Ros Walford recounts her time studying Spanish in Sucre, one of Bolivia’s most relaxed towns.
Sitting in Sucre’s shady central Plaza Mayor with my friend Katrien, it seemed that all was right with the world. The birds were singing, kids were playing, people laughing and strolling through the park and we were deep in conversation. Then, in an instant, my peace was shattered. Something was nudging me from behind – something big and furry… With pounding heart, I whipped around to find myself eyeball to bloodshot-eyeball with (possibly) the world’s most enormous hound.
“Don’t mind him,” said my friend Katrien. “That’s just Gringo Dog.”
Gringo Dog, so the story goes, used to belong to a non-Latino (or “gringo”) owner who lived for many years in this pretty Spanish colonial town – the constitutional capital of Bolivia and a UNESCO-listed World Heritage city. Somehow, dog and owner were separated and since then the dog has taken to the streets, relentlessly searching for a new gringo owner. Almost every tourist who visits Sucre thinks he is their own special canine friend, but those that stay longer know that he shares his love around.
Fortunately for Gringo Dog, there’s a steady supply of passing gringos in Sucre. Most of those that stay more than a couple of days are here to study Spanish at one of the many language schools that offer intensive classes – I was one of them.
The town is a convenient place for travellers to stop and rest along the “Gringo Trail”, the typical route that backpackers follow through South America. It’s also one of the best places to study Spanish on the continent. It's apt that sucre means “sugar” in French, because life is certainly pretty sweet here for students. Days roll by with a gentle routine of classes, activities and nights out, with healthy competition between the many schools keeping standards high.
For five weeks, I studied at Fenix Language School, one of the best schools in town. At this small institute run by five dedicated teachers, you can almost sense the cerebral activity emanating from the one-to-one or small group classes.
Fenix became my home away from home. It provided a ready-made group of friends. They organised games of wally (a type of indoor volleyball) at the gym, home-cooked meals, trips to the central market to sample freshly squeezed juice, language exchange evenings, nights out at the many great bars and restaurants in town and weekend trips to the countryside – throughout which we spoke (almost) nothing but Spanish.
I even had the chance to take part in the annual carnival. A group of students and teachers formed a dance troupe. Every week, we practiced a simple flag-waving routine to a Bolivian anthem whilst shuffling along the street. Kind of weird, I thought, but then the big day came and we dressed up in traditional costume, complete with bells and beads, and I could begin to see the attraction.
Our group made our way through the city streets with thousands of other troupes and marching bands from all over the province. The hours passed hypnotically, dancing and dancing, unable to stop. Ever more drunken onlookers rushed up to ask for photos with us, the foreigners who were a novelty in this parade, thrusting babies into our arms for each shot.
With so much fun being had with the school, it was easy to forget that life here is not as sweet for much of the indigenous population. More than half of Bolivia’s population live in poverty and those in Sucre are no exception. A number of local charities run orphanages and day-care centres for underprivileged children, with which many of the language schools work in partnership. Through my school, I was able to volunteer with a local organisation.
Every morning, I took the little bus to the outskirts of town. When it reached a particularly empty strip of road, I’d shout, “para, por favor!” to the driver to request a stop. A dusty track up a rubble hillside led me to a small settlement where the Ciruelitos nursery school was located. Three Bolivian ladies wearing traditional dress greeted me. They were permanent volunteers who did their best on a frugal budget to offer the 6-month to 6-year-olds pupils an education that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. Foreign volunteers provided extra support and gave the kids a chance to meet people from all over the world.
A typical morning for me involved sitting in one of the classrooms, either with the older rascal boys who were fond of paper aeroplanes; the middle group that quite liked a story or a puzzle game for as long as concentration would allow; or with the under-2s where I spent a fair amount of time blowing noses or preventing unprovoked punch-ups.
As a volunteer, I certainly had my work cut out. Distraction techniques included bringing out their beloved plasticine along with singing and dancing. One morning, I played some English nursery rhyme classics on the stereo. With the preschool crowd-pleaser The Wheels On The Bus, I discovered that no matter where a child is from, they like to point to the ceiling, point to the floor, point to the window and point to the door.
Lunchtime signalled the end of my day. I’d help to haul the younger ones over the mud outside the nursery door to the kitchen building opposite. Then, once the teachers had doled out green soup to every child, I’d catch the bus back to town and straight to my Spanish class.
All too soon it was time came to move on from Sucre and I was sad to say goodbye to the kids. Through volunteering, I felt that I had contributed in a small way as well as gained from living in the town. It had been good to feel part of a community. By the end of my stay, I’d made friends of many kinds here – from the small and cheeky to the large and furry.
I knew that I was no longer a passing stranger to the town when a new student at Fenix told me about this dog that kept following them around and I replied, “Oh don’t worry about him; that’s just Gringo Dog.”