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