Needs Greater Than My Own
Working in International Humanitarian Service
It was November 1999. The heat of the sun in northwest Argentina made the afternoon unbearable. I walked along the narrow dirt roads of rural Salta—through billows of dust kicked up from rugged public buses—before arriving to the quaint adobe hut of Juan Albarracín. An indigenous man with limited Spanish skills, Juan had survived more than seven decades of impoverished conditions and physical ailments.
Juan opened his sheet metal door and welcomed me with a smile and a gentle handshake. I entered his home, walked across the damp dirt floor, and sat down on a thin foam mattress placed against the opposite wall. We had planned this meeting…and I was going to teach him how to write his name for the first time: J-U-A-N.
Juan and I spent the next hour practicing his name with a ballpoint pen and a tattered notebook. The soaring temperature inside – thanks to the rusted tin roof overhead—was almost too much to handle. I was miserable. The dress shirt I had just ironed this morning was now soaked and clinging to my back. I could feel the perspiration dripping down my legs and into my socks. Yet, Juan never complained about the heat. Nor did he complain about his environment or lack of possessions. He was much too occupied writing his name for the first time. I was humbled…and I encouraged him to keep on writing.
Such experiences defined the humanitarian mission I served from 1999 to 2001. The rustic surroundings along the Bolivian border of northern Argentina provided a stark contrast to the previous life I had in Fairfax, Virginia. The first few months in Salta were difficult as I adjusted to modest living conditions.
Instead of air-conditioning I was now sleeping with a small metal fan that circulated hot air at the foot of my bed. Just a few months prior, I drove a car around the suburbs of Washington, DC. Now, I was walking more than 60 miles a week along the Tropic of Capricorn…in dress slacks. As I ate plates of possum, cow stomach, and liver soup, I would often look back and reminisce of “simpler” foods in the United States: peanut butter, smoothies, and hamburgers.
It didn’t take long for me to embrace the cultural differences and generous people of Argentina. I soon forgot the things I once missed and recognized needs much greater than my own. That international experience became the foundation of my life, forever shaping future ambitions and goals. South America was now a second home…and the residents of Argentina seemed to be distant relatives. As I returned home to the United States in mid-2001, I began reconnecting with that experience as much as possible.
I returned to college in September 2001 as a sophomore eager to learn. I pursued dual degrees in Latin American Studies and Human Development. I applied the life lessons gained in Argentina to the curriculum taught in class. I married Tania, a native of western Argentina, and together we shared a mutual admiration of Latin American culture. As an underclassman, I visited South America many times to explore its landscapes and meet new people. As a senior, I traveled across Argentina and Chile to conduct independent human rights research. I was fascinated with the topic and grew more empathetic towards victims of previous government dictatorships. I interviewed a number of individuals and documented their pains, trials, sufferings, and triumphs. At last, I graduated from BYU in August 2005 inspired to create positive change in the world.
I entered the office of a former professor weeks later and requested his advice: "I am looking for a job that will connect me to Latin America."
Understanding the limited local options, he responded: "There's a travel business in downtown Salt Lake. The owner is an acquaintance from Argentina. I don't have his contact info, but I suggest starting there."
So, I did just that. I located the travel office, set up an interview, and was offered a job within two weeks. I became a professional travel counselor, planning customized trips across Central and South America for families and exclusive clients. I designed itineraries that encompassed exotic destinations, deluxe hotels, private tours, and personal guides. In Peru, I scaled the ruins of Machu Picchu and mingled with street artists in Lima. In Brazil, I swam in the waters of Copacabana and sailed along the shores of Salvador Bahia. I traveled from coast to coast in the United States, presenting the splendors of Latin American travel to fellow agencies and tourism boards. Still, I felt a void deep inside. I longed for the personal relationships and intercultural exchanges that I once shared with native residents in southern South America. I knew such connectedness would be available through actual residence and nothing else.
Just weeks after ringing in 2008, Tania and I boarded our international flight to Argentina—with no return tickets. Overwhelmed with eight suitcases, one stroller, and a dog kennel in tow, we arrived in the summer heat and made our new home in Mendoza. I was soon reminded of all the wonderful things I first encountered as a resident in 1999, though I was no longer engaged in full-time humanitarian service. I was now a working man—a husband and father—living in a foreign country. I managed a private travel business. I provided bilingual marketing and translation services to hotels and local tourism companies. I offered consultation to fellow expats relocating overseas for the first time. I was grateful for the change of environment. I was more ecstatic over our new pace of life.
New friends and beloved relatives in Argentina soon reminded me of life's most important principles. I learned to celebrate life and the moments we share with loved ones. I learned that service is a constant need that we can all fulfill through our time and talents. I also learned to appreciate the small things in life and not dwell on minor issues or conflicts in our schedules.
A few months following our relocation to Mendoza, we found ourselves without Internet access in our home office. Frustrated, I called the local Internet provider, but was told that the connection would be fixed in three weeks. Infuriated, I complained to our friends about the awful customer service I had received. That same afternoon, I accompanied one of these friends to the home of a single mother just a few blocks from our apartment.
We entered the unassuming home, crossed the damp dirt floor, and sat down at a table located in the center of the room. Lidia used bleach to wipe off the tabletop before shooing the flies still buzzing around for crumbs. With a smile, she showed me two pictures of her children. She then explained that her kids were forced to take cold showers each morning due to the lack of natural gas. We offered some help, and I promised myself never to whine again about limited Internet access. I walked home humbled and remorseful.
While living in Mendoza, I found that true entertainment was often free and available outdoors. The provincial orchestra would often perform in the central plaza accompanied by a vivid display of fireworks. Parades would fill the streets with vibrant dancers, galloping gauchos, and beautiful reinas to welcome the annual wine harvest. Each weekend, neighbors would carpool into the Andean foothills with a picnic basket filled to the brim with cold cuts and mate (a hot herbal drink shared among friends). Those with more aquatic tendencies visited the pebbled shores of Mendoza River, swimming in the frigid currents that poured down from the Andes Mountains before feasting from a makeshift barbecue pit.
Each week gave Tania and me opportunities to donate our time to those around us. We organized field trips for local youth groups, leading them on extensive hikes into surrounding mountains and natural parks. Young men taught me the basics of kicking the perfect soccer goal. In turn, I taught them the proper technique to throw a touchdown pass. I encouraged them to set personal goals, pursue a proper education, and respect their environment.
On a lighter note, I soon realized that text messages and e-cards were no longer acceptable forms to express "congratulations". Instead, all anniversaries and cumpleaños were to be celebrated with loved ones over a potluck dinner and a barbecue grill. Such weekend (or even mid-week) fiestas provided the perfect setting to share stories and memories late into the evening.
Following 15 remarkable months abroad, we returned home to the United States in the summer of 2009. The decision was difficult as we considered the valuable experience we had just lived through. Overall, the predominant lesson gained in Argentina was this: "Some live to work. Others work to live." I believe this to be a significant principle for us all. Most residents of Mendoza did not have many possessions—but that was not their ultimate goal. Instead, those magnificent people had something much more profound: a love of nature, a love of life, and a love for each other. As we landed back on North American soil in mid-2009, Tania and I vowed to live and share those principles here at home.
While I still managed our travel business on the side, I would now begin a job search amidst the non-profit sector. I was hoping to find a new career that would encompass the lessons and insights acquired during the past decade since I first arrived to Salta on a humanitarian mission. I was seeking the chance to create change in the world—whether small or large—just as I had done when I taught Juan Albarracín to write his name for the first time.
I soon joined CHOICE Humanitarian, a non-profit organization based in Utah. CHOICE began in 1982 and has assisted hundreds of rural villages in becoming self-sustainable communities. Through leadership training and village-identified projects, CHOICE is helping others rise above the limiting constraints of impoverished conditions. Native staff members in Latin America, Africa, and Asia mentor thousands of aspiring villagers on the path to long-term development. Indigenous communities learn to forge cooperative relationships with government offices. Entire villages learn to leverage funds from several sources in order to build health clinics, construct schoolhouses, and receive potable water for the first time through the installation of water cisterns and pipes. Above all else, rural communities learn to believe in themselves and pursue mutual goals that will benefit all families involved. The job was a perfect fit for me but it had taken an entire decade of special experiences to get here.
As the Expeditions Director of CHOICE, I am responsible for organizing all humanitarian trips abroad to the five countries of our current operation: Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nepal, and Kenya. Such service-related expeditions allow volunteers to work hand-in-hand with native villagers in what proves to be a valuable intercultural exchange of ideas, cultures, and friendships. These life-changing experiences grant participants the chance to broaden their perspectives. Combining the thrills of adventure with the rewards of service, I am able to provide others with unique experiences similar to those I witnessed in Argentina.
I encourage readers to leave their homes for service-related travel and long-term residence. It is much easier to appreciate what we have when we meet those who have nothing. It is inspiring—and refreshing—to converse with strangers about the simple treasures of life rather than material possessions. It is rewarding to recognize the needs of others and contribute to the relief of such lifelong challenges. International travel has taught me to be more humble, and aware of global realities often not seen here at home. The road ahead is unknown, but jumping on a plane is often the first step towards a lifetime of new perspectives.