Jaguars and paintbrushes: a volunteering weekend in Bolivia’s Chapare

27 Jan

I came across a piece of copy I wrote for the newsletter of Projects Abroad, the volunteering outfit I worked with in 2007, about a weekend job myself and a bunch of other volunteers took up in Bolivia’s Chapare region (best known for being a hotspot for coca growing, and cocaine production – but there’s a lot more to it than that). There really was a jaguar on the loose among the trees, but everyone came away from the project with all their limbs so it never took a hit at us, even though we were sitting ducks. It was great fun to work on clearing and painting a dilapidated abbattoir to be used as a day-care centre, and a good way to get a better understanding of how communities fill in the services blanks their governments fail to provide for. The thing is, it was already in use as a daycare centre…

Paint, sweat and beers
: Melanie Stern recalls painting a daycare centre in Puerto Villarroel

Puerto Villarroel, Bolivia

Puerto Villarroel, Bolivia

Picture from

In June, a group of Projects Abroad volunteers from different projects in Cochabamba signed up for what they thought was a free holiday in the Amazon jungle outpost of Puerto Villaroel. Looking forward to four days of sunbathing, monkey-spotting and Taquiña imbibing, their hopes of hammock-based relaxation were killed stone dead when, at a meeting to organise the trip before leaving, Projects Abroad Bolivia director Daniela handed out a schedule for 12-hour days and 6.30 am starts: they were there to paint a day care centre. At that point – after Daniela revealed that a Jaguar had been seen prowling the grounds of Los Lagartos, the house volunteers were to stay at – at least three people came down with streaming colds and had to drop out.

Projects Abroad  ́s care placement in Puerto, a remote, languid Chapare township of just 2,000 people on the banks of the River Ichilo is less than a year old, and only recently received its first volunteers – who come to work in the guardería looking after the children with manager Juana – this February. The group of Projects Abroad volunteers visiting from Cochabamba, made up of journalists, medical students and care workers met with the two current volunteers in Puerto, Johnny, an English law graduate managing the guarderia, and Alexis, another Englishman grafting on the farm at Lagartos for three months. Johnny was lumped with managing the group of volunteers painting the day care centre, but took quickly to organising them according to what needed to be done. Which was a lot: on the group’s first tour of the centre, a dilapidated former abattoir with completely bare dirty walls, no running water and rat shit all over the floors and blankets, volunteers were met with two very small children running after each other with two large kitchen knives – knives kept on a low windowsill in the kitchen to prise open the doors, having no working locks. A row of very dirty, sad looking cots with no mattresses were lined up against one wall, which reminded some volunteers of Romanian orphanages they used to see on the news back home. The building is shared with an electricity company, which is ironic, being as there is no electricity in the building itself, and therefore no lights.

Over the next three days, the volunteers really put their back into the project, breaking into teams to sweep out the rat shit, clean the shelving, move the cots outside to clean and varnish them, and sanding or plastering the crumbling walls ready for painting. The budget for the project was miniscule but the team managed to achieve what Johnny wanted to do by improvising – when they couldn’t buy paint trays, they made them with some plastic sheeting lying around fixed with masking tape into some old drawers that had no use, and when they were running out of out paint rations, they added water to make it go further. At the end of the long weekend, having lost two volunteers half way through to illness and sleeping-on-floor fatigue, and a few more to the nearby, much more touristically-developed Villa Tunari, the guardería looked like a totally different place, with colourful, clean walls, clean furniture, and the crowing glory thanks to Johnny, Charlotte, Will and Eleanor, a seascape mural complete with a treasure chest.

What better way to celebrate finishing the project on time, they decided on the last night, than to hit the local karaoke haunt and drink more Taquiña. Except on that night, karaoke had been cancelled to make way for the “Miss Puerto” contest – a bunch of the township’s least attractive menfolk, dressed in woefully unconvincing women’s clothing and parading the length of the bar to the strains of Bolivian reggaeton.

All fifteen sweaty, unwashed, hung-over volunteers went home with visions of very happy children arriving at the centre on the following Monday morning. There was only one regret: no one was attacked by the elusive jaguar, so no one had the pleasure of phoning home to report what could have been the best travelling story of all time.

Learn more about Puerto Villarroel here


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