Sunday, November 19, 2006

Six weeks?

So the other day a good friend of mine, Jeff Wencl, put it rather nicely into context when he noted I was leaving in approximately six weeks. Red flags of course didn't really go off in my mind until a time later.

But really, six weeks.

While I tend to not be a person of ferverous anticipation and would rather take everything moment to moment, I am now finding myself surrounded by list after list: packing list, money list, things to buy list, books to read and buy in spanish for kids lists, people to touch base with before I leave lists, pieces to accomplish before leaving lists, where am I going to live next year and what classes am I going to take lists, questions lists, university official documentation lists, resumés, cover letters and letters of recommendation to apply for a summer intership in Boston lists....

I suppose all of you can see what's been governing my life lately. And though this is a tich exaggerated and I tend to keep an even keel, I'm suddenly beginning to realize that I'm slightly overwhelmed with three excruciating papers left in the semester to boot. Yet, then I think of where I'm about to go and what I'm about to do... and then I realize the lists no longer matter and that in a mere six weeks I'll be back in a place I haven't seen in four years. The thought is absolutely wonderful and beyond that, there is little else to say.

Six weeks. Hmm.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Well, it's official. Guatemala. Starting January 4th, 2007.

To be perfectly honest, I've always been turned off by the idea of a blog. I've never felt the need to pour my heart out to the anonyminity of the internet - to complain, to excite, to let all those unknowns find my page and my latest romantic interest. Since the fifth grade I've kept all that is close to me tucked in journals of varying color and range. Moleskines are my current notebook of choice. There's just something about the pocket in the back.. I always have pieces of myself falling out of the pages of my journals, and the pocket somehow keeps me all together. It's utterly fantastic.

At any rate, I'm leaving the country for five months on January 4th. My flight to Guatemala is booked, and really I can't say more than this is something I've wanted to do since I spent ten days in that mountainous country as a junior in high school. I always knew I would take the time to go back. To have the opportunity to take a semester off from school to go and spend five months of my time in a place where I left my heart, is unbelieveable. For those of you who don't know what the heck I'm doing and would like to, look at and you'll get a better idea. I'm working on the permanent staff with HELPS International, the organization my father has been connected, traveling and organizing with since I was eight years old.

With that and the knowledge that the majority of those close to me won't speak to me in those five months (as I will be in and out of tiny villages in the highlands with medical teams), I've decided it was time to suck up my blogging phobia and let all of you hear what I have to say (or in the least, read what I'm up to on a weekly basis). So I guess here's this new thing I am going to call a blog.

If you want to read a piece of work I wrote about a year ago concerning my original time in Guatemala, look below. However, I would like to disclaim the possibility that this is a polished piece of work, because it's not. I'm dissatisfied with the end and many of the transitions. I hope that maybe my journeys might give me the means to finish the six or so pages that I've started. But for now, I wish wonderful days and peace for you all. It's beautiful outside. Enjoy the day.

Tejutla. March, 2004.

I apologize for the poor formatting of this piece. But of course, text and formatting doesn't transfer when you paste a word document. The original contains particular formatting elements that identify people or official information. You'll have to bear with me as I attmpet to sort it out without an ability to format text. I wrote this in the fall of 2005, about a year after I first traveled to Guatemala. The dated pieces are exerpts from my journal during my time there, and most of all my other documentation is cited accordingly. The direct quotes are my father speaking.

“In the early 1980’s, Guatemala was involved in a civil war with the northern highlands being one of the major centers of conflict. Because of the war and the remoteness of the location, the local populations had virtually no transportation, communication or medical assistance. Many communities were without food, potable water, electricity, and many families were displaced.” (HELPS International

HELPS international is a Christian based, non-profit organization that works in the villages of Guatemala, in an attempt to aid the country’s people in medical need. Originating in Texas, and sending its first medical team in 1984 in the midst of the still raging war, HELPS has grown to send ten to twelve teams each year and had collectively given over sixty million dollars worth of service to the Guatemalan people. The capability of each fifty-member team has reached full plastic and reparative surgery, a general practice, and fully functioning dentistry effort. Over the span of one week in a village, each team completes over 100 surgeries, sees more than 1300 patients in the clinic and provides around 700 dental procedures.

“I got involved because I was asked to.”

"Bruce Kudak, D.D.S. Dr. Kudak is the head of HELPS’ dentistry effort. From St. Cloud, MN he went on his first medical team in 1995. Since then, he has been deeply involved with the HELPS medical program and has been on the leadership board since 1998. Through his work, this critical area of medical assistance is fully mobile, which allows for dental surgery and dental restoration in the hospital or in the field." (

My father finally gave into the urging of his long-time anesthesiologist friend, Dr. Gary Boeke, and traveled for the first time to the highlands of Guatemala when I was a second grader. Remembering this, I’m not entirely sure he knew that when he would begin a kind of work more gratifying than any he’d done before. The highlands of this small country, whose boundaries are slightly smaller than that of Tennessee, remained torn after guerilla and political warfare had destroyed much of what the people had called their own over the previous thirty-six years. He came home for the first time, in March of 1995 with stories of children needing plastic surgery to defuse their hands after falling into open cooking fires in their one-roomed, cement houses, and of small men having “fallen off their farms” in an attempt to procure agriculture on the sides of the mountains. The people, mostly of indigenous decent were grateful, he said, even if he had extracted six permanent and rotting teeth. The children, whose teeth decayed from chewing on sugar cane, showed brilliant smiles at the brightly colored toothbrushes and toys he had brought for them. He was different, somehow, when he returned - perhaps more humble. Bringing jade for my mother and leather belts for my brothers, there was a new kind of care to his smile. I replaced my shirt with the brilliantly woven huipil (wee-peal) he carried home to me, and knew that he would travel again, perhaps someday taking me with him.

“You know there’s something pretty powerful about being on team like that, Kelsey, and forgetting about where you came from and what you do, and helping someone less fortunate.”

I’d heard my father say this each time he recalled his time in that beautiful country. Exposing and developing countless rolls of film during his trips, he captured the faces of the people and their beautiful color and kinship. Looking constantly at the albums he’d accumulated and watching my older brother make three trips before me, my time finally had arrived in my junior year of high school. Two years after I made the journey out of the United States into a country where “foreign” doesn’t begin to describe, I often remain lost in my memories of the brown, joyful faces I found among the dusty roads and primitive hospital structure in the village of Tejutla (Te-hoot-la), Guatemala.


“Penny for your thoughts…” my father’s dentist friend Bill Moilanen says to me, pulling me from my awed trance that had been aimed through the bus window. A Michigan native from Flint and sitting behind me, he is curious to know of the electric sparks pulsing through my brain as the bus pulls out of the raging traffic of Guatemala City and heads for the dirt roads of the countryside. I had been wide eyed as a baby following a circling fan, and been desperately attempting to think of the way to convey my thoughts in Spanish, as he interrupted me in my fluorescently upholstered seat. I can’t begin to answer, as I glance back through the pane. A truck with a wooden fence on the attached to the wagon passes us on the unguarded mountainside road. Its back end is filled with Guatemalans pressed tightly together, and a small man of thirty or so, dressed in dusty jeans and a white buttoned shirt, smiles and winks at me as my widened eyes stare blankly back.

Tuesday 3-28-04, 7:08 PM
There is not one person who couldn’t need a doctor, or medication.
They live literally in poverty, yet they seem so happy.
Perhaps it’s what we bring to them – perhaps it’s just their spirit.
I knew what it was going to be like.
I’d heard the stories and seen the pictures.
But now that I’m here amongst it all and enveloped in it, it’s overwhelming.
I have to keep reminding myself that this is their life.
They don’t get on a plane in seven days and fly home to four cars with ipods, dancing, private school…
they might not see any of that in their lifetimes.
It’s my everyday life.

"The distribution of income and wealth remains highly skewed. The wealthiest 10% of the population receives almost one-half of all income; the top 20% receives two-thirds of all income. As a result, about 80% of the population lives in poverty, and two-thirds of that number--or 7.6 million people--live in extreme poverty. Guatemala's social development indicators, such as infant mortality and illiteracy, are among the worst in the hemisphere." (U.S. Department of State)

I walk into the dental clinic one afternoon, and greet the line of people on the benches outside holding their numbers and slips of papers containing names, ages, birth date and their ailment. They are hoping to have mere moments with either my father or Bill. As I take a left in to Bill’s room from the hallway, I help him to prepare instruments for an extraction as we wait for Novocain to take effect on a boy of about twelve. After the procedure as he comps on a wad of gauze where his tooth had been, he smiles at me with his dark brown eyes and holds his hands behind his back, hiding something from my sight. Asking him in Spanish what it is, he grins and holds out a quetzal, a coin valued at sixteen cents, up toward the light. I begin a guessing game with him about the currency’s production year and finally guess “dos mil” (2000). When he proclaims “¡Sí!” and hands me the coin to examine, I pat him on the shoulder. After a glance to verify its date, I attempt to give the money back. Shaking his head, he says the coin is no longer his. “Es tuyo, chico.” “It’s yours,” I say, gesturing the coin toward his pocket. “No, señorita. Es tuyo.” As the argument continues and as I finally accept defeat, the smiling boy hugs me and leaves the clinic, leaving me with his bus money in my light skinned palm. I know that it is likely he will walk kilometers home to his family that afternoon.

Wednesday 3-24-04, 7:19 PM
It’s really true what my dad says about a smile here.
One smile means so much.
It gives a thank you, a comfort.
It’s just this feeling that I never realized a simple smile could bring.

A woman with a long gray braid down her back shifts her brightly skirted legs off the dental chair in my father’s room. Smiling through gaping holes in her elderly mouth she turns to hug and kiss each of the room’s occupants. “Dios la Bendiga,” she says. The words of God’s blessings ring through my scrub-hatted head as I memorize the weathered lines of her shining face, realizing that her care for me is what has made me blessed.

“When you go into the villages and the people sit in line forever hoping that they’ll be able to be seen, they all come up and thank you. Sometimes it’s pretty humbling to go down there. They have their share of problems too… alcoholism and domestic abuse in some cases, but for the most part you see the big kids helping the little kids, and you get the sense that if they had enough land and could grow enough food they’d be happy. It makes you wonder sometimes,
‘Do I need a bigger house or a boat, or those kinds of things?’ ”

Walking from the dental clinic toward the surgery recovery room where cots have been set up to accommodate IV stands and careful eyes of the nursing staff, I see a few members of the team talking with a man whose wife is recovering from a hysterectomy. As they had walked kilometers to the hospital and her surgery together a few days previous, they would return home in the same fashion. But on this trip as she could not walk the journey, he would carry her.
Turning the corner to enter the doorway of the cement constructed room, two young faces of perhaps three and six peer around the side of the building. Holding yellow and orange balloons, the two sisters giggle and the elder puts her arm around her runny-nosed sibling as I approach. They giggle and talk to each other as my friend Santiago translates for me. He tells me the older girl wishes to give me a hug, but is too shy. Because of my blonde hair and blue eyes, she hides behind her balloon and tells him that I look like a Barbie. Taken aback by the reference and without the inclination to laugh, I recall the dozens of Barbies I had as a child. Variations of long crimped hair, and ballroom dresses become vivid, painful visions as I realize this little girl nor her sister would never have one of the plastic, disproportionate dolls that every little girl craves.

Wednesday 3-24-2004, 7:23pm
It’s so beautiful here.
I look out at the mountains and hear things so different from home.
Birds chirp all the time.
Roosters give their morning call – the sky is so blue.
To be here, is to humble oneself, to simple oneself.

A young girl sits outside on the steps of the clinic. Her hair in a braid like my own, I sit down and ask her name. Julisa is five years old, and when I ask her if she likes school or dancing she gives me a funny look and giggles at my poor Spanish grammar. She talks of her family: her younger brother, mother, and father. She squints and looks down from the midday sun. She explains to me that her father is a migrant worker in Florida. When I ask her, again in poorly formed Spanish, what she wants to do when she gets big, she tells me she wishes to be “una trabajadora emigrante, similar que mi papa.” “A migrant worker, like my dad.”

Wednesday 3-24-2004, further on in time
I helped Bill pull a few teeth… wait just one on her.
She was ten, I think, and her mother had the biggest grin on her face I have ever seen.
I told her in her language I liked her pink pants, and that they were such a pretty color.
It was as simple as that.

I saw her in the clinic the next morning, and she was so excited just to see me again.
I helped pull her tooth the previous day and had only said hello – almost nothing,
yet when I asked her how her tooth was feeling, and her mother said it was healing beautifully as she hugged me and kissed me.
I only told her I liked her pants.
She was wearing the same ones that next day.

“Sometimes you wish you could do more.”

I find frustration as the week concludes. We’ve seen so many people, but we haven’t seen everyone who is waiting. We will be leaving, and many of the beautiful faces in the lines will not have the chance to be given what they so desperately need. What will happen to them over the next years? Knowing they will continue living in the manner they always have, I am deeply pained as I realize I am simply returning to my comfortable life, a plane flight away. The reality of the world’s imbalance seems to uncomfortably settle into my being. Why is my situation the one with the car, and the doctor father, instead of among the farmer families of Guatemala?
Yet, as my father and I sit outside on a cool night before we leave, he tells me something that I will always remember. “Kels,” he says, “I know you want to change the world. But I also know that you can’t do it all at once. It doesn’t work that way. You have to be satisfied with what you can do now. Look at the hundreds of people we saw this week. We made their situation a little better, and that’s all we can ask for. We’ll come back next year, and there will be more work to do.”
As I return to school caged, but consciously grateful for my opportunity, one afternoon I find a small scrap upon the dirty tiled floor of my high school. It is a quote, now taped among my journal writings from my stay in that breathtaking, mountainous country.

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference,
ignore the daily difference we can make
which, over time, add up to big difference that we often cannot foresee.”
– Marian Wright Edelman