The staff and I piled into an antiquated 1980 Toyota Landcruiser. Like all of my other experiences in Bolivian vehicles the seat belts were missing. There were four of us in the back seat and all of the gear was loosely packed in the back which repeatedly hit me in the head. In the United States the drive would have taken maybe an hour and half via the interstate system, but we were driving through the remote expanses of the Andes. The road was cobblestone, packed dirt and then a combination of the two. When the tires would smash into a rock we’d get thrown around. We’d laugh and I’d ask in broken Spanish if everyone was alright. The drive continued like that for four hours.
When I landed in Cochabamba, Bolivia I was there to volunteer. I spent the summer of 2009 volunteering with an organization called CEDESOL. Their mission is to provide sustainable and environmentally friendly cooking devices to rural Bolivians. They mainly accomplish this mission through the distribution of solar powered stoves. These were very simple stoves that involved llama wool, reflective metal and light weight wood.
My job for the summer was to help create an intern program and to help with the distribution and educational components of the solar powered stoves. This was an amazing summer. Not only did I get to live in a completely different culture, learn the Spanish language, and live with most amazing host family. But I got to spend my days working to provide people with a better life.
I got to deliver the first set of stoves to a rural Bolivian village after our 4 hour Lancruiser ride. We arrived in the village and the women who were going to receive their stoves were standing on the outside of the villages church. They had on the traditional Bolivian garb complete with colorful skirts and beautiful straw hats. They were talking excitedly amongst themselves. We soon distributed the stoves and their excitement grew. We cooked lunch and taught them how to use it and clean it. The lunch was delicious and the woman were excited to take their new stoves home.
We were invited to accompany one woman back to her house. It was at this woman’s house that I learned first hand of the importance of the volunteer work I was doing. She led us back to her “kitchen” which was a small room off the main living room. Inside were several stones with ash lying in the middle. This was her “stove.” She spent several hours a day leaning over an open fire cooking meals for her family. The year was 2009 and she kneeled next to an open fire to cook her meals. The thing that struck me the most was the sight of the walls. They were black, I mean really black. They were not painted black, but they were covered in years and years of soot. If I touched the walls the soot would crumble off on my finger staining it a deep color. This was on the walls and this was what was in her lungs. The new stove that was sitting outside waiting to be heated by the sun would help her and her family.
Through the staffs and my efforts she had been given a stove through a series of grants and international donations. She would now cook her food in an environmentally and health manner that would ensure that her health would not be jeopardized and her life would improve. I got this opportunity by taking a trip to volunteer. It was amazing.
The summer was amazing for another reason. I learned the joys of being a “voluntourist.” Not only did I get the opportunity to help make rural Bolivians lives better. I got to see so many things that South America had to offer. I got to hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. I got to sample so many wonderful Bolivian dishes. I stuck my toes into Lake Titicaca and sampled the night life in Buenos Aires. To me it was the best of both worlds. I helped people and then I got to see a beautiful continent in its fullest.
This trip changed me, when I got back to the states I started an organization called Volunteer to See, www.volunteertosee.com. My goal with this organization is to provide traveling families, people and conventions the opportunity to give back while getting away. Voluntourism does not have to involve traveling half way across the world but can be as simple as on the family’s next trip to Grandma’s house, spend an afternoon volunteering with a food bank. If your company is feeling adventurous challenge the employees to bring school supplies to the next convention and donate them to a school in need. All these small donations of supplies and time can equal a large change for the community that will make your next trip or convention the memory of a lifetime.