Big Sky To Bolivia

Posted: May 5, 2020

Recently, MEC lineman Seth Hill returned from an NRECA sponsored trip to Bolivia where he joined other Montana linemen to build a powerline into a remote village. In an interview with Seth, he described the experience for us.

Describe what traveling from Missoula to Bolivia and/or the trip from Bolivia home was like?

The trip to Bolivia was a huge experience for me. It was the first time I have ever traveled internationally. The trip was smooth until we reached Houston and had plane problems that caused us to miss our flight in Panama City. This was my first experience with customs and entering a foreign country. The next day when we arrived to check in for our flights to Santa Cruz, Bolivia I was put on a different flight via Bogota, Colombia. I was a little nervous, but found out three others were joining me so it didn’t seem too bad – until I realized they were on a different flight. So I made up my mind to embrace the adventure and see what happened. I arrived in Columbia, managed to get myself to my gate and spent the next three hours waiting for someone to show up. The other guys showed up about thirty minutes before we boarded. We arrived in Bolivia about five hours behind the rest of the crew arriving at the hotel about 1:30 A.M. This took its toll right away, traveling for over two full days.

We then found out we would have to lay over another day due to no available flights to Riberalta, Boliv­ia until the next day.

Saturday we got a flight to Riberalta, only to have seven bags not make the plane. Thankfully all of mine made it. We had a small problem getting out of the airport on our bus with the taxi drivers. It was nothing a little money could not take care of. We toured the local power plant, had a meal, and purchased fans and blenders before returning for our bags.

This was the hard part of the trav­el, what was to be a two to three hour bus ride turned into eight grueling hours to travel 192 kilometers. We arrived to the cabins only to get stuck in the driveway due to soft roads. We carried our luggage up the hill to the cabin sites. Luckily we were treated to a hot meal before bed, turning in about 1:00 A.M.

Were you able to follow news of what was going on in the US during your trip? What was it like being so far away when there was so much happening at home?

We had very limited service once we left Riberalta. We had to share two Wi-Fi hot spots that the people with NRECA International made available to us. The news was very limited and we did not really have a good handle on what was happening at home.

Coming from the US to a third world country, what was the biggest challenge or what did you miss the most from home (excluding family, of course)?

The biggest challenge for me was realizing things happen on a different time schedule than they do at home. No one seemed to be in a rush or have a sense of urgency about what was going on except when they got behind the wheel of a vehicle. The thing I missed the most was having cold water or beverages due to lack of ice.

What was the most unexpected thing you experienced during your trip to Bolivia?

Working in the jungle, climate was the most unexpected thing. I knew it would be hot and humid but had no idea how bad it would be. It was the harshest environment I have ever worked in. We experienced feels-like temperatures up to 110 degrees (and over 100 in the shade). It didn’t take long to realize afternoon work was almost out of the question. You only have so many climbs a day in you, so you better make them count in order to achieve your goal.

What was your favorite part of the experience?

For me seeing a different culture and way of life than I am used to. The people of this region have very little, yet they are happy and make do with what they have. I also cannot say enough good things about the group of people that volunteered for this project. They are one of the finest groups I have ever worked with. We all had a common reason and goal for being there and would not be denied the opportunity to give others the luxury of electricity we so often take for granted. It was such a great feeling to know we reached our goal for the village and this would forever change the lives of the people and children in this area.

What Item were you the most happy you brought with you?

I was glad to have plenty of bug spray, sunscreen and a lightweight neck gator.

What was something you wish you could have brought with you?

I wish I would have brought more lightweight work clothing.

What was your favorite thing to do during your down time?

We didn’t have any real downtime on the trip due to travel delay in the beginning. I would have to say, just visiting and getting to know all the crew members and then sharing a lot of great times with them.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about volunteering for an NRECA International trip?

Be ready for the adventure of a lifetime and have an open mind. This can be an experience of a lifetime for you if that is what you are prepared to make it. At times it will be very difficult, but in the end it is worth it when you have the chance to work with complete strangers from around your state to complete a project that means so much for others.

If you were able to go back to Bolivia, either for work or vacation, what is one thing you would do different?

I would become more fluent in Spanish to make the language barrier easier.