Friday, April 25, 2014

Joey's Reflection on Induction Week

On Sunday the 6th of April 2014, 17 UK volunteers arrived in La Paz, Bolivia ready to do volunteer work for International Service (known in Bolivia as Servicio Internacional Britanico). The volunteers were shown into their different accomodations and given a brief tour of the immediate surrounding area with their guides (team leaders and cooperantes). During one groups´ tour, one volunteer with a previous history of asthma attacks was concerned about the experience of breathing at the high altitude of La Paz and sufferred a panic attack. However, with the care of his housemates and guides and some high-sugar food and drink he recovered well. The volunteers live in groups of three or four. They are spread out over the city, diversifying their experiences of La Paz. One group of volunteers reside in the Obrajes district, a 20-40 minutes bus ride southeast of centrally located San Francisco Church. Three groups reside in the Sopocachi district, a 15 minutes bus ride southeast of San Francisco Church. The International Service office is also located in Sopocachi. One more group live in Mallasa, a 70 minute bus ride south east of San Francisco Church. The 17 volunteers, although being Split up into five different development projects, spent the first week together being inducted into International Service. This reflection details the events of that week from Monday the 7th of April to Friday the 11th of April.

On Monday, the volunteers were formally introduced to the team leaders running each of the five projects, the 10 cooperantes (volunteers from La Paz, predominantly of Bolivian origin) who are each assigned to an individual Project, the ICS program manager, the International Service country director and the administrative staff. The team leaders introduced their projects, explaining what previous cohorts (groups of UK volunteers) had done and plans for the current cohort. What was to be expected of the volunteers and what could be expected of the rest of the team was all explained. Lunch was enjoyed at the park and viewpoint Mirador Montículo: Roasted chicken, plantains, rice, Bolivian style baked potatoes and some spicy Bolivian sauces. The picturesque setting was exploited with a group photograph set to a background of mountains in the distance. Volunteers were given their monthly allowance to cover the basics of food, hygiene, travel costs and phone credit. They were all lent old simple Samsung and Nokia mobile phones for use in Bolivia. Throughout the day one volunteer was feeling cold and ill. His body was not used to the higher altitude nor the water and food in Bolivia. This would not be an isolated event. Most volunteers would experience headaches and stomach aches while some would become ill enough to need to remain in bed. At 5pm the volunteers has an oral Spanish test to gauge their level of Spanish and assign them into groups based on that level. The spectrum is quite varied. One volunteer speaks Spanish at home while a few others have a level of Spanish that allows them to have long detailed conversations. Others have enough to ask and answer simple everyday questions while some are complete beginners.

On Tuesday, the volunteers were exposed to new ideas about management and evaluation, communications, and the global issues we all face today. They were all given information about the roles and responsibilities of the staff at International Service Bolivia, and safety information regarding transport and travelling in Bolivia. Office etiquette rules were also written down and agreed upon between team leaders and volunteers. Eager to explore La Paz and learn about the city, but weary of the physical demands anticipated (when not used to living at such a high altitude people can experience exhaustion from even modest exercise), the volunteers began a tour of the city with the cooperantes. Many areas in Zona Central were visited. Firstly, the volunteers encountered the art work of Mamani Mamani and his impressions of Pacha Mama, an indigenous Bolivian concept representing the earth, water and everything that makes up the universe. However, in this brief reflection not enough can be mentioned about Pacha Mama to do the concept justice. Secondly, the volunteers visited Plaza Murillo, full of pigeons and adjacent to the main government and parliament buildings in La Paz. Thirdly, the cooperantes took the volunteers inside the San Francisco Church and then on down Avenue Camacho to Plaza Camacho. On the way, some volunteers enjoyed a one Boliviano (equivalent to 10 pence in the UK) soft drink which you need to drink there on the street next to the street vender in order to return the glass bottle. Volunteers were told at the start of the tour to pay attention to the routes they followed as they would need to exercise their spacial memory during the treasure hunt throughout the city the next day.

Wednesday started with a safety talk from a member of the Bolivian Police force. The volunteers were educated about many facets of crime in Bolivia including distraction and diversion techniques employed by some people whereupon one person bumps the victim, distracting them, while a second person can steal their valuables. International Service then received a visit from their 24 hour emergency doctor to talk to the volunteers about health concerns and how people who aren´t from Bolivia may experience the change in food and micro-organisms when eating Bolivian cuisine. The afternoon was a special time for the volunteers to get into their project groups and compete against each other in a treasure hunt around La Paz. They left the International Service office and had to visit five locations around La Paz and complete challenges in order to receive the location of the next challenge. They could only travel from one location to another by bus and were forbidden to use taxis. Outside the Mamani Mamani shop on calle Jaen (Jaen street) there is a big green cross on the wall, supposed to have scared away ghost horses that were once heard galloping down that street, scaring the residents. Challengers were required to dress up as ghosts and take a creative picture. At Plaza Murillo, challengers were required to buy some corn and take a picture with one of them covered in pigeons, feeding them. At San Francisco Church challengers were required to dress up as Bolivian cholitas (elderly Bolivian ladies wearing traditional dress, a discussion of whom is outside the scope of this reflection) and take a picture with some local people. At Plaza Camacho, challengers were required to take a picture of some artwork depicting Pacha Mama. A massive three storey muriel can be found on the wall of the Camacho market showing a naked woman holding a mountain in her hands. Finally, at Plaza Avaroa, challengers were given jumbled Spanish words that make a sentence about the grandmother of Eduardo Avaroa, who the Plaza is named after. Understanding Spanish was a clear advantage in this challenge, but if challengers couldn´t make the sentence on their own they were allowed to ask any group of young people socialising in the Plaza.

On Thursday, the volunteers visited El Alto. El Alto is connected to the west of La Paz and as its name suggests (El Alto translates to The High), it is situated at a higher altitude than La Paz. The volunteers visited the El Alto market, located on a flat expanse of land and continuing on for several kilometres. At the El Alto market, everything was sold, from the usual hot food, fruit and vegetables, and meat, to spare car parts, and spare toy doll arms. El Alto exhibits human beings working in literally any niche market in order to sustain themselves. On returning from El Alto, each volunteer met with their project team leader for interviews about their expectations about the project, themselves, how they could contribute to the project, how they would spent their time in La Paz, and the other people they´ll be working closely with.

Friday, the final day of induction was a chance for the UK volunteers to learn more about Bolivia from Bolivian people. Firstly, journalist Amaru Villanueva gave his personal views on the present situation in Bolivia, and how a Bolivian person identifies himself and his relationship to the world. Afterwards the cooperantes shared some of their traditional Bolivian culture: Music was listened to; dances were performed and participated in; food and drink were consumed; the spiritual beliefs of some indigenous Bolivian tribes were explained; the history and current situation of Bolivia was conveyed through a play.

With induction week over, the volunteers were left to absorb what they had learned and experienced. The first proper project work would begin on Monday. Many new professional and personal learning experiences would lay ahead, but the volunteers had already experienced some during the induction week and that was good preparation.

Written by Joseph Waters

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