I forgot to mention in my last post that I’ll be spending the next eight weeks in Guatemala living with a host family, taking Spanish classes, and hopefully finding someplace to volunteer once my Spanish starts to become halfway decent. The plan right now is to stay in Xela for five weeks, head over to Antigua and continue taking classes while watching the Semana Santa festivities for another two weeks, and then travel for the last week, hopefully seeing Semuc Champey, Tikal, and the Rio Dulce, depending on how ambitious I’m feeling by that point. Right now I’m a little bit worried about safety, I have read mixed reports, although I heard the same things about Ecuador, and I didn’t have any problems when I was there.
I guess I should talk about Ecuador and all that. I spent six weeks in Ecuador this past summer, four weeks volunteering and two weeks traveling. I went down there with a club on my campus called S.A.H.L.U.D. (Student’s Advocating Healthy Living in Underserved Demographics, it’s a mouthful), you can check out our website at http://www.sahlud.com/ if you feel so inclined. Sahlud was founded by my good friend David Roldan, who moved to California from Ecuador when he was 15. After he graduated from UCSB in ’08 he went back to Ecuador with a small group of his friends for six months, in the hopes of creating the foundation for a club that would continue to go down year after year. Last summer was the first year that ten of us fellow gauchos went down as a group, and since we really didn’t know each other very well, and yet spent all of our time together, it often felt like we were in an episode of MTV’s The Real World. There’s nothing quite like sharing a bathroom with ten strangers to cement friendships quickly.
It worked pretty much like this: we would bring a couple of doctors from Quito with us out to a village, and there we would devote a day to running clinics. During that day, usually from 7am-4pmish the doctors would perform patient examinations, with our group helping out with more basic tasks, like taking patient height/weight, taking surveys of the community, and using a hemoglobin machine to test children for anemia. From there we would hand out whatever medicine the doctors prescribed, that we had bought previously using money we fund raised during the year. The next couple days we would devote to health education, focusing mainly on teaching the children how to prevent the spread of germs, how to practice good dental hygiene and how to prevent parasites. Here are some shots from the clinics:
I think some of my family/ friends still don’t really know what I was doing down in Ecuador, in fact some people never even figured out what country I was in (“So, how was …Mexico? No wait, Puerto Rico? Er, Spain? …Peru?”), so hopefully that sums it up. While we still have some issues to work out, overall the experience was a very positive one, and I see a lot of potential in what a group like Sahlud could do. The moment that made the biggest impact on me was when we partnered with another non-profit in Ecuador to do a clinic out in a very remote part of the Amazon. When I say remote, I mean that we started in Misahualli (a town over run with monkeys, which sounds cute, but really it’s just terrifying) and had to take almost a two hour ride in a pick up truck under vines/ over rivers/ across rickety bridges (straight out of Indiana Jones), getting stuck in the mud, before eventually reaching a community that was really nothing more than a few shacks. Take a look:
No one had shoes, I think almost every single kid we saw had a distended stomach from parasites or malnutrition, and you could tell that the people were pretty skeptical about our being there. One of the women from the non-profit gave a lecture on family planning, something we were always unsure about at the previous clinics, because we didn’t want to offend anyone. The response she got pretty much blew my mind… everyone in that community was so interested and eager for this information, and the kinds of questions they were asking were incredible to me, for example, one of the men was surprised to find out that yes, a woman can get pregnant even if she isn’t married. I worry a lot about coming into a country that is not my own, into a culture that I am not familiar with, and practicing a sort of imperialism by presenting my view on the world… but this incident made me realize that people at least have a right to information, and what they do with it is their choice. Especially information that can make such a huge difference in quality of life.
Which kind of brings me full circle, on the reason why I decided to go to Guatemala. Besides taking the opportunity to learn Spanish on the cheap and to discover a new place, I hope to learn the language well enough to head back to Ecuador in May, and be responsible for coordinating the clinics for the group of students coming back next year. I read a Chuck Palahuniuk quote that said “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” And that really stuck with me. If I can be a part of creating something that will continue to help people year after year, something that will make a real difference in these communities, then to me, that is beautiful. So, much like the parasite that I took home with me from Ecuador after the summer was over, I too lived off of the lifeblood of my parents, saving money by not paying for rent or for food, in order to do something that I truly believe in, something that I hope will make a lasting, positive impact.
In other news, I’m getting very very nervous about finally heading to Guatemala. I mean, I don’t actually know Spanish, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Shakira, Vicente Fernandez and Calle 13, and for some reason I think that should count for something. Really I haven’t slept in two night, in fact I started writing this at 6am when I finally gave up hope, so forgive me if all this is a little jumbled (plus I haven’t written anything since graduation last June, I’m sure my brain has atrophied significantly by now). Also, I’ve been eating a lot of my favorite foods lately to make up for not having access to them for the next two months (Mama’s Bakery in North Park yesterday, I can’t get enough of their manakeesh ultimate wrap with chicken)…. so what I’m trying to say is that basically I’ll be arriving in Guatemala exhausted, obese, and only able to quote Shakira when attempting to talk to anyone. They’re going to love me…