How does one define success? Ask around, and you will invariably receive a myriad of responses— some of which may be framed around financial achievement. Christoph von Ruexleben ’09 believes that some of the world’s most underprivileged people are far richer in happiness than those vastly more advantaged. How did he come to this conclusion? Von Ruexleben and a friend drove from California to Patagonia for an adventure of a lifetime.
After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2013 with a degree in economics and global studies, von Ruexleben worked in business development at an advertising agency in San Francisco. While he loved his job, he shares, “I had a realization that when I reflect back on my life, I want to have more than just a career-based resume. I want a life resume.”
In July 2018, with a car and a rooftop tent, von Ruexleben and his friend David Grotting embarked from San Francisco, traveling through 19 countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Their goal was to travel with a purpose, engage in meaningful dialogue with local people, and document their experiences. “We wanted to gain an under- standing of the varied human experiences that exist across this distance,” von Ruexleben explains.
The project, called Road Dialogues, was a Humans of New York- style interview series sharing the lives of the people in the countries they visited. “We met people whose life stories would bring any person to their knees because of the injustices they’ve faced, yet they are more positive and generous than almost anyone I know,” shares von Ruexleben. “It was a glimpse into humanity and an interesting look at human perseverance and generosity and kindness.”
Von Ruexleben recalls meeting Adela, a woman from a small town in southern El Salvador, whose unforgettable warmth and kindness left a lasting impression. Despite confronting daily societal, economic and familial adversity, Adela dedicated her life to spreading joy and happiness in her community. Of her hardship, she shared, “Si les doy importancia, no se terminan,” which translates: “If I give them importance, they don’t end.”
Conducting a majority of their interviews in Spanish, von Ruexleben attributes his ability to have meaningful conversations in Spanish to LJCDS educator Eva Power. “She had a unique way of mixing culture into how she taught Spanish,” he says. “It was her influence that got me interested in the cultural aspect of speaking Spanish and visiting these places.”
After 295 days, the duo had traveled 24,000 miles, the equivalent of the circumference of the Earth, and had gained a perspective that they never imagined.
“I have never felt more aware of my privilege,” von Ruexleben says. “And I’ve never felt more inspired and empowered to try to spread awareness of the kindness and cultural warmth that Latin America holds. The people who were most generous were often those with the least—it was truly pure altruism under the harshest of circumstances. I was shown how powerful simple actions are in making a positive impact, and I’m hoping to find ways to further that notion through my career and through my actions with friends, family and strangers alike.”