UBHA the One-Room Schoolhouse in a Colombian Cloud Forest

Although it’s only half an hour from the buzzing metropolis of Bogota, Chicaque Natural Park is like a lost world, and parts of it seem far removed from any signs of civilization. It’s 300 hectares (741 acres) of mountains, streams, thick vegetation, with a few but not too many tourist amenities like campgrounds, lodges, restaurants and horse stables. We were lucky enough to spend three weeks living there, while we volunteered as teachers at a school in the park.

March 7th, 2022

Our first week was the week of March 7th; but since the school is closed on Mondays, our first day “on the job” was actually a day off, and we spent much of the day hiking to La Cascada (the waterfall). Not the most stunning waterfall we’ve ever seen, but the hike to and from was spectacular. We were followed by a couple of dogs, at different times, who seemed to know exactly where we were going, and were giving us an escort in shifts, as it were. These dogs don’t seem to belong to anyone in particular, but just hang around and try to be helpful to all the park staff and visitors.

March 8th

Tuesday was our first day of teaching at the quaint one-room schoolhouse UBHA in our backyard where about 15 kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14, come four days a week. Some arrive just after 8:00 and others at about 10:00, and they stay until 3:00 or 4:00. There are no “class times”, or even classes as such, though there are activities guided by the two teachers, who generally alternate days on duty. It’s a very progressive independent learning school, where the students get to pursue their own interests at their own pace.

We met Ruth, the director of the school with whom we’d been in contact, and who lives with her family on the property next to the house we were in. She is from Germany, and once worked for the U.N. Her husband, David, is Colombian. We met him a little later, as he’d been recovering from a battle with COVID. They have two children attending the school in their backyard, who fluently speaking Spanish, German and English.

Our first day actually got off to a rather rocky start, as we found ourselves right off the bat being left in charge of the students, who spoke virtually no English at all — and our Spanish “proficiency” is perhaps high enough to order tacos or ask where the toilet is. (Joel, our fellow volunteer from Finland, spoke decent Spanish, but he was not on duty at the same time as us.) So it was rather difficult at first to get the kids interested in following us.

But that changed quickly as we became acquainted with them, and communicated with Ruth and the teachers more. One night we had a wine and cheese staff meeting in “our” living room, and got things ironed out, telling them our suggestions, which they were quite willing to hear. (Joel arrived late to this meeting, because he got lost in the forest after hiking with some of the kids down the mountain to their home, and was near panic mode before he found his way back in the dark.)

The other volunteer teacher Joel chilling on the back porch

It also helped that we had a chance to spend some quality time with the students, as we sometimes escorted them from their bus stop (way back up at the park entrance) in the morning or to it in the afternoon. This task was rotated among several people, so nobody had to do it more than a couple of times a week. As much fun as it was to walk with the kids, it was a very strenuous trek up and down (or vice versa) about 2 miles of very very steep slope. There was plenty to see along the way, and there were plenty of occasions to stop and catch your breath, but still it was very demanding — though the kids themselves just breezed right through it.

Commuting and Communing with Llamas

Sometimes we’d encounter the pack of llamas that wander around in the park. Occasionally they’d also be let onto the school/ residence grounds for a day or so in order to mow the grass for us. It’s a welcome service for the school and a welcome feast for the llamas, who deposit plenty of gratitude on the lawn.

March 9th

The ice really broke for good on Wednesday, when we presented for the students a performance of The Tortoise and the Hare, one of our perennially popular folktales from our repertoire of 32 years performing in the States. It was such a big hit that the students immediately got up and began reenacting it themselves, even copying our schtick. And they didn’t stop there, but continued acting out some other stories they were familiar with. Theatre had opened the door, as it so often does. And we saw that not only were these youngsters interested in theatre, some of them had a real knack for performing. Thereafter, theatre games and activities were on the schedule almost every day.

Red Riding Hood Improv

Inside our temporary home

March 10 - Circus Time

The following day, however, the students had a different treat: a young pair of entertainers visited to teach some basic circus skills. Naturally, we couldn’t let the kids have all the fun; we joined the session ourselves, practicing some tricks and team efforts with balls, hula hoops, etc.

March 11 - Teaching the kids Physical Comedy

Before we knew it Friday had rolled around, and we had the first week at UBHA under our belts. Then we were ready for a three-day weekend exploring this incredible park where we were “stuck”.

Give Me More Birds

Chicaque Natural Park is home to 400 bird species. Most of which are rather elusive, as in you might hear them, but you never can see them, let alone get a picture of them. The roosters and hens have free range, roosting in the trees at night.

1,2&3. Rufous-collared Sparrow 5. Great Thrush 10&11. Green-fronted Lancebill (rare) 14. Beryl-spangled Tanager 17&18. Eared Dove 19&20. Rooster and hens

3 thoughts on “UBHA the One-Room Schoolhouse in a Colombian Cloud Forest

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