Woofing in Bolivia – A farm in the tropic of Cochabamba

I arrived here on May 1st 2010, although it could have been a day or two earlier. It’s hard to keep track of time. From La Paz, I got a bus to Cochabamba, a nearly 12 hours ride. I spent two days there in a noisy and cheap hostel. The town was receiving various groups of students and engineers for all sorts of events. They were having quite a good and noisy time!

In Cochabamba, I went to the tourist information office on the main square, a section of the local police, to find out how to reach the farm. I only had the small description that comes on the Woofing list for Bolivia. It said on the top: Tacuaral, Chimore, Cochabamba. Nobody knew about Tacuaral, but they told me how to reach Chimore, a small town about 6 hours away by bus. I took the first bus available, leaving at 9:30 in the morning and reached Chimore in mid afternoon. The place was so small that I would have missed it if a passenger had not told me to get down. At first I was wondering if I would find a place where to stay. I asked a policeman to recommend me a safe and cheap hostel and he sent me to the Copacabana Hostel across the street where the bus had left me. He was very friendly; I felt welcomed! I found out later that the town had quite a few other hostels and guesthouses. Then I asked at the taxi association next door how I could reach Tacuaral. One of the drivers told me that it was at about 10 kms from there and that he could take me for 20 bolivianos. It’s good to be fluent in Spanish when you travel in these areas, so my friend, get on with it and learn the language!

I spent the night in Chimore and early next morning, I left my bag in the room, planning to return for a second night and took a taxi by 7:00 in search for the farm. I wanted to meet the owner, check the farm and the living conditions before making a decision. After my experience in Peru and the negative feedback from Apolo, I was not willing to take any risk.

Finding the place was quite easy. We stopped and asked someone at a little shop on the side road and discovered that the farm was just next door. The owner received me very kindly. He had two woofers in his “cabaña”, a nice house built a few years ago, a bit away from the road, under a lot of tall palm trees and near a river which was dry at the time but full of river rocks. Have I told you how I love river rocks? I always did, since as far I remember. I remember when I was a teenager and when we went to the Pyrenees. That’s where I discovered those rivers. Since then, I love them with passion! I always wanted to build something with these rocks. I got my opportunity to do it here! A French girl in her mid twenties was staying “cabaña”. The second woofer was a 19 years old Canadian girl from the British Canada. She was staying in a tent. The owner had also 2 guests staying with him in the main old house, a couple from La Paz who was spending the weekend there, his sister-in-law and her husband.

The owner offered me to stay in a small room in the old house until the woofers leave, in a week or so. The room was fine, so I told him that I would return the next day with my things. I returned to Chimore, went to the market to buy a few veggies as an introductory gift and spent the day relaxed in this small country town, checking my email – yes, they have two or three Internet cafes here – and having a few beers at the local restaurants.

The farm is a 13 hectares property with very little going on. The actual owner bought it 7 or 8 years ago when he was in love with a local adolescent girl. But he was more into romance than farming. Then the relationship broke and he returned to Cochabamba and his old routine as an agronomist engineer.

Two or three months ago, this mid-50 years old man got a heart attack due to very high cholesterol, bad eating habits and lots of stress in his job. He got his main artery cleaned up, spent all his savings in the main hospital in La Paz where his ex-wife took care of him while he was recovering. He quit his job and finally returned to his farm a few weeks ago with the intention to start a new life, and maybe find another young local girl to keep his heart pumping. “I need to know if my heart is still working fine”, he told me one evening while having a few beers. You will understand my sarcasm as you keep reading this story! I strangely looked very much like the actor of the “American Beauty” movie… Fascinating!

The place was a mess. He had hired a worker who had been clearing the front part for a month and who was now working more inside the farm. He had planted a few trees based on some basic permaculture concepts and made a deal with his neighbor next door to plant coca in a 50/50 business relationship. The neighbor does the work and they share the profits. Coca is a big business here in Bolivia. Evo Morales, the actual re-elected president, also recently re-elected president of the association of the coca producers, is working hard to allow all farmers to cultivate legally a ¼ hectare of coca, as long as they register with the local government associations. Coca is not officially cultivated to produce Cocaine. Of course not. It’s in fact part of the Bolivian culture. Workers all carry their bag of dry coca leaves and make balls with them that they put in their mouths to suck the juice out of it all day long, like Americans chew chewing gums. They reckon that it helps them with hard physical work, hot and cold temperature and who know what else. There are also quite a lot of derivative products, such as energy drinks, and alternative medicine ointments and creams, as well as the famous “mate de coca” (Coca tea). I personally tried the dry leaves ball in my mouth, but I could not stand the flavor and never tried it again. However, I do like the tea combined with dry stevia leaves, a natural sweet plant, like mint leaves and sweeter than sugar.

At the moment, besides the ¼ hectare of coca that his neighbor handles with a heavy load of chemical products to control the grass and speed up the growing process, he also has some cacao trees too young to produce and some small palm trees (palmitos) that produce the delicious palm heart only available in Europe in jars. The cacao and the palmitos are hardly surviving under tall grasses of all sizes and shapes that have been invading his lands while he was away. That is where his worker was working when I arrived, clearing the land with his machete. That is also where the 2 young woofers were working 2 hours a day helping the young worker happy to have pretty girls on his side for a change! Although the farm is member of the Independent Woofers of Bolivia – WOOF standing for Working on Organic Farms – this is not an organic farm at all. At least not yet. Should I report it to the association? While I was here, I saw the neighbor more than once carrying chemical products to the coca plantation and the owner himself spraying his cacao trees with chemical fertilizer.

I also found out that the place had been a palm nursery for a few years. They were growing and selling small palm trees in black plastic bags. Then the farm got abandoned for a few years. Today, wherever one goes, one finds black plastic bags. Wherever you dig, you find black plastic bags. It’s quite a sad situation indeed! I also discovered while clearing the third banana area a trash deposit with so much trash that the smell was overwhelming. I was completely disgusted. I told the owner that he had to find a way to remove the trash, as I was not ready to do it myself. I learned that removing people’s trash does not help at all. They have to do it themselves in order to develop the right mind and attitude. I asked him to remove it a few times and after the third week, he sent his worker to do it. The young man removed some of it leaving lots of plastic bags and metal cans that he would have to dig out. “We got a full truck of trash out!” said proudly the owner to me. “You still have quite a lot to remove!” I reminded him. Sadly enough, the trash was still there the day that I left and I bet you it’s still there today. (Photos taken after they removed the trash!)

The front of the house was also showing a lot of trash, and since they did not have a proper trash container, most of it was waiting on the ground to be processed in some way. Among it, you could see an old tire, a rusted antique metal bed and all shaped of cans and plastic containers. But the place is big enough so one does not feel so overwhelmed by the contamination. In fact, the place is showing quite a lot of potential and the two rivers that cross the land bring a very nice touch to the site. I personally liked it right away and felt that I could do something to honor the Woofing community and give a hand to my new host. After insisting a few times, and with the help of his worked, they removed all the trash from the front within the month and got it well cleared. The place looks now quite nice when one comes in.

The atmosphere was quite pleasant when I arrived, quite relaxed, kind of semi-woofing and semi-ecotourism. The girls slept late and worked a couple of hours a day while the guests from La Paz were all charmed by the countryside and cooking decent vegetarian meals since two of us were indeed meat free eaters.

Instead of working on the back with the peon and the girls, I agreed with the owner to concentrate more on the front section, clear the 3 banana areas that were a total mess and clear a section to build a veggie garden, since there was none yet. Why don’t people with farming land make it a priority to grow their own food? I cleared the first 2 areas quite fast but found myself facing a huge challenge with the third one. I did not realize at first that I would be working on this section for the next 4 weeks. After two or three days, the couple from La Paz left charmed and the French girl’s boyfriend arrived. We were making a pleasant group, some working, others cooking alternatively. Did I mentioned that the owner of the farm does not cook at all, only scrambled egg, and that we had no other choice than to prepare our meals? Then, the Canadian girl left and a few days later so did the French couple. On my second week, I was left alone with the mid-50 year old divorced owner of the land. I moved to the “cabaña”, the guesthouse, which I really like right away. A cold front had come a few days earlier with rain and low temperatures. The winter was coming. The high level of humidity in the area makes it feel even cooler and the nights were very cold. Although I had two heavy blankets and lots of cloth on, I was feeling cold all night, waking up often. Oh God, will I ever sleep a full night without waking up once again? The house does not have walls really, but large openings all around with mosquito net and large curtains to get some privacy at night and stop somehow the draft, which is pretty inefficient when windy. The good thing is that in the tropics, the winter never lasts too long and within a week, the cold was gone, and the temperature rose again to the mid 20’s. The nights were not so cold and the days dry and not too hot. Then the river dried up again… Remember, I am in the south hemisphere. Here, in June, it’s winter!

I soon realized that the owner was not a very entertaining man and he was member of the woofing community in order to get people to keep him company and entertain him. On top of that, he was very stressed out and with financial difficulties. The only thing that he enjoyed to talk about was his sexual conquests. In fact, during the first 2 weeks, every time that he would start a story, it would end up with having sex with one or another, and the older he was getting the younger were the girls, often underage. “When I was young, I used to like older women, now I like them very young,” he told me once. I mentioned to him a few times that in many countries that would be seen as pedophilia. “It’s cultural” he would answer. “Here, lots of old men go with very young girls, like my neighbor across the street and his 15 year-old girlfriend”. I got very bored at it and I guess he realized it or simply did not have any more stories to count. So he stopped talking about it. And since I was never mentioning similar adventures he assumed that I might me gay or something. “You are not much into women yourself” he told me once. “I am. I just like them a bit more mature. Right now, I just enjoy being single” I answered him. I also stopped preparing fancy salads and started to mix all things wildly without style to avoid any fast conclusion!

After a few evenings having a few beers and good meals that I prepared myself, I got him to speak about his projects for the farm and I learned that he was hoping in a short term to generate some money with the coca and in a longer term with the cacao. He was also considering renting the “cabaña” for long weekends and special occasions to people from La Paz and Cochabamba. He also wanted to start a program with a few schools of the area and have them visit the place charging a small fee to learn about farming and cacao growing. The third area of banana trees that I had started to clear was next to the guesthouse, and reaching up to the river that was once again running after 3 days of rain. I suggested clearing it very well and also clearing the riverside to give a more attractive look to the guesthouse. The idea was to transform it into a botanic park. At the moment, we could hardly see the banana trees. It would take some serious work to clear well the area, reach the riverside and then he would have to put some flowers and exotic plants native to the area. He agreed and I fully got into it.

Meanwhile, to improve the leaving conditions, the owner focused on finding a water leak between the guesthouse and the main building and to fix the electric connection so that I could have water and hot showers. I also gave him my full collection of music, over 11000 tracks, cleared his computer and installed a few nice additional programs worth over 2000 US!

Soon after my arrival at the farm, and after a few nights of scratching and bleeding besides having a mosquito net, I learned that my worst enemy was not the various types of mosquitoes that infest the area, some so small that you can’t even see them, but tiny little invisible spiders that live in the grass and jump on you, get on your ankles, eat you live, then climb in less than a second to your balls and settle there while others keep climbing to your armpits or settle on your stomach belt. These spiders get into your skin and stay there for a long time. You scratch, wash and scratch again; they don’t move. The only way to get ride of them is to splash pure alcohol (96%) on the area to disinfect the wound and kill the beasts. And I can assure you that 96% alcohol on your balls is not a pleasant thing to do! They seem to go away when it rains but they love sunny days. Nights can be rough when they found access to you before going to bed. Mornings are not better since they also like to stay in your cloth waiting for you. Real blood suckers! I should also mention the red and black ants that have their nest in trees and fall on you when you are clearing their area showing you how unhappy they are to see you destroying their habitat. I do honestly understand them. I just wish that they would also understand me and pacifically look for another place to live instead of having me for lunch. I’ve never been bitten so much. At time, I got more than 20 bits in 2 seconds on my legs leaving red spots all over the place. I got the habit to splash alcohol all over me 3 to 4 times a day to stop the hitching and kill whatever or whoever decided to get refuge under my skin. I guess everyone thought that I was an alcoholic since I smelled like sugar cane alcohol all day long!

Did I forget to tell you about these 2 or 3 cms long black ants that live around here? One of them bit me once on the right arm leaving within seconds a 5 cms large mark. I immediately rushed to the house and splashed alcohol on the wound to calm the burning feeling. Within minutes I felt my arm half paralyzed. The feeling stayed all afternoon. It finally left after applying alcohol and an antibiotic cream every hour.

On a more positive side, one of the main assets of this place is the amount of exotic birds, monkeys and other wild animals that live here. I saw a lot of parrots of various sorts, including these precious large and very colorful one – blue, green, red and yellow – that always go in couple and that love to stay in very tall trees. I saw black monkeys called spider monkeys and small grey and yellow ones just across my balcony. These monkeys make so much noise! You can hear them all day long. So precious! Since I’ve cleaned the area, I can see every day two rodents called jochi that look like large squirrels without a tail and a raccoon. I also saw on day when going to the market a small black panther – gato montes – crossing the road. Bird lovers would love this place, there is no doubt!

Since my host was quite boring – at least to me – , I simply focused on the project. I started my routine waking up very early with the first light, around 5 am thanks to the roosters and the physical pain, get my cup of coffee, watch the sun rise, prepare my breakfast and then start working until 13h00 or even 14h00. Then, exhausted and starving, I would return to the main house and prepare lunch. At first my host was showing a bit of interest in cooking. He even mentioned that he was going to start taking notes. But by the end of the second week, he lost all interest and did not even keep me company while I was cooking. He would just show up, seat and wait for the food. In the 7 or 8 weeks that I spent there cooking lunch and dinner, he never offered, not even once, to help me peeling or chopping veggies. At first, I would ask him to cook rice or quinoa, but since he was always overcooking it and burning it paying little attention to what he was doing, I stopped asking him to even do that. At least I was eating well and in abundance. We were going once a week to Chimore to get veggies in the market and a few other items at the local stores. He was spending about 100 Bolivianos a week for the food – 12 euros – less than what he would spend alone since he would have to eat in restaurants more often and therefore spend more money. At the end of the day, my staying there was saving him money! My all favorite time was when he went in two occasions to Cochabamba leaving me alone first for three days and then for a full week.

It took me 6 weeks working 6 to 7 hours a days to finish completely clearing the area, about 1600 to 2000 squared meters, build a large fireplace – a 5 meters diameter circle area – , 4 compost areas to recycle most of the waste, make a firewood bank, clear a 70 squared meters area and build the veggie garden using basic tools such as a machete, an ax, a pick, a hoe, a shovel and a rack. I got the worker to help me on a few occasions carrying heaving rocks and heavy dead trees, but I mainly worked alone all by myself. He would often walk across and stand there watching me working heavily!

While I was clearing the area, the owner decided to get ride of a dry mango tree that was standing in the middle of the area. The worker got it done with the ax, leaving a large trunk and lots of branches on the ground. He then went to hire for a few hours a neighbor with a chainsaw to cut the trunk in large boards in order to rebuild a small bridge inside his farm in an area that gets flooded during the raining season. The man came with his chainsaw and offered to also cut a large tree that was posing a threat to the house. “I am in full control of the tree” he said. The tree fell centimeters away from the roof of the guesthouse, saved by another tree in between that broke a few branches that would have otherwise come on top of the roof. He then cut the huge trunk in smaller pieces that he left all over the ground. He was going to return and finish the work a few days later, but never did.

It took me a few days to clear the area, sorting out all the wood and making different stacks depending on the size of the branches, building a stock of dry wood for the fireplace.

The fireplace was definitely my favorite of all. In fact this is the best fireplace which I have ever built. It lies next to the river, not far from the guesthouse. I moved big sections of trunks to form a circle and create seats around the fireplace. I leveled the ground and made a hole in a circle to set the fireplace itself. The idea was to fully integrate the new structure into the site in harmony with the environment. I had noticed that rain water had carved a pathway down to the river and I could see that during heavy rains some of the rainwater would be flowing though the fireplace. The construction should then serve as drainage for heavy rain and also as a retainer for the soil since one could see that lots of soil was being lost into the river.

With the help of the worker, I got heavy river rocks to build a retaining wall around the top part of the fireplace and to create like a river bed across it for the rainwater. Then I added more large rocks around the pieces of wood used as seats and finally used flat rocks to cover the bed of the fireplace and sections of the floor next to the seat to better see ants and any type of insects when having parties at night. It’s hard to see ants in the grass or on the ground, but easier if you stand on rocks! I was myself quite amazed by the final result. What do you say?

I also got quite serious with all the waste. I had a mix of banana trees, leaves, green weeds, dry branches, roots and some mix that included some soil. I had a lot of it! I used dry old trunks that I found lying all around to build two large compost areas, sorted the waste and piled it in layers of banana trees, greens, dry material and soil, then I covered it all with large palm leaves. After 3 or 4 months, we should get quite good compost there. In another section, I used palm trees that we cut in order to give light to a few citric trees that looked very sad. The area is covered by those palm trees that grow like weed. They grow so high that it’s impossible to collect the seeds that they produce. I discovered these “fruits” in Belem, Brazil. Once boiled for 20 minutes, they can be eaten and they taste really good. Here, they are food for the birds, which is also a good thing. We only cut a few, leaving enough to feed all the families of parrots and exotic birds that come daily for breakfast and lunch.

And then, I got focused on the veggie garden. I had first to clean the area, about 70 squared meters, remove all the damned plastic bags, dig a canal with the hoe on each site to avoid flooding during heavy rains, put – with the help of the peon – an old chicken wire that I found to keep the neighbor’s chicken out, turn the soil with the hoe, put palm tree trunks to hold the soil, add some good black soil that we got from under some trees and then place rocks to stop the rain water and make the place look nice. That’s where I asked the owner to plant some flowers.

After 3 weeks I started to develop the same physical condition that I developed in Jamaica working with the machete. I would wake up in the middle of the night and early morning with pain in the upper back and stiffed arm with the muscles so tense that it felt like cramps. The best way to release the pain was to start working as early as possible and get the muscles active again. Quite a vicious circle! I knew that I had to rest a few days at least doing nothing in order to improve my condition. I mentioned it to my host who honestly showed very little interest in it. When I told him that I needed a massage, he suggested me to go and see the neighbor’s daughter, a 16 years old adolescent. “I don’t need a teenager, I need a massage therapist” I said. I was planning to rest for a week and then leave. I wanted to visit at least another two farms in Bolivia and my visa was expiring in 6 weeks, so it was time to move on. Although I did not develop a strong or real relationship with my host, I was very pleased with what I had done. I learned a lot while working here and will certainly use this knowledge for my advantage in the future. So all was well after all.

On the 12 of June, I finally finished my project. I was happy and exhausted. A few days before I left, the owner did finally express his gratitude and promised that he will keep on with the good vibes and keep the place as well as possible. I was glad to hear him! I decided to take a few days to rest and see if I could get rid of the muscular pain. I had considered visiting two other farms in this area, not far from Santa Cruz but I changed my mind. One was run by a couple of Germans about my age. My experience in Brazil with Europeans taught me that it would be better to focus on the locals first! The other looked too much like a tourist center, according to their web site. After reviewing the list of the Woof members in Bolivia, I saw that three or four of them were located in the south of Bolivia, near the city of Tarija, not too far from the border with Paraguay and Argentina. I decided to check first a farm in the Conception Valley, a place where they produce organic wine! I called the owned and he accepted to receive me around the 23rd of June. I only had to cross half the country! I also changed my returning date to Europe. Instead of July 4th, I will now fly back on November 3rd!

Additional note: Who said that the roosters only sing at sunrise? The bastards sing all night! In here, we had at least 6 of them. The neighbor like its fried chicken, I am telling you! When the muscle pain was not waking me up in the middle of night, the rooters did. If I was not a vegan, I would eat “Coq au vin” every day until exterminating the race! I swear I would!

Check the Photos area for more photos…

This entry was posted in Bolivia, General subjects, Woofing. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.