It just keeps getting better

I can’t lie to you – when I first got here I was a little disappointed. I had the most amazing time of my life traveling in Europe, and I was so excited to feel that way again. I guess I didn’t realize that doing it for a second time would be so different. It’s like a relationship – at first it’s new, exciting and gives you butterflies in your stomach. But then, eventually, you settle into it, you get comfortable, and the relationship changes. You’re still happy with them, but it’s just a different kind of happy. That’s how I feel about my relationship with travel – it’s changed. I still love it, but it’s not as exciting anymore.

I think I also forgot how long it took me to get used to France. I guess it was so long between when I arrived and left, that I forgot that in those first few weeks I wasn’t that in love with France. It took me a few weeks to get my groove here, too, and I guess I thought that it was just because I didn’t really love Guatemala that much. A couple weeks later, and I can tell you that I do love Guatemala. I still have so much to learn about it, but what I do know, and what I have experienced, has been wonderful.

So, what can I tell you about what I’ve been up to these past couple of weeks? Well, Casa Shekina is a blast. I love having people around all the time to joke around with and whatever. I’ve been out a few times and experienced the nightlife – it’s a lot of fun! The music is awesome, and even better, the drinks are often cheap or free for ladies. I’ve met some locals, either through Maximo or through going out. I wish I could mingle more at the bars etc, but I feel really uncomfortable. For anyone that has ever thought that Canadian men were bad about being too touchy-feely while dancing – Guatemalan men are worse. Fair enough that that is how they dance here (unless they’re doing salsa or something), but what bothers me is that they are so persistent even after being shot down multiple times. I grew up being taught that “no means no”…so if I tell you I’m not interested in dancing with you, you should leave me alone. They don’t seem to follow that same concept here. I have basically resorted to avoiding them by dancing more closely with my girl friends, leading multiple men to ask if we’re together. Quite frankly, I’m good with them thinking that…especially if it means they’ll leave me and my body alone!!

Things at the clinic are same-old same-old mostly. Tuesday was an interesting day. I went in in the afternoon instead of morning, and there were pretty much zero patients. Myself and Evelyn, another volunteer here for only a week, sat and made gauze pads, while a doctor talked to a pregnant woman having pains and the nurses decorated the clinic (why, I don’t know). Soon, the doctor came out of the consultation room and asked me “have you ever felt a contraction?”, to which I obviously responded “no!”. So she took me in to see the woman, had me feel her stomach (I felt the baby’s head…it was weird, and awesome) and then explained that if she started yelling, I should come in and time the contraction, which I would know was happening because her stomach would get hard. Then the doctor told me that she would be leaving, and the next doc wouldn’t be in for another two hours….talk about accountability?

Then, I noticed some women hanging around in the clinic with their children, so I asked them if I could help. They were there for vaccinations, and since I had been in the vaccination room so much in the first clinic, I figured I could deal with it since the nurses weren’t around. Turns out I needed a little help – I couldn’t find the right vaccine, and then I needed to double-check whether acetaminophen needed to be given for that particular shot (to keep off fever because the vaccination causes a reaction). Despite that Evelyn and I obviously weren’t 100% sure of what we were doing, the nurses were content to answer our questions and go back to decorating, rather than supervise us while we put needles in babies’ legs. I couldn’t help but laugh. After volunteering in hospitals for 3 years back home, the most I’ve ever gotten to do was hold someone’s arm while the doctor put a cast on it. Here, I’m practically a trusted nurse, and when I don’t know how to do something I only get shown once before I’m expected to perform it myself.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned/observed about Guatemala!

1. The most common reasons that people come to the clinic are: infections (mostly gastrointestinal and respiratory) and complications of diabetes. This makes a lot of sense given the malnutrition and dirty conditions. People coming into the clinic are consistently filthy – they then touch their food, etc. with those hands….it’s gross. really. But either they don’t know any better, or they don’t have the water and soap to deal with it.

2. These people are tiny – think about a typical man in North America, Europe etc. Now shrink him down by a foot and a half, and make him half as thin. Now, you have a typical Guatemalan man. Think about a typical North American etc. woman. Now shrink her down by a foot, and make her twice as heavy or twice as thin. You have the two types of typical Guatemalan women. At the clinic, I mostly deal with women and children. Part of triage involves weighing each patient. Whether the women look 3x my size or half, they are ALWAYS lighter than me. The number of women I’ve weighed under 100lbs is scary. And this is while they’re wearing fairly heavy clothing. It puts it into perspective how important WHAT you eat is – not only how much you eat. I’m sure that I weigh so much because I have a lot of muscle (or at least that’s what I like to tell myself), while they, physically larger than me, do are mostly fat, due to lifestyle and nutrition. It’s a sad situation.

3. Kids get serious separation anxiety – kids here, from the time they are born until they’re like 2 years old at least, are carried around on their mother’s back or front. Whenever they start crying, their mom just whips out her boob to feed them/shut them up. So it’s no wonder that the instant you try to take a child away from their mother, to weigh them for instance, they start screaming bloody murder. It’s interesting that this kind of attachment to family starts so young and never really goes away. As kids grow up they live with extended family, unlike in canada where so many people turn 18 and get the hell out of their house as fast as possible. There are, of course, financial benefits to living with family, but they also count on each other as a support system.

4. Antigua is paradise – I could already tell, from going to Sumpango every day for my placement, that Antigua was very different from other Guatemalan cities. Then last week, my spanish teacher took me to that photo exhibition. I learned about the genocide that happened in the 1980s – where the government claimed that the Indigenous peoples were siding with rebels in a civil war and tried to wipe them all out through horrible massacres. I learned about the garbage city in Guatemala City, where people calling themselves “miners” dig through giant piles of sewage and trash, looking for something that they can sell. I learned about how the gangs basically run Guatemala City, and that if you see someone with a tattoo of the virgin mary, it means they’ve killed 12 people. I learned about the men and boys who harvest sugar cane, working until their hands are bloody and raw just to get 20Q (not even 3 dollars) per tonne of sugar cane. I learned about the blocades that people put up in Guatemala city to protect their neighbourhood from gang activities, taking shifts guarding it with weapons. I’ve learned about the families who sleep on dirt floors and whose children are suffering from horrible malnutrition. Meanwhile, in Antigua, I am sitting in a room full of computers with internet, I can walk down the street to the pharmacy or a restaurant. I complain if my drink at the bar costs more than 4Q…It’s a brutal, but necessary wake-up-call about the fact that both at home, and in Antigua, I am living in paradise.

5. Women are stuck – another informative conversation I had with my spanish teacher: women’s rights. Here, as in many developing countries, women are considered second-class citizens, and take on the role of housekeeper. While there are some women in the working world, most, especially in rural areas, stay at home with the kids etc. When my teacher told me she thought this should change, I asked “so, where will the children go?”. Her answer was that they could either go with families, or to day care. The problem with this is that good daycares are expensive, and the cheap ones (such as the ones that many of my friends here are volunteering at) are incredibly understaffed. They tend to span huge age ranges, with 5 year old children mingling with 15 year olds. A big problem has apparently been abuse – of the younger kids by the older ones. So women are stuck. If they don’t have any family and don’t have much money they can either send their child to a school where they will likely be abused, or resign themselves to being housewives, and the cycle continues…

And on that note, I leave you with: My biggest problem with Guatemala so far: no pizza places open when I get home from the bar. Seriously. this woman needs food.


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