Richard Hughes - General Teaching Projects in Bolivia
I recently had the privilege of spending two months in the city of Cochabamba. My aim was to try out English language teaching and to see if I wanted to make it my new career. I was 50 at the time and, after working for over 25 years in IT, decided that I had earned a break. It’s great that so many young people now have the opportunity to take time out to travel but I reckon that it’s the old ones who really need it! Anyway, my trip was a success in the sense that it helped me to decide to pursue a career in teaching - but it was so much more than that.
I arrived in Cochabamba just before Easter weekend, travelling overland from La Paz. The seven-hour bus journey took me across the bleakness of the Altiplano and through the rugged mountains of the eastern Andes before dropping into the fertile, central valleys of Bolivia. The scenery was both dramatic and beautiful and the journey was further enlivened by friendly conversation with Carlos, a cochabambino sitting in the next seat. This was a chance to warm up my limited Spanish ahead of meeting my host family.
When we finally arrived, I was greeted by Carmen from Projects Abroad who whisked me away from the chaos of the bus station and through the busy city to the house in which I was to live for the next 8 weeks. My extensive host family was truly welcoming and I was made part of their lives from the start. Beginning with the Easter celebrations, they involved me in everything - family parties, tours around the city, trips to the market, meals out, buying tools for the roof repairs, visits by their friends, the children’s school sports day, late-night music sessions and dice games plus countless other activities.
My Spanish got me by in the family, occasionally pretty well and at other times less successfully - but always with good humour and admirable patience on the part of my hosts. Meal time conversations were the most difficult to follow when there were lots of people talking at once, rapid changes of subject, arguing etc. But there was plenty of opportunity too for chatting one-to-one which helped me to get to know the family better, as well as being great Spanish practice.
I would recommend any volunteer to learn as much local language as possible. You can get so much from the volunteering experience by spending time talking with the locals. Even with my far-from-extensive Spanish, we discussed (and sometimes argued about) politics, culture, food, music, love, religion – everything in fact. As a result, I learnt such a lot about Bolivia and its people and was able to give my hosts an insight into my own country.
I started work at the Universidad Mayor de San Simon with some trepidation. I wondered how I would get on with the students, what I would teach them and simply whether I would be any good at it. I was introduced to Lenny, one of the teachers I was to work with, and her warmth and welcoming nature quickly started to allay my fears. The university had asked Projects Abroad for help in improving the students’ fluency and confidence in speaking English and I was one of the volunteers assigned to this.
Many of my classes were within the university’s Didactica programme. The students were learning to become language teachers and, being in the last stages of their courses, had a lot of theoretical knowledge of English. In fact, their knowledge of grammar was far greater than mine. My last lessons in English were at school decades ago and, in any case, included little formal grammar. But despite their knowledge, the students were sometimes reluctant to speak the language. I was there to encourage (even force!) them to and, as a native speaker, to provide a model of ‘real’ English.
My approach was to give them activities to do which required discussion - in pairs, in small groups or as a whole class. So, for example, they prepared and presented sales pitches for tourists to visit their city, discussed their favourite films, debated Community Justice, chose between imaginary study trips in London, the US and Hawaii, did a science quiz and interviewed one another for the job of King/Queen of England. An ongoing problem was to stop many of them discussing in Spanish or even in the indigenous language of Quechua!
What helped me, and moreover made the experience such a joy at times, was the students’ friendliness towards, and curiosity about, me and also their genuine enthusiasm to learn. We spent whole lessons simply talking about our own lives, our families and our countries.
Generally though, I found that it was necessary to prepare for classes – particularly those which I ran myself and which Projects Abroad had set up as a supplement to the university’s programme. I found a number of good suggestions for discussion lessons on the internet and also used some ideas of my own. Another, possibly boring-sounding but, very useful tool was my grammar book. This helped me with the technical language questions which I was inevitably asked and which I often had no idea how to answer. But then I was in Bolivia to learn as well as to teach, something which I often told the students and which I feel helped me to form good relationships with them - we were learning together.
And some of them were more than students – they became friends. I was asked to meals at their houses. They took me on trips to the countryside. On one occasion we visited a village to see an agricultural festival. The cattle had been decorated with flags and streamers and the locals kindly let us take photos and gave us chicha – a suspicious-looking, but actually quite pleasant, maize beer. We were even taken into the villagers’ homes where there was music and dancing – and more chicha. It was dark by the time the taxi took us back to Cochabamba and as we stopped to admire the fantastic array of stars in the Milky Way (amazingly bright away from the lights of the city) I felt the magic of the place seeping into me.
Another time, I was taken on a long bus trip to a beautiful country park where we had a picnic, enjoyed the scenery and had the opportunity to escape the noise and bustle of the city for a while. When I finished my placement, I was greatly touched as the students gave me cards and presents and told me how much they had enjoyed having me there - and that I must come back to Cochabamba.
During my short time in Bolivia, I enjoyed so many other experiences but I’ve only space to mention a few. I trekked to the 5500m high camp beneath the summit of Illimani (the huge mountain that dominates the skyline in La Paz) – an exhausting hike but with incredible views. I visited the beautifully restored Jesuit mission of Concepción in the jungles near Santa Cruz where school-children sang and played music from baroque times. I walked the Choro Inca trail from a freezing mountain top down to the steamy forests of the Yungas. I took part in the C’oa, a religious ceremony held at sunset on the first Friday of each month; miniature objects are burnt as offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother, in the belief that this will, in time, bring forth the real thing. I saw amazing plants and animals in the jungles of Chapare. I played music with my host family and their friends in an impromptu band of guitars, charango (a kind of miniature guitar) and pan-pipes, continuing into the small hours fortified by a potent cocktail of Singani (the local brandy) and hot tea to keep out the cold of the Cochabamba night. And I could go on.
I hope that this has given a flavour of what it was like for me as a volunteer in Bolivia. But I wouldn’t wish to leave an impression that the country is some sort of idyll. It’s an incredibly varied place where the landscape is often astonishing and the cities buzz with activity but where there are great problems of poverty, corruption and inequality. Much of the population lives in conditions that would be considered intolerable here in Britain. But I found a warmth and generosity of spirit from so many people that I will never forget and which made going there one of the best decisions of my life.