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Breaking Ground in Bolivia

Petr Meissner

By  June 22, 2009

The people of Cha'llapampa, Bolivia, want to encourage tourism. Four student volunteers want to help. But where do you start?

To an outsider, the clocks in the village of Cha'llapampa might have stopped a century ago. In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise if there never were any clocks. Its people scrape out a living by growing vegetables on tiny terraced plots hewn into the steep, rocky hillsides of Isla del Sol—the Island of the Sun. Some families keep small herds of sheep or a couple of pigs. Others set out in small boats every morning at dawn to fish the rainbow trout that were introduced into Lake Titicaca many years ago—someone's attempt to provide the people living around the lake with more protein in their diet.

According to Inca legend, Isla del Sol is the birthplace of the sun. It's surrounded by the impossibly blue waters of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru, high in the altiplano of the Andes. Every day, small ferries chug from the Bolivian mainland, delivering scores of travellers to the island. Most are eager to check out the ruins of the Inca Sun Temple. Others, convinced that the Inca spirits are still lurking, come hoping to soak up some sacred Inca vibes.

The only paved surface in the village is a large concrete rectangle. Sometimes it's a basketball court or a soccer pitch, sometimes the town square. Now that the morning's downpour has finally ended, it's about to become the council chamber.

The families that make up this small, indigenous Amayrá community begin to gather here for their monthly community meeting. Women dressed in traditional chola—full skirts, brilliantly coloured hand-woven shawls and bowler hats—congregate on one side of the court while the men seat themselves on the other side. Kids scamper around at the edges of the square and sheep and pigs wander through on their way to drink from the lake.

In the centre of the square are eight wooden chairs and eight brightly coloured cloth bags of coca leaves placed on a small table. While they wait for the rest of the community to arrive, the eight members of the village council share the leaves, taking a few from each of the bags, tucking them between their cheeks and gums—a symbol that they are all equals.

In front of the table, glaring white in the bright sunlight, are two toilets and a plastic urinal—a sign that this may not be the usual community meeting.

Canadian student, Mathieu Isabel, seeing that the meeting is about to get underway, puts aside a letter he's writing and goes outside to join the group. He's hoping to talk to the community about starting a new project—a summer day-camp for the children—but he thinks that today they may have more pressing issues to discuss. A group of representatives from a development NGO has arrived to present plans to help the community deal with its growing waste disposal problem—something that Mathieu and his fellow students are also trying to help address.

Mathieu, 18, from Thetford Mines, Quebec and his three roommates, Molly Janz, 18, from Nelson, B.C., Karina Soroceanu, 17, from Moldova and Nicola Magri, 19, from Italy are all students from the United World Colleges (UWCs). They've been invited to spend ten months as volunteers in the community as part of their "Third Year Option"—a gap year programme developed by Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.

The United World Colleges, with schools around the world, are known for their strong commitment to international cooperation. Each college brings together students from over 70 different countries to live, learn and serve their community together for two years. The Third Year Option was developed by the Canadian college to give UWC students a chance to volunteer for a year in communities around the world and to put the values they have learned into action.

Three short months ago, these four UWC students arrived in Bolivia leaning heavily on their Spanish phrasebooks. Now, they easily translate the exchanges at the meeting for my benefit.

Two of the town committee members are inspecting the plastic urinal like it's a moon-rock. Molly leans over to explain that the NGO representatives are struggling to assure a stone-faced town committee that the community will not be on the hook for the cost of putting a toilet in every home and setting up a system to deal with the sewage.

Two of the town committee members are inspecting the plastic urinal like it's a moon-rock.

As the first-ever foreign volunteers to live with the community on the island, the four students have found themselves in an interesting situation. They have been invited by the village to stay for ten months and help them to address needs that the community itself has identified. But while the community is eager to improve its situation, it is also suspicious of outside help.

Bolivia is a poor country and the village of Cha'llapampa is among its poorest. People have recognized that the education that their children are receiving is substandard. The island school is a last choice for Bolivian teachers, and consequently they are often uncommitted—hopping the ferry to the mainland any chance they get. As a result, people from the community leave the island in hopes of providing their kids with a better education. Many of them don't return.

Molly and Mathieu explain that people in the community see tourism as a means of improving their situation. They're eager to tap into the additional revenue that tourism can bring and, as the locals put it, "be nicer to tourists." At the moment, one of the town's biggest sources of tourism revenue is the public toilet, where visitors are charged one Boliviano (about 15 cents) to relieve themselves after the three-hour ferry trip.

This village stands in stark contrast to the south end of the island, where the village of Yumani boasts a booming tourism trade. "All the tourists go to Yumani, Cha'llapampa doesn't get anyone staying for more than a couple of hours," says Molly. She fears that the residents of Cha'llapampa see the money coming into Yumani and want to be the same. The problem is that most of the popular haunts for travellers in Yumani are foreign-owned, with questionable benefit to the original residents, and the town retains little of its former character.

As a result, the students have been forced to wrestle with their own preconceptions of what their work here should involve.

Some members of the community want to learn to speak English and see this as a sure way of being able to better serve visitors. They want a better education for their children, and to learn basic computer skills so that they can be better connected with the rest of the world. And they have begun to recognize that as the number of visitors increases, they need to sort out a way to deal with the additional waste produced.

The students have been asked to help teach these skills, but soon after arriving they realized that teaching might be the easy part. Karina and Molly both had strong reservations about helping the community to learn English and encouraging tourism.

"English wasn't something that we wanted to teach, it was something the community asked for," says Karina. "When we first came, I thought 'Why am I teaching you English?'" adds Molly. "'Why can't you live your life not speaking my language, why can't the gringos learn the language of your country?'"

"One of our fears," explains Mathieu, "was that by teaching them English, they would begin to lose Aymará, lose their own culture. But then we thought about it and realized that by making that decision for them it was as if we weren't trusting them to be able to preserve their own culture and language. We were underestimating them."

The students have, in fact, come to view learning English as important to the community precisely as a means of helping to preserve their culture and community. Learning English skills enables them to share their culture with English speaking visitors. It offers the potential for residents to earn income on the island, and stay in the community, instead of leaving for the mainland.

Besides, in spite of Spanish colonization hundreds of years ago, the first language on the island is still Aymará, and English lessons are not going to change that. And, English skills may help the community to develop tourism here differently from that in Yumani on the south end of the island. According to Molly, " What would be the way to prevent that? The answer is education."

But in many ways, the students' time here has led them to reconsider what it means to make a difference.

"You try not to have expectations or anticipate before you come," says Mathieu, "but in the back of your mind, you're always doing that. I think I was expecting people to come knocking at our door with projects and ideas. And when that doesn't happen, you start to think that really, these people don't need us here—and maybe they don't."

Differences in inter-cultural communication present a challenge. People won't necessarily ask for anything, according to Molly, "because compared to us, they are so reserved. It means that we have to be confident that what we're doing is the right thing and then we have to go out and sell it."

"You try not to have expectations or anticipate before you come, but in the back of your mind, you're always doing that. I think I was expecting people to come knocking at our door with projects and ideas."

But gradually, after nearly three months in the village, the students are starting to see subtle changes occurring, both in the community and in themselves.

Mathieu has been teaching English to the local guides and some of the teenaged boys in the village. The guides have been keen learners from the start and take the English lessons seriously. They see that it has a direct impact on their work. The boys, on the other hand, treated the classes as something of a joke at first. But now they're discovering that there's more to going to class than teasing the gringo. They're starting to ask him about his life in Canada—and bigger questions about life in general.

"We've started to see people using English. They'll put a sentence together, then come to class and say 'I used that word and that tourist understood me,'" Mathieu says. "It's not so much the fact that he's speaking English, but that he's proud of what he's learned—that he can use what he's learned."

One afternoon, we hike up to one of the tiny mud houses perched on the hill above the main town. The house sees more traffic through its gate that any other house in Cha'llapampa because of a mysterious stone disk parked oddly in its yard. It's said to have been left there by the Inca, although no one is quite sure of its purpose. Nevertheless, every day, dozens of tourists walk up the stairs, along the narrow walled path and into the family's garden to have a look.

One of Molly's pet students lives in this house, and while the rest of her family is out working in the fields or catching fish, she stays in bed and practises her new English:

"Go up the stairs. Keep going."

"The stone is in the garden," she calls through her open bedroom door. She's been in bed for well over a year now, crippled with severe arthritis in her spine. Directing tourists toward the mysterious Inca stone has become her new job.

Nicola has two students learning basic computer skills and more are interested. He's also been busy organising the women of the community to produce more of their exquisite handicrafts. While the other three students were taking a much needed rest over Christmas, Nicola was back home in Italy looking for ways to set up fair-trade sales of their work.

All four students also volunteer teaching at the local school. Mathieu has delighted the younger kids by teaching them to count using their toes. Meanwhile, Molly and Karina have been looking diligently for outside funding to help girls from the community continue their education beyond the basic level.

Many of the changes are more subtle than this and only become apparent with a bit of distance. The students were initially a bit disappointed by what seemed like a lack of enthusiasm from the community when they first arrived. They had heard stories from students volunteering on projects in other parts of the world about being embraced by the community they were living in, about being welcomed with open arms and being immediately put to good use.

Of course, in hindsight, the students have come to recognize that unlike the other projects they had heard so much about before arriving in Bolivia, they are breaking new ground here. They are probably the first gringos to come and stay in Cha'llapampa for more than a week. They've learned that earning trust and breaking down barriers can't be rushed.

Mathieu explains that volunteering here has made him realize that while he cannot change the world, perhaps he can—if he's lucky—change the world for one person. To help him see in a different way, or to realize that he has potential that he never knew he had. When they look at it like that, each of the students—despite the exacting standards they impose on themselves—can admit that yes, they may have made a small difference.

But just after Christmas, a surprising thing happens. One afternoon, the ferry chugs into the village dock. A group of travellers, looking slightly bewildered, steps off the boat and among them are the UWC students, returned from Christmas break off the island. A swarm of excited kids rushes the foreigners, just as they do every time the boats come in. But instead of heading for the tourists, the kids surround the students offering to carry their gear and groceries to their house. On the way home, a group of men re-thatching the roof of a house stops work to say "welcome back". A woman leans out of a doorway and says "Ah you're back—we missed you."

The day after the community meeting, a few people from the development NGO have stayed behind on the island to answer questions and assure the town committee members that everything is on the up-and-up, that they are there to help, not to increase taxes.

The committee is interested and the NGO reps are hopeful. They've discovered that they now have four young volunteers who are living in the community and who are welcomed and respected by the people in the village. The students are excited as well. The possibility of having the support of a local NGO is far more than they could have expected when they first arrived in Cha'llapampa. "At first, you think 'I'm going to do everything by myself, the four of us are going to be completely self reliant,'" observes Mathieu. "But then you realize you cannot succeed without other people."

Produced with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

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Published in Volunteer Abroad
Jeff Minthorn

Publisher, Editor-in-Chief

A co-founder of Verge Magazine and the Go Global Expo, Jeff is a well-known voice in the area of international working, studying and volunteering and was writing about gap years before the term even appeared the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Having worked, studied and travelled on six continents, Jeff is passionate about the important role international experience plays in developing responsible, caring global citizens. He has spoken to audiences across Canada and the United States on subjects ranging from how to plan an international volunteer experience, to developing effective media skills and literacy.
Jeff holds two degrees from the University of Waterloo. Before co-founding Verge, he spent 10 years in the field of experiential education, including several years training experiential educators. Through Verge and the Go Global Expos, Jeff has been helping to connect international organizations and global citizens for nearly two decades.

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