Week 66 to 70 - La Paz & Volunteering
Updated: Feb 23
We made ourselves at home quite quickly in the little flat we had rented, made friends with their super cute dog Wanda, and went for a walk around the area, including Plaza Espana which was only a few blocks away and full of life. Young guys were using the playground to do workouts as like in many areas, basic equipment to do workouts had been put in.
The reason for coming to La Paz was to do some volunteering at Funprobo a charity for Bolivians with amputations, predominantly of the lower limb. It wasn’t like a work-away because we had to pay for our own accommodation and it wasn’t a volun-tourism scheme which you have to pay for. It was a charity completely reliant upon experienced, qualified health professionals like physiotherapists to come and help out where possible. The good thing was that when a new patient came in, often the process from first discussion, to walking out with a prosthetic was completed in under a week, however not every time obviously. This meant that even if volunteers were there a short time, they could really help make a big impact on a few people and see them through the whole process. I was a bit nervous turning up for the meet and greet day, however I soon settled.
Kelvin came with me as he was hoping to help a little to, although his main aim over the few weeks was to get the bikes in tip-top condition. We met the managers daughter Stephanie and her brother, who showed us around before Ivonne the manager (their mum) turned up a little later. They were all super lovely and Ivonne spoke great English, which made things a little easier. She also had some assessment crib sheets written by a previous volunteer with assessment questions, which turned out to be super useful and helped with my confidence. The computer system was straight forwarded and everything was available in various folders, so I was set. The next day I rocked up at 9am ready to start, and it wasn’t too long until I was thrown well and truly in the deep end! I think I had 3 or 4 assessments on that first day, and I got to meet some great people like Marcel and Angel, who I ended up going for lunch with, both of whom had lower limb amputations and I got to know quite well over the next couple of days. It was a steep learning curve in terms of my Spanish, and from a physio point of view I didn’t have lots of recent experience with amputees but my musculoskeletal knowledge paid dividends.
After the first couple of days I was shattered due to having to get into a routine, use my brain and communicate in another language, but I felt good and my patients were very patient because they didn’t often get the chance to have a physio assessment and tailored exercises. When there’s no physio volunteers, Ivonne has to muddle through the exercise bit without any physio knowledge, but tailoring an exercise programme to each specific patient based on a thorough physio assessment is way better for everyone involved and takes some of the load off Ivonne, who’s always trying to do way too much because she loves the charity so much and helping those far less fortunate with life-changing amputations. Anyway, enough about that for now, I will talk a little bit more about the next few weeks of volunteering later…lets get back to some more chilled out stuff!!
We’d arranged to meet our friend Kirsi with her dog Jack at Beef and Beer which was to become one of our most frequented spots over the next month. Kirsi had been to La Paz before and suggested the venue, which we loved. Good prices, great food and good drinks! What more can you ask for. The food was half the price of the ‘tourist alley’ in the centre, so this was great. It was so lovely to see Kirsi and Jack again. We’d last seen her in the wonderful Colca Canyon back in Peru. She was only here for a couple of nights, however we made the most of it, on both occasions going to Beef & Beer, especially as they liked dogs to. We chatted about our travels since we’d last met and about good old random stuff, as you do. Time flew and it was soon time for Kirsi to get back on the road…but we’d soon meet again in Bolivia.
The second weekend we spent in La Paz, Stephanie took Kelvin and I to the El Alto market or Feria, which is the (or one of the) largest market in South America! We met her at the yellow Teleferico station and for a great price of 3 bolivianos per person (about 30 pence) you could take a one way trip. Bargain! I am not the best with heights and being suspended in mid air however I kept my cool. The trip up to the market was a steep one and Stephanie pointed out a flattened car wedged in one of the rock crevices, which had come off the road that was etched into the hill a few years before. Scary! The market was huge. There was soooooooo much to be found and to be honest in the few hours we were there we only got to see a smidge of the hundreds of square metres of market available. It was bustling with people and the street food was yummy…yep we tried lots! I also found a minion ‘Dave’ for Kelvin for his birthday which was coming up quickly, and I bought a pair of shoes for Angel, one of my patients because his were too heavy and he was literally penniless and lived a hard life, and for me it would create little impact in the grand scheme of things. At about 4pm we left the market with Stephanie after a lot of walking and looking, catching the red Teleferico back down to the city. After thanking her we jumped in a taxi back to the apartment and within 10 minutes we were back out the door to meet Philippe our Swiss friend, who was now in La Paz. It was really lovely to see him again, and he was telling us about life as a backpacker since he’s sent his bike home, sold his Peruvian van and would be heading back himself shortly. His opinion; traveling by bike was the best!
We went to Beef & Beer again, and also met another traveller called Michele. She’d hurt herself mountain biking on the death road but luckily was ok. We all chatted and decided to meet up again the next evening to go to Cholitas Wrestling up in El Alto. We met up at their hostel and all jumped in a taxi, including another Swiss lady, so there were 5 of us squished us in 1 car. We got up to the wrestling place very early so we had to wait around a little but it was very cheap at about £5 (50 bolivianos) per person and even included a drink, popcorn and a souvenir! The show started and we all took our seats. It started with the men doing some wrestling and the first guys were a little on the novice side but the next ones up were a bit better. Then the ladies were on, which was the main attraction. They were all dressed in the traditional Cholita dress with a huge skirt, and accessorised with some big chunky earrings, which they removed before ‘fighting’. It was fun to watch and they did act quite well, although after about fight 7 I think we called it a day. 1 round was quite long so we were there a good while, and the locals loved it! We took photos of some of the cheer girls and the wrestlers before heading off back to the city below on the Teleferico. Then we found some pizza and all was well!
Next on our meeting list was a chap called Manuel, who was a Bolivian guy living in La Paz. We’d met on facebook and he had retired as La Paz Police Commissioner the year before. He was also part of the La Paz Harley Davidson group and we’d all arranged to meet up and get a coffee. Unfortunately a miscommunication meant we were all waiting in different places, but as luck would have it, about an hour after our meeting time we bumped into him on the road. He took us to Valle de la Luna just South of the city via a cafe. He spoke some English, which was nice for Kelvin and he had a beautiful, deep red Harley. We all wandered around the Moon Valley, which was quite cool, plus at the entrance they had a statue of a Llama and also a Star Wars Walker. Then we headed back into the city and to a pub called the Beer Garden. There were some other Harley club members there as well, and they were all so lovely. We were welcomed in and quickly handed a beer.
There was a gig going on in the evening so Kelvin and I took the bikes back to the appartment and got the yellow and green Teleferico ’s back down into the South of the City, which was the longest Teleferico ride we’d been on yet and a lot more interesting than a taxi. When we got back to the bar there were more people about and we joined the ‘Harley Table’ again. We met some great guys and gals, and also the president of the club Eduardo, who was super hospitable. As the evening went on, out came the Jonny Walker Black. Neither of us had drank it before, not being Whisky fans, however with a little coca cola it tasted so smooth and despite trying to contribute towards the cost, Eduardo wasn’t having any of it. Despite the language barrier, we had a lot of laughs and a couple of the members spoke some English, which made things even better. Just before 11pm we left the bar to catch one of the last Teleferico’s back unto the top. The city looked spectacular at night from above.
We arranged to go to the ‘Death Road’ on the upcoming Sunday. We were planning on giving it a miss but Manuel wanted to take us so we happily agreed. The day came and the sun was out, which was great. We headed off out of the city with Manuel and he bought some alcohol, which we realised a short while later was to bless the bikes. The Bolivians often bless things and Pacha Mama (mother Earth). He sprinkled the alcohol around all three bikes and said a blessing. Then we set off to Coroico, where we stopped for a little while before getting some lunch just outside of the town in a small roadside cafe with awesome food. It was then off to the Yungas road, part of which was the famous ‘Death Road’ so many people talk about. To be honest, unless you drive like a crazy person or do something stupid, it really isn’t deathly these days, however it’s quite beautiful. So many of the standard roads in Peru were a lot more hair-raising. We stopped for lots of photos and we got some nice photos for Manuel to, which was nice. He bought his Honda Shadow on this trip rather than his beautiful Harley as the road was dirt, and probably a wise decision…cleaning the chrome after would have been painstaking!
We did have to pay a little to do the road but not the full price as Manuel had a chat with them and for some reason they dropped it a lot, which was kind of them. Once we completed the road it was back to La Paz, although the thing I forgot to mention was that all day my bike had been under powered, lacking acceleration and sounding like it was going to die. On the way back with a long, long hill it was even worse and we couldn’t work out what the issue was. Luckily we made it back ok and said goodbye and thank you to Manuel, then contacted Mike, who we’d met at the Harley meet the other night. He was a mechanic and came straight over, which was amazing. The spark plugs were very sooted up and he thought maybe there was an issue with the carb and suggested we go to see his mate Alberto in the South of the City. We all hopped on our bikes and headed through the city. We got to Alberto’s house and he also spoke great English and was a super nice chap, which made explanations easier and we had a good chat about our travels and bikes. We left him with the bikes, as Kelvin’s was similar but not as bad, and got a taxi back to the apartment.
Fortunately, we got a message the next day to say that there was no issue with the carb’s (phew!) But that the air filter covers Kelvin had put on were too restrictive, especially at this altitude (around 4000m) and also had too much oil on. Combined with the oil on the actual filter and the extra layer, it was starving the engine of air. It was a simple fix…remove the skins, sorted! We were very thankful and also sorted out a meet up with Mike and Alberto in a few days, and guess where?! Yes, Beef & Beer!!! We got them drinks and food and had a good chat. They were both super kind and friendly, and it was great to have the pleasure to meet them both. Alberto also recommended a good mechanic in Sucre just in case, which later became one of the best pieces of information he could have given us.
We did get to see Manuel one last time before we left La Paz when he contacted me to say that there had been a lot of snow on the mountains nearby and he wanted to know if we were keen on a ride out to see them. We jumped at the opportunity as we weren't doing much else and it would be good to test the bikes without the air filter covers. We all met up and headed off. We soon reached the snow and stopped to get some photos of the lake, snowy landscapes and also Manuel did a blessing to 'Pacha Mama' or Mother Earth with some locals at a monument on the hill. It was definitely a cold day but it was worth the trip out.
The good thing about being in one place for a while is getting to meet travellers and catching up with those you’ve met before. Not only did we get to hang out with Kirsi and Philippe as I mentioned earlier, but we got to catch up with the Australian family from ‘Lost and Loving It’ again; Noela and her husband Joe, plus their two kids Rob and Abby, who actively encourage other families to get out there and travel. We actually went to a different restaurant this time, but before that we met up in a pigeon filled square where all of the government buildings are, met another travelling couple from Macedonia and then after meeting the Aussie guys headed to a lovely coffee shop where Abby taught Kelvin a card game, of which the rules seemed to change in her favour quite frequently! Ha ha! The place we found to eat had some very traditional Bolivian food, which was really nice, and we also had their traditional drink but for the life of me I can’t remember the name of it. Normally we’re not ones for hanging out with kids however I have to say Rob and Abby were really good kids and well-behaved, which made for a lovely afternoon and evening. It was then time to say goodbye and we all headed off.
It wasn’t long until we met another traveller as well, Matthias De Toffol. He was travelling by bike and was around when we went out for Kelvin’s birthday meal, a day later than anticipated. Kelvin’s birthday fell on bank holiday Monday and literally everything was closed so he had to settle for a home made spaghetti bolognese and wine cooked with love! The next day though, Matthias, Philippe, Kelvin and I all met at Beef & Beer, and also a Colombian traveller they’d met at the hostel, so it was a good little party. Philippe and I also managed to get an apple pie together for pudding with some candles, so that was nice. We had a great evening and Kelvin got to enjoy his birthday for another day, and we got to see Phillipe one last time on this trip.
Finally, we got a surprise message from our biker friends Neake and Paul who would be passing through La Paz for one night, which definitely called for another Beef and Beer outing! It was so good to have a proper catch up and a good laugh for a few hours, plus Kelvin had someone to share the meat platter with so he was one happy boy! Thanks Neake!
One of the final missions of our La Paz stay was to get the tyres changed, and once again we managed to find some reasonably cheap Pirelli MT21 front tyres, plus we had the Metzeler Enduro 3 tyres we’d bought from Cusco in Peru. Sadly the place we found to get the tyres changed wasn’t the best but they didn’t stuff it up as badly as Honda in Cusco! We would have done it ourselves but because we wanted all four tyres changed we decided to get it done for us, but there we go.
The month went by super fast and my volunteering stint soon came to an end. I’d met so many lovely people and felt like I’d actually made a difference to people’s lives. Probably one of the most rewarding times was working with Luiza, a lady in her 40’s with diabetes who had lost her leg due to the disease and sores that failed to heal and got infected, on more than one occasion. She was also blind, which made the challenge even harder, but she soldiered on and so lovely. She worked hard and did so well with the limb. Getting the new leg bought a tear to her eye and also her husband, who was so supportive. They’s not been able to go back to their home in the Yungas due to the amputation for well over a year, and were stuck staying with family in El Alto. She has a long way to go and they are hoping to help her sight (also diabetes related) but it was going to take time for everything to come together but she was overjoyed to be finally moving in the right direction.
I finished up everything and then Ivonne took Kelvin and I for a coffee and cake at a great cafe not too far away. She’d also got us gifts…a scarf each, which were beautiful. Stephanie dropped by and gave us a hug goodbye and more gifts. She’s got us a small minion mug each for our travels. It was sad to say goodbye and we wished them all the best for the future. I really hope the charity keeps going because it helps so many people who without them would never have the chance of walking again.
Despite originally planning many months before to skip La Paz, we’d actually really enjoyed our time there, meeting new people and grasping the opportunity to help a few people. Now though, it was off to explore Bolivia a bit more, and it didn’t disappoint!