Sunday, December 29, 2013

Memoir: Life Changed Forever

The anniversary of a seminal experience in my life passed unnoticed last summer. I just realized it.

Recently I was taking down my oldest hammock as I cleaned around the house, when it occurred to me that I've had it for forty years. That hammock and the hat pictured above aren't mere souvenirs of a youthful adventure. I've treasured them because they represent an experience that altered the course of my life, and eventually brought me to live in Mérida, Yucatán.

I was sixteen and a high school junior when my mother suggested I attend a meeting to form a new group of teenage volunteers who would work the following summer in Central and South America. I was hesitant at first, but I went.

The organization, which has chapters around the country, is called Amigos de las Americas, and its founder, a soft-spoken Texan named Guy Bevil, was guest speaker at the meeting. He showed a short film and talked about his philosophy and the sorts of work and experiences that Amigos volunteers could expect. I liked Guy from the start, and after the meeting talked with him. It didn't take long for me to realize that I'd been waiting for an opportunity like this to come along.

Almost immediately we volunteers began training, dedicating Wednesday nights and most Saturdays during the school year to preparing for our assignments of the coming summer. Classes included Spanish, orientation in the history and cultures of the regions where we would work, and training in such things as giving immunizations, first aid, fitting glasses, building latrines and techniques for teaching health and nutrition workshops.

This was the first time I'd been deeply involved with a group of like-minded people working toward a common goal. We shared and bonded. We found meaning in our work. I trudged lackadaisically through my school days, but looked eagerly forward to Amigos training sessions.

The summer of 1973 I went to Colombia, where with two partners I worked giving polio and measles vaccinations in remote villages along the Magdalena River. We traveled by boat and sometimes by Jeep on roads in such primitive condition that occasionally we took to the brush, the rifle-toting doctor who was our host hacking out a new trail with his machete.

The most unforgettable image from that summer is of a tiny, naked child with distended belly, flies covering her mucous-stained face. She suffered from obvious parasites and other gastrointestinal problems as she squatted to relieve herself in the mud amidst pigs and chickens next to her stick-and-mud home.

The next summer I worked in Nicaragua, which just a year and a half before had endured the devastating Managua earthquake. Managua, still recovering, looked like photos of Hiroshima after the atom bomb.

That summer I was better prepared, but once again my comfortable world was shaken as I confronted houses built of sticks, mud and cardboard, dirt floors, muddy drinking water, sickness and abject poverty of a sort not often seen in the United States.

And as in Colombia, in Nicaragua I was repeatedly impressed by the human warmth and generosity of the poorest of people. Time and again, as we went door-to-door administering measles shots to hundreds of children, to thank us their mothers insisted on preparing for us fresh, warm tortillas and cups of sweet coffee, which often was all the food they had in the house.

I had many adventures during those two summers, but these are the memories that have endured over four decades.

What did I learn? The lessons were many and long lasting, but my most immediate impression was that the expectations and privileges of middle-class American childhood are not the norm in most of the world. I had never gone hungry; in fact I'd always had a wide variety of nutritious food available. Sometimes at home we snacked for fun, which seemed pretty incredible from this new perspective.

I'd never had to worry about health care, getting an education or having a decent, comfortable home with running, potable water and sanitary bathrooms. As a child I'd never had to work to survive, and had the love and support of two understanding parents.

In short, through no personal merit, I was extraordinarily fortunate. Of course, intellectually I had understood all of this, but my experiences with Amigos made the reality abundantly clear.

I live the longer-term influences of the experience to this day. My career, interests, worldview and ultimately my decision to live in Mexico are all direct results of my long-ago work with Amigos de las Americas.

My sixteenth summer was in many ways when my adult life began. I was still very immature, but I took on a challenge, and did it far away from the support of my family. The experience was a turning point from which I saw life stretch out before me in a vast panorama I'd never envisioned before. I saw new and exciting pathways before me, and felt myself pulled forward on them.

It was the summer when my life changed forever.

I still take occasional siestas in the comfort of that old hammock, purchased in 1973 in a small Colombian river town. The experiences of my Amigos years continue to be a touchstone and guide, forty years later.

Text and images copyright 2013 by Marc Olson


  1. How lovely Mark. Beautifully written with poignant stories to touch our hearts.

    Thanks for sharing......this post gives more meaning to our conversations and your viewpoints.

  2. I've always said that for every dollar spent on arms for war, a thin dime should go to the Peace Corps and that thin dime would protect my world from war to a far greater degree than the dollar for arms.

  3. If every 16 yo could have the experiences you had, I'm convinced the world would be a far better place.

    Did the naked child receive any medical care or was she only something seen in passing?

  4. This would appear to explain a lot about your contemporary attitude and apparent serenity, which I have admired but the source of which was enigmatic. Thanks for sharing the story - it's great that you had the opportunity as well as the means and support, confidence, and motivation to experience and contribute as you have described...

  5. It's interesting how we remember so clearly those events that open our eyes to the realities of life and that form and shape our character in ways we could not have imagined. I took a very cautious approach to life throughout most of my adult years, putting career and security before most everything else. I'm only now living a dream I had as a young person, which was to live in a foreign country and absorb its culture. Of course, that original dream would have taken me to a European country. I never thought about Mexico until about 7 years ago when we visited Oaxaca.

  6. When I was in high school I never heard of Los Amigos, but years later, when I was a Spanish teacher, one of my students became involved with the organization. He spent a summer teaching dental hygiene to children in Costa Rica. It was a life changing experience for him. Today, the Amigos chapter in my area holds an auction every spring to raise money for their program. One of my hobbies is landscape painting, and for the last three years I have done a painting to donate to the auction. I'm happy that those paintings have brought in several hundred dollars for the group. Also each time I travel I make it a point to buy a few handicrafts to donate to the auction.

    Thank you, Marc, for publicizing this outstanding organization. I wish that more students could have the opportunity to participate and have their horizons and outlook on life forever changed. I would urge your readers to "Google" Los Amigos and to donate to a chapter near them.

  7. What an incredible opportunity for a teenager. Your post warmed me up all over.

  8. You have shared your story with me, but never with this much power. Thank you for posting it. It is very easy to get overwhelmed when thinking f the conditions in which people throughout the world live. The only way to make any sense of it is to recognize opportunities when they arise -- and then trying to help one life at a time in that moment. As always, I appreciate what you are trying to do with your life. I wish you the best.

  9. I wish we all could do such important work, and gain such insight, at such an early age. It made me think of a favorite line someone said, about the value of travel, and how you can't un-open a mind. I couldn't find a source for that, but there is this one from Albert Einstein: “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.”

  10. Great post, very well written. Thank you.

  11. One of my cousins in Quito was doing his residency as a doctor in a remote village about 11000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains. I accompanied him on several occasions many years ago. The "houses built of sticks, mud and cardboard, dirt floors, muddy drinking water, sickness and abject poverty" also describes my experience. Marc, I could not have written it better then you.
    The respect and warmth these people showed my cousin and myself for assisting is one I will treasure and never forget.

  12. what a fabulous experience, and you have you (and your upbringing) to credit for how it impacted your life. Not everyone responds to a need, you did. Good on Ya!

  13. Wow Marc... did this post ever take me back. I too left home for Latin America at an early age. I lived in Peru for the better part of 2 years and although I was an English teacher's assistant in 2 coastal towns (In the heart of the Atacama Desert), I too did 2 stints in flooded Iquitos giving vaccinations. Like you this experience at an early age was the start of my adult life and the start of a life-long admiration and love for the Latino culture. Unlike you, few of my photos have survived.

    Nonetheless, I can remember entire days 40+ years later. We MUST get together and compare notes... maybe write a joint post?

  14. The best for a new year to you, Marc, from we wind-blown and wet folks in London.

    Good to read of this experince in your life. I wonder if I had forgotten knowing this about you or if we hadn't the occasion of sharing life a bit with each other the times we met in Fairbanks and Anchorage. But whatever past falings, I'm grateful to read it now. I do understand how much this opportunity grew into a life path taken. The world is a wide and beckoning place.

    My parents gave me that chance for change in 1972, upon my 18th birthday, not knowing what to do next, as university wasn't an interest then. I took them up on moving with them to South Africa and that, too, made all the difference. I saw my birth country differently from that time onward, and began to see my deep connection to others in the world. Alaska, while always beckoning, lost some of its hold on me. Meeting the man who would become my husband in 1978, it was only a matter of time until we both moved away from the United States. (Yes, in a public space such as this, I write for audience as well as host.)

    So now I sit preparing to do years of US back-taxes, a country I no longer live or work in, but must still do tax papers for. Wish me luck! And yes, you are definitely on our list to visit after our two holidays in the Meditteranean this past year, we're quite fond of warmth now.

    So back to where I started. Thank-you for posting this. More kids need to get out early and see the world, don't they?

  15. I will echo the others, Marc--that's a memorable post. Coincidentally, my brother recently mentioned our own parents, and how ahead of the times they were when it came to USA -based intercultural experiences. My father, at about 80 years of age, was probably the oldest person in his last civil rights march.

    So, I keep thinking--if the parenting is open to differences, a child can go exploring other cultures from many places of origin. Certainly, you were most fortunate, and it does continue to resonate through your posts.

    Let me add--Steve Earle, a "country singer" has an amazing song entitled, "Living in a City of Immigrants", with valuable lessons. First of all, by inference --"country" singers are not necessarily racist. Next of all--the message of the song--about living in NYCity, "open the doors and the world walks in, living in a city of immigrants" is important to all those unable to experience traveling- and-learning.

  16. That's beautiful. Latin (Central, actually) America changed me forever, too, in 1988, at the age of 19. Thank you for sharing.


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