We hadn’t initially planned on doing any volunteering, having such a tight schedule, and not really knowing how to go about finding a project. It was only when we met up with Leo and Charlotte in Colca Canyon, that we seriously started thinking about it. They told us about Helpx and Workaway, 2 websites which help travellers like us find short term jobs or projects anywhere in the world. I (Steph) had inquired a few years back about doing humanitarian work, but found it was difficult getting a position with an NGO for a short-term stay, adapted to your skill-set, without paying for something. A lot has changed since and we were both extremely happy when we found the perfect project, at the last minute. The most important criteria for us was doing meaningful work, ideally with an NGO, or within a rural community or orphanage, and being useful with our skills aqcuired over the years as site engineers. We also especially wanted to do it in Bolivia, the poorest country we would encounter in South America, and maybe even throughout our worldtrip. Even though we would have loved to stay longer, we could only spare maximum 2 weeks, wanting to arrive in Patagonia before the cold.
The place & project
The project was working for an NGO called Etta Projects run by an American lady (Amanda), and a team of locals based in a town an hour away, Montero. We stayed at the recently acquired training center called Tekoati, near Buena Vista (3h west of Santa Cruz), on the northern limit of the giant jungle of Amboro National Park. The NGO was dedicated to rehabilitating or implementing new water and sanitation systems in the area, in collaboration with the local communities and their officials and health representatives, which would also receive training at Tekoati. Our job at Tekoati was to make the center’s electrical system safer and more durable, where possible in such a short time.
The center was surrounded by thick jungle and trails, having previously served as an eco-tourism village. We had not initially planned on going to the jungle, mainly because we hadn’t been able to get the yellow-fever vaccine before leaving, and also because of the heat (for Renaud) and fear of insects (for me). But going to the jungle for this purpose seemed like a good opportunity, especially being so close to Amboro Park which is usually inaccessible to the average tourist.
The people & life at Tekoati
We got really lucky in chosing and being chosen for this volunteering project, which ticked all our boxes and met our expectations. We had heard from fellow travellers that often the accomodation and food which is supposed to be provided in exchange for your work, is not up to standard in quantity or quality, and volunteers sometimes end up having to pay for basic necessities. We were lodged in one of the many cabanas on the grounds, equipped with bunk beds, mosquito nets and shared bathrooms. Sleeping in the mosquito nets would take getting used to, as would the heat and, and all the insects flying and crawling around at night outside. We all used the very spacious and well-equipped kitchen, generally taking turns for cooking and dishes. Amanda would take care of everything on our shopping list, and we would just pay a little extra for the indispensable beer and wine.
We were usually always 4 to 5 volunteers at a time, coming and going. We met Angie (UK) and Emily (France) on our first day when Amanda picked us up in Buena Vista and took us to a local Swiss-run dairy shop to stock up on cheese. Angie is quite excentric and colourful, inside and out (tattoes, piercings and dreds), and really sticks out everywhere she goes. She had already travelled a few months in South America, doing only volunteering whereever she went. She would stay at Tekoati the whole time we were there, designing and painting a mural to decorate the entrance.
Emily was alot quieter and we had more in common with her, spending hours together having long discussions and playing cards. Later arrived a ‘renewable energies expert’, Claude, an old French guy who had lived in South America over 20 years. He gave a good first impression and was interesting to talk to, but it turned out that despite having done and seen everything in his life, he was not able to deliver on his work, and did not understand his role as a volunteer. He tended to rub people the wrong way and soon excluded himself from the group. When Amanda let him go, he destroyed everything he had been working on and left in a huff.
He was replaced by a couple, a French girl (Jules) and British guy (Mitch) who had met while travelling and had decided to continue together. They had been together for 4 months and were nearing the end of their trip. They had interesting jobs which made for great conversations: him an English teacher and her cooking in a Michelin star restaurant in Paris, and recently having created her own start-up micro-financing entrepeneurs in South America. She had quite a strong personnality, and was very passionate about France, food and cooking. She would make us amazing, rich food, even adapting to Amanda’s and Angie’s vegan diet. The only minor problem with her 5-star cooking being the enormous amount of dishes and food waste generated. Mitch was far more easy-going, so they balanced eachother out quite well.
In our spare time we would play games and cards, hang out in the hammacks or by the newly functioning pool, do arts and crafts (painting on coconut bowls or making dream-catchers), watch DVDs, or read.
Amanda loaned us a few books about the recent history of Bolivia’s indigineous people rising up against the exploitation of their ressources and privatisation of their public services by foreign corperations in collaboration with the Bush administration, the World Bank and the WTO. These uprisings eventually led to the election of South America’s first indigineous president, Evo Morales, who suffers from bad press in the West, but who has, despite his average corruption and megalomaniac tactics, rebalanced the power of government, taxes and regulations in the face of these powerful corporations and organisations, for the benefit of the country and its majoritarily indigineous poplution who are the richest, but poorest, in South America.
Amanda is also such a determined, brave and interesting person. She was also a great story-teller. We spent hours listening to and laughing at all her surprising and funny stories of things she had seen in her 20+ years doing humanitarian work all around the world. We also enjoyed playing with Amanda’s cute and energetic rottweiler puppy, Arakavi (meaning sunny day in Quechua). We started teaching him how to swim in the pool, using his favourite treat, cheese, as bait to come into the water.
Amanda also took us on a few short walks on the trails on the property, and we did a day hike in the lush Amboro Park, thankful for being able to access it during rainy season, with her tried and tested Jeep. The care-taker of the property, Alfredo, used to be a Park guard and told us stories of encounters with jaguars and other predators, the most dangerous of which being the humans illegaly cutting down protected trees and paoching protected animals. The weather was unforgiving: always either very hot and humid or raining heavily, which is one of the reasons why we didn’t go camping or explore the Park more. It was also high season for insects and mosquitos, which would be our number 1 topic of conversation as we would share all our horror stories, and work on our ‘insecto-phobia’!
Our work on the electrics
When Amanda mentionned to us that she would like us to work on the electrics, we started to worry that we would not be able to meet her expectations, having only learned basic electrical theory and skills in wiring and troubleshooting on our jobs as general site engineers on power plants. We soon realised that we needn’t worry, it turns out all domestic electricians in Bolivia knew less than us about electricity! Exposed metal and loose wiring, connected by electrical tape was the norm! None of the outdoor electrical devices were waterproof. The main cable connections were done in holes in the ground that would fill up with rainwater, or even be done anywhere in the soil, meaning you would have to dig up the whole garden to find a loose connection (which would happen often because the wires were unprotected).
Of the many issues she showed us, we decided to tackle the only one we felt was the most useful and could work on safely and finish completely in our 2 weeks there: the external lighting. We also worked on preparing the material and worklist for a team of retired electricians who were coming to volunteer at the end of the month to revamp the whole system: a new split incoming breaker and metering box, new, protected wiring throughout, correctly sized protective devices or even grounding (although there happens to be no such thing in Bolivia!), general repairs and replacements, and bringing all underground connections above ground in sealed boxes.
We replaced all the external lighting wiring and switches and plugs with waterproof devices, and repaired all the light fixtures getting them all working again. Getting the material was the main difficulty: I (Steph) had to spend all day in the big down of Santa Cruz 3 hours away going from one market stand to the next, explaining my needs, not finding what I needed, negotiating prices and pleeding for invoices! Bolivia has no port access so importing material is always a challenge, which explained why most of it didn’t meet international standards, were dated, or non-existant. Buying it all at the market was quite an experience in itself, not your average outing to the Brico-store! And to top it off, on the way back from a long day in Santa Cruz, we broke down in Montero, taking an hour to restart the Jeep and doing what we could to keep the motor from overheating.
Working safely was also a challenge, not being able to properly isolate the power sometimes, and working at heights in extreme weather conditions. Once, Renaud had to jump off the ladder that was leaning against a lamp post that just fell over due to the rain. On top of the electrical, we had to improvise carpentry, plumbing, building and gardening skills! We also helped out with other jobs with the volunteers: one day carrying 400 bricks in the sweltering heat down a jungle path, and reorganising the tool shed.
We, and Amanda, were particularly proud and happy we got the pool working again. There wasn’t much else to do apart from understand the system, clean it out, refill it, reinstall the electrical for the lighting and pump, and start the pump which circulated and filtered the water, and fed the waterfall. I (Steph) was happy to do this task, as commissioning is right up my street! Everyone enjoyed using the pool, including Arakavi, especially in the midday heat. Amanda even used it the following weekend for a swimming and water-rescue training course for 20 locals. We worked very hard, but being so useful and succeeding in getting so much done in such a short time, with such basic material, tools and knowledge, was the best reward!
The insects & animals
Being surrounded by tropical jungle, Tekoati was home to amazing varieties of plant, animal and insect-life we didn’t even know existed. Even Amanda, who had lived in the jungle for many years, would notice new butterflies or moths or frogs or birds she had never seen before. And being there was great training in getting over one’s fear of insects!
On our very first hour there, we were welcomed by a giant tarantula (!) which Amanda quickly shooed away with a broom to avoid Arakavi getting poisoned by eating it. She assured us she only saw a tarantula every 6 months, but we saw 3 during our short stay! The battle with giant spiders hidden in the bed frames, on light switches, in the showers and sinks, was endless. We also had to get used to the many multicoloured grasshopers, crickets and beatles jumping at us while we worked outside.
The tiny fruit-flies which loved getting into our eyes, and tics so small you wouldn’t notice them on your skin for days, also proved to be annoying. The worst of the insects has to be the voracious jungle mosquitoes, who would hardly wait more than an hour or 2 for our highly toxic repellant to wear off, before biting us right through our clothes! Renaud also got stung by a wasp, his hand swelling up for days, even after we had left Tekoati.
But we tend only to remember the most beautiful insects: giant electric blue butterflies which are very common but impossible to photograph, and other butterflies with all sorts of colourful patterns, velvety moths and giant caterpillars, bright plants and flowers, tiny frogs and geckos, bats and fireflies, shy monkeys and supersonic hummingbirds.
We also saw snakes on various occasions: once in front of our cabana, 2 thin long reddish-brown ones and one yellow-green one by the pool one morning that slithered right across the water at an amazing speed.
Our most impressive encounter has to be with several sloths, who took a habit of lying on the cool dry ground in the shower building at the bottom of the garden. One day, Renaud had to save one on his own from being attacked by Arakavi, who didn’t know better, and in turn was being tighly clasped by the sloths powerful parasite-infected claws. It was impressive seeing them move so slowly and getting a glimpse of their forlorn faces which they would always keep tucked against their chests.
We definitely have no regrets having spent these 2 weeks working in and adapting to the jungle! What an adventure which we wish could have lasted longer. Maybe we will be able to return one day? We wish all the best to Amanda, and the Etta Projects team, may they keep up with the energy, determination and admirable work!