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Volunteering in the Bolivian Amazon

Written on: Saturday November 15th, 2008

A journal entry from: Trails in 2008

We turned up to the small and sweaty town of Rurrenabaque after a fantastic 3 day trip on a small boat and camping alongside the river.  We have been keeping an eye out for a place to stop to do some volunteering and found a place where we could be of use.  We have spent 6 weeks working for an organisation that runs trips into the rainforest and puts all the profits back into conservation.  For a quick look at some pics from a Nacional Geographic article and the woman we were working for, go to  http://www.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0003/madidi/index.html

If you are REALLY interested, this is the organisations website http://www.madidi-travel.com/es/

I wonīt bore you and go into everything here, lets just say it was a completely eye opening experience and a challenge.  The guy who runs the office had to go to La Paz to sit exams, so I took his place, and re-hashed all their promo materials and sold tours to unsuspecting tourists (he heee).  Letīs just say after a few days I realised why I, with crap spanish and only a days training had been put in charge of the staff and the safe.  Some of my challenges included writing a contract in spanish to get wood cut (for Alīs roof), sometimes having to refuse staff requests for pay advances and organising buying petrol (which could be a 3 day process).  We worked every day from 9am to 9pm with a 4 hour siesta in the middle to snooze in the heat which sometimes got up to 40 degrees.  We now understand why Bolivians donīt appear to work so hard, its difficult when you never get a day off!

Meanwhile, Al was pulling apart and rebuilding the roof of the volunteer house up the road, cause a tree had just gone through the roof in high winds the week before.  He has promised to do his own blog about his life as a labourer here, so I will hold him to it - stay tuned!

It was a very interesting experience to work with Bolivians, experience life in a tourist town and get a real sense of how they live.  Most people here are doing well to earn US6 bucks a day, and tourist income is vital.  They were suffering from the lack of tourists due to the economic crisis and political problems with US Govt.  Most guides will do anything to ensure they get tips, which means giving tourists photo opportunities at the expense of the wildlife and environment – snakes being handled by tourists with sunscreen and insect repellent which ultimately kills them (if the stress doesnīt get them first), anacondas being held in sacks to "magically" appear ahead on the path, caimans mouths being roped up so everyone can have a hold, monkeys being fed bananas to entice them and in extreme cases tourists being taken hunting so they can play out their Lost World fantasies.

We learnt a lot more about whats going on with the lungs of our planet, and did a lot of work to spread the message about responsible tourism. I would love to say that it was all roses and assure you it is in good hands but unfortunately we were often left with a sense of hopelessness as we saw and heard of corruption and illegal activities despite a large NGO presence and government regulations.

One thing we will never forget was our fostering of a baby anteater - read a little more about the animal we called "number one" here http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=77879&l=6fdab&id=740345608

We enjoyed becoming īlocalsī for a while, made lots of new friends from Bolivia and around the world (special mention goes out to the many nice Danish people we met) and this will remain one of the best things we have done in South America.