I 've ridden motorcycles all my life.
In fact, for about 20 years, my driver's license was only good for motorcycles. I've ridden in Europe and Africa, across Canada and the United States. I was intrigued when The Rotarian magazine proposed I ride from Peru to Virginia, USA, with Ken Hodge, a member of the Rotary Club of Newport News, Virginia, and his daughter, stepson, and a family friend. Hodge, the leader of the pack, was raising money for his club's efforts to build footbridges in remote areas through RotaryBridges7600, modeled after Bridges to Prosperity .
The first thing my editor told me was, "This is not about the motorcycle. They will have their adventure. You will have a different one." I would get to know the faces of Rotarians in Latin America. I would visit club projects, not ruins or museums or cathedrals. I would see a different side of the countries I passed through.
I had been in Peru once before, to hike the Inca Trail with my family -- a much slower pace than astride a BMW, believe me. I'd taken photographs of Inti Raymi dancers, the crowds at a soccer game in Cusco (dodging pickpockets), but very few shots of locals. They were shy, scowling, private -- or so poor they held out their hands for a model fee.
In college, I visited Mexico and took a black-and-white photograph of a mestizo woman, crouched in front of a wall of political posters that said in Spanish something to the effect of "an appeal to the national conscience." The photo has sat in my portfolio for 40 years, unanswered, a permanent "before" awaiting the "after." I was reluctant ever again to take such a photo, to record suffering and move on.
During my trip for The Rotarian, the first time I viewed the images in my camera, I realized that I was not seeing "before" shots. None of the children I met in Peru or Ecuador were broken, abandoned, or unattended. They showed hope, curiosity, mischief, energy -- because someone had already worked for change in their lives. Rotary clubs had acted; I was seeing the "after" shots.
The Rotarians who acted as my guides took me to parts of their countries that tourists never see. Inevitably, they were greeted as trusted friends by teachers, nuns, and children, making each photo shoot effortless. And that was an adventure.
If I had to pick a favorite picture, it would be the woman and child in front of the school in Manchay, Peru. She was the custodian and lived in a room at the back of the school. On the wall of the building was graffiti -- and the Rotary emblem.
One of the classrooms had the original cardboard model of the school, donated by the architect. Talk about making dreams real.
My editor was wrong on one count: One cannot ride 8,000 miles in five weeks, through sand, mud, gravel, and dust -- on mountain roads, jungle cuts, or the Pan-American Highway -- and not have an adventure. But that's another story.
James R. Petersen is a freelance journalist and Cycle World and Rider magazine motorcycle expert. His work has also been published by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Sports Illustrated. Read more about Petersen's motorcycle adventure through Latin America in the May issue of The Rotarian . A special thanks to District 7600.