This summer, I spent six weeks in Bolivia, volunteering for a charity called Inti Wara Yassi, which runs three animal sanctuaries throughout the country. As a vet student and a keen traveller, I felt that this type of project would be perfect for me. No stranger to hard work or roughing it, I knew I had to expect very basic facilities and tough working conditions. But even I could not have imagined the true extent of both.
During my time there, I was allocated a puma to walk every day, as well as given other responsibilities concerned with looking after the house animals. This involved preparing food and cleaning enclosures of the birds, chonchos, tapirs and tejons. I also participated in some construction work, such as building a new puma cage and a set of monkey enclosures. The daily trek with my puma, Carlos, involved a fifteen-minute walk through a waist-high swamp. With time, I learned to love the swamp, and eventually accepted crossing it as one of my duties, just like caring for Carlos. Building a bond with him was incredibly rewarding and unlike anything I had ever done before.
In the beginning, it seemed surreal to be living in the jungle and working so closely with such seemingly dangerous animals. But before long, sleeping beneath mosquito nets, eating dinner (which was usually rice) at a candlelit table, and having only a deck of cards and each other’s company for entertainment started to seem commonplace. There was no electricity at the animal parks, and the showers were always cold, which was actually refreshing after the heat and humidity of the day. Every day was a constant battle against mosquitos; we had to compromise between wearing enough layers to avoid being bitten and few enough to avoid overheating in the tropical environment. But we soon got used to the new lifestyle.
I strongly believe that I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had while in Bolivia. Within a short space of time, our group got to know each other inside and out; without any effort at all, we just seemed to click. I feel like this was not only down to us being coincidentally like-minded people, or sharing such harsh conditions, but mostly because we had no access to internet or other electronic media. We entertained ourselves simply with each other’s company. At home, people seem to be so bothered with tweeting, tumblring and facebooking that they have lost the skill to communicate in an authentic way.
Because of this shared exile from technology, my group in Bolivia bonded and became such good friends that it was heartrending to say goodbye. We promised to keep in touch and to have regular reunions. I am so happy to say that two of them have already happened.
After spending six weeks in Bolivia, I had mixed feelings about coming home. I loved every minute of my time away. I made great friends and had adjusted to living with just the basics. It felt strange to suddenly be thrown back into the modern, consumerist, media-obsessed world once again. Even small things like flushing the toilet seemed like a novelty at first. Crossing roads in the UK felt unnatural when I had gotten used to everything being the opposite way around. Driving for six hours on a smooth motorway back up to Glasgow felt like nothing compared to the 23-hour journeys on horrific dirt tracks that I had come to accept as normal.
Going to South America really was a life-changing experience, in more ways than I could have imagined it would be. It opened my eyes to a different way of life, and allowed me to appreciate just how much we take for granted every day. The experience truly changed my values and my outlook on life, and I can honestly say that I would give up electricity, hot showers and the internet in a heartbeat if I had the chance to go back.