I am getting to this blog post a tad bit late due to an unforeseen illness––the likes of which I do not know the origin nor the cure. Nevertheless, I would be remiss without the opportunity to cap off our team’s journey in Guatemala this spring.
On Tuesday, we said our goodbyes and see-you-laters to all of the people at the parish and to the other friends we made while in San Lucas. In addition to the refried black beans and the bright faces at meal times, I will especially miss the two large golden retrievers that would peruse around the Tolimán for spare scraps of food––how adorable.
As we bussed off for Antigua, I feared for another enduring car ride and boy, did I ever anticipate correctly. Although traffic proved to be a doozy, both when we ventured to Antigua and then for Guatemala City, I remember arising quickly at the stirring of other group members in the van at some point mid-way through our trek. Beyond an open window, I caught a jarring landscape of bare terrain and torn infrastructure. I saw construction workers busily going about their day while others crowded around a meal set up on the tailgate of a parked truck. I soon learned that the volcanic eruption of November 2018 had inflicted this damage upon this town and many others nearby. With very little prior knowledge or conceptualization of how a volcano can truly alter the topography, I was taken aback by the scene in front of me, fighting the pit in my stomach as we kept driving by.
Entering into the heart of Antigua was like arriving in another country. The colonial and tourist-heavy nature of the city exhibited a stark cultural difference to how I had perceived San Lucas. Though, Antigua surprised me in more ways than one. As I passed through the relatively small entryways of street side edifices, I was astounded at the sheer depth that each store, restaurant, and historical site had in its architectural blueprints. Venturing further inward, one could find exquisite courtyards laced with blooming gardens and fountains. These outdoor spaces sometimes even held accessways to upper levels and hidden terraces. In addition, the modernity of some interiors posed a glaring juxtaposition with the traditional exterior. Throughout the day of strolling through the city, I became immersed with the concealed and covert workings of block after block.
A final group dinner capped off our MDP mission in a wonderful fashion, and I will always relay the good food and conversation are highlights from perspective. Following the afternoon rain spouts, we sat in an open venue on a cool and clear-skied evening, reveling in both mental and physical repose.
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The next morning we set out for the airport in the capital and then onto home. I won’t delve into any detail on that front because our group had split off at multiple junctions throughout the day. I will say that although I found myself glad to be back at home, I was ever more grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this experience. Its challenges, successes, and invaluable lessons will be a personal point of return for a very long time.
Today was the day, my friends. Today was the day. We finally went up the mountain to a place with weather colder than San Lucas Tolimán. (As an aside, I really don’t tolerate heat or humidity with any grace or comfort.) Climbing up the cobblestone incline, I savored the bite of the temperate air in the back of the open pickup truck. The sounds of dogs, shifting gears, and buzzing birds accompanied the picturesque drive upwards.
Although clinic finished to an early one o’clock, our work progressed as it normally had in the past few days––Rob commanding the helm of pharmacy with utter grace, Cath, Emily, Sarah, and Rod crafting their medicinal magic in consults, and me, Carmen, Samira, and Michelle on the front lines at intake. Not to mention, we also had the continued help of local health promoters and the wisdom of long-term Mission volunteers. Despite a daring dog attempting to take a bite out of Cath’s sandwich, we were able to see a number of patients throughout the morning, including a house call that posed an intriguing double interpreting challenge between English, Spanish, and Kaqchikel.
We had become a well-oiled machine, and I was grateful for an afternoon off in order to explore the Saturday market within San Lucas Tolimán. Walking the streets of the town with other team members, I felt myself savoring the opportunity to get to know these health professionals in a setting outside of their work. In all, the afternoon––and evening––offered me a more holistic outlook on healthcare.
-Ben Lee, Pharmacy
Because of the downpour that made a river in Santa Teresita, which drenched the soles of my shoes and the entirety of my jacket, which are now draped on the shelf beside my bed, which is now shaking because I have been rummaging through my things for a snack because it has been a long day, I will not waste time and but to clinic in order to be brief.
Driving into clinic, I really––TRULY––honestly thought that there could not be more kids in Santa Teresita than there were the day before. But, of course, just when you think that something cannot happen, it surely does. Driving into the village, we finally stopped in the middle of what seemed to be a primary school courtyard, eventually setting up our makeshift clinic in one of the classrooms. With open, barred windows on two opposite walls, it was appropriate for one of our group members to characterize our team as “animals in a zoo.” To be perfectly clear, there were at least thirty young eyes trained on all of us at any given moment, and the loud jeering and chaos from our arrival echoed definitively throughout the room.
Despite these difficulties, it seemed as if our clinic work began in one swift, fluid motion. From there, we worked mechanically and with little interruption, viewing patients with variable conditions from diabetes to scabies to potential fractures. Towards the end of our work day, the rain finally gushed down in spite of our hopes for clear weather. Water ran through the street adjacent to our building as if it were a river taking shape. Gathering our materials and ER patients, we loaded up our vehicles cautiously, preparing for our longest and––in my opinion––most grueling drives of our trip.
Although shaken up, our dinner out to the Tolimán restaurant made up for any of our afternoon drearies. With drinks, good food, and better conversation, we rounded out are night on a positive note, for which made me ever more happy to be a part of this incredible experience.
-Ben Lee, Pharmacy
The black Nike tennis shoes I brought with me––and wore for almost the entirety of the trip thus far––are no longer black. Rather, they now boast a rusted, brown coloring, conveying the notion that their age is well beyond their years. Next to them, on the dresser shelf facing my bed, is the pair of formerly white half-calf socks, more in need of a shower than my own body. If I remember anything from my day working in Tierra Santa, it will be the feeling of toffee-brown dust sifting through the pores in my Nike tennis shoes down through the fibers of my formerly white half-calf socks and settling in between my toes like the twin bed in my hotel room. I will remember how the dirt clung to the sweat on my arms as little kids whizzed around a grassless soccer field with a plastic ball––how everyone was too busy thinking about the next pass to be preoccupied with cleanliness.
I found myself amongst this clump of primary school children during a lunch break from clinic––a day which tested my language skills to an unprecedented extent. Taking a post away from the pharmacy, I now functioned as an interpreter for our patient intake and provider consults, which provided me with an invaluable learning experience that could simply not be replicated in a classroom setting. Once again, I found myself in a position of gratitude, learning from both medical professionals and professional interpreters alike.
The work day presented itself with intermittent rushes of patients, which often took us by surprise, but never failed to entirely sway and groove and swagger of our trustee trip veterans. I think we all found ourselves leaning on each other for support and trust as we continued throughout our efforts to provide the best modes of care for the people of Tierra Santa. After seeing patients well into the late hours of the afternoon, I hoped that our budding teamwork would be a recurring point of reference throughout the week.
-Ben Lee, Pharmacy
We are starting our third day of clinic today. All has gone well. Still adjusting to the electronic medical records. We have seen about 100 patients so far. We think one community has an outbreak of hepatitis. Today we are going to a village far away and hot.
-Cathy Davis, Team leader and MD
There is a moment of panic when you wake up for the first time in a new place––a kind of where the heck am I moment that almost never fails to instill a rousing sense of fear into your system. I am happy to report that, for me, today was one of those rare exceptions. As an aside, several literature teachers of mine have repeatedly told me to never begin a story with the act of waking up, as to avoid cliché. But, it’s been a hot and hearty day, and I’m finding myself too tired to rise above canonical writing standards; so I digress.
My brisk morning shower was perhaps even more refreshing than a cup of coffee. And by the end of a short prayer at breakfast, I found myself feeling fully recuperated from yesterday’s travels. After being pleasantly surprised by the taste of black beans with oatmeal, we set out for the hospital to gather supplies, and then on to our first day’s work in the village of Nueva Vida.
At the clinic, it certainly took Rob and I a hot minute to adjust to the names of oral and topical medications, many of which were just as foreign to me as some of the native languages that have spurred around us the last two days. But, as patients began to trickle into the building, I watched in awe as every other medical professional took to their element like real-life superheroes. The scene was like nothing I had ever witnessed before; interpreters carried out translations without pause, and providers never faltered in their amiable yet professional demeanor. It was as if a groove had clicked––health professionals employing their skills across languages, cultural barriers, and geographic borders. The challenges with each case and the amount of information I was lucky enough to take in made me even more eager for the work to come.
I knew nothing about Nueva Vida prior to that morning, and––by the end of the afternoon––one of my biggest takeaways was this: the hills there are STEEP. Hauling our luggage down what appeared to be a 70 degree incline did not appear to be a problem on the first trek out. But watching Cathy struggle to drag another colossal bag up the cobblestone path with two six-year-old girls on either side of her and one pushing on the back, I could tell that reloading our materials would not be a simple feat. But, other children and community members quickly followed suit, and soon MDP members and citizens of Nueva Vida alike carried table parts and medical equipment over the valley bridge and up the slope. In truth, it had been a long time since I had experienced any sense of community comparable to how I felt in that moment.
-Ben Lee, Pharmacy
If you were ever wondering what MSP looks like in the wee morning hours, I can assuredly relay that it’s more bleak than blissful. On Tuesday, as I dragged my dilapidated suitcase into Terminal One, my eyes––glossed-over and nearly shut––fell upon empty ticket counters and check-in stations; the entire floor let on a state of un-occupation. But, upon bending my head leftward, I made out the petite and frenzied figure of Cathy Davis, schlepping two suitcases that amounted to more than her actual body size. Behind her followed a cavalry of half-caffeinated but bright-eyed MDP volunteers, who were polite enough to make small talk with me despite their mid-night trek from the Mankato area. Huddled together, we then set out for our day’s journey to San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala, all of us eagerly anticipating new challenges and (fingers crossed) pleasant weather.
In simply stepping out of the plane and onto the jetway, a rush of thick, balmy air flooded to the forefront of my attention. Awakened, I glanced out the window at the landscape of the city, taking part in a shared sense of anxious fervor among the rest of the group members who found themselves in Guatemala for the first time. In the airport, we encountered Carmen and Rodrigo, two other team members joining us from Florida, along with Allie, a prospective long-term health coordinator of the San Lucas Tolimán Mission.
The long car ride to SLT played host to fascinating scenery and get-to-know-you conversation. I found myself incredibly grateful for the chance to listen to another person’s story while also watching trucks of monstrous proportions carrying towering heaps of sugarcane. The smell of burning fields and crisp air exuded an overwhelming reminiscence of home; the familiar campfire smell stuck with me as we approached our host town.
We reveled in the sun and our arrival. Stepping through the gate at the Hotel Iquitiu and dropping our bags lifted a literal and figurative weight from our shoulders. Prior to rinsing off the grime of travel, I went for a walk around town with Cathy, Samira, Rob, and Michelle, taking in first impressions of our surroundings and greeting new and––for some of us––familiar faces. Though we did have a wonderful dinner and orientation at the parish, this was my highlight; I became so eager to learn more about the businesses, buildings, and landmarks that we ambled past. I became thankful for the willingness of vendors and other townspeople to engage in a conversation with me and the rest of the group. And I became humbled at the prospect of spending several more days within this community, alongside a team of strong-willed, professional, and compassionate human beings.
-Ben Lee, Pharmacy