Tuesday, August 4, 2009

There's no place like home.

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

I write from the comforts of the big red chair in the living room of my home in Snohomish, Washington. In the beautiful Pacific Northwest. The NW really is so beautiful. It is so great to be at home again with my family, my dogs, to walk around the beautiful garden, water the apple trees, to have fresh raspberries for my cereal and plump blueberries that I eat write off the bush.

I got home Sunday night around 10:30pm and have since spent the time relaxing.

My final destination in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, was supposed to be filled with relaxation. However, while on a hike to Indian Nose (a mountain shaped in the pface of a person with a prominent nose), I was robbed and assaulted by 4 young men, 2 of whom were carrying machetes. I am okay :) but the experience was quite scary.

I had asked 2 people (one of whom was a guide) at the place I was staying if it was safe to do the hike alone. The response I got: "Yeah, you'll be okay. You're a man, they shouldn't bother you." Well, after hiking up the road for about just over an hour I started to catch up to a group of youth who were walking behind an older man. As they approached a blind corner, one looked back, spotted me and motioned to the others to stop. I noticed this and started to call out loudly (so they knew the older man knew I was there-or that was my intent), "Hey, how's it going? What are you guys up to?" One of the teens immediately pulled out a machete, pointed it at me and stalked towards me, saying: "Give me your money." I purposely didn't bring any money so this wouldn't happen and told him that. That didn't stop them from pulling my shirt up and sticking their hands under my belt (looking for a money belt) and into my pockets. I let them do so, out of pure shock and hoping that they would see I had no money and walk away. After repeating that I didn't have any money, the boy then said, "well, the backpack then" and another boy started to try to cut the straps off my backpack (which I was wearing) with his machete. This bolted me into action as my backpack had my camera in it. (My nice, new camera, but more importantly a lot of pictures that I had yet to save somewhere else) So, I grabbed the first thief's machete (which was inches from my face) and pushed away and tried to get away from their grasps. After a few attempts to run(it was impossible with 4 people holding onto different parts of me (trying to take off my watch) and my backpack I started to yell, "Thieves! Thieves, help me!" With this, I was able to break from their relaxed grasps and they ran off, up the hillside taking my room key and a bandanna from my pocket. I yelled in fury after them, "Hacen falta" (it's what fans cry after a foul in futbol, but I think I got my point across)

I am very grateful that God protected me during this incident and nothing worse happened. Their are stories of strong, grown men losing their shoes and shirt right off their back in past robberies.

A hundred meters up the road I met worker who offered to take me up to the top in safety for 5 bucks (the thieves don't attack when you're with a local), which I agreed to. We made it to the top and back down, without further incident. Though along the way we saw a few other young boys with machetes who Pablo, my guide, said were likely other potential thieves.

This was a horrible way to end my trip. I know the Guatemalan people are a beautiful, humble, giving people and they have shared so much with me even in the midst of their poverty. But, it is one part of the reality of this country, where corruption prevails in government and many people don't have jobs. Some of these people resort to theft. Maybe it is out of desperation to feed their families. In this case for these boys about my age, it was more likely out of want to buy an iPod or cellphone. Even in a country as poor as Guatemala, these modern symbols of luxury are everywhere.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The road...

Jueves, 30 Agosto 2009

I write from the Black Cat Hostel in Antigua. It´s the middle of my week of travelling Guatemala to see a little more of the country. Sunday Willy and Sandra and I drove from Barillas to Guatemala City (12 hours), all seated in the front of a pick-up truck. Let´s just say I was glad when it was over...

They dropped me off at a bus company in the City where I was to begin my first leg of the journey. Upon a friend´s advice I had booked all my travels through a tourist travel company because it would be safer and I would have my entire itinerary set. Trying to do the country in a week leaves no time for missed buses and extra nights somewhere.

When I got to the bust station I was met by a travel agency rep holding a sign with my name. I paid him the total for all my travels, he pocketed the money and then went to the ticket counter a few feet away and bought my bus ticket from the bus company for almost half the price I paid him!! I was immediately upset. At myself because I realized how I had led myself into this. At the company for charging such an exuberant price for a service that I could have easily accomplished if I had known about it.

Well, you live and you learn. Next time I travel I trust myself more to find the bargains I know I can and do my own ticket shopping. And, next time I will not try to see an entire country in only a week!

The 9pm overnight bus (a charter bus, I slet pretty well and was happy I wasn´t paying for a hotel that night) took us to Flores, a small island town outside of Tikal. We got off the bus at 5am and were immediately surrounded by bus drivers who offered us hotel rooms or wanted to take us to where we going. This time, though, I was ready. I said, no I already have a hotel (I didn´t) and I knew where I was going (I didn´t) unless they wanted to take me there for free, which they didn´t.

Since Sunday night I have reverted back to my bargain-minded (some people might call it ´cheap´) self, constantly trying to make up for the money I´ve wasted.

Tikal was magnificent. We got there in the afternoon as most people were leaving and got to explore the ruins with the general absence of other people. I saw the monkeys clowning around in the trees and then watched as they came down to run on the ground (at times on just 2 legs-it was like watching Planet of the Apes) which was cool. I bribed the guards to watch the sunset from Temple IV after the park officially closed and rose at 3:45 for a tour to the Temples to hear the jungle wake up. Again. we had to bribe the guards to get in before the park officially opens at 6.

From Tikal I came here and climbed Volcan Pacaya last night, which was very cool! We got up close and roasted marshmallows over the lava (though I could also feel the skin on my cheeks roasting, it was HOT!!). Today I have explored Antigua a little more (it´s a very pretty little colonial town and has great architecture and ruins. But, there´s also a huge gringo population and most of the shops have the same feel.

At Lake Atitlan, I will relax for a few days before returning to Guate on Sunday. It will be great to just sit back and enjoy the lake after the past few busy days of travel and bus long bus rides.

I wish I could upload pictures and offer a better description of the things I´ve seen, but don´t have enough time.

The past week of moving around the country has made me value even more the experience in Barillas because I was truly able to get to know the city, the people, and the Guatemalan culture. I was able to share food and spend time in the villages, and come to know the struggles facing the poor communities and Guatemala as a country in general. This light-speed travelling barely gives me a taste of each place I visit.

I guess I will just have to come back again to see all the places I have missed and get to know the country a littl better.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tragedy and Hope

Miercoles, 22 Julio 2009

Today was my first day at the clinic in about a week. When I got there, I learned that yesterday there had been a birth in the clinic. The mother had come in very weak. The baby was born feet first and the mother had no strength to push it out. One doctor had to pull on the baby’s legs while a nurse had to apply pressure to the mother’s stomach. The baby was born asphyxiated and purple. It took 4 or 5 minutes before they could get the baby to start breathing. (Lack of oxygen for this long causes serious brain damage that affects one for the rest of their life; from learning to walk to performing in the classroom.) This morning the little girl had a fever (around 39 ºC) when I came in, and after nursing a bottle of warm, purified water (the family couldn’t afford milk) she began to vomit it all back up, a brown mucus along with little bits of blood. We had to put a tube down her throat to her stomach to help siphon out the fluid because she didn’t have the strength to cough it all up. The doctors believe she has an infection from inhaling some of her feces as she was born (hence the brown color…) She fought the fever all day and at times the antibiotics quieted her crying. But, before the end of the day the fever came back and the poor little girl was burning up. The family decided they are going to take her home, while the doctors want her to stay or even go to a hospital. Part of the family’s wish may have to do with money. Dr. Rivas had no idea if the family was going to be able to pay for the medicine and treatment they had received over the past two days. (He also told me that at some clinics, they don’t let the patients leave until the bills are paid. This is not the case at the Clinica Bethesda; his first concern is the well-being of the patient. He figured the Clinica Bethesda has lost 3-4 million quetzals over the past 2-3 years from patients who have not been able to pay. Because of this, the clinic cannot buy the equipment they would like to or improve the clinic as fast They are currently constructing a new operating room, X-ray room, and lab room; the expected completion date is pretty far away.) It is expected that the baby girl will die without the medical care she needs as she has not been able to quit the fever, a sign of the infection she has. As I left the clinic tonight, I saw the father outside waiting to take her home.

While much of my blog has been touched by striking stories of poverty and hardship, there are two stories I wish to share that capture the hope that I have seen (which I also hope has been evident in my reaction to HFPF’s work.) Today I had lunch with a 10 year-old boy named Marcos. Every weekend, Marcos works on the street shining shoes to support his family. He used to do this every day until a woman came down with an HFPF group. While I don’t the name of this woman I do know she changed his life. After asking why he was out on the street and not in school and learning of his story, she ensured a fund was set up so that Marcos could go to school. This fund provides for his uniform, school supplies, and buys him lunch every weekday. We got ice cream after lunch and Marcos told me that he likes school; he eventually wants to go to college to read and ultimately become a professor or teacher.

On our journey to Barillas from Guate, Marco and I stopped along the way at a small aldea. We got out of the car and walked down a muddy path between two houses to get to the residence of Don Sebastian. Don Sebastian is a talented artisan wood carver. When he was young he had some sort of accident or illness and he can no longer walk. Still, through his beautiful craftsmanship and hard work he has put all 5 of his children through school and 3 are teachers. Don Sebastian is a great big man with a soft face and eyes that twinkle when he smiles. His giant hands lovingly carve beautiful figures of the Guatemalan people, capturing their struggle. A woman carrying water on her back or her head, a man hauling a huge load of firewood, a young girl carrying her little sister, wrapped in a shawl on her back.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stories from Corozo

Lunes, 20 Julio 2009 - Martes, 21 Julio 2009

Monday morning Wily and I left for a new aldea, Corozo, where HFPF recently completed a stove Project. Many families in Guatemala cook over open fires in their homes, which is very dirty and unhealthy. It leads to respiratory problems (like asthma and bronchitis) and also affects pregnancies (birth weight, etc.)

This past Spring, Santa Clara University’s Ignatian Center and the Santa Clara Community Action program (SCCAP) helped me attend Unite for Sight’s Global Health Conference at Yale University. (At first read, you think “Wow!,” but it was actually so-so) But, there I met a nursing professor at UC Berkeley who is currently researching the effects of open, wood-burning fires on childhood respiratory health in Guatemala. Interesting stuff.

HFPF takes pride in their philosophy of working with the people, not just giving them donations. During the trip to Corozo, I witnessed the importance of the philosophy firsthand, multiple times. HFPF has an 80-90% success rate with their projects. This compares with an approximate 70% success rate with other organizations (such as those who build the stoves and then just install them in the villages w/o the relationships that HFPF takes pride in building).

The purpose of our trip to Corozo was to check every stove in the village (all 71 of them!) to make sure it was working properly (wasn’t broken), answer any questions, clean out the stove (and teach the families how to clean out the stoves for themselves), and make sure people were using them. Also, Wily had to check in with the villager’s payment plans. Corozo (like many other aldeas) has developed a culture that is used to receiving gifts from organizations that are trying to help the poor of Guatemala. However, this well-intentioned effort has had malicious consequences. Many of the previous projects do not last (one reason is because they are not taken care of, this could be to lack of education or lack of personal care and attention) In order to give the people of Corozo a sense of responsibility, pride, and ownership for their stoves, every stove owner must fulfill the contractual obligations of 5 monthly payments of 20 quetzales (for a total of 100Q or about $12.50 with the current exchange rate). Some people had yet to pay, so Wily had to remind them of the contract they signed. To help with his work, Wily hired two of the village council leaders to help assess each stove’s condition; each stop lasted 10-15 minutes. At the end of the day, one of the workers was trying to convince Wily to pay him 150Q instead of the 100Q they had agreed on previously. 100Q was the “just” wage for the day, but due to a culture affected by years of gifts (and maybe coupled with my presence as a Gringo- “someone who light skin, usually from the “other side,” and someone who can be counted upon to have money or valuables”) Gaspar thought he deserved more. Eventually, he and Wily worked things out after Wily offered Gaspar his “perspective.” Another interesting scenario resulted when (after dinner) we drove up to the school where we were to sleep for the night. A outside/open air meeting was just finishing up as we approached. Immediately after we parked, a few men swarmed the truck, picking through the stuff in the pick-up bed (our sleeping bags, mattresses, Wily’s bag, a pelota-soccer ball for the children) to see if we had brought them anything. One man asked (I don’t think he had seen the pelota), “Did you bring a pelota for us?” Wily replied that we hadn’t and just had one for the kids.

I offer the stories above as cultural observations. There could obviously be more factors to each situation and this is by no means a catch-all picture of all Guatemala. But, it offers some interesting insights to how we can best help those who are in need.

I want to share a few other experiences I had over the past two days:

Buda (pronounced “Bue-da,” means widow)

Pete brought some quilts from Faith Lutheran Church, which he attends, in Everett, Wa. These beautiful, warm quilts had been made by woman in the church and were meant to be given to widows and widowers in the villages HFPF works with. Every hand-made quilt carries the message, “Made With Love.” As the quilts were given to the widows, Wily gathered some information about the widow(er): his/her name, age(many villagers can’t remember their age and have to check their id card or just guess), number of children, when his/her spouse died and what happened. One woman shared a very poignant story. Her husband had died 25 years ago.
He had planned to go to the United States but didn’t tell his wife. He made it to San Mateo, a small city outside of Barillas. One day, after drinking, a bus drove by and he was pushed underneath and died from the accident. He left his wife to raise 7 children by herself. The death of a spouse not only steals a companion and lover, but in Guatemala it also leaves the burden of raising children, cleaning, cooking, gathering firewood, and farming all on one person. Many people’s spouses die after vomiting and diarrhea for days on end. Many families don’t have the money to take the patient to a see doctor. A few patients have come into the clinic and haven’t had any money to buy medicine. They return their village, knowing what disease plagues them, but not able to do a thing about it.

How hot is your Chu?

One of the most interesting parts of Monday was learning about Chus, small saunas, built with rocks to waist height. There were a few scattered around the homes of Corozo. As Gaspr explained it, Chus are a bit of indigenous medicine, to ease the pains and sores of a hard day’s work. Just like any other sauna I’ve been in, there is a small pile of rocks which are heated and to which water is added to create steam. There is small bench inside, but I don’t think I could sit up straight inside because the ceiling is so low. Usually the people will carry in a handful of reedy plants and hit the sore parts of their body (sometimes, they will just use their hands.) I wonder how saunas developed in Guatemala, if it is a cultural tradition that has been practiced for ages or if the notion was brought here from elsewhere (East Asia, the Mediterranean, etc.) It would be very interesting anthropological connection indeed if this human invention was born in various parts of the world by people who had no knowledge of each other.

A sad story
As we walked around the village evaluating the stoves, we were approached by a drunken man, who waved a piece of paper at us (which turned out to be a contract for an HFPF stove.) Wily explained to me that when the stove project was being organized in Corozo, the man got drunk and beat his wife. The village leaders decided that the stove should be placed in her name (most of the stove owners are the men/husbands.) So, she moved to a different house and how retains possession of the stove. I couldn’t understand a word the man sad (he was speaking in Q’anjo’bal), but apparently he was trying to get ownership of the stove.

The pools of Montenegra

On our way back from Corozo, we stopped to go swimming in a series of beautiful pools that have been molded from the rock by a flowing stream. The place was beautiful, a small sampling of Semuc Champey for those who have seen pictures or visited. The water, a brilliant, celeste-green color, flows from pool to pool and is quite warm. I imagine it must have been doing so for centuries to have sculpted the rock as it has. One can jump from pool to pool or sit under the small waterfalls at a pools’ edge for a massaging effect. It was so relaxing and refreshing!

One of my favorite parts of Guatemala has been the constant presence of nature wherever I have been. Rugged mountains hug the shoulders of Barillas, there is always a snack nearby hanging from a banana tree or shooting from the ground in the form of a sugar cane stalk. Last night was a very special experience. Not a single cloud was in the sky (surprisingly) and the stars came out by the thousands. The Milky Way streaked across the dark sky, untainted by light poisoning from any nearby human city, where lights are never extinguished. I was even wished goodnight by our friend “ratón” who stalked the rafters of the schoolhouse and I was kept warm at night by a friendly little snake that curled up right under my mattress, though I didn’t realize it until the morning.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Inauguracion Canton Las Maravillas

Inauguracion Canton Las Maravillas

As I mentioned before, during this past week I returned to the aldeas of Nuevo Santiago and Canton Las Maravillas so that Pete could see first-hand some of the work accomplished this year. Every year, HFPF has 6-7 groups that come down from January-June and the staff works not stop to prepare for the groups and ready the projects (this takes a lot of coordination. Imagine trying to pull off a public works project in a extremely poor community with no major power tools, organize hundreds of villagers, and then orient (and prepare for) the gringos that come down to live in the villages for just over a week at a time, for 6 straight months.)

But, all this work is worth it. During my few short visits to the aldeas I have seen (and tried to communicate) how important and impactful HFPF’s work is. On Monday, I got a very special opportunity to share in the community celebration for everything they have received. Canton Las Maravillas is a very poor village. There is no water in the village, so for years the people have had to walk over an hour to the river to wash their clothes and find water suitable to drink. Many households have built contraptions to collect rainwater. But these bins (they look like dog pens built of sticks, lined with black, plastic garbage bags) are only a site of algae growth, mosquito birthing grounds and home to millions of bacteria. This is the water that would be used to bathe in, water livestock, this is the water that would be used to drink and cook. The tinacas HFPF installed provide relatively clean water (supplemented by additional 5-gallon bucket filter apparatuses) and a safe way to store it. Let me put the importance of this project further in perspective. 8 or 9 (this is no exaggeration) out of 10 of the people who come to visit the Clinic Besthesda, where I have been working, have a gastrointestinal infection. They may come for a pregnancy check-up, a sinus infection, or some other health malady, but they may also complain of a stomach pain that has annoyed them for 2 months or 5 months or 2 years. Sure enough, a urine test or a one-time use H. pylori test confirms their stomach infection or stomach amoeba or parasite. The water tinacas allow villagers to drink clean water and wash their hands. The pig and garden projects in Nuevo Santiago diversify their diets and add important nutrients, protein, vitamins, and minerals. HFPF has moved away from treating the medical needs that HFPF originally served through Dr. Aller’s hands and guidance. Supporting a clinic is just too expensive and too difficult. But, HFPF’s work has been a perfect example to me of Public Health in action and preventative medicine. The water, nutrition, and educational projects will lower the number of people who come to the clinic. On Tuesday, when we visited Nuevo Santiago we interviewed the widows of the village and distributed quilts made by a Everett, Wa church (more on this in a later blog.) 3 of the 4 widows’ (or widowers) spouses died from vomiting and diarrhea. What bacteria caused that, they will never know. But, I know that the bacteria came from the unhealthy water or unsanitary conditions in which these people live.

Well, now onto the party. You may seen some interesting pictures on the side bar of what looks like a film set for a commercial for Nanoshine Onestep Wash and Polish, a revolutionary new, nanotechnology washing product that retains the same qualities of a car wax. Well, that because you did. Pete has recently started a new company selling this product, and he wanted to get some before and after material to help his advertising. So, we washed the cars with his product before taking off on our adventures. The roads we visited were the perfect place to test his product. A fun story. Who knows, you may see some of my filming on TV one day soon…

Well, the road up was even worse than before. This time there were 3 cars going up, one with the Barillas mayor (his district contains some 250 aldeas) and some government officials, the second with Marco, Pete, some Barillas Rotary members, and the third with Wily and I. Well, the road just got worse and worse with each car. All the villagers came out with their ropes and ponchos but after 2 and a half hours of driving Wily and I stopped the car, turned around and walked the rest of the way up.

This trip was also a mini-lesson for me of Guatemalan politics. Part of the reason the community invited the mayor was so that he could see first-hand how bad the road was, so that he could experience it for himself. Well, sure enough during the ceremony that followed he “publicly” promised to start working on the road. Next year. When they had more money. It’ll be interesting to see how this project proceeds. Just before you start ascending the last part of the mountain road to Canton, you come across a large river, with a cable bridge. Next to the bridge stands 3 hugs concrete foundational supports for a new bridge. Well, this project was started years ago, and then the money ran out, so the foundations now stick out of the water, supporting air. In Nuevo Santiago, the government brought in large concrete pipe sections to work on a drainage project, but the pieces sit in a field, unused. The government also started a smaller version of the garden project that HFPF initiated in Nuevo Santiago, but never returned to teach the villagers how to take care of the plants. Wily returns every week or two, to show them how to fertilize properly (directly on the plants, not in the middle of the rows) and safely, cover the radishes fruits that become uncovered because the seeds weren’t planted deep enough. The plants in the government garden have either died or the vegetables have grown too long and the few radishes left are only fit for pig feed.

Back to the party…

We were welcomed into the school by a lively Marimba band that filled the air with their sweety airy rhythms. We made our way over to a make-shift platform and a few plastic chairs, and the rest of the open space in the school was quickly filled by school children packed in like sardines. The rest of the village stood at the back or peeked in through the open windows. The ceremony was filled with the welcomes to every party there (the villagers, HFPF, the Barilas Rotary, the family of a Barillas pastor that joined us, the “Corporate Municipality” or local government, Pete and his grandson, myself) by almost every party there (I was the exception) so there was a lot of thank yous and welcomes and a lot of clapping. This was followed by certificates given out to all the various parties by the Corporate Municipality and the Canton Council President, and awards for the best decorated tinacas, best drawings, and the top finishers of the 5k race. (They started at the bottom of the mountain road just as we got there and beat us to the top, the gowing was so slow.) The best part was probably when the winner of the 5k race performed a song he had written himself about the tinaca water project and Marco, Wily, and the group that came to Canton. This funniest part was probably when Marco was explaining to the village how Pete had been the mayor of Everett when Bill Clinton had been president and Boeing had come to Everett. The mayor of Barillas immediately jumped up to have his picture taken with Pete.

Following the long ceremony, there was a great lunch, a soccer game (played in more of a bowl than what you would consider a soccer pitch), and dancing to the Marimba music. I wish I had made it over to the dancing, but I was trying to raise the spirit of the Barillas crowd who was unusually quiet for a futbol match in Central America (for that matter, anywhere outside the US.)

It was a fun-filled day. The people of Canton were so grateful and so happy for everything they had. And while they are so poor they really wanted to celebrate the help they had received. Marco and Wily each received a turkey for their work. Meat is a treat in the diet of the people of Canton. Turkey is a treat even for the more well off in Barillas. Wily’s family turned it into a great lunch which they shared with me, his pastor and his wife, his mother and father, and brother’s family. Marco eloquently explained ‘it’s a gift that’s hard to receive, but even harder to say ‘no’ to.”

The story behind the water project at Canton is particularly striking. Last year a Rotary group came down to build a school in Canton. Every day, they took showers from the water supplied to them by the villagers. At the end of the week, after the school was completed, the villagers told the group what they really needed was water. It took 2 hours to get water and the Rotary group had used up the entire village water supply. This heartbreaking story led to the tinaca project the village has now. The Rotary group went down with the villagers to collect more water before they left, and a year later every home has a tinaca to collect clean water. This project was very expensive and required a matching grant by Rotary International to come to fruition. With the current state of the economy, the number of matching grants has greatly decreased and HFPF was lucky to receive the money when they had. They won’t be able to complete such large projects in the future.

Now, I’m off to bed… Wily and I are going to a new aldea tomorrow, Corosco, and we are going to spend the night in the truckbed. I hope it doesn’t rain! (I’d say there’s a 80% chance…)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

You scream, I scream, we all scream for Ice Cream!

Sabado, 18 Julio 2009

The last week has been a busy one, and lots of fun! Pete Kinch, the executive director of HFPF and his grandson, Aaron, joined us here in Barillas. Marco Tulio went to Guatemala City to pick them up and also brought along his nephew, Chris, from San Marcos, which is along the way. I feel bad for Marco, he has made the 11-hour trip between Guate and here (or segments over two days’ time) at least 4 times in the past 2 weeks!

It was great fun to have more people in the Mission House (as Marco stays in the “pilot house” in the back) with two young kids running around and home cooked meals! Lydia, a women who lives locally, came to cook meals for us from Saturday to Wednesday! And boy was the food good! A mix of foods from home (like Spaghetti, though I have had that here once already), food I don’t normally get in the restaurant (like fresh-from-the-oven-homemade bread!!) and always lots of it. I was living the good life!! Though, thankfully, the transition from Lydia’s cooking hasn’t been too rough. Today for lunch I was invited to Wily’s house for Turkey (a treat! and a gift from Canton Las Maravillas, more on that later) and good soup.

And last night, I went to Yupi Café with two friends I have made here- Elise (from Redmond, who will attend SPU next year. Hannah if you’re reading this, I told her to find you!) and Claudia (who lives in Guate but works in Barillas for parts of the year. They took off this morning so we dined out on queso hamburguesas, hot chocolate, and ice cream! Yupi Café has been at times a refuge for me. One particular day, the food at the restaurant was just not very good. (since then, things have been better…) From the first bite of hot cereal at breakfast, there was something wrong. That day I had a measly lunch of PB&J sandwiches and by dinner I was pretty hungry!! It had been raining most of the day and I wanted something warm! I hadn’t been able to find hot chocolate anywhere in Barillas except at Yupi Café, so I headed straight there. I had a huge dinner of a cheeseburger, (I also had a craving for French fries, and while popular in Guatemala Yupi doesn’t have them) tamales, with my hot chocolate-warm, rich, and sweet! Another day, again the cheeseburger and ice-cream topped with chocolate and nuts fulfilled my comfort food craving. I loved eating all sorts of new meals and foods. But at times, ice cream just hits the spot like nothing else. And the people of Barillas appreciate that, too! I've tried a few flavors of homemade ice cream-cocunut and peanut, and a few more "bars" sit up in the freezer waiting for a hot afternoon!


So, I thought it might be a nice place to take Elise, not knowing what she had been eating during her 6+ week stay in Barillas. (It turns out Claudia and she cooked in their home; microwave chicken, instant mashed potatoes, rice, etc.) Then, after dinner, we met went next door to get ice-cream (they have better ice-cream than Yupi). In the midst of ordering our cones, we were met by the two little, poor boys I had blogged about earlier, and who I had seen various nights in Barillas. We offered them ice cream instead of a quetzal handout, which they asked for, and then we had a lot of fun sitting and eating with them.

This was the first time I had been able to talk with them. I had bought one of them ice cream before and he ran away soon after getting it. After asking them why they were out so late at night, running around the city, the more talkative of the two responded that “there was no older man in the house to tell him not to” We learned they live with their mother and can’t afford the necessary books, uniforms, and other supplies to go to school. It was a very sad reality. We spelled the various words on the ice-cream advertisements (they were 8 and 10-years old, no schooling, and spoke mostly Q’anjob’al) and they joked around with each other and us. At one point, the little (and more talkative) one, Mura? (I think it’s an indigenous name) went digging in the garbage to find someone’s else left-over ice cream treat to enjoy. I started to stop him, but then realized maybe he didn’t have dinner that night. Like, I said a very sad reality to be in the midst of, to watch and bear. I’m glad Claudia got a few pictures, which they got a kick out (asking for just a picture of their sandals) to remember them by. Though, their memories will not soon slip from my memory.

The Mission House is now empty and much quieter. When Pete (the big jefe) came, the entire house was cleaned, covers taken off of couches and loveseats, and the big dining room table and chairs set up, with a beautiful table cloth to boot. Everything has been packed away, floors swept and mopped one last time and the house is in hibernation mode until groups return in January. It almost felt like a vacation to have other bodies around 24/7. My tocayo, Chris, (Tocayo is a Spanish word used when two people have the same name) was quite a character. Only 8 years old (and skipping school for this trip!), Chris was frank and honest with his thoughts and emotions. For the first few meals, he would get up in the middle of eating, walk into the kitchen and ask Lydia if she was going to come eat because the food was getting cold. Then, five minutes later, after she hadn’t come, he would ask again if she was going to come eat with us. Very sweet and a great personality! He and Aaron (just as all the aldea children do when we visited, the “little princess” at the Quinceanera, and the two little boys we shared ice cream with) lightened up my experience in a very special, fun way!

Stay tuned for more updates about our special trip to Canton Las Maravillas! We returned with Pete for a big party and “inauguration” of the tinaca project. It was a very special day to share with Marco, Wily, Pete, and the people of Canton Las Maravillas.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Barillas Time

It seems like I am always behind on posting.

On Friday, Wily and I went to Canton (=aldea) Las Maravillas. It was a LONG day! HFPF recently finished a water project there, installing 84 tinacas (LARGE-like 200 gallon or more, black plastic tanks) and roofing system to collect clean, rain water. Before, community members (usually women) had to walk 2 hours or more to a river to get water because there aren't any springs nearby. Think of how big a deal this is! (What time and energy the people have back in their lives! And the water is so much cleaner!) The slogan of the company that makes the tinacas is "mas y mejor agua" (=more and better water). Now every family has a tinaca and the community has 42 to share as well when it doesn't rain as often. In order to follow up with this project, everybody decorated their tinacas and added a "thank-you" message to HFPF, the volunteer groups who went down and built the concrete pads and roof system, and installed the tinacas, and the various Rotary groups who helped sponsor the project (Club Rotarias Huehuetenango, Club Rotario Everett-Port Gardner, Club Rotario White Rock Peninsula). Wily and I went around and took pictures of all of them and then we "calificar"-ed them (picked the best ones) today.

But, before we even got to Canton it was an adventure. The last 2 km of the road to Canton is the worst: mud, hilly, sharp (as in 180*) turns, rocks. We barely made it to Canton. 40 of the villagers had to push and (literally, with ropes) pull us up the mountain. And, we almost didn't make it down alive because it had rained a lot in the afternoon before we left. I said over 50 prayers yesterday.

The houses are pretty spread out so we had to walk a ton; it was really hot early on in the day and I was sweating! The situation turned comical though, as we were offered hot milk and a rest at one house. A hot drink on a hot day! Only in Central America!! Then, we had a lunch of hot pollo criollo soup (it's chicken that has only eaten corn-so it tastes better in a broth with a few big vegetables). To top it off I added some picas (hot peppers) to taste the real cultural thing. I couldn't cut open the green, less ripe (and less spicy) pepper with my spoon as Wily was, so I chose a more mature, red pepper which was softer. And as they say, pica mucho!! Still after a hot and spicy lunch on a hot day, I was able to sit back and rest for a while, and really just be with the people and experience life as they live it. But, there in that wood hut, after eating lunch while sweating and with my nose running, I was able to sit back and estuve contento pincho (another indigenous term I learned that day, it means that I was content to the depths of my heart...)

We finally finished all the houses at 6 and got off the bad mountain roads before it was completely dark. It felt to get back and relax, shower, do laundry. I woke up a little late today...

But today was also a lot of fun. After grading the tinacas this morning and a short English lesson I left for Claudia(a new friend)'s house at 3:45 (like I was supposed to so we could leave at 4 for a wedding). Our ride didn't show up until 4:30 and we got to the wedding at 3:45 where of course they gave seats in the very front row by placing seats right in front of the bride's parents. Bizarre, I know. I didn't realize where the ushers were leading us until it was too late. It was very embarrassing but there was nothing I could do but try and enjoy the ceremony. Three gringos (I was also with Elise who is from Redmond and Chris McCormick from Snohomish, who I have met down here), front row center at a traditional wedding where the bride and bride's maid and multiple flower girls were wearing traje tradicional. We left the wedding early (in the middle of a HUGE rainstorm, it was like being under a waterfall) for a quinceañerawhich was supposed to start at 5:00, but didn't start until 7:15 when the birthday girl showed up. I was joking with Wily who is a padrino (god-father) about being on "God's time." (we only had to wait for a little while cuz we got there at 6:40). And then we didn't eat until 8:45...

I had a lot of fun after the formal ceremonial part of the quinceañera was over. During dinner I sat next to 10 year-old Gabby, who was one of the attendants. She was beautiful in her pink dress and curls. We talked, clowned around, and played with squishy balls in the flower vases. I was happy that I got a few pictures with the princess afterwards.

The events of today have given me a new appreciation for my family who is consistently late to large, significant events. Though to everyone's credit, we are getting better...

Marco Tulio brought Pete Kinch, the exec. director of HFPF into Barillas today from Guate. (That's an 11-hour drive, which he has done 4 times in just over the past 2 weeks!) I was describing my day and he put it perfectly, "There's Guatemalan time and there's Barillas time!"

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Miercoles 8 Julio 2009

Well, I’m all up to date in posts now and with the internet in the house things should be a little bit more consistent. After surfing the web a little bit, I see I’ve missed a little bit (but nothing that really matters) in being disconnected from the rest of the world: Michael Jackson’s funeral, cyber attack on the White House, ethnic fighting in China, healthcare reform progress and the update from Afghanistan.

I think I might miss being disconnected from the Internet most of the time, only connecting sporadically to check my email and post a blog at the end of a long day. Oh well.

I’ve also added some pictures from the Berea marching band (they’re a group of middle school students) who were practicing right across the street just this past weekend. You can find a video of them at www.santacruzbarillas.org, Barillas’s blog/website.

Also, tomorrow, I hope to go out with a health team to one of the nearby villages in a more intimate approach to healthcare in the homes of those who need it. This is more of the community health worker approach. I’m sure it will be an interesting experience! I met with Claudia, who lives and works in Barillas, and Elise, who is from Redmond and is staying down here for a few weeks after a trip with her church (she will be a freshman in the fall at Seattle Pacific University). You can find more information about their work at www.lifeandhope.org. I have to do the same myself!

Last bit of fun information. This past weekend while visiting and meeting Elise and Claudia I also met Chris McCormack of Snohomish. He’s been living in Barillas for the past 3 years and his parents live up on Lord’s Hill-for all you Snoho people. Isn’t it a small world?

Lunes 6 Julio 2009

Lunes 6 Julio 2009

I realize it’s been a ratito since I’ve posted anything (and I also realize I’m inserting Spanish words periodically throughout my blog. This is not because I speak Spanglish here in Barillas or some other language problem of deficiency. I am simply trying to inject a little of my experience into the blog. And I know this is not that effective. Pues…) I think I will begin with my journey with Wily to Nuevo Santiago, a small aldea outside of Barillas. Other news may come in a later blog... (I mentioned aldeas in an earlier blog, they are the small communities that surround the town of Barillas.) I learned from one of the children’s school reports that Nuevo Santiago has 102 “fathers of the family” for lack of a better term. (I also learned there are three ethnic groups in Nuevo Santiago, Q’anjob’al, Chu, and Ladino (I first read this term in Rigoberta Menchu: Ladinos are the people of mixed ancestry-indigenous and Spanish blood.) I was pleasantly surprised to see this in the child’s Nuevo Santiago report (which was quite extensive; with a little about him, a table of contents, an introduction and a conclusion!) The school has one teacher for about 100 children at least. They are split into 6 grades and a preparatory (kindergarten) group and come at two different times of the day. The village is very poor (as you will soon understand) so I thought it was great that they have such a comprehensive approach to their education. I guess when you are a such a small country with 23 colorful and vibrant ethnic groups that are naturally tied into the daily life, awareness is naturally a part of the education as well.

Nuevo Santiago is about 35 kilometers by road and takes two hours. After conversion (I know from my high school cross country days that 5km is 3.1 miles; 35 kilometers= 22 miles) that figures to about 11 miles an hour. The first hour is on a decent dirt road, the best example is a logging road in the Washington Cascade range. Then, for about a 5 kilometer stretch there is a section of paved road where the road would otherwise be impassable when it rains. This is the consistently steepest part of the trip. There are some parts where it is only paved in one lane as the government is actively working on the road, so you hope that no one is coming in the opposite direction. After an hour, we left the highway and turned onto to another dirt road. Now, in order to understand this road picture the worst sections of dirt, logging roads you have ever driven on: the steepest, rockiest, bounciest parts where you feel like you are riding a bull and where water has consistently dug channels across the road and created 6”-12” discrepancies between the normal road height and the channel depth. Picture this horrible stretch of logging road and then think of driving on it without rest for an hour. That is what the road to Nuevo Santiago is like.

My first glimpses of Nuevo Santiago were of recently logged forest and looked nothing like a town of 4 or 5 hundred people. The town is only 3 or 4 years old and the jungle around the area has recently been cleared by the residents to make the land farmable. I don’t know that I would say the land is exactly “farmable” now, but nonetheless the people are farming it. They have planted corn and coffee amongst the stumps, felled trees, and low undergrowth. While the soil is very fertile, it will be a few years before they will have very successful harvests because of all the work it will take to care for these early crops. After I stopped wondering at how much work it must take to clear a jungle and convert it to farmland, I began to notice the homes of the people. While there are over 102 families in Nuevo Santiago, there are less than 70 homes. Often, two families inhabit one home. And many homes consist of four walls made of sticks tied together and covered by black plastic roofing or the grass roofing you see on tropical huts in movies filmed in the Bahamas. But, these homes also have to stand up to the storms, rain showers, thunder and lightning of the rainy season of Guatemala. It does not rain in Central America like it does in Washington. It rains with the strength of Mayan gods.

We then climbed a steep, steep, steep road to the school and were quickly surrounded by many children having their afternoon snack, probably their lunch, of mush (“mosh”) and cookies. This government sponsored meal supplements the diet of corn and beans that these poor families consist on for every meal, day in and day out.

As I got out of the truck, I brought my camera with me and was immediately swarmed by ninos chanting, foto! foto! The kids were so close that I couldn’t take any decent shots, but snapped a few quick ones anyways so I could show them fotos. Every child was mesmerized by the digital photos and they all gathered in close around me, almost knocking me over with the force of their bodies (though no child weighed more than 50 pounds.) They took great pleasure in pointing and laughing at someone who was caught with a silly expression on their face or who acted out for the camera. I got some great shots and hope to be able to send printed pictures back to Guatemala when I get home.

Another that struck me was the malnutrition, and lack of medical care. So many children had brown, stubby teeth, with dark stains of decay from their high sugar content diet based in corn. Also, many kids had open wounds on their hands, feet and faces. I doubt any of them had ever seen a band-aid or Neosporin. And yet, while I could have easily picked up any of these kids (mind you they were only in 2nd grade) they all had smiles on their faces, that is unless they were hiding from me and the camera.

From the school, we (we being: Wily, the schoolteacher, Velasquez-the “president” of Nuevo Santiago, myself and a pack of children) went to one of HFPF’s latest projects, a pighouse for the four pigs that Nuevo Santiago currently has (three females, including one who is pregnant, and a barron). HFPF’s work in Nuevo Santiago emphasizes educating the children. So, down at the pighouse Wily explained how it is important to clean out the pig’s quarters, give them clean water and food, and take care of them. Then, Wily and Zelasquez gave the pigs injections of antibiotics and vitamins. Wily explained why it is important give the pigs shots (similar to the shots they need for their own health) to help them grow big and strong and healthy. I was very impressed by this philosophy. This project to help the village not only provides a varied contribution to their diet and a means of financially supporting the village but is also an important form of basic education for the kids, lessons of responsibility, health, and sanitation. It made me think of how my Dad would help us kids raise pigs, goats, cows, chickens and turkeys. Often, it was him doing the raising and us watching and learning. But, these basic lessons in animal care and outside chores around the “family farm” were so important for me to learn a sense of responsibility, basic lessons in health and nutrition, and to value hard work. I am so grateful to my parents for raising me so well and realize how much a childhood of hands on experiences contributed to who I am today. Needless to say, HFPF’s project made an impression on me and I am so hopeful for this small village.

This feeling only grew as we all got in the truck (imagine 25 kids piled in the back of a pick-up truck. They were having a great time! Can you remember your first horse ride, your first bike, your first time at the carnival that only comes once a year? I imagine it was all of these things to this group of very poor children) and drove down to the other part of HFPF’s recent project: a small seed nursery and a LARGE swath of newly planted seeds-radish, cabbage, corn, and carrots. This community garden will help to diversify the diet of the villagers who up til now have only planted corn, coffee and beans, and is also so important in education-both for the kids and the adults. Down at the garden Wily explained to the kids how they needed to water the plants, spray fertilizer and weed the plants. He also talked about how the kids needed to protect themselves from the odor of the fertilizer when they sprayed it. (At first I thought it was insecticide, and I was worried because after it was sprayed the kids proceeded to work in the garden, weeding and moving dirt to support the seedlings. Later, after talking with Wily I learned that they will spray insecticide, but that they have a buffer period of two weeks for the insecticide to wash off before harvesting) And to the adults, he described the importance of caring for the plants like caring for any other animal, or like their children. That those seeds which weren’t planted deep enough and sprouted very quickly and spindly needed a little extra soil around their base for support to continue to grow strong. (This is such a strong metaphor for the how to care for young, misguided children) The hope is that other farmers will start to plant their own small gardens. And indeed, one man who lives right next to the community garden has already cleared ground, built raised beds, and planted his own new vegetables-just from watching the HFPF group work on the community garden. Wily came to check on his garden, gave him some extra advice on how to take care of the vegetables as well as how to grow healthier crops of beans and corn by rotating crops, and how important it is to select seeds from the healthiest plants and best looking fruit to plant for the next crop. When we returned to the school, there were a few other farmers there who had started their garden but wanted to know if it was good enough or ready to plant. Wily gave them advice too, as well as some starter seeds. Those seeds, while so small, are more valuable than gold to these farmers. They can’t grow food with gold or feed their families (while they could buy food with it), but they can plant seeds and harvest the sustenance which will take care of their families.

The last part of HFPF’s work has been installing water filters in the village homes. Every family has a filter system, which consists of two mounted five gallon buckets, (the top one has a filter and the bottom bucket holds the clean, filtered water). Wily went around to a few homes, asking if the family had cleaned the filter. A few families had, but all of the filters were still coated in a layer of dirt and grime like I have seen on our hot tub filter at home (what a juxtaposition, a hot tub filter and a basic water filter that provides the clean drinking water these families need to clean their water of dirt and bacteria). Velasquez told the story of one man who found the taste of the clean water to be so good that he was drinking so much more water it made his stomach hurt. Whereas before he only drank when he was hot and thirsty from working in the fields, hist stomach wasn’t used to holding so much water at one time-from drinking from pleasure. What a great blessing for him and was a great thing for his health to be hydrated sufficiently. Wily explained to me that HFPF is so proud of their work and their philosophy of checking back in with families after they have completed projects. This is what makes their work so effective, they follow up with families to make sure filters are clean and working properly and making sure that plants are growing healthily and that the kids and adults are learning how to take care of these investments in their future.

Earlier today, I “calificado”-ed (that’s how it translates, I know it’s a weird verb I think they made up…) or judged drawings from a few of the village’s children. After the completion of all the group projects (about 10 groups from January through June), Wily and Marco visit all the projects again. Pete Kinch, executive director of HFPF and former mayor of Everett is coming on Saturday to see the results of all the group projects this year. On Monday we will go to one village to have a big fiesta for the inauguration of their new water tinacas (LARGE plastic tanks for holding rain water). Along with piñatas, food, and special presentations by the children, the boy and girl winner of the drawing contest will each win a prize (and all the children will win a prize for participating.) And there will be a contest for the best decorated tinaca, judged by Pete, Marco, Wily and I. We will go visit every house (over 80!) to see which is most beautifully decorated by the family. This visit will also check the installation and function of each tinaca and shows that HFPF truly cares about each individual family. It will be an opportunity for questions from the family and for reinforcement of advice from Wily and Marco Tulio. This is HFPF’s philosophy; to ingrain a sense of pride in these families, to educate them how to better care for their pigs, their plants, their tinacas, water filters, and their children.

Today I saw a woman give birth...

Martes 7 Julio 2009

Today I saw a woman give birth. Rather, I saw a doctor pull a baby from a woman’s stomach by means of a Caesarian section surgery. This is basically what happens. I never really understood what a C-section was until now, though I knew it involved some type of surgery and a cut related to an abnormal birth.

Well, Doctor Gonzalez got a call (I’m guessing from the Center for Public Health in Barillas. They’re funded by the government, but don’t really have the capacity to do a whole lot so they outsource most of their patients. They had to refer another woman to Dr. Gonzalez last week because they don’t even have an ultrasound) today to expect a woman needing a C section. She arrived around 11:30 and was wheeled in on a stretcher to one of the examination rooms (aka the doctor’s office. There was another patient in there at the time, but they were escorted out after their prescriptions were filled out. Only one of the two examination rooms/doctor’s offices are large enough for the stretcher) where her blood pressure was checked, Dr. Gonzalez listened to the heart beat of the baby (Remember how I said 135 was normal for the womb, but high for a born person? Well this baby’s heart rate was 150.), and examined her vagina. He found that the umbilical cord was starting to come out, which is not a good sign. He then had me put on a glove so I could also palpate the umbilical cord and understand what was happening. The reason the placement is so dangerous is because if the baby comes out of the birth canal umbilical cord first, the cord can wrap around the head or stomach of the baby and it can suffocate to death. A normal birth is head first, feet first, or knees first. So, with the consent of her husband we prepared for surgery. There is a clean, surgery room in an outbuilding to the clinic. Outside the surgery room in small closet-like space, we robed up with pants, shirt, cap, mask, and shoe covering for me. The two doctors (including Dr. Arribas, the other clinic doctor who had returned from a short vacation/descanso) had other, surgery shoes. Once in the surgery room, the future mother was hooked up to a machine to record her blood pressure and pulse. Her blood pressure was about 150 over 100 or 120. I asked if this was a bad thing (normal blood pressure is 120/80, though here the norm is higher due to the geneology-140/90) Dr. Gonzalez said no, it would lower after they started surgery and some pressure was released. However, it is bad if the pressure is too low, that is when the mother can bleed to death. Her pulse was also very high, 80 or 90, I think? The surgery site (her abdomen, just below the belly button) was cleaned and prepped for surgery-covered with multiple cloths to make the clean-up process easier. And the doctors and their assisting nurse (Dr. Gonzalez’s wife) washed and robed up with sterile robes and gloves. Gonzalez informed me that this surgery (c-section) is usually not performed in Guatemala because of the lack of supplies or technicians (such an anaesthesiologists), but because of his specialty (he’s specialized in surgery in medical school) they could perform the operation.

So, away they cut going from the epidermal layer (skin) past two inches of cellulose (fast) into the gastrointestinal cavity (where all the major organs lie-we saw the small intestine, large intestine (stomach), as well as a small organ they called the trompa? (I didn’t quite understand what it was or did, but it was somehow related to the duodenum, I think. All this is in Spanish, so I didn’t always catch everything.) Then, Dr. Gonzalez cut into the placenta and the blood started gushing. The placenta is rich in blood and nutrients for the growth of the baby. Next, he stuck his hand inside the placenta, fished around a little bit, and with one hand pulled out a baby by its head. He then turned it upside down like a trader showing off a rabbit he had hunted (a strange metaphor, I know, but it really captured how he was holding the baby) patted it a few times on the back until it started to cry. He then took a little suction bulb to pull some liquid from the baby’s nose and throat, to clear the airways. Then he handed the baby off to the nurse like a football and she continued to “work-up” (for lack of a better word) the baby, cleaning her, pulling more liquid from her nose and throat until she produced a nice, healthy cry. The doctors then pulled the placenta from the woman’s stomach and further cleansed the uterus. After sufficient cleaning, mostly by means of suction, they stitched up the uterus cleaned the gastrointestinal cavity some more, and stitched up the stomach lining and skin over the mother’s stomach.

Overall, the entire procedure took about an hour, and just twenty minutes to extract the baby girl. There were a few complications as the woman’s blood pressure would often rise to high and they would have to administer medication then wait for it to act before proceeding. The mother was 35 years old and was having her first child. She had not been in to see a doctor, have an ultrasound, and hadn’t been taking pre-natal vitamins or folic acid, which are very important to the success of a healthy pregnancy. So, the placenta hadn’t attached well to the uterine wall causing insufficient blood flow to the baby. The woman’s poor health contributed to a condition they called “preeclampsia.” I don’t know exactly what it is (symptoms-high blood pressure, swollen ankles…), I couldn’t find it in a LARGE medical dictionary, so while it sounds familiar, I guess it translates into something completely different in English. Then, later in the surgery her heart rate greatly fell and she had stomach fluid come up through her throat. Then, her heart rate started to skyrocket (because I’m guessing she couldn’t breathe). This had something to do with a reaction to the surgery and may also be related to what they called “eclampsia.” (I have a little research to do when I get back) In the end, everything went okay and both the mother and baby girl are fine, but there were a few complications either because the family didn’t have access to the necessary basic medical attention prior to the birth, or couldn’t afford it, or didn’t know/think visiting the doctor during the pregnancy was necessary. Possibly all three could have been true.

Miercoles 8 Julio 2009

We just got the internet set up in the Mission House where I’m staying (before it was just available in the other house where Marco stays and keeps his office.) So, there will be more posts following shortly. A little update for now: Yesterday I saw a C-Section, then played indoor soccer (our team won not just the honor but also the winnings of 7 quetzales/person which paid for Gatorade after the game. Each person paid 15 quetzales to play), the water isn't working so I haven’t taken a shower since yesterday morning and could use a good one with yesterday’s activities and the heat, and I’ve gotten a little stomach bug. (I’d been meaning to post that the last bout of upset stomach passed within a day or two, I think it was just the introduction to Guatemalan germs. However, this new bout isn’t so bad…) Stay tuned for more updates soon!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Just call me Dr. House...

I haven't exactly been able to post my thoughts as I write them. This is from yesterday.

Jueves 2 Julio 2009

It’s 7:30 at night now. Because I’m not too tired I think I will try and give a brief description of the Mission House, my experience the last few days in the clinic, and the other things I’ve been doing. I feel like every day thus far, I have woken up with the sun and have been busy until I am serenaded to sleep by the music pouring from the Taberna across the street. What great neighbors! Good thing I have earplugs…

First, I’ll go over Barillas. It’s a town of about 6-8 thousand people apparently, though it doesn’t seem like it at all. There is a elementary school, high school, a few clinics and doctors, and a public health office (also functions as a clinic). There is the main road into Barillas which is lined with both houses and businesses. Often, one building serves both purposes. I bet somewhere along this avenida one could serve whatever interest they had: food, auto repair, supermarket, ice cream, clinic, police station, army outpost and ferreria (bus stop, really more of a bus hub; the sidewalks are usually lined with people waiting for a bus, van, or pick-up truck to somewhere. Many of these people are indigenous Indians that have come into Barillas to pick up something, see the doctor, etc. There are over 250 aldeas (small towns or villages) that surround the vicinity of Barillas. And many still wear the “traje tradicional,” the traditional dress complete with hair wrap, long skirt, belt and shirt. It is not uncommon to see someone carrying a baby wrapped in a large piece of fabric and slung around their back, balancing water or food on their head, or hauling a bag of good on their back or strapped to their forehead. The fabric of the traje tradicional is brightly colored with beautiful patters.). There are also a few busy streets that branch off from the main street that are filled with restaurants and stores. I don’t think any of the streets have names and if they do I haven’t seen any street signs to identify them. There is an open air market about 5 blocks off the main drag which is surrounded by many stands selling clothing, toys, food, etc. And business is certainly not constrained to any official store building. Many houses blocks from other business centers sell firewood, homemade ice cream, and more.

The Mission House, where I am staying, is just 4 blocks from the main square-park, Centro Municipal (town center, I don’t know exactly what goes on there, probably tax and business information, but this morning there was a long line to get in) and ferreria. And like I said, there is a tavern kitty corner to the house. Today I explored the furthest into Barillas that I have been to find a restaurant that brought food to a Rotary meeting I was at last night. I only knew its location because when a family drove me home in the pitch black night during a HEAVY rain storm and we stopped on the way to pay. I was lucky though because I walked past the President of the Rotary club and his wife, who let me know I was a block off and a few blocks past the restaurant. The food hasn’t been that great at the restaurant I am at, my waitresses cold has been a little unsettling and I just couldn’t finish the breakfast yesterday morning so I needed a change of scenery. I had ordered fried and breaded chicken breast, what I think was a lunch dish, and it came with cold beans and rice. Furthermore, the hot milk in my cereal (similar to the sweet milk in the mush) seemed overcooked and the coffee tasted a little off. Usually I am fine with meals in foreign countries, but this meal was just a little too foreign. But, enough about food…

For the past three days I have been working with Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez. Gonzalez lived in El Salvador but was born in Guatemala. He is now married to a woman of indigenous blood. Today we went to his clinic in San Mateo, a neighboring town about an hour drive on the dirt road out of Barillas, and stopped at her family’s house on the way back. While his wife wears no indigenous dress and speaks both Spanish and Q’anjob’al , the local indigenous language, everyone in her family over the age of 12 wears the colorful indigenous dress and speaks mostly Q’anjob’al. This also happened to be all women, the men and older boys were out working. I have noticed at least in Barillas that the indigenous dress is mostly conserved by the women. The characteristic indigenous, Guatemalan outfit for a man consists of a cowboy hat, and colorful (though less so than for women) cowboy outfit. I have seen the hats on many men, but not so much the rest of the traje. I began in the clinic on Tuesday (we spent all Monday traveling) at 8 am and worked until noonish. It was a ferriadia (sp?), a holiday for banks and schools and the clinic was only open half the day. Dr. Gonzalez works in two clinics in Barillas and we even drove between the two to see different patients. The clinic founded by Dr. Aller and HFPF is called Clinica Medica Bethesda. It’s a pretty large operation for such a small town. Gonzalez has two nurses, one indigenous woman who has translated for one patient who knew absolutely no Spanish. This was a surprise for Dr. Gonzalez, but there was more translation needed in San Mateo today; the people there speak Chuj. Gonzalez has hired a woman of indigenous decent in San Mateo to help, but his wife can also translate ads Chuj and Q’anjob’al are somewhat similar. There is also a young lab technician who runs all the tests in a room down the hall. He is equipped with pretty basic equipment, a microscope, centrifuge, microcentrifuge, test tubes and pipets, and a handful of commercial tests, dies, and chemicals.

Most indigenous patients have come in with some sort of gastrointestinal infection accompanies other pain that is the real cause of their visit. For example, one woman today had pain in her forehead, especially when she looked at the light, felt a little dizzy at times, and a cough with phlegm. But, upon palpation she also had pain in her stomach and a positive urine sample confirmed a stomach bacteria. There have been a few pregnant women who have had ultrasounds which I have watched. It is so neat, wonderful, and amazing to see another human being living inside of a woman and see its heart beat; and then to measure their head and femur to figure out how old the baby is and when the projected date of birth will be is astounding! After performing the ultrasound on one patient Dr. Gonzalez used a tool (I forget what it is called-it uses radio waves) to project the heart beat, which I then counted as a check of normal heart size and growth development. 137 beats/minute, wow! It sounds really high, but don’t worry, babies have higher heart rates. (There was an interesting case yesterday- a women 29 weeks pregnant, who was bleeding and have slight contractions. Gonzalez prescribed medication to slow both in hopes that the baby would have more time to develop. Babies born before the 36-37 week normally don't live and before the 40th week are considered premie. All of their organs are underdeveloped and they haven't had the proper time to grow and strengthen. The woman will return in a few days. I hope the drugs work...)I was able to watch an electrocardiogram of an overweight man, not common in Barillas at all, which measured the electric activity of his heart. For this procedure, the nurse attached cuffs to his wrists and ankles and then 6 metal electrodes around his heart. Then, Gonzalez analyzed the results and showed me where the indicated block occurred in the heart beat image. I have been able to watch a lot; consultations by Dr. Gonzalez, lab procedures, other examinations and even been able to check some blood pressures and pulses and listen to a few irregular breathing sounds in patients’ lungs and see a few ear infections. It's very interesting to see the entire medcal procedure all happen in one place, from consultation to medical administration and prescription "pick-ups." I can actually see the tests occur that confirm whatever diagnosis Gonzalez determines from his examines. (The eliminated wait time is very helpful for this. He can order a urine test for H. pylori, a common intestinal bacteria and have the results in 15 minutes. It is also very interesting to see globalization at work. The clinic does not have sufficient supplies or the latest models of equipment because it is things can be so expensize. The lab techinician may wear the same set of thin, latex gloves all day, and today (Friday) the nurses inserted an IV and none of them wore gloves to do it. However, drug companies have been able to make simple and expedient, one-time use tests for things like H. pylori, E. Coli and AIDS that they use here in the clinic. Today, Friday, there was a SIDA test. Thankfully it was negative!) Dr. Gonzalez also takes care to explain everything he’s doing, why he’s doing it (what symptoms he’s checking for and how he does this, why it might lead to a certain diagnosis), what drugs he’s prescribing, why and what they do. He’s even had me read through a large dictionary of pharmaceuticals that contains the indications for why one might prescribe a certain medicine, what drugs it contains (if multiple), what it does and side-effects. It has been a very FULL experience. The one challenge has been that it has all been in Spanish and much of it that I don’t understand, because of lack of Spanish medical terminology, a limited Spanish vocabulary, of just handling a conversation. The hardest part is that many Spanish medically related words don’t translate to similar sounding English words, and I don’t have an in-depth Spanish-English medical dictionary. Still, because of my past exposure to medicine, medical and scientific procedure, and limited medical and scientific education I understand for the most part what is going on.

Today was an especially interesting day. Usually the clinic in Barillas opens at 8am, but today we left at 7am for San Mateo. We drove into town and parked at the edge of a stretch of market, right next to a crowd of people. It wasn’t until we got up to the clinic and looked down from the porch that Dr. Gonzalez explained that the well dressed man in the center of the circle was selling some yellow solution (probably a mixture of water and oil) as a cure-all medicine for ailments commonly endured by the indigenous people, skin irritations and other infections. A complete scam. As it was early and no patients had arrived yet, we walked down between a few buildings and through the rest of the market where you could find fruit, vegetables, spices, clothes, baskets, toys and more, to an old, old Catholic church. The architecture was not spectacular, but I wish I had gone inside to see what the church held as it was so old. Outside there was a metal cross mounted upon a large (about 10 feet tall) metal stove with open sections about stomach height. A older couple was adding some sort of oil or grass to the fire as a form of prayer. I don’t think it was exactly Mayan, but there are still some people who practice Mayan rituals in and just outside Catholic churches. As Gonzalez said, the conquistadors came with the metal armor and swords and if you didn’t convert you were killed, but the result was a somewhat intertwined faith at times. Now, there is an evangelical Christian movement sweeping the country. Gonzalez also pointed out a overgrown area of grassy mounds a few blocks away that he said were Mayan ruins that the people have not protected from all foreign exposure and exploration, archaeologists and anthropologists. It would have been cool to see up close… Still, Gonzalez also told me the hills in the area have gold and showed me proof at his house which I could swear is fool’s gold (though I didn’t question it openly). Still, he may be right. Above all, I wish I had brought my camera as the scenes were beautiful and would have made captivating photos. Maybe another time…

That’s all for now.

Spanish word of the day: ear of corn=elote
Q’anjob’al word of the day: Ish-sman=man Ish-sall=woman

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Martes 29 Juno 2009

I have made an agreement with a local restaurant to get my meals at a lower price than normal, 15 quetzales. The exchange rate is about 8.5, so that makes every meal just under two dollars, plus any drinks I order. The restaurant is run by a mother and her 4 daughters (I’m guessing) between the ages of 15 and 25? The mom is out of town until tomorrow (Wednesday). The food isn’t as great as the other Guatemalan food I’ve eaten, but it’s much cheaper and I’ve only just started to test the menu. Who knows, I may start to experiment and frequent other restaurants that don’t look too shady. My other option is to cook. The mission house of HFPF is quite spacious and has two kitchens and all the necessary equipment, but I think cooking for myself would just take too much time. Besides, today we went to the market to buy some fruit and I don’t think I could eat any meat I would buy there as it all sits in the open in the heat of the day with no ice. This is probably the same market that supplies my carne asada and pollo ahumado(smoked chicken) but I least I don’t know about it.

Along with watermelon and grapes from the market, I bought some homemade ice cream to put in the freezer from a house Marco pointed out. I also visited a panaderia for same empanadas y conchas and picked up some Gatorade, cashews, and a packet of cookies at the super (mini grocery store). The Gatorade is to replenish the fluids I am losing from my biological introduction to Guatemala. I don’t know if the diarrhea is just from the new microbes or from my waitress’s sniffles, runny nose, and the use of her all too serviceable hand. !Bienvenidos!

Tonight I had a particularly interesting dining experience. I walked the 5 short blocks to the restaurant from the mission house and along the way passed a group of young guys in el parque municipal, one of whom was playing a trumpet. His music made me think he was snatched from a cool, Chicago sidewalk and landed here in Guatemala. After entering the restaurant with a Buenas Noches the waitress came and listed off the dinner menu. It was the same as last night, but I caught a few more of the dishes. She speaks very softly with the pace of a memorized dining list and at times the choices come out muffled. After ordering carne asada I sat back and watched the last two minutes of Harry Potter, Prisoner of Azkaban, on the restaurant TV. Then I heard from behind me a timid, sweet voice directed at me, “Dame un quetzal.” I turned to find two, very dirty and obviously poor, little boys hanging on the doorway, staring fixatedly at me. Again they repeated, “dame un quetzal.”

When I am driving in the US and I see a homeless person on a street corner I will give them food if I have it and sometimes a few dollars. Food cannot hurt and while the money may go to drugs or alcohol, this may be due to circumstances beyond my control. Maybe this excuse is just a cop-out for my conscience and my thoughtful gift will actually do more harm than good, but I also realize I live a very blessed life and can spare a few dollars for someone who needs it.

However, in this situation, I paused before responding, “No tengo quetzales.” In reality I had 7.1 quetzales in my pocket and two 1 quetzal coins that I could have given to them both, but something held me back. But, the boys just repeated, “Dame quetzal.” Now, the thoughts started running through my head.

They are so poor, they obviously need some money. But, if I do, will they come back every night to ask me for another? I can’t give them a quetzal every night. Well, I can, but is this really doing any good? Does it just reinforce a stereotype that causes them to ask every Gringo this question? Or, have I just created this stereotype in my head and these two boys ask everyone in Barillas this question.

I thought, maybe I could buy them a bit of food. And, after responding again to their pleas, that I didn’t have any money, one of the boys asked for some food. I asked him what he wanted. Well, this didn’t go anywhere for some reason and he reverted back to the “Dame quetzal.” I turned my gaze back to the TV as the two boys continued every few seconds with their plea. Still, the thoughts raced through my head. What should I do? What is really the best decision, what is really the just decision? My head and heart were both pulled in two directions, but something prevented me from reaching into my pocket. (What are your thoughts on this situation? What would you do?)

Then, I heard a deep mumbling from the doorway. I turned to see an old man stumbling into the restaurant, a bit of drool on his chin, hands stretched out for me. I quickly turned back towards the table and replied to what was probably the same question as the boys, I don’t have any money. I was very grateful as the cook rushed from the kitchen and herded the man somewhat physically out of her restaurant. There are various men that sleep on the sides of the road during the day, and I am sure this was one of them. I think this made me feel a little better for not giving the boys money because it seemed like it would only attract more attention. Still, my heart only broke more when one boy left and the other remained there saying (I think), “esperame un quetzal” I will wait for my quetzal.

I was glad to see another young diner come in a few minutes later. Elder? I think was his name, was studying medicine in Cuba and working here in Barillas. We began to talk first about the futbol game on TV between Real Madrid and another Spanish team. Our conversation flowed naturally between Spanish and English, as he was eager to practice his second language, as we covered H1N1 (swine flu), food, school, and more. It was a un placer to meet Elder and I hope to see him in the restaurant again tomorrow. Maybe I can ask his reflection on the two begging boys.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

A huge blast of thunder just pounded over my head and now the rain is coming down in buckets. The lighting storm hit just over an hour ago, around 6:30pm, just after we got into Barillas. It has been a long two days and I am ready for a shower and a nap. But before that, let me recap the past two days of my trip.

So, my first flight headed for Texas left at 1 in the morning and I was thankfully able to sleep for most of it, if that’s what you call it on an airplane. I laid in the Houston airport terminal with a borrowed Continental travel blanket keeping me warm (Don’t think too bad of me, I’ll return it on my way home) and a face mask blocking the light. However, as airports can be somewhat noisy, I didn’t really “sleep.” I did more of that airplane resting on From Houston, Texas I departed for Guatemala City and arrived at 11 am, a surprisingly short, 2 hour flight.

After proceeding through customs and passing the H1N1 Medical station (there were multiple medical personnel wearing masks and stopping those entering the country who recorded a high temperature on their infa-red TV, and picking up my luggage, I walked outside into the Guatemalan air to be greeted by about 100 of my closest Guatemalan friends. The group ranged from families to taxi drivers to others holding signs for designated arrivals (students, tourists, people like me). Sure enough, Marco Tulio Maldonado, the field director for HFPF, was there to greet me with a smile and a hug. I was also introduced to his brother, William, William’s wife, May, and their two sons, Alejandro and Sebastian. We all piled into a big, white off-road SUV and headed out of the airport to grab lunch, at a Chinese restaurant (of all places!!) in Guatemala City. Well, we just happened to arrive at the beginning of the US vs. Brazil Final game of the Confederations Cup. So, with much gusto I cheered on my team to 2-0 start within the first 35 minutes. However, I didn’t yell “gooooool!!” too loud because there was a Guatemala family sitting next to us that was clearly made up of Brazil supporters. (I didn’t want to cast my fate as an obnoxious gringo on my first day in Guatemala…) I realized later that I should have yelled louder because the family didn’t seem to notice me or think of my feelings when they roared after the next 3 goals scored by Brazil. So, a little disheartened, I left the restaurant thoroughly enjoying my first dining experience in Guatemala. After that I headed for a hotel to take a much needed siesta after my long night of traveling.

This morning I woke up at 5:15 to leave for Barillas. Marco and I were able to hit the road before most everybody else in Guatemala City. As we left the city I saw one man climb up a ladder on the back of a chicken bus (what they call the brightly colored recycled school buses used all over Guatemala) and secure bundles, bags, and luggage on top of the bus, then climb back down the ladder and hold on for rest of the ride. The bus never slowed from its 70 kilometers an hour speed the entire time. I wish I had gotten a picture, but didn’t have my camera close to me. An hour or so outside of Guatemala City we passed Lake Atitlan. Big and beautiful, the lake is surrounded by volcanoes, including one which was enveloped in clouds like someone had covered an ice cream sundae with whipped cream. Again, no photo. After breakfast I got out my camera. The breakfast food was great! I especially enjoyed “El mush” which is like oatmeal, only mostly a sweet, milky liquid with a few, small oats at the bottom. And, the café was similar to my experience in El Salvador, it needed 3 spoonfuls of sugar. It’s not very strong, but bitter. That’s not an insult to the coffee or the country, everyone I’ve seen enjoyed coffee with lots of added sugar to their cups as well, just an observation. (I remember hearing something in El Salvador about how most of the farmers there who grew café did not earn enough to buy their own refined product, but instead had to enjoy instant coffee. Anyone who has been to El Salvador with the Casa program, can you verify this?)

After breakfast we headed back out to the highway and had an adventurous day. The roads in Guatemala are very windy, always. From the plane, I looked down and saw the brown seams in the green slopes and thought, couldn’t they have straightened those out? Nope, the country is just that hilly. Many of the turns are very tight and there is often a chicken bus coming around the corner in the opposite direction at the same time. The buses are the common form of transportation in the country but can also be very dangerous. One bus passed a few cars on one of these blind corners. Luckily, there was no one coming on the other side. Marco is a great driver and handled the roads with a display of skill and experience. Plus, the truck HFPF owns handles the terrain great, which for the last hour consisted entirely of gravel, rocks and potholes, not just pavement, rocks, and potholes.

I’ve included some other captivating pictures of the day, but I want to finish with an image of my favorite part of the day. We stopped at “La Mirada,” a vista overlooking the valley below and were quickly met by six, cheerful little girls. Marco told me they used to bring flowers to visitors of the high point, but this time they offered “12 poemas.” They had memorized 12 short poems engraved on the posts surrounding a piece of art at the stop. I wish I had understood the words that flowed from their small mouths, but the beauty of the scene did not lay in the meaning of the poem. Instead, I was captivated by their smiles, their humorous antics and jabs at each other (2 were obviously sisters). Afterwards, Marco asked them to all line up in order to receive their prize, 1 quetzal each. It was my first encounter with the Guatemala people and a pure and unobstructed interaction of humanity. After rereading this paragraph, it seems that I haven’t quite captured the beauty of these few short minutes. But, I think why they struck me so was because while these girls were obviously much poorer than I, and experienced hardships I knew not (you may be able to notice in the photos that some of the girls have burns on their cheeks and lips from the altitude), immediately there was a connection between us. They wanted to share a poem and I wanted to have it shared with me. I couldn’t understand anything they recited (though I did hear the “gringito” whispered behind my ear as I was showing them the photos I took), but we still had a simple human connection. Beautiful.

Ok, that’s all for now cuz I have to get to bed. Tomorrow morning at 8 am I'm meeting Dr. Gonzalez, who I'll be working with in the clinic. One last thing, my new word for the day, popcorn = poporoz.