At home in the jungle

Early Sunday morning we arrived at Marlene’s house in the small community of San Miguel, Province of Beni, Bolivia and just five minutes by boat from the ecolodge. Marlene lives with her husband and four fun-loving kids - Lluvia-Mercedes, Aron, Abraham and 3 month old Sairoon, on our arrival she promptly made us homegrown hot-chocolate and fritters for breakfast. This would be our home for the next week and was a lot different to anything we were used to.

Around 40 families live here. They have their own primary school (for high school the kids go to Rurre), the only brick building in town, a football field and a small shop run by one of the teachers. The rest of the houses are spread out along a long path running parallel to the river. There is no electricity here except for the school - which has solar panels, and the shop which occasionally runs a generator to make ices popular with the kids...and me. The water is piped from a spring higher up and is potable but runs out occasionally for a few hours. The houses, except the school, are all made in the traditional way. Elevated with bamboo or wood walls and a roof thatched with a particular dolphin-tail shaped palm leaf. These are neatly wrapped around a split bamboo and kept in place by a second split bamboo. They are then layered closely together to form a waterproof sheath that is good for 20 years. The houses are mostly open rooms where the whole family will sleep at night. The kitchen is a separate building with meshing to keep out all the roaming chickens and ducks. The toilet is a shack with a pit and the tap doubles as shower with a simple wall shielding it from the path and neighbours. The whole yard is clean-swept compacted earth with a few orange and banana trees. Probably a good idea to keep a bit of vegetational distance from the jungle what with all the vicious little creatures out there.

 Our time was divided up between our respective jobs (me in the school and Axel helping out at the lodge) and the family. Axel took great pleasure in teasing the two boys, who can now say 'rauber und bandite' in a perfect Liechtensteiner accent  and playing with them by the river. Marlene, who thought she was 46 or 47, spent a lot of her time cooking predominantly fish and plantain dishes for us and I would keep her company trying to be useful chopping up vegetables or looking after Sairoon. We all spent the evenings together drawing the animals and insects of the forest on poster paper by the light of our head-torches. Without electricity we would already be in bed two or three hours after dark - 9pm at the latest.

At school Line (a norwegian we had already by coincidence met in Sucre) and I taught English to the second and third level aging 8 to 13. The school has three classes usually with 2 or 3 age groups in the one class. School was from 8 to 12 in the morning but the numbers of kids in class seemed to vary so much that attendance obviously wasn't a priority for some of the parents. I don't blame the kids though as some teachers methods are by european standards rather 'old school' with much ear pulling, drills and some corporal punishment. I would never get away with that at home!!!!  The level of education seemed to me shockingly low, Lluvia at the age of 7 could barely write her own name and Abraham at 10 wasn't much better, but we were told stories of communities out in the forest that are much more inaccessible than San Miguel and in the dry season when the rivers are too low to be navigable some are not accessible at all. The kids there get very sporadic education if they get any at all. A case in point being a new family who had moved to the community and all 3 children, the oldest was in her early teens, were put into the first class in the primary school.

The teachers have a tough job of it though. The schooling there and in Liechtenstein are light-years apart. Besides the very low wages there are no facilities: no printers or fotocopy machines, no paper or pens, no computers. The hours are also much shorter too with 8 to 12:30 compared to the 7:30 to 3 or 4 back home. This despite a hefty 22 percent of the Bolivian government's budget that goes to education but it is after all a small budget (Bolivia is the poorest country in South America). On top of it the rural areas are still far behind compared to the urban schools. It was fascinating to volunteer there in light of the extreme differences between the European and Bolivian educational systems. Line and I did our best to get the kids motivated and learning and it was very rewarding even though it was just one week. Our stay culminated in an Environmental day where we presented posters, chatted to all the kids about rubbish and the environment, played an egg and spoon race (the egg being our fragile world) and collected rubbish from the shore and paths of the community. This all with a bit of bribery and corruption as the group with the most rubbish got a prize but every child went home with a bundle of pencils and some paper to draw on. Sadly luxury items for them.

Saturday was the last day with the family and we lazed around with the kids and together fetched wood from their plot of land. Sunday we said our sad goodbyes - we would really miss the kids - filled a boat with ourselves and the collected rubbish and rocked dangerously close to the waterline as we cruised back to Rurre. Emptying out tin cups of water along the way.