3 borders crossed, 41 + hours of bus, hundreds of flamingos, miles and miles void of any sign of urbanization. Driving through landscapes from another universe, completely free and detached from reality, that is a feeling that I will definitely long for again in the future.
After weeks of hard work, it was nice to take a break from the office and get out of the city for a while. Close to northern Chile and Bolivia, Arequipa is ideally located for a long weekend getaway. Seven of us left the city on the Wednesday night before Semana Santa on a bumpy night bus to Puno. This is where our trip officially started, rocked to the sound of bus vendors shouting “Copacabana La Pazzzz” on repeat (not the best tune but one that stuck to my head for the next five days). We gradually made our way up to the feet of Lago Titicaca, stopping in Copacabana to visit La Isla Del Sol, elevating at 3812m. This was my second time seeing the highest lake in the world, this time from a Bolivian perspective, and it did not disappoint.
We proceeded through to the most mind-blowing part, and the one I had been looking forward to for so long: a three-day tour starting in Uyuni and ending at the Chilean border, just one hour from San Pedro de Atacama. I had high expectations from this trip for all the things I had heard about its breath-taking and deserted landscapes. Jorge, our guide, and his 4×4 took us much farther than the legendary salt flats, to Lagunas, deserts and geysers hardly accessible otherwise, for the altitude (which goes up to 4900 meters) and for the knowledge and experience needed to orientate oneself in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Aside from a bunch of llamas, we rarely came across anyone else during the excursion, being lost in the desert means we didn’t shower for three days still surprisingly got pancakes for breakfast and star gazed in a hot spring.
Among all the wonderful things Bolivia showed me, it is the 4am breakfast in Uyuni, the irrelevant “that’s what she said” jokes at dinner, the million toilet breaks, the unexpected (yet poor) wine offered by our guide, the lonnnng walk in La Paz to find somewhere to eat because (shockingly) everything is closed on a bank holiday, and all the other in-between moments that will stick with me the most.
The hundreds of photos I took cannot convey the surreal feeling of being surrounded by such majestic places, I felt so content and at peace just observing the never-ending desert. The few days I spent in Bolivia were the equivalent of pressing the pause button in my life, giving me the space and time to take in everything that being far from home had brought to me up until then. Looking back at the past year, it’s quite surprising how much can happen in such a short amount of time. In April 2017, I had just handed in my last undergraduate assignment, I felt mostly anxious about leaving the comfortable bubble that university is. At that time, living and travelling in South America was a distant dream rather than a close reality. I was in a place where too many opportunities rhymed with indecision and confusion, I guess I was looking for a sense of purpose when I applied to HOOP. As a new graduate, I was scared of getting stuck in a 9 to 5 job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but more than that, I wanted to feel useful, to do something a little bit more meaningful.
My internship is now coming to an end and I can say that applying for it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Everything came as unexpected, from the homely atmosphere as soon as you step into the office, to the love that radiates from the mums and the children when you go to school. Something else I had not really expected is how natural it would feel to travel with a group of people I’ve known for less than three months. This is one of the beautiful things about working for HOOP, it brings people from all backgrounds together, and without really knowing how, nor realising it straight away, you end up sharing a lot more than just work days.
For many of us volunteers and interns, HOOP is a stopover that turns into a second home as we get to know the children, the women, the staff and each other. We meet in Arequipa for different reasons but connect in our goal to give the best of ourselves to the Flora Tristán community. HOOP is more than work or a typical volunteering experience, you meet individuals from different cultures, who have different or similar mind-sets to yours. Among these are people with who you bond more than with others but in the end, and as long as you stay open-minded, you will learn something from each and every one of them and – as cheesy as this may sound – leave Arequipa richer than you came.
– All words and photos by Charlotte Chaverot