We had elected to skip Santa Cruz, we didn't need to see yet anther city. Instead, Chantal had very kindly set us up with "her" orphanage in Cochabamba, where she volunteered when she first arrived in Bolivia and where she still provides invaluable support.
The orphanage is run by two Italian nuns (collectively, the "mothers") who have hearts of gold. We didn't know very much about the orphanage before we arrived. We knew that the orphanage was for girls only and run by the mothers. We also knew that there were 30 little girls of varying in ages from 5 to over 18. But we didn't really know what to expect as previous orphanages we've been too have been in Africa and always very poor, run down and simple. My, were we in for a surprise!
We caught an overnight bus from Sucre, nothing to report there (for a change) except for probably the worst road we've driven along in Bolivia (and we include the trip to Uyuni in that!) and arrive in Cochabamba around 5am. [RD - how can you forget the stop in a random town for a baño break, but of course there isn't a single toilet to be found, so there's 30+ people relieving themselves at the side of the road... and one guy just going out the bus window?!]
After jumping into a taxi, stating we needed to go to "Sacabe", we intended to rely on Chantal's amazingly accurate map and directions to find the orphanage in the pitch dark. Silly us. All streets look the same in the dark with no street lights or road names, and all dirt roads. After driving past the orphanage twice, unbeknownst to us, our taxi driver eventually found the house after stopping to ask for directions twice and waking up another household that he thought was the orphanage, and waited until we were safely inside before he left, and we didn't mind too much when he increased the price from 30 to 50 Bolivianos (we were going to give him 40 for his efforts anyway). We wake up the mother and are escorted into a mini paradise which will be our home for the next few days. We are given an entire apartment to ourselves and directed to separate rooms to sleep (but of course, we are in a Catholic orphanage and it was enough of a step to have a male in the orphanage, let alone have him sleep in the same room as me!), and sleep we did.
We wake a few hours later to find breakfast set out on the kitchen table...are we in heaven? We then meet Reina, who is to become our ever present and lovely guide/chaperone/friend over the next two days. We establish that she is an orphan herself, having lived in the orphanage for 23 years (ie, since she was 5 years old - being the youngest age that the orphanage will accept children). She has now been through school and studied tourism at university. Thanks to the love, care and generosity of the mothers and their benefactors, she is now a thriving woman with a world of opportunities ahead of her who is part of a massive family.
After we had been fed and showered (the hottest most amazing shower ever...at least for me, Rich's shower was apparently not on the same level...), Reina escorted us back into Cochabamba for some sight seeing. Of course, we stopped the taxi on the way for some salteñas from a stall on the side of the road (soooooo good... I am addicted. I'm pretty sure we have mentioned them, but they are kind of like Cornish pasties, but with a sweet pastry and filled with meat or chicken, vegetables, an olive, egg and just the most amazing flavour. Mental note to learn how to make them back home...).
We went up to see the Cristo de la Concordia via cable car...which is bigger than Christ the Redeemer in Rio, but without all the fanfare and tourists that accompany the Brazilian statue. It's 33m tall, apparently to remember the fact that Jesus was 33 when he died.
We explored the city itself and just soaked it all up.
When it came time for lunch, the suggestions by Reina of fried chicken shops or restaurants were not appealing to us and I may have put my foot down and demanded we hit the markets. Reina was not particularly impressed by eating at the markets (not sure why, but when she told the mothers we had eaten at the markets they also expressed surprise - or is that horror?). Why would you NOT eat at the markets, they are awesome! But we managed a typically epic meal of soup and then rice and meat, all for around $1.35 each. Not necessarily a taste sensation, but a stable meal none the less!
Over the course of our sightseeing, we did manage to find out a bit about how the orphanage was run - whilst it receives some money from the government, 7 Bolivianos per child per day ($1US or £0.70), the majority of their funding comes from Italian individuals who support the orphanage and donations from people like us.
The afternoon was spent meeting and playing with all the girls after they got back from school. Our first meeting with them was amazing. We were taken into their communal room and introduced. Then one by one, each of their own accord, they came up and hugged us. It was really special. I lifted one child up...and suddenly it was lifts for everyone!
It was hard at first to tell the girls apart as a lot of them had short hair cut like a boys, presumably for hygiene purposes, but after a while, their personalities shone through. They were so happy. So genuine. So uncomplaining and accepting. So loved. You could see by the way the mothers interacted with each child, and also the older girls, that there was no absence of love, with a cuddle and a smile never far away.
We had seen when we arrived that a ball was deflated in the yard and Reana had mentioned that some of the bike tires were flat, so we'd bought a pump at the markets. This caused chaos as it meant the girls were allowed to ride the bikes and they were mightily happy about it! Rich spent a lot of the afternoon trying to fix the bikes and sort out disputes between who gets to ride the bikes, whilst I played skipping games and volleyball with the others. I taught the girls how to do a double skip and they taught me the criss cross. They were so keen to learn something new and turn anything into a game.
We had planned out all sorts of games and activities to play and do with the girls, having spent an afternoon in Sucre buying pencils, skipping ropes, paint, nail polish, paddlepop sticks, colouring books and the like. I had 'duck duck goose', child's yoga, football games and relay races all sorted in my head to play, but they were not needed. The girls entertained themselves like one massive family all afternoon, and those who were not outside with us, were inside doing homework, playing cards or drawing.
This was entirely unexpected. Here we are in a mini paradise, literally surrounded by rose gardens and mountains of love, with happy, healthy girls who are so beautiful, inside and out, and seemingly so grateful for all that they have. The mothers openly love and show affection to the girls constantly and we really felt that we were part of a massive caring family. And not just the mothers, the older girls looked after and cared for the younger girls and there was respect and tolerance shown by all. We were not made aware of a specific routine, but all the girls had chores to do, depending on their age would depend on the chores, and there always seemed to be something for the girls to do which seemed to be structured and organised (whether it was dancing, homework, washing, painting or playing). There seemed to be little interaction with the outside world (other than school), or with men in particular, but none of the girls had any issues with Rich so it didn't see my that the absence of men was a bad thing.
That evening, after dinner in our apartment with Reana, Rich had an early night as he was shattered passages, and I joined the girls downstairs for a few hours of "playtime". We made hearts from coloured paper (my first attempt was so bad everyone laughed at my efforts!), painted pictures, made bracelets and played ball, it was a lovely way to spend an evening. [RD - ok, what actually happened here is that CP also decided she might want an early night, and I had to put my foot down. We're staying here in an orphanage for 2 days when I have previously made clear my desire to GTFO of Bolivia. We are not staying here so CP can have a little snooze, this is definitely her gig. However, it seems that me "gently encouraging" her to go back downstairs to see the kids obviously paid off...]
We had met with the mothers earlier that evening to say that we were keen to make a donation to the orphanage and would like to buy something that the kids needed. We put it out to the mothers as to what was appropriate. I was thinking a new bike for the girls or perhaps a scooter, maybe a bouncing dinosaur or Barbie dolls, but after a bit of discussion, the mothers said that more practical and personal presents would be appropriate. Paper, pencils, pencil cases, paint, glue, scissors etc. I saw the logic in such practical gifts....but really wanted to get them a scooter or two!
So, after another stop at a salteña shop for breakfast (soooooo good), the next morning was spent at the markets spending our donation (about £150) on all things coloured paper, pencil cases, pencils, pens, glue scissors, sharpener, erasers, beads, glitter, sequins, balls, playing cards and a little writing book for each child. It was fun making up the packs for everyone and we couldn't wait to see their faces!
After returning to the orphanage with our bags of goodies, we witnessed all the girls helping out with the chores, so we pitched in, helping the mothers to shell peas, apparently just like Rich used to do with his grandparents when he was little.
The afternoon was spent playing and doing nail polish on all the girls! This was Rich's first attempt at putting on nail polish (such a deprived childhood!), but he was a master in no time! We had to enforce the rule that only the two of us could put on the polish or take it off (for obvious reasons), but I kept catching Rich being rather lax with that rule, with the obvious consequences of nail polish everywhere! [RD - it's pretty difficult when you're trying to apply the nail varnish to tiny finger nails while 3 kids jump all over you, vying for the next available brush!]
Once everyone was nail polished up and had stopped clambering over us...it was outside play time again and we were as bad as the children running around skipping and sorting out issues about who was allowed to use the camera next! Choice pics by both me and the kids...
That evening, after dinner, we took our little packs down to the kids dining room and everyone assembled excitedly. The mothers explained that they were each getting their own presents and to look after them. As she went through each part of the pack, excited little eyes kept turning to us and between smiles, little "thank you"s were directed our way, especially when the girls saw the balls! Each child's name was called out and they patiently collected their pack and then opened it up. There was no fighting, no arguing, no complaining that someone got a better pencil case, only gratitude for having something of their own. The looks on their faces said it all.
Then, the best bit, each and everyone one of them came and kissed and hugged us, some not letting go and some coming back for seconds. It really was a moving experience. The mothers presented us with a card which had been signed by (or on behalf of all the girls) and one of the older girls had made us each a bracelet. We were so touched. We'd not really done anything to help out, other than play with the kids, like the big kids we are, and make a donation by way of presents, but we felt that we had been welcomed and accepted into the family.
After an hour or so of watching very kind and gentle short shows and clips on the projector with all the kids, all of which had a special message and was emphasized by the mother, we had to say our goodbyes as we would be leaving at 6.30am in the morning and everyone would be asleep...or so we thought...
To our massive surprise, not only were the mothers up in the morning to say goodbye, but almost all of the girls had got up early and had come out with blankets to say goodbye and get one final hug and kiss. We were so moved, I had tears in my eyes. A little group came outside to wave us off and watched as our taxi disappeared and took us to the airport.
We were privileged to be witness to one of the successes of charity, to an oasis of love, care, structure and growth that had been nurtured by the mothers and to a ray of hope in a country full of poverty and subsistence. It really was a little self created paradise and we fully intend to continue supporting such a loving and constructive cause when we return home. If anyone else wants to support the orphanage, let us know!
It would have been lovely to spend more time at the orphanage, but alas, we had a flight to catch and at 8am, we were on our way back to La Paz for a day...
Ps...if you haven't been able to tell yet...this is CP's effort at blogging!