Volunteering Part II – Up Close Bolivia

Football coaching

Once Anahi got wind of me being a world class football player, she asked if Aisling and I would be able to help out with the football coaching involving children from the local community. This was a further test of our Spanish communication skills but thankfully the kids mainly just shouted ‘pasar mi’ and not a lot else. As much as we attempted to teach them new drills their desire to simply blast the ball at an empty goal usually took precedence.

With the age group ranging from 7 – 15 years old, our remit was mainly to try and ensure that the younger children were able to actively participate. This generally involved trying to tackle the older lads and pass it on to a younger player on the same team, or in Georges case not passing and trying to score every goal himself – often awarding himself man of the match trophies at full time. It was a further great experience and as one of the fellow volunteers, Billy, controversially stated in his goodbye speech, it was a good opportunity to be around kids. They were very easily entertained, finding immeasurable amusement in a ball being kicked high into the air, and despite it often being difficult to get them to listen to us as referees, it was a pleasure to be involved with that programme too.

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Sub’s bench

As with the students from Mallasa school we were sad to say goodbye to the kids and one displayed his affection towards me by rubbing my beard in amazement for a few minutes and telling me he liked it. I don’t think any of the kids will cite us as their main influence should they go on to make it as footballers but it certainly felt rewarding and worthwhile to be able to oversee some structured leisure time for them twice a week.

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More goodbyes

Jupapina nightlife and discotecas

As we first arrived at Casa Mendoza, slightly hungover, we were a little apprehensive in terms of what to expect from the programme and fellow volunteers. It was our first foray into anything of that regard so nerves were to be expected, but we could not have been blessed with a sounder bunch of people.

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The Volunteers’ Houses

The first day, from Anahi’s geniality and easy going approach, meeting our house-mate Judy and realising she lives 10 minutes away from me in the U.K, to witnessing a talent show performance from Emma and Rolando’s daughter, Belle, we knew we had fallen on lucky ground. Located about 30 minutes from the centre of La Paz by car, we were perfectly positioned within a genuine Bolivian community far from the tourism of the city, but close enough that we had access to all social activities we desired. With the local shop, ran by the nicest woman in the world, Sabina, selling drinkable wine at 23 Bolivianos per bottle we were content enough with the local nightlife for the first couple of weeks. The zoo and park area of Mallasa completely came to life at weekend and there was such a buzz about the place, shops seemingly popping up out of nothing to meet the needs of city folk heading out to the Valley of the Flowers for the weekend.

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Valle de las Floras

Our first week was somewhat of a whirlwind with 5 or more people leaving within days of our arrival, and therefore us bearing early witness to the Up Close tradition of various goodbye speeches and BBQs. We were only momentarily introduced to the Mexican culinary skills of Brisa, embarrassingly upstaging the efforts of the European volunteers combined. We were also lucky enough to be privy to the heart wrenching speeches of three English volunteers, Ollie, Charles & Tom, during which Charles declared his undying admiration of Anahi and her smile in particular.

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Casa Mendoza Tea Party

The next night Aisling decided to put an end to our easy going introduction to volunteer life and have a little bit of a funny turn. As we had had a few drinks the evening before, she remained in bed most of the following evening with what we presumed was her usual inability to handle said few drinks. However, she began complaining of a few other symptoms as the night progressed and as I sat in the living room I heard a strange noise and then some odd breathing noises coming from the hallway. As I went to investigate I was greeted by the disconcerting site of Aisling scrunched in an odd position on the floor with her hands undergoing some sort of spasm. Worryingly she also said that she couldn’t feel her lips (I didn’t want to question how that was different from normal) and being that I am only 26 years old I began to seek for the nearest responsible adult. was on hand to call Emma and she came over straight away with an assortment of ailments and also an oxygen tank. Judging from the symptoms, it was an averse response to the altitude and the spasms were likely caused by severe dehydration from vomiting etc. Everyone involved was such a great help, Emma managing to calmly address the situation and Anahi becoming Aisling’s P.A. for all things medical from therein.

Other events of note were our games of football against adults from the local area. With a team of a decent standard, we were highly confident of beating the opposition we faced, even on the questionable 11-a-side sized pitch despite each team featuring 6 players. For the first 30 seconds our confidence looked justified, but then we began to have great empathy for England’s disastrous World Cup showing. The difficulty in gathering breath at such high altitude is almost impossible to explain but our team filled with U.K. and Irish talent was completely decimated by our Bolivian counterparts. The fact that I scored the goal of the game, with my left foot, in a 9-1 demolition was little consolation to anyone. Except me.

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Challenging for a header with a local

The next few weeks consisted of more of our usual volunteer activities and as was par for the course, more goodbyes and BBQs. We ate out at the local restaurant, Il Portico, owned by an Italian and a surprising gem consisting of the some of the best Pizza you could get in South America, or anywhere for that matter. The sociable atmosphere within the group was great, and people would often take turns at hosting food or drink based nights, me whipping out my best Tom Cruise impression for a cocktail night – a must seeing that bottles of Stolichnaya vodka were available at the equivalent of 7 GBP at our local supermarket. I also discovered there were numerous Burger King’s accessible to me only a short bus journey or two away, something that was definitely worth it after weeks generally subsiding on chicken, rice and chips – a staple part of Bolivian life. As nice as the local produced rotisserie chicken was, there was only so much that could be faced throughout 6 weeks, particularly when frequently eating a chicken carcass only moments after handling donkey intestines or dead mice.

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Every blog should feature a half-eaten Burger King

Having been in Jupapina for close to 6 weeks, we finally made it up Muela del Diablo, a mountain peak than can be seen from Casa Mendoza. Requiring a taxi to take us up for 60/70 Bolivianos, we then climbed the peak and headed off on the 4 hour walk which would lead us back to Jupapina. This is one of the highest rated tourist activities in La Paz and therefore we were lucky that it was practically on our doorstep. The views provided were incredible, a panoramic view of our temporary home in one valley, and the La Paz skyline in the other. The walk back is all downhill, and although difficult to navigate on occasion the only difficulties we really faced were a predatory donkey and savage dogs.

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La Paz side…

Around halfway down Aisling noticed a donkey not too far behind us, seemingly wild and stalking our trail. When we set off again, it began to follow us at an increasing pace and finally at full sprint. Being that the pathway was fairly narrow we were left with little option but to run away and hope it would relent. Feeling slightly embarrassed to be running away from an animal as supposedly placid as a donkey, the murderous glint in its eyes suggested I had played a gruesome role in the demise of one of its relatives. Having survived such a near death experience we then faced further hostility upon reaching the bottom, one raging and savage dog suddenly turned into eight and they were after blood. Having seen Bolivians frequently respond to aggressive dogs by picking up a stone, or at least feigning it, my questionable natural instinct was to clench a fist as if to threaten to punch eight dogs. Suddenly realising I was dealing with eight Bolivian dogs, not a 13 year old chav from Benwell, I opted for the more foolproof option of picking up a stone and throwing it. Thankfully this worked for long enough to enable us to complete The Gladiators style animal assault course.

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Jupapina side…

Our goodbye party was a late afternoon tea rather than the usual BBQ and beers so not only was the setting more intimate, there was no alcohol to allow the words to flow freely. However, drawing influence from the inner blog monologue I was developing, I managed to deliver a speech of Martin Luther King standard. Our final night out before our departure soon followed, at a charity event at a bar in Sopocachi to raise money for a sister charity to Up Close, La Fundacion Porvenir. (https://www.facebook.com/hipoterapia.fundacionporvenir?fref=ts– check out this page for a video demonstration of the brilliant work they do – filmed by a fellow Up Close volunteer Hayden and narrated by Sarah). It was a success of a night, with the bands performing well and everyone in good spirits. I managed to get roped into drinking straight vodka with Chris, a new Polish volunteer, whilst all the girls, including Anahi and Emma and of course Judy, graced the dancefloor with their moves.

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Our last night out – Fundacion Porvenir night

There is a lot I haven’t been able to say for fear of babbling on, and probably a lot I have forgotten by now. But to everyone who spent time any amount of time at Up Close Bolivia with us, thank you for the great times, and a final thank you again to Emma, Rolando & Anahi for providing us with such a great opportunity that will hopefully see us in good stead for our future endeavours, be it teaching or slaughterhouse work!

For any questions, feel free to ask me or for a more coherent response relating to Up Close, check out their website : http://upclosebolivia.org/

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