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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Words of Advice

Before I begin, can I say that I am in no way a writer; I much prefer working with numbers. Therefore, compared to the last Focapaci blog you may believe a five year old wrote this, but I am in fact a 21 year old woman.

Advice: Never agree to write a blog after someone with so much talent and creativity, where one line can make you think ‘Holy cow, that’s deep.’

Now let me get straight into it.  

We were warned beforehand that volunteering in a new country would not be an easy ride, and as much as you try to dispute this, you find within the first few weeks that they were right. You tell yourself repeatedly ‘It cannot be so bad, surely.’  And to some extent it’s not, it’s manageable, but there will be times where you will be want to give up, feel helpless and just want to pack in. I hope that this read will prepare future volunteers for their forthcomings as well as let others see it’s not as all fun and games, as some pictures may have you believe.


Let’s begin with ‘Bolivian Time.’ Whereas in England, punctuality is a key characteristic employers seek, in Bolivia it is a different story. We were warned multiple times during our two day training in York about ‘Bolivian Time.’ This basically means that if you plan to meet at a certain time, add another hour on to it and you might be a little closer to the time such plans go ahead. For people like me, the impatient, it is a struggle to deal with ‘Bolivian Time’, and very stressful at times. Just last week we added half an hour to our meeting time, to counter the likelihood that one of our team members might be late.  Waiting around becomes the norm.  

Advice: Plan something productive to do in these times, such as revising Spanish vocabulary.

Waiting during a day on project; unfortunately part of life here.

Just a few days in the headaches, sickness and diarrhoea begin. Diarrhoea is no longer a forbidden topic that makes you blush, but instead one of the main starters to a conversation. Discussing someone’s bowel habits is now a regular occurrence.

There are numerous causes of these illnesses, of which you will suffer at least once. Altitude is one. La Paz is roughly 11,975ft above sea level, causing oxygen levels to be a lot lower than most other places. The affects of this have passed with time and now it’s only noticeable when walking up the steep hills, such as the one to the office. 

Instead, it’s the food that you should watch out for. How can something so perfect cause something so horrible? My cohort have been described as the sickliest cohort so far and this is why. 

There are two types of people in my cohort: 
1) The majority who think they are superhuman and eat anything that takes their fancy from the second they are here. These are the people who have suffered E-coli, parasites and salmonella. They now see diarrhoea as the norm and continue to eat as they please. I am one of these people and you may wonder ‘Is it worth it?’ I went two days of eating plain food (boiled vegetables, boiled chicken, rice, crackers) and on the third day I cried a little,  knowing I could not eat what I wanted. That was the last day I ate plain food.

2) Those who take a large number of precautions, constantly sanitising their hands, eating carefully whilst drooling at my empanada. Then one day something goes wrong and you would honestly believe they are dying from the way they act. Turns out to be a quick bout of diarrhoea.

Advice: It is worth it, eat what you want, you will no doubt get ill anyway.

Mateo, a cooperante in our team, eating Guinea Pig during the Urban Agriculture Fair of El Alto.

Spanish is not compulsory for volunteering in Bolivia, but a little tip: practice, practice, practice. I am not fluent in the slightest and have found it very difficult at times to keep up with things going on in my project. This may be to do with the fact that everyone else on my team is at least semi-fluent and sometimes forget to translate, but even so I hate to be that burden. If I could go back I would have started to practice as soon as I found out I was accepted, but sadly this is now something I have to deal with. Don’t get me wrong, my level of Spanish has already increased dramatically but I am still far behind the rest of my team and often hate that this is the case.

Advice: Practice, even if it is ten minutes a day. The more you know the better.

One thing I say when interviewing for jobs is that I am a great team player, but it is so easy to say that and it not be true. In my circumstance, I enjoy working in teams... to a certain extent. Working in such close proximity with amazing intelligent and equally-passionate people proves difficult over time. Situations that may once have been decided within a matter of minutes can now take up to two hours. Areas are critiqued then critiqued again until you have a contingency plan for every possible thing that may go wrong.

Advice: Take time out, breath, and remember you and your team are making a difference, no matter how long it takes.


The Team, ready for construction.

As much as you may get annoyed at people within your team, or even the whole group, you realise that you are surrounded by amazing people. I may complain a lot, but ultimately I love everyone who I work with and would not change any of them, or the country I am working in, as this has so far been the best eight weeks of my life. We have become a family and difficulties can always be overcome with the help of your family.

Advice: Even if you feel like nothing is going your way, just know it will and does get better and the number of good times will overweigh those few days of feeling down. You have got this.

Written by Chelsea West

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