Perspective | 09/14/2011
I've written many times in this space over the last 35 years of the common journey that we share in this industry. I recently traveled to a far different place, where I was reminded that it is the people we meet who make our life journey worthwhile. If the outline of the trip I took in July was used as copy for a credit card commercial, it might read like this: "Amazon Medical Mission to Macedonia, Colombia: Five days, 22 flights, cancellations, and connections to get there. 40 medical mission team members, 1,000 people receiving medical and dental treatment, 25 couples married and 37 people baptized - the first time either had happened in years. One eight-foot-long pirarucu fish made for one delicious lunch. Put a number on the totalexperience? PRICELESS."
I was told about this trip over a year ago by my significant other Kathi, a nursing instructor, who was bringing along four of her studentnurses. We would meet the other members of the medical team, who were flying out from Arkansas and Virginia, when we got to the Amazon port city of Leticia. We left St. Louis - or tried to - on a Saturday morning. We were supposed to head to Chicago, then on to Miami and Bogota. Four of us were on a flight that was cancelled and the replacement was delayed. The other two were also on a flight that was cancelled andthey were rerouted to Washington, DC, stuck two days in Miami and eventually made it to Bogota through Panama. Thirteen inches of rain had fallen in Chicago, leaving homes flooded and roads impassable. Airport andhotel workers were stranded, as replacements found it impossible to make it in to work. The four of us were stuck for two days.
But we also met some amazing, wonderful people. Fran Shaw, a veteran ticket agent at the O'Hare American Airlines desk spent three hours helping us over the course of two days. Finally, late Sunday she booked us standbyon a Monday Delta flight to Bogota through Atlanta. A baggage supervisor at O'Hare made a valiant effort to track downour eight bags of clothes and medical supplies,which were shipped to Bogota without us. After two days at the O'Hare Hilton, courtesy of American, the hotel staff got to know us and treated us like royalty. Eric the dining room manager made a point of seating us in "our" booth. Jaime the waiter insisted that our entire party needed "a taste" of wine in our glasses.
The flight to Atlanta was uneventful: Just a couple of delays. The first flight to Bogota was cancelled because of a hydraulic problem with the plane. We were loaded onto another plane, which taxied from the gate, then returned: the plane wasn't equipped to fly in the mountains around Bogota. We took a train from the "E" to the "A" concourse. That flight was delayed about an hour by a lightning storm.
Arriving in Bogota in shorts in the freezing mountain air after two in the morning, we spent a few hours at a mission hostel then headed back to the airport for the flight to the town of Leticia, where the Amazon meets the borders of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. There we were informed that our flight was cancelled: one of the two fire trucks at the Leticia airport was out of commission and the airport could not accept inbound flights. After conversing with the airport authorities and airlines using "Google Translator," we got booked on a flight for the next day and talked the airline into putting us up for the night. The cab driver was given the wrong hotel name and got lost for an hour-and-a-half. The "wrong" hotel agreed to put us up for the night, the restaurant manager there prepared an impromptu lunch for us and the desk clerk had rain-soaked contents of my duffle dried, folded, and returned free of charge.
Even getting up the Amazon was not trouble-free. The 200 hp outboard motor on our "fast" boat had overheated and seized. Then it ran out of gas. But finally we arrived late Wednesday at Macedonia, a village about an hour-and-a-half upriver. Macedonia was not as physically impoverished as some of the villages the team had visited in earlier years. Instead there was a spiritual and cultural poverty -- a longingfor community values. About 1,000 people were given medical and dental treatment. At one point I held a large flashlight for about four hours as a native Colombian dentist performed an extraction or other dentalprocedure about every ten minutes.
As a non-medical member of the team I did a lot of hefting and carrying. But I also got to use my camera and a small professiona lquality photo printer I'd brought along to provide moms with the first photos they'd ever had of their kids. When Kathi gave one father the photo of himself and his kids he'd requested, he burst into tears. The mission organized a mass wedding, where 26 couples were united in marriage. It was the first wedding conducted in that town in a decade.
I took pictures of all the couples in their finery. Some of them had four or five kids. I became friends with Norma, our Argentinean cook. We ate chickens that had been walking around the village earlier in the day, lots of plantains and other fabulous tasting foods. One day a young man showed up on the riverbank with a pirarucu or arapaima, an eight-foot long fish with threeinch scales whose ancestors date back to the Jurassic age. Norma made lunch for 50 people from the pirarucu, a fish that has has been featured on the television show "River Monsters”. Norma later let me help out in her kitchen. She told me that I can cook for her next year, “but you have to learn to Spanish.”
As we neared the end of our stay, people from the village would spontaneously come up to us and put bracelets on our wrists and necklaces around our necks. The six of us who had traveled together realized that we had become a “family.”We had only spent half as much time as we had intended on our mission. But in the end what was important was not the "mission".
The journey, the people we met, how we treated them and how they treated us were as become the new normal, that's a lesson that we can all use every day.