|For about a year, I had been planning this trip to South Korea to attend Rotary's annual international convention in Seoul when the earthquake struck in Ecuador last April 16. I really enjoy the conventions in a different great city each year joining with Rotarians from all over the world where we share ideas about projects across the spectrum of service to humanity and enjoy each other's company in a spirit of world brotherhood and sisterhood. One always makes new friends and renews ties with others in an atmosphere where several languages are heard daily and several cultures are on display including , of course, the featured culture of the host city. The trip this year would also pass through California and give me the opportunity to visit family and friends in the Bay Area and San Diego.
I had already registered for the convention and purchased my round trip air tickets when the earthquake jolted life to a new dimension in Bahia de Caraquez and along the entire coast of Ecuador. Those of us who survived (20 were killed in Bahia with a population of about 30,000) were quickly confronted with great pain and great need. While I was one of the lucky ones whose home remained in tact and economic income was undisturbed, there was misery all around. The idyllic atmosphere on the tranquil tropical coast was shattered.
As one could anticipate, Rotarians throughout Ecuador, as well as thousands of others responded with emergency aid. Many contacted our club offering to provide supplies if we would coordinate distribution. We accepted the challenge immediately in mind, heart and body, even though about half the club members' houses were damaged and families requiring attention. Suddenly, I was working full days late into the night moving and handing out supplies to our displaced and desperate neighbors. It quickly became exhausting physically, mentally and emotionally. The first ten days passed without electricity or running water.
There was still no telephone, cellular, Internet or cable service when I left for Korea on May 16. I almost didn't go. I couldn't accept that I could go on a trip like a holiday or vacation and leave behind my friends in need. As time passed and life began to stabilize as more substantial help arrived, my rotary club began to think more about long range solutions as the initial emergency response phase was being met. We discussed how could we get funds to support community rebuilding projects in housing, education, hospitalization and employment--almost half the town was displaced from their homes, every school was damaged postponing the beginning of the new school year, the hospital was declared condemned and people were without income as virtually every economic activity had halted. I realized that I could help by seeking funds in California and at the convention by setting some goals and meetings. I also realized that I needed to regenerate myself and that I had really looked forward to visiting family and friends after a two year hiatus. I also had non refundable air tickets. My Rotarian friends told me to go, that I could help if I connected with some benefactors, and of course, I was going to return to serve as club president as previously elected.
I arrived in Seoul after a long air flight and began to learn about Korea. It was a very large, 8 million modern metropolis, very clean, high tech, lots of traffic,many skyscrapers, with many in construction, and smog. The Koreans said the smog came from China with dust from Mongolia. I understand that strong westerly winds could be bring these to Korea, but Seoul was a very large city and probably produced much of its own smog. The. Entire time I was in Korea, I continuously experienced extreme nasal and post nasal congestion which generating coughing to clear my throat and lots of nose blowing all day. This also stopped rather dramatically when I later returned to California.
Korea is a densely populated and a very homogeneous society. "Forests" of tall apartment buildings were seen throughout the country, and the land that was not built upon was intensely farmed, except for slopes with evergreen forests. I learned that extended families often occupied the same apartment complex, and that the apartments were generally smaller than those in the US. In Seoul, I stayed at the Shilla Stay Hotel on the 27th floor.
The Rotary Convention was attended by more than 40,000 people from throughout the world with sessions translated in nine languages. It followed a format similar to past conventions with large daily plenary sessions along with several smaller breakout sessions on various topics involving the strengthening of rotary clubs, building membership, conducting humanitarian projects, all toward building better world understanding and peace.
Many times each day I participated alongside other Rotarians from other countries as if they were my family and best friends. I shared meals and conversations with French, Italians, Canadians, Nigerians, Zambians, Australia, South Africans, Colombians, Mexicans, Indians, Mongolians, Russians, Germans, Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Nigerians, Kenyans, Turks, Belgians, Brazilians, Bahamians, British, Argentinians, Chileans, Americans Ecuadorians and other peoples. Truly stimulatingand reinforcing the common desires and needs which we all humans have.
During the convention I participated as a member of two panels. The first was about Rotary Foundation Cadres can serve to advise Rotarians about the development of proposals for international humanitarian Global Grant projects and how to avoidcommon misunderstandings, pitfalls and errors that will make a proposal ineligible for
Foundation funding. The second panel focused on what was sustainability of project outcomes-- how could a proposal and subsequent implement assure that after Rotarian work and project implementation was completed, the local community had the capacity and means to sustain the outcomes without Rotary's continual intervention. On the first panel I presented along side Rotarians from Argentina, Australia, Arizona, and Taiwan.
On the second, my panel mates were from Turkey, India and Kenya. One evening, I participated with an internationally mixed group of Rotarians at a traditional Korean dinner hosted by a local Korean Rotary Club. We feasted on about twenty different dishes in the patio of a 400 year old home. Our hosts were quite sociable and entertained us with traditional music and song. They also activated a karaoke machine and several of us participated singing in Korean and English. I didn't understand any of the Korean I sang but it was a lot of fun belting out the tune along side our hosts as we looked at the Korean words written in western letters. The club president joined me in singing My Way. With my nasal congestion I'm sure I sounded horribly off key, but I didn't care because I was having a great time.
Prior to, and after, the convention I participated with small groups of visiting Rotarians in one night tours, first to the south, and lastly north to the Di Militarized, or DMZ. In the south we visited ruins and museums which displayed the life and times of the longest and most influential of the family dynasties which had ruled Korea. We traveled by bullet trains and saw much of the countryside as well as several provincial cities. The railroads are excellent, on time, very clean, organized and widely used. The farming included fields of rice, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, and more. It seemed that every square inch was cultivated.
We also went by train to the north to visit the a border peace education center and view the DMZ. The DMZ is Four kilometers wide, two on the north and two on the southern side of the border. No one is allowed in the DMZ and the armies of both sides have observation posts and patrols monitoring it. It was said that the wildlife in the zone is prolific because humans have not disturbed for over sixty years. Each side also had a Civilian Control Zone outside of the DMZ that could only be entered during the day. Usually farmers were those who passed through the checkpoints to work in the fields and then returned to exit at night fall. The soldiers at the checkpoints were all armed with machine guns and were in their early twenties of age.
We passed through because the group had arranged advanced permission and went to one of the observation posts where we stared into North Korea. It was all green countryside with distinctive mountains in the distance. A city of about 100,000 was unseen behind them. We also toured a tunnel under the DMZ that was built by the North to invade the South. It was discovered in the 1970's and blocked off In the South. We walked over 400 meters northward and supposedly ended underneath the DMZ. Quite a moment. Afterwards we all returned to Seoul by train and left the next day for home.
I spent a few more days in California on the return trip catching up with family and friends, including a stop in San Francisco to see my sister and brother and family, and again in San Diego with grand kids and friends. Nice times eating out, family meals, enjoying a ride along the beach, watching my grandson play soccer--all made it a great visit.
I am now back in Bahia de Caraquez safe and sound with lots to accomplish.