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DATELINE: Friday, March 25, 2005

UNLAXATION DAY 1

I wanted to sleep all the way `til 9, but found myself wide awake at 7:30. I don’t know if I was just restless or if I was just too cold from the double blast of air-conditioning, but I was awake. It had actually been quite blissful to sleep so cold, but after a few hours my body had cooled down and I was forced to retreat beneath the thin blanket I’d been using as stuffing for my pillow-case. So at 7:30 I got up and grabbed my camera and headed outside to see if I could find cool stuff to take pictures of.

I decided I needed a photographic mission for the morning and that mission was to photograph a snake. So far on the journey, we’d seen a few hefty bugs and one of the guys said he’d even seen a little scorpion in one of the bano stalls, but so far I’d not seen anything fangy and dangerous. I thought it would be great to take a picture of a snake, if only to show the image to my ophiciophobic wife, (that means “skeered of snakes,” for those of us in West Virginia). Ash had been a bit worried about snakes throughout our trip. Someone had told her that the most deadly snake in the country is a tiny little snake that likes to hide under leaves and brush and then viciously bite anyone who accidentally steps on it. Most of the camp was red dirt, though, so we weren’t too worried about leaves.

I walked from my bunk-house onto a clear path that ran through the rocks and shrubs on the side of the tallest hill at the camp. I kept my eyes peeled for snakes, figuring if they were on the path I’d see them. After more walking I found that my path indeed began to run underneath a long stretch of leaves and brush. I was wearing shorts and flip-flops–not exactly snake-proof gear–but I still didn’t want to wuss out and turn back. So I began carefully making my way through the leaves, trying to step on as many rocks as possible. When I was in the very middle of the leaf section, some birds that had been hiding in a nearby bush suddenly flushed out, frightening me nigh unto requiring a clean pair of drawers. Still no snake.

The path eventually lead down the hill onto a dirt road that ran back toward an open-air structure with a palm-frond roof as well as a second site that was only a foundation for a similar structure. We were to learn later that this will be the new dining hall and kitchen for the camp. The camp itself will be used primarily as a summer-camp for kids and several more bunk-houses and shower facilities will soon be built to help accommodate more kids, in addition to the new kitchen and dining hall. This place is impressive enough now, but it’s going to be even better once Marcello has a few more buildings.

Dr. Allen was up for a morning stroll and he and I walked along the dirt road that curved around the bottom of the biggest hill chatting about our week. I like Dr. Allen and Mary Ann a whole lot. Ashley had done two medical rotations at Dr. Allen’s clinic–her first one and her third from last, which she was technically continuing on this mission. She had been saying how great to work with he and Mary Ann were for months, but I’d not met either of them until we attended the wedding of his daughter in February. I was glad to have gotten to know them both on this mission. And I haven’t written nearly enough about how great Mary Ann was in the pharmacy. We sometimes get under each others feet, and I’ve no doubt that our methods often clash, but in such cases I always tried to remember that between the two of us she is far far far more likely to know what she’s talking about, being a nurse and all, so I should always defer to her judgement.

We continued along the road until it intersected with a very steep road that lead to the top of the hill. We parted ways there, for due to his bad knees he wasn’t keen on walking up that hill just yet.

Near the top of the hill were rows and rows of logs that had been laid down to provide seating for a massive campfire pit. This is where future campers would settle at the end of their day to sing around the campfire. Further up from there at the actual top of the hill I could see a fantastic view of the entire camp property. After gazing around at the lake and surrounding camp buildings below me, I went to take a look at the zip-line.

The zip-line was a thick metal cable that was stretched between a large concrete anchor on that hill to another one on the next hill over. This was a device that would allow a fully harnessed up person to “zip” along the wire on pulleys, high above the ground, moving from one hill to the other very quickly. The pulleys and rigs weren’t attached yet, but we’d been told we’d be able to play on the zip-line on Saturday. The line itself was pretty far above the ground, but I was already looking forward to trying it out.

I took a few pictures of the camp up there, but I never found a snake.

I ate breakfast with Esdras that morning, talking more about his education plans and his concerns about seminary. Mid-way through our chat, there came a tremendous cry from the far side of the dining pavillion. A group of the translators and missionaries were hoisting the youngest member of the mission/translator staff, Kevin Herrera, over their shoulders and into the air.

I haven’t written about Kevin before because our paths didn’t cross a lot during the course of our mission work. However, he was kind of the adopted mascott of camp. Kevin was probably 14 years old, but a fairly fluent English speaker. He was a very outgoing kid, always smiling, always happy and often playing practical jokes on anyone and everyone. During one day in Pasaco, Kevin offered me a piece of chewing gum. I chewed it to find that it was packed full of some kind of intense flavor crystals that made it at least twice as powerful as an Altoid mint. Kevin was expecting some sort of extreme reaction from me and was very disappointed when I turned out to like the gum.

“Where did you get it?” I asked.

“Oh, the store,” he said.

“What’s it called again? I’ve got to get some of that to take home.”

He later tried the same trick on Ashley, with very similar results. Other team members, however, weren’t so immune to the powerful gum and Kevin became known as a trickster.

I still don’t know what Kevin did to provoke his fellow translators and missionaries, but it must have been something worthy of collective revenge. We watched watched as the group of locals hoisted Kevin above their heads then lowered him to carry by each of his limbs as they took him away from the pavilion and down the hill. This could only mean one thing: Kev was getting dumped in the lake.

Esdras and I shot up from our seats and ran to follow. I ran down the hill, trying to get my camera out of its bag and trying not to collide with Andrew, who was also sprinting through the rocks and brush trying to get ahead of the Kevin-carrying revenge squad. I’m amazed we didn’t break something vital in our dash down the hill, but we did get ahead of them. They carried Kevin down onto the small dock, thoughtfully removed his shoes for him, then heaved him back and forth a few times and then let him fly. Kevin splashed down in the four foot deep water. He came up grinning, but soon started splashing everyone on the dock with the now muddy water. His tormentors, satisfied that they had meted out justice for the day, retreated back to their breakfasts leaving the rest of us to stay around and take pictures of the soaked lad. The lake bottom is nothing but mud and silt, so Kevin’s formerly white socks were now deep black.

After breakfast, we said our last goodbyes to the members of the local team who were departing for Guatemala City. Our departure wasn’t far behind.

Throughout the week, I had noticed a disturbing pattern with our medical team and with myself, which repeated itself Friday morning. Whenever it came time to go anywhere by bus, the whole lot of us would climb the hill at camp to where the busses were parked, board the busses and then sit in them sweating like pigs in a sauna as the last few stragglers finally made their way up the hill to board as well. We could have just waited outside, where it was still hot but not sauna hot. But noooo, every single time we all climbed on the bus and sweated and muttered about the slow people holding us up and how we wished we could get on the road so we could get some wind on us and how next time we should just wait outside. Every. Single. Time. And medical personnel are supposed to be smart.

Our trip to Antigua was in the full-sized bus, the one with all of its seats, but there was still not enough room for everyone. (We found this out only after everyone had piled on the hot bus like morons YET AGAIN. What is it about such hot weather that makes otherwise intelligent people, myself included, pile into a giant tin can in 120 degree heat, repeatedly?) In order to create more seating, one of the pavilion benches was brought in and slid down the bus aisle. It was a tight fit for everyone.

Ashley nearly stayed behind for the day, because she was feeling ill and the heat was really getting to her. Once the bus was under way, though, the air-circulation cooled us off quite a bit and she began to feel better.

Most of the team had changed out around $50 in U.S. currency for the equivalent in quetzals, the Guatemalan currency. Due to an exchange rate of about 7 quetzals for every dollar, we felt like truly wealthy people. Unfortunately, Antigua is not only famous for it’s Holy Week festivities but also for its pickpockets. We were also warned to keep all wallets and important papers in front pockets and to keep a sharp eye out for trouble and not to leave anything on the bus, because thieves were likely to come onto the bus while we were gone.

The drive to Antigua was nearly as long than that back to Guatemala City. Antigua is to the south-west of G-City. We were therefore able to skirt around G-City and on into Antigua.

Oswald drove us. Every time he got behind the wheel, he proved to us just how fantastic a driver he is. Driving a school bus in Central America isn’t as easy as in the states. Most of the streets in these smaller towns are very narrow and difficult to maneuver in a car, let alone a big white bus. Even when hurtling the wrong way down one-way streets with lots of tight corners, Oswald had it under control.

We didn’t have nearly as much trouble getting into Antigua as had been predicted. We were able to drive right up to the edge of the down town proper, passing fantastic ancient churches and ruins along the way. There was a line of parked buses that we had to go by in order to get to the edge of the down-town area. Once there, Oswald stopped to let us out, the plan being for him to find a place to park the bus and catch up with us later. Rick and Butch told us that we would soon be splitting into smaller groups each with a translator, but first there were a couple of places of interest that they wanted to show us. After that, we were free to go.

The first thing I need to say about Antigua–the first thing we really noticed upon departing our bus–is that the climate was FANTASTIC! It was still warm, of course, but probably in the low to mid-80s. It was also not at all humid and there was a constant light breeze blowing that made it perfectly comfortable. I’d somehow been expecting a sweat-fest, but should have known that since we had returned to higher elevation it would be nice. This comfort put us all in great spirits and got the unlaxation off to a proper start.

We walked down from the bus into the town itself, following Butch, where we soon found ourselves hanging a left onto an unpaved street. The street looked as though its paving had been dug up at some point in the recent past in preparation for repaving. As a result, the narrow sidewalks were often over a foot and a half above the street itself.

Our first stop of interest was a beautiful hotel. To enter it you had to cut through a cluster of street-peddlers who were camped out at its entrance awaiting the tourists who came and went. They attempted to sell us beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries until we were able to get through them and into the hotel. Once inside, we found ourselves on a wide stone walk that ran along a lush and fountain-studded open air garden that lead to the hotel’s mostly open air lobby. When I say mostly open air, I mean that the front desk, while covered by a roof, was still exposed to the air from the open garden that it bordered. The desk itself was an ancient-looking carved wood structure that most of us deemed “awesome” in true American fashion.

We walked through the garden, taking photos of each other with the enormous parrots that hung from perches there, or with the various art exhibits on display.

Further past the lobby was an alcove art gallery with some of the most disturbing art I’ve seen in a while. I only took pictures of one of them because I was a little scared of seeing any more of them pop up during one of Butch’s slide shows. I was not as afraid of some of the sculpture on display in the lobby, though. Across from the alcove was a lovely restaurant that had both a covered area and an outdoor patio area side by side. We went out to the patio area that was not a part of the restaurant itself and walked around enjoying the atmosphere and looking at the wares of the ladies who were selling Guatemalan souvenirs. They had some marvelous things, such as knitted hats and bags, jewelry, masks and crafts of all sorts, plus the standard assortment of beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries. As we looked, though, some of our interpreters came up and slyly told us not to buy anything there because the prices were quite inflated compared to the Indian Markets further into Antigua itself. We kept our quetzals in our pockets.

After a lengthy headcount to make sure we were all still there, we back out to the street where we practically had to fight our way through the peddlers gathered at the entrance with their beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries. We then followed missionary extraordinaire Marcello Hounko (no relation to Marcello Diez) as he lead us back along the unpaved street and a few blocks further into the city. As we went, more peddlers came up with more beads, trinkets, reed flutes and tapestries but I think we all steadfastly refused.

Marcello H. led us to a genuine Guatemalan Jade factory, which turns out to be one of the only officially sanctioned ones in that part of the world. The factory is where mined jade is brought and shaped with diamond instruments and grinders, fashioned into a wide variety of objects that are then shipped around the world. The factory itself was not in operation that day due to the holidays but we were given a tour of the area and shown some beautiful examples of the kind of thing they do there and told a bit of the history of Jade itself in Central America.

After the tour, we retired to the gift shop where we were served complimentary locally grown coffee in little stoneware cups that we could keep. They also gave us little knitted rainbow colored drawstring pouches on a string necklace that contained a small doll. This is a traditional Guatemalan gift to bring good luck. I went ahead and put mine on. I didn’t know it at the time, but the pouch, if not the doll within, would become my dearest friend in the coming days.

Upon leaving the Jade factory, we were set free to do what we wanted. It was around 3:30 at that point, so we agreed to meet back at the bus area at 5:30. Beyond that we could go off on our own or in groups and there were enough translators to go around for small groups. Ash and I decided it would best to stick close to a group of folks, so we tagged along with a few people to explore the ancient streets. We had to keep repeating the phrase “No gracias!” over and over as wave upon wave of more peddlars came at us.

The streets and architecture of Antigua were amazing to see, particularly with the volcano jutting up from the horizon, looming over us despite being quite a distance away. I don’t think I’ve ever been to some place with such ancient structures. Probably the closest I’ve come was St. Augustine, FL, the oldest city in the United States.

As you might expect at the pinnacle of Holy Week festivities, Antigua was quite crowded. No, really. There were just loads and loads and loads of people, beyond the peddlers. And not only Guatemalans but a wide variety of other nationalities as well. As a writer, I found myself wondering about their backgrounds and reasons for coming to Antigua on this day, (though they were all probably pretty similar, considering the main draw was the holy week festivities).

Occasionally, we would see a shop we wanted to stop in and would do so. I was looking out for interesting masks, as I seem to have collected a few from around the world and thought it might be nice to pick one up. But it couldn’t just be any mask. It had to be something that just jumped out and said, Oh, hey, I’m the mask for you. I didn’t find it in the tiny mask shop we visited, though, so we moved on.

The street we were walking down eventually opened onto Antigua’s main square, an enormous area surrounded by more ancient and beautiful buildings, with peddlers and rolling snack carts every few feet. There was more room to walk around here, but there were also more people to fill up that room. I found the experience kind of overwhelming to view. You couldn’t look at everything and everyone, but there was so much going on around you that you wanted to look at. It kind of pressed emotional buttons within me, and I know it did with Ashley because she was tearing up too.

We continued along the street, leaving the square and traveling on. Our main road eventually intersected a four-lane road system that was lined with more snack carts and little temporary cocinas selling what smelled like tasty but potentially stomach-churning food. We looked things over there, but kept moving, lest temptation to destroy our GI tract become too great.

Soon we came to a row of covered booth shops that sold all manner of souvenir items–mostly T-shirts, dresses, masks, hats, colorful knitted clothing, bright bags and the usual assortment of necklaces, trinkets and reed flutes. Some of our crew were already there shopping, including Dr. Allen and Mary Ann. Mary Ann had bought a bright red knitted bag and was transferring the contents of her pack into it. I noticed again that Dr. Allen was wearing his passport wallet on the outside of his clothing. This seemed a little unwise to me, as I thought those things were meant to be worn beneath your clothes or at least snugly in a pocket. My own I’d put in my velcro closed back pocket, but I’d already removed all of my money from it so that I didn’t have to keep taking it out and calling attention to it. My theory was that pickpockets watch to see which pockets you keep checking and use that as a tell to which pockets they should pick.

We shopped a bit among the items being offered at the booth shops. The ladies that ran the shops didn’t speak much English, but knew a few phrases which they repeated over and over. “Buy for Mama. Buy for my seester. Buy for Mama.”

We didn’t wind up buying anything at those shops, but the same rules applied at the Indian Market, which was only a little way further down the road.

The Indian Market was a cluster of permanent cubbyhole shops, each of which were roofed but which had open air aisles between them, covered by a translucent roof above that. We only thought we’d had trouble with the street peddlers earlier, because a walk through the Indian Market meant a constant attack by aggressive salespeople who didn’t want to accept “No Gracias” for an answer. We had been told by our translators to never pay the asking price for any given item because the shopkeepers expect you to haggle with them and are more than willing to give you a better deal if you do so. The rule of thumb was to try and pay no more than half of the original asking price. However, I found the best way to haggle was to pick up an item, decide you were truly uninterested in it and genuinely attempt to walk away. Then the shopkeepers couldn’t lower their prices fast enough and would do all your haggling for you. And the more disinterested you were, the lower the price went. We didn’t haggle so much as we succumbed to guilt over turning down such terrific bargains. This was, of course, their plan all along.

We found some nice souvenirs to bring home to folks. I found five colorful sun-face ceramic ornaments for the library staff. I actually did try haggling over them, but when I did the calculations, hours later, I was really lowballing my bid and the shopkeeper that sold them to me had every reason to turn down my offer and stick to her guns. I still got away for a steal.

Ash found a pair of jade earrings at another shop and I finally found a wooden mask that I liked. At first, I thought it was because the mask looked very similar to the title character’s Guy Fawkes mask in the Alan Moore/David Lloyd comic series V for Vendetta. Later, I realized it also looked quite a bit like me, with its thick eyebrows, goatee and rosy cheeks.

It was 5:15 by the time we decided to head back toward the bus. We should have felt guilty for starting back so late, but we didn’t worry about it as mission leader Rick Brooks was right there at the market with us and was therefore exactly as late as we were.

We started back down the road passing the previous shops and food vendors and on through the main square. We had nearly made it as far as the jade factory when foot traffic came to a sudden halt at an intersection. Passing through the intersection was the last of the Holy Week processionals. This is one of the major features of Holy Week in which citizens pay big money for the privilege of carrying elaborately carved and incredibly heavy “floats” through the streets of the city. These floats depict different aspects of the death of Christ in traditional elaborate Catholic fashion. The float-carriers themselves are elaborately garbed as well and take the float in shifts winding throughout the streets of Antigua.

If we had been just a little bit quicker, we probably could have made it through the intersection. Instead, everyone stopped and watched as floats depicting the burial and resurrection of Christ were carried through. Soon, all the foot traffic that had been behind us reached the place where we stood and the group of us suddenly found ourselves squished up against one another and against the other members of the crowd in a most tight fashion. This was when my paranoia went into overdrive, because it was an atmosphere in which I imagined pickpockets would be lurking. I shouldn’t really have worried about pickpockets in the standing crowd, though, because no one could really move anyway. But after 10 minutes or so, the slow procession had passed by and foot traffic began moving again and suddenly we found ourselves in chaos.

I likened it to being trapped in a busy high school hallway, jostled on every side by moving humanity all trying to go in opposing directions. I found myself trying to keep paths clear for the people around me, some of whom were elderly, while at the same time still trying to keep up with Ashley and the rest of the group. This, we believe, was when the pickpockets really struck, though none of us knew that anyone’s pocket had been picked until we had walked all the way back to our rendezvous point.

“Do you have all of your belongings?” Astrid asked me as we waited for the bus to come.

“Yeah,” I said, patting my back pocket where my passport wallet had been stored. It was still there.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Have you checked everything?”

That’s when I learned that some of us had not made it with all our things. Dr. Allen had arrived at the rendezvous point, looked down to check his passport wallet and found he only had its straps hanging around his neck. His passport, credit cards and a good supply of cash had been in it. Similarly, his wife Mary Ann found that the bottom of her new bag had been slashed, leaving a nice sized hole in it. She had been carrying Dr. Allen’s PDA, which was now missing. Sandra Waddell soon noticed that her bag had been slashed and her wallet taken, though she did still have her passport. Everyone was then asked to check his or her personal items to make sure we still had everything.

I was kind of amazed that I did. My backpack is pretty cheap. It’s one I got for free from a drug rep at a medical conference and has “Relpax” printed on it. It’s handy and light weight, but has open pockets in the back and hangs low enough from my shoulders that anyone could have looked inside or even reached in and I would never have known. Granted, I only had Nutter Butters and a couple of camera wires in there, so maybe no one found anything they wanted. There did seem to be some slashes along one of the pockets, as if someone had attempted to cut into it with a razor, but it had not penetrated the surface of the reinforced fabric.

Butch later told us that upon hearing of Dr. Allen’s missing passport wallet, he started to say, “How could anyone be dumb enough to get their passport stolen?” when he reached down and realized his PDA was also missing. It had been in a buttoned cargo pocket, but the thieves had apparently had no difficulty in gaining access because the button was still buttoned.

In order for Dr. Allen to get his passport replaced, Butch knew they would have to file a police report as soon as possible, so he, Dr. Allen and Marcello Hounko went to the local police station to take care of that. The rest of us piled back on our bus to sit and take stock of our experience. Many of us were angry initially that thieves had done so well off of us. Some even said that they wished they’d been able to catch the thieves in mid-theft. Then, we thought about this a bit more and realized we were probably lucky that we had not caught them. These guys were carrying blades in order to slice open bags and pockets and would likely have had no problem slicing us if it meant getting away.

When Dr. Allen returned, he said there had been a British couple at the police station ahead of him who had been beaten up by a gang of men wielding machetes, who then stole their bags. We frankly got off lucky.

Dinner that night was to be at a restaurant in Guatemala City. We called Marcello Diez ahead to let him know we’d be a bit later than expected due to our adventures with pickpockets. Soon after Dr. Allen returned to the bus, we hit the road.

It took about an hour to get to Guatemala City, but our first stop was actually Marcello’s house. Once there, Marcello saw how cramped the bus was and made the enticing offer that some of the people who felt especially cramped could ride in his nice air-conditioned van instead and be more comfy. There were surprisingly few takers. In retrospect, maybe some of them knew something we didn’t. Ash and I decided that if no one else was scrambling to ride in comfort, we would. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann as well as a handful of others joined us in the van. The trip to the restaurant was just blissful, with nice cool air-conditioning blowing on us the whole way.

We dined that evening at a Sizzler steakhouse/buffet. I was frankly glad to see it, because you know what you’re getting with a Sizzler and my stomach had been feeling a bit achy through the afternoon and I was pretty sure I wasn’t yet shed of my gastronomic adventures of the past few days.

Several of the missionary staff and national medical personnel who lived in Guatemala City joined us there for dinner and we had a great time. We were practically the only folks in the restaurant at that time of night. My stomach ache even decided to subside during dinner, allowing me to enjoy it. However, it roared back into life immediately afterward. I won’t be gross, but I got to know the Sizzler’s bano pretty well over the course of ten minutes. It receives my vote for Best Bano Ever, due to its comfort, cleanliness, privacy and good music.

After finishing our meal and saying goodbyes again to some of the staff we wouldn’t be returning to camp with, we loaded up. Once again, Ash and I rode in the van, which we figured would be the comfortable way to travel back into the humidity of the lower altitudes.

How wrong we were.

How horrifically wrong we were.

At first, things were quite nice. It was cool in the van and we kept ourselves amused by snickering quietly as Marcello’s secretary defaced Butch with makeup as he snoozed in the front seat. (That’s so wrong, I know, but it was funny.) It was so comfy in there that I eventually went to sleep myself.

I awoke probably 40 minutes later later in a thick sweat. At some point during the journey, Marcello had switched off the air-conditioner and it was never switched back on. Most of the windows on the van were of the variety that can only open a couple of inches and the one nearest me wouldn’t stay open at all unless propped, so while we did get some air we didn’t get as much as the folks back on the bus likely were. That sounds bad enough. It might even sound like I’m complaining. No. I’m not. But I’m about to.

When I next awoke, I discovered the true reason why Marcello always tells people it will take far less time to get places than it actually does. And that reason is because you do indeed arrive at destinations far more quickly when you drive at 90 mph the entire way!

There I was, sleeping away. Then my heat-addled mind awakened me, I groggily unstuck myself from the vinyl seat-back and casually glanced out the window only to find our night-time surroundings hurtling past the van at a tremendous and most unsettling speed. Marcello was laying on the gas peddle with abandon. I couldn’t see the speedometer from my seat, but it had to be edging close to 144 kilometer/hour. There was very little other traffic on the road, but whenever we would come upon a car (rush upon some, I should say) Marcello would just zip around it and on we’d go, careening into the night. I was terrified to my core.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised, because I knew Marcello’s reputation from Ashley’s description of her terrifying journey down the side of a mountain when her mission team was leaving Quetzaltenanga, trying to get back to Guatemala City during the civil disturbances of 2003. From what I’d heard of that trip, Marcello’s current driving was actually pretty tame by comparison. And at least we weren’t flying down twisty winding one-lane mountain roads.

No one else in the van seemed too concerned by our speed. In fact, most of them seemed to be trying to sleep through it as best they could. Not a bad idea, I thought. At least if I was asleep and we died in a horrible fiery crash, I might not wake up for it at all. Plus, if we did crash at this speed, death was almost a certainty, for there were no seatbelts to be found in Marcello’s van. (At least, I never found any. In fact, working seatbelts were pretty thin on the ground for much of our stay and by our second week in Central America I’d eschewed them entirely in favor of pure faith.)

Before returning to blissful unconsciousness, I decided to hedge bets against firey death by praying to our Heavenly Father for safe travel for us and for Marcello’s driving skills to be strengthened. This would not be the last time I would have to pray for safe travel in the hands of Marcello and his van. I’m sure I was not alone in my prayers, either and I know I wasn’t the only one audibly thanking God when we finally did arrive safely back at camp.

I hit the showers as soon as I could and by the time I got out the bus had also arrived. Most of the people on it looked happy and undisturbed by their journey. They spoke of seeing lava shooting out of the top of an active volcano on their way back. I’d slept through that part, so I didn’t get to see it. At least I was alive, though.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Thursday, March 24, 2005

Boy, I did NOT want to get up Thursday morning. The three days of clinics had finally caught up to me and despite getting a good 8 hours of sleep I was quite unwilling to stir at 6 a.m. I made it til 6:15 before the chorus of unanswered travel alarms that get louder and more irritating the longer they go unanswered just wouldn’t let me slumber any more. (Did everyone get together and agree to buy the same maddening travel alarm?)

Not even coffee at breakfast had much effect at waking me up. While at breakfast, I also discovered that the shirt I had worn—the allegedly fresh clean, though still slightly damp shirt from my wash the night before—was not in fact fresh nor was it clean. It was down right sour-smelling. Turns out only the first t-shirt I washed really got clean, while the other shirts, shorts, socks and undies I’d washed afterwards were contaminated by the stinky water from the clothes before them and had not been rinsed properly. I couldn’t face being stanky all day, so I had to run change shirts before we left.

We drove back to Pasaco for the week’s final day of clinic. There was already a huge crowd gathered outside the Palacio and we could barely get through the doors. Evidently, the mayor of the neighboring town had been true to his word that he was sending everyone he could.

I’m sorry to say that my mood didn’t really improve once we were in the pharmacy and the clinic got underway. I wasn’t so much cranky as just very lethargic. After a bit, I realized that I was probably dehydrated. I usually slept with a bottle of water at my side in case I needed a drink during the night. Unfortunately, at some point the previous night, I’d rolled over and knocked it over the side of my bunk and possibly down onto Andrew’s head. I’d not had much to drink since, save for the coffee at breakfast, which doesn’t count because it’s a diuretic. After that discovery, I start chugging water and within 10 minutes I felt back up to speed.

Instead of David or Whitney as our pharmacy assistants, we had Jenna. She’s from New Jersey and is enrolled at Word of Life’s New York Bible Institute for a year-long program designed to help prepare her for the mission field. About the only thing I knew about Jenna was from her testimony at our evening meeting the night before and from Dr. Allen, who told me that she speaks fluent Hebrew. We were all terribly impressed that a young lady like herself would have gone through the amount of work necessary to learn Hebrew, a phenomenally hard language to master. Then we found out that while she had done all the work to learn it, she had done so over the course of her entire life, as one of her parents is Jewish and Jenna had spent a lot of time at Hebrew School. She was still a smart cookie and a quick study in the pharmacy. We were glad to have her along.

For most of the week’s clinics, Jenna had been helping the missionary staff with witnessing. I think there may have been some trade-off on Thursday, though, because one our team members from West Virginia, Larnie, went to help with the missions. One of the gospel sharing techniques was to use a beaded bracelet that worked to tell of Jesus’s sacrifice exactly the way the wordless book does. By the end of the day Larnie had heard the gospel explained this way in Spanish so much that she’d memorized it and was able to start reciting it from memory to the people she witnessed to. And with great results.

As for the pharmacy, we were far busier than on any other day that week. There was very little down time at all throughout the day and the three of us and Esdras were kept hopping. Unfortunately, Esdras had caught a cold somewhere along the way, no doubt from germs on the patient histories he’s been handling for three days now. The rest of us have been hand-sanitizing like fiends, (particularly after coming out of the mayor’s bano), but I don’t think Esdras had very much. The cold was also slowly making his voice go hoarse. I’d been feeling pretty invulnerable to contagious illnesses, because I’d just gotten over a nasty cold a couple of weeks before we left and figured my immune system was pretty strong. I feel bad that we didn’t take more precautions with Esdras and the other vital support staff.

In the morning, we got a prescription from Dr. Lally that called for a medication to be cut into a dosage of 1/8 of a pill. We could see from the patient’s history that it was for a baby of only a few months age. It would be important to give such a tiny dose, but I didn’t think we were capable of cutting pills that small. Mary Ann’s pocket knife was no longer very sharp and had been smashing pills up as we just tried to cut them in half. And our pill cutter was no good either, since it only worked on round pills and these were long pills.

I’m sorry to say that my reaction to this problem was to become intensely frustrated. I was mad that yet another doc was asking us to do something that was beyond our means, expecting us to react like real pharmacists would. Mary Ann suggested I go ask Dr. Lally what we should do, since we weren’t able to fill the prescription as written. Dr. Lally said that she couldn’t give the child any more than 1/8 of a pill. She asked me what I thought we could do about it.

Let me make sure you read this correctly: The doctor was asking me my opinion as to a medical matter. I, of course, had no idea, but the fact that she was asking me, in all seriousness and as though she believed I did have a clue, just floored me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, it made me want to be a better fake-Shemp-pharmacist.

I admitted to Dr. Lally that I was stumped. The only solution she saw other than cutting them was to crush them up and make a suspension liquid with them. However, not being even a fake chemist, I had no idea how to do that either. I figured Mary Ann probably could, but it didn’t seem like a very appealing solution. My mind suddenly felt convicted that I hadn’t even attempted to do what had been asked of me before coming up to whine about it. So I told Dr. Lally that I would go and make the attempt to cut the pills into 8ths and if I failed I could always smash up all the bits and find someone to help me make a suspension with them. And the thing was, when I went back to try it, I was entirely successful in my pill-cutting! I just cut the pills in half, then that half in half, then each fourth in half. It was actually quite easy and the knife didn’t smash any of them up at all.

It was just one more sign that I hadn’t quite learned the lesson of what medical mission work is all about. We weren’t all there to do jobs we already knew how to do. Only a few of us were in that position, and even they were called above and beyond their training on occasion. What we were really there for was to do the best job we could at the task assigned us and to seek help when we couldn’t. I had just reacted to the problem as though it was something not in my job description. I forgot that on a trip like this, there are no solid job descriptions.

Ashley and I got to go to lunch together again. She said she was starting to feel tired of hearing the same complaint from nearly every patient, which was, “I have a headache, I feel bad and it hurts when I pee.”

Through her translator, Ashley would ask, “Are you drinking enough water?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How much water do you drink per day?”

“Five glasses.”

“Five big glasses?”

“Oh, no. Five little glasses,” they, to a person, would say, indicating something the size of an orange juice glass. These are people, mind you, who walk nearly everywhere they go, in the hot sun, and often stand all day long, in the hot sun, selling fruit.

“You have to drink more water!”

More water?” they would ask, as if such a thing were impossible.

“Si! Mas Agua! Two liters a day!”

At lunch Ashley told me, “No wonder it hurts when they pee. They’re peeing solid crystals!”

Our lunch was much more in line with what we were looking for on Thursday. Once again we were served tortillas and refried beans, but we also were given fried chicken, fruit and salad. There was also more of the local soft cheese and sour cream, which I smeared on tortillas with beans and a firey green chili sauce, which I hoped would kill off anything unpleasant in the food.

I’m not sure that it did.

That afternoon my stomach began feeling a bit odd and upset. Nothing I could really take offense about at first, but I could tell it was the sort of thing that was slowly building toward a climax and I just hoped that climax would occur some time well after we got back to camp. Coincidentally, the mayor’s bano chose that moment to stop working altogether. The water in the sink refused to run, the toilet wouldn’t flush and in fact seemed to have been clogged with toilet paper! Now you KNOW the locals hadn’t clogged the toilet with paper, so it had to have been one or more Gringos. And even though we all knew better, I imagine someone had simply forgotten the rule about dumping your soiled paper in the little bin by the commode and then been too squeamish to reach in and fish it out. Either that or they noticed that the little bin by the commode hadn’t been changed in a couple of days and was now quite full and quite foul and had no more room for ANY soiled paper. The interior of the toilet bowl itself was a sight I shall spare you all the details of, except to say that horrific is a word that came immediately to mind. Eventually, the attention of someone in power at the Palacia was called to this problem. They came and had a look and seemed pretty horrified themselves. Then they went away (some say fled), declaring the mayor’s restroom to be inoperable.

These were omens that did not bode well for the tempest that continued to rage in my gut for much of the afternoon. I hoped and prayed I could make it.

Alyssa was back on the job, but had begun feeling ill again as well. Ashley told me later that Alyssa had come to her station at one point to ask if there was anything Ash could do to help her. Ashley talked with her about her symptoms and decided to try some more manipulation techniques. The trouble was, everything Ashley did made Alyssa aggressively more ill to the point that the girl turned green and threw up.

Around 3:30, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. The gut-tempest wanted out and not through the front door. I also knew there was no way I was going to use the Mayor’s bano if I could possibly avoid it. The only other option I knew about was the bano across the main hall, in the heart of the dental team’s territory. Only the sign on the door was flipped around to read OCCUPIED. And it stayed occupied for ten grueling minutes. My stomach ached terribly and I finally decided that I would go and knock on the door on the off chance that someone had actually vacated the bano and just forgot to turn the “Occupied” sign back around to “Vacant”. I went across the main hallway and to the bano’s door. I then realized that even if I knocked I would never hear a response because the dental team had chosen to store their air-compressor in that bano and it was currently making loud farty sounds of its own at a very high volume. I knocked anyway and waited. No response but the compressor’s roar. Then, preparing to avert my eyes at the first sign of an occupant, I opened the door. It was blissfully vacant.

Once inside the bano, I saw why there was a need for an Occupied/Vacant sign. This bano also had no handle on the inside of the door other than a piece of vinyl twine. Did no bano in this building have a lock? I wrapped the twine around a nail and hoped it would hold should someone attempt what I just had. I then proceeded to sit down to, er… “release the tempest,” as it were. Let me just add that I was eternally thankful that the near deafening compressor was in there, for it was drowning out any unpleasant noises I was making.

After that I felt much better.

Thursday afternoon, I returned to giving out pen-lights to kids. I saw one little boy who didn’t have any toys at all and flashed the light in his direction. He jumped back, as though it were a laser. I blinked the light at him a couple of more times and passed it to him, then showed him how to flash it himself. He dashed away and soon returned with his little sister. The sister was too shy to ask for a light, but I gave one to the brother to give to her and she grinned at me. Soon they had another friend and I gave him a light too. A little while later, the first little boy came over and gestured to me to lean over and whispered something to me in Spanish. I tried to tell him my standard reply in such situations, “Hablo mui piquito Espanol” (I speak very little Spanish). He said it again. This time I heard him say something about “caro.” I gestured for him to say it to Esdras, who listened and then told me, “He wants to know if you have a little car.”

Did I have a car? Oh, boy did I ever. I had only brought my own personal collection of Hotwheels cars, which amounted to four or five toy cars that I’d had since me and my friends used to use them to play the Car Wars card game like big nerds back in college. I’d brought them for just this purpose. I told the little boy “Un momento,” then dashed into the pharmacy for my backpack. Unfortunately, I’d neglected to transfer the cars from the pocket of my carry on bag into the backpack, so I didn’t have any with me after all. Surely someone in one of the other clinics had a toy car somewhere. I gestured for the boy to wait there again, then zipped from clinic station to clinic station looking for toy cars. I found toys of every shape except that of a car. ARGH! I hated to do it, but I had to return to the little boy and say, “Lo siento. No caro.” I expected the little boy to be crushed by the news, but he just grinned and went back to his friends. I would have loved to have given him one of my cars. Unfortunately, I would be giving no children cars on this journey because of an inconvenient rip in one of the vinyl side pockets of my carryon duffle bag. I had tried to duct-tape it shut before we left the United States, but the tape had not held. All of my cars had evidently been in that pocket and had fallen out during their journey from America. I imagined that at that moment, the child of a baggage handler somewhere was probably playing with the really wicked-sweet toy car daddy found on the tarmac. (And his infant brother was probably drinking our Enfamil!) That was fine. As long as someone’s kid was enjoying them, it was okay by me.

That afternoon, not long after my adventures in the bano, we were paid a visit by a former patient from the day before. I had gone to ask Dr. Allen a question in his clinic room that he shared with Ashley and Andrew. I hadn’t yet asked my question when one of our translators, Astrid, came in accompanied by a local woman who was carrying a plate of tamales. The tamales looked exactly like tamales should: little warm packages of dough and meat and spices wrapped in honest to God corn husks. And she’d then put each corn husk-tamale in a sandwich baggie; a whole plate of them, piled high, piping hot and smelling wonderful.

Astrid got everyone’s attention and then said, “This is one of our patients from yesterday. She was so happy that we helped her that she baked this plate of tamales to say thank you to us.”

We all stood there, staring at the tamales that we really wanted to, but didn’t dare, eat. They had almost certainly been prepared with local water and were possibly microbe ridden. I was especially wary, being as how I’d already had one potential run in with microbial results less than an hour earlier. No one moved. The lady continued to stand there, holding her plate of hot tamales and smiling at us. She didn’t speak a word of English. Astrid continued to smile widely at us, through slightly clenched teeth, and reiterated, “She brought them for us to have to say thank you for helping her.” Her smile then became tighter and teeth more clenched and she began nodding at us as she spoke. “So we should ALL. TAKE. ONE. Since she spent time making them for us.”

It then occurred to us how extremely rude it would be not to take one and that we didn’t necessarily have to eat them even if we took them.

“Gracias! Gracias!” we all said, lining up for a tamale.

Ashley ate hers right away. I was far more hesitant, considering my stomach, but I held onto it.

Despite the fact that we saw far more patients than the day before, we actually finished up clinic earlier than expected. Our last patient was out by 6:15 or so and then we were able to pack up the pharmacy. This was a little frustrating, because my brain had, as usual, stopped working so well a couple of hours before and so I couldn’t really focus on telling all the people that kept asking how they could help what to do. This didn’t make them stop asking me, though, so I began getting grumpier and grumpier until I just shoved a bag at them and told them to start stuffing it with supplies. To their credit, they were all very patient with me and didn’t seem to take offense at my less than polite behavior. None of them were any less tired than I was. Before we’d gotten everything packed up, the chief of police returned to reclaim his office. He surveyed the rearranged furniture and occasional stray pills, as we did our best to clean up our trash and haul away our things.

All that we needed to do now was wait for the dental team to finish up. Since they had long since run out of local patients, they had offered to do dental checkups for any of the Guatemalan staff who wanted one.

Outside, I sat with Esdras on the Palacio’s sidewalk. I’d been dreading this moment for a while now. See, it’s a mission tradition to bring thank-you gifts to give to your translators. However, I had not brought anything with me that I thought was particularly suitable. Oh, sure, I’d brought a WV University t-shirt and had even considered giving away my watch. However, I’d managed to get Deet bug-repellent on the watch, which had eaten away the its lettering and permanently scoured the surface of its face. (It was a pretty cheap watch to begin with, too.) And the WV t-shirt was about three sizes too big for Esdras’s slight build. I just felt awful that I didn’t have anything approaching adequate to say how thankful I was at having had him there to translate for us. He’d been superb at the job and deserved more than a crappy watch or a tent of a t-shirt. In the end, I decided that I would get his addresss and send him something nicer. I still wanted to give him something then, though. I decided I would instead give Esdras my own stainless steel penlight. I explained that it too was inadequate to express my thanks, but it had served me well while I’d owned it and would hopefully serve him well too.

Esdras and some of the other translators soon ran off to play basketball. They invited me, but after my gut-wrenching afternoon I didn’t know if I could stand it.

After learning that Ashley had eaten her tamale from earlier to no ill effects, I opened mine and ate it. It was cold, but it was very very good. We then stood there talking to some of the other mission team as we watched the full moon rise above the square. We had just been in a long discussion of how it’s a proven phenomenon that strange cases always arrive in Emergency Rooms during a full moon, when I happened to glance over and saw that there was a man standing close to Mary Ann and Dr. Allen who was the creepiest dude I’ve seen in a long time. He was wearing what appeared to be dress-pants and a white button up shirt, but his face screamed Asylum Escapee. He looked menacing and angry and curious all at the same time and just stood there staring at us as we continued to chat. I was a little afraid he might go for Mary Ann’s neck and was wondering what I would do if he did. He didn’t. Instead, he wandered off toward the Palacia where Dr. Lally was giving out candy. Soon after, he wandered INTO the Palacia itself. Evidently this creepy guy either had an in with the police or he was just too crazy to care.

The Dental Team was still hard at work when Marcello told the rest of us to load up and head out cause he was taking us back to camp. On the way, he announced that the camp had purchased a new transformer to accompany the new water pump and it had been installed. This meant that that night we could have all the A/C we wanted. We were nearly moved to tears at this news. Even better was when we reached camp and I walked into our cabin to find that someone had already turned both air-conditioners on full blast and the whole building was little chunk of sub-arctic heaven. Whenever anyone walked through the door, their immediate reaction was to stop in their tracks, grin and say, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

We were back a good hour before supper was to be served so I figured it would be a fine time to revisit my laundry needs. Since I’d only done a small fraction of my laundry the night before, and poorly, I figured it was time I did it up right.

I went down to the kitchen and borrowed a bucket, then went back to the cabin and dumped all my filthy clothes into it. My Woolite was still lying atop my bed in its former water-bottle home, so I grabbed it and the bucket, then headed for the bano. In one of our shower stalls, I poured water into the bucket, then added a little Woolite. Ashley had told me to use only a little Woolite when washing as a little of it was supposed to go a long way. However, this Woolite wasn’t producing many suds. I added the rest of the bottle and it still wasn’t making any suds at all. Stupid dud Woolite. I figured, though, that I probably just had too many clothes in the bucket or something.

So I’m washing and washing and no suds are happening and therefore, in my mind, my clothes are getting no cleaner. I finally went and got my bar of soap and chunked it into the bucket too. That got me a few suds. I sloshed and washed the rest of the clothes and then rinsed them out under the shower nozzle. I then took them outside and hung them on the warm concrete steps to dry during the night. I was feeling pretty good about the whole process and was safe in the knowledge that my laundry was now all done. That’s when I went back to the cabin and found that my REAL water-bottle full of Woolite was still resting atop my bed. That’s right, I’d grabbed the wrong water bottle and had actually washed my clothes using only WATER instead of Woolite.

At camp that night, we ate very well. We’d had a full four days of clinics and we were now finished with it and had two days of more leisurely activity ahead of us. We were ready to relax–or as our fearless leader Rick Brooks put it, “unlax.” Our food was authentic local cuisine as prepared by the fantastic kitchen staff. It was laid out buffet style and we all got in line quick.

Ashley and I sat down to consume our grub. Emilio and two other members of the local missionary staff joined us. No one talked much, but this was mostly due to the fact that we were too busy stuffing our faces and not so much that we didn’t speak the same language. Through a complex series of sign-language moves, Emilio indicated to me that the food we were eating that night was the real deal, unlike what we thought had been good food back at the cocina in Pasaco. I was hard pressed to argue. Though Emilio didn’t speak much English, I’m pretty sure he understood a lot more of it than I’d given him credit for earlier. As we wound up our meal, he listened to Ashley as she retold to some of our tablemates her earlier complaints about her patients not drinking enough water he and nodded and laughed along with us. The other two guys at the table spoke even less English than Emilio, but they seemed to want to share in the fun too. At one point, I think they heard us speaking about the fact that none of us had thought to grab any water on our way from the buffet line and now it was all gone from the beverages table. Our two tablemates got up and went to the camp’s cooler and returned with water bottles for all of us. Once again, I’d misjudged the skills of the locals. We thanked them with a round of graciases (probably the most used Spanish word of the week). While none of us spoke very much of the other’s language, it was a good time to just hang out together.

Rick and Butch and Marcello took the floor and congratulated us on the clinics we’d accomplished and began telling us what they had planned for us for the next two days. On Friday we would be sleeping in and breakfast would not be served until 9:30a. This received a cheer from all sides. Then, many of our translators and missionary staff would be leaving for Guatemala City to spend Good Friday with their families for Holy Week celebrations. This received sounds of disappointment from the Gringos. We didn’t want them to leave. However, it was explained that Holy Week celebrations were similar in nature to Thanksgiving for us, and it was a time for families to gather and celebrate together. The fact that so many of our team would be leaving made me feel even more guilty that I had not sat with Esdras for dinner that evening. This would be one of the last times we’d get to see each other, barring future mission trips. I think a lot of the American side of the team came to a similar realization at that point and the mood of the group darkened a little.

Marcello continued with our itinerary, saying that after breakfast we would drive to Antigua, where we would see some of the elaborate and internationally reknowned Holy Week festivities. A trip to Antigua had been discussed earlier in the week, but it had been felt at the time that the city would be too busy to be able to get very close to the heart of it, so it might not be ideal. Now it seemed thoughts had changed on the matter. I think the trip itself was good enws for everyone, just not as good news as it would have been if everyone were going.

It seemed like things were turning into a downer of an evening, so I decided to try and liven things up. We’d reached a portion of the evening when many of the team-members were speaking to the group about their experiences during the week, so I signaled Marcello and Butch that I had one to share too. Soon they brought me up and, with Marcello translating, I told the tale of my misadventures with the Woolite. It was not something I’d planned or rehearsed, but I’m a good speaker and know the basics for timing such a story. It was a much more condensed version than my account here, because I could only tell little bits of it before those bits had to be translated. However, it was kind of fun to get to the punchline of the story, (“And there… on my bed… was my real water bottle full of Woolite…”) and get two sets of laughs, once when the Americans heard my version and again when the locals heard Marcello’s translation.

After this, Marcello explained to us that the Guatemalan team wished to give us a each a small gift to remember our time there and thank us for the work we had done. They brought out hand-carved wooden clocks with the word “Guatemala” carved into on them.

We heard a number of the Guatemalan staff speak that night, telling us how much the mission had meant to them and how happy they were to have been a part of it. It made me proud all over again that we were able to join with the national team and accomplish something bigger than ourselves.

After the meeting had adjourned, one of the two mission-staffers who had brought us the water earlier came up and handed me some money. It was a bill worth twenty cordobas, which is the currency in Nicaragua. He began speaking to me in Spanish, but had gone far beyond my limited translation abilities so I asked Astrid to come over and translate. She said his name was Fernando and he was from Nicaragua. He wanted to give me the money as a souvenir from his country. I thanked him and accepted it. Only after we’d spoken a bit more and said good night did it occur to me that I could have given him a souvenir bill in return. Granted, I didn’t think that 20 cordobas came anywhere close to equaling 20 dollars, but perhaps I had something equivalent. I tracked down Marcello, who was speaking to Rick, and explained that a staffer had given me 20 cordobas as a souvenir and asked them how much the bill was worth. I should have phrased my question better, I think, because they seemed to take what I’d asked as though I wanted to know how much it was worth so I could go trade it in for that amount of dollars. They, in turn, had to “break the news to me” that the bill was probably only worth 20 cents and that I wasn’t getting rich off that.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said, a bit peeved that I’d not been clear. “I don’t care how much it’s worth. I was just asking so I could trade an equivalent amount of dollars back as a souvenir.”

They gave me the perplexed look again and shrugged, so I figured it was just best to walk away. I didn’t have any small bills and I didn’t think handing Fernando a quarter was very nice.

There were plenty of activities going on that night: Butch had set up his laptop’s DVD player to show movies and there was talk of a Gringo Vs. Locals (locos) basketball game. I didn’t want to stay up for any of it, though. I wanted to head back up, get a shower and crawl into my semi-dusty bunk for some shut-eye in our hopefully freezing cabin. And this I did.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 4 STATS
Patients Seen: 498
Prescriptions Filled: 451
Salvations/Rededications: 194

TOTALS FOR THE WEEK
Patients Seen: 1983
Prescriptions Filled: 1752
Salvations/Rededications: 631

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Clinic Day 3

I decided to go out and scout around the camp a little Wednesday moring to take some more pictures. Even though I had been at the camp for over two days, I had not really had a good look at the place. This time I walked down the in-progress stone drive/walk way all the way to the lake where I got some gorgeous shots of the sunrise over the still surface of the water. A few minutes later, the net fisherman returned, far across the lake, and began casting their morning nets. There were mango trees all along the edge of the lake. As I walked near to one, a mango fell from high in the tree and hit the ground with a tremendous smack that sounded like it would have hurt had anyone been on the receiving end. I’m continually amazed at this country and the fruit trees that are everywhere.

Our new clinic site was in the town of Pasaco, which Marcello told us was about five minutes from camp. The last time we’d heard any destination was 5 minutes from camp, it turned out to be 20 minutes from camp. This time it was only ten minutes, though, so we thought Marcello’s Gringo-Time guestimation was improving.

Pasaco was a tiny but very pretty and picturesque town. It didn’t feel as urban as Chiquimuilla did and there was not as much traffic. We were thankful for this, as there felt like barely enough room for our busses. I was again amazed at Oswald’s ability to maneuver ours through such tiny streets. The more we rode with him the more we loved him. Oswald seemed like a pretty cool cat too and never failed to say “Ereek” whenever I boarded his bus. There was some debate around this point in the journey as to whether his name was Oswald or Oswalt. Finally, Ashley asked him point blank and he said that it’s pronounced Oswald, “like the name of the man who killed President Kennedy.” Ah. This, however, would not be the last mystery we would encounter with Oswald’s name.

The clinic site was in the Palacio (city hall), located on what looked to be Pasaco’s town-square. There was a decorative tower in the middle of the square, surrounded by a grassy fenced park where roosters strutted. Along the edges of the square were cocinas (restaurants) and shops and a beautiful white church. There was also a long line of wrecked vehicles. (Looking back on the photos, it might have been fun to make jokes about them having been the first several cars owned by Marcello, but at the time I was still two days away from learning the true terror that is Marcello’s driving.)

The Palacio itself was the seat of Pasaco’s government not to mention the police station for the area. The building was under quite a bit of construction at the time, as they were trying to add a second floor onto the existing first floor. Therefore, there was a lot of exposed rebar and concrete block work to be seen. Our team was pretty much given the run of the entire building and Marcello had already worked out where most of the clinic stations would be located within it.

Our new pharmacy was to be located inside the police chief’s personal office, which was the first office in a corridor that split off about mid-way down the Palacia’s main hallway. Further down our side corridor was the office of the mayor and another city-governmental office. Then, directly across the main hallway from our corridor was another corridor that lead to two large multi-person offices where the dental team would set up. The Palacio’s main hallway lead further into the building itself, where it opened on a very large area, like a garage or recreational area, painted green. This was where the pre-waiting room and mission area would be set up. From the large green area there were other rooms off to the left where Dr. Allen, Ashley and Andrew would have their clinic area and a set of somewhat scary looking but ultimately sturdy concrete steps that lead to the still under construction second story where the pediatrics ward would be housed.

Our pharmacy office was very neat and tidy and was a far bigger space than the cage we’d been in before. It also came with three desks, offering plenty of space for counting pills and not getting in each other’s way too much. It didn’t, however, have much in the way of usable shelving. Fortunately, we’d planned ahead.

That morning during breakfast, Dr. Allen and Ashley had hit upon the notion that since we didn’t know what kind of shelving we could expect, we should bring our own in the form of two of the wooden benches that were set up on either side of our meal-tables. The benches were probably twelve feet in length and, if stacked, would give us two twelve foot long shelves with space beneath. We’d hauled them over in Oswald’s bus and found that they worked perfectly when stacked atop two of the office’s desks. Brilliant! We ran to find all of our alphabetically sorted bags and began loading up the shelves and desks with meds. Clinic setup was pretty simple after that.

We decided that we would not allow patients into the office itself, but that we would bring their finished prescriptions out to them. To this effect, we set up a fourth small desk in the corridor outside where it backed up against the closed half of the gated doorway that lead into the main hall and we strung a rope across the open other side. Our plan was to let the patients line up along the hallway and we could take their prescriptions. Esdras would mostly be stationed at the desk in the hall to translate for us.

The weather was still very hot and the building was pretty much an open windows affair like the last one. However, we had the added advantage of having four, count `em 4, fans in the Pharmacy Office. FOUR! Frankly, we were embarrassed to have so many because we really only needed one, maybe two, for the office itself and one for Esdras in the hallway. So throughout the day, we kept trying to give away our extra fans, but we got no takers because there were so very few power outlets in the building that there was often no place to plug them. We’d already exhausted our outlets with power-strips and had extension cords running out the windows to bring power to other areas of the complex. And even then, we kept running over the cords with the office chairs and unplugging them, which must have driven Esdras crazy in the hallway to have his fan keep cutting out. He never said a word, though, and I found myself keeping watch over the cords and fans to make sure they were all running smoothly and he could get air.

I think the drugs we dispensed the most throughout the two weeks of mission clinics were vitamins. We brought an enormous supply of them too, being as we knew we would need a lot and so that’s one of the drugs we primarily asked for donations for. It’s a good thing we had them too.

We had a huge supply of children’s chewable vitamins, most arriving in standard drug-store sized bottles, but others having been donated by our local pharmacist that came in giant Sam’s Club style pill bottles. We also had a ready supply of adult vitamins and prenatal vitamins. The prenatals came as sampler packets from the drug companies, usually little round blister cards of 5 pills each. Before leaving for the trip, our local team members had held a packing party to get everyone’s supplies packed and weighed and we had used that time to divide up the prenatals and put six of these 5 pill cards into sandwich baggies for a month’s dose. These were kept in a giant black suitcase that was nearly bursting with them. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to dispense many of them during the first week because we had only a few pregnant women come through the clinic. However, the children’s and adult vitamins went out with nearly every prescription.

The local people are huge believers in the power of vitamins. Our doctors found that the patients thought that just about any ailment they might have could be cleared up with a strong application of vitamins. So when they asked for vitamins, they got vitamins, in addition to the other more effective medicines they really needed. As Dr. Allen explained to us, medicine is often more art than science, and if a patient believes something is going to help them they will often get better despite how much that drug may be inappropriate to treat their condition. So Dr. Allen tended to prescribe both the effective drugs and the ineffective ones, figuring one or the other would do the trick.

The only major trouble with this plan is that kids LOVE the taste of vitamins, and you couldn’t give the vitamins directly to the kids or they would be dashing away popping them like candy. So we had to give them to the parents and explain to them that the kids were to take no more than “Uno Por Dia.” Often, the parents would nod and then hand the baggie right to the kids, who would dash away and likely consume them all. (I didn’t actually witness any child doing this, but Ashley did on her previous trip.)

Now, it’s not such a bad thing for a kid to eat a month’s supply of run of the mill chewable vitamins. It’s not ideal, but they’ll process them okay. However, some children were iron deficient and required a children’s vitamin with iron. Most over the counter Flintstones chewables don’t come equipped with Iron, so we brought a different brand that did and stored them in a totally separate location and bottle from the regular children’s vitamins and had not pre-dosed them because we did NOT want any confusion. A kid takes too much Iron at once and bad things can happen. So we had Esdras stress and explain the importance of keeping the vitamins with Iron away from the children except for one per day and told the parents that it would make their kids sick if they ate any more than that. Then we prayed they had listened.

Unfortunately, as the prescriptions started coming in on Wednesday, we discovered that all but our prenatal vitamins were missing. Not that they’d been taken, or anything. They simply hadn’t been among the meds in the bags we had located and were therefore still in one that we hadn’t. I left the pharmacy and scouted around all the other clinic areas to find it. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure I had been the guy to pack them and didn’t remember what their bag looked like.

As I was starting my search, I passed by the mission area, which was situated on the other side of a wall in the Palacio’s garage. It had close to 15 pairs of plastic chairs set up where members of the mission team sat. Those people from the waiting area who wanted to hear more about the gospel than just the message Pastor Douglas preached and the testimony given earlier by Andrew, could go and speak one on one with one of the missionaries. I’d not seen the missionary area in Chiquimuilla, except in photographs, but this one was amazing. The missionaries who were there talking to the patients all beamed with joy as they shared the gospel message. And while I expected to find more patients who were unwilling to listen or who might be there simply for the medical treatment and going through the motions, I didn’t see that at all. The response I could see on their faces was genuine and touching.

After asking around about vitamins to little effect, I finally went into the dental area where I eventually found them. Turns out the bag had been lumped in with the dental team’s things and then stored under a table to get it out of the way.

I made a few mistakes early in the day in the pharmacy and was unhappy about it. Nothing major, but definitely a miscalculation on my part. My big actual screw up of the day came later. We’d received what I thought was a standard prescription for a Amoxyl. I marked a medicine cup appropriately and asked Esdras to give them the Amoxyl speech, for the standard 250 mg 1 teaspoon dose. Unfortunately, after the patient had been instructed and had left the clinic, Mary Ann discovered that the prescription had actually called for a half teaspoon dose. This is one of the real troubles with not being a real pharmacist and trying to play one—when most drugs are pre-dosed, you have to pay strict attention when the docs sta

rt calling for different dosages. You also have to pay attention to the age of the child, as reported on the patient history, which might indicate to you to look for a smaller dose. Naturally, I didn’t take this screw up on my part very well. I was, in fact, mad about it, both at

myself for having been lax in my observations and at Dr. Allen for not marking things clearer so that non-pharmacists such as myself had a better chance at catching such changes. In reality, he’d marked it perfectly clearly, but a pharmacy as busy as ours tends to fall into a fast-food assembly line mentality when so many of the same things are ordered. Following that metaphor, once in a while, you’ll get an order for a burger with no onions and you have to be ready for it. It was a good lesson to learn and, fortunately for the child in question, not one that would result in anything more serious than a little diarrhea. This was not the first nor the last time that things would get screwed up due to my efforts.

One thing I might have had good reason to be cranky about was the bano situation. In the Palacia, there were a limited number of banos available. Two of them were side by side at the far end of the dental wing corridor. However, one of the was being used for sterilization of instruments while the other had a PRIVATE MISSION TEAM RESTROOM sign on the door as well as an OCCUPIED/EMPTY sign. The only other bano that I knew about was in the mayor’s office, which was further down the corridor that the pharmacy was located on. The mayor had made himself scarce for the duration of the clinics, but we’d been told we could use his bano.

As far as Central American bano’s go, his was not atypical, but it was also not ideal. For one thing, the door didn’t have a handle on the inside and would stick tight in its frame when closed. Once inside, therefore, you had no guarantee of getting out until someone heard your screams for help. For another, while the toilet did “work” and the sink did “work”, there was enough water (dear, Lord, I prayed it was water) on the floor to suggest something was leaking somewhere. And while there was also soap at the sink, the hand-drying towel was filthy enough that you didn’t really want to touch it, let alone dry anything on it. Being as how this was one of the only banos available, though, it was used by just about everyone at some point in the day.

We didn’t have David to assist us in the pharmacy that morning, but we did have help from Whitney, the 18-year-old daughter of one of the mid-wives on the WV portion of the team. If she hadn’t done mission pharmacy work before, she sure took to it pretty quickly.

My Spanish skills, while not near conversational, were starting to get better and I was starting to recall more of what I’d learned in college. Edsras gave me some more pointers and graciously corrected me when I messed up. So, instead of saying “Uno por dia” or “Dos por dias” to patients, I had graduated to “Dos diarias.” I felt like I sounded like I knew what I was saying, but I must have been speaking with a foreign accent because many patients gave me a confused look when I tried Spanish on them.

I spoke with Esdras some more about his future plans. He’d mentioned an interest in computers the day before and how one day he might like to come to the states to go to college to do more with them. I ask him how that process might work. He said that mostly it’s very difficult for Guatemalans to get visas to study in America. And when it is possible, there is a lot of bureaucratic red tape to wade through. He asked what school might be good to attend for computer training. I told him that Mississippi State University, my alma mater, had a decent computer science department. Plus Mississippi is hot and humid too, so if he was able to go there it would be a lot like living at home.

We had a sudden rush around lunch-time and even though Whitney and I had been told to go on the first lunch shift, I didn’t feel like I could leave Mary Ann in the lurch like that. Then to our rescue came David H., our erstwhile 16-year old pharmacy vet from yesterday. He agreed to stay and help Mary Ann so we could go eat.

Lunch was at a little cocina across the square. There were tables out front, but we’d been told to go into the cocina itself, which meant walking through the kitchen of the cocina (or, the kitchen of the kitchen) and into the covered patio/cooking area in back. The smells were exactly the kind of smells you want to have coming out of a Central American cocina—all refried beans and meat and tortillas and guacamole. I caught sight of some of that sort of fare too and was looking forward to it.

On the patio in back there were more tables and the familiar faces of the mission staff, including Ashley. This would be our first time to eat lunch together since Sunday. I sat down and we soon began a table-wide discussion of all the fabulous food we could see on other people’s tables and how we were looking forward to having some. We also watched one of the ladies who worked there as she prepared food by an enormous oven near the far wall. She was grinding cornmeal dough between two rocks, then slapping patties of it on the large concave oven surface to bake into tortillas. Aw, man, did we want some of that action!

Then our waitress came out and brought us each a ham & cheese sandwich topped with mystery sauce on white bread, some french fries and a tray of lettuce, tomatoes and fruit. We all looked down at our plates, then over to the food on the plates of the local customers and collectively thought, “We don’t want this. We want some of what they have.”

Not that we were ungrateful Gringos, or anything, because the ham sandwiches and fries were good. We just hoped that by coming to Central America we would be able to sample more of the local faire. The ladies in the kitchen back at the camp were great cooks and had given us kind of a sampling of local dishes, which were all very very good. However, we could never be certain that they weren’t just feeding us what they thought Gringos wanted to eat. We wanted real uncensored Central American food. Sure, we understood that eating what the locals ate might kill us, or make us at least wish we were dead, but frankly if it meant I got to eat the tortillas and beans I could see, I figured it might be worth it.

We must have looked pitiful as we slowly gnawed on our ham & cheese sandwiches, stealing coveting glances at the food around us. And someone must have eventually taken pity on us, because after ten minutes or so our waitress brought out a basket of piping hot tortillas, a plate of refried beans, some sour cream and soft local cheese. We all dove in without pausing for consideration and greedily feasted on what were probably the best beans and tortillas I’ve ever eaten. (Later, Emilio would tell me that what we had eaten really wasn’t very good, as such things go, and that there was far better out there. Could’ve fooled me, though.)

I relieved Mary Ann and David to go to lunch. And since Dr. Allen and some other doctors went with them, things naturally slowed down for us in the pharmacy, leaving me and Esdras to hang out waiting for the occasional prescription.

Another translator came up after a while bearing a Guatemala City newspaper. I thought he was bringing it in to show the latest football scores to Esdras, but he’d actually brought it for me. He turned it to the international news section and pointed out the main story which was about the school shooting in Red Lake, Minnesota. Esdras translated much of the story for me, explaining that the kid’s father had shot himself four years earlier and his mother was in a mental institution. I was afraid this sort of thing might happen. Not a school shooting, per se, but a big news story back home that I might or might not hear about until I get back, if even then. It reminds me of the three week theatre camp I used to attend in high school and was staff at through college. Every year, something would happen in the world or major world figures or celebrities would die and I would never know about it until seeing them in a year-end retrospective because I’d been in a three week news vacuum.

As sad as that news was, I was happy that our translators thought to let us know about a situation back home that they thought we would need to know about. Esdras wanted to know how a kid that young could get hold of the kind of weapons he did. Not knowing any details of the case, I could only guess that they were his father’s old guns. But I pointed out that with a dad that killed himself and a mom in a mental institution, this poor kid had a lot of bad stuff going against him. I’m certainly not making excuses for what he did, because that was horrible and nothing could justify it. I’m just saying, with family life like that it’s hard not to loose a few screws yourself.

While I had the newspaper out, I turned it to the comic-strip page. In addition to local and regional cartoons I wasn’t famliar with, there were quite a few of the usual American comic strips, in Spanish. Esdras translated Garfield for me, but it didn’t make sense to me.

Must be funny in Spanish.

Around 3:30, or so, Marcello came into the pharmacy and told us that the chief of police wanted some medication. The meds the chief wanted didn’t amount to anything huge. I think the man basically had frequent headaches and needed a bottle of Ibuprofen or something. It wasn’t as though he wanted to take a stock bottle, or anything. However, Mary Ann wasn’t dispensing pill one without a prescription and told Marcello that the chief would need to see a doctor like everyone else.

Now, I really don’t know anything about Central American law enforcement other than what I’ve seen in movies or read about in books. However, what I’d seen and read lead me to believe that denying the chief of police a handful of pills was not a good idea. Again, I could be wrong, but my impression was that Central American law enforcement works a bit differently than in the states and that its officers, particularly the leaders, are used to getting freebies and “tips” and having people do what they say. (Actually, that’s not really that different than how it sometimes works in the states, but it’s not how it’s supposed to work in the states.)

Part of me would love to have been there to see the chief’s face when Marcello explained that not only had we taken over his police station and kicked him out of his own office for two days, but we weren’t giving him any medicine either. Had to be a sight. I wasn’t really worried that the chief would do anything to us or kick the whole team out of the Palacia—after all we were there with the mayor’s blessing. It did still seem of questionable wisdom to turn him down like that, though.

I think Marcello realized pretty quickly he wasn’t getting through Mary Ann. But instead of having the chief stand in line like the rest of the patients, Marcello did an end-run around the issue and just went straight to Dr. Allen with the request. Dr. Allen wrote up a prescription and brought it to us himself and the chief got his baggie of pills.
The chief wasn’t the only person who was getting sick, though. Racine dental student Alyssa, always a bright and sunny young lady, was feeling mighty low too. It was probably a combination of the heat and maybe dehydration, but she got so sick she nearly passed out and Marcello had to send her back to camp to lie down.

At 4:30, right on time, my brain kicked out once again, but I didn’t feel nearly as worn out as at our other two clinics. Maybe this was because we had a plethora of fans on hand to keep us cool, but I just didn’t feel so bad. Things kind of slowed down a bit by then and I was able to go and sit with Esdras and some of the other translators and missionaries who had finished up their tasks for the day and had come to hang out. One of them called me “Doc” at one point and I had to correct him, “No es doctoro.” The last thing I wanted was to be mistaken for a doctor or to seem like I was trying to pretend I was a doctor in anyone’s eyes.

One of the translators asked me what sports I liked. I had to admit that I don’t follow sports at all, except for the Super Bowl, which I usually watch if only for the commercials. I told him that I did play Soccer when I was a kid, but nothing since. He seemed to like this, since soccer (football) is huge in Guatemala and, in fact, the Guatemalan national team was about to play in a major championship two days from then. The translator then asked me what I thought of a particular well-known player, who he named. Of course, I’d never heard of the player. I think the translator was quietly appalled that such a sports-ignorant creature as myself could be walking the earth, but he grinned and rolled with it well-enough.

We wrapped things up around 6:30 for our first day in Pasaco and headed back to camp. We wouldn’t need any more pills counted, but we had run low on a few key items. Our supply of Ranatidine (Zantac) was near its end, as was our supply of cough syrup.

Back at camp, during our evening meeting, we learned from Doctor Allen that he had left the clinic briefly to deliver the new wheelchair to the 89-year-old patient from Tuesday. When they arrived at her house, they found the lady waiting for them in her best dress. She was overjoyed with her new chair and cried and cried with them and they with her. She just kept thanking them and praising God. These are the kind of experiences I didn’t get to see much of while I was locked away in the pharmacy, but I’m happy to report them here. I really should have done this blog as a team project with one of the docs, (except that the docs don’ t tend to have a lot of time for blogging. Well, except this one, maybe).

We also learned from one of our key missionaries that the mayor of a different nearby town had traveled to Pasaco to see what this clinic thing was all about and to see a doctor himself. He didn’t ask for special treatment, but joined the other patients and was witnessed to by this particular missionary. The missionary knew who the mayor was, and was a bit nervous about sharing the gospel with such a locally powerful man at first. But he soldiered on and gave the message. The mayor listened and was moved by the missionary’s words. And at the end, when the missionary asked if the mayor would like to accept Christ into his life, the mayor responded that yes, he would. Right there, the missionary lead the man through the prayer of admitting that he was a sinner and that he believed Jesus was God’s son sent to die in our place so that we might achieve salvation. The missionary was amazed and pleased at the mayor’s acceptance and the mayor, for his part, just beamed with joy over it. After he’d seen a doctor and been treated, he promised that he would return to his town and tell everyone of the work we were doing and encourage them to come.

Alyssa, our sick dental student, was at the evening meal and meeting too. She said she was feeling better. After the meeting, Ashley helped her out by performing some OMT (Osteopathic Manipulation Techniques) on her. OMT is similar in nature to the manipulative techniques of Chiropractic medicine. However, Chiropractic originated as part of Osteopathy, not the other way around as many people assume. It also offers a wider range of manipulative techniques than Chiropractic, though I’m sure the point might be argued by Chiropractors. (Keep in mind, I’m certainly not knocking Chiropractic medicine, which I think is great stuff. It’s just that Osteopathic medicine has a wider range.) The basic premise of both is that your body is designed to operate best when your bones and joints are in their proper alignment. If they get out of alignment, the works can get gummed up and all sorts of bad things can happen. So Ash’s OMT was essentially trying to make sure Alyssa was firing with all cylinders. She said it helped.

I also had my own after-meeting duties to attend to in the form of washing clothes. Due to the fact that we had limited space in our luggage for clothing, Ashley and I only brought a few changes of clothes. I had probably four t-shirts, three pairs of shorts, a pair of corduroy slacks, a pair of blue-jeans, undies and a few pairs of socks. By Wednesday, much of my gear was quite soiled and stinky with the weeks’ wear. I’d been stashing it in the vacuum-seal bag I’d used to transport it, so it wouldn’t stink up the cabin, but now that bag was getting full. I needed to do laundry and, as there were no official laundry facilities, I would need to use some Woolite and good old fashioned elbow grease. Ash poured some of her Woolite into an empty water bottle for me and I headed up to my cabin. Unfortunately, I was also too tired and had too little space to hang things up to do my entire load of laundry. I woundup doing a few essentials, such as my T-shirts and undies. I washed them out in one of the bano sinks and hung them up around my bed to dry.

Dr. Rich thought this looked like a good idea too, but he preferred to use a bucket for his laundry, so he went out in search of one. When he came back, he said he’d gone down to the kitchen and asked one of the ladies there if he might borrow a bucket.

“She looked at me like I was speaking English,” Dr. Rich said.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 3 STATS
Patients Seen: 420
Prescriptions Filled: 463
Salvations/Rededications: 163

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Clinic Day 2
I awoke at 6a. Three days in on my Central American journey with much hard work and astoundingly I still didn’t ache at all. Not even my feet, which had stood for over 12 hours the day before (in flip-flops, no less!) had so much as a tingle of pain. Granted, I wasn’t going to make the mistake of wearing flip-flops to the clinic again–it was going to be Skechers all the way for me that day–but I was thankful not to be in the agony I expected. I hoped Ashley was in similar good foot health. Back home, I’m the guy who usually rubs her feet after she’s been on them all day. I guessed here she’d have to do it herself, or find someone else. She had mentioned yesterday that her feet and ankles were swollen from all the heat and standing. She’s not the only one in that boat, either. Beyond my own sausage-like calves, once down at the pavilion I saw quite a few other people, women and men both, trying to rub some of the blood out of their legs too.

Breakfast was eggs, black beans, pineapple, mango and cantalope, bacon and toast. It was wonderful! My usual low carb diet doesn’t allow me many black beans and I love black beans. So I took full advantage of my planned two weeks of cheating and chowed down.

At 7:30, after morning devotions, we loaded up our supplies and headed back to the bus station for Clinic Day 2.

Despite our hard work the day before, everyone seemed energetic and ready to go. Everyone but Flo. Flo is a good friend of ours from Ashley’s class in med-school. She’s just a wonderful soul all around, but that morning she looked as though she was about to fall over. Of all of the students on our team, Flo is probably the most experienced with mission work. This is her third two-week Central American mission trip. And just before flying to Guatemala, she had come from a six-week medical rotation/mission in China. It was a difficult rotation for her, during which she was stationed in an orphanage filled with children that had been abandoned by their parents due to birth-defects. Many of the children may yet receive operations to correct conditions such as cleft-pallets and the like, but others are far more difficult cases. We had been receiving e-mail updates from Flo throughout her time in China and knew that she was becoming more and more emotionally wiped out as the weeks passed. Her attitude throughout it, though, was one of faithful and obedient service to God. Unfortunately, Flo had been up for 36 hours on her way from China to Guatemala and her weakened system picked up a virus along the way and it was really keeping her energy down. I’d never before seen Flo with so little spark in her and it hurt to see her as miserable as I imagined she was that morning. I don’t think it mattered much to her, though. She’s a trooper when it comes to the work at hand and serving God.

After morning devotional, we headed back to the clinic site. So energetic was our mood that an impromptu limbo game broke out. Emilio won by quite a margin, but mostly it was just for fun.

Before we could even put away our freshly counted meds from the night before, Marcello brought us a present: our very own fan. Now we could have our own never-ending stream of blissful cooling wind. The fan made a huge difference in the comfort level of the pharmacy cage. We still had to contend with patients blocking the wind, but we angled it in such a way that it could usually blow through the door of the cage and still get to us.

We came out at 8 for our introductions to the crowd of patients. Just as we expected, there were far more patients on day two than day one. There had to be twice as many people there. As daunting as this might seem, though, it was all fine with us. After all, seeing and witnessing to as many patients as we could was why we were there in the first place.

Once the clinic began, we found that things felt better for us than they had on Monday. We didn’t change anything as far as the pharmacy’s layout went, but somehow we seemed to be better set up than the day before. Maybe we just had our sea-legs under us and know where everything was, but the work seemed to go far more smoothly. We also had additional help in the form of David, a 16-year-old kid from back home in WV who is the son of Dr. Lally. I’d actually met David at my local comic shop a year or so back. Turns out he was old hat at mission work, having been on several with his mom, and he’d worked in mission pharmacies before. His presence was a considerable help to us throughout the day.

With things not so stressful, we finally had time to chat with Esdras (who at that point was our only translator for the day). Esdras was from Guatemala City where he was at seminary studying to become a youth pastor. He learned English in school and seemed pretty fluent in it. Far far better than I am at Spanish. For day two, Esdras taught Mary Ann and I a new phrase: Dios te Bendiga (God be with you). It’s a fantastic closing line for the pharmacy. Until then, I’d felt really odd passing people’s prescriptions to them and not having any decent parting words for them, other than to say “de nada” when they said “Gracias.” It just didn’t seem right to me. But “Dios te Bendiga” was perfect, though often the patients would say it to me before I could say it to them.

Since we had things under control in the pharmacy, we each took some time to wander out of the cage now and then for brief walks through the clinic hallway. The hallway itself was lined with plastic patio chairs in which patients sat to await their turn with the docs, the dentists and the docs and dentists-in-training. I made it a point to smile at everyone, especially the children. Almost always, the patients smiled back, allowing us to cut through the language barrier.

Since both our team and the team from Racine brought loads and loads of toys and crayons and fun things for children, I was starting to feel left out that we didn’t have any of that sort of thing in the pharm-cage to hand out to kids. I did have some bubble stuff, a few toy cars and some juggling balls stashed away, but I hadn’t broken into that stash yet. The bus station was also kind of close quarters for juggling or bubbles. So instead, I got a bag of candy from one of our suitcases full of goodies and and loaded up the cell phone pocket of my shorts with peppermints. Throughout the day, whenever I saw kids who didn’t seem to be having a good time, I would pull out a mint and offer it to help brighten things up. Or so I thought.

During one of my sojourns into the hallway, I spied just such an unhappy little boy. He was probably 1 or 2 years old, seated on one of the plastic chairs next to his mother’s chair and he was just throwing the most enormous tantrum. The mom had been given a stuffed animal and was trying to coax him into being quiet with it. He wasn’t having any of that, though. He shoved it aside and kept right on squawling. Then I walked up. In my head, I envisioned the joy his face would take on when I offered him a piece of candy. His little eyes would dry up and all his woes from before would vanish as he accepted it. This in mind, I reached into my pocket and held out the piece of candy to him. The little boy stopped crying, peered at the candy in my hand, then reached out and shoved my hand away as hard as he could and started screaming even louder. It was disappointing and hilarious at the same time.

Another attempt to charm kids worked far better. Even though we didn’t have a lot of candy and toys in the pharm-cage, we did have something cooler. We had a bag of little plastic pen-lights donated to us by one of the drug-reps who regularly visit Doctor Allen. They’re just little four-inch plastic tubes that light up at one end when you squeeze the pocket clip. When I ran low on candy in my side-pocket, I loaded up with pen-lights. These I saved, because most of the kids we saw at the pharmacy already had either toys or crayons and coloring pages or something equally good that they were given at the other medical/dental stations. Sometimes, though, I’d see a kid who didn’t seem to have been given anything like that.

Sure enough, that afternoon I spied a little boy who only had a toothbrush. After catching his attention, I shined one of the penlights at him and saw his expression light up just like the pen had. I passed it to him and he grinned and said “Gracias” then dashed away. A little while later, I saw him again. He was waiting near the pharmacy and was playing with his pen-light while his little sister looked on with interest. She didn’t have anything cool, either. I ran back to the pharm-cage and dug up another pen light, which I gave to the little girl. She too lit up, making my heart sing.

On Tuesday, we didn’t see any sights that were as harrowing as those from Monday’s clinic. In fact, a number of patients were so pleased at having been treated that they wanted to give us all hugs after we filled their prescriptions. This was wonderful. It was kind of like receiving a tip for a job well-done.

I did hear about of a couple of amazing patients later on, though. One was an 89 year old woman who was no longer able to walk properly and was in real need of a wheelchair. Dr. Allen decided to buy her one with his own money, brought and earmarked for just that sort of thing. It would take a day for Marcello to arrange for its purchase and delivery, but the woman was overjoyed.

Another patient was a 101 year old man. Living past age 100 is a miracle in any country, but especially in this part of Guatemala, where life is generally pretty hard. The man was in fantastic health, though. The optometry station set him up with a pair of reading glasses and he was given vitamins, but beyond that he wasn’t really ailing. The major news about him, though, was that at age 101, he accepted Christ.

The only real trouble we had in the pharmacy was with our glucometers. One of the major diabetic supplies companies donated a suitcase full of glucometers that we were giving out to patients who’d been diagnosed as having diabetes. Mary Ann, fortunately, knew how to operate them and taught Esdras and me how. The only trouble came when we found that some of the batteries in the glucometers had run down, so we frequently had to go rummaging through the Glucometer suitcase to find working Glucometers. By the end of the week, we had taken the time to go through and test everything and separate the wheat from the chaff, as these things go. But early on it was a minor wrench in the works.

We wound up seeing far more patients on Tuesday than in Monday’s clinic.

Once again, around 4:30 my brain cut out and my functionality dramatically decreased. This didn’t help us at all, especially when it came to packing up the pharmacy at the end of the day. We were only scheduled to do the two clinic days in Chiquimuilla and so we had to pack everything up after clinic that evening. The plan was to drive all the supplies to our next clinic site, in Pasaco, where we would set it up again before heading back to camp. The only problem with this was that the pharmacy is always the very last station to finish up because we’re the last place patients come. So we had to fill all the prescriptions for all the patients before we could really start tearing down the store.

I did try to get ahead of this by piling all of our stock meds—such as the 50 bottles of liquid Ibuprophen and Tylenol and other standard drugs we had a lot of—in Emilio’s now empty cubby hole next door. My plan was to get all the in-pharmacy meds together with their stock counterparts so we could see how much of any given drug we had. I also wanted to organize the whole shebang as we packed it up by doing so in alphabetical order. This would make set up at Pasaco far easier, (or so I thought). As tired as we all were and as little as my brain was functioning, none of this was simple.

I’m pretty sure there were some people on the team who weren’t too happy with me for not just chunking it all in suitcases and sorting it out later. My method certainly took much longer and everyone wanted to just go. The way I saw it, the organization would HAVE to be done sometime that night and would tie things up either there or in Pasaco, so it might as well be there. I did not want a repeat of Monday’s pharmacy set up at our new location. I wanted to have everything organized so we could just put it on shelves (assuming we had any).

The other problem with my method is that it was not a group project. Sure, we could yell “Chorpheniramine!” and someone in the hall would grab up our stock of Chlortrimeton and bring it in to us, but otherwise it was best to have as few people in the cage as possible. So Ashley and I did most of the med-packing, in REVERSE alphabetical order, leaving Mary Ann and a few others to tidy up supplies. It really only took about 20 minutes to do, but it seemed like far longer. We had one last look around our now empty site and then headed for the bus.

“Goodbye pharmacy cage. You were miserable to work in, but you served us well.”

On the bus we learned that we would not be headed to Pasaco for setup after all but were headed back to camp instead. We’d had a pretty late day of it and were not in need of another huge unloading session just yet.

Back at the camp, we watched another slide show of the day’s photos, while we ate, and we all rejoiced at the happy faces among the photos of the patients and the beautiful children. It’s fantastic to see photos of people as they are being helped. We don’t get to see a lot of that in the pharmacy, even with our frequent walks through the clinic in the day. Just seeing the faces displayed on the screen makes all our work so worth it.

After the show, we had our evening devotional and heard the testimony of one of the local staff. We also learned that a great many of the missionary and translator staff had stayed on the bus and had gone to unload all the equipment at our new clinic site, sparing us from having to do it in the morning. I’m all at once grateful that they did this and upset that more work was taken off Gringo shoulders and put on the local staff. We greeted the missionaries and translators with huge applause as they returned to eat the well-deserved plates of food that had been set aside for them.

Butch had purchased a pre-paid cellphone so that team-members could call home if they needed to. The phone had been available since day one of the mission, but neither Ashley nor I had used it to phone home. After we were dismissed, I borrowed it to finally do so since we figured someone back home ought to know we made it okay. Granted, both sets parents knew that no news is good news when it comes to this sort of work, but it’s always nice to get SOME news. I considered calling Ashley’s parents and having them call mine. However, it was 10 p back home and they would be very much asleep. So I called my dad, whom I knew would still be up. He was very happy to hear from us. I could sense that he seemed to want to talk longer, maybe to tell me of his latest adventures with Venusian flu or something similar, but he cut himself short, realizing we only had time for a touching of bases at 60 cents per minute. Dad said he would phone Red & Susie the next day and let them know we were fine.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 2 STATS
Patients Seen: 540
Prescriptions Filled: 508
Salvations/Rededications: 160

NEXT

DATELINE: Monday, March 21, 2005

CLINIC DAY 1:

I woke up at 4 a.m. with something akin to a minor anxiety attack. I’m not usually an anxiety attack prone person, though I admit to having spent many an Hour of the Wolf worrying over things I have no control over. This one was no different. Instead of worrying about my first clinic, though, I was worried about my stupid cat back home in West Virginia. I could just imagine her curled up on the edge of the bed meowing pittifully to herself because we hadn’t come home. And she would have nearly two more weeks of that before we came back. I know it sounds sort of dumb in retrospect, but that’s how my head works. After lying there for nearly an hour fighting to get to sleep and failing because I kept hearing mewing in my head, I took a moment and prayed for the little beast. I prayed her time alone would not be painful and that God would lessen her anxieties as well as mine. After that, I went to sleep.

At 5:30, I woke up again and stayed woke up. I wanted to sleep longer, as I actually had until 6:30 before breakfast was served, but I also wanted to get up and grab any available water the showers might have. Sure enough, there was some. Evidently the water pump had found some life during the night and was able to send some water up to the hillside tanks above us. I used it to its fullest. It was so nice to be clean.

It was also nice NOT to be a walking pile of ache, as I had expected. Not even my feet ached, though, and they ache on most days.

Breakfast was pancakes and more fresh fruit.

Afterwards, we held our morning bi-lingual devotional with Pastor Douglas, during which he talked about the need to call upon God’s help for our clinics that week. We also had prayer in Spanish and English for the doctors and medical staff who would be ministering to the physical needs of the patients and for the missionary staff who would minister to their spiritual needs.

We all knew what kind of stressful atmosphere we were about to go into—or at least we thought we did. At this point, I knew I was scarcely prepared for the job I’d been assigned and knew how much of a seat of the pants operation our set up would be. The night before, I’d been happy to leave the clinic site with no set up just because I was hot and tired, but that was looking like less of a good idea today. I was just hoping and praying that we could set up our pharmacy before the doctors could see too many patients and send them to overwhelm us. Whatever the case, I knew that we were doing God’s work and he would assist us and lend us strength to accomplish it. We just had to keep our faith. (Always easier said.)

For our first week’s clinics, our WV team was originally to have three Osteopathic physicians, but one of them, Dr. Wadell, developed some rather nasty stomach problems days before the trip and was forced to stay home. We came with Dr. Allen and Dr. Lally. Assisting them would be three first year students (Carrie, Sarah, Dwan and J.C.). Our two fourth year medical students (my wife Ashley and her friend Flo) and third year med-student (Andrew) would be seeing patients on their own, consulting with the doctors as need be. The team from Wisconsin came armed with two dentists, a dental surgeon and several dental students. We also had two midwives, at least one nurse and a number of non-medical personnel, including Dr. Waddell’s wife Sandra and their daughter, plus the daughter of one of the dentists, quite a number of local missionaries and translators and one library assistant (i.e. me). All together our group was probably pushing 90 people.

Our trip back to the bus-station took around 20 minutes. On the way, we passed probably 50 people who were either waiting by the side of the road for a ride or were walking along the edge of the road on their way to work. So many people in the area have to walk everywhere they go. Or catch rides in the backs of pickup trucks. I don’t think we saw a truck that didn’t have at least ten people in it the entire time we were there.

We arrived at the bus station clinic around 8 a.m. Mary Ann and I, already apprehensive and prayerful, were horrified to find that our little green jail cell of a pharmacy contained none of our requested shelving. We didn’t relish having to jump from duffel bag to duffel bag, rooting through bottles and baggies of pills to find the drugs we’d need for each prescription. We needed shelving! I started searching the bus-station for some shelves. I found a ready supply of plastic lawn tables with removable legs. These had been given to the entire team for our use. I figured two of them stacked would make for half-way decent shelving with room for storage beneath. Four of them were even better. Of course, it would be kind of difficult to reach the meds on the top tier in the back, but some shelves were better than no shelves. Still we had an awful lot of drugs to store, so taller shelving with more actual shelves was still needed. I left the pharmacy cage and began searching again.

Before I could search very far, Butch came to tell us it was time to introduce the mission team to the crowd. Crowd? I hadn’t seen a crowd? Where was the crowd? Mary Ann and I left our shelf setup in the pharmacy cage and followed Butch, Dr. Allen and a number of other med-staffers down the long hall that made up the clinic proper and around the corner. There we found the rest of the mission team gathered for prayer. Afterwards we began filing through a doorway at the end of the corridor that led into the open market area of the bus-station where we found ourselves standing at the edge of several dozen locals seated in plastic lawn chairs. This was ostensibly the pre-waiting room for the clinic where the patients who arrived earlier and received a number card wait.

The way our medical mission clinic system worked was like this: potential patients arrived in the morning before the medical team. They were each issued a numbered card–essentially their “ticket” into the clinic–until all the allotted cards for the first half of the day had been distributed. (Probably 60 cards total. More cards were distributed later in the morning and even into the afternoon once it was clear what the patient turnover rate was and we could tell if there would be time in the day to see more patients.) At this point the patients were brought to the pre-waiting area where they are seated and eventually introduced to both the medical team and the mission team. One of the missionaries, usually Butch with Marcello translating, then explained the clinic/mission process. The patients were told how the entire med/mission team was there to minister to both physical and spiritual needs. On the physical side, the patients would be seeing doctors and the doctors would diagnose them and give them a prescription for medicine, all free of charge. The fact remained, though, that we could not give them a life-time supply of medicine and what we were able to give them would be gone within a month or so. However, the news of the gospel that the mission team was there to share did come in a lifetime and even after-lifetime supply. Every patient there would be given the chance to hear the gospel message. No one had to accept it or even listen to it if they didn’t want to. But every patient would be given the chance to talk one on one with a missionary. Regardless of their decision, they would still see a doctor and be treated. The missionaries were just there to offer more.

The only thing I really knew about the medical side of things was what I had heard from Ashley and from Dr. Wallace, (the physician who had been the medical team leader for Ash’s 2003 mission). Dr. Wallace contends that the only “real medicine” he ever gets to practice is when he’s doing mission work. When he’s in his office in the states, there are a myriad of do’s and don’t’s that restrict the way he can work. One naturally thinks of HMO’s and insurance companies and the many rules and regs associated with them, not to mention mal-practice insurance, but there are other pitfalls for the average doc too. For instance, if a doctor sees patients whose care is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, that doctor is extraordinarily restricted in what he can do for any other patient he sees. Let’s say the doctor sees a patient who is not on Medicare and does not have insurance to pay for their treatment; that doctor might want to cut the patient a break and treat them for free, but under Federal regulations legally cannot do so because he or she accepts Medicaid patients. Cutting a non-Medicaid patient a break while seeing other Medicaid patients is tantamount to Medicaid fraud and the doctor could be fined incredible amounts of money. A doc can get around that by simply not accepting Medicaid patients, but then they would be cutting out a good portion of their patient base. That’s just one example of the kind of things physicians in this country have to worry about that they don’t in Central America.

On a medical mission, such rules and regs are pretty much thrown out the window. Such rules are not as strict in Central America to begin with. And if the mission doc sees a condition that needs treating then and there, he’s not going to refer the patient to another doc more specialized in taking care of it unless one happens to be standing within 20 feet at the time. Teeth get pulled, bones get reset, wounds get treated, medicines get prescribed and emergencies taken care of, all by the clinic docs. Basically, the job that needs doing gets done with no red-tape. (It’s how things used to work for family practice docs nationwide.) Granted, some things are beyond the scope of a medical mission staff and have been known to get shipped to the nearest emergency room, but for the most part if it walks in to the mission clinic it gets taken care of there.

As we were led out in front of the crowd and Marcello introduced the group of us in Spanish as the mission team. We then each took turns introducing ourselves to the patients, saying our name and what sub-group we belonged to. It felt very weird to say I was on the medical team, but that was my role for the week.

I stood there in line with my fellow team-members and tried to be patient, but my mind was screaming at me that what I needed to be doing was setting up the pharmacy and finding shelves to aid in that search. I’d seen some shelves in a caged and locked cubby-hole shop before, but had been told they were privately owned and we could not borrow them. While I stood there before the crowd, at one end of the bus-station’s open air market, I spied at the other end of the market area a set of tall gray metal shelves. They were next to a cubby-hole shop that was actually open, but the shelves weren’t being used.

After the introductions were finished, Butch explained that the med team’s needed to leave to go prepare their stations. I made a dash for those shelves. They were perfect! Tall, metal and gray, about six tiers worth of shelving, seven if we used the top. However, I didn’t want to take them without permission. I tracked down Mrs. Hounko again and asked her about the shelves. They didn’t seem to be in use and were sitting out in the open where we could get to them. She said she would ask the manager of the bus station and see if we could.

Meanwhile, back at the pre-wating area, Dr. Allen had stayed behind to offer his testimony to the gathered patients. This was a daily occurrence during the clinics, with a different team member giving their testimony every day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for any of the testimonies the first week, because I was busy seeing to the pharmacy. During the second week, though, I did hear a few and found them very affecting. It’s always intriguing to hear how the people came to know Jesus. Often, they do so despite fighting against it for years. And it can be even more amazing when you knew the person before salvation and can see what a life-altering change is made following it. (My own testimony is very normal and not terribly exciting in this regard. I’ve had my share of on-again/off-again time with the lord, a problem that I still struggle with. I’ll probably share it before this blog has finished.)

Mary Ann and Ashley were back in the pharmacy cage, assembling the tables I’d found into makeshift shelves. We began stocking these with meds, starting with the A’s. However, our luggage full of meds was not arranged in any particular order, let alone alphabetical, so there was much running and searching of bags to find what we needed. And we always found something we forgot to stock later and had to make space for it. Also, while many of our meds were of the pre-bagged variety, that we’d dosed out the night before, there were plenty of others that had not been counted and were still in big bottles. We just stocked those too and worried about the counting part later. We could see, though, that we were quickly running out of room on our make-shift patio table shelving. That was when Mrs. Hounko came to the rescue. She arrived with two gentlemen who carried in our requested metal shelves, set them up in the open corner of the pharm-cage and even wiped them off for us. We started shifting stock quick. Even with the shelves, though, we didn’t have room for all the meds, but after relocating our vast vitamin supplies to the floor, we felt like we were still in good shape.

During this chaos, the two people who were to be our primary pharmacy translators for the trip arrived. Their names were Cynthia and Esdras. Both looked to be in their late teens or early 20’s. We didn’t have time to chat much with them, though, because we were under deadline to get set up. They both chipped in to help us out and before long we had our makeshift pharmacy mostly set up, or at least as set up as it was going to get before our first patient arrived.

The job of pharmacist was pretty intimidating at first. As I said, I know little of pharmaceuticals beyond household painkillers, so I was initially terrified that I would make a massive screw up and do someone harm. However, I soon came to see that, for the most part, I didn’t really have to know anything about the drugs to do the job. Being a medical mission pharmacist mostly involved dispensing drugs as per doctor’s instructions as deciphered from cryptic dosage codes written in bad handwriting on the back side of each patient’s history sheet. It was also good that Mary Ann, my partner in med-slinging, is a nurse who knows from bad handwriting. She gave me further pointers by writing out some pharmaceutical codes for me to follow, that the doctors would be using.

qd = one pill per day
bid = two pills per day
tid = three pills per day
qid = four pills per day
hs = bed time (or hour of sleep)

There were also symbols for the quantity of pills to take with each dose, ranging from 1 to 3. These look like Roman numerals, without the bottom bar and with the addition of corresponding dots above the upper bar. As long as I could properly interpret these and other such instructions I was fine. And when I couldn’t, Mary Ann usually could. In extreme cases, we sometimes had to go track down the docs themselves to see what they meant, but usually we had it sussed out pretty good.

These codes were also easily transferred to our non-language based instruction slips we brought with us and which we included in each baggie of meds. The slips consisted of four panels featuring a face with a pill being shoved in its mouth. In each panel, there was also a time indicator, such as a sun rising for morning, sun at mid-day for noon, sun setting for evening or a moon for night. We’d circle the morning face for once a day, morning and night faces for one pill every 12 hours, three faces for a pill every 8 hours, and all four faces for every 6 hours. Beyond that, we also had Cynthia and Esdras conveying the dosing instructions in Spanish to help explain our circled cartoons. It was a simplistic way of doing things, but that’s what the job required. The docs were each seeing between 40 and 60 patients per day each, but we were seeing ALL of them. And when seeing hundreds of patients, you don’t have time to mess around with complicated instructions unless the instructions are actually complicated. We had our moments for that too.

For instance, some of the meds, such as Amoxyl, came in powder form and required mixing and refrigeration by the patients themselves. The amount of water to be added to the poweder was not measured in teaspoons, though, but 74 milliliters. So we had to mark medicine cups for them at the 30 milliliter and 15 milliliter marks and show them how they would have to pour two 30 milliliter amounts and one 15 milliliter amount, (Yes, I know, this makes 75 milliliters, but lets not pick nits), into the bottle and shake it all up. Then we had to mark the medicine cup for the 1/2 teaspoon amount of mixed medicine they would have to give to their child. This is where the translators Esdras and Cynthia became invaluable to us, because after we’d explained it to them only a couple of times, they knew exactly what to tell the patients and from there on out we just had to pass them a bottle of Amoxyl and say, “This is the Amoxyl/mixing/refrigeration speech,” and they’d go right to it.

After only a handful of patients had come through, I started feeling more confident about the job. Ashley had stayed with us to help for the first 10 patients or so before being called away to start seeing patients herself. It was a little scary to me at first that she wasn’t there as our safety net, but I didn’t have much time to worry as more patients came flying at us. I tell you, having the experience of working Mondays at the library certainly prepared me well for the stress of the pharmacy cage that day. In fact, I daresay I’ve had worse days at the library. Just not for 12 hours straight.

Even with only Mary Ann and I inside the cage, it was still terribly hot. I was sweating profusely and constantly wiping it away with my arms so as not to soil my hands. Eventually, I went and found a wash cloth to use as a sweat rag, and I carried it everywhere I went. When I did manage to soil my hands, I was very careful to wipe them down with my ready supply of hand-sanitizer before continuing with the pills. I also made frequent trips to the bano to wash them with soap and water and then more hand-sanitizer. The patients didn’t seem to mind that we were sweating. They were sweating too. It’s just one of the realities of being trapped in a cage in a sweltering bus-station. Before too long into the day, Marcello brought in a fleet of oscillating fans to set up at each medical station. Our pharmacy cage power outlet wasn’t working properly, though, so our fan had to be set up across the hall and pointed toward us. Unfortunately, most of the wind was blocked by the patients waiting for their prescriptions. The fan wasn’t entirely ours, either, as Ashley’s doctor station was two cubbies down from us and she needed air too, so the fan oscilated between us. We were all pretty uncomfortable.

As I said, we still had pills that we needed to count out individually, because they had not been among those pills that were pre-dosed before. Mostly we had to do this with Naproxen Sodium and Cipro, two drugs that the docs were prescribing loads of. In some cases, like for children, the prescription required a smaller milligram dosage than the pills naturally come in. In such cases, we would have to cut the pills in half. Most of the time this was easy enough, as we did bring a pill splitter with us. The splitter only worked with round pills, though, so for long pills, like Cipro, we needed to use Mary Ann’s extry-sharp Swiss Army pocket knife. (It was a brand new knife, so it was clean!) I split those on a cutting board, cupping my hand over the pill as I cut it to prevent pieces from shooting out between my fingers. However, during one pill-cutting session, my cupped thumb wound up beneath the knife and when I chopped down on the pill it also chopped into my thumbnail, cutting into it at an angle from the tip down to about half an inch in. It didn’t hurt, but I immediately knew that I’d cut through the nail pretty deep. I was afraid I’d start bleeding, but other than a little blood beneath the nail, I was fine.

I was proud that, uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t start howling like a girl about my wound. I just slapped a Band-aid on it, acted like a real man and went back to my job. I became even more proud of this good behavior a few minutes later when a patient arrived at the pharmacy counter who had a wound far far worse than I pray I ever have or see again.

The wounded patient was a 73 year old woman, tiny, thin and frail-looking. She reminded me a lot of my Mamaw, only with long gray and black hair tied back in a pony-tail. She would have looked like any number of elderly patients we’d seen that day, but for one difference. Covering the right side of her face, around her eye, was a new white bandage that had been taped to her temples and brow. The woman had been led to us by Astrid, one the missionary translators who had been working with Dr. Allen that morning, who was holding on to the lady’s arm, steadying her and slowly guiding her to the counter of the pharmacy cage. (We didn’t yet know Astrid, but we would come to appreciate both her immense skills as a translator and her sweet spirit as the week progressed.)

As the lady passed her prescription to us, I first noted that it was written for antibiotic cream. Then, out of curiosity, I looked back up at the lady to her makeshift eye patch. The bandage didn’t quite reach all the way to her nose, and at the edge of it there I could see that part of the side of her nose was actually missing, just above her nostril. It was a crescent shaped wound but you could see from the size of the bandage that the visible portion of the wound was only a tiny part of the whole and that it likely extended across her entire eye orbit, if not onto her cheek itself.

I was only a little bit shocked at the sight initially, not having time to really consider the ramifications of such a wound. The lady didn’t seem to be in any pain, however. So I shrugged it off and started filling her prescription for antibiotic cream.

Most of our cream meds were in large tubes, which we parceled out smaller amounts from in little mini-zip-lock baggies. However, most of our anti-biotic cream came in little individual sample packets. The prescription didn’t specify how much cream to dispense, but I knew that if she was meant to put it on that wound for any amount of time she would be needing a lot of it. I loaded up a baggie for her with cream-samples and gave it to her. She smiled and thanked us and Astrid led her away.

Only after she had gone did I begin to wonder what had happened to the lady that could have caused such a wound? My imagination went into overdrive on this. One thing was certain, though: I knew that I would never again complain about having to stand in a hot and sweaty cage with a little self-inflicted cut through my thumbnail. Such things no longer mattered. That poor lady was living through far worse and did so with a smile. We would learn far more about this lady that evening.

We didn’t have time to dwell on what we’d seen. More patients and more prescriptions came at us fast and we were having to scramble. We could mostly keep up with it and didn’t have huge lines until one of us would run into trouble with a particular prescription. Usually our trouble was that the doc who’d written it hadn’t specified something that needed specifying, like how many pills should the person take and how often. Other times the docs would use the drug-name for the drugs and not the commercial name (for instance Ranatidine instead of Zantac) and I’d have to figure out what they meant. This affected me more than Mary Ann, who almost always knew which was which. I still had to go around making little duct-tape labels of all the different double named drugs we were commonly prescribing. And in other cases, we simply couldn’t find the medicine at all either due to our having misplaced it among the shelves or not having unloaded it from one of the four suitcases and shipping cartons in the first place. These stock-cases were scattered in different places down the corridor and we’d have to run and dig through them all before finding it. One of them, we discovered, had been left on the bus, so I had to find Oswald and his “bus key,” a.k.a. Marcello’s daughter, to help me fetch it. It went on like that all day long.

Just keeping up with the never-ending stream of patients bearing prescriptions was stressful enough. And even if I wasn’t going to complain about it, doing so under the conditions of heat, humidity and sweat made it even worse. In such an environment, tempers are apt to flare and I was afraid mine would be no exception to that. I’m well known in my house and sometimes at my place of employment for not dealing terribly well with stress. I have been known to growl and snarl and have on occasion been known to utter ear-blistering curses when under such stress. Oh, I keep it together pretty well during my solo Monday hell-shifts at the library, but prolonged exposure to such stress had me worried that I might crack. The entire mission team had been told to be on our best behavior and to always have a smile on our faces, because the locals would be watching us carefully. Here we were, ostensibly a group of Christians coming into towns to do work and help save souls. If we didn’t look the part, if we got angry or seemed unhappy at having to do the job that we’re doing, the locals would likely draw conclusions, maybe even correct conclusions, that we’d rather not have them draw. And I knew that the pharmacy was very important in this regard; after all, it would be the last impression most patients would have of our team and if we were short-tempered and growly, it would not be a good one. I had prayed at the start of the day for God to give everyone on the team strength in this regard, but especially me. I had known things were likely to get ugly and I wanted emotional backup from on high when it did. And I have to say that throughout the day, with very few exceptions, I remained blissfully calm and a smile—a genuine smile—was never far from my lips. I suppose I should not be surprised, for it was exactly what I’d prayed for. I think the entire team fell under this blanket of calm.

Another of the people on the medical team none of us had yet met was Emilio Salizar. Emilio was a 4th year medical student in Guatemala who looked like he was probably in his mid-20s. Sometime late in the morning he set up a clinic cubby-hole directly next door to the pharmacy. Emilio didn’t speak very much English, so we had to let Esdras do the introductions and interpreting. Much like my 4th year med-student wife, Emilio was there to see patients too. He had an advantage over the American docs, though, in that he didn’t have to have a translator on the patient end of things in order to do his job, so he was able to see far more patients far faster than most everyone else. The only real trouble came on our end, which is where the translation wound up shifting. Emilio would prescribe drugs with brand names we’d never heard of. And in Spanish. So most of the time we needed Esdras or Cynthia to translate the prescriptions before we could fill them. Often they would not be familiar with the drugs in question either and we’d have to go to Emilio himself and often consult Mary Ann’s PDA, which was equipped with Epocrates, a program for cross-referencing drugs and their international brand names. Emilio was wonderfully patient with us, especially the times he would come to ask us if we had a particular med and we’d just throw up our hands in classic “Beats me” pose. He would just grin and we’d start trying to help figure out what he needed. He became a familiar sight in the pharmacy during our clinics that week, often accompanying his patients, checking to see what meds we had on hand and then writing prescriptions right there. This didn’t bother us one bit. What ever it took to work things out was all fine with us.

Around 12:30 it was time for lunch. Since there were so many patients still waiting, we didn’t want to shut down the whole clinic for lunch so we were going to take it in shifts. Mary Ann volunteered to go second shift so she could eat with her husband, so I was to take first.

Lunch was served a few doors down from the bus-station itself, at what appeared to be an outdoor bar next to the local fire-station. We had a choice of either chicken sandwiches or hamburgers. My burger was pretty good, though I did notice the presence of a mysterious pink sauce on it that seemed to be a condiment. Our theory, upon later discussion, was that this was the Guatemalan version of “special sauce”, i.e. Thousand Island dressing. Only the ketchup to mayonnaise ratio seemed skewed more toward ketchup, making it pink instead of Thousand Island-colored. This would not be the last time I would meet this particular sauce during my time in Central America.

I didn’t hang around long after I’d finished eating. Though I did want a break, I knew the pharmacy was bound to be busy and Mary Ann would need relief. I also knew that once she and Dr. Allen went to lunch, the traffic would drop off considerably due to the fact that Dr. Allen wouldn’t be pumping patients through like the pro he is. And on this theory, I was right. Things slowed right down. I had time to talk to Esdras and Cynthia between prescriptions. Esdras gave me pointers on my Spanish. I’d been using a little that day, saying things like “Uno por dias” and “Dos por dias” for pill amounts to take. Esdras pointed out that I should actually be saying “Uno por DIA” as it was one per day and not days.

After Mary Ann & Dr. Allen returned from lunch, the clinic had its first emergency case of the day. It began with raised voices looking for Dr. Allen. I didn’t find out the details until later, but the emergency case was a man with a possible spider bite or scorpion sting on his leg. The wound had occurred some days before and had begun to redden and began to develop into cellulitis, an infection of the skin itself. The man had taken some Amoxicilin for it, which is an anti-biotic that’s available over the counter in Guatemala, but it’s not the right kind of anti-biotic to treat cellulitis, so the condition worsened. All the while he continued going to work, getting sicker by the day as the cellulitis infection spread through his bloodstream and made him septic until he collapsed that morning. When they brought him in he was burning up with a fever, dehydrated, delirious and unable to move his arms properly. Dr. Allen began treating him with a drip IV and came to us for liquid anti-biotics and other anti-biotic pills. Cooling him off was definitely part of the treatment too because at one point Butch came over and asked if he could borrow our fan. He said they needed it for a guy who was dying.

“Yes! Please! Go! Take it!” I said. I’m thinking, Don’t ask for the fan–just take it! He’s dying!

The man lived, but from what Dr. Allen said later it was a close thing and he might not have been out of the woods entirely. The man lay on a makeshift cot for much of the day until he finally woke up and by the end of the day he seemed pretty coherent as he walked the halls with his IV.

In the afternoon, Butch came to take my camera. Before joining Word of Life, he used to work for an IT department and is thus a fully wired dude of much computer savvy. He had brought his laptop, a speaker system and a video projector. (Butch was also never ever out of proximity to his PDA, on which he kept our daily clinic stats, syncing it up with the laptop every day.) Butch’s master plan was to collect all the digital cameras from the staff and download their pictures onto his laptop to save to DVD later. This way everyone on the team could have a copy of everyone’s pictures. It was a great idea.

Right around 4:30, my brain stopped working. It evidently had decided it had had enough activity for the day and was no longer going to function at peak capacity. The result of this was that I could no longer think clearly and everything I did took twice as long because I kept having to stop and refocus my brain on the task at hand. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated, so I chugged down some more water. Nope. Brain just stopped workin’ right. Of course, this is when we became the busiest.

Cynthia and Esdras dove in to help us out with the rush. By that time in the day, they’d seen most of what we were dispensing and knew the dosage amounts to circle almost better than we did. They jumped behind the counter and started dispensing, being certain to confirm with one of us that what they were doing was right. I never saw them make a mistake.

We were supposed to shut down the clinic at 5, but everyone knew this was an arbitrary deadline to be ignored. If we still had patients in the hopper to see, we’d stay until they were seen. The docs kept working and we kept dispensing until 7:30 p. Even after the last patient received their meds, we couldn’t really relax. So much of our medicine still needed counting and pre-dosing and we’d even run out of some of the dosed meds and would have to count out more from the stock supplies. We knew we’d have to haul a chunk of it back to camp to do later and after the draining day we’d already had, this thought nearly exhausted us. We proved this on the way back to camp, as several members of the team fell right to sleep, including Butch. Dr. Allen snapped his photo to give to Dr. Rich, who had fallen asleep at the church dedication the day before and had been photographed by Butch.

We got back to camp around 8 and learned that the water pump had been replaced during the day so the showers were running at full capacity. Yay! The transformer was still having issues, but as long as we only ran the one air-conditioner per cabin, we’d be okay. Sounded like heaven to me.

I dumped my stuff at the cabin and came down for dinner. Butch was at the pavilion setting up the slide show, going through and rotating the images so that everything was upright. He used a freeware slide-show program that allowed him to play the slides with music. The first song up was “Let my Words be Few” by Phillips, Craig & Dean. It’s a beautiful song and fit right in with the images that began flashing up on the screen above. I sat down to watch, seeing images of the medical team and dental team doing their jobs. Only then was I really struck with the incredible nature of what had taken place that day. Oh, sure, I had known in a kind of On Paper way that the mission was doing a lot of good, but I’d been trapped in the cage all day and had seen very little of the treatment, except on occasional bano breaks. Seeing it on the screen really brought it home and I knew that I had taken part in something far greater than myself.

Then the slide clicked over to a shot of the lady with the eye wound—only without her bandage covering it. As bad as I had imagined that wound to be from just the little glimpse I’d had of the edge of it, the reality was far far worse. Her entire ocular orbit was simply missing, from just above her nostril across her cheek and to the brow ridge. Gone. It looked like something you wouldn’t believe in a horror movie, yet there it was in full color. It was too much for me. The weight of the day fell on me hard and I began sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so very sorry for that poor old woman with half of her face missing. What had caused that? Dear, God, what had caused that? And all we had been able to do for her was give her a baggie of anti-bacterial cream.

I couldn’t take it. I walked away from the pavilion and into the darkness, down the hill toward the lake, and I just cried and cried. I had known my emotions had been close to the surface all afternoon, but now I couldn’t control them at all. I just stared into the darkness with tears streaming down my face while Phillips, Craig and Dean sang, “Jesus, I am so in love with you. And I stand in awe of you, Jesus.” And I found myself in awe. Surely there had to be some greater purpose in this woman’s life. Maybe she was meant to live as an example of goodness in the face of such a woeful injury. But what a price! It absolutely broke my heart.

I prayed then for the old woman. I prayed that God would take her home rather than let her suffer. Or if that was not his will, that God would make her the example of a beautiful soul shining through the tragedy that I hoped she already was. I just wanted her to have blessings in this life and to gain her deserved reward in the next. It was one of those moments in life that seem so incredibly unfair and make you wonder how God could allow such a thing to have happened. But the thing about God is, he knows what he’s doing. He has a plan and it will be carried out in his good time. That may sound like excuse-making to non-Christians, but I’ve seen it happen and I prayed that I had seen it in that lady’s face that day.

After ten minutes or so, I was out of tears. I could see Ashley sitting back at one of the tables beneath the pavilion lights. I wiped my face and went back up to sit beside her. She wasn’t in much better shape than me, emotionally, but she had a glorious smile on her face through the tears as she watched the slides from the day. She could see it too; the good that had been done by just a few people.

Later, Dr. Allen told us about the old woman. He had treated her. She is in her early 70’s and had received a burn to the eye from hot oil nearly 15 years ago. Her eye couldn’t be saved then and without medical care the surrounding tissue, starved of blood by the burns, began to slowly necrose. The wound has continued to increase in size since then and she was in horrible pain for many years because of it. But eventually, the nerves that were in the area died out and for the past two years she has had no pain from the wound at all. She keeps it very clean and washes it out every day. She had not even come in to the clinic seeking treatment for the wound itself, but simply wanted to know if we could give her a bandage to cover it because she didn’t like how it looked. Dr. Allen said he loaded her up with bandages.

I continued to be emotional throughout the evening, but I was far from the only one. As Butch read the stats of the day to us, we learned that the clinic saw over 500 patients that day and 117 of them accepted Christ, with many others reaffirming their existing faith. The medical treatment is definitely the draw that gets people in, but clearly some leave with much more. We had to give that an “Amen!”

We were up later than we wanted to be with our evening devotional, but we knew it was important. It was a time for people to share things they had seen throughout the clinic day and give thanks. The translators and local missionary staff seemed impressed at the energy of the medical team. We too were impressed by theirs. It may not seem like it would take much energy to translate languages, but it can be brain-taxing work. From all reports, the translators are fantastic and I already knew that ours were.

Afterwards, starting at 9:30 or so, we began the arduous task of pill sorting and counting once again. I really didn’t want to be there. I so wanted to go to the showers and then climb into bed, but I knew we had to keep plugging away or tomorrow would be far worse. Second day at any clinic setting is always busier than the first, because word gets out and word of mouth spreads fast. We had to have these things pre-counted or we’d be forever counting pills the next day. We had lots of volunteer help from the medical and dental team. As we started to work, Butch kept his laptop going and began showing funny little video clips he’d been collecting for years. The videos really lightened the mood and made the work go faster. I was still dog-tired, but at that moment I just felt great that we were laughing and continuing to work toward a larger goal that was bigger than any of us.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 1 STATS
Patients Seen: 525
Prescriptions Filled: 330
Salvations/Rededications: 114

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Sunday, March 20, 2005

My bunk house collectively woke up around 6 a.m. (Some before, some after, but that’s generally when everyone’s travel alarms began blaring.) I half expected my arms and feet to be throbbing limbs of pain from all the heavy-lifting the day before. Oddly, they didn’t. Such muscle pain usually doesn’t catch up with me for at least a day anyway, so I figured I’d be one giant ache, come Monday—just in time for clinic day.

I climbed out of bed and put on my flip-flops to go outside and have a look around in the daylight. The camp was gorgeous. Sure, it’s still very much under construction and there are plenty of signs of that—from the exposed rebar near the pavilion to the as yet unlandscaped red dirt to piles of rocks that will be used for paving pathways—but there was a lot of potential. And down the hill from the bunk houses and pavilion was a fantastic lake. The sun had just come up over a nearby hill, casting light across the surface of the lake and making the picture I was seeing of the men in boats net-fishing even more beautiful. Fishermen: It’s an appropriate image for our mission plans for the week.

I needed some bano time to freshen up from my night’s semi-sweaty slumber. I also needed to brush my teeth. This is something of a complicated affair for Gringos in Central America. You can’t trust the local water in most places that you visit. It’s only mostly okay for washing up. Sure, it’ll get the visible dirt off your hands, but any microbial contaminants in the water will stay on your skin and have a nasty habit of getting into your mouth the next time you decide to chew on a fingernail. Granted, we’d been told by Marcello that the water at the camp comes from a deep well and was thus most likely free from nasty biological contaminants, but we were still encouraged to use only bottled water when brushing teeth and always slap on some hand-sanitizer after washing hands. I did pretty good on my first go-round with tooth brushing up until it was time to rinse off my toothbrush. I’d already turned on the sink’s faucet to wash the toothpaste spit down, so naturally my hand plunged my brush beneath it to rinse it off too.

“Ahhh!” I screamed, quickly snatching up my water bottle and dousing the end of my brush as though it were on fire. My fellow bano-mates assured me that I was probably fine, but it was still a bad sign to me this fresh out of the mission trip gate.

Most of us dressed in our Sunday best for the church service we were to attend. The mission materials we’d been sent ahead of time stressed that for all church services the ladies would need to wear a skirt and a nice shirt and men to wear slacks with a shirt and tie. I brought a short-sleeved blue shirt and yellow tie which went well with my tan corduroys. When I went out to breakfast, however, all the higher-ups from WOL were dressed in light colored polo shirts. It turns out that the person who wrote up the rules for Sunday dress had cut and pasted them from a similar document designed for a European mission trip and never considered that such rules of dress would be woefully uncomfortable in Central America. I soon ditched the tie and the t-shirt beneath after the morning heat started to build up.

We had a breakfast of fresh fruit and tasty Zucaritas! (the south of the border version of Frosted Flakes. Somehow they’re tastier than Frosted Flakes because you get to call them Zucaritas! and say it with an accent.)

At our breakfast devotional, we met Pastor Douglas, who had come in on a late flight at 10 p the night before and had arrived at the camp in the wee hours. I must have been sleeping good, because I never heard him come in. Pastor Douglas is the minister for a church in Atlantic City, NJ. and was to be our primary minister for the mission that week.

The church we were to attend was in the nearest large town, of Esquintla, just under an hour’s drive away. (I didn’t hear Marcello’s time guestimation on this one, but I’m sure he probably would have told us it was 20 minutes away.) I didn’t mind being back on the bus at all. I wanted to see more of Guatemala in the daylight and absorb as much detail as I could.

We passed by field after field of sugar cane, mango trees, banana and plantain trees and sometimes coffee bean orchards. Mostly the fields were empty, though, save for some of the skinniest cows I’ve ever seen. Not starving, skinny—or, not usually—but still some very slender cattle. We also passed a scary-looking Guatemalan prison, which Oswald told us, via Michelle’s translation, is called “Hell”. It looked the part.

There were three volcanos in the area as well. For such massive geological features, they sure could sneak up on you. This was partially because it was so humid that the hazy sky became almost sky blue itself. So, there you’d be, sitting on the bus, casually looking out at what you thought was clear blue sky until you see this flattened volcano mouth sticking out of a portion of it a mile or two up in the distance. It’s the kind of sight that gives you chills up your spine. We saw three of them this way.

The church in Equintla was a picturesque white cement block structure nestled in a small neighborhood of shops. Inside, locals sang familiar praise songs in Spanish. The band and singers they had there were extremely good, too, and we found ourselves getting into the spirit of the music quickly. The minister of the church soon called attention to our presence and told the congregation that we were in the country to do free clinics in small towns. He asked them to pray for us that week and to walk back to where we were seated and lay hands on us as they all prayed. Now, I’ve been to several churches where the laying on of hands is a common thing. It’s spoken of in the Bible and Christians are called upon to do it on occasion when moved to do so by God. It’s not usually done in my particular church, but I understand it happens. The laying on of hands in this church, however, was far from strange. It was no charasmatic display, but just a natural extension of prayer. There was power in it too. I wasn’t expecting to be emotionally affected by it, but I suddenly found my eyes welling up with tears as we prayed. Something about the outpouring of affection from complete strangers moved me. Immediately I began to worry that this was a bad emotional trend to start this early in the journey, but I went with it.

There were scooters everywhere in Equintla and on our way to lunch Oswald and Alex had to do some fancy team-driving to keep from smooshing them. We traveled to the nearest McDonalds. Outside was another guard with a shotgun.

McDonald’s in Guatemala is almost exactly like McDonald’s in America, only in Spanish. They also serve a few unexpected things, such as fried chicken. I later learned that McDonald’s also has a delivery service in some of the larger cities. It was not uncommon in Guatemala City, for instance, to see a McDonald’s delivery driver on a scooter.

While at lunch, we noticed a beach shop across the street and Ash and I decided to go over and see if we could get her a towel. Only after we crossed the street and entered the shop did it occur to either of us that we didn’t know the Spanish word for towel. We instantly became the stereotypical Americans on vacation, trying to convey towel to the clerk by any means up to and including pantomime, all the while yelling “TOWEL… TOWWWELLLL!” It was horrible. This “beach” shop didn’t have any towels either, so it was even more horrible.

After lunch, we drove an hour to our next destination, which was another church. This was an old community church that had outgrown its facilities. The 2004 mission team had evidently visited it last year when the minister had first proposed raising funds to construct a brand new building. It had not taken them even a year to raise the funds, some of which came from connections made by the Word of Life team. The building had been completed and we were there for the dedication ceremony.

The new building for the church was a little ways down a dirt road that ran through a small neighborhood community. I say neighborhood, for that is what it was, but it did not resemble any neighborhood I’ve seen in this country. It consisted of very simple cement block houses on plots of land that looked around a fourth of an acre. Some of the homes had chickens in the yard, some had gorgeous fruit-laden banana trees, and near some, children were playing and watching as this line of sweaty dressed up Gringos walked through their midst on the way to the new church building.

The church building itself was a large cement block structure with windows open to allow the breeze to pass through. Inside there were row upon row of plastic lawn chairs and ceiling fans overhead. However, being at the hottest part of the day the fans didn’t do much against the heat. Soon many of us found ourselves nodding off as the heat and rhythms of the all-Spanish service lulled us to sleep.

After the service, we bussed up and headed out to visit and set up our first clinic site. On the way we stopped at a gas-station so everyone could have a bano break and pick up snacks. I went inside. I didn’t find much in the way of snacks, but I did find a towel for Ashley. No more pillow-case showers for her.

The clinic site was nearly another hour’s drive in a little town called Chiquimuilla. The site itself was in a former bus-station turned strip-mall. Actually, calling it a strip-mall is a pretty generous description. It was more like the bus station had been carved into aisles, which were further broken up into little cubby-hole shop-spaces with a footprint of around 10′ by 8′. Some of these cubby-hole shop spaces were completely open while others had steel doors or cages to keep the contents safe. However, few of these cubby-holes were actually in use as shops and most stood empty save for dirt and trash. In the center of the bus station was a maze-like area of more unused cubby-holes and beyond that was a much larger and mostly cubby-free area that was being used as an open air market. The mayor of the town had hired the usual guys with shotguns to stand guard over the place all night so that none of the team’s equipment was stolen.

On previous missions with Word of Life, one of our local WV pharmacists, Fritz, had come along to do the pharmacy thing. He was unable to come this year, however. So at some point in our trip thus far, it was decided that Mary Ann Allen and I would be in charge of the pharmacy. Mary Ann made lots of sense, because she is a registered nurse and knows the meds pretty well. The logic for including me was that since I work in a library I must be good at organizing and classifying things. I don’t know about all that, but I had come on this trip to be of whatever use I could and working in the pharmacy sounded very useful, albeit a good ways out of my field of expertise. Everyone kept assuring me we’d be fine.

The pharmacy itself was to be set up in a cubby hole shop with a green caged front with a fold up cage window and sales-counter area. It looked like the canteen area for a prison. It was also far filthier and spidery than most folks care for in a pharmacy. Fortunately, the manager of the bus station was on hand and Marcello convinced him to have a few of his guys clean out the cell and mop the floors for us. They did right then and there and before long it looked good enough to use. Being a cramped little cubby-hole, though, we wouldn’t have much room for storing meds unless we were able to do so vertically. We stressed to Marcello the need for lots of shelving to hold all the meds. He asked the manager and was told we would have shelves by morning.

With no shelving, there wasn’t much we could do to set up the pharmacy. It didn’t help us that most of the medication we’d brought hadn’t even been sorted into dosage baggies yet, either. We resolved to cart all the meds back to the camp and do some sorting and predosing that evening in something far closer to a sterile environment.

Most of the other equipment on board the busses came with the dental team from Racine. They had brought portable dental chairs, drills, compressors, sterilizers and all manner of dental tools, which had to be set up. They went right to it and were still plenty busy when Marcello told the rest of us to load back up to return to camp. We’d been told that our clinic site was only five minutes away from the camp. It was actually around 20 minutes, which was still pretty short. Gringo Time strikes again, though.

After the dental team joined us at camp, we had a fantastic dinner of chicken, rice and fruit. I’ve never eaten so much melon, pineapple and mango in all my life, and it’s all great! We all stuffed ourselves, then sat around and sweated while we began our evening meeting where we were introduced to the rest of the national staff of translators and helpers who had come in for the clinics.

We were also told that the water pump for the camp had crapped out earlier in the day due to being overloaded by the transformer problems. Rather than have us go without running water, Marcello asked the local fire department to come in and pump our water tanks full again. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where they sourced their water from, so it was likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria. We had to therefore be extra careful only to drink from bottled water.

After the meeting, we asked for help in counting pills. This, we thought, would be a long and arduous process in which our bulk medicines would be divided into dosage amounts, (usually a month’s supply, or however much it usually took to knock out whatever it was being prescribed for), pre-bagged and labeled in little zip-lock baggies. However, while it was a long process, we had nearly the entire camp volunteer to help, so the work went much much faster. It was still terribly hot and most of us were living for the shower we knew we’d be having after retiring for the evening.

While working, we left aside a third of the meds to take with us to El Salvador the following week. The vast majority of what we brought would be used in Guatemala, though, as we would have more docs available for the clinics there.

We wrapped up our counting near 11 p and I headed up the hill for my shower. Only, I walked into the shower-house to discover there was no water. Not even a trickle. The tanks were empty. I nearly broke down crying at the idea of having to go to bed sweaty and nasty from my day.  Then, upon returning to the bunk-house, I learned that due to the ongoing transformer problems, we were only allowed to use one air-conditioner per bunk-house. And it wasn’t the one nearest my bed.  (I know what you’re thinking: Poor Gringo. He’s visiting a country where many people have no running water let alone air-conditioners of any kind and he’s whining about only having ONE. Believe me, I’m just as disgusted with myself over this as you are. My only excuse is that it was still early in the trip and certain realities about the situation had not quite hit home yet.)

I climbed into my bunk only to find it gritty. My duffle bag had been sitting on the concrete floor all day and had picked up a lot of the dust that had been tracked in from outside. Now I was doubly filthy and still hot. I kept trying to tell myself that I hadn’t come here for comfort and that maybe there would be water in the morning, but it didn’t help much. Eventually, the air did cool off in the bunk house, though, and I fell asleep.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Saturday, March 19, 2005

After a mere three hours of sleep, I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the sounds of people moving around in Ma’s house. Everyone else was awake and getting dressed and gathering up their things. We’d left most of the luggage in the truck, so there wasn’t much to gather.

Ma and Pa were also up to see us off. They offered Cheerios and coffee to everyone, but we didn’t have much time for eating. The trip to Charlotte Douglas Airport from Hildebran would take about an hour, so we needed to hit the road. We needed to get there as early as possible since our luggage contained lots of things customs officials might be curious about.

We gave Ma and Pa a hug goodbye and told them we loved them. It makes me feel fatalistic to be saying “Goodbye” to people because in my mind I’m thinking that it might be the last time I ever see them again. I know it’s probably just me being paranoid, but who knows what might happen on this journey? We could die in a plane crash or be killed by guerillas. Or gorillas, for all I know. I don’t think it’s very likely, being as how we’re essentially on a mission from God. But as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett pointed out in their novel Good Omens, you can’t second-guess inefability, so I don’t know what God’s plan for us is. I just know that since beginning to prepare for this journey, I’ve been taking steps to ensure that things will be okay on most fronts if I don’t come back from it and part of that is telling the people that I love that I love them.

We arrived in Charlotte at 4:30 a.m.

Ashley and I used to live in Charlotte before departing for the mountain state so she could enroll in medical school and I in library servitude. We like Charlotte an awful lot, but don’t miss the sprawl and traffic very much. Fortunately, the airport is on the side of town we entered from and is easy to get to.

We parked in long-term parking and began hauling our bags to the enclosed shuttle waiting area. Within a few minutes a shuttle appeared. The driver was astounded that five people could have so much luggage and that it could weigh so much. The whole time we were hauling it onto the shuttle bus, he kept questioning us as to what we were really doing.

“You’re moving house, aren’t you?” he asked. “Yeah, you’re all on the run and getting out of town!”

We just smiled and said nothing to dispel this. I knew we must have looked very strange, though, each struggling with two 70 pound check bags and two near 40 pound carryons.

Inside the airport, there were lots of people sleeping. Some were sprawled in chairs, while others—sometimes entire families—had just plopped down on a section of carpet by the window for a snooze. I’ve heard Charlotte Douglas is a good aiport to sleep in, but had never before seen it put into practice.

We met another traveling companion inside, our friend Andrew Bright, now a third year medical student. Andrew has been on two other mission trips with Word of Life in the past, including the Honduras leg of the mission trip Ash went on in 2003. Now we were six.

It’s a good thing we arrived so early, cause we were first in line and had plenty of time to use the handy scale to make sure our bags were within their weight limitations. One of them was 71 pounds, so we took a few bottles of Ibuprofen out of it until it weighed in at exactly 70 pounds.

We were a little worried about another of the bags that contained $450 worth of Enfamil baby formula. Enfamil, for those who don’t know, comes in powder form in giant coffee-can sized tubs that aren’t very easy to pack. Instead of trying to pack them in their cans, Ash had just poured the white Enfamil powder into gallon zip-lock baggies. It made for easy packing, but also closely resembled bricks of cocaine. Ash had stowed the Enfamil labels inside the baggies to help identify them, but no matter the precautions it still looked like a suitcase full of blow. Granted, no drug-sniffing dogs would be attracted to it, but baggage x-ray technicians would certainly want a second glance.

The Continental Airlines desk didn’t actually open until closer to 5:30, but we were there and ready when it did. By then there were lots of other people in line behind us. We got through the line fairly quickly, fumbling in our cheap Wal-Mart passport wallets on strings to find our passports and e-boarding passes, etc. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann had swanky J. Crew passport wallets, but they had to fumble with them just as much. We then moved to the line to get through the metal detectors. Something in my carryon flagged suspicion and the x-ray techs had to run it through again. I still can’t figure out what they saw—maybe my odd-shaped hard-plastic water-bottle that looks vaguely like it might contain plutonium, or maybe the half-dozen juggling balls or metal Hotwheels cars I’d brought to give away—but the bag itself passed on second inspection.

Our plane was one of the smaller jets in the Continental fleet, the kind with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other, with very little carryon storage. We even had to check most of our carryon luggage at the jetway so they could store it in the plane’s hold. Ours were the very last seats in the plane, right by the bathroom, with me and Ash on one side and Andrew on the other. I think our stewardess must have had the hots for Andrew, because she kept bringing him more food and beverages and asking if he was hot or cold. Since Ash and I were seated right there, she offered us some extra food too, just so she didn’t seem like she was playing favorites. We knew, though.

We flew from Charlotte to Houston International. I was somehow expecting to have the same hellish experience that I had at Houston Hobby a couple of years ago, but Houston International was a breeze. It’s still a huge airport, but in a comfy sort of way. Even landing 15 minutes late, we were easily able to take the shuttle-train to our next gate and were there in plenty of time. We still wound up an hour late in taking off from Houston, though, and my 3 a.m. Cheerios had long since run out. I needed breakfast and coffee pronto!

On the airplane, little TV screens popped out of the ceiling and we were shown the standard Do This in Case of Emergency film that no one ever pays any attention to. Only this time we saw it twice, once in English and once in lightning fast Spanish. In fact, every time any announcement was made by either the flight crew or the captain, it was made first in standard well-paced English and then a second time in Indy 500 Spanish. I hoped not everyone spoke Spanish so quickly on the journey, or my by-now vestigial Spanish skills would never wake up.

Once we were in the air, they served us a nice breakfast and showed us the movie A Cinderella Story. (It’s a cute enough movie, but I still gave it a C.) They also told us we could keep the little mini-headphones that we used to listen to the film’s audio track. I’m not really sure why they gave them to us, other than to get us to throw the headphones away for them, because the headphone jack had a double plug set up that most CD players do not.

Between bites of food and occasionally paying attention to the movie, I read up on Guatemala from the Lonely Planet entry on it I’d printed out. Like many Latin American countries, this one had seen quite a lot of turmoil in its time, even beyond the Mayans. It was also supposed to have a much higher rate of crime and listed violence against foreigners as a big part of that. Comforting. It was also said to be extraordinarily beautiful in places and had some pretty amazing archaeology on display in some of its older cities. The guide spoke of the Holy Week festivities in Antigua as being particularly of interest to travelers. I didn’t know if we would be anywhere near Antigua at that point, but this was Holy Week. Seemed a shame to come all this way and miss out on that.

Very quickly into our flight, I saw that we were above the Gulf of Mexico. Not long after that, I looked down to see that we were above Mexico itself. That’s when it finally hit me that I was no longer in the United States. Not since I left the island of Guam, where I lived from age 2 to 3, had I been this far from home soil.

The ground below looked very dry and red from my view from the plane. How would Guatemala look?

Within another couple of hours, I had my first airborn glimpse of Guatemala proper.

My first impression was: I only THOUGHT there were big mountains in West Virginia. The mountains I was seeing below us were enormous, and quite often volcanic as evidenced from the smoke pouring out of their tops. I could also see occasional huge fissures in the earth below, caused no doubt by the frequent earthquakes due to said volcanic activity. Things below looked kind of dry and arid too, but then March is in the dry season, so that was to be expected.

Soon we were flying low over Guatemala City itself. It was a pretty big place, though there were very few buildings of any major height. Mostly there were low buildings, spread up and down throughout the hills and valleys of the terrain. And the color! You fly over most American cities and everything is shades of gray and brown. Guatemala City, however, was alive with color. The buildings and homes were often painted in quite vivid shades of red and blue and green and yellow. There were also hundreds of bright red busses with as much chrome-plating as they could fit on around the red. Things looked alive down there.

As the plane landed, I was reminded of some advice given to me by my friend Shoshanna as to what to expect from the Guatemala City airport. She’s been there before and warned me that I would need to keep a very close eye on my luggage, since it would be a big target for thieves. She has had friends who were mugged at knife-point for their bags there.

Well, good luck to them if they try it on us, I thought. Any thief who thinks he can haul away one of these 70 pounders is welcome to try. I thought it would almost be worth blunting the wheels on the bags just to see someone try to drag one away and listen to the “Eeeeeeeeeee” sound as the bag left twin trails of black plastic in its wake.

After deplaning, we went through customs. It was no problem at all; just had to give them the forms we’d filled out on the plane, that stated why we wanted in the country and when we were planning to leave again, and we were through. The customs guy was even nice. Then we hurried to see to our luggage that was even then beginning to make its rounds on the conveyer belt.

The baggage claim area of the airport left little to the imagination. Most airports have the typical conveyer belt that slides out of a mysterious rubber-flap covered hole leading who knows where; a magic luggage spout, if you will. In Guatemala City’s airport, the conveyer belt was set into a giant glass window looking out on the tarmac itself. We could clearly see bag handlers unloading the bags from a truck and putting them on the conveyer belt on their side of the glass. I felt sorry for them as they struggled with our luggage.

We had tied strips of army green cloth to the handles of all of our luggage for easy identification. Andrew, Dr. Allen and I stationed ourselves at different places around the conveyer belt, ready to snatch bags off as soon as we could, then haul them into a pile back where the ladies were standing guard. Someone even found us a rolling luggage cart to pile the pile onto, so we wouldn’t have to haul them by hand. All but one of the bags appeared. That’s right, the Enfamil bag was nowhere to be seen. Now, I realize the Enfamil bag’s contents looked suspicious, and all, but who really tries to smuggle cocaine INTO Guatemala? We decided to write it off and hope it turned up later. For all we knew, it was still sitting in a customs locker in Charlotte.

Outside the airport, the weather was very comfortable and in the upper 70’s. I’d left North Carolina wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a hoody, but could see they would soon be a little warm. We were met outside by Butch Jarrel, one of the higher ups at Word of Life in New York. He lead us through the thick crowd of people waiting outside and told us we could put our bags on the WOL bus. It was kind of a curious thing, though. Having never met any of the local Guatemalan staff before, it was difficult to discern who was a genuine staff member and who was a potential bag thief trying to look like a staff member. It made sense to me that bag thieves might pose as sky-captains or cab drivers just to get hold of your stuff. Then I noticed that all the people helping move bags were wearing Word of Life T-Shirts, so they were probably okay.

There were two more flights arriving within the next hour, so we hung around to wait for them too. It was a great opportunity to people watch and meet some of the other staff members. Rick Brooks, another high-up from WOL headquarters in New York, was there. He welcomed us and told us the most useful phrase we could know in Spanish: Donde es su bano? (Where is your bathroom?)

Among the crowd were a number ladies in traditional Guatemalan dress. Ash told me that you don’t see it as much in the city as you do in the countryside. She’d seen more in 2003 when she was in the mountain town of Quetzaltananga. There were also children who came up offering shoe-shines, or selling fruit or were just asking people for “dollares”.

I was a little uncertain how to behave in the crowd. Part of me wanted to start snapping pictures of everything like a big gawky tourist. However, we’d been told that we shouldn’t take pictures of the locals without permission, particularly when it came to photographing their children. It is apparently a prevalent belief that westerners come to Guatemala to steal away children for rich families back in the States and anyone taking pictures of children can be suspect. From what I understand, this is not entirely untrue.

One of the other flights contained fellow West Virginians while the second was bringing in a team of dental students and dentists from Racine, Wisconsin. I decided to put on my Word of Life name-tag before offering to help move their luggage to the bus. It was a good idea too, as a couple of them wisely didn’t accept help until I’d flashed the ID for them.

Once all of the flights had delivered their passengers, we all bussed up and drove through Guatemala City to the home of Marcello Diez, the man in charge of all things WOL in Guatemala. The journey there was an interesting one.

As I’ve said, I’d never been in a foreign country until that point, so just seeing the way things worked was fascinating to me. You might not think it would be all that different. After all, big cities in America can be just as hectic and fascinating as in another country. However, there’s just sort of a different flavor to it that’s a little hard to pin down at first.

There was kind of a work-in progress feel to the city. It’s a lot like visiting a construction site and seeing all the bits of it that are sort of half-finished; like exposed rebar awaiting concrete or maybe a finished building awaiting paint or an older structure that’s seen quite a bit of wear and is probably next on the list for a face-lift; there are bits of trash lying around that the construction workers have dropped and won’t worry about picking up until final cleanup, etc. Except the whole city feels this way. I imagine with all the earthquakes that happen, there is a very good reason for all the construction and wear.

The cars were another difference. Sure, there were loads of the same sorts of vehicles you see in America and other countries, but there were quite a few I didn’t recognize at all. Some of the most obvious of these were in the form of miniature mini-vans, smaller still than even the smallest mini-van I’d ever seen. They also look like they’re constructed from pressed tin and live in perpetual fear of kids with BB guns.

The Mayan influence was also evident everywhere you look. I don’t even know from Mayan influence, and I could see it.

Like most big cities, there were lots of billboards to be seen nearly everywhere you looked. The ones I noticed the most were for things like Gallo beer, or ads for the movie Robots, but there were plenty of others. The architecture too was far different than I’m used to seeing. Almost all of the homes and businesses I saw were constructed like mini-fortresses. The businesses had gates that could be pulled down over the front of the store, much like some businesses in major U.S. Cities. Most of the houses were boxy and constructed of concrete block. Usually they were brightly colored, often covered with stucco. But they were not open in the front, to reveal the front door of the home itself. Instead, there was usually a high concrete wall topped with either razor wire or broken shards of glass set into the concrete itself, with a wide metal door set into the wall. Beyond that door lay either a front garden area or a garage, but the outside looked pretty tough to get through. I don’t know the true origins of this style of home, but keeping unwanted people out seems to be the definite theme.

Marcello’s house was no exception to this. Though he lives in a gated neighborhood, his house is still very much a lovely colorful fortress from the outside. Inside the metal garage door, there was a tiled floor garage area that was far cleaner than you’d imagine a garage to be. The actual front door to his home was in the garage too, as well as set of tall clear windows that gave a view into his side-yard. We also found a long table upon which a cold cuts tray and sandwich fixings are laid out. We’d not eaten since our breakfast on the plane, hours earlier, so we were hungry.

First things first, though: I had to find the bano.

I’d been holding my bladder since before we landed and had not sought out “facilities” up to that point because I did not wish to be waylaid in the airport bano by someone seeking to steal my carryon backpack. (This is probably a case of over-active imagination on my part, but that’s really all I had to go on at that point in my trip.)

One of the other things I’d been concerned about on the trip was the reality that bathrooms in Central America work differently than in the states. See, most Central American plumbing pipes are too small to accommodate toilet paper. So instead of flushing the soiled paper away after “making stinky” you have to put it into a small trash can beside the toilet or risk clogging up the works. The idea that stinky paper is to be left there to remain stinky is kind of an icky and alien concept to most of us Gringos. However, in practice, it’s really not that big a deal–at least after you manage to train your hand not to drop the paper in the pot, post-wipe. The thing about poopy paper is that it dries up pretty quickly and is thus no longer offensive to the nose. And most of the homes and places I traveled to while south of the border, (I emphasize MOST, as there were definite exceptions), were meticulous at emptying their bano bins on a regular basis. While I didn’t have to make stinky at that moment, I wouldn’t have minded doing so in Marcello’s bano. It was spotless, fragrant and well-ventillated.

After lunch and introductions, we all piled back in our two school-busses to head south of Guatemala City, toward the coast where the Word of Life (Palabra de Vida) camp property is located. We quickly discovered that though Marcello’s house was fortress-like, the busses themselves were not. Some theif had been aboard and made off with two backpacks while we were inside eating. These were only the first of the thefts that our collective 40 plus member team would experience during the week.

The driver of our bus was a man called Oswald. We would come to respect him greatly as both a person and a driver over the week, but our initial impressions were that he was a bit reckless. Driving regulations in Guatemala are a good deal more lax than in the states. I’m sure they have laws to cover it, but most of the time they don’t seem to be enforced. Oswald proved that point by hurtling our massive bus through busy city streets, weaving among the cars like an Indy driver, as we made our way out of town. And while it might have seemed reckless at first, we soon came to realize that Oswald had a great deal of skill when it came to maneuvering that bus. He was aided in this by one of the missionary staff named Alex. Alex was a funny man who was able to convey his humor despite his rusty English skills. Alex’s job was to lean out the door of the bus and make sure Oswald wasn’t running over anything important. They made a great team and no important things were squooshed.

Guatemala City was pretty smoggy that day. You could smell the pollution in the air. That gradually lessened as we left the city limits, moving down past past sprawling apartment suburbs of tiny little terra-cotta-colored-roof fortresses. We also saw some less fortress-like dwellings. They were shacks, really, clustered together in suburbs of their own, a reminder that the poor of Guatemala live far worse than most poor in the United States.

Before getting out of the city entirely, we stopped at a gas-station next to a row of toll-booths so that people could buy snacks and drinks and visit the bano one last time before we hit the open road. Standing guard in front of the gas station was a man with a large black and silver sawed-off shotgun. It’s very off-putting at first to see people walking around with shotguns in public, but this was a commonplace sight almost everywhere we went. From banks to little roadside mom & pop cocinas, guys with shotguns were the “in” dudes to have guarding your place.

We still had some daylight left to us as we left the gas-station and began traveling into the countryside.

Guatemala is quite beautiful. The geology of the place actually reminds me a lot of West Virginia; just mountains and rolling hills and trees and lots and lots of rocks.

Ashley and I talked a bit with the people on the bus, trying to get to know them. Seated next to us was a local missionary staffer named Claudia, who Ashley knew from 2003. Claudia was all smiles all the time. While her English was better than my Spanish, she still didn’t seem to speak very much of it, so our communication was limited to my Spanish and what we could send through interpreters. Our interpreter aboard was Michelle. She’s an American with the Racine dental team who spent some time in Mexico as an exchange student, years back, and picked up the language. I don’t know much Spanish anymore, but Michelle sounded flawless as she conversed with Oswald and Alex.

Marcello, who was driving the other bus, had earlier told us that the camp was two hours from Guatemala City. It was actually closer to three. This was our first example of a phenomenon we learned to call Gringo Time. Gringo Time, you see, is what we gringos are used to operating under. In Gringo Time, things begin when they’re scheduled to begin and when you ask how long it takes to get somewhere, a definitive and accurate answer can be produced. In Guatemala, things don’t work on Gringo Time, which means schedules are rarely followed very closely and everything takes twice as long to accomplish as you’re told it will. The sooner you are able to accept this the better off and much less frustrated you are. Oddly, I accepted it right away and was never bothered much by the delays. It’s actually a far more relaxed and leisurely way to live.

Very soon on our journey to the camp, we found a prime example of why life moves at a slower pace in Guatemala. For as we appproached sea-level, the comfortable temperatures of Guatemala City gave way to humidity and heat. By the time we reached camp, near 9 p.m. I was asleep and sweaty. The dirt road up to the camp property was very bumpy, but not too long. It was slow-going, though, and without the rush of wind through the windows, the heat really started to set in. The humidity felt like it was at full force at the camp. Mind you, I grew up in Mississippi, where July and August are just one big sweatbox, so I figured I could take it. This didn’t mean I had to enjoy it, though.

It was difficult to see anything when we stumbled off the two busses. This was due as much to the surrounding night-time darkness as to the blinding flood-lights on tripods stationed near the camp’s kitchen, which was the nearest building to the gravel parking lot. Beyond the glare of the lights we could see the shapes of some other buildings, further down the slope of a hill, as well as other lights coming from beneath a covered pavilion area. Beneath its roof were rows of covered tables and benches, as well as a couple of Foosball-style games and a ping-pong table.

Though we couldn’t really see much of the camp, it was apparent from the equipment, dangerously exposed sections of rebar right at shin-level and in-progress buildings that this camp was still under construction. We were to learn more about the overall camp project as the week progressed.

We unloaded the van of personal luggage and headed to the bunk houses. There were four bunk houses in all, two for the men up the hill and two for the ladies down the hill, with the pavilion and kitchen building in the middle. Each bunk house was equipped with two high-powered air-conditioners and rows of sturdy bunk beds. I chose a top bunk because I liked bunk beds as a kid and always made a point of taking the top bunk at Summer Camp. This felt as much like Summer Camp as I’d seen in quite a few years. There were even enough bunk beds available that a few of us were able to swipe matresses from the spare bunks to pad out our thin solo mattresses. We had all brought twin sheet-sets and bedding with us, because the camp did not yet have any on hand, so most of us set about making our beds. I’d not had room room in my luggage for a pillow, but found that my hoody jacket wadded up in a pillow-case made for a fine pillow. Andrew came in late and had to take the bunk beneath mine since most of the other spares had been pillaged by then.

In proximity to each set of bunk houses was a bano/shower house. Ours had very large and very fast frogs in it, one of whom I was able to photograph before he vanished in a hopping green blur. I didn’t mind the presence of frogs one bit. I figured if there were frogs in the bano there probably weren’t any snakes. Or bugs.

Before dinner at the pavilion, Rick asked the married team-members and a few other seasoned adult types to meet with him. He explained that the mayor of the nearest town had offered four hotel rooms for use of the mission during the week. Rick wanted to offer them to those of us who were married so that we could stay together if we wanted. It was a very generous offer on the mayor’s part, but it wasn’t one that I wanted to accept. Beyond the issues of having to travel 20 minutes to get to and from the hotel, it would put those of us in the hotel at even more of a personal distance from those in camp. Being away would not lend itself to getting to know the rest of the team and I think would have lessened the mission experience as a whole. (And as for being away from Ashley, I had spent four months in a row away from her while she was on medical rotations, so surely I could survive two weeks.) Fortunately, the other married couples felt the same way as Ash and I did. No one went to the hotel.

After dinner, we had our first meeting of the entire United States portion of the mission team. Marcello, Butch and Rick outlined some information about our itenerary for Sunday as well as telling us about the two clinic sites we would be at during the week itself. Half-way through the meeting, the power went off, plunging us into darkness. This was our first bad omen as far as the reliability of the local power transformer. Turns out that all those flood lights and air-conditioners were putting the hurt on the transformer and it would occasionally spit out a disturbing shower of sparks before losing the will to continue functioning.

Later, Ashley and I saw these sparks first hand while looking for our towels. See, we’d originally packed plenty of towels, but in our haste of packing and repacking, Ash had wound up taking all our towels out of one bag and not remembering to put them back in another. We didn’t know this, though, until we had searched all the luggage that was still aboard the van. This was initially hard to do in the dark, but then Andrew came by to help and brought a flashlight. Soon we discovered that the towels were not there. Now, as a good potential Hitchhiker of the Galaxy, I am never far from my towel and had a spare one stashed in my backpack in the cabin. I offered it to Ash, but she declined, saying she would use a pillow-case to dry off that first night. While we were searching, though, we saw the transformer sparking and then saw guys going up on ladders to fix it after it cut off. I was sure one of them would be electrocuted and we’d have our first injuries to treat, but nothing bad happened.

Andrew left me with his flashlight, which made seeing my way back to the cabin in the dark much less perilous. Only when I was back in the cabin did I remember that I’d packed my own flashlight too. It was a long stainless steel pen-light that I’ve had for a couple of years now and which is almost always with me in my backpack. I retrieved it and made a point to have it on my person at all times, least I trip on one of the many rocks and go tumbing down the hill onto some rebar. It’s good that I did, too, because I managed to misplace Andrew’s flashlight for several days.

During my first shower in the shower house that night, I was mid-way through washing my face and had my eyes securely closed so as not to get any water-born bacteria in them when I heard the distant whine of the air-conditioners cut out. I thought: When I open my eyes, it’s going to be pitch black. Sure enough, the power had gone out again, so I finished my shower in darkness.

The power went off twice more throughout the night, knocking out the air-conditioners and leaving us hot and sweaty until the transformer could be seen to. And please know that I’m not complaining about any of this. I knew things would be different in Guatemala and I’d not expected to have any air-conditioning at all, so having some was a blessing. I kept reminding myself that I had not come there to be comfortable; I came there to help with the mission.

That was a mantra that would be repeated and tested many times during the coming week.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Friday, March 18, 2005

After packing, unpacking, repacking and double checking our packing furiously all morning, my wife Ashley and I were finally ready to depart on our mission trip. The plan was for Dr. Allen and his wife Mary Ann to pick us up and drive us to North Carolina, to the home of my in-laws, where we’ll stay the night and rest for our early Saturday morning flight. We said goodbye to our cat, Winston, who we wouldn’t be seeing for two weeks. We always feel guilty leaving Winston behind by herself, but she’s an enormous wuss and would be even more miserable in a kennel. She had two giant cat-feeder/waterers, so she would be fine. We left the radio on for her, tuned to a country station, since everyone knows all cats love country music.

Dr. Allen arrived around 1:30 accompanied by Mary Ann and a first year med student named Carrie, who was traveling down with us. Dr. Allen brought his enormous Titan pickup truck with a crew cab, so we loaded all the luggage into the truck’s bed. Between Dr. and Mrs. Allen, Ashley, me and Carrie we have 12 full bags, consisting of large suitcases and duffle bags. This will be our check luggage. Most of our clothing is stored in carryon bags.

After loading up, we departed WV for Hildebran, NC. It’s a familiar route, as it’s the one Ash and I take when traveling to see family in NC. Unfortunately, we were so fully engrossed in conversation when we reached Wytheville, VA, that we didn’t notice that we’d missed our turn onto I-77. In fact, I didn’t notice it for another 50 minutes when I started seeing signs for Christiansburg. We had to back track. Dr. Allen was embarrassed for missing the turn, but I was even more embarrassed that I didn’t notice it sooner.

After a late supper at a Crack Barrel, we arrive at Ma’s house around 10 p. I had a few last minute journaling details to attend to, so I don’t actually get to bed until after 11p.

NEXT

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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Don’t drink the water

Don’t drink the water; that’s the advice everyone gives you upon hearing you’re about to travel abroad. It was also a chief concern of mine several months ago when asking my wife questions concerning our impending Central American medical mission trip, to occur in March of 2005. My wife Ashley, a fourth year medical student, has been on two foreign mission trips in the past; once to India over a decade ago and once on a two week mission to Honduras and Guatemala in 2003. She knows from not drinking the water.

That the water would be a concern of mine is no small thing. For those of you who don’t know, Central American water systems are not always the most hygienic and you can get a wide variety of biological contaminants in your system from drinking water from them. The locals are pretty much immune, but wandering weak-stomached Gringos have no such treaty. Ashley assured me that I would be fine and that the mission team would have plenty of fresh water on hand for us to drink and, as a medical mission team, we’d be packing packing all manner of antibiotics. Pretty much anything short of HIV and Hepatitis could be wiped out with the meds we’d have. That was a relief, but didn’t wipe out all of my concerns, (particularly since I was quite late in getting my Hep vaccinations).

See, I’d never been on a mission trip of any kind before. I’d never even been out of the United States–unless you count Guam, which no one does. So there was plenty I didn’t know about what I was getting myself into. I only had tales of Ash’s former mission trips and stories from well-traveled friends to go on, and some of those were pretty scary. Also, I was not entirely comfortable being a part of a medical mission trip, being as how I have no medical training whatsoever. That was my excuse for staying home in 2003.

Another concern: while I am a Christian and it is the calling of Christians to spread the gospel message far and wide, to my knowledge I’ve never actually done that in an active fashion. I’ll even admit to often living a poor example of how a Christian should. For one thing, I curse a good deal more than is healthy. For another, I pour all sorts of entertainment industry garbage into my brain. Sure, I haven’t killed anyone, but I still feel far more sinner than saint. However, when you think about it, that’s really not such a drawback. In fact, it’s kind of the whole bag with Christianity; the realization that we are not perfect and that we do sin quite regularly and it is only because of the sacrifice Jesus made taking our sins onto himself and dying in our place that we are at all worthy of salvation. Being a saint was not a requirement for going on this trip. Being willing to lend a hand any way I could was and I already had that going for me. I wanted to go, to be of use and not be in the way. And quite fortunately, medical teams and mission teams always need support staff to help facilitate their mission. That would be my role.

This blog is a journal of the experience. I take it from my pre-trip misconceptions to the sometimes even stranger realities we encountered.

Let me say up front that my words here can in no way equal the experience of the trip through this journal. If you read this, you will only receive a surface scan of a small portion of the overall trip, as filtered through my perceptions. I cannot adequately explain to you much of the wondrous nature of the mission. I cannot adequately tell you about all the marvelous people and new friends that I met and how special they have become to me. I cannot adequately convey the amazing nature of what the missionaries accomplished in these countries. I’m going to try to do some of it, but please be assured that however long you think this blog is, I’m leaving out a tremendous amount of material.

The events depicted here occurred between March 18 and April 4, 2005. I’ll post new entries quite regularly, datelined to the date on which they originally occurred.  I hope you enjoy reading about what turned out to be a very harrowing and uplifting experience for us.

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