As we careened our way through the city of La Paz our heavy packs bounced on our knees and, along with the 12 other passengers that had wedged us in, partially obstructed the changing view out the minivan’s windows. We were heading downhill, quickly, and the crowds of people and narrow streets were giving way to mountainsides and single family homes. According to the directions we found online, we knew our destination was Plaza Humboldt, about 30 minutes south of the city center, but even though we’d clearly informed our driver of where we wished to get off, we couldn’t help but feel a little anxious that we’d completely miss our stop. Everyone else seemed well-rehearsed in this unique mode of public transportation. One short quip from a small lady in the back row would bring the van to an immediate halt, while another would stop the van a few blocks down the road. It appeared that people paid when they wanted, and however much they pleased, but the real mystery was in the constant game of musical chairs that incurred whenever someone from the back, or the side without the door, needed to exit. Everyone would pile off, let out the inconvenient passenger, and then load back in, always rotating so that no seats were left empty. This wasn’t such as easy task with 40 pounds of luggage in our laps, but we surprised ourselves by quickly adapting, and even better, getting off and paying without a hitch. We were on our way to Emma and Rolando’s home, which was where we’d work for a whole month after we spent a couple more weeks backpacking. The plan was to visit for a night in order to meet the family, see the grounds, get to know a bit of the work we’d be doing, and have a chance to chat with the volunteers that we were replacing. Emma had mentioned in her last email that it was a busy weekend because of a town festival, but she said we were still welcome to come, as long as we didn’t mind helping out a bit with “costumes”.
We had found Emma on the website helpx.net, where “hosts” post jobs and then travelers like ourselves contact them if we’re interested. The work is always in exchange for room and board, never money, and can range anywhere from working the front desk at a hostel, to helping out at an animal rescue, to farming, landscaping, or gardening, and everything in between. Some hosts require a minimum length of stay, but most range from a couple weeks to a few months. Emma was looking for help with an eco-campground that her and her family were constructing, and promised great accommodations in exchange for 4 hours a day of work. Don and I were eager to settle down for a bit, and some good old-fashioned manual labor, surrounded on all sides by what looked liked peaceful and beautiful scenery seemed like just the ticket. We were thrilled to have heard back from Emma while we were still in Potosi a month before, but became even more excited the more we learned about who she was and everything that she had going on.
In addition to Colibri Camping, the eco-campground that they planned to officially open on April 1st, Emma, a British ex-pat, and her husband Rolando, a La Paz native, also ran a local non-profit from their home called Up Close Bolivia. They had anywhere from 5 to 10 volunteers living on their property at any given time, working in the local schools, the zoo, a nursery, and a number of other wonderful community incentives. We learned that we’d be staying in a charming home with one other volunteer and that we’d also eat lunch with Rolando every day after we finished work. The arrangement seemed too good to be true, and we hadn’t even seen the property yet.
From Plaza Humboldt (which we later learned was right in the middle of Zona Sur, the most affluent part of town, and a topic of discussion in its own right) we chose a taxi and, again following Emma’s online directions, shyly asked if the driver if he knew “la casa de la familia Mendoza”. To our pleasant surprise he said he did and agreed that the cost would be 15 Bolivianos, just as we’d been told. The 20 minute ride to Emma’s home was remarkably beautiful. As we drove further from the city and into the mountains, we passed the tourist destination of “Valle de la Luna” and eventually spotted the famous “Muela del Diablo“, a must see for avid hikers. To our delight, the taxi turned down a dirt road headed straight toward the “Devil’s Molar”, a rocky outcropping on top of a mountain, and stopped in front of an imposing gate, behind which sat a beautiful stuccoed home. We thanked our driver, and then rang the doorbell, reminding ourselves once again that no matter what happened, we would stay open-minded.
Any concerns we had turned out to be completely unfounded, for never have we been greeted as generously or joyfully as we were by the Mendoza family. Our first impression included 3 smiling dogs in the front yard, followed quickly by the invitation to come in by an outgoing 11 year old girl named Bell. Within minutes we had met Bell’s older brother, 13 year old David, and then Emma and Rolando themselves. Don and I both felt right at home (a priceless sensation when you’ve been on the road for 4 months), and within minutes, we were sitting in the living room, sipping tea, eating homemade pumpkin bread, and sharing life stories in a seamless mixture of Spanish and English.
Emma set us up in the campground’s adorable a-frame, and after putting down our backpacks, we made a visit to the other homes on the property where we got to meet all the other volunteers. We already knew a bit about Paula and Jeremy, the helpx volunteers that we were replacing, from a little online stalking (check out their awesome blog here). We knew they were journalists from the UK who had already been on the road for a couple years, traveling much of the way in a VW camper van, and that they’d left the van in Ecuador and had been working at Emma’s for 3 months. It was a pleasure to meet them in person and we were happy to find that we had plenty in common to talk about. Within minutes we were regretting the fact that they would have to leave right as we moved in. The other non-profit volunteers were a group of fun-loving, extroverted young people, also mostly from the UK.
That afternoon we learned more about the weekend’s upcoming events. The closest town, Mallasa, was having their annual festival to celebrate the Virgen de la Candelaria and the following day would be filled with eating, drinking, a parade, and lots of dancing. It was the town’s largest event, and we were invited to join in all the festivities. In the previous weeks Emma had successfully convinced her whole family and all the volunteers to dance in the parade, so the night we arrived, everyone was going to the dress rehearsal followed by pizza at a local Italian restaurant. We joined the volunteers in Emma’s home for the revealing of the costumes, and “ooohd” and “aaahd” along with everyone else as piece after piece of the traditional costume was pulled out of a big black trash bag. The costumes were elaborate, colorful, and uniquely indigenous, and we promised everyone that the next morning we’d be there to help everyone get dressed. We all loaded into taxis for the short trip to the dress rehearsal, and from there headed to pizza. The night was full of laughter, story-telling, and a lot of building excitement over the next day’s events.
The next morning Emma invited us to eat breakfast with her family, so we all sat outside, enjoying unspoiled views of green mountains, a wide river, and moon-like sand formations over coffee, eggs, cereal, and toast. After eating we headed into town with a few others, skipping Mass and instead spending a couple hours exploring Mallasa and using the computers at the local internet cafe. Fortunately we made it back to the church just as the service ended, and had the privilege of observing the first in a long day’s worth of celebrations. Every year the town picks a family to “sponsor” the party; a complete honor that can also leave a family bankrupt. They are expected to provide food and drink to everyone, including an open bar at the end of the night. In the morning, after church, this family is honored and thanked by the whole community in a hand-shaking, confetti-tossing, cheek-kissing ceremony. A marching band played in the background while a man in full suit and tie joyfully set off multiple strings of fireworks, and then as if on cue, the whole gathering fell into line and we began marching through town. We ended up at a reception-hall style building, fully decorated and filled with long tables lining the walls. We were invited to sit down and within minutes were brought out huge bowls of delicious “sopa de mani” or peanut soup, a Bolivian delicacy.
Feeling incredibly satisfied, and still a little in shock by the collective generosity of everyone we’d met, we joined up with the rest of the volunteers and began getting people in costume for the parade. I was handed over Paula’s DSLR camera, with permission to use it throughout the day, and then everyone filed out onto the town’s main street. For the rest of the afternoon, while all of our new friends danced, we took hundreds of pictures of all the beautiful costumes, interesting dances, and tireless marching bands. Festivals are a great excuse to get pictures of local people and local costumes. Usually Bolivians are quite shy, and are especially timid in front of a camera, but during parades they love to flaunt their stuff, and are eager to be the subject of a photo. Many hours later, at the end of the route, we joined back up with our group and were all greeted with milk-crates full of free beer. Many of the volunteers headed back to change out of their costumes, but some stayed behind and continued marching all the way back to the reception hall. At this point Don and I had memorized the dance and joined in the ranks, our faces flush with joy and excitement. At the reception hall we were once again offered free food and drink. An open bar served drinks late into the night and a live band played Bolivian music from a balcony above our heads. Within minutes I was on the dance floor, seeing a side of “cholitas”, or indigenous Bolivian women, that was normally concealed behind shy smiles and courteous greetings. Turns out, cholitas love to dance, and truth be told, I learned a few new moves while being led around the floor by a number of fun, confident women. It was a celebration of epic proportions, and how we had ended up there, accepted as cherished guests, still left us a bit puzzled.
The next morning Emma was quick to assure us that not every weekend was quite so festive, but parade or not, we couldn’t imagine any other place we’d rather spend a month of our time. In fact, a month already didn’t feel quite sufficient. We knew we needed to be on our way, there was a lot to explore before we “moved in”, and plus, we needed to give Jeremy and Paula there space, but it was hard to leave such a welcoming, joyful, and comfortable place. Once back on the road, headed toward the town of Sorata and the promise of an adventurous backpacking trip, we immediately began reevaluating our long-term plan. Along with many fun discoveries and a few misadventures, we spent the following two weeks brainstorming various schedules that allowed for more time with our new friends in what felt to us like a new home.