keep growing in my relationship with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I went to evangelize but the Bolivian Catholicism evangelized to me.