Pre-Trip Jitters

With the start of our medical mission trip to Central America only three days away, my wife Ashley has become quite excited about it. Our house is a tizzy of packing and preparation and we have suitcases and supplies everywhere.

Me, I’m a lot more apprehensive about it all. This is mostly because I’ve never been out of the country, let alone on a full fledged mission trip, let alone on a full fledged MEDICAL mission trip before. I can barely put a Band-Aid on myself, let alone someone else, let alone a stranger, let alone IN SPANISH. But that’s okay. I have 10 qualified medical personnel and/or personnel in training, going with me on this trip who can handle Band-Aids and so much more. I’m there to be their go-fer, which is a job I can handle. I think. However, looming over me is the fact that while I don’t know precisely what I’m about to get myself into.

On a gut level I know it’s going to be heavy. It’s very difficult to remain unconcerned when people who would know keep assuring me that my life will never ever be the same again after this trip and that the things I will see and experience will leave me changed forever. Scary, huh?

For instance, in the library, a patron happened to overhear me talking to Ashley on the phone about our luggage situation.

“Headed out of town?” he asked when I’d hung up.

“Huh?” I said, not making the connection.

“Are you leaving town? You mentioned something about a carry-on bag?”

“Oh! Yeah. Er, no. I’m actually leaving the country.” I then explained where we were goning and why. He nodded knowingly and told me it would be an enormous experience and that I would be forever changed. Turns out he had been on several mission trips to Panama. He said when he returned stateside, he felt embarassed to have so much… stuff.

I too have a lot of stuff.

Don’t get me wrong; I think being forever changed by this experience will ultimately be a good thing. I know that my cynical, jaded self can use some perspective on the world and its true poverty not to mention a spiritual kick in the ass. However, being spiritually kicked in the ass still means getting kicked in the ass. It ain’t fun.

Just hearing Ashley’s tales from her trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2003, I realize I’m in for some serious heavy. We’ll be going to into places in Guatemala and El Salvador where the people have absolutely nothing. They’re far poorer than most of the lower class of this country and have no access to medical care for most of their lives. There, diseases that do not exist in this country because of our health care system go untreated for years and treatable injuries become life-crippling and often deadly conditions. This is particularly true for children, who often suffer from common childhood ailments or parasite infections for months on end due to a lack of medical care. It’s one thing to see it from a distance on television. It’s a whole other to be up to your neck in it and partially responsible for helping alleviate some of it, if only for a brief moment.

As you might imagine, going on a medical mission trip can be expensive. For a long time, that was my primary reservation toward us going on it. See, I’m the guy in charge of keeping up with finances in our house—some might say unwisely appointed to the position. I always feel it’s my responsibility to point out any unwise spending we may be about to incur when it can be foreseen.
Nearly a year ago, I pointed out to Ashley that we would soon be nearing the end of our med-school undergraduate year and would probably only shin deep in credit card debt—what business did we have increasing that debt to thigh or even waist deep by adding 5 grand we don’t have toward the base costs of the mission trip, let alone the medicines we’d need to take with us. Ashley sagely pointed out that when she went on the mission trip in 2003, we didn’t have the 2 grand it cost then either, but by the time she left nearly twice that amount had been donated toward her trip and she was not only able to pay for her trip in full but also help sponsor some of the other team members and purchase extra medicine. Ash also pointed out that before she went to India in February of 1994—the very trip during which she first realized it was her calling to become a doctor—she didn’t have the money to pay for it either, but by the time she left it had been provided. Her attitude then, as now, is that if it’s God’s will for her to do what she feels she’s been called by him to do, he will provide the way. That shut me up but good. I’ve seen God work in this way on many occasions and should know it by heart and simply have faith. However, as the guy in charge of finances, I always feel the need to point these things out for the record, knowing full well I’ll only get shown up by God once again.

Let me say, we’ve had an amazing amount of support behind us on this trip. Friends and family and people we don’t even know have been sending us financial support and supplies like you wouldn’t believe. A great deal of it has come from close family, but also from Ashley’s church back in Salcha, Alaska, who’ve always been big supporters of her mission work and have contributed greatly to each one she’s been on, including this one. We’ve also received support in the form of not only medicine and vitamins and medical supplies, but also toys, coloring books, crayons and candy which we will distribute at our clinic sites. Some of the story hour children at the library as well as children from a local elementary school class have also donated items for us to take to the children in El Salvador and Guatemala. And my sisters in-law, Amber and Caroline, spread the word throughout their communities, in South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, and came up with gangbusters support on that front.

While packing things up this week, Ash and I were going through a box of donations her sister Amber sent us. It was a box full of cute and cuddly little teddy bears and beanie babies and chalk and crayons and coloring books. As I was looking at one of the cute little teddy bears, one dressed in a little yellow sweater, I was struck with just how much some child is going to love that bear. Then I said something dumb.

“I sure hope the El Salvadorian kids like to color, cause we’re sure bringing them a lot of crayons.”

Ashley looked at me with a kind of How Little He Knows and How Much He’s About to Find Out expression, then smiled and gave me a hug. I understood that as much as we’ve gathered to take, it’s actually very little when you consider the numbers of children we’re going to be seeing. What we’re bringing as far as toys and even medicine go won’t get us very far. Ashley says that their 2003 mission team treated over 5000 people between Guatemala and Honduras.

“But you just wait until you see the face of some little girl when you give her two different colored crayons and a page from a coloring book,” Ashley said. “You’ve never seen such joy!”

“I’m going to spend this entire trip in tears, aren’t I?” I said, already welling up.

“No. You will cry. But there will be a lot of happiness too.”

Taking toys and similar things is not the primary focus of this trip, though. We also don’t have enough medicine. These trips never do. Even packed to capacity, with two 70 pound suitcases and a 40 pound carry on bag each, we’re never going to get enough medicine in to meet the demand. Fortunately, the huge swell of support we’ve been given also extends to the mission team as a whole. One of the clubs at Ashley’s med-school donated over $500 toward the trip and the alumni association donated $1000. We’re taking that with us as backup for when the meds we’re bringing run out.

I know I’m not prepared for what I’m going to be seeing. I’ve been told exactly what’s going to happen, but until I’m in it neck deep, I won’t really grok it. Plus there’s the language barrier to get around, which even having taken 6 semesters of Spanish in college is going to be an enormous hurdle. Especially since I forgot all my Spanish and am only coasting on the notion that it will somehow all come back to me. We’ll have translators, sure, but it would certainly help if some of us knew a few more words.

And then there’s the less than comforting threat of political turmoil.

Ashley’s mission team had a few problems, the last time she was in Guatemala. At the time, in late March of 2003, the war in Iraq had just begun. No one was certain what reaction there might be toward Americans, but no extreme reactions were expected–what with Guatemala not being a big Muslim country and all.

I’d only had a little communication from Ashley in the form of one brief phone call and a couple of e-mail messages during the first week of her trip. During the second I didn’t hear anything until Thursday of that week when I got a phone call from Mrs. Wallace, the wife of one of the doctors on the trip, who said, “There are riots going on and the team is getting out of the country on the earliest flight. That’s all I know.”

I had no idea what the circumstances or danger level were. All I could assume was the protests were due to the war and the unwanted presence of Americans. So there I was, with no idea what was going on, only able to assume things were bad and imagine even worse, for a whole day and a half. And it was a LOOOOONG day and a half. But there was nothing I could do but pray.

Late Friday afternoon, Mrs. Wallace called back to say she had been in touch with her husband’s secretary who’d spoken with him that morning. Dr. Wallace had reported that the team was still going to get out of the country on a late afternoon flight and they were headed to the airport, but first they were going to have breakfast. At that point, I knew they weren’t in great danger. I mean, who stops for a leisurely breakfast when on the run for their lives?

Soon after that, I received a cryptic e-mail from Ash saying she was fine and was coming home soon. She didn’t want me to worry. I wouldn’t know precisely what had happened to them until the team and Ashley returned, though, which they weren’t able to do until Saturday night and even then not exactly when or even how they were expected to.

I got word from Mrs. Wallace that the team’s flight was coming in to Roanoke at 9:15 p.m. and I was supposed to meet them there and help carry people back. So there I was at the gate at 9:15. Their plane arrived and all the passengers got off, none of whom were from the mission team. That seemed really odd to me. What was even odder was that Mrs. Wallace wasn’t at the airport as she’d told me she would be earlier in the day. A few minutes passed, though, and a couple of Ash’s fellow students arrived to help greet, including our friend Andrew Bright, (a fellow med-student who is also coming along on the trip this year). I figured I was still on good ground if other people were sharing it with me. I didn’t have the flight number and saw that a second flight from D.C. was arriving in a few minutes. It landed, and we the gate-greeters waited to see familiar faces disembark. They did not. At this point, Andrew, phoned Mrs. Wallace and learned what was up. Seems that with all the ticket purchasing and repurchasing and changing of flights that had occurred to get the team out of the country, the tickets from D.C. to Roanoke wound up not syncing up with the flight from Guatemala to D.C. So when the team arrived at Dulles, they found they had missed their flight to Roanoke by about 12 hours. Instead of fighting with the airline about it, they just rented a big van and were driving back to West Virginia.

I guestimated they would probably arrive around 3 a.m. and I was only five minutes off. As exausted as Ashley was when I met her at the school, she couldn’t help but tell me about the team’s adventures through the riots. I was a welcome audience to learn what had happened.

Some set-up:
Back in the early 1990’s, Guatemala’s government was attacked by guerilla forces attempting a coup. In order to defend the republic, the government conscripted thousands of male citizens to fight against the attackers. These citizens were not paid to do this, but did so at the behest of their government and they were successful at the job. After the fighting, these conscriptee soldiers went back to their normal lives.

Jump to 2003:
A man running for the presidency of Guatemala, (whose name, I’m afraid I do not know nor did I ever, being as how I’m a Gringo who is ignorant of the politics of the vast majority of countries throughout the world), made the pledge that if he were elected president he would pay those citizens who had been conscripted the equivalent of a year’s wages. The conscriptee army thought that sounded like a great deal, so they helped vote the guy in. As soon as he was in, though, the new president said the Spanish equivallent of, “What are you, crazy? We don’t have that kind of money!”

The conscriptees said, “Uh, okay, so what can you give us?”

To which the president replied, “Hmm, how bout a quarter of a year’s wages?”

“Eh, not so great,” the former army said, “but okay, we’ll take it.”

“Great. Will do,” said the president, who then proceeded to lose his shirt investing in Euros. “Uh, sorry gang, I don’t have ANY money to give you,” El Presidente then admitted. “See, I lost my shirt on Euros.”

“No? Okay, fine,” the former conscriptees said. “We’re shutting down your country til you cough something up.”

And they did. They “rioted”, but only in the nicest possible sense of the word. Instead of yelling and smashing stuff and walking around with placards, they just sensibly and collectively blocked off all roads leading between major towns and shut down all traffic between them, then they stood around holding sticks and machettes, looking peeved. Unfortunately, by the time the roadblocks were set up, Ash’s mission team was in Queztaltananga (Xela, to most folks) a small town way up in the mountains, several hours distance from the airport in Guatemala City. Seeing that they couldn’t go on to the even more remote villages they were scheduled to visit, the team decided to try and go back toward G-City and leave the country before the “riots” became less-peaceful. This proved to be quite difficult.

Dr. Wallace and Guatemala mission leader, Marcello Diez, kept explaining to the folks in charge at the roadblocks that they were a humanitarian mission team who just wanted to set up clinics and could they please be allowed to pass through?

“We have sick people right here,” the protesters protested. “You set up a clinic for us and we’ll give you passage.”

Sounded like fair trade to Dr. Wallace. After all, that was what they were in the country to do in the first place. Ashley said that by setting up that clinic, the team actually saw people who were far worse off than they were likely to have seen in the distant villages they were originally headed to.

After a day’s clinic, the protesters gave the team a piece of paper granting them passage through the next several roadblocks and they set out to try and return to the airport in Guatemala City.

About this time, late in the evening, the team met a reporter who was riding between towns on a motorcycle. He had free passage everywhere because the protesters wanted all the press they could get. He offered to go with them between the towns. The roads, however, were awful and were often so filled with potholes that the whole team had to exit the van so it could travel over the potholes without bottoming out. The going was very slow and soon it was 9 at night and the team found themselves on a scarcely-traveled road in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do. Dr. Wallace was quite worried because the last thing he wanted was to have a bunch of med-students trapped in the middle of who knew what dangers with no end in sight. So he asked everyone to pray that God would lead them out of there or to safety, whichever came first. That’s when the reporter banged on the window and told Dr. Wallace that he knew of a hotel nearby that he thought they could use.

Expecting the worst, the mission team followed the reporter. What they imagined was the Central American equivallent of a rat and roach infested fleabag motel. What they found instead was a five star resort.

After checking into the resort (which, considering the exchange rate, was still fairly cheap) the resort’s staff told them that their restaurant’s buffet had closed for the evening, but that they could whip them up some steaks and french fries if they wanted. So Ash got to eat steak and french fries and spend the night in a luxurious bed in the middle of Guatemalan riots, while I fretted and worried back home. She too knew this and sent me e-mail the following morning to tell me she was fine. The team had never been in any great danger, just in a few tense situations. And not only did they treat some incredibly ill people, but the missionaries were able to lead 200 people to Christ at that “riot” clinic.

The joy on Ash’s face as she told me this story confirmed for me what I had long since suspected: I should have gone on that trip and shared that experience. I also knew that if another opportunity came up to go, I would not turn it down.
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