This is a short speech I gave at my Rotary International Convention last weekend, regarding my Group Study Exchange trip to Bolivia last spring.
I joined Rotary International several years ago. Last March, I was chosen by Rotary to lead a team of four young professionals on a Group Study Exchange trip to Bolivia. I gave a report last weekend at the annual conference at The Homestead Resort in Hot Springs. Here are my notes:
The nature of GSE is that you’re in constant movement, being in new places, meeting new people, and then moving on. This was doubly hard in Bolivia because of the extremes of climate and altitude. Our journey took us from 1000 feet to almost 15,000 feet and from hot and muggy to cold and dry. At some point, everybody gets tired. By Potosi, I was tired.
Potosi, our third stop, has the most interesting history of any city in the world you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth. By 1672, the population exceeded 200,000 people and it was one of the largest cities in the Americas and was at the time more populous than London. It has a nominal elevation of 13,400 feet and is one of the highest cities in the world.
I loved my two prior hosts in Santa Cruz and Sucre; they were warmly hospitable and spoke excellent English. Sadi and Olga in Potosi were equally nice, but they spoke no English and my Spanish was rudimentary at best. The city felt cold, austere, and exotic.
Being a team leader is a privilege, but it carries a huge responsibility. The safety and well-being of my team was my first priority.
For our departure from Potosi to Cochabamba, we were scheduled to go by taxi for the two-hour drive from Potosi back to Sucre, from where we would fly back to Santa Cruz and then catch a connecting flight to Cochabamba, all on the same day. As I said, Potosi is at 13,400 feet. Sucre is at 9000 feet. Santa Cruz is at 1300 feet. Cochabamba is at 9200 feet.
Bolivia is often beset with strife which takes the form of street protests. The morning we were scheduled to leave Potosi, protesters had set up a roadblock. Our two taxis drove us to the edge of town, but we were unable to go further. Our hosts told us it was likely the blockade would be dismantled by evening. So we spent the day waiting, roaming town.
By evening, our hosts had learned that the blockades were gone, so again we loaded in taxis and departed the city. Because it was too late to fly out of Sucre, the Rotarians there had arranged for us to stay at a nice hotel that we were already familiar with. We had a nice drive on a pleasant evening. At the outskirts of Sucre, we learned that their protesters hadn’t got the memo, and the street was still blockaded. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make contact with anyone to meet us. So we walked through the blockade on our own.
Imagine this eerily nightmarish scene. It was nighttime and the area was lit with streetlamps. There were parked cars and trucks lining the road. The blockade consisted of several rows of football-sized rocks spaced 100 feet apart, with protesters mulling around, sitting in lawn chairs beside tents and canopies. Through this, we five gringos had to march along schlepping our suitcases. We took care not to make eye contact or ruffle any feathers. We had no problems, but it was nerve-wracking nonetheless.
On the Sucre side of the blockade, we hailed another taxi. The five of us, along with our luggage, piled inside a small Toyota station wagon. With the car’s suspension bottoming on every bump, we were driven into the city center. At the hotel, I had a luxurious penthouse suite!
The next day, our Sucre hosts took us to the airport. The Sucre airport consists of a single paved runway and no taxiways at all, so airplanes taxi towards the end of the runway on the runway itself.
We reached Santa Cruz safely, but our flight to Cochabamba left in the evening, so we had all day to wait. We took a cab towards the city where we had lunch. But there wasn’t much for us to do. It was hot. I was tired from travel, tired of the responsibility, and frankly I think we were all tired of each other. We finally boarded a Boeing 737, where it was even hotter. Apparently, the air conditioning wasn’t being used.
An hour later, we landed in Cochabamba. Being higher in elevation, it was much cooler. As I walked across the tarmac with my team, I began to feel rejuvenated. We walked inside the terminal where we met our new hosts, who greeted us with an enthusiasm and graciousness that is difficult for me to describe. The smiles and hugs flowed for many moments. They were so happy to see us! These people who none of us had ever met were instant friends, merely by virtue of our shared membership in Rotary International.
In that singular moment, it was abundantly clear to me why I joined Rotary. Reflecting back on it now, it was that instant when I made the transition from being a “Rotary Member” to being a “Rotarian.” It was an experience I hope all 1.2 million members have at some point in their lives. I thank you and our wonderful friends in Bolivia for providing the opportunity for it to happen for me.