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Community, Music in Bolivia by Ellie Sherwood

Helping the blind

I’ll hold my hands up and admit it: I am a true believer in things happening for a reason. I do not believe that you have to simply sit back and let things happen; however, when something occurs that is unexpected or surprising, it is best to accept it and to acknowledge that it is, most probably, meant to be.

This ethos was what made me think positively and calmly about going to Bolivia for my Music placement, because in actual fact, I had originally planned to travel to Brazil with Projects Abroad. Unfortunately, this had to be changed about nine months before I was due to set off, and I had two choices: to go to Jamaica or Bolivia instead.

Funnily enough, I had never really heard anything about Bolivia before, and the only ideas I had about Jamaica involved Bob Marley and palm trees. So what made me choose Bolivia? In the end, the main focus of the Bolivian music project was what swayed me to travel there. With a large emphasis on music therapy, this particular project would enable me to simultaneously develop children from different background’s musical skills and increase their self-confidence.

Music is unique in the way that anyone can experience it and benefit from it; therefore I knew that the Music project in Bolivia echoed my passion for making a positive difference via music.

My Expectations

Volunteer Music project

Preparing for my trip to Bolivia made me incredibly excited. I frequently visited my ‘My Projects Abroad’ account, eagerly anticipating new information about the details of my placement. I also continuously read my ‘Lonely Planet’ copy of Bolivia, and tried to teach myself some Spanish, as my two years of learning the language when I was eleven years old had somehow been completely forgotten.

A rather large part of me could not quite believe that I was actually going to Bolivia for six weeks – even as my flight from London departed, it still did not feel completely real and I definitely did not know what to expect.

After an exhausting 36 hours of travelling, I stepped off the tiny aeroplane at Cochabamba airport and found myself entirely surrounded by mountains gleaming in the bright morning sunlight, and it was at this point where it hit me: I was here, in Bolivia, about to start one of my greatest adventures yet. And it truly was one of the best things I have ever done, and any expectations I had prior to my trip were blown away by what I experienced when I was there. The beauty of the country, the kindness of the people and those who I worked with were greater than I ever could have imagined.

My Host Mum

I felt incredibly lucky to have Edith as my host mum. She had retired from a senior position at a hotel in Cochabamba a few years before, and had a son and a grandson who lived in Sucre. After living with her for just a few days, I gathered the impression that she loved having volunteers to stay as she enjoyed having people to look after!

Travel in Bolivia

Edith really was the most welcoming women I have ever met: she made me feel at home instantly, and her no-fuss attitude made me completely comfortable in asking her anything. Having lived in Texas for ten years, she spoke very good English, which was extremely fortunate for me as I still only knew basic Spanish. I remember on the first day, however, when I heard her and my housemate Anne (an American volunteer) converse in completely fluent Spanish – I realised that I had to be speedy in improving my language skills, otherwise I might miss out on a lot of conversations!

One of the best things about living with Edith was her cooking, and I still miss it now. Anne and I were both up early for our work placements so we were left to help ourselves for breakfast, but at lunch time, Edith would cook the most wonderful meals: traditional picante mixto, stir fry, juicy chicken and classic spaghetti bolognaise were a handful of my favourites. Her best friend who lived a few blocks away made frequent visits and sometimes there was nothing nicer than eating amazing food whilst those two ladies giggled and joked away like teenagers.

My Music Placement

Every morning, from Monday to Friday, I worked at The Manuella E.Gandarillas Rehabilitation Centre for the Blind. The centre is open to serving visually impaired individuals from all sixteen provinces in Cochabamba, and it had a mixture of permanent residents and people who visit for the day.

At first, I found it really challenging due to my lack of Spanish; however, music in itself has the great power to communicate with everyone, and therefore I found that by playing and teaching the instruments, I could still interact with the students. In addition, my Spanish did improve throughout my time in Bolivia, which definitely helped!

The people I worked with were the most inspiring and heart-warming characters; I used to leave Manuella every day feeling grateful for leading the life that I have. The ages of people who attended the centre ranged from about seven years old to middle-aged adults. The boys loved to play guitars and charangos, and the girls always wanted to sing and play piano – they particularly enjoyed it when I taught them Western pop songs like One Direction!

Volunteering in Bolivia

We also did recorder sessions in groups, and individual piano lessons. The music professor was also blind, and he was one of the most musical people I have ever encountered. Together, we would sing with the pupils and play different instruments, and one time we took them outside the centre to play in an informal concert nearby.

Working and interacting with blind people was something I had never done before. They were all so funny, hard-working and good-natured people: I remember them finding it hilarious if someone fell into something (or someone), which happened quite regularly! They would instantly recognise each other by their voices, or by the touch of their arm, and the general atmosphere or the centre was good-humoured, cheerful and productive.

There was another volunteer from Belgium who helped out in the lessons, and one of my favourite memories was when we took part in their sports afternoon where we played blind football – a scary yet very entertaining experience!

Travelling around Bolivia

I believe all the other volunteers at Projects Abroad, were of the opinion that if we work hard, we could also play hard. Therefore, during evenings and at weekends, we would really make the most of being in Bolivia. I think we must have explored most of the restaurants and bars in the Cochabamba area during the week, and I didn’t meet a single volunteer who hadn’t, or wasn’t planning to, visit the Uyuni Salt Flats or Lake Titicaca.

Our weekends away were brilliant, and always involved coach journeys, plenty of snacks and little sleep. I visited some of the most beautiful places in the world, and I will never forget watching sunrise over the mountains in Uyuni, or climbing hills in Copacabana. Those trips also helped all the volunteers bond and I feel like I have made some extremely good friends from all over the globe. An added benefit to this is that, if I’m ever travelling again, I have plenty of people to stay with in America and Europe!

Going home was one of the saddest days. I remember sitting at the airport, so tired from going out the night before, and crying wishing that I could stay a bit longer, even if I did know that my university would have not been happy if I told them I was going to be late starting term!

However, not a day goes past now when I don’t think of my experience in Bolivia. When I teach music in England, or I’m playing the piano, or I look at photos of my trip, I think back to the people I worked with at Manuella, and of Edith and the volunteers, and of all the stunning places I visited, and feel incredibly lucky to have experienced what I did.

Ellie Sherwood

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