Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Yellow Balloons.

Thursday morning brought market day in Uspantan with my friends and I. Walking the few blocks into town and into the hazy maze of blue tarps overhead and bags of chile powder, sixteen cent calalillies and live chickens everywhere, we were covered in confetti by children within minutes of our entrance. Running into a peace corps member, he said he´d been in the town nearly a year and still ended up with colorful paper in his pants in the market. All would consider the giggles and joy a happy event, but no one noticed the man sleeping facedown in the cement of the sidewalk that morning.

Opened mouthed and breathing heavily, he seemed to be sleeping deeply as if he´d done so in the very same spot most of his life. His pants were torn and falling off his legs, which were rivals of the Holocaust survivors of 1945. His black hair, matted and greasy was an unkempt mop above his guant face and tattered, purple exucuse for a sweatshirt on his back.

Hours later, after a local breakfast of eggs, beans and fresh coffee for as little as three dollars, he appeared again. Awake this time, I could see his mentally handicapped state as he aimlessly meandered through the confetti stand and stared at raw chickens in their freshly slaughtered cases. His dark eyes held no light behind them and an emotionless expression was painted upon his brown face. His pants were falling off his waist as the elastic was worn and he had no shoes for his blackened feet. He carried a deflated, broken yellow balloon in his hand. He walked slowly past me, but lacked any kind of dilliberance in his step.

The following day, he found me again. Donning the same clothing, he sat hugging his legs upon the cobblestone road, rocking slightly. His sunken eyes were fixed on the bright yellow of the corner fruit stand. His wrinkled balloon, which I now realized was trailing its shredded blue leash of a ribbon was clasped tightly like a teddy bear.

I shuddered deeply for the third time as I walked past him.

How many opportunities does it take us, as a human race to act upon common sympathies and emotions? I left school to work with medical teams, and I see a man in the street and walk by him three times before I spent a single quetzal, which in terms of dollars is the equivalent of sixteen cents. Recieving only an empty stare as I asked if he wanted fruit, he was handed a bag of pineapple. Yet I gave him no money thereafter. I had 100Q in my pocket, which is far more than many have - particularily this man of 30 something. While this human being had lunch for the day, I had ample money left over. Who would feed him next time? His state hardly allowed coherence and cetainly no means to care for himself. Yet people walk by. The woman with the fruit stand had undoubtedly stared at his face for some time before I walked into their presence. He needs to be clothed and taken care of and loved. These are pieces of human dignity that need no sort of earning. These are all things that I´ve been handed in my life. Yet I walked away, only having spent sixteen cents. I did not do more, and perhaps am as guilty as the people who see him day after day and walk by.

Saturday, many of the team members hiked to a magnificent waterfall on the side of a cliff in the mountains adjacent to the town. We rode in the back of a pickup back to the hospital. He found me again. In the middle of the highway along what would have been the yellow line of the road, sat the man and his yellow latex companion. The cement of the road was his chair as chicken busses whizzed past his unsensing face, inches from catastrophe. One of the local women with us, shook her head with a chuckle and lightly told me he was, on the most basic sense, the village idiot. My heart broke.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Middle class?

It amazes me slightly, how a few minutes on AOL instant messenger can change the course of your entire day. It was refreshing to hear news directly from home yesterday and to talk with friends long missed. Valentine's Day is this next week. What? It just dawned on me yesterday. I hear many of you are dealing with subzero temperatures and for that, I feel for all of you. In contrast to popular belief as well, I have hardly a tan. When I'm in the villages I have to remain covered and in the city I am often inside. So sorry, but I probably will not be a nice brown that is assumed. Besides, that's not at all what I'm here for. I just keep hearning it in messages and thought I might set the record straight.

I've been reading much lately. The Little Prince is something I'm appalled I've never read by now - but it was absolutely refreshing. I just started Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff, and it is absolutely hilarious. A memoir author origincally from Canada, he reminds me of David Sedaris. It's nice to be able to cross some of these books I've been meaning to read off my list of things to do.

I will be leaving Guatemala City again on Sunday morning. This time the we're headed to Uspantan, a mountainous village with a drastically more temperate climate. My job for the week will entail the surgery paperwork for each patient who comes through the OR. A good friend of mine, Becky, typically does this job and makes sure all is filled out to code. School has called her back to her master's program however, and thus I get to care for this large job. Additionally I get to organize and count each paper for each patient that will come through the hospital doors in this upcoming week. Which means I will be the grand owner of 2,000 pieces of essential paper. I'm slightly nervous about the whole thing and will likely call Becky half way through the week. Even still, I'll keep my fingers crossed and enjoy the idea of having an official task. I'll hopefully get to translate some as well.

As for these last couple days we've spent in the city, Laurie (roommate and fellow staff member) and I have been spending time with friends we've met here. Alexa is a translator for helps and will be working with us on many of the teams through May. Her mother is from Ohio and her dad is from Guate, and thus she's a dual citizen of both countries. It's been wonderful and she's been showing us around the city and welcomed us over to her house. She graduated from the German school here in October and is interviewing with many colleges for the fall. I remember the process well. This morning she took us to Cafe Barista and I had one of the most amazing cappucinos I've ever tasted. She brought us to an antique store that her friend's mother owns, and I couldn't help but think of my own mother as she would have loved to put the entire place into our own home in the States. Perhaps I get my love of old things from her. We also stopped by Alexa's grandmother's house and chatted for a time. She's a charasmatic little woman with frizzed brown hair and tons of stories. She spoke of growing up in Guatemala, the government and her own interest in medicine. She was very interested to know what we've been learning and was appreciative of our time here. Greeted and bid goodbye with kisses and hugs, it reminded me much of my grandmothers back home and made me want to stop by their similar homes for a visit as well. I guess that will have to wait until May.

It often amazes me, the distinct difference between the villages and the city. Seeming to be the difference between a place like Minneapolis and a shanty town, the drastic division of wealth is apparent. People either have more than my middle class family or nothing at all. Knowing what I have at home and how little many have here, it often makes me feel guilty for being comfortable and riding in nice cars with friends in the city. I have to remind myself that I spend more than half of my time on a cot in a sleeping bag. But doing the little math of which my mind is capable, I also realize the two bags, pack and camera I carry around this country with me could feed more than one Guatemalan family for a year in the village. It's distorted, the balance here. There really is nothing equating the middle class, either you're comfortable or you have nothing.

My time here often has its ups and downs. For as much as a person can expect, you never realize that sometimes being away is hard and lonely. But then the moments happen where you whitness a birth or a burst of colored flowers sprouting over an enclosed wall or a little child latches to your hip and kisses you as you bend over to ask about their day. It changes everything. I often catch myself thinking, even when things aren't ideal, that I must be one of the luckiest individuals on the world. I'm making the time now, to do what many wait until their middle ages to do. Regardless of the bad that sometimes creeps in, I feel assured in the feeling that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be in this particular moment of my life.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

La Tinta, A Place Nearly As Hot as the Fever I Ran

I've spent the last week in the middle of the jungle. We had a six hour bus ride with more than half that across a dirt, mountainside road. I'm impressed that more vehicles don't fall of the side off these cliffs. One slip of the wheel at nearly any moment and we would have sidelonged in various gorges, catching trees and barbed wire fences along the way. From the moment we stepped out of our air conditioned buses, it was over 90 degrees with Minnesotan humidity until we took the buses back up the dirt road and neared Coban, further north of our location. The bugs were twice as large as you'd ever find in the states. Giant lizards rambled around with horns and green skin. Moths were beautiful and larger than my fists, I found a praying mantis crawling up a wall and scorpions crawling out of my suitcase. Thankfully I avoided being stung.

Sunday night, I started running a fever. By Monday evening all was full fledged. I was running a 102.2 temperature and managed to sleep for almost 48 hours solidly. I was wheezy and coughing and overall in miserable shape until midday Wednesday. However, I avoided an IV by drinking water by the liter. Dropping into the swing of things halfway through the week was slightly difficult for me. By this point, most have developed their position of work for the week and I was starting from scratch. I had ample reason to float for the rest of the week. I spent some time attemtping to translate in the dental clinic and popped in and out of the medical clinics as well.

One of the highlights was watching the marvelous Paul Schultz work. A plastic surgeon from St. Cloud and the father of a dear friend of mine, Meredith, Paul can put people back together like I´ve never seen before. I watched him work on a severe cleft lip and pallate Wednesday afternoon. One and a half year old Oscar suddenly had a new face, and I can´t even describe to you the look on his mother´s face when he came out of surgery. A woman in her young twenties who spoke only Kekche, a native dialect, she couldn´t speak and just kept looking. Awestruck at her son´s closed lips and with another newborn baby on her hip, she stayed near him for the next several days. It was entirely joyful to see Oscar squeak and dribble food from his mouth a day later. He had to figure out how to eat all over again. I can´t help but realize how close to my own age his mother was and how frequently that is the case. A little girl from the village asked if I had a boyfriend and was shocked when I told her I was twenty and flying solo. That doesn´t happen in the villages here. You get married and have a family, and hope that your six or eight children make it past year five.

Because of one person, this little boy´s life will be so different. The work Paul does makes me crave the ability to impact others in an equally drastic manner. I just don´t think that I could live with myself in the states if I had to perform lyposuction and breast implants the other 345 days of the year when I wasn´t in Guatemala. But this man literally puts people back together. He can give a man who´s fallen in a fire and fused his hand shut, functioning fingers again. We´re even built with extra tendons in our hands, which, when transplanted into a faulty digit, create new opportunity for movement. It´s amazing, and while I´ve always been sure of my study, his work makes me consider other paths. The question was poised to me recently if I´d ever considered the medical field. I gave my blanketed no, I was satisfied to solely watch. However, I suddenly am not so sure.

I´m beginning to realize I´m learning much more than I ever anticipated I would. Of course I subconciously knew that would happen. It´s amazing what happens when you have a crappy week out in the field. I was in a wretchedly hot environment for a week. Sweating while sitting at eight o clock in the morning is not my idea of a great time. Yet I spent a week there. The difference is that I had the option to leave. These people living in literal shanties, don´t have that option. That´s the difference between my situation in La Tinta and theirs. I have hot summers as well, but I have a functioning stove, an air conditioner... My six membered family lives in three separate locations, and my gradmothers add an additional two. We have floors. We have vehicles. We have ice. Now place these eight people in a tin walled, eight by ten foot space and you have the dwelling place of my individuals I saw along that dirt road this week.

And as we passed by in our air conditioned busses, and the gringos (slang for Americans) took pictures out the window, people ran down the road and families smiled out their dimly lit doorways. Dirt covered kids with torn tshirts or no tshirts at all, played with each other in the street and waved us on, grinning.