By Solen Lees*

My adventure begins at 9.40 am when ‘my driver’ comes for me… It was initially meant to be 8am, but this is Colombia! I have been forewarned that I will be going to Pance – 26 kilometres from Cali where I am staying – on the back of a motorbike.

Williams and his bike

My first thought is that I am getting too old for this kind of thing, but I push that to the back of my mind and enjoy the trip. First through Cali’s mid-morning traffic, which I am relieved is not as dense or chaotic as that of Bogota, where I came from the day before, and then we roll up the hill towards Pance, through increasingly lush vegetation and spectacular views.

‘My’ driver is Williams Guachetá who works as Administrative Assistant for Fundación Trópico, the organisation I have come here to visit and support. We meet Ana Elvia Arana, the founder and leader of Trópico in La Voragine, the last settlement before the paved road runs out on the way to Pance. The bus hasn’t turned up so she asks Williams to come back down and pick her up after dropping me off!

The volunteers’ house

I arrive in Pance at 11am and am greeted by Clara Rust from the UK and Adrian Chapleau from Canada, in a small but pleasant apartment on the main road in Pance – with spectacular views. We are then joined by Davida Paul and Emaline Gonzalez Thomas, also from Canada. This is the delegation of volunteers that Trópico is hosting and who will be living in Pance and in another community in the Valle del Cauca for the next few months.

Fundación Trópico has worked for many years in the Valle del Cauca department towards safeguarding the incredible biodiversity of this area through creating protected areas and helping the rural, indigenous and Afro-Colombian residents of these areas find sustainable ways of making a living and making dynamic communities to prevent a rural exodus. Trópico also believes strongly in social justice and strives to make people aware of their rights and the duties of the institutions that are meant to be there to protect them.

View from the house

In this context, Ana Elvia requested SDIA to help her find volunteers to teach English to groups of people who are training to be tourist guides. The peace process in Colombia has meant that tourism has blossomed, and in particular eco-tourism. Colombia is particularly rich in bird species, and the Valle del Cauca has the biggest diversity of species in the country.

This means the market for eco-tourism, especially as bird-watching guides, is ripe, but with the level of language teaching in state schools so poor, and the price of private language courses so high, there is a real demand for affordable ways of learning English, French and other languages.

So here we are. SDIA has facilitated the placement of five English and French speaking volunteers, four of whom have already arrived, with one – Paula Remoneron from Montréal – still to come in April. The Canadian volunteers fundraised for themselves with our help and paid for some of their own costs, and Clara is financed by SD Britain.

On the way to class. From left to right Ana Elvia, Davida, Emaline and Clara.

Although their main focus is language teaching, they also have other skills which Trópico is happy to ‘exploit’. Clara will be making a film about the foundation and will teach community members basic photography and design skills; Adrian will be working on an eco-agricultural botanical project with indigenous groups with a view to recovering traditional plant varieties; Ema and Paula will be able to help the communities carry out social mapping, help people improve their IT skills and learn how to use social media effectively. There is a lot to be done.

Meanwhile, Davida – a qualified TESOL teacher – is in her element as head teacher, leading the English classes that have now been going for three weeks, and informally training her fellow volunteers. Watching her teach was a joy, as she clearly loves what she is doing and the students clearly love her too.

Apart from sitting in on the class, we spent most of the day in discussions about the logistics of the months to come. It’s not easy as there are two communities who want to receive the volunteers. They have started in Pance which is relatively near Cali and relatively easy to access. Here Trópico is working in partnership with Parques Nacionales which has supported Ana Elvia and Williams to organise many practical details. The other community is Riobravo, a much more isolated and rural place where living conditions will be more basic and communication and transport more challenging.

Teaching in full swing

For Trópico it is important not to leave a gap in the teaching in Pance that has already started, but the people in Riobravo are enthusiastically waiting for the arrival of their first volunteers. On the other hand, we don’t want to start teaching in Riobravo if it’s only for a couple of months. Taking that into account, plus the different time-scales, abilities in Spanish, skills and wishes of five volunteers is not easy… But after several hours of brainstorming, discussion and much altering of an Excel spreadsheet – complicated by the fact that one of the volunteers doesn’t speak Spanish and Ana Elvia speaks no English! – an agreement was reached that seems to suit everyone. Phew!

What is clear is the real demand for this kind of volunteer and the enormous impact their work can potentially have on the communities they live in, so our next major task is to find ways to make this venture sustainable, to find resources and to continue recruiting volunteers to teach here.

Meanwhile, at 9pm, after another hour and a half motorbike ride after which I am so stiff I can barely walk, I arrive back at the beautiful apartment I’m lucky enough to be staying in. It has been a tiring but uplifting day.

*Solen is a member of the SDIA staff who is currently visiting Colombia to catch up with our member projects there, and particularly to Fundación Trópico with its volunteer and other programmes. This is episode one of a short series of field diaries – so watch this space!