Volunteering Part I – dead donkeys & shy students

As we prepared for a return to life with some semblance of structure and graft, the day could not have started off worse. Waking up feeling a lot rougher than the amount of drinks I had consumed and the sleep I had had, my stomach decided it wanted me vomit whilst in the shower. After pulling myself round slightly, I headed for an ATM to withdraw the money we would need to pay our month of accommodation. Feeling a little bit hungover and therefore paranoid, I was too busy darting eyes at everybody within 200m of me when withdrawing far more cash than I felt comfortable with in La Paz bus station to notice that I had left my credit card in the machine. As stupid as this was, this is also easily done in South American countries where ATM’s deliver cash and then receipt and often requires the press of a button to release the card. Although this isn’t exactly rocket science, it is arse about face enough from normal ATM’s (cash-points actually) to confuse a hungover dope like me. Anyway I didn’t realise until we were near enough in the taxi 15 minutes later so it was goodbye to my very handy free withdrawals abroad, courtesy of Halifax, and hello Jupapina.

Aside from that little riveting tale, I am not sure how to approach a blog about our time volunteering, which ended up being 6 weeks in total. I will try my best to recall the more interesting tales of our time with Up Close Bolivia, but this is a difficult task in itself as the entire experience was brilliant from start to finish. My following recap may not be accurate chronologically, but will be factually correct with only the usual minor exaggerations. For anyone that has any questions about volunteering in Bolivia feel free to contact me, or for information specific to Up Close Bolivia check out their brilliant website www.upclosebolivia.org or www.facebook.com/UpCloseBolivia

La Paz Zoo

My first day working at the zoo definitely warranted the phrase jumping in at the deep end. I was introduced to the guy who was our supervisor by two fellow volunteers, George and Ollie. As we were running a few minutes late I was warned by George that this may incur the wrath of my new boss, Emerson, and was expecting to meet acquaintance with some hefty Bolivian whip-cracker. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to a man almost half my size, of the same age, who spoke to me in polite Spanish and improving English. Our tardiness was not an issue, Emerson was Mi Amigo.

Oliie, Emerson & myself
Oliie, Emerson & myself

The content of the work on my first day, a Tuesday, was somewhat less benevolent. Tuesday was feeding day for carnivores and we were to prepare their meals. The forever whining donkeys in an oddly positioned enclosure near our work area, far from the eyes of visitors, began to make a lot more sense. The wheelbarrow and bicycle pump were still a mystery though… My baptism of fire included witnessing a slaughtered donkeys innards splurge from its hanging carcass into the wheelbarrow I was required to hold beneath it. I’ve never seen a Giant Squid giving birth before but I imagine it looks something like what I bore witness to that first day. I felt marginally ill, and weirdly a bit hungry. And I thought the hard part was over.

Sorry Eddie....
Sorry Eddie….

Emerson then informed us that our roles would be split thus; ‘cleaning’ the donkeys intestines, washing and then attaching a bicycle pump into every other organ imaginable for inflation, and manning said bicycle pump. Ollie being a big Welsh rugby player sort of guy (ignoring the posh accent) bravely stepped up and volunteered himself for the most difficult of roles – standing at a safer distance and pumping away on the clean plastic pump. This left me and George with the two gruesome tasks, for which George seemed worryingly inclined towards – I can’t word this any other way -squeezing warm, fresh shit out of a recently slain donkeys intestines. This left me the remaining task of washing heart, lungs and other unidentifiable organs. It must also be noted that a Bolivian veterinary student assisted us with these tasks, and seemed unperturbed throughout, worryingly not even feeling the need to wear gloves. The crowning glory was definitely cleaning out the bowel and then inserting the bicycle pump into the anus, something which has always been on my Bucket List.

George & Ollie
George & Ollie

A range of tasks then ensued, such as hanging the inflated intestines up for Jaguars to play with, and creating a hanging rug out of the donkeys skin. For anyone with a morbid curiosity for what donkey intestines filled with air look like, watch any of the Alien movies. For anyone unable to, look below.

zoo 1

As completely disgusting as this first day was (I was lucky it was my first day as I was keen to impress and things could not get much more graphic), it became marginally worthwhile when we were able to stay behind and watch the Jaguars play with their new ‘toys’. There are many Jaguars in La Paz zoo and they are one of the most interesting and aggressive animals I’ve seen both in captivity or the wild. I felt a pang of pride, and relief, when the knot I had tied into the donkey skin held strong to the full weight of the giant cat.

Although I worked at the zoo every Tuesday for 6 weeks I only had one other encounter of remote similarity. The snobby Condors had shown a lack of interest in the poorly cleaned intestines of Georges previous handiwork, and apparently their discerning palates had a preference for lungs. This required me to delve through a bin of countless innards and intestinal juices to satisfy their dinner order. With my unprotected head near enough in the bin, the fact that it made Ollie wretch at a distance of 4m or so is testament to how bad the smells emanating from inside were.

A picky Condor

The remainder of my time in the zoo consisted of a huge variety of tasks, from inadvertently hosing down a Boa Constrictor or building trampolines for Pumas out of Llama skin, to the comparatively mundane tasks of chopping sugar cane or building a feeder for ducks. It was very rare that any day was the same as the last and I will take many memories from my time spent there, and after practising my English teaching on Emerson I hope he has now managed to conquer the difference in pronunciation between ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Thursday’. Other notable highlights include a baby Tejon of less than 7 days old climbing on my head as I tried to put my pathetic labouring skills to use and help to make a play area for it, and last but not least Ollies careless teasing and dancing with a brown bear resulting in it proudly exposing its subsequent erection….

Ollie in his cute little red pants
Ollie in his red pants

Teaching English

A few days before we were due to arrive in Jupapina, Aisling emailed Emma, the founder of Up Close along with her husband Rolando, to enquire whether there was anything we needed to bring. Her response of ‘just ideas for teaching’ left us both a little panicked. Until that point we had presumed that we would be assistants to more experienced teachers, possibly making use of our newly gained TEFL qualifications as we developed in confidence. Instead, we were thrust straight into leading the teaching workshop, and how grateful we were once the initial nerves subsided.

Initially, our lack of experience perhaps served as a benefit rather than a hindrance as we put so much effort into the first lesson plan, considering every possible eventuality. Our newby-ness was demonstrated when practising the lesson to an invisible audience in one of the volunteer houses and writing out our names and nationalities in very basic English on a white board – in permanent marker. Proving impossible to remove this was embarrassingly last seen hanging pride of place in the family house (Casa Mendoza) kitchen.

We had been foretold of how shy the kids would be until they got to know us, and their level of shyness even further surpassed our expectations. This was perfectly exemplified when playing a game in the classroom in which the student had to state their name in English upon being thrown and then catching a small ball. Rather than facing the daunting task of speaking in front of ourselves and others, the majority of the class preferred the option of letting the ball hit off them, regardless whether it was off their face, and fall to the floor.

Basketball bribery
Basketball bribery

For us, the shy and polite attitude of the students probably made it easier for us to develop our own confidence in teaching, and once we did that it was up to us to increase the confidence of our pupils through our teaching style and mainly by trying to have fun. Punctuality is non existent in South America, hence their need to differentiate between ‘real time’ rather than ‘South American time’ when lateness is simply not an option. Poor punctuality also applies to schoolchildren and therefore we had to work with this as best we could. As amusing as it could be when over 50% of the class casually turn up with more than half the lesson gone, it was also slightly disruptive. To combat this we tried to implement a reward/punishment system for lateness that would be invoked in a basketball game at the end of every lesson. We also hoped the basketball would serve the dual purpose of enabling the students to leave the lesson on a high, duping them into thinking they had had immeasurable fun…


The teaching experience was without doubt the highlight of our time volunteering, and was a great taster for us that left us wanting more. Unfortunately we were unable to see the programme through until the end but passed it over to reliable replacements. From our own nerves, to new students turning up to the workshop 7 lessons in, dogs running amok in the classroom, the classroom being used for P.T.A. style meetings and nobody telling us, and inexplicably and with disregard for safety, a caretaker padlocking ourselves and all of the students in a basketball court with no other exit for 20 minutes – we were faced with an array of challenges. But as we had been priorly informed by Anahi, the programme organiser, we just had to roll with it. The sadness of the students upon being informed of our departure would hopefully suggest we didn’t roll too badly.

Teaching English to a dog
Teaching English to a dog

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