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Thanks for the Sunshine

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The sight was breathtaking from aboard the airplane, but Bolivians on the ground were in dire straits. Due to abnormally heavy and frequent downpours since November 2007, much of the nation had been flooded and people had been driven from their homes, triggering the declaration of a state of emergency. Local Tzu Chi volunteers, joined by their counterparts from three other countries, helped provide daily necessities, medical services, and love, thus bringing some sunshine to this inundated land.

Bolivia, once a cradle of the great Inca civilization, is now one of the poorest and least developed countries in South America. About 60 percent of its population live below the poverty line. Spread among the rugged Andes Mountains with a highland plateau, hills, and lowland plains in the Amazon Basin, landlocked Bolivia has a diverse landscape that stretches from 6,542 meters (21,460 feet) to 90 meters (295 feet) above sea level.

We nine volunteers from America changed planes at Miami, Florida, and headed straight for La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. En route we had our fill of a panoramic view of the snowcapped Andes mountain range, the highest outside Asia and the longest anywhere. After landing at the La Paz airport, located at 4,100 meters (13,450 feet) above sea level, four of us experienced dizziness, headaches, wheezing, and nausea. Though very uncomfortable, we sat quietly through the altitude sickness as we waited for the next leg of our flight to Santa Cruz, our final destination.

Weather patterns are not as predictable as they once were. The first quarter of the year is usually the rainy season in Bolivia. But in early 2007, it rained so much that about 90 percent of Bolivia was flooded. Tzu Chi held a distribution in May and a medical clinic in August. Then came November. Prolonged rain caused many rivers in several departments to overflow their banks and flood nearly 80,000 homes. Santa Cruz Department, the granary of Bolivia, was almost reduced to an ocean of water.

The rain just kept coming down, and flooding spread to many more areas. Even La Paz, situated in the highlands, was not spared. Communications were cut off by landslides and washed-out roads and bridges. Isolated villages were unable to send for help, and anyway there was no way to bring assistance in. The government declared a state of emergency.

In the latter part of February 2008, we nine volunteers from the United States rendezvoused in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Santa Cruz, with Tzu Chi volunteers from Argentina and Paraguay. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, often called Santa Cruz for short, is the capital city of Santa Cruz Department, the largest of the nine "departamentos" in Bolivia. Accounting for about a third of Bolivia's land area, the department occupies an area about ten times the size of Taiwan.


 
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