Colombia

Now that I’ve been back from Colombia for a few weeks, here’s a little recap of why I went to Colombia: The purpose for my solo trip was to volunteer for about a week at an animal shelter then spend another week traveling around exploring. Thanks to all of my donors, we raised about $800 to provide spay & neuter surgeries, or at least that was the goal initially…

*Warning, there are some mild graphic images included in this blog. 

Travel day:
I flew out of Dallas and after taking a few connecting flights and arrived in Neiva after 24hrs of travels and the weather was almost 100°! Once at my hostel, I showered and napped forever.

Getting to the Foundation:
The following morning at 6am, I walked a mile or so to the bus terminal from my hostel. The streets were quiet and I was able to get accustomed to the area without too much worry. Once at the bus terminal, I requested a bus ticket to Campoalegre in my terrible Spanish. For 6,000 COP ($2USD) I got into a small van packed with people and chairs strapped to the roof. Unfortunately, the only seat left was in the middle seat in the back of the van, so I squeezed myself in there and said ‘Disculpe’ a lot.

In Campoalegre, I jumped into another taxi for the short ride to the Foundation on a dirt road. Most residents of the town know about the Foundation and its location. At my arrival, I received a big great hug from sweet tiny Gloria while being serenaded by barking dogs. I was given a quick tour of the place and showed my lodging for the week. There was two other English volunteers there at the time, Marie & Chloe. They had been volunteering there for about 2 weeks and had agreed to stay longer which made my day/week! I was happy to know I could communicate with someone and they could easily tell me what the general tasks were! Gloria & her volunteers speak Spanish so communicating was tricky.

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When you arrive at the foundation, you are greeted by this beautiful view. (And lot’s of barking dogs!)

After getting settled and changed into some work clothes, I got to work right away by picking up dog poop! You can imagine how much dog shit an average of 50+ dogs can do… and how much flies poop brings!! Shortly after that, I went around and checked out each dog for fleas and rubbed some natural remedy on infections, cuts and mange. Just a typical day at the foundation.

One of them had massive lip bumps and despite being super sweet, she wouldn’t let me touch her lips so we investigated… We realized she had botflies growing out of her lips, 5 of them that is!! The volunteers & workers did a great job at getting them out. Read about botflies HERE. Another fun fact: Chloe has been traveling South America for the past year with Marie and she ended up with one burrowed in her back that she had to extract herself. No dull days here in South America!

 

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Sweet Chia and the botfly removal team.

About the Foundation:
What I didn’t fully know when signing up was that Gloria is a BIG advocate for natural remedies and a vegan lifestyle. She strongly believes in being self-sufficient and helping one another instead of living a consumerism life and the negative impact it has. The foundation supports animals exclusively on an ecological basis and thus makes a contribution to the balance between humans and nature. Because of my lack of Spanish, I wasn’t able to get an in-depth run down of her entire beliefs or what the foundation grow and use in their overall process.

While I support and give her major props on her decision, it was very difficult at times to skip modern medicine to treat some animals but her remedies have been proven to be effective, just a bit slower to show results. The whole experience was an eye-opening on sustainable living. I learned a lot during my stay and will incorporate some things I have learned into my day-to-day living but not to the same extreme.

Laundry soap & hand soap were made out of local fruits that fall from trees, named Chumbimba, found around the Foundation. It is soaked, peeled and blended into a foamy/watery mixture that is used for soap. Of course, lemon and limes were used as antibacterial and antiseptic to treat all sorts of things.

The food was all vegan and locally sourced whether it’s harvested from the backyard or purchased/donated from town. Daily breakfast consisted of papayas, bananas & misc. fruits with a bowl of something similar to grits/porridge/oatmeal. Fried or baked plantains which was pretty darn delicious and a glass of freshly squeezed juice we made and/or a glass of Gloria’s ‘famous‘ homemade Kombucha.

Kombucha is a fermented drink and in our case, Gloria makes it with local citrus fruits. Its said to have some health benefits such as: stimulation the immune system, is a rich source of probiotics, helps digestion, gives energy, etc… According to Gloria, it has many more benefits as she showers with it, drinks it for all sorts of ailments, and rubs it on the animals to help all sort of ailments.  One morning, Gloria felt ill and decided to sit in her bed with a bottle of her kombucha. Hours later, she sprung out and was ready to tackle the day like nothing had happened. She puts that stuff on EVERYTHING: cut? Put Kombucha on it! Skin problems? use kombucha! Feeling sick? Drink Kombucha! haha All joking aside, it tasted pretty good despite the fungus/scoby looking ungodly in the bottle.

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Gloria’s homemade Kombucha fermenting wall.

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Living with nature at the Foundation Cantoalavida

Gloria has few local residents that help her run the foundation. They rotate shifts and work extremely hard all day with cleaning, cooking & animal feeding. While I was there, they had a tight schedule of showing up at 5:30am to begin prepping food for the dogs, followed by a chaotic dog feeding. Fighting, jumping, barking, and biting was part of the feeding routine. The facilities are limited so they have to work with what they have. I was SOOO thankful for their hard work and structured work day. It was easier to follow them around and lend a helping hand despite not speaking Spanish well.

Gloria has lived in France and I was able to confirm some of those tasks in French with her then proceeded to tell the English gals. With our 3 languages combined, we were able to get something done! I don’t think I would have been able to go through what I did if it wasn’t from the help of Marie & Chloe, both emotionally and through language learning.

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Chloe and Marie combed the puppies for fleas and applied natural ointments.

Tasks at the Foundation:
Like any non-profit organization, there is always too many tasks and not enough funding or help. Here is a quick, non-comprehensive task lists:

Everyday tasks – For Cleanliness

  • Pick up dog poop (Tasks that is required to be done throughout the day but is typically worst in the morning and dear gawd the amount of FLIES it brings…)
  • Clean the cat litters (but most cats go in the backyard anyway)
  • Laundry
  • Clean huts, floorings, bathroom and living areas.
  • + Many more tasks…

Everyday tasks – Kitchen

  • Make homemade juice for breakfast
  • Prep dogs & cats breakfast and serve
  • Make the breakfast & lunch
  • Clean main kitchen area
  • + Many more tasks…

Everyday tasks – Animals

  • Give them love
  • Feed them
  • Change their waters

Everyday tasks – Garden

  • Compost & collect Chumbinbas
  • Clean up garden of weeds, trim trees and flowers
  • Collect produces
  • + More tasks…

These are the basic tasks I was able to help with during my stay. While not being fluent in Spanish was not a big deal, I would have loved to be more helpful by actively participating when meeting with locals and asking/answering questions about the Foundation. They also have a great need to repair the huts, the moto, the main building and composting toilet… but without the knowledge of what tools and materials we had and where we could purchase things to fix these items in town, it was difficult to work on those tasks.

Gloria took me several days to town on her scooter with a small towed trailer. During those trips, we usually got fresh water and purchased bulk food items. I had never ridden one before and Colombian’s driving style is quite different than North America… it made for quite an adventure each time. Cars and gas is expensive in Colombia so many ride motorcycles instead. There could be a family of 4 on 1 scooter going down the main road while holding bags and groceries zipping through traffic. Beep beep!

Spay & Neuter Operations:
Jorge, the vet we hired, came in to make an initial assessment on which animal needed to be spayed & neutered. He was accompanied by a veterinary student from Neiva, which they rode together on a motorbike with the supplies. Of course limited space meant limited supplies were brought in. Jorge was amazing at taking time off of work to come and help out at the foundation. The only payment was for the tools he needed. Of course, there were several other injured/sick animals we had him checked up while he was there. He was able to perform some dental work and remove some pretty bad plaque build-up on certain dogs and even extracted a few teeth.

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Jorge cleaning some teeth that had excess build up of plaque. It smelled HORRIBLE.

He came back the following day and performed 4 spaying. Before I hear you say “Only 4?!”.  Let me tell you the living and working conditions here are much different. There is little sanitation, and no operation table and the dogs only get put under for a very short period of time. From my shadowing experience with a Vet, the spaying process is very much different here and more time consuming.

Shortly after he left for the day, we quickly realized that Bienvenida (a badly injured dog) needed her elbow re-stitched up as her bone was protruding again! Her stitches looked awful, a large gapping whole and the local vet, not Jorge, only had made 3 far spaced apart stitches. It looked as if he didn’t give a shit. So Alejandra, the amazing person that she is, helped me fix her up! We took Bienvenida, placed her on a table, cleaned up the skin and the big wound, and stitched her back up with the very small amount of thread/needle we had which ran out.  I was later told the local vet that did the terrible stitching job also performed a ‘spaying’ surgery ON A MALE CAT. Sadly, that cat later died due to trauma. This is why Gloria now have Jorge from Neiva come and perform spay & neuter surgeries. (Thank goodness!)

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Bienvenida. Notice the paw inflammation and mange and of course, the open wound on her elbow that we ended up stitching up. She is partially blind as well but a damn trooper!

The foundation had a few old ‘cones of shame’ but they were mostly for puppies so we didn’t have anything for the 4 spayed ladies to avoid licking their stitches. The next morning we awoke and realized 3 out of the 4 had chewed their stitches out. They kept licking to keep flies out of their wounds. We quickly grabbed them to re-wrap them. Thankfully, there is a small box of antiseptic and misc. medicine (which is mostly all expired) that we were able to clean the wounds and tape/bandage to avoid insects and dirt from getting in there.

Unfortunately, because everything moves at a slower pace out here, I was not there when Jorge performed the neutering operations but I have been told they went much better than the spays and they got new ‘cones of shame’ to fit larger dogs to avoid the same problem we had for the spays. They were even able to do a few more spays as well.

Where the rest of the donations ended up:
The original plan was to spay and neuter as many animals as possible. I wrote back and forth with Jorge and we agreed on dates when he would come perform the surgeries. Although things shifted when I arrived at the foundation…While some cities take responsibility in helping strays, many have no initiative for finding a solution to the issue so foundations and shelters like the one I volunteered at, are crucial at helping those strays or abandoned animals.

Prior to my arrival, Gloria had warned me the current state of the Foundation due to many factors. I simply brushed off her warning and told myself ‘how bad can it really be right now?’… Some of the buildings are in poor shape, the living arrangements were degrading because they didn’t have enough help with construction. Lodging in poor state means lower volunteers can come and help out. No help means they will quickly become overwhelmed with tasks and it’s just a slippery slope from there.

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Purchasing rice. It will help feed all the animals and people for only 1 week.

Gloria is working hard at maintaining the garden to become sufficient to feed everyone but the garden does not produce enough yet. She still needs to run to the local market twice a week and request food donations to keep the dogs, and the volunteers, fed. Since the poverty level is high, donations are very limited. Dog food is a cooked mixture of lentils, rice, donated/scavenged vegetables, very limited amount of donated meat and dog kibbles. She would provide the dog with more dog food, if they could afford it.

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This was our run to get lentils. We had a little cart hitched up to the moto.

While many people know that her and the foundation exist, not many are there to help her. Provided the Foundation’s location is remote and the little town of Campoalegre is very poor itself. There could be ways, with some work, to spread the word and get her more funding. Something I am currently helping with along with another past volunteer. Gloria is a sweet woman with her heart in the right place but unfortunately, she does not have enough time nor resources to do it all on her own. Gloria is 70 years young and can outwork all of us!

After seeing what she has to go through to keep the Foundation afloat, my main purpose switched from spay & neuter to bring the Foundation back at a stable location so they can treat current ailments and bring in more volunteers to help out.

With a portion of the donations; we were able to purchase much needed stable food such as rice & lentils that sustains everyone at the foundation, vitamins for the sicks animals., large bag of dog & cat food and pay some accumulated debt since December, when the Foundation started to lack behind. She had been behind in paying her local workers their minimal daily wages  — Trust me, it’s chump change for most of us. Not only we helped the foundation re-gain their footing, but we also ensured these workers & their families were able to bring food on their own tables. While I know most of you donated for the operations, your donations have made a much bigger impact.

There are several future items on their wishlist:

  • Get enough funding for the construction of a new building / fenced area to provide separation between the humans and the dogs and better sanitary conditions.  I have inquired about this building because I believe it is very much needed to help the animals recover & improve living conditions. Because this is South America, and there is no need for more than a concrete wall building & fencing, I was initially quoted 5-7,000,000COP (Around $2,500 USD) to make it happen.
  • Gloria would love enough funding to send Alejandra to veterinarian school to be able to apply her knowledge at the foundation. Veterinarian school is a bit different in Colombia but the knowledge of medicine and proper application would mean the animals would recover faster while being supervised by a professional without having to rush to the terrible local vet.
  • Ability to build/fix their current lodging which would mean they could host more volunteers.
  • AND MUCH, MUCH MORE

I was sad to leave but relieved at the same time. The amount of work was what I expected but I did not expect the emotional toll it took on me. I have been told that the operated dogs are recovering slowly but nicely. Bienvenida is also recovering as well since I was really worried about her because she looked… like hell but she handled it like a champ.

I am getting updates about the foundation about twice a week from Gloria and other volunteers there. From photos of animals that are getting much better to new abandoned puppies left at their door step…

If you are interested in making a donation, please make it HERE.
This is a joint fundraising link that is linked to the Foundation’s bank account. 

I can’t thank all the donors enough that help the foundation get back on their feet . We appreciate your donations and the impact you’ve made on the animals lives during my stay. 💚💚💚

See my Facebook for more photos & videos of my stay.

 

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My simple sleeping quarters. Geckos would crawl the walls at night.

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Another lodging hut on the left. And the main building on the right with kitchen, sink and ‘clinic’ area.

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You can’t tell but this is the kitchen area. Broken fenced door means the dogs and cats come in and out as they please… and poop.

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Back of the main building. Cats… cats everywhere but everyone living together without too much fuss.

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Some doggy snuggles.

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Puppies are always curious!

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After bathing some dogs, we wrapped them up in a towel and warmed them up… per Gloria’s instructions, despite being 100° out!

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Typical meal setting. This table is typically covered in cat otherwise. Food is covered to keep flies at bay.

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Sweet loving pup covered in mange/ringworms.

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This cat looked like hell. Had a respiratory problem but is getting better each day. Don’t let that angry eyebrow look fool you, he’s the sweetest cat!

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Puppies loved snuggles!

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Beautiful Estrella on front of the foundation’s main gate.

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Gloria snapped a picture of me while making new broom.

 

 

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