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Jennifer Way - General Teaching Projects in Bolivia

Cochabamba is a pulsating urban hub in the muscle of the Bolivian mountains. It is located perfectly for exploring the country via bumpy overnight coach rides at terrifying heights leading to infinitely varying landscapes from jungles to Salt Planes. The intense mixture of colour, texture and scale in the landscape creates an energetic environment for South America's most enchanting, yet widely overlooked country. An endlessly rewarding two and a half months awaited me as I stepped off the last plane in a wretchedly sleepless state armed only with a TEFL handbook and a pitifully random collection of Spanish words, phrases and abstract rules gathered frantically together in the previous month. This was a potential problem as the family I stayed with had only a little English, but I needn't have worried about language barriers. Whilst at first it was frustrating to keep referring to the disappointingly limited electronic dictionary I had brought with me, I soon found a huge respect for gestures and the surprising number of similarities in the languages and realised we were always able to make ourselves understood. I was overwhelmed by the love and acceptance I was offered and was immediately made to feel at home and comfortable. Although in a literal sense I couldn't communicate with my 'mother', her affection and warmth connected us deeply (and her incredible cooking was always welcoming!).

Clichés aside, teaching conversational English at the San Simon University in Cochabamba was one of the funniest and most enriching experiences of my life. As soon as I let go of my Western notions of punctuality and expectations of full attendance, I began to understand what I could usefully offer. By running on late 'Bolivian time', I chatted to the most enthusiastic students about their homes, England, films, and whatever was in the newspapers or books they were reading before starting classes everyday. Despite the winter chill and the lack of open classrooms, every lesson was energetic and interactive. We played language games ranging from brainstorming and then collectively writing plots for movies (which were hysterical!) to giving each other empty plastic bags and asking "Why do you have a monkey/ tree/ gun in your bag?" The excuses were really entertaining and a good opportunity to dissolve errors. The levels of English varied dramatically- I found myself explaining everything from simple sentences to discussing postmodernism and the philosophy of language! They needed to improve their fluency, which was a great opportunity for me to learn about the history, geography, food, festivals, languages and religious ideas of the different regions! I was honoured when one student, picking up on my keenness to learn about Bolivia, invited me to her house to watch a parade of the different dances and national dresses of the regions. It was a breathtakingly dramatic rhythmic collection led by small boys in feather headpieces and crescendoing in men in enormous feathered masks and silver and gold chair-like costumes constructed around them.

I was touched by how open the students became about proudly showing me around, and apparently the Cancha was an experience not to be missed. I realised why they thought I needed a guide when I found myself in an enormous, tightly packed maze of bustling market stalls selling everything from CDs to llama foetuses and religious offering-plates to be burned. I learned how to milk cows and make bread for outside ovens when a student invited me to her farmhouse, and took the opportunity with some other volunteers and some students to go on the annual Cochabambian night walk. Originating as a pilgrimage, this eight hour stroll has become a secular tradition wherein thousands of people line the streets. We shared sweets, songs and stories and ate hot cakes with gloves at sunrise.

At weekends, the volunteers set out to explore the surrounding regions. We were struck by the variation in this awe-inspiring country. The hauntingly dramatic carvings and stone totems that the pre-Inca society left in Tiwanaku is not to be missed. The 'door of the sun' is astrologically positioned to celebrate the equinox. The jungles of Chapare held climbing, abseiling and white water rafting adventures, but the most dazzling landscape was the four-day Toyota ride across the salt planes. Vast stretches of these are literally made out of salt, broken by mountains whose colours are so striking they look as if they've been painted with a children's marbling set. In places, huge cacti grow, and the piercing colours of the green and red lakes where flamingos wallow are just incredible. If you remain unconvinced, I should probably mention the opportunity for a dip in the hot springs before breakfast. I would recommend Bolivia to anyone as a culture thriving on a vitality of music, dancing and an incredible collection of generous and open people.

Bolivia is.


Tiny purple flowers
Blessing the ground,
Over trip-up paving stones.
We trod softly,
Feeling our way
Over soft wax prayers
Moulded in a flickering cathedral.
Mates on mountainsides,
Seeping in the vast vision,
Stars which loop
And spin the sky
Into a new, dazzling scale,
With the Milky Way
Like an electric white rainbow.
Salt planes stretching
And tessellating
Into hexagonal infinity
To marble-painted mountains
And bubbling springs.
Spring started to blink,
And I discarded
The morning thick blankets
I'd snuggled in
Against the morning bite
On my blue bench,
When I spoke
In broken language
To centred people.
Octavia and Margarita slush
And expert guidance in salsa
Making me melt.
Tiny beaming amigas
With chicklets and tissues
Stuffed tightly in boxes.
"Los Tiempos" sung
Like a morning mantra.
Melting cake sweetness
Awakening the tiny
Ducts on my tongue,
Eilidh eating tongue
And gagging at the idea.
Language and ideas
Connecting and reflecting.
Spanish sueños.
Lessons in the Lacto Bar,
With the easy-slide juices
And the easy-slide sun.
Overnight buses
Like being tumbled
In a washing machine.
Overnight walking,
Singing and talking,
Eating pastels
Soft cheese melt
With icing sugar
With gloves
At sunrise.
Rising the next day
Round the Cancha,
With the thickly textured colours.
Women weaving myths in alpaca,
Huge costume constructions,
Music spinning the streets
Into vivid shape,
And the explosive energy
Of the fiesta.

Jennifer Way

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