When I’m not working with Farther Foundation to enable deserving high school students to partake in unique educational travel programs, I get to have adventures of my own. Many years ago, I veered my rental car through the streets of Rome, parked in front of my hotel, and swore that I would not drive those streets again until it was time to leave Rome altogether. Escaping Rome with body and vehicle intact was a kiss the ground and give thanks moment.
I survived another kiss the ground driving experience a few weeks ago, but this time as a passenger. My driver was Sister Fulvia, and I was riding along to deliver aid and visit schools amidst remote villages in the mountains of Bolivia.
I had been warned by past survivors that riding with Sister Fulvia is not for the faint of heart. “She rides with God” I was told. Sister Fulvia began learning the driving part of her trade as a young woman chauffeuring her Mother Superior through the streets of Rome. For the last 40 years, the now 70 year old nun has been carrying out her mission while driving the mountain roads of Bolivia and Peru. Around town, you might spot Fulvia negotiating traffic on her motorcycle – all the better to avoid traffic jams and tight spots. But for heading out to the villages, we helped load up a vanagon type vehicle with drop-down benches on either side of the rear of the vehicle and plenty of room for supplies.
Five of us were joining Sister Fulvia on that day’s mission; two young women from Holland who were nearing the end of six weeks of post college travel through Central and South America, a young woman from Norway who had previously done aid work in Bolivia and was now returning to see how the funds she had helped to raise were being put to use, Anna, also originally from Holland, but who has been in Bolivia for many years, and myself. Anna was the conversation facilitator switching easily between English, Spanish and Dutch. It didn’t seem as if Sister Fulvia cared whether or not she was understood as she talked often and excitedly in Spanish with occasional bits of Italian thrown in. I understand enough Spanish to be lost more often than not and my Dutch is limited to singing happy birthday (unfortunately, the situation did not arise), so it was nice when the conversation rotated to English.
The surface condition of the road we traveled was pretty good, the danger lay in the constant twisting and turning, the steep rise and fall, the lack of guardrails and the 1000 foot drops. Caution was definitely called for, but it seemed not to be in Sister Fulvia’s nature. She would pass at will, inside curves, outside curves, uphill or down. I suppose she becomes impatient stuck behind slower vehicles while the road almost never straightens long enough to afford a sufficiently good view of the oncoming traffic to allow a safe pass.
Adding to the danger is Sister’s penchant for delivering aid on the fly. Whenever we passed road workers or families walking along the roadside, she would go digging around in our sacks of supplies for a package of cookies, gum or an orange to heave out the window as we sped past. Since the process of rummaging for goodies, rolling down the window, honking the horn and throwing the treats takes at least two hands, Sister Fulvia tends to let the car do its own driving. After a few close calls with oncoming traffic and precipitous cliffs, we decided to take over the goody chucking so that Sister could concentrate on driving.
I survived that road as well as a dirt track that was more trail than road, and in the end I was well rewarded. I met people trying to scratch out a living in a remote and inhospitable environment with little to no access to any public utilities, services or education opportunities for their children. Where I did see schools and daycare facilities, I was told how families would make long treks daily or weekly to make sure that their children had the opportunity to get supervised care and education while their parents worked.
Sister Fulvia and I had the same model camera. At the end of our day I was able to give her my lens cap to replace one she had lost. Her appreciation was outsized for such a small gift. I will long remember Sister Fulvia and be grateful to her for showing me a world far beyond my previous experience and for then bringing me safely back home.