The Talkin’ Grad-u-mation, Hide the Presents, No Hints, Floral Prints, Stupid Cat Blues (a Non-Horrible, Horribly True Tale)
As you may know by now, I have a bit of difficulty in keeping surprises a surprise when it comes to my wife.
Oh, I try. I really do. But she almost always knows I’m planning something for her major celebratory days (birthday, anniversary, Christmas, etc.) and starts pestering me for hints weeks in advance. And like a moron, I always think, “This time I’m really gonna pull it off. She’ll never guess this hint.” Then, as though she’s plucked it from my very mind, out she comes with the answer, pissing me off and causing me to vow never again to give her any hints. Then the next birthday comes along and there I go lobbing hints like softballs at the Near-Sighted-Middle-School-Girl’s Little League Playoffs.
After my defeat last October—in which I entirely failed to keep secret the fact that her birthday present was me finally hauling away our old washing machine, freeing up valuable space in the dining room—I became determined that I was finally gonna get one past the batter.
My three opportunities to do so, barring any unforeseen emergency holidays, were Christmas, our anniversary and Ashley’s med-school graduation present. Christmas was right out, because by the time I thought of a really good and perfect present December had already passed. That left our 5th anniversary in early February and graduation in late May. I aimed for Feb.
And as to the perfect present… Oh, it was just too good.
A couple of years ago, while browsing in a nearby gallery of community art, Ashley fell in love with a painting by local artist Jeanne Brenneman. It was a floral watercolor entitled Flower Tower. Beyond the beauty of the flowers depicted, though, the construction of the painting and frame was nearly as intriguing. Mrs. Brenneman had taken an eight-inch-square piece of rough hand-made watercolor paper, the kind with craggy crinkly edges, and glued it to a larger piece of watercolor paper, also with cool craggy edges. Atop these layers, she painted the watercolor floral scene, and a most beautiful one at that. Then she mounted the whole thing on a thin piece of foam core which she in turn mounted to a matte board, framed by another matte board but with enough space that the viewer could see this painting floating above the back-most board, and then the whole thing was sealed in a wooden outer frame. It was beautiful work. Ashley thought it was fantastic. She immediately declared her undying love for the painting and threatened to buy it right there. Then she saw the price tag and we realized we could neither justify nor afford dropping several hundred dollars for it, no matter how much we loved the painting. And while the artist herself was known to do prints of her existing work, a print of this picture, no matter how well-rendered, could never match the original three-dimensional work.
Deciding not to buy this painting was a harder thing to do than we thought, though. We went back to the hall more than once just to look at the painting. And then, several months later, Ashley tracked down Mrs. Brenneman’s website, discovered the painting was again on display in another town and we drove nearly an hour to go see it. Once again, though, we could not justify its purchase. Not with two cars in need of repair and rent in need of being paid. We’d have to save such extravagances for the future, like maybe in 2039, after we’ve paid off the school loans.
As distant a purchase as that seemed, the idea of the painting and the memory of how much Ashley loved it stuck in my head and then resurfaced in January when I was brainstorming presents for our 5th anniversary. I decided to look into it. And while I still couldn’t really justify buying the painting as a whim purchase, I was—with a careful application of rationalization—able to justify purchasing it for a major event.
So I sent Mrs. Brenneman an e-mail explaining who I was, which painting I was interested in, and that I was interested in purchasing it as a surprise present for either our then upcoming 5th anniversary or for Ash’s graduation. Was it still on the market? Mrs. Brenneman soon wrote me back and said that it was indeed still on the market, but had been submitted for inclusion in an upcoming painting competition and would possibly be unavailable until late April. This was fine with me, as it helped me decide when I was going to give it to Ashley. What I liked even better was that her asking price for the painting was at least a full $100 less than I remembered it cost before. Win win.
After this, I just had to start saving cash. I stashed away bits and pieces from paycheck to paycheck as well as my entire payment for some freelance web design work I had done. My nest egg grew, safely hidden away. (I knew it was safe cause Ashley knows I never have any money, so she doesn’t go looking for it.)
Meanwhile, I knew I had to come up with some way to keep hint-beggar Ashley off my back. May was quickly approaching and the closer we got to it the more likely she would start asking what my plans were. To the rescue came my mother-in-law. She e-mailed me to ask if I would like to go in on a family graduation present of some black pearl jewelry that she hoped to persuade Ash’s grandmother and sisters to join in for. I said it sounded like a fine gift, but I opted out citing my own plans.
“Don’t give her any hints!” Ma warned. Evidently Ma didn’t tell that to everyone else in her little cabal. Within a week, Ashley came to me and told me that she knew there were some sort of group plans afoot. Apparently, her grandmother had spilled that much, though she hadn’t spoiled any surprises.
“Oh, really?” I said, trying to act innocent, which I knew Ashley would interpret as guilt.
“You know about it, don’t you?!”
“Gimme a hint!”
“Nope. I can’t say a word about it,” I told her. “This is something other people are working on, so I can’t give any hints.”
“Aw, c’mon! Just one hint.”
“No!” I shouted. I then further distanced myself from any hint-giving by speaking exclusively to the cat for the next 20 minutes.
The spoilage of Ma and Company’s surprise was a blessing in disguise, though. So long as I continued to deny everything and not give any hints, Ashley seemed satisfied that I was in cahoots with them and left me alone about any solo plans I might have. And so the days passed.
Since January, I’d kept in contact with Mrs. Brenneman and had continued to let her know I was still planning to make the purchase of her painting. We set a date, to meet at my library workplace to make the exchange, and soon our agreed upon date of May 26 had arrived. My co-workers were all in on the surprise by then and were sworn to secrecy.
Mrs. Brenneman arrived at exactly the time she said she would, painting case in hand. We chatted a little about the painting, the awards that it had won and her general creative process for it. Then, I filled out a bill of sale form she had brought, made a copy of it for her and made the purchase. The painting was now mine and soon it would be my wife’s. I just had to find a good place to hide it.
I left work in the early afternoon on Thursday and headed home. Ashley’s parents had already arrived, but had taken her out for lunch, leaving me the run of the house. My plan was to hide it somewhere inconspicuous-yet-accessible so I could sneak out late Friday night and hang it up somewhere in the house. After abandoning a few bad ideas, I opted to hide the painting behind the door to my office. The door is always open and would be difficult to close even if I wanted to due to the runner carpet wadded up in front of it. Seemed perfect. I even gave the room a few walk-by passes from the hall to make sure it didn’t attract my eye. Seemed good to me.
That night, Ashley, Ma, Pa and I went to the big awards banquet at Ashley’s school. This is the traditional ceremony where all the students and their families come and feast from a banquet buffet while the school’s faculty congratulates them for surviving all the way to graduation. A number of students are recognized with scholarship awards and the sashes and cords for the top 10 percent grade achievers are passed out. (Ash wasn’t among the top 10 percent, but she’s not far from it. Frankly, passing medical school at all is the major achievement. And like the old joke goes: Question– What do you call a student who graduates from medical school with a GPA of 70? Answer– Doctor.)
Ashley had brought along a manila folder, which I thought was a little odd, especially after she became real secretive about it when I asked what it contained.
About mid-way through the awards ceremony, the dean of students stood and announced she was about to award the American Osteopathic Foundation’s Donna Jones Moritsugu Award, an award given to an non-student individual who has demonstrated “immeasurable support” of a student enrolled in the medical school and to the Osteopathic profession at large. The candidate for the award is chosen from several such candidates and voted upon by the faculty of the school itself. In addition to a beautiful framed plaque, the award came with a check for $240. And when the dean announced the winner of the award, she called my name.
I was stunned. I never knew such an award existed in the first place, nor would I have expected to win it if I had. I suppose, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been a candidate, after all I was the co-president of the school’s spouse/significant other support organization for a year and helped out at the school in other ways. But primarily, the award was granted for helping support my wife as she went through the four years of schooling. In other words, I was given the award for being a good husband. How many men get to say they were given an award (one that came with cash) for being a good husband? Not many, I’d wager.
After the ceremony, on our way to the car, Ashley revealed what she had in the manila envelope. She had intended to open it and distribute its contents during the ceremony, but no such opportunity was officially offered. What it contained were were two printed citations, one for Ma and Pa and one for me. They had the official school seal and signature of the president of the school, and stated that they were given as a token of her sincerest gratitude for supporting and encouraging her efforts during school. The award was given as thanks for patience and love and being an integral part of her success. This single paper meant more to me than the framed one I’d just received inside. And it was at that moment that I decided I would give Ashley her present earlier than I’d intended.
My original plan had been to keep her painting a surprise all the way until Saturday morning. I was planning to sneak out and hang it up on an existing nail during the night and let her discover it when she got up Saturday. There on Thursday night, though, I felt such gratitude for the award she’d just given me that I wanted to rush home and give the painting right then. This was an urge I was able to fight off, though. I’d worked far too hard to keep this thing under wraps to give in quite that easily. However, I didn’t think it would hurt to give it to her a day early.
That night, just after we had retired for the evening, I got up to go fill my bedside water bottle and grabbed the painting from its hiding place on the way down the hall. I took down an existing frame on one wall of our living room, hung the new painting up, filled my bottle and then stashed the old frame behind the office door on my way back to bed. We went to sleep.
Early in the morning, our cat began driving us crazy. Usually we let her out in the evening, when she can run around in the dark and feel relatively safe from the entire lack of big bad animals that don’t stalk and kill her during the day. However, she didn’t get to go out in the evening because she was too scared that Ma and Pa might stalk and kill her if she came out from hiding. So at 5 in the morning, she began making a pest of herself, jumping on and off the bed and running up and down the halls at full speed, making as much noise as possible, in an effort to anger us to the point that we hurl her from the house.
“I better go let the cat out,” Ashley said, groggily.
“I can do it,” I said, fearing that she would see her surprise on the way through the living room.
“No, I got it,” she said, rising and snatching up the cat. I prayed silently that she wouldn’t notice her gift hanging on the living room wall, only a few feet from the back door, but figured that it wouldn’t be so bad if she did. She didn’t see it, though, and came right back to bed.
When we finally got up for good, around 7, I followed her into the kitchen. I had wondered how long it would take for her to notice it. I’d even envisioned the possibility that she wouldn’t notice it and would leave for her school-related functions that morning. Nope. Within 30 seconds of entering the kitchen, she turned, caught sight of it, turned away then did a double-take as her brain registered what she had seen. Her mouth dropped open and she said, “Ohhhhh.” Then she stared across the room at the painting for a long time, her eyes welling up with tears, then turned and smiled at me. The reaction was so satisfying. It was worth every bit of sneaking and plotting and secret-keeping on my part.
“How long have you been planning this?” she asked.
“Months,” I said.
“And he kept it a secret all this time!” Ma crowed triumphantly on my behalf. “He finally got one on you!”
“He did,” Ash said, giving me a big kiss. “He finally did.”
Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius
So there we were, sleeping away, safe in the knowledge we didn’t have to get up `til breakfast time, that we’d have a leisurely morning of light sightseeing, and that our flight didn’t leave until 1:45 that afternoon.
At 5:45 a.m. our hotel phone rang. It was Butch. He and Andrew had gotten up to see Flo off for her early flight and while they were up Butch had rechecked everyone’s flight information. It turned out that only Butch’s flight was scheduled to leave at 1:45 p.m. Everyone else’s flight was scheduled for 8:45 a.m., same as Flo’s. He said we had 15 minutes to pack all our stuff and be downstairs ready to go before Sylvana arrived with the van. He said he would call Tito and Jo Ann so they could bring us our empty luggage.
“Who was that?” Ashley asked as I put the phone down. I told her it was Butch and informed her of our predicament and deadline.
“You’re kidding me, right?” she said.
To say that we were panicked by this news is putting it lightly. Neither of us had done any packing whatsoever the previous night and all our stuff was scattered. So there we were, neither of us even technically awake, running around the room grabbing clothing and possessions at random and hurling it all into bags unfolded. I’d been optimistic that we could get it all done in 15 minutes, but the whole still being mostly asleep part and the still being very fatigued from our week really put the crimp on that. It was like we couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing next. And in addition to clothing, we had to pack up our fragile items too. Ash had four pieces of pottery and I had all the little clay sun-faces and several bags of plantain chips to worry about. We decided to put it all in our carry-on luggage, which we could at least be sure we would have on our persons and could be responsible for not breaking. We certainly didn’t trust the airlines to extend to us the same courtesy.
Through the haze of morning, it occurred to me that something else might be going on. What if this was all an elaborate practical joke on the part of Butch? I didn’t know how revenge-minded he was, but a prank of this magnitude would sufficiently get us back for all that stuff we did to him while he was sleeping last week. I could just see us breaking our butts packing and rushing downstairs only to find Butch there waiting with his camera to take our picture, laughing away at us. Ooh, that would be mean. We totally deserved it, but it would be mean. At that point, though, I figured having it be a prank was preferable to having to do a mad rush to the airport with Sylvana driving. She drove crazy enough when we weren’t under the gun, so I was not looking forward to the ride when we were.
After 10 minutes had passed, Butch called us back to tell us we could have until 6:15 to be downstairs. This was actually very good news, because we were nowhere near finished with packing. Unfortunately, it also meant that this was not likely a prank. And it wasn’t.
Perhaps ironically, the last time Ashley had been in Central America, she’d had to flee the country as fast as she could and here it looked like we were about to have to do the same all over again.
We got downstairs at 6:10. Jo Ann, Tito and Sylvana were there, ready to go, our luggage all packed in the back of Tito’s truck. We loaded up and hit the road. Fortunately, traffic in San Salvador isn’t very hectic at 6:15 on a Saturday morning. We were able to zip right along at a nice clip and made the 40 minute journey to the airport in seemingly record time.
San Salvador’s airport a very nice, but also very small for the number of travelers it sees. Even at 7a, it was extraordinarily crowded, and that was just outside. Once again, my airport fears set in and I became very paranoid about our luggage. I didn’t know if it was justified or not, but we’d not had any time for a San Sal airport expectations briefing. I’d have to just be paranoid and wing it.
We unloaded all the luggage from the truck outside the airport. Though most of it was empty, it was still an awful lot of luggage to be lugging around. Butch gave us money for the $32 exit fee we would have to pay and then Jo Ann and Sylvana helped us get everything inside while Tito stood guard at the car. The inside was even more crowded than the outside, with thick queues of people as far as the eye could see. We said our goodbyes to everyone and said we’d hope to see each other in a year. Then Dr. Allen, Mary Ann, Andrew, Flo, Ashley and I headed on in to our place in line.
Oddly, the huge lines didn’t seem to really hamper us much as far as getting through customs went. I paid the exit fee and was given receipts for all of us that we’d have to show at further gates. We then checked our luggage and proceeded to the next set of lines we’d have to stand in. With all the bustling of the crowd, we managed to get separated, which wasn’t a problem until it came time to show the receipts for our exit fees at the next set of doors. After that it was just a brief stop at the metal detectors, a quick x-ray of shoes and carryon luggage and we then found ourselves in the far less crowded airport terminal area. This was a very long hallway that lead to the boarding stations for all flights. Ours was pretty far down the hall, but we had a half hour to kill, so we weren’t in any great hurry.
We said our goodbyes to Flo, who was headed out on a separate flight to Honduras, and then ate breakfast at a small airport café where they served pastries and coffee.
Even with the big journey ahead of us, I was feeling surprisingly calm about it all. It’s like I knew that the worries of the world and the hustle and bustle didn’t really amount to anything and it would all work out okay. Why get stressed about it? I mentioned this to my traveling companions and they felt the same way.
Once aboard the plane, I put on my seatbelt as instructed. It was the first time a safety belt had graced my lap in all two weeks.
We could definitely tell we were back in the United States when we landed in Houston. It seemed like everyone we encountered was determined to be rude to us and the customs process suddenly became far more complex than it had been in Central America. Our passports and customs forms were checked repeatedly at every step and there was a lot more walking to do and many more long lines to stand in. Most of the customs people were cranky too, yet we remained strangely calm.
We went through the X-Ray machines and Dr. Allen’s otoscope turned up in the shot and he was pulled out of line so that all of his luggage could be inspected by hand. Never mind that four members of our five member party all had otoscopes in their bags too, his was the one to get flagged.
Once we arrived at our departure gate, everything was fine. Then the little sign that said “Charlotte” disappeared and one that said “Philadelphia” appeared in its place. Our gate had been moved. Most people would have been annoyed at this, but we just looked around and found the new one across the way and moved. No biggie.
While we waited at our new gate, a stewardess for Continental Airlines came by and gave us each claim tickets for our carry-on luggage. This was going to be another smaller plane, like the one we’d flown to Houston in from Charlotte, so there wouldn’t be space in the cabin for everyone’s carry-on bags. We took the forms, left our bags on the jet-way and didn’t think much about it.
We boarded at 1:20 for our 1:35 flight. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann had seats together as did Ashley and I. And Andrew was just across the aisle from us with a good view of the baggage handlers as they loaded everyone’s carryon luggage into the plane’s hold.
“Hey, that guy’s dropping bags!” Andrew said. We couldn’t see what was going on, but Andrew could and said the handler was just yanking bags off the jetway and letting them fall six feet to the ground. He held onto them as they fell to give them a guiding hand, but fall they did and seemed to be landing pretty hard. This was probably the first time we began to get really riled up for most of the trip. The whole point of putting fragile items in the carryons was so THIS wouldn’t happen and here it was anyway.
We called the plane’s steward over and told him what was going on. He said he’d file a report about it and that shut us up for the moment. Our nerves calmed again and we settled in. Soon they plane taxied out onto the runway to await clearance to take off.
And we waited.
And we waited.
And we waited.
At 1:40, the captain came on the speaker and told us that Charlotte was closed due to weather concerns and we’re going to have to wait 50 minutes before they would know if we’d be able to take off. At this point, the passengers around us began freaking out. People began grumbling, loudly and seemed to be of a mindset that asking us to wait for 50 whole minutes might just be the death of us, when it probably only meant the death of their connecting flights. Our party remained calm.
Somewhere near the front of the plane, a baby began screaming. Not crying, mind you, but screaming full-out, lungs ablaze, hardly stopping to take a breath. The air in the cabin, which had been warm from all the people aboard, now felt hot. Our party remained calm.
Two seats behind us, a man with a gruff British accent began loudly using his cell phone to call someone in Charlotte named Bonnie to tell her he would be coming in late. We know her name was Bonnie because he said her name, I’m gonna guess, at least 400 times during his brief call. “Bonnie? Bonnie? Can you hear me, Bonnie? Bonnie?” His connection was apparently not very good, so he just kept repeating her name, getting no response, hanging up and dialing again and repeating the previous process. Finally, after minutes of just going, “Bonnie?! Bonnie?! Bonnie?! Bonnie?!” he managed to get a good connection with her. “Bonnie?! … Bonnie, I can’t hear you…. I said, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!! … I hear loud voices in the background. … Bonnie?! Where are you at, Bonnie? Are you having trouble answering your phone, Bonnie?! I hear loud voices there, Bonnie … I said, I HEAR LOUD VOICES THERE, BONNIE!!!! … Can you go to some place where it isn’t so loud, Bonnie?!!”
This is what we all were hoping for by that point.
Evidently Bonnie relocated and he began asking her what the weather was like there, to which he didn’t seem to get a satisfactory response because he then began chastising her for not paying attention to the weather reports. If he had shut up for five seconds, he might have heard the three other people around us phone home to Charlotte to learn that the weather was very windy there.
Regardless of Bonnie’s bellowing British husband, we the mission party were still very calm about it all. Even Andrew, who had the most to lose since Charlotte was not his final destination and he had to make a connecting flight from there to D.C., didn’t seem at all put out by the delay.
We waited on the runway for 50 minutes, with the screaming baby and the screaming Mr. Bonnie going full blast.
At 2:30, the flight crew came on the speakers and announced that we still didn’t know our take off time, but were going to head back to the terminal anyway because a passenger needed to get off the plane. I assumed the guy was maybe just connecting in Charlotte too and wanted to get off and try and catch a more direct flight to his destination. So they fired up the engine and we taxied back within walking distance of one of the airport terminals, but they didn’t let us off. Instead, we just sat there waiting, as the flight crew explained, for a bus to come and drive us to the terminal.
After at least 10 minutes, the steward came back on the speaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we were taxiing to a gate to allow a passenger off who was sick. But now the passenger doesn’t want off, so I’m not sure what we’re doing here.”
We all laughed at that. I had to hand it to the flight crew for having personality. Shortly after this, they came back on and announced that we had received word from Charlotte and would be taking off at 22 past the hour. Since it was now around 2:50, both we and the captain had assumed Charlotte meant 3:22. Uh, no. It turns out they meant 4:22, a fact that we didn’t learn until we’d waited ten more minutes. The captain had to come on and break the news to us that it would be another hour and 20 minutes before we could leave.
“If you want to deplane, we’ll call some more buses and they’ll probably take another hour,” he then said.
The passengers voted to deplane. This time the buses came fairly fast and we were whisked the 100 grueling yards to the terminal. Once there, we were told we would only have 15 minutes in the terminal before we had to bus up and head back to the plane, so we needed to be sure to stay near the announcement system speakers so we would know when to get back on the busses.
So we sat around in the terminal for 15 minutes. Far from being annoyed, I think most of our party found the whole thing pretty funny by this point. We found it even more funny when we bused back to the plane and it was discovered that Mr. Bonnie had missed the bus ride and was not aboard. The steward walked to the man’s seat and asked if anyone knew who the man was and where he was. This inquiry was answered by a chorus of other passengers saying, “Bonnie? Bonnie? Bonnie?”
The captain gives Mr. Bonnie two minutes to appear, then shut the door to the plane. Ten minutes later, Mr. Bonnie came running across the tarmac and, astroundingly, they let him in. He returned to his seat, quite shame faced.
At 4:22, we took off.
Our flight home was beautiful with an amazing view of the sun as it set in the west.
Our arrival in Charlotte was indeed accompanied by some bumpy weather, though. It was pretty windy then, so if it had been windier earlier I’m glad they kept us on the ground for as long as they did. I don’t take too well to having my plane tossed around in the air. The pilots got us down just fine, though.
We went through our carry-on bags once they were returned to us at the jet-way. Nothing seemed to be broken at first glance, but when we went back through them the following day we did find that part of Ash’s clay cooking set had been broken and a couple of the clay sun-faces I had were chipped. We also learned from the Continental Airlines website that their basic policy on this is that even if it IS their fault it’s not their fault, they take no responsibility and they won’t be reimbursing anyone for any items that they damaged. Thanks Continental.
By the time of our late arrival, Andrew had indeed missed his flight. But he was able to make arrangements to pick up a flight the following morning and could come stay with us at Ma & Pa’s back in Hildebran and drive over in the morning.
In a reverse of our first day at the airport, we shuttle bused with our luggage back to Dr. Allen’s truck. I was even wearing the same clothes, and pulled my hoodie/pillow out of my bag to keep me warm against the North Carolina chill. I had hoped the bus driver who’d marveled at all the bags we had two weeks ago would be our driver, but it wasn’t him.
We were all quite hungry, by then, so we stopped off at a Ryans buffet in Gastonia on the way home, where I had a great deal of difficulty not saying “gracias” to our waitress whenever she refilled my tea. It was fantastic food, but I ate far too much of it—stuffed myself stupid, really—and then was embarrassed that I’d eaten so much when I’d just returned from a place where people often have so little. I was miserable in mind and body for the rest of the evening.
Arriving home at Ma & Pa’s house was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was glad it still was Ma AND Pa’s house because Pa had lived through his fall from the roof of the cabin he’s building nearby. On the other hand, it was tough for Ashley to see her father sitting there encased in neck and wrist braces. Seeing him like that reminded her that we’d nearly lost him. She put on a good show when in his presence, but that night was a fairly sleepless one for her.
Pa was doing well. He was still on some pretty serious pain medication, but his wrist was already doing better than expected. He knew then that his recovery was going to be a long one, but his determination to get back up and running and his perseverance at physical therapy have gone a long way toward making that recovery faster. We didn’t know it then, but Pa would remain in the neck brace until mid-June, but his wrist has made a far better recovery than his doctors ever thought. It may never be 100 percent again, but it won’t be because Pa didn’t try to get it there.
We sat in the living room that night, with Dr. Allen, Mary Ann and Andrew, telling Ma & Pa some of the highlights of our trip. It was very hard to do, because at that point everything we’d experienced felt far too big to even know where to begin. You can’t encapsulate an experience like that in an evening (or even in a blog over the course of several months—believe me, I tried and it just hasn’t worked to my liking).
As we were to learn over the coming days, most of the time you don’t even have an evening’s worth of time to spare to tell folks about your journey; instead you have to give people who ask about it a quick snapshot in just a few minutes. Ashley’s method was to simply explain that we saw over 2600 patients in two countries and over 850 of them were lead to Christ. That seems to work pretty well.
THE END (FOR NOW)
Our final clinic day wasn’t originally supposed to occur on Friday at all. Our original schedule called for us to have Friday off entirely so we could go out and see the sights in San Salvador. However, since we didn’t arrive in the country until Monday, which nixed the planned Monday clinic, and since we still had plenty of meds in the pharmacy, we decided to go ahead and do a clinic on Friday. Tito and Jo Ann suggested we do a half-day clinic so that we could still have time for some sight-seeing, so we agreed to do that.
On the way to the clinic, Butch asked Flo if she would be comfortable giving her testimony to the crowd of patients that morning. Flo didn’t seem sure if she wanted to do this at first, and I could feel Butch’s eyes scanning the rest of us for any takers already. The trouble was, I could have given my testimony, but it’s not exactly an awe-inspiring one. It’s pretty run of the mill, in fact.
I first became a Christian a fairly early age. Though I grew up Southern Baptist, my father was something of a religious free-spirit (well, a religious free-spirit with pretty firmly held views as to how things work from a religious standpoint) who wasn’t afraid to try out the services of different denominations or even altogether different faiths. I’ve been to Greek Orthodox services, Synagogues, Catholic Mass, Mennonite services, Holy Rollin’ Speakin’ in Tongues Pentecostal services, plus just about any variation on Protestant services you’d care to name. I mostly hated it as a kid. There we’d be, driving across country when suddenly dad would get it in his head that we had to go hang out with the Quakers for the evening, and off my sister and I would be whisked to some strange little back-road church where they didn’t do things like we were used to. As an adult, I’m really glad to have had all those experiences and have thanked my dad for taking me to so many different churches. Still hated it at the time.
Even with that background, it wasn’t until the age of 8 that things first started to congeal in my head as to where I fit into religion and spirituality. It was while attending a three day church camp based at a local community college near the Mississippi town in which I grew up that things started to make sense. This was my first time being away from home by myself, so it was kind of a big step for me. But my best friend Scott Long was there, so that’s where I wanted to be.
In addition to all the usual fun camp-activities, (including a talent show at which I came in 2nd and Scott came in 1st), we were also given Bible lessons throughout the day as well as hearing youth-tailored sermons from our camp minister. We also memorized Bible verses. The first of the two main ones I remember was, of course, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This is perhaps the greatest verse in the whole Bible, for it contains the key to salvation. It’s got the whole Wages of Sin is Death thing built in, but it shows you the way out at the same time. But the real Rosetta Stone for John 3:16, for me, was the other verse I memorized, Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The camp minister explained that this meant that human beings are born sinners and there’s not a one of us who can live up to the commandments and laws God laid down in the Old Testament. (You know, all those rules and regs that the Jews of the day spent much of their time sacrificing things to gain forgiveness for breaking.) This was why Jesus sacrifice on the cross was so necessary. He, an innocent man, died a horrible death, the death of a criminal/sinner, so that we would not have to make blood sacrifices in order to atone for our sinful nature.
Hearing that verse and having its meaning explained to me was a profound moment for me. I can still see the inside of that meeting hall on that community college campus like a snapshot in my head of the moment the meaning hit me. The verse means, we’re all sinners, humanity as a whole with me included. No one is exempt, cause that’s the definition of ALL. Suddenly this nebulous concept of all these nameless sinners getting sent to hell for sinning, that everyone had been talking about, hit close to home. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I too was a sinner. Sure, I wasn’t sinning big time or anything—I mean, I hadn’t knocked over a liquor store or killed anybody—but I couldn’t say I was even living up to the rest of the 10 Commandments to the best of my ability, let alone the myriad of other things a person could chose to do (or not do) that constituted sin. (Sin, after all, is defined best as disobedience to God.)
Ah, but then my little mind headed back to John 3:16 territory, particularly the bit about “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Hey, there ya go! I believed in God, I believed in Jesus, so therefore in my mind, I was saved. It was an amazing thing. I felt all tingly inside at the thought of it and figured that’s what happened to a person when they got saved—they felt all tingly.
I came home from camp and announced to my dad that I was saved.
“You are?” he asked, a bit hesitantly. So I told him about Romans 3:23 and my realization over its meaning and its correlation to John 3:16. I didn’t use words like realization and correlation, but you get the gist. Dad listened and then told me that my revelations on those verses were good, but he didn’t think I’d quite hit the mark. I wasn’t saved yet.
Dad let me stew on that one for a while and stew I did.
Within a day or two, though, it began to really bother me. How could I not be saved? I’d felt all tingly and everything, like something had changed within me. Then, in true Michael Binkley style, (that’s a Bloom County reference, folks—pay attention), I woke my dad up in the middle of the night and asked him how I could become a Christian. Dad groggily realized I was serious and he woke up enough to explain a few basics to me.
Dad told me that the way to become a Christian is that first you must admit to God that you are a sinner. It’s not enough just to realize that you’re a sinner, you must actually admit it to God. You must also ask him to forgive you of those sins. Next you must acknowledge that you believe Jesus was God’s son and that he died on the cross in our place as the ultimate sacrifice so that we didn’t have to endure the punishment of hell. And finally you must ask Jesus to grant you the grace of his Salvation and accept you into his eternal kingdom. With Dad’s help, I prayed that prayer.
This is not to say it’s been all smooth sailing since. Not by a stretch. And it wasn’t the last time I would pray that prayer. See, as a child I was always a worrier. I used to spend a lot of time fretting that somehow I’d said the salvation prayer wrong the first time and wasn’t really a Christian. No one wants to go to hell on a technicality, so I prayed it again and again over the years. My father finally pointed out to me that most people who aren’t Christians don’t worry over their salvation or lack thereof so much and it’s usually the people who are already Christians that spend so much time worrying about their sinfulness and seeking redemption. Made sense.
I also have to admit to falling by the wayside with my faith quite a bit over my life. I felt pretty strong in it when I was a kid all the way up through high school. I had my ups and downs, but I felt like I was on the path. During college, my downs became more frequent, but I had good friends who were Christians who helped keep me on the path most of the time. After college, though, I spent several years away from church altogether–not out of any philosophical differences, per se, but mostly because I was unwilling to upset my comfortable life of not going to church by actually getting off my duff and going there only to be reminded of how much I was disobeying God in the first place.
These days, thanks in large part to my wife’s influence, I’m a regular church-goer. Not that that in and of itself means anything, because I’m probably just as big a sinner as I was before in many regards. But I have a good church and good friends in it who go a long way toward helping me stick to the path and grow in my relationship with God. And that is the ultimate goal that many people miss.
There’s a common misconception that Christianity is all about Do’s and Don’ts. And many Christians get wound up in the whole “don’ts” part, as though actions are somehow what saves in the first place. They don’t. At its core Christianity is supposed to be about an ongoing relationship between you and Jesus, one where you allow him to steer your life where He would have it go and you’re along for the ride, putting your faith in him that He will bring you through the experience. I’m thankful to say that I’ve had quite a few Step out on Faith moments in my life, this trip being a big one of them. God has always brought me through. Do I allow him to steer my life at all times. Unfortunately, no. And that’s part of the ongoing relationship–learning to relinquish.
So my testimony is pretty normal. Not that it would have been a bad one to give, being as how the vast majority of people who become Christians probably have fairly normal testimonies to give. As it stood, though, I didn’t have to give mine during our clinic that day. Flo went ahead and gave hers that morning and I was left wondering what I might have said.
Only 65 patient numbers were given out Friday morning, but we let some more in after we saw that there were some people truly in need who arrived too late to get numbers. One lady who arrived late complained to us that she had not heard our clinic was even in the area until that very morning. We wound up seeing her anyway.
I know this number system for seeing patients seems cold and clinical, but it’s almost the only way to run things. Dr. Allen remarked through both weeks of this mission that he had never seen such smooth and seemingly practiced organization outside of mission work. Such things certainly don’t happen so spontaneously back in the states. We knew, though, that this was not practiced because this was indeed the Word of Life El Salvador Team’s fist such medical mission.
Because we had so many meds left, much of it in vitamin form, all prescriptions Friday got vitamins whether they wanted them or not and usually a two month supply. We also discovered that we still had loads and loads of candy, so I began bagging up fistfuls of it into our ziplock prescription bags and kept it in a box by the pharmacy window to dispense to any children who happened by with their parents.
In the morning, I spied a little girl out front who didn’t seem to be having such a great time, so I went out with a bottle of bubble stuff and blew bubbles for her to demonstrate how it was done, then gave her the bottle. She smiled and began blowing bubbles and soon had friends gathered round. A few minutes later, I looked out again to see one of her older friends running around with the girl’s bubble stuff. At first I was mad that this older girl might have taken the bubble stuff away from the younger one. Then I figured out that they were all just sharing. I grabbed a couple more bottles and went out to give to the girl and some of the other kids out there. Soon bubbles were floating freely throughout the clinic.
Not too long later, I had a little more time off and went out to juggle for the kids. I’d been saving my juggling balls for most of the trip and had brought quite a few. Most of them were from my personal juggling materials collection, many of them just rubber balls and raquet balls, the very ones I’d used when I first learned to juggle. I don’t use them anymore, preferring to use juggling bags when I juggle at all, so I figured relocating these to Central America would be a good thing. After I’d juggled two balls with one hand and three balls with two hands for a bit, I threw the balls to the three nearest kids and nodded that they should keep them. (You can communicate so much with a nod, at least in my mind.) They dashed off to play with their new toys. Soon after I returned to work, I began to notice children gathered at the pharmacy door. Word had spread I was giving out toys and the kids were looking awfully hopeful. After letting them stare in at me for a while, I did another juggling routine and then passed the balls out to the gathered kids. They disappeared and were replaced with new kids. So then I gave out the remaining balls I had and more kids arrived. Then I gave away all the rest of the bubble stuff and more kids arrived. Finally, I handed out some of our prescription bags full of candy to the remaining kids and that seemed to do the trick. They grinned and dashed away.
In addition to giving out extra meds for diagnosed problems, the docs on Friday also began prescribing some placebo meds as well.
Placebos, for those who don’t know, are medicines or harmless substitutes for medicines given to patients in place of real medicines. These days, they’re mostly used for control groups in pharmaceutical testing labs, but in the old days doctors prescribed placebos all the time when they suspected a patient’s ailment was mostly in their head.
In our clinic, we weren’t exactly using them in either manner, but instead used them in cases where we could not medically treat the symptoms described. I’ve said it before here, but it stands repeating: Doctors can attest that medicine is often more art than science. If a patient can be sold on the idea that something is going to make them better or will cause a condition to stop, they will very often get better or the condition will stop.
Dr. Allen said that this sort of practice used to happen all the time in doctor’s offices across the U.S. And pharmacists, back in the day, were used to seeing prescriptions for a veritable wonder drug called Obecalp, (that’s placebo spelled backwards), that was used to treat a huge variety of conditions. However, in the intervening years, medicine has become a whole lot more regulated, so these days doctors in the states pretty much have to put up with their hypochondriac patients.
The placebo meds we gave out were genuine meds, like Benadryl and Chlortrimeton, but they were prescribed for conditions those drugs were not intended to treat. Throughout the morning, we in the pharmacy would get prescriptions for Benadryl and beside the drug-name on the prescription would be a little note from Dr. Allen explaining what condition this drug was being prescribed for, so if a patient asked if it was for his nerves or for his insomnia we could say, “Yes, that’s what it’s being prescribed for.”
While dispensing meds Friday morning, one of our patients surprised me. Though I had Claudia there as a translator, I gave the lady instructions in Spanish since the instructions were simple.
“Tres diarias. En la manana, en la tarde, en la noche.”
“So, it’s one pill three times per day?” the lady replied in perfect English. I was dumbstruck at first, then grinned at the patient.
“You speak English,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
So I explained the rest of her prescriptions in English and finished up with “God be with you” instead of my usual “Dios te bendiga.”
Claudia asked me about my Spanish skills. I had to admit that to call them skills was really pushing the definition of the word. Sure, I’d taken over six semesters of it in college, but technically what I’d really done is take 6 semesters of a 4 semester course. I took Spanish I, enjoyed it, did fairly well in it, and then promptly sat out of it for an entire year before taking Spanish II. Naturally, I had forgotten so much of my knowledge from Spanish I that I began failing II miserably and had to drop it. So I came back for round 2 the next semester, having not so much as cracked my Spanish I book for a brush up, and proceeded to fail the class yet again and was forced to drop it. After this, I decided to audit Spanish I and really do the refresher course right. That helped tremendously and I proceeded through Spanish II, III and IV. I can’t say I got through them with no troubles, but I got through them.
I found, however, that throughout my two weeks in Central America, much of my Spanish skills had returned to me, far more than I had expected. Verb forms that I’d forgotten were reconnecting in my head and little bits of things would filter out every now and then.
“Hey, I remember Tener!” I said, just after a patient asked me if I was the guy who had the patient numbers. I didn’t know what to tell her so I directed her to someone else. Then I realized, I could have just said, “No tengo numeros” or “I have no numbers” and answered her question.
Toward the end of our clinic day, some kids from the neighborhood came up and asked if we were seeing any more patients. The missionary staff member whose job it had been to give out numbers explained that we weren’t and that we were sorry. The kids left. On their way down the street, they happened to pass by Butch, who was coming back from the store with more goodies. He noticed that one of the kids was barefooted and limping and was bleeding from his toe. Butch got the kid’s attention and helped him back to the clinic where he was put right into the system. Turned out his injured toe was in pretty bad shape and in danger of going septic on him. It was providence that Butch happened by at that moment and noticed it. Kid would have been bad off otherwise.
At 1:30 p we saw our last patient, filled our last prescription and then went next door to our final clinic lunch. I savored the home made potato chips one last time. We all feasted and had extra sandwiches afterwards and enjoyed the company.
After lunch, we packed up the clinic. Even giving out as much extra meds as we had earlier, the pharmacy still had quite a lot of medication left over. We packed as much of it into the plastic tubs as we could and the rest into the remaining suitcases. We would be leaving it in the care of Tito and Jo Ann for use with future missions or to distribute to those in need as they saw fit.
When the clinic was packed away, Butch wanted to get a group photo with everyone. Unfortunately, he chose to take this photo beneath the cicada tree. He asked Dr. Allen and I to take up positions as the end markers for the photo and then once we were positioned he asked everyone else to file in between us. There we stood, beneath the cicada tree while Butch got us into position, the cicada urine literally raining down upon our heads. It was so very very foul. Fortunately, I remembered that Ashley had made me pack a disposable plastic rain poncho, so I pulled it out of my backpack and put it on. After much jostling, we were finally in place and Butch snapped several photos before we revolted and dashed out from under the tree.
I will not miss those bugs.
We drove back to the hotel to freshen up and rest a bit before heading out to see the sights of San Salvador. The plan was to souvenir shop for a while, then go out to dinner with much of the mission staff around 7.
We headed first to an Indian Market to shop for souvenirs. There were enough translators to go around, but mostly the shopkeepers were used to dealing with Americans so it wasn’t always a necessity. I found some really nice gifts to take back home. Once again the American dollar goes a long way, and where it didn’t there was always the opportunity to haggle. Ashley found some really nice pottery, including a colorful chip dish with salsa bowl and a clay ware set that included a large urn in which you could put a Sterno to cook through a smaller pot that rested on top. It was sort of like a fondue pot, without the long forks.
After shopping there, we still had a bit of time before our reservations at the restaurant, so Jo Ann and Sylvana took us to a very swanky supermarket. I had mentioned to Jo Ann that I wanted to visit a supermarket at some point because I was looking to buy some instant soup for my boss. My boss’s sister-in-law is Guatemalan and she introduced my boss to a Knor-brand instant soup from Guatemala that was terribly delicious. My boss wanted me to score some if I could. I never got the chance to grocery shop in Guatemala, though, but figured El Salvador would probably have the same sorts of things. Meanwhile, Ashley wanted to shop for some fried plantains and Fresca. So we all followed Jo Ann to a grocery store located in a high-end strip-mall full of expensive shops. Our translators told us as we arrived that this was where the wealthy people of San Salvador came to shop. True enough, the place was surrounded by a very Yuppie-like crowd, out for their Friday evening.
Once inside, we located the soup aisle, but while they had plenty of Knor soups, they didn’t have the particular flavor I was looking for. I loaded up on them all the same since they were only a quarter each. We also found some individual bags of fried plantains to take back with us to give as souvenirs as well as some El Salvadorian coffee and Fresca.
While we were still browsing the chip aisle, one of the missionaries, Nestor, looked down into our basket and said, “You are buying whiskey?”
“No, no,” Ashley said, thinking he was joking around. “We’re only buying soup and chips.”
Nestor pointed into our basket again, where there indeed was a bottle of tequila in the bottom.
“I’ve been framed!” I said, looking around to see if the culprit was near. Not that I eschew alcohol by any means. I’m a beer-drinkin’ Baptist, after all, and do not hold with the oft-held belief that drinking alcohol is a sin. (I believe Jesus drank enough wine during his time on earth to prove my point.) However, even with that in mind, we weren’t really looking to buy any alcohol then. It took some time and guesswork to figure out who stashed the tequila. Naturally, Butch was our number one suspect, but it was Flo who figured out that it was really Sylvana who had stashed the booze in our basket. When confronted, Sylvana laughed and laughed.
We were to get another shock when we went to pay for our purchases. After the cashier rang up everything, the total price according to the register screen, was like 170.50. Fortunately, Nestor was there to aid us in translation and explained that the 170.50 was in the old El Salvadorian currency, back before the economy switched to American dollars, so we really owed around $15.
Next we climbed back into Sylvana’s van and rode to the restaurant of our dinner reservation at the Hunan Chinese Restaurant. (I know, I know, we came all the way to El Salvador to eat Chinese food. Shut up.) Sylvana, of course, was driving like a mad woman and that extended itself to parking. The restaurant was in a multi-story office building that we later saw consisted mostly of doctors offices and the like. However, we approached the building from the far two lanes of a very busy four lane road and in order to park we would have to cut across the two lanes of oncoming traffic. Sylvana waited and waited until we had just enough time to squeeze through a gap in the traffic and then she started to gun it before coming to a screeching halt in the middle of the lanes.
What we didn’t realize until then was that the road itself, through paving and repaving, was now quite a bit higher than the parking area in front of the building. In order to park, the van would have to drive down the rolling dip of the edge of the asphalt and then onto the rise of the concrete sloped parking space. With all eight of us in the van, however, this was an impossibility without gouging out the bottom of the van in the process.
“Uh oh,” Sylvana said.
“We have to get out?” Flo asked.
So there we were, pouring out of the van like a Chinese fire-drill (ironically enough), two lanes of honking cars beaming their headlights at us as we scrambled to get out of the road. Our weight no longer a factor, Sylvana gingerly pulled into the parking space and we were set.
Dinner was fantastic and the restaurant quite nice. In fact, I hadn’t realized it was going to be that nice when I’d dressed for the evening.
“I’m glad I wore my best dirty T-shirt and flip flops,” I told Ashley. I didn’t have much of a choice, though. If it wasn’t a T-shirt and shorts it would have been the world’s wrinkliest dress-shirt and pair of corduroys, since my dressier clothes had spent the past two weeks wadded in my luggage.
Inside, we met up with many other members of the mission staff and were seated around an enormous round table that seated 16 people. Soon we had hot tea and shark fin soup to sample while our choice of dishes was prepared. When the food arrived, they came on big platters that were placed on the giant Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and we took turns spinning it and sampling from a variety of great food.
After dinner, Jo Ann told us that Tito wanted to say a few words to us.
Though Tito is the leader of the Word of Life mission in El Salvador, we’d heard very little from him all week long. We’d been told in advance that he was a quiet man, but a very good soul and he had proved to be that throughout the week. I think we all assumed when Jo Ann said Tito would like to say a few words to us, that he would say a few words in Spanish and that she would translate them into English for us. However, what happened next surprised us all. Tito began speaking English—very good English. And he spoke in very good English for ten minutes straight. When he was finished, all we could do was grin and congratulate him on having fooled us all week. He’d never said he couldn’t speak English, but we’d all assumed as much from his quiet demeanor.
After dinner, we said our goodbyes to most of the mission staff and headed back to Tito and Jo Ann’s house to deal with the luggage. All of our clinic supplies had been brought back to their home following our day and it was time to divide it up and see how we were getting things back to the states. The meds and remaining toys and candy we left behind for future missions or as Tito and Jo Ann saw fit to distribute. There were a few other sundry supplies and items of donated clothing that we left as well. This left a lot of empty luggage, which we treated like Russian nesting dolls, putting bags within bags within bags to consolidate space. We also made plans for breakfast the following morning. Jo Ann knew of a place that sold an El Salvadoran dish called a pupusa which was supposed to be a great breakfast food. The place also sold genuine fried plantains, which is what I wanted. The only member of our team who wouldn’t be able to go was Flo and this was because she had an early flight out at 8:45 the next morning to go to Honduras, where she would be staying with some friends she had from previous mission trips. She’d have to leave the hotel around 6 a.m.
We left all the empty luggage with Jo Ann and Tito and headed back to the hotel in the van. Ash and I got to sleep around 11:30, savoring the knowledge that we’d get to sleep in a bit in the morning, go have a fabulous breakfast, pack up our stuff and be ready to go by our 1:45 p.m. flight back home.
Since we didn’t leave the clinic until after 9 and didn’t eat supper until after 10 and didn’t get back to our hotel rooms until nearly 11, we didn’t get much sleep until nearly midnight. When the alarm went off at nearly 7, Ashley and I were in no mood to actually get up. We’d both been worked to a frazzle the day before and had very little sleep in between, so we just could barely face getting up at all. I don’t know how we managed not to growl any more at one another than we did, but we arose and got showered and dressed with very little griping.
None of the rest of Team Gringo were especially bright or chipper, but I don’t think any of us dreaded the day itself. We just wished we had more energy to give to it. As for me, though, I needed not only more energy but also a better attitude. I was a right cranky man, for no real reason, and it seemed like everything was irritating me. That attitude, unfortunately followed me all the way to the clinic site.
In the pharmacy, we had a little down time before patients began showing up so we bagged more and more medicine. We could hardly keep up with the demand for vitamins the day before, so that was a primary goal for pre-bagging. For much of the day, whenever any of us had a spare moment, we bagged vitamins. Unfortunately, it was difficult for any of us to do this without taking up valuable counter space and generally getting in the way. And you could only bag meds for so long before the swell of patients with prescriptions called you away to help with the filling, leaving a mess behind from the stuff you were bagging before, clogging the counters and other spaces. I began to get growly—never a good sign.
We also bagged a bunch of other meds, trying to stick to the doc’s new favorite dispensing amount of 30 pills, instead of 20, only this time to have prescription after prescription arrive in amounts of 20!!!
“Porque? Porque? Porque?!!!!”
I also began to become further irritated with my fellow pharmacy staffers, particularly Mary Ann, who kept insisting on doing everything the correct way instead of my the semi-half-assed method I preferred. (I fully admit to being wrong here.) I can’t even recall the exact details of what I was irritated about, except to say that it was over a medicine, probably Amoxil, that we had to instruct the patients how to pre-mix, but the way I wanted to do it required them to put 2 ml less water into the powered Amoxil than the dose actually called for. I think this was because we’d run out of the syringes that were easy to mark, or maybe we’d run out of our 250 mg Amoxil and were having to recalculate doses from the 400 mg Amoxil we had plenty of. I don’t recall. What I do recall is that Mary Ann insisted, as well she should have, on getting the dose exactly right, instead of having a dose with slightly less water in it, as I was trying to do. This was probably the pinnacle of my ire for the day, but even as I was fuming inwardly and sometimes outwardly about it, I realized that Mary Ann was only trying to do the right thing for the patient, and that no matter how little the differences in out methods might actually matter, I should defer to her experience in these things, especially considering that I’M NOT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL and SHE IS.
After that realization, my attitude became quite a bit better. It often takes embarrassing myself with my own bad-behavior for me to recognize how badly I’m behaving and make the necessary adjustments to stop it.
One of the major patient pharmaceutical requests was insect repellant. In a country with the kind of large and aggressive bugs that this one seemed to have, it stood to reason. However, the pharmacy did not stock bug dope of any kind. In some cases, however, there were children patients who had enough bug bites on them that it seemed like some sort of repellent would be good to prescribe. This is when Ashley had the idea of concocting a 1 percent solution of Deet in water. Deet is one of the most powerful insect repellents on the planet. Unfortunately, it is also quite dangerous when it comes to killing off brain cells in children and is not recommended for use with children. Her idea was to create a very weak solution of it to use on the child’s skin to ward off bity bugs. I let her mix it, so as not to screw it up and put too much in it myself. But I didn’t feel good about it. Most of the meds we had in house wouldn’t kill a person if they took too much. And even though the Deet solution was given out in a child-proof bottle that I’d drawn a skull and crossbones on, I didn’t feel safe that the kid we’d prescribe it for wouldn’t find a way to open it and drink the stuff. Later in the day, Ash prescribed another bottle of it, which I mixed up and labeled, but then went to her and let her know that I didn’t feel good about giving such poison out. We wound up nixing it from the prescription.
We did do some far safer mixing when it came to creative prescriptions. Because we were seeing so many skin rashes, the docs had been prescribing lots of hydro-cortisone cream. So much that we ran out of it pretty early in the day. Dr. Allen suggested that we make our own cream solution by mixing 1 part Triamcinilone Cream (a far more powerful skin ointment than Hydro-cortisone) with 4 parts hand lotion. We mixed it up in tiny little baggies, labeled it as to what was in it and in what ratio and then gave it out as prescribed. I wound up mixing quite a few of these throughout the day.
Dr. Grace was back with us for most of the day on Thursday, so we kept a pretty steady patient rate.
On Thursday, Ashley had to leave for her first house-call. A woman had come to the clinic and explained that her son had suffered a severe burn to his leg and was unable to walk to the clinic for treatment. So Ashley, Butch and a translator took some supplies and some meds from the pharmacy that would be good for treating burns and headed out by vehicle with the mother to visit her home. Ash told me later that she didn’t know what to expect. For all she knew, the boy had just burned himself horribly that morning and she didn’t have the know how to do much, other than tell his parents they needed to get him to a hospital. Or if the burn had happened some time ago, she would likely have to deal with improper bandaging and infection. She prayed that God would give her insight.
They drove for a couple of miles until they were in a wooded area where they came upon a house. The boy himself was seated on the front porch of the house waiting. The boy was wearing long trousers and didn’t seem to be in any obvious pain. Ashley, through the translator, asked if she could see his burn and he lifted up one of the legs of his trousers, which had been split along the side for easy access. The leg had what looked like a fairly fresh dressing on it. The boy removed the bandages for her to let her see the burn itself. Upon seeing it, Ashley was confused, because she couldn’t figure out why the burn had a crosshatched pattern. It was also not in nearly as bad condition as she was expecting. Then she realized why it had the crosshatched pattern. The boy had received skin grafts on the burn already. This burn had been treated by physicians who had shaved skin from elsewhere on his body and applied it to the burned leg, to help grow new tissue there. The reason for the crosshatched pattern is that skin heals far better from lots of smaller wounds rather than one large wound. So before the shaved skin is applied it is first cut into a latticework-like pattern that facilitates faster healing. Not all of the skin graft had taken, so there were burn patches showing through, but Ashley said the whole thing seemed to be healing fairly well. Since she was there, Ashley applied a burn bandage infused with silver which would help in the healing process.
In the afternoon, we were brought more nifty snacks purchased at a local neighborhood store. Butch returned from the store bearing a large roll of snack bags, the kind chips usually come in. I say they were in a roll and what I mean by this is that instead of individual bags of chips, these bags were still attached to one another, as though they’d missed a key process at the packaging plant in which they were to have been cut apart. At a mere 5 cents American per bag, though, these rolls of chips were actually a pretty neat idea. After all, it’s much easier to transport a long coil of chips than 20 mini bags. Butch had also bought three different varieties so we could each get a good sample of the kind of snack junk-food El Salvador had to offer.
One of the varieties was basically Cheetos. They weren’t called Cheetos, but that’s what they were. And unlike my experience with El Salvadorian Oreos, these Cheetos actually tasted like real Cheetos. In fact, they were almost better than real Cheetos. Almost.
The next variety were a kind of bacon flavored puffed snack that had a similar texture to Funyuns. They were quite tasty. We don’t really have an equivalent in this country, so next time you’re in Central America you should pick up a bag of them. Sorry, I don’t recall the brand name.
The last variety was my favorite, though. They were salted and deep fried plantain chips. Yesiree, these were the best of the bunch. They were sweet and salty and crunchy all at the same time. Just Mwah! Goodness! I ate two bags of them without breaking a sweat.
“You know, fried plantains are a breakfast food here,” Jo Ann said. She didn’t mean the fried plantain chips, but actual plantains deep fried and coated with powdered sugar. I suddenly found I had a hankering for just such a creature and was looking forward to ordering them as soon as possible. Jo Ann even told us that she knew of a good place that did fried plantains and that if we wanted to we could go eat there on Saturday. Sounded like a plan to me.
The thing about the chips that continued to amaze me, though, were their price. Five cents American. I just marveled at it. Sure, it’s not like we were getting a Big Grab, or anything, but these bags represented the size you usually find with a child’s lunch. Not a bad size for a quick snack. And you couldn’t beat 5 cents. Jo Ann asked how much one would cost in America.
“Oh, fifty cents, easy,” I said.
They were appalled.
Unlike Guatemala, where the currency is Quetzales, El Salvador now runs on the American dollar. However, as you can see with the example of the chips, the dollar goes a lot further in El Salvador than it does back home.
Thursday afternoon we were joined in the pharmacy by two new translators, whose names were Rosio and Claudia. They were very sweet young ladies who were very good at their job of translating. Some might say too good. So far Jo Ann had pretty much stuck to our standard prescription instructions of telling each patient how often to take their medicine and for how many days and circling this frequency on our graphic-based instruction slips, or, if the instructions were more complicated, she would write them out, but for the most part she kept it as simple as possible. Rosio and Claudia, however, felt it necessary to not only explain all instructions in graphic detail but to write them all down in graphic detail as well. This might not have even been an issue, except that we still had Dr. Grace with us and she continued whipping through patients at an astounding rate. Soon the pharmacy had a line of patients fifteen feet deep and it stayed that way. Mary Ann and I were filling prescriptions as fast as we could, but then these filled prescriptions had to get in an ever-lengthening line to have their instructions notated, which–as the “pharmacists” on hand–we also had to be present for to make sure they were done right. It was gumming up the works and was beginning to put me into another foul mood.
I tried to explain to them that this was not a productive or efficient way to run a pharmacy. Sure, it was very nice that they wanted each patient to have exact instructions on when and how often to take their meds, to the nearest hour, but this wasn’t rocket science and our former method of telling patients “Uno por dia” and “Dos diarias” worked just fine for telling patients to take pills once or twice a day. Now, granted, if a prescription was more complicated than taking a pill a specified number of times per day, we did then have a medical obligation to explain it and write out the instructions accordingly. However, for the vast majority of prescriptions we could just circle the little pictures on the instruction slips.
Rosio did not agree with this at all. I don’t know if she didn’t think the people were smart enough to follow the graphs or if she thought they would forget what we told them, but she did not like it that I wanted her to stop writing out all the instructions. I tried to explain that we’d been using the graphs and simple instructions quite successfully for not only this week, but a four clinics in Guatemala before this and had no known problems. Taking the amount of time we were with each med was slowing everything down to a crawl and causing the patients who had been waiting to be seen for most of the day to have to wait even longer before they could leave. All we needed to do, as I saw it, was fill the prescriptions, circle the correct pictures on the instruction slips, explain each slip in regards to each medicine to the patients and then put those slips into the individual med baggies or otherwise attach it to the med bottle itself so that they wouldn’t be confused with other meds.
Rosio didn’t like it, but she and Claudia agreed to do it my way. Of course, the first patient Rosio tried my method on was a kid in his late teens who gave us the blankest of looks when Rosio told him the instructions for his pills. He looked at her like she was speaking English, or something. She told him the instructions again, very simple instructions that he was to take one pill three times per day until they ran out, but again his expression spoke volumes about just how much he didn’t get it.
“Uh, maybe you’re right after all,” I said. After that we kind of met in a middle ground of our two methods, altering it on a case by case basis.
At the end of the day, one of the last patients to be seen was an elderly woman. She explained to Dr. Allen that though she had been waiting for much of the afternoon, there wasn’t actually anything wrong with her. She said she lived nearby and had several children and grandchildren living with her. Due to circumstances, the grandchildren were largely unable to work, so she was the primary bread-winner for the household in her job as a housecleaner. Her family was understandably very poor and had little money to spend on anything fun for the kids. She had been told that our clinic had been giving out toys and candy and she had walked here and signed up to be seen on the off chance that we had some toys and candy we could give to her to take home. Dr. Allen was very touched by her story and loaded her up with toys and candy and vitamins for her whole family.
Our clinics ended around 7 that evening and we were able to head on back to WOL headquarters for a much earlier supper than the night before. Some of the translators from our week would not be returning for our Friday half-clinic, so we had something of a tearful farewell with them Thursday night.
EL SALVADOR CLINIC DAY 3 STATS
Patients Seen: 218
Prescriptions Filled: 586
Breakfast worked better this day. We got toast and jelly and it didn’t even take all that long.
Ash took my list of meds we’d run out of or were otherwise low on and headed to a local pharmacy with Jo Ann and Butch. The rest of us piled into Sylvana’s van and headed back to our pre-school clinic site.
We had nearly reached our clinic and were passing near the new neighborhood clinic site—the one with no staff and no medicine—and were a bit surprised to see a great deal of activity around it. The gates were open and there were many people standing around outside with decorations. In fact, the road past it had been blocked off due to all the new vehicles so we had to take a different route to our clinic. Later, Jo Ann explained to us that this day was the grand opening for the neighborhood clinic and there would be much celebrating going on there throughout the day.
“But they’re not really about to open, right?” I asked.
“No,” Jo Ann said. They still had no staff and no meds and no money for either, so the actual opening day was still months and/or years in the future.
Despite that, the grand-opening celebration did continue throughout the day. We knew this because we could hear loud music coming from the direction of the other clinic which was broken up only by incredibly loud fireworks that sounded exactly like mortar shells going off. Tremendously loud. I thought for a moment they were indeed firing rounds into the air, because it was that loud. It made for a very trying day, because it seemed like every time I had to measure something into exact amounts in a delicate fashion, BOOOOM! and I’d nearly spill everything. Fortunately, there was not a lot of blood to be drawn in our clinic, or I could see horrible ramifications of the explosions. This went on throughout the morning and into the afternoon, making us all extremely nervous as we tried to go about our business in what sounded like a war zone. I began to suspect they were doing it on purpose to try and get back at us for inadvertently showing them up at their own job. I mean, how dare we open up a free clinic and treat patients when there was a perfectly good pay-clinic, with balloons, food and fireworks, albeit utterly devoid of doctors and medicine, just down the road?
Meanwhile, we had far more patients to see than the day before. Apparently word had spread of what we were doing. Fortunately, Dr. Grace was still with us, so we passed out extra number tickets that morning so we could see more patients. This would turn out to be a decision with ramifications.
One observation I and other folks on our mission staff made was that the people in this part of El Salvador did not seem to be suffering from the same sort of ailments as those we saw in Guatemala. In Guatemala, there was lots of dehydration, parasite problems and the occasional mother whose baby suffered from a heat rash so she bundled him up in three layers of cloth and was terrified to open the bundle even a crack for fear the infant might catch a chill. In San Salvador, we had no cases of scabies come through and not as many internal parasite cases. I know this because we prescribed no scabies treatment and very few doses of Flagyl. What we did see were a lot more diabetes cases, gastritis, fungal infections and high blood pressure. And we wound up having vitamins prescribed to nearly every patient, child or otherwise.
Once again, the local people are huge believers in the power of vitamins, so Dr. Allen and all the other docs prescribed away, continuing the valid philosophy that if the patient believes they’re getting better they’ll likely get better. We still had plenty of children’s vitamins, but had run out of adult vitamins on the first day in San Salvador. To make up for the loss, we—with doctors orders, mind you—began giving out prenatal vitamins to the adults. According to Dr. Allen, it’s basically the exact same stuff as regular adult vitamins, only these came in horse-pill form rather than the tiny little red pill form our regular adult vitamins took. We were thankful that there was a language barrier in this instance, but still tended to mark out the Pre-Natal labeling on the bags.
Though we were all terribly busy, I once again began looking to find things to give out to the children we were seeing. Since I’d exhausted my supply of little flashlights in Guatemala, I returned to giving out balloons. I kept a wad of them in my pockets and when traveling between clinic stations to ask questions, I would often blow one up and give it to a child. However, once again, if I gave a balloon to one single child out on their own, I soon had a cluster of them around the pharmacy door looking up at me with hope in their eyes. This was cool with me, though. Between prescriptions, I blew up balloon after balloon, passing them out to the kids at the door. I had given balloons to a brother and sister, who sat in the doorway across the hall from the pharmacy to play with them. Before long, we heard, POW! as the brother’s balloon popped. Thanks to the fireworks, my spine automatically seized up at the sound and I was sure most of the spines of the people in the clinic room these kids were sitting near probably had too. However, the brother looked very sad at the loss of his balloon, so I blew up another one for him. A few minutes later, though, there was another POW! After that, I decided he’d had his quota of balloons, because my nerves certainly had theirs of small explosions.
There were quite a number of stray dogs in the area. We even began giving them nicknames that seemed to match their appearances. My favorite was Fluffy Dog, who was a pretty little fluffy dog, albeit a bit scraggly from life on the street. None of the dogs seemed mean or dangerous in any way, but just hung around the clinic and the people looking for any stray bits of food that might fall. And food didn’t have to be human food either. I saw hungry dogs gobbling up the cicadas that had been unfortunate enough to fall out of their tree. And at night, the place was a veritable cicada buffet for the dogs.
I also noted that most of the dogs wouldn’t respond to me when called. I tried everything I know that usually works on dogs, such as whistling through pursed lips or barking or whining or just calling “Hey dog!” but they ignored me steadfastly. Even when Fluffy Dog wandered into the pharmacy, I could not coax any kind of reaction out of it, even to try and shew it away. Butch pointed out that this was an El Salvadorian dog, so it didn’t speak English. He was joking, but there actually seemed to be some truth to this.
Throughout the week, we noticed that when anyone local wanted to get the dogs’ attention, they used a sharp “Tsst-Tsst” sound, blowing air between their teeth. This form of non-verbal communication was not limited to human/animal interaction, either. We saw mothers use it to get their kids’ attention and we saw plenty of kids use it to try and get our attention, particularly when they wanted a balloon or something similar.
Our rate of patient turnover in the morning had been a steady one, thanks in large part to Dr. Grace. After lunch, we gave out quite a few more number tickets to see even more patients. Seventy-five of them, in fact. Unfortunately, we didn’t check first to make sure we had all our docs present and accounted for. It turns out that Dr. Grace had a job interview to go to that afternoon and was therefore not going to be with us. She had alerted someone on the mission staff about this before departing, but the message didn’t get relayed to all fronts until after the 75 new patient tickets had been distributed. So essentially, the slowest docs in the place (i.e. the Gringos) were left with the remaining patients who hadn’t been seen before lunch plus 75 new ones. We realized very quickly that this was not going to be an early evening for anyone.
This realization, in addition to the continuing fireworks barrage was enough to make any fake-Shemp pharmacist a bit cranky. However, I was finding new reasons to get irritable on my own, starting with the docs, who were prescribing pills in amounts other than what we had already pre-bagged the week before. Typically, we gave each patients 20 pills of most meds, with the exceptions of such things as Mebendazole, which usually gets taken three times a day for a week, so 21 pills. Almost all the docs began prescribing drugs in amounts of 30 pills, forcing us in the pharmacy to have to take time out to count out 10 extra pills from one bag to put in another and then to keep track of the bag with 10 less. Our Sharpie markers were kept flying, revising each pill amount as the docs kept sending new ones.
Now, I understand how this happens. Let’s say you’re a doctor or a student playing a doctor and you’re now charged with seeing nearly 90 patients between 1 p and sometime well after dark. Your job is now to care for the patients as best you can and get as many of them through as quickly as possible. So if someone’s complaining of a headache, you’re prescribing Ibuprofen or Tylenol and you’re writing it down quick. Moving so quickly, you’re likely to forget that all such painkilling pills have been pre-bagged in doses of 20 pills per bag and you prescribe 30 to give them a month’s supply. Once you’ve done this a couple of times, it sticks in your head and you keep prescribing that amount for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, Mary Ann and I are in the pharmacy pulling out our hair with each new prescription because it’s slowing down our already bogged process to have to stop and redo everything that comes in. We didn’t just go back and tell the docs to cut it out because for all we knew these patients truly needed the 30 pills and not 20, so we just kept following orders and losing more and more hair. Our mantra became a very Nancy Kerigan-esque “WHY? WHY? WHYYYYYY?!!!!” Soon, though, we translated this into “Porque? Porque? Porqueeeeh?!!!” for the benefit of the local staff, who would laugh at us.
Before long, we had the patients laughing at us as well, because we would utter this cry whenever anything went bad for us—such as when we got butterfingers and dropped our meds on the floor, or ran into one another in the cramped room, or had to fend off a cicada attack. I imagine that our antics sometimes resembled a Marx Brothers movie and we tended to get that kind of reaction from the locals. Instead of making me more irritable, though, having the locals laugh at me kind of brought me back to reality and let me remember what we were really doing there. It wasn’t easy work, but we were supposed to try and make the best of it and get the job done. Plus, getting to put a comedic spin on things was a good way of diffusing irritation, because I certainly didn’t want the locals to think I was unhappy to be there.
Wednesday afternoon, Tito went down the street to a store and came back with treats for everyone. He gave me two little 4-packs of Oreos, one of my all-time favorite cookies. I was so happy to have these little slices of home that I had a picture taken with one of them to commemorate the moment. I broke into the package and began devouring the cookies with glee. Then my glee turned to confusion. These Oreos did not taste like proper Oreos. They weren’t stale or past their expiration or anything. They just didn’t taste like Oreos are supposed to taste. It’s like they were cheap Oreo knock-offs that looked exactly like Oreos, down to the lettering on the wafers, but they did not replicate the Oreo taste AT ALL. It’s not that they even tasted bad. As far as cookies go, they were okay. But they were definitely not Oreos. I gave my other pack to Ashley, who had a bite of one cookie and then gave them all back to me.
This is just one example of how some products sold both in Central and North America may have the same brand name but taste radically different. Another prime example is Fresca Cola. In America, Fresca is now a diet drink. It has kind of a citrusy grape-fruity thing going, but is nothing to write home about. In Central America, Fresca is a full-sugar soda that’s bursting with citrus flavor. Ashley spoke highly of it when she came back in 2003 and was itching to get hold of some while she was in Central America for this trip. Fortunately, Fresca practically flowed like rivers wherever we went and the mission teams of both Guatemala and El Salvador had plenty on hand. The strange thing is, Coca Cola, the manufacturer of Fresca in both regions, used to sell regular Fresca in the states as well as a diet version of the same. Over the past couple of decades, however, the regular drink vanished and the diet drink took its name in some kind of unholy cola coup. These are the kind of odd little things I tend to remember.
Mid-way through the afternoon, Butch set his gecko free. He let it go in the hallway of the preschool and it scampered over near the wall and just sat there. I was afraid the poor little guy might get squished or gobbled up by a dog, as this was a very high human and dog traffic area. He didn’t want to move on his own, though. I finally had to walk very close to him, practically nudging him with my toes at every step, until he finally ran out the front door and climbed up the tree. Godspeed, Mr. Gecko.
As evening approached, we still had loads and loads of patients. Usually, the queue of folks who are still waiting to come inside to wait ends by 5 p, but we still had plenty of patients-to-be out front at 7:30. By 8 I had become concerned that patients who hadn’t been seen might be turned away or told to come back first thing in the morning, or something. That seemed like a possibility, though it was fortunately not one every brought up. I was against sending anyone away. We’d given out these patient tickets and as late as it was putting us, I still believed we had a responsibility to see every last patient we’d invited in. They’d all been very (no pun intended) patient with us and were waiting just as long to be seen as we were to see them. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been at all concerned that we wouldn’t see everyone, because there seemed to be no other options on the table anyway. Everyone else at the clinic was just as determined that every last patient we’d promised to see would be seen. And they were.
Creepy cicada boy returned that night. I had thought him to be the child of a patient, or a patient himself, the day before, but it turned out he was the son of the school’s administrator. Once again he picked up a good-sized fistful of cicadas and walked around with them making everyone nervous.
As the night descended, I took note of all the members of the mission team who no longer had assigned duties to perform. Much of the translation and missionary staff were finished with their part of the day, yet they still stayed til the bitter end in case we needed help. Butch helped keep them entertained with more funny little video clips from his laptop.
We didn’t wrap things up until after 9p that evening, but all patients were seen.
We had a late dinner back at the Word of Life offices. It felt so good to be able to sit down and relax a bit. The whole team, mission, translation, medical and staff, all sat and watched more of Butch’s slide show. This time we had pictures from the first day at the clinic. I loved seeing the faces of the patients as they were being treated. I got to see most of the faces when they came by the pharmacy window, but we were so often in a hurry to fill prescriptions that it’s difficult to pay attention all the time.
During dinner, Dr. Allen asked us how things were going in the pharmacy. Mary Ann told him I spent most of the day saying “Porque, porque, porque?!” because all the doses kept coming in for 30 pills when we’d so neatly pre-counted them into amounts of 20.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Dr. Allen said. “Just give them the 20 count. We screwed that up on our end.”
Aye yi yi!
EL SALVADOR CLINIC DAY 2 STATS
Patients Seen: 224
Prescriptions Filled: 565
We found that ordering breakfast was more difficult than we had anticipated. Actually, the ordering wasn’t really a major problem, as we just pointed to the continental breakfast on the menu and the waitress nodded her understanding, so even the language barrier wasn’t an issue. Getting the food in a timely fashion, however, was. I guess it’s another incident of Gringo Time expectations, but 20 minutes crawled by and we’d seen no food.
While we waited, I used the hotel’s complementary high speed internet access to jot a few notes to folks back home to let them know we’d arrived safely, albeit not without some life-threatening incidents.
It was 7:20 before we received our continental breakfast, bowls of nice fresh fruit. I think we had somehow been expecting muffins and jelly, or something similar. However, we would learn the following day that the continental breakfast changed every day, so whenever we ordered it we would get something different every time. The fruit was great stuff, but not as filling as we’d hoped to get to start us on what was to be a busy day.
Jo Ann and Sylvana arrived right on time at 7:30, with Sylvana’s van and Tito’s truck, once again piled high with all of our supplies luggage as well as a large set of metal shelves just perfect for the pharmacy. We climbed back into Sylvana’s van and then had to hold on for dear life as she zipped into San Salvador’s morning rush hour with a recklessness that Marcello would have greatly admired. We didn’t care. We didn’t even put on our seatbelts, figuring that she knew what she was doing and we were otherwise on a mission from God so we’d be fine.
My impression from the previous night that San Salvador was nearly indistinguishable from most large American cities continued to bear itself out. Mostly. In the day light, of course, we could see more of the tell-tale signs of being in a central American country, such as more guards with shotguns. However, the guards with shotguns seemed to be primarily guarding things like banks and other important structures and not so much average places like McDonalds. There were lots of people riding bicycles and motorcycles, seemingly on their way to work in this busy urban sprawl.
We had been told that our clinic site would be in a very poor neighborhood in San Salvador and that we would be setting up in a school. Being some distance away and our van being in heavy traffic, it took around a half hour to drive there. During the journey, I kept hearing a curious buzzing noise from outside the van. It didn’t sound like a sound being made by the van, though. Instead, it sounded exactly like the buzzing of cicadas—a sound I knew well from having grown up in Mississippi.
Eventually, we left the city streets and began traveling through a more residential section of town where the homes began to resemble some of those we had seen in Pasaco. Then, in the midst of the neighborhood, we came to a large new building surrounded by chain-link fencing topped with razor-wire. At first I thought this must be the school, but then we drove past it. I was told later that this building was a brand new neighborhood medical clinic. It was so new, in fact, that they were having their dedication ceremony the following day. It made me wonder what good we could do in the neighborhood if there was already such a nice looking clinic. Later, Jo Ann told us that even though the neighborhood clinic is there, completed and soon to be dedicated, they don’t actually have any doctors or medication and aren’t expected to actually open at any point in the foreseeable future. Strange. It’s as if they had just enough money to build the building, but not enough to actually staff it and supply it.
At last we arrived at our own clinic site. It was a cluster of three small brightly painted buildings that comprised the grounds of a pre-school that was located next door to a beautiful church. Outside of it were dozens of people, most of them seated in plastic patio chairs.
The other thing I noticed as I exited the van was the distinct buzzing of insects in the trees above—particularly in the tree directly outside the building. Yep, I had been right; they were cicadas. But not just any cicadas, no these were gigantic monster cicadas that would have terrified the wussy little Mississippi cicadas I grew up with. Their collective buzzing was practically a roar.
We quickly unloaded our equipment and luggage and carried it into the cluster of buildings. There were only a handful of rooms in the pre-school’s complex of small buildings, divided by an open air corridor that lead down to an equally open air common area. Mary Ann and I were directed to first doorway, which was the administrative office of the pre-school. This is where we were to set up our pharmacy. Soon our new shelves were brought in and placed inside the office. I also found a couple of small school tables which I once again stacked atop one another to create even more shelving. Mary Ann and I then began unloading and organizing the meds. Once again, this was a chaotic process, because we had not been as careful as we should have been when packing things back up at Marcello’s house following our luggage consolidation attempt. However, we were so old hat at organizing the disorganized by this point that it didn’t really bother us too much.
Meanwhile Ashley, Dr. Allen and Andrew set up in the large room across the corridor which they were to share. Flo, our appointed pediatrician med-student, set up in the rear building of the complex. We also got to meet many of the missionary and translator staff we would be working with during the week’s clinics. Jo Ann told us that she would be providing translation services for the pharmacy.
Soon it was time to go out front for introductions to our patients for the day. Even with a public address system set up, it was hard to hear over the din of the cicadas. There were only 40 patients at the beginning of the day. I believe we were prepared to give out at least 60 number tickets for the day, but the other 20 did go to use throughout the day as more patients arrived.
After introductions, Dr. Allen shared his testimony while the rest of us returned to setting up our stations. He had shared it with at least one of the patient groups in Guatemala, but I had not been there to hear it that day because of pharmacy set up. However, because our pharmacy was there at the front of the building with open windows, I could hear it. I don’t think he would mind me sharing it here.
Dr. Allen took a very long road to on his way to Christianity. He spent much of his early adult life as a secular humanist. Both he and Mary Ann had been married and divorced from other people before meeting one another, marrying and starting a family. Of the two of them only Mary Ann was a Christian, but as she had been raised under a strict Catholic doctrine she was under the belief that because she had divorced she was now damned to hell. Even in the face of that, she wanted to take her children to church and began attending services in a local protestant church. She would occasionally ask Dr. Allen to go with them, but he was deadest against it and would become angry with her when she asked. He said that at one point things in their marriage had become do bad that he had threatened to divorce her if she ever asked him to church again. Somehow, though, she did manage to persuade him to go in because the minister at her church had said he wanted to meet Dr. Allen. Dr. Allen went with the full intention of telling this man off. However, instead of a fight Dr. Allen he found that he actually liked the minister and the two soon became friends. It was not long afterwards that the spirit moved in Dr. Allen’s heart and he came to recognize the need for God in his life. He accepted Christ and joined the church there and he and Mary Allen have been strong marriage partners ever since.
Hearing his testimony blew me away, because you would never suspect to know Dr. Allen that he was anything other than a life-long Christian. Granted, I don’t know him very well myself, having only met him a few weeks before this trip. But from what Ashley has told me about him, from having worked with him and Mary Ann for four months worth of rotations, he is a very caring and compassionate doctor who wears his Christianity proudly with his patients. He’s not afraid to pray for them and with them in the course of his work. It’s a testimate to the life-altering power of Christ’s love that this man who once hated religion has come to know God so strongly.
Dr. Allen has only been on a handful of mission trips so far. I believe that when Ashley did her first medical rotation with his office, she learned of his interest in the mission field and had reccomended Word of Life’s program. He liked the sound of it so much that he and Mary Ann went with them on last year’s trip and plan to continue going with WOL and other groups in the future.
Soon our first El Salvador clinic was underway and our pharmacy almost completely set up. One thing that confused and concerned Mary Ann and I, however, was the fact that a goodly portion of our meds had seemingly vanished.
See, before at our clinic in Pasaco, Guatemala, Marcello had brought us several boxes of donated Spanish-label medicines to help replenish some of our dwindling stocks. It had taken Mary Ann the better part of an hour with Dr. Allen’s Epocrates equipped PDA to figure out what most of those medicines were and relabel them so that we could begin prescribing them to patients. However, by the time we’d figured them all out our final Guatemalan clinic was nearly finished, so we had just loaded them all back on the bus and taken them back to camp, intending to carry the meds on to El Salvador. From what we then deduced, though, we had managed to leave the boxes of Spanish medication back on the big school bus and they had never been unloaded with the rest of the meds we’d had at Marcello’s house. We were also missing a few other non-critical supplies, which we had to assume were left behind on the bus as well. It would have been nice to have everything we’d intended to bring, but our mistake in leaving it behind wasn’t the end of the world. After all, Marcello would host other medical missions in the year and those meds would eventually go to good use.
The clinic setup in the preschool in San Salvador was quite ideal to our purposes. The patients waited in the chairs out front until it was their turn to speak with the missionaries. (Unfortunately, the only shade we could give them was beneath the cicada-filled tree. As you’ll see later in this day’s post, this was not necessarily a good thing.) They were then invited across the street to some other small buildings the local Word of Life staff had arranged to use for the actual mission outreach.
After they were finished there, the patients came back across and waited once again in front of the building until there was space for them in the open-air common area toward the back of the school. Then they would be seen be the first available doctor, depending on their needs. (For instance, if they were children, they went right to Flo’s station, while adults went to Dr. Allen, Ashley or Andrew.) We unfortunately had no dental team on this mission, but dental problems didn’t seem to come up in El Salvador nearly as much as in Guatemala.)
After being examined and treated, the patients brought their prescription forms around to the front window of the building where they handed them through for us to fill. Like I said, it was pretty ideal. And the weather was fantastic. We had been told by our friends in Guatemala that the weather in El Salvador was going to be even hotter than it had been during our first week. God was evidently smiling down on us that week because the temperatures rarely pushed much past 90. It was still definitely warm, but not nearly as humid as we had expected. Jo Ann stressed that the weather was abnormally cool for this time of year and that she too was rather amazed about it because they had not expected such good temperatures.
While we had taken over much of the school itself, the school was still very much in operation. The kids had just been relocated to one of the larger rooms that we weren’t occupying and they mostly stayed in there, coming out to play in the play yard on occasion, usually when there weren’t too many patients around. The school’s administrator/teacher was also on hand. I think she was probably annoyed that we had taken over her office, but was very accommodating, even when she had to come in and rummage through her desk for things. Another employee was the school’s cook and she spent much of her time in the kitchen area just one room down from us, preparing some of the best-smelling foods.
While I was still popping Cipros down three times a day, my stomach wasn’t quite as strong as I usually prefer. Naturally, I had to use the bano at one point and went off to find it. The banos for the school were located toward the rear of the facility behind two brown metal doors. Inside the stalls were toilets that did not come equipped with toilet seats. This made things a bit tricky, but the rooms were very clean, as were the toilets themselves and the waste baskets beside them, so I didn’t worry too much. However, when it came time to flush, I was horrified that the flush handle did nothing at all. I was afraid that I must have used the broken toilet and was embarrassed that we might have to live with my byproducts for much of the day. The school’s cook saw my distressed expression and signaled to me to pay attention. Outside the banos, there in the outdoor common area of the school, were two large concrete sinks filled with probably a dozen gallons of water each. As I watched the woman picked up one of the large plastic basins that rested on the sides of one of the sinks, dipped them into the water and pantomimed pouring it out as she pointed to the bano room I’d just come from. Ah ha! So I filled a basin, took it in there and poured it into the bowl of my toilet and everything flushed just fine.
While I’m pretty sure most of the buildings in the area did have running water, the concrete sinks and similar ones like it in the neighborhood did seem to serve as a water source for some neighborhood homes that did not have running water. Throughout the morning we saw ladies walking down the street carrying tall plastic jugs of water on their heads, coming to and from a water source further down the road. Some of the water jugs had advertising on them.
We talked with Jo Ann during some of the down time that morning. Though she’s been a resident of both South and Central America for over 20 years, she originally came from New Jersey. She had lived in Argentina and Chile for much of her time, but had spent the last several years in El Salvador helping to set up the Word of Life ministry with Tito and their son.
Jo Ann seemed impressed with how quickly and efficiently we took to our jobs. She even said my Spanish dosing instructions sounded quite authentic and asked if I spoke Spanish fluently.
“No,” I said, in perfect Spanish.
We broke for lunch around noon. We didn’t have enough staff to justify taking lunch in shifts, so we just locked up the clinic and headed to a building next door that was equipped with a large conference room. There we received our catered meal prepared by longtime friends of the Word of Life El Salvador team. We had delicious sandwiches during our lunches this week and every day these sandwiches came with some of the best potato chips I’ve ever eaten. These were home made potato chips, thick cut and deep fried to a crisp. They were fantastic, particularly with mayonnaise. And there was always extra food at the end if we wanted seconds. Beyond a few pangs of guilt about being so spoiled in a country where so many of the neighbors had so little, I enjoyed our lunch time meals. It was also a great time to get to know some of the other missionaries and translation staff members. Just as in Guatemala, most of them were university and highschool-aged students who were fluent in English.
One non-appetizing aspect of going to and from lunch was having to walk underneath the tree in front of the building. This is because there was a near-constant stream of cicada urine raining down from the tree. Maybe it was cicada spit, but I doubt it. It was very disgusting to keep feeling drops of it hit you, knowing full well what it was. We took to walking a wide path around the tree whenever we could, but because the tree’s limbs stretched over the open corridor and play area of the pre-school complex, we could never completely avoid getting wet. We were all glad we had plenty of hand-sanitizer.
After lunch, we returned to the clinic where we found we had far more patients waiting than we’d had before lunch. More number tickets were issued and we started right in. Fortunately, the medical team was joined then by an El Salvadorian doctor named Dr. Grace. Dr. Grace was awesome to work with, not only for her bright demeanor and quick wit but also because she spoke fluent English as well as Spanish, which made working out any prescription translation problems much easier on us. The only real downside to Dr. Grace’s presence is that because she spoke Spanish as her native language she was able to see many more patients than any of the other doctors, creating that much more work for the pharmacy. We found ourselves completely swamped in patients waiting for their prescriptions and we had to hop quick to keep up with the demand.
Our patients mostly consisted of partial families, with a mom bringing in her kids for treatment. Sometimes aunts would bring nieces and nephews. Sometimes grandparents would bring in grand kids. It varied quite a bit. We didn’t have a tremendous amount of male patients, but when we did they were usually elderly.
One younger man we did treat was a guy we came to learn was the area’s town drunk. He was quite sloshed already when he arrived at the clinic, late in the morning after all the morning’s number tickets had been passed out. The missionaries told him to come back in the afternoon when we would give out more tickets, but the man just hung around asking anyone who got near him to have a look at his thumb. He even came up to the pharmacy on several occasions trying to get me to have a look at his thumb. Now, in his defense, I was wearing a scrub shirt, so I guess I sort of looked like a doc. (I’d avoided wearing scrubs in Guatemala for this very reason, but then I tried one on and found out the shirts are quite cool and comfy, so I wore it anyway.) I, with Jo Ann translating, told the man that I was not a doctor and invited him to come back later when a real doctor could treat him. Still he persisted and kept showing me his blackened thumbnail. Some of the locals who were in line at the pharmacy told us the man’s story and advised us to just ignore him. But after lunch, I made it a point to make sure this man got a ticket to be treated. Just because he was a little obnoxious and drunk didn’t mean he wasn’t hurting and I’d let a doctor determine just how bad off the guy’s thumb was.
Soon he was officially in line and proceeded through the system until he came to Dr. Allen’s station. Dr. Allen said the thumbnail was filled with blood from some previous injury and it needed to be drained out. Dr. Allen had the fellow lay on one of the tables and then called Andrew over to do the surgery. Andrew proceeded to use a heated implement to bore a hole through the man’s nail and they began the drainage using a siringe. Everyone gathered around to watch and squirm at the uncomfortable sight, and I’m pretty sure Butch got video of it all. The patient never uttered a peep during it, but then again I think he was pretty-well self-anesthetized.
During what little down time Dr. Grace’s efficiency allowed us, I put up a new pharmacy sign. One of the real pharmacists from West Virginia who usually comes on these Word of Life missions is a guy named Fritz. He runs an establishment called Fritz’s Pharmacy back home. (And even if Ashley didn’t know the man personally, I would have known this because we get about one call per month at our house from customers of Fritz’s Pharmacy who assume that because our last name is Fritzius we must somehow be Fritz. We always explain that we are not Fritz, to which the customers almost always reply, “Well, do you know Fritz’s number?”) Unfortunately, this is the first year in the past three that Fritz was unable to come on the trip, but he did help provide us with very cheap medications to take with us. So cheap, in fact, that he bought quite a bit of them himself and wouldn’t allow us to reimburse him from funds, grants and donations that our WV team had already raised. Granted, he was getting these meds at cost, but this still represented several thousand dollars worth of pharmaceuticals that we would otherwise have been without. I dare say the vast majority of the meds we had on hand came from Fritz’s donation. In his honor, I made up two simple duct-tape signs that read “Fritz’s Pharmacia” and taped them up at our window and above our door. (I later learned that in Spanish the word is actually spelled “Farmacia” but it worked just as well.)
Sometime during the afternoon, Butch found a gecko. It was a bright green lizardy little thing, with patches of blue. Butch captured him in a Tupperware bowl and held him for safe-keeping and observation, tossing in a few bugs and some water to keep the little guy fed and watered. We suggested that he toss in a cicada, but we frankly weren’t sure which one would win that fight. Butch was proud of his gecko. He tied a little string leash around him and posed for pictures.
Speaking of cicadas, as the afternoon progressed into early evening, the cicadas buzzing grew much louder and they began to leave the confines of the tree. Once the sun had set and we began to turn on interior lights in the clinic buildings, the cicadas took to flying in and buzzing loudly around the lights and falling on us. I didn’t care so much, as I don’t really find the cicadas themselves disgusting. However, Mary Ann was in constant fear of cicada attack and would squeal every time one would buzz through. No one wanted to squish the things, because as big as they were it would be a huge mess to have to clean up. So I wound up having to pick several of them up and fling them out the front door. The cicadas didn’t seem to care. In fact, there was a little boy at the school who went around picking up as many cicadas as he could find until he had a huge buzzing ball of them between his hands. This he carried around, causing us some concern that he might get it in his head to walk into one of the clinic rooms and fling his cicada cargo into the air. Fortunately, he didn’t.
By the end of the day, we had decided that the clinic site was so perfect that we would just do all of our week’s clinics there. Our only problem was that we were running out of some of our medications. I began compiling a list of the things we were out of or nearly out of: Children’s Benadryl, cough syrup, Amoxil liquid, Hydrocortizone cream, fungicidal creams, Triamcynalone and Nystatin cream. I hoped we could swing by a real pharmacy in the morning and pick some up. And despite our joy at having our Enfamil returned to us just days before, we had yet to use any of it. There just wasn’t a lot of need for it. It seemed an awful shame to have spent so much for it and had so much trouble getting it here and not having any use for it.
We wrapped up our day’s clinic around 7:30, let the school administrator lock up the building and then climbed into Sylvana’s van to head out. We drove 35 minutes or so back through San Salvador until we reached the Word of Life staff offices, located not terribly far from where Tito and Jo Ann’s home not to mention our hotel. The office was in a residential neighborhood and was probably used as a home itself in the past. There we, and the mission and translation staff, all gathered for our evening devotional and meal. We dined on delicious lasagna and salad provided by the same caterers from lunch. Butch had compiled a slide show of the last two days worth of pictures from Guatemala to show the El Salvador staff. I still found that my emotions were very close to the surface about some of our experiences in Guatemala. Even the pictures of the patients from our final clinic day in Pasaco not to mention all the beauty we’d seen in Antigua caused me to tear up all over again. They weren’t the heart-broken tears I’d shed after our first clinic in Guatemala, but were a good release all the same.
We said goodnight and returned to the comfort of our hotel.
In addition to wonderful air-conditioning and cool tile showers, our room also had a balcony that overlooked the street below and had a nice view of San Salvador itself. Ashley and I enjoyed standing out there and peering out in silence, marveling at where we were and what we were there to do. This was truly the kind of quick-paced trip where you had to stop and take a look around once in a while.
EL SALVADOR CLINIC DAY 1 STATS
Patients Seen: 197
Prescriptions Filled: 409
We met Oswald and Rita’s housemate’s Monday morning. Rita had risen and was making a huge breakfast of waffles for us when Christina came in the back door. I hadn’t realized it until then, but there were concrete steps just outside the sliding glass back door that lead up to a second floor of the house where Christina, her husband Cody and their foster daughter Mia Rene stayed.
We didn’t know a lot about them at this point, but Rita soon filled us in that Christina was an American who had been living there with them in Guatemala City for over a year while she and Cody waited for the application to adopt Mia to reach its completion. Cody was a youth minister from North Carolina and he stayed back in the states most of the time, but would come down to see Christina and Mia as often as he could. Foreign adoption is a lengthy process in Central America and there is a lot of waiting around and applying and reapplying involved. Christina had been with them so long that she had actually assisted as a translator and missionary during the Word of Life medical mission trip of 2004. In the months since then, Christina and Cody had gone from merely wishing to adopt Mia Rene to actually becoming her legal foster guardians in Guatemala, a major step toward ultimately adopting her.
Christina came in with Mia Rene. Mia, who was only about a year and a half old, was a little shy at first, but she quickly warmed up to having strangers paying attention to her and was soon all grins.
We learned that we actually had a connection to Christina beyond just being fellow countrymen. Though Christina and Cody live in North Carolina now, Christina was actually from West Virginia and grew up in a town only about 50 miles from our own. Small world.
It was kind of cool that we met Cody and Christina when we did, because that day was going to be a pretty major one in their lives and they already knew it. We were meeting them on the very day that they would finally learn whether their adoption of Mia would be approved or whether they were in for more months of waiting around. Naturally, they were both very nervous and excited. Cody explained that they had been at this process for so long that he’d started a blog about it just so his family and friends could keep abreast of the latest details in the ongoing struggle of adoption. That site The Adoption of Mia Rene had become quite popular with folks around the country and there were quite a few people who were waiting with baited breath for news of Mia’s parental status.
After finishing our waffles and spending some more time talking with Cody and Christina, Oswald told us it was time to go. We thanked Rita for her hospitality, told her we would be praying for her regarding her own impending infant and then headed back to Marcello’s house with Oswald.
We didn’t expect to find Dr. Allen or Marcello at the house and our expectations were right on the money. They along with Butch had gone to the U.S. Embassy to see about his new passport. We didn’t have any idea how involved a process this would be, but figured it couldn’t be too quick. We just hoped they had better results than Cody and Christina. Once Andrew and Flo arrived, we began packing our meds and supplies so we would be ready to leave as soon as Dr. Allen and Marcello returned.
My neck was hurting a bit so Ashley cracked it for me, all Osteopathic-style. After that, she began working on cracking Andrew’s back and neck and sharing neck-cracking tips. I decided to go check email and returned to Marcello’s computer. I mainly wanted to see if anyone had responded to my Easter message from Sunday. One such response came from my mother-in-law, Susie.
Hi Eric and Ashley. I need to let you both know, Red has had a bad fall off the roof of the new building. Very broken up! C4, T1, T2, T6, 3 ribs, left wrist a jigsaw puzzle, cut to the bone on outer right thigh. In lots of pain and upper body/neck brace. Prayer needed! NO PARALYSIS!!!!! Airlifted to Asheville trauma center for 4 days…home now.
Glad to hear that the mission is going good. and glad to hear that no pickpockets hit you!
Be careful and stay safe.
Reading this made my blood run cold. I immediately ran to get Ashley.
When she read it, she burst into tears, but not from sadness. She was overjoyed that her pa was still alive. And she knew from the line “NO PARALYSIS” that a miracle had to have occurred in order for him to still BE alive. People do NOT usually break C4 and live, let alone live without any paralysis.
We phoned them as soon as we could.
Ma had been worried we would be furious with her for not having contacted us sooner. However, as she had said in her e-mail, the accident had occurred only six hours after we had left Charlotte. She knew if she told us then that we would have turned right around to come back and she didn’t want that to happen unless it looked like Pa was going to die. As it stood, it was pretty clear to them early on that while he was in really bad shape and wasn’t completely in the clear, he wasn’t paralyzed and was not at death’s door. We understood this and were not mad. I would also later learn that if I had actually looked through all of my other e-mail in my regular account, I would have found a message from several days earlier telling us we needed to call home ASAP.
Ma told us that Pa had been up on the roof of the log-cabin garage he’s building when a piece of roofing tin that wasn’t properly nailed down slipped out from beneath his foot. He began a slow, almost controlled slide toward the edge of the roof and then fell off. He was going feet first when he fell, which would still have hurt but would probably not have sustained him any more than a broken ankle. However, on his way down, his leg caught on a nail that was sticking out from the end of one of the untrimmed logs of the structure and that tore a long gash down the side of his leg and served to spin him around in the air so that his head and neck then took the brunt of the fall. He landed on his left wrist and then his neck and back. This knocked the wind out of him, and Pa later told us that he was pretty sure he was a goner right there because when he couldn’t immediately breathe he figured he’d snapped something good that had severed his control of his lungs. Gradually, he was able to start breathing again.
Pa’s Uncle Bob, who lives in a house right next to where the garage is being built, happened to look out when Pa fell and saw the whole thing. He called 911 and came running. A neighbor was soon on the scene as well, and Uncle Bob sent her to go get Ma, because for all he knew Red was dying right there.
Just like Ma’s letter said, Red was back home by the time we called. She let Ashley talk to him. He was feeling pretty good on opiates at the moment, but sounded good. Ash hung up and we both just cried and hugged one another, thanking God that Red had been spared.
After lunch, we loaded up the van, putting most of our luggage full of medication onto the luggage rack on its roof. There had to have been 700 pounds of worth of it up there. At one point, we debated whether to leave behind the spare tire that was taking up valuable space behind the back seats of the van. We finally opted to leave it in, because even though we were doing a lot on faith for this trip, it always helps to stay prepared. We left Marcello’s house around 1 p.m. for our journey to El Salvador.
We’d only gone a few miles when Marcello realized that he did not have his passport on him and since he would be needing it for the journey we turned around to go back. As we did a sharp U-turn as part of our trip back to his house, something in the left front tire began to make a horrible sound. It was kind of grinding sound combined with a clunking that did not sound one bit good. But since it only seemed to happen when Marcello made extreme turns, I hoped for the best. Unfortunately, most of Marcello’s turns are extreme turns.
Once we got his necessary documents, we hit the open road as fast as Marcello’s gas-pedal foot would let us.
Several dozen miles into our journey, we learned that there were actually some limitations to how fast Marcello could go, outside of those imposed on him by traffic and speed limit signs. With the van fully loaded by us and all that luggage on the roof rack, we found that if Marcello got too much above 75 mph the entire van began vibrating in a most loud and disturbing fashion. I was about to explain to Marcello that the vibration was God’s way of telling him to slow down, when he took the hint on his own and kept things below 75. We also noticed a small red light on the van’s dash-board that read “MAINT REQD”. We asked Marcello if he was aware of it.
“Yes. Isn’t it pretty?” he said, grinning like a madman.
Once again, as soon as we had left the higher elevations, the air became hot, humid and nasty. We opened the van’s long windows as far as they could go, which, in most cases, wasn’t much. In fact, I had to stuff a racquetball between the glass and the van’s frame to keep one open at all.
Our route to El Salvador lead us directly back the way we’d come that morning. We passed Chiquimuilla, then the camp itself and then by the road leading to Pasaco. Within a half hour of camp, we had arrived at the border.
I’d only been through a national border situation once before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. This one came in two parts, the Guatemala section and the El Salvador section. As we arrived at the Guatemala section, Butch handed us customs forms to fill out. We then left the van and walked over to the median building between east and west bound roads where we handed our forms and passport over to a man at a window. He typed us each into his computer, brought us up on his screen and gave us a piece of paper saying everything seemed clear and it was okay with him if we left Guatemala. This was all done within sight of the van, which seemed like a good idea as there were some folks eyeing our luggage atop the van who also looked to be doing complicated equations in their heads gauging how quickly and easily they could make off with some of it. With us standing RIGHT THERE watching them, though, their equations didn’t work out so good for them.
We then got back in the van and drove down the road to the El Salvador section of the border. This was a slightly different affair, as we had to park the van and actually go inside a building to attend to the next step of the border crossing. There were lots of teenagers and other folks standing around outside the building too, also eyeing our luggage. We decided we needed to do this in shifts. So Ash and I stood guard at opposite corners of the van while Marcello, Butch, Dr. and Mrs. Allen, Flo and Andrew went in to do their paperwork. After Butch and Marcello came out, we went on in where we were greeted by very friendly border agents who smiled at us from behind glass windows. We decided the reason they were smiling was due to the arctic breeze we could feel coming from the gap in the bottom of the window. It was a sharp contrast to the humid air on our side of the glass.
“I could stand here ALL DAY LONG,” I told Andrew as I basked in the little blast of heaven coming through the gap.
All in all, the border was fairly painless.
We went through a few small El Salvador towns that seemed very similar to the small towns we had seen in Guatemala. However, the further we went into the country the more things began to change. For one thing, El Salvador seemed to have an active litter removal program in place. While we drove, we saw at least a dozen teams of orange-vest wearing workers picking up trash along the roads. The towns we passed through seemed progressively cleaner the further we went. Then I noticed foliage began to look more tropical and we soon found ourselves driving along the coastline itself. The scenery was spectacular, what with it being late in the afternoon with the sun getting low in the sky, casting golden light across the ocean and all. Occasionally, we’d catch a glimpse of what looked like pristine black-sand beaches with nary an item of garbage to be seen. Only Butch could get pictures, as his was the only window that wasn’t tinted and could fully open.
For the past three years, Ashley has maintained that one day she’ll move to Guatemala to live in the beautiful mountain town of Xela, where she visited on her last trip to Central America. There she would open a clinic where she would use only osteopathic manipulation techniques to help her patients. And she would not accept money but work exclusively for chicken and squash. Upon seeing the coast of El Salvador, though, she altered her plans a bit. She announced she would still spend her summers in Xela, where the weather is cool, but would now winter on the coast of El Salvador, working for fish and fruit.
We had experienced some of the more unfortunate aspects of both Marcello’s van and his driving throughout the journey thus far, but as we began hurtling up and over the curving winding coast-line roads of El Salvador, one of the earlier problems came back to haunt us: the tire. The grinding/clunking sound we had heard from the front left tire earlier in the journey returned each and every time Marcello went around the curves on our very curvy road. It might not have made any unusual sound if anyone but Marcello had been driving, but he insisted on taking these curves at Nascar-inspired speeds. And whenever we hit a straight stretch, he would speed up until the van started to shake again, then bring it back down. So it was a seemingly never-ending series of horrible van noises, no matter the topography. My fear was that the tire that was making the horrible noise would blow out while we were hurtling along one of the curvier sections of road, sending us off a cliff or into oncoming traffic, or some equally lethal combination of the two. And there wasn’t a seat-belt between the 8 of us.
This is when I began to pray in earnest. My prayer was a simple one. “Dear Lord, please protect the contents of this van, including the passengers and all the van’s working parts. If we must have a blowout, please keep us safe.” I continued to pray this as we continued careening around the coastline.
After a while more, it also occurred to me that if we did have a blowout and died horribly, no one back home would ever know the details of our trip. I’d been keeping my journal throughout the first week of the missions, and had been doing an almost play by play note-taking account of learning of Pa’s accident and of our trip to El Salvador thus far. It seemed a shame it should all vanish if we were killed. (I know, hardly a thing to be thinking about when death, or at least potential death, is on the line, but that’s what my mind was doing then.) I began thinking that it might be a good idea if I put instructions in my journal for it to be mailed to a friend should the rest of us perish.
Before I could put this plan into action, however, we had a massive blowout.
The blowout occurred a mere 3 miles from the Word of Life camp property in El Salvador. We had come to a very straight stretch of two-lane road with occasional businesses and gas-stations along both sides. Butch had also been telling us that he recognized the area from when he used to go jogging in the mornings while staying at the property. Suddenly there was this explosive sound from the front left side of the van followed by a roar and the entire van swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic. I was sitting on the left side of the van and leapt toward the right side as soon as the explosion happened on my side. What I didn’t see immediately, what Ashley had to tell me about later, was that when the van swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic, it did so directly into the path of an oncoming 18 wheeler. Then, call it a miracle or call it Marcello’s Indy-500 wannabe driving skills, but he somehow got the van back into our lane despite the 700 pounds of luggage on the roof that could easily have flipped us in less capable hands. Say what you will about his driving, God held his hands steady that day.
We quickly pulled over to the side of the road and Marcello saw that the front left tire was indeed blown out. Fortunately, it was a retread tire so we were still able to drive with it, albeit slowly. We plodded along at 15 mph with our tire making loud flappy sounds, trying to make it all the way to the WOL camp. After two miles, though, the sounds had reached a point that indicated we needed to stop driving. Coincidentally, this was when we arrived at a tire-repair shop that was still open at that time of evening.
The tire, now mostly shredded, was a sight to behold. It was soon removed and the full-sized spare tire we had nearly left behind was rolled over and put in its place. Meanwhile, Butch phoned Tito, the leader of the WOL mission in El Salvador to let him know where we were.
We all then stood around and just marveled at our day. Ashley pointed out that we were obviously meant to be here in El Salvador because otherwise we would not have had so many obstacles thrown into our path.
Soon Tito arrived with his wife Jo Ann, as well as his son and some other missionaries. They had a small mini-van and a pickup truck. We followed them for the remaining mile to the camp-property. The El Salvador camp was not nearly as big as the Guatemalan one, at least not that we could see in the darkness of night. It consisted of a large pavilion building that was still a work in progress, as well as a bano house and some other smaller buildings. We helped Tito’s missionary team unload our luggage from Marcello’s van and put into the back of a pickup truck, where it was tied down.
Dr. Allen tried to convince Marcello to stay the night in El Salvador rather than drive all the way back tonight. Granted, it was only a few hours away, less with Marcello driving, but we felt nervous on his behalf. If he had another blowout, there would be no spare tire. Marcello declined to stay. Fortunately one of the missionaries with Tito’s team was a Guatemalan national who needed to return to his home country. This man had agreed to accompany Marcello back on the journey that night and proceed to Guatemala City from Marcello’s camp on the following day. We felt better.
We said our goodbyes to Marcello and had one final group prayer with him, praying that our coming week’s worth of missions in El Salvador would be as successful as those in Guatemala.
After this, we the mission team were told to pile into the white mini-van for the trip from the camp to San Salvador.
Butch had told us that we wouldn’t be staying at the WOL camp property, which was a bit of a load off of our minds as the property had no beds anyway. Instead, we would be put up in a hotel in San Salvador, conveniently located near Tito and Jo Ann’s home.
Our trip to San Salvador took around 40 minutes, but it was a sheer joy. The van we were riding in was a fairly new vehicle with a powerful air-conditioning system that was on at full blast and ice-cold the entire journey. We basked in the coolness and considered it a small reward for such a trying day. And while the van had seatbelts, I don’t think any of us used them. After spending the day taking my safety on faith and having that faith rewarded, it seemed a little questionable to start worrying about seatbelts at this stage.
The van was owned and driven by a missionary named Sylvana. She didn’t speak a lot of English, but understood enough of it that we could communicate if necessary. Still, the drive was a quiet one.
San Salvador, at night, looked a lot like a typical large American city. Sure, the billboards were mostly in Spanish, but other than that it seemed like a lot of places I’ve been before. Everything seemed far more modern than even Guatemala City had. It felt a lot more like home.
We arrived at Tito and JoAnn’s house some time after 8:30 p.
While we waited for dinner to arrive, they turned on the television so we could get some news from the outside world via English-speaking cable news channels. Most of the news was about about the Terry Schiavo case, though we did catch a brief mention that the Pope was in very poor health.
We dined on Pizza Hut delivery that night. It was fantastic stuff, too. Much like the McDonald’s in Guatemala, this tasted exactly like pizza from home, only in Spanish.
We knew very little about Tito and Jo Ann, at this point, but soon learned more. Tito was a quiet man who didn’t speak very much English, or so we were lead to believe. Mostly, he sat back and listened while Jo Ann took care of communications with us. This was very easy for Jo Ann, as she was American herself. She and Tito met while she was studying at the Word of Life mission institute in Argentina, back in the 1980s. The two of them had eventually moved to El Salvador to begin the first Word of Life mission in that country. Though the WOL El Salvador mission team had been in place for a number of years, ours was going to be their very first medical mission, and I wondered if Jo Ann and Tito were nervous about it. If so, they didn’t let on to us. Instead, they asked us many questions about how our missions in Guatemala had gone and asked if there was anything special we would need to make our job easier. Mary Ann and I asked for shelves for the pharmacy, but told them we would make do with what was on hand if necessary.
Jo Ann explained that our clinic site would be in one of the poorer areas of San Salvador and that we should expect some hesitation from the locals we would be serving as far as the mission-portion of the clinics went. She said that most people in the country were devoutly loyal Catholics and there was much fear of family reaction to any switches to other branches of Christianity. (This is not to say that Catholics are not good Christians, by any means. However, people of all faiths can sometimes be more loyal to the religion itself than they are to God. And we weren’t really there to convert existing Christians, but to make sure everyone understood what true Christianity meant, regardless of their religion of choice.)
During dinner, a news report flashed across the crawl of the cable news channel indicating there had been another massive earthquake in the pacific and another tsunami was expected.
After dinner we loaded back up in Sylvana’s van and drove a few blocks to the Hotel Miramonte, where we would be staying. I don’t think any of us were sure what to expect from a San Salvadorian hotel, but this place was above and beyond our greatest expectations. The Hotel Miramonte was a fantastic place to stay. The only real difference we saw between it and any very nice American hotel was that a guard had to let you in through a locking door and everyone exclusively spoke Spanish.
Inside the lobby there were marble floors, a nice open air fountain area, comfy seating and a complimentary internet access terminal for guests. Our rooms were also spectacular, with more marble in the banos, a balcony that overlooked a nearby club called Skizofrenia and a nice view of the city park across the street. Did I mention the air-conditioning? Oh, it had air-conditioning O’Plenty. We were overjoyed.
After a long shower, Ash and I collapsed into our comfy bed, unsure of what the following day’s early start would bring us, but willing to tackle that when it came.
Despite the fact that it was Easter Sunday, our breakfast was a slightly somber affair. The people on the various teams, West Virginia, Racine, and local, knew we were about to part and wouldn’t see one another for a while, if ever.
After eating, we set about packing everything up to leave, including the bags of medicine our smaller group would be taking to El Salvador at some point.
Because Dr. Allen’s passport had been stolen, and because all government offices were closed for the holiday weekend, we the El Salvador team would be staying in Guatemala for at least one extra day and since we couldn’t stay at the camp itself, other accomodations would be made for us. Some of the missionary staff from Guatemala City were kind enough to act as hosts for our team, so that we would split off and stay with them in their homes. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann would stay with Marcello Diez and his family; Andrew would stay with Alex; Butch would stay with Marcello Hounko; Flo would stay with Marcello D’s secretary Susie and Ashley and I would be staying that night at the home of Oswald and his wife Rita. Sounded great to us, but we were about to get a shock from Oswald we hadn’t expected.
Some of the missionaries had passed out copies of their support cards that morning, which are cards with a picture of the missionary and their families as well as contact information used for gathering financial support for their mission work. The one Oswald handed us, however, was surprising. It showed a picture of Oswald and his wife Rita, but listed them as “Odwar and Rita”.
I thought, Oh no! We’ve been calling him Oswald all week when his name’s really Odwar! We’ve been calling him the wrong name!
I showed it to Ashley, who was shocked too. However, she was brave enough to actually go up and ask Oswald what his real name was. Oswald explained that, yes, his name really was Odwar, but since no one could ever pronounce it he just told people to call him Oswald.
Oswald and Rita had been in the thoughts of the entire camp for the past several days. Earlier in the week we had learned that Rita was seven months pregnant, but that she was experiencing some difficulties with the pregnancy in which her body didn’t seem to be producing enough amniotic fluid for the womb. This was the sort of problem that might cause problems for the baby and her doctors were concerned that they might have to induce a premature delivery in order to save the baby’s life. This wasn’t a sure thing, though, and she had undergone many tests to try and see if it was a matter of simple dehydration or if something more serious was wrong. Oswald had driven back and forth to Guatemala City to be with her throughout the week. Even by the end of the week, though, we still didn’t know whether an early labor would have to be induced.
With this knowledge in hand, Ash and I decided to give them an early baby shower gift. We had brought with us a beautiful quilted baby blanket that had been donated to us for the mission trip. This Ashley folded up in such a way that it made a pocket in the front. And into the pocket I put the little teddy bear I’d been saving. We gave this to Oswald just before we left.
Despite all common sense, we rode back to Guatemala City in Marcello’s van with Marcello driving. Fortunately, Marcello was a much more sane driver during the day when there was a greater amount of traffic to slow him down.
It was so good to get back to Guatemala City. The weather is so much nicer at that altitude. We went directly to the airport, where Marcello parked and then went inside with Butch, Dr. Allen and Mary Ann to see to helping out the rest of the team as they went through customs and prepared for departure. Ashley decided to go also, to find out if there had been any word on what happened to our suspicious looking bag full of Enfamil. Then, after sitting around at the van for a bit, I realized that my stomach still wasn’t feeling well at all. In fact, it darn nigh hurt. I decided to go in as well to find a bano. Flo and Andrew stayed back to guard the van, the roof of which was piled high with luggage, which would be attractive to thieves.
Inside the airport I found my bano and did my business. My stomach felt a little better, but the tempest was definitely brewing again. Dr. Allen had repeatedly told everyone to let him know at the first sign of stomach problems, but like a dumbass I had not.
Not long later, I found Ashley who had, in turn, found the Enfamil bag. The airport staff didn’t give her a lot of trouble about it. They didn’t even get huffy when she revealed she didn’t have the papers in hand that proved the bag was hers, but instead asked a few pointed questions then handed it over. From what Marcello told us, the airport is supposed to pay around $76 per day for any baggage that doesn’t get to the proper passenger, so it appeared as though there would be some windfall from this yet. Once back in the van, we found the paperwork for the bag and gave it to Marcello, telling him that he should get whatever money he could in the deal and send that many more kids to camp.
After seeing everyone off safely, we the El Salvador team piled back in Marcello’s van and headed to his house for lunch.
I told Ashley that my stomach had been giving me problems. She said hers had too several days earlier, but she had knocked it out with a firm application of Cipro. In fact, she’d replaced the little doll charm in the cloth pouch she’d got in Antigua with a round of Cipro pills and this she then gave to me. I took one Cipro after lunch and that wiped out much of my intestinal problems. However, the Cipro pouch would not leave my neck for the rest of the trip.
Before lunch at Marcello’s house, I finally got to check my e-mail for the first time in over a week. I had 20 pages of e-mail awaiting me, most of it Spam and business to take care of from West Virginia Writers. Even though I was on a DSL connection, it was taking forever to go through everything and delete all the Spam. Instead of finishing that right away, I fired up my gmail account and sent the following note to friends and family back home.
Happy Easter greetings from Guatemala City. We have finished our
first week of this two-week mission trip and are resting in
preparation for travel to El Salvador tomorrow.
The week has been an amazing one. Exhausting, yes; scary, sometimes,
but amazing all the same. I have no time or space for much detail,
but we did four total medical clinics this week in two separate towns.
I got to play pharmacist for them, dispensing medicines to patients
according to instructions from doctors and students actually trained
to know what the medicines were good for. We had a staff of around 40
students and doctors of both the traditional medical and dental
varieties. The clinics were a huge success both medically and
spiritually. We saw some uplifting and harrowing sights and will have
the pictures to prove it.
Our original plan to be in El Salvador today has changed somewhat due
to our team leader having his passport stolen by a pickpocket while we
were in Antigua on Friday. (The pickpockets did pretty well off our
group, actually, though neither Ashley nor I had anything taken.) Our
local mission leader has many connections, though, so we will
hopefully be getting a replacement tomorrow and head on to El Salvador
Don´t know when or if we´ll get to write any more. Just remember that
no news is good news.
–eric & ashley
Then I shut it all down and went to go eat.
During lunch we began discussing how it was we were all supposed to get to El Salvador, now that our plans had changed. Originally, Marcello was going to drive us there himself, but since our departure time had changed to Monday afternoon at the earliest, he didn’t think he could. The reason for this is that Marcello’s first major children’s camp was to begin at the campground on Monday and he, as its leader, needed to be there. The next plan to come up was to send us all to El Salvador by the Central American equivalent of a Greyhound bus. These were supposed to be very nice and air-conditioned, so we could ride there in comfort. Sounded just fine to us. The only real issue was to make sure that this CA bus line would allow us to carry the enormous and heavy amount of luggage that we had to bring with us. If not, it was no good to us.
Marcello had to leave on errands, but he assured us he would find out how much luggage we could take. Meanwhile we decided that it was unlikely that any bus-line was going to let us have three massive suitcases each, plus multiple carry-on bags, so it was probably best if we consolidated as much of the medicine into as few bags as possible.
We also spent much of the afternoon popping the pre-natal vitamins out of their little blister packs and pre-dosing them into baggies, just so we saved that much more room. While quiet work, it was painful as the blisters kept jabbing under our thumbnails, ripping the skin there and causing our thumbs to ache fiercely. It was during this time that Butch once again made the mistake of falling asleep in our presence, so we defaced him with little hair-scrunchies and sunglasses.
By 5p, Marcello had not returned and we were getting really antsy about the situation with the luggage. Even after consolidation, we still had loads and loads more luggage than was likely to be accepted. Oswald happened by around then, so we asked him to phone the bus-line for us and inquire. After he got off the phone, he explained that the bus-line was only going to allow us one 25 pound suitcase each. We laughed and laughed and then got worried again.
Presently Marcello arrived and we broke the news to him. He didn’t seem surprised about the bus/luggage situation, nor did he seem at all worried. In fact, he sat down to watch highlights from the most recent soccer championship matches. Marcello almost always has an air of cool collectedness about him. Ashley wouldn’t let the matter rest, though. She kept asking him how exactly we were supposed to get to El Salvador.
Marcello just kept saying, “Don’t you worry. We will get you to El Salvador.”
I wasn’t worried. See, I recognized in Marcello the soul of a Wheeler Dealer. I’ve known a number of Wheeler Dealers in my life and while they can often be terribly frustrating in their methodology or apparent lack thereof, they always get the job done. They might not do so exactly on time and they might have to resort to underhanded tactics or call in some favors to accomplish their goal, but they always accomplish it. Ashley, however, wasn’t content unless she got some specifics. After all, some of the bags we had with us belonged to team members back home and she had promised to return them and she was worried that Marcello’s plan might involve leaving empty luggage behind.
Finally, I think just to get her off his back, Marcello told us that he would personally drive us and all of our luggage to El Salvador on Monday afternoon, or at least as far as the border depending on whether the team from San Salvador could meet us there.
“Now will you let me watch my game?”
“Yes. Thank you,” Ashley said.
We dined on a never-ending supply of Marcello’s wife’s home-made pizza. We stuffed ourselves stupid, then sat on the couch with Marcello’s children and watched Spongebob Squarepants in Spanish, until Oswald signaled us it was time to go.
We rode in Oswald’s car as he drove us to his home in another neighborhood in Guatemala City. At night the city is very much in armed-fortress mode and there is very little traffic out, at least on the roads we drove. We spoke only a little on the way there, as neither he nor we speak much of the other’s language.
Oswald and Rita’s home was in another gated neighborhood. It too had the fortress like garage door and a front door beyond that. Inside, the place was small but comfortable with a large kitchen and a beautiful brick archway dividing the living area from the dining room and kitchen.
Rita speaks very good English. She and Oswald were wonderful hosts to us and sat up answering all of Ashley’s questions about the pregnancy and its difficulties. Rita said she would be undergoing some additional tests soon and that they would know by the following week whether they would need to induce labor two months early or not.
Before we went to bed, Rita warned us not to be surprised if we ran into someone else in the apartment, as there was another person living there. Her name was Christina and she was there with her husband Cody and foster daughter Mia Rene. We said we’d keep an eye out for them.
It felt good to sleep together in a real bed for the first time in over a week. My snoozing was only disturbed briefly by some conversations I could hear from outside in the street. This neighborhood was still fairly active even in the wee hours, so the conversations of neighbors hanging out on the curb were audible, though I couldn’t understand them, so it just became background noise to my slumber.
We had no way of knowing that the following day would be the most exciting, eventful and dangerous of our entire trip.
Saturday morning brought yet another late rise for most of the camp, but not for me. I still wasn’t able to do much power sleeping. So I got up, and headed back to the showers for yet another attempt at washing my clothes. This time things went much better. I’d left the clothes from my second cleaning attempt soaking in the real Woolite all night, so they were quite willing to suds up that morning. I washed out every last dirty item I’d brought and spent a fine few minutes laying everything out on the concrete steps. The steps might not have been OSHA-approved, but their concrete railing turned out to be a terribly effective clothes dryer. And with the wind blowing as much as it was that morning, you always knew when your clothes were dry because the wind would whip them over the edge of the rail and into the red dirt. *BING*
After breakfast and our morning devotional with Butch, Marcello took those of us who wanted to go on a tour of the camp itself. We started by climbing back up the big hill right to the zip-line area where we could get a look at the camp in its entirety. It was extremely hot atop the hill. In fact, while considerably less humid, the day seemed far hotter than just about any day of the trip thus far. I was glad I’d worn a hat and sunscreen to keep from being burnt to a crisp.
Marcello explained that almost exactly one year before, all of the land that we could see was simply farmland—however, it was farmland up for sale. Marcello had been looking for a place that Word of Life could build a permanent camp structure that could be used year-round. After much searching and prayer, he learned of the farmland and came out to see it. He had no money whatsoever with which to even make a down-payment and no real means to secure any kind of loans, but he could see how ideal the land was for such a camp. The only other thing he had was faith.
During one of their previous visits, Marcello brought Rick Brooks and some other Nehemiah Network missionaries to the site and explained his plan. He showed them where he wanted to put the first buildings, the cabins, the bano-houses and everything else. They didn’t know quite what to say at first, for Nehemiah Network doesn’t have that kind of money on its own. However, they too have faith and know that God can make the necessary arrangements when it comes to helping his people accomplish his work. Within weeks of beginning the project, individuals and organizations came forward asking how they could help. The land was soon purchased. Within a short time later, a work team came in and began building the first kitchen building. More prayers were made and more money came in. They soon had cabins and shower-houses and with the help of more work-teams the foundations and beginning structure for the pavilion. The zip-line was also added as was a climbing-wall and basketball court. And the week before we arrived, the men’s cabins were completed.
We’d seen some of this construction ourselves throughout the week, with work continuing on the pavilion’s facade and the completion of the rock road and a sidewalk. The basketball court was next to their sites. He explained that he’d had no money to start the basketball court so he had traded his car to a local hardware store for the materials needed. After they got the court finished, his car stopped working and the hardware store owner demanded a refund. About that time, more money came in so he was able to do so.
An amazing amount of work had been accomplished in just a year and every bit of it had been fully paid for.
Marcello isn’t finished, though. He has a great plan for expanding the camp even further. However, Marcello’s goal is not to simply raise buildings for the sake of doing so. Sure, he might appear insane to the average Joe who has to ride with him, but he is not. there is much method to his perceived madness. He loves the Lord and has made it his life’s mission to serve by witnessing. He intends to fill the camp with people as often as possible, so that they can have ongoing weekly summer camps as well as mission housing for groups such as ours. There are also plans to possibly expand the camground itself onto some adjacent property. He asked us all to be in prayer about this matter, so I pass the request on to you here.
After Marcello spoke to us, one of the missionaries, Douglas, came up and began setting up the zip-line. We all watched as he strapped himself into the zip-line harness, clipped it to the pulley that he’d installed on the line itself, double-checked his rigging and then ran off the short running platform built onto the side of the hill. Douglas flew down the line, hanging probably 40 feet off the ground at the lowest point of the valley between tall hills. Before he was even a quarter of the way into his journey, though, he leaned back and flipped upside down, waving to us as he continued across. That’s when we noticed he was barefoot. He flew, barefoot and upside down across the valley, then, just before he reached the other side of the hill, he righted himself and came to a landing. We all clapped and were terribly impressed at this show. Douglas unclipped himself from the pulley, un-clipped the pulley from the wire and then charged back up the rocky face of the hill, still barefooted, to where we stood on the top. You could not get more macho than that and I think we all felt a bit of disappointment that this guy had been so good, not to mention tough of foot, so soon out of the gate. Didn’t leave a lot of room for us tender-footed Gringos to be impressive on this thing.
After this, we began to take turns with the zip-line. The only drawback to this was that while we had three sets of harnesses, meaning two people could be getting harnessed up while one zipped down the line, we only had one pulley with which to zip. So the person who went down the line had to run back up before the next person could go. I’d say most of the team members who went down the line were ready and willing to do it. For a few, though, it was a tough choice to go. We had more than one person who had to conquer their fear of heights in order to go and one of them—I don’t want to say her name so as not to embarrass her, but it was Michelle—turned around mid-way down and mouthed “NEVER AGAIN!” at us. She was still proud she had done it and we of her.
As for me, I wasn’t really concerned about falling off the wire on the way across—I was more concerned with what I was going to do once I got off the ramp. I’d been watching most of the other folks go and most of them were turning upside down and doing similar things on the way. I wanted to do something different, yet memorable with my turn, but was unsure what might qualify. I didn’t want to turn upside down—not that I was afraid to, but it had so been DONE, already. The only thing that really jumped out at me was to go down the zip-line with the harness on backwards, so that I would be stomach to the ground instead of butt to the ground. I envisioned running off the end of the ramp, thrusting my arm out and bending one leg in classic super-hero flight pose and singing “I Am Superman” all the way over. The staff had even mentioned such a move was possible. But was it wise?
The thing I had to seriously consider was that this zip line had not been designed to accommodate Gringos. See your average Guatemalan is much smaller than your average American. I don’t mean that Americans are all big and fat by comparison, (though that would probably be a valid observation), I mean that Guatemalans are simply smaller people who therefore don’t weigh as much as we do. This zip-line was constructed with their average weight in mind and I noticed that when some of the guys went off the ramp they came dangerously close to hitting the rocks just beyond the ramp. And these were guys much smaller than my fat butt. The two people who came closest to my weight were Dwan, a former professional football player, and Tom, a muscular guy who’s about half a foot taller than me. Dwan came within centimeters of losing his butt on a rock as he went off the ramp. And Tom had to lift himself up by the bungee cord pulley connector to avoid hitting. I was afraid that I might hit going off normally, let alone the pain and humiliation of scraping off my entire front by attempting a Superman. I decided that it was definitely an unwise move on my part and should be left to a light-weight girl. I needed to come up with something else.
At last, after about 12 of the team had gone, it was my turn and I was given a harness. I gave Butch my camera and asked him to take some video footage of my trip.
“Oh, you don’t want to take footage on the way down?” Butch asked. He’d done precisely that on his way and said that it was easy to do.
“Nope. I’m gonna need my hands for other things,” I said. My new plan was to leap off the ramp, lift my legs to get beyond the rocks, then lie back in the air with my hands wrapped behind my head in Relaxation Pose and zip down like that. Seemed distinctive and funny enough to work and would save me grievous injury. After I got harnessed up, Sandra Waddell asked me if I would like to borrow her sandals for the trip. I was in flip-flops, which I didn’t think were great footwear for a run back up the rocky hill, but I wasn’t going to complain either since Douglas had taken it barefooted. I decided to take Sandra up on her offer, though.
Soon my harness was clipped to the pulley and Marcello Hounko gave me one last harness test and said I was ready. Without hesitation, I grabbed my bungee and ran off the edge of the ramp. My weight immediately pulled down on the high-tension wire and I dropped a bit. I had been trying to remember to pull my legs up to avoid the rocks, but I evidently didn’t pull them up enough because I smacked the top of my right foot hard on a rock and screamed a mighty “Ow!!!” I’m rather proud that “Ow” was all I screamed. I was then presented with a choice: A) I could tend to my wounded foot and see if it was broken; or B) I could not waste my trip down and go ahead with my Relaxation Pose despite the pain and worry about my foot later. I chose B. It worked splendidly too. I spun in the air on the way down, lay back in relaxed pose and grinned for the camera. The trip lasted less than 40 seconds.
On the other side, I landed on my good foot and then helped Douglas unhook me from the line. My injured foot did hurt, but not all that bad. I figured it would hurt worse later on, but I probably had a few minutes to get up the hill with it without too much problem. I grabbed up the pulley and started running.
About mid-way up the hill, my limp became more pronounced, but I made it up fine. Once I got Sandr
a’s sandals off, I could see that my foot was scraped on the top, but not horribly. It was already turning a little blue, though. After returning Sandra’s shoes, I decided I’d had enough of the sun and adventure for the moment and needed to take my foot to the nearest reputable doctor and/or near-doctor wife.
She pronounced, “Eh, keep an eye on it.”
I hobbled up the hill to the coolness of the men’s cabin. It felt so nice inside. My fellow team-mate Aman was putting up the hammock he’d purchased in Antigua, stringing it between two ends of a cross-beam and debating whether or not he would sleep in it that evening. I sat on my bunk, looked my foot over a bit and chatted with the guys.
Someone had brought a digital thermometer and David H. had put it in the sun at the edge of the cliff outside our door. He would then check it every five minutes to see how hot it read. When I came in, the temperature was 130 degrees. Within 20 minutes, it was up to 135, officially the hottest weather I’d ever been in. We had trouble believing this reading, though, so Butch stuck his own digital thermometer out beside it for a second opinion. It made it all the way to 132 and then stopped working altogether. I’ve no doubt these devices were probably picking up reflected heat from the surrounding ground, but that was still amazingly hot and made me look forward to our trip to the beach later in the afternoon.
I would later question the wisdom of that longing.
Around 3 we began loading up to go to the beach. I put on my swimming trunks and grabbed my backpack with camera, towel and water bottle and once again went up to sit on the bus in the blistering heat with all the rest of the beach-going team. We didn’t all go to the beach either. Many opted out in favor of staying back at the camp to ride on the camp’s personal water craft, or, like Ash and Dr. Allen, to stay behind and work on getting some meds counted for our El Salvador mission the following week.
I didn’t really know what to expect from a Guatemalan beach. The information I’d read about the beaches here suggested they were composed of volcanic black sand, which was something I never thought I’d see outside of the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve been to plenty of white sand beaches, but I was up for seeing some black sand.
Oswald drove and half an hour later we arrived. We weren’t actually at the beach yet, but were just at the pre-beach area. This consisted of an enormous dirt field used for a parking area. We left the bus there and followed Oswald, Alex and Astrid back to the road and down toward a harbory-looking area. The road itself was crowded with people, most of whom were leaving for the day. There were plenty of other folks standing around, though, and we seemed to be of interest to many of them. Not surprising, I suppose, as we were the only Gringos in sight and pretty much stood out from the crowd.
After our adventures in Antigua yesterday, I found myself wondering what the pickpocket population was like around here. Or even the guys who beat you up and take your stuff population. I was already feeling foolish for having brought my backpack when all I really needed was a towel, some water and maybe my camera. I was just imagining the problems having brought this thing was going to cause once we got to the beach itself. Someone would have to stay behind to guard all our stuff while the rest of us went in the water.
We weren’t even to the beach yet, though. In fact, you couldn’t really get to the beach by foot. We found that out when we arrived at a small muddy dock area where a number of small green and red ferry boats waited. Here you could pay the ferrymen to take you across a small inlet of the sea to a barrier island where the beach actually was. We had just enough room to get our entire party onto one of the ferry boats and we then set off across the inlet. My inner environmentalist was distressed to see that the water of the inlet was filled with floating plastic bottles and other garbage, much of which had washed up on the shoreline. It was just another reminder that we weren’t in Kansas any more.
On the other side of the inlet we still had a ways to go before reaching the beach. A path lead from the shore of the inlet and became a covered aisle between a cluster of low buildings crowded with more people. Most of these buildings were nothing more than roofed off sections of dirt where people had set up cocinas selling food and some with tables selling goods such as clothing, towels, trinkets and souvenirs. These all had a roadside stand unofficial feel to them that I don’t think most Americans are accustomed to. (I, like most Gringos, am suspicious of anything that doesn’t come with a factory-sealed wrapper and colorful label. I’m not saying this is right, I’m just saying it is the case.)
As we made our way through the aisle, it became increasingly difficult to keep up with one another. I was still limping from my earlier injury, but I was trying my best to keep up with Andrew and Alex who were just ahead of me. At the same time, there were several young ladies in our group who were behind me and who I felt responsible for keeping an eye on as well. We may have been in no danger whatsoever, but I didn’t like the looks we were getting from some of the kids and men standing on the edges of this narrow aisle and I wanted to make sure we made it to the beach and back with all of our group.
About mid-way through this crowded aisle was a dance club. I say dance club, because that’s the nearest description I can come up with. What it really was was another roofed off area with a dirt floor, very loud dance music and, I think, a glitter ball. The music was extremely loud, though and I suddenly realized I was very very hot. How could people dance in this weather? The aisle also seemed to narrow near the entrance to the club, forcing us all to squish together a bit tighter with the strangers around us.
Then, as I watched, one of the men standing on the sides detached himself from his position and squeezed up beside Andrew, just ahead of me. The man reached out his right arm and slipped it around Andrew’s waist. At first I thought he was going for Andrew’s wallet, but he made no such move for any pocket. Instead, his arm just rested there on Andrew’s back. Now, the thing you have to know about Andrew is that he’s in the Air Force and is not a weak or small individual. He’s not a person who’s prone to fighting, but I have no doubt he could handle himself in one. As Andrew explained to me later, though, at that moment he wasn’t so much concerned about the man with his arm around him as he was about how many friends that man might have nearby. Not a bad thing to be wondering about, considering our circumstances. He therefore didn’t really want to piss this guy off but at the same time he wasn’t putting up with unwelcome personal contact. So Andrew gave him a hard shoulder, avoided eye contact and continued walking. I saw this and became immediately concerned that maybe we shouldn’t have come to the beach after all. I mean, how many movies set in foreign lands have scenes like this occur just before the ninja’s show up and kill everyone?
The next thing I knew, Alex was at Andrew’s other side and put his own arm around Andrew, pulling him away from the stranger while at the same time giving the stranger a serious stink-eye. The stranger fell back and we all passed beyond the dance club and on to the beach.
I’m not precisely sure what I expected from the beach, but the sea of garbage we found wasn’t quite it. I don’t suppose I should have been surprised at the amount of trash present, because we’d certainly seen a lot already on our way there, in the inlet water and in the aisle. The beach itself was far worse. There were empty bottles, both plastic and glass, old Styrofoam cups, sunscreen bottles and food wrappers simply everywhere atop and beneath the black sand beach. My inner environmentalist was screaming in terror as I took in this sight. And while there were several trash receptacles to be found, they were not spilling over with trash. In fact, no one seemed to have noticed them at all.
I stood there, feeling bewildered. I’m sure you can find filthy beaches in America too, but I’ve never been to one where the trash was so completely out of control. I just kept thinking “How?” over and over. I felt overwhelmed by it all, not only the trash but also the fear I’d experienced in the aisle on our way in. I think Andrew felt this way too because he asked me if I’d seen the strange man who had put his arm around Andrew back in the aisle. I told him I had. Andrew said it was an experience that had raised his hackles that his fight or flight instinct had been definitely activated by it. We had no idea what the guy wanted or why he had done that, but we couldn’t conceive of it being an innocent move.
At that point, our beach-going experience didn’t seem like it was panning out to be a good one. Then Astrid came over to us and told everyone to follow her. She led us over to a restaurant/bar that fronted a kind of beach-side motel. In the courtyard of this motel, there was a set of curving concrete steps, with more dangerously exposed rebar and no rail, that led up to the second floor area for the bar. It was a palm-frond roofed structure with lots of bamboo and more plastic tables and chairs. There were a few customers hanging out at the tables there, but mostly the place was empty enough that we could use it as a base of operations. It did offer a fantastic view of the Pacific and a less fantastic one of the filthy beach below. From our new perch, the scene below now looked far more like any typical American beach at Spring Break. We could then see some of the usual beach-scene items, like giant inflatable beer bottles and portable canopies and umbrellas. It no longer seemed quite as sinister as it had when we were down in it earlier, shaking off the tremors from our experience in the aisle. Now it just looked like a filthy beach full of people who were there to have a good time. Since a few of our crew said they would stay behind and guard everyone’s stuff, we figured we’d join the beach-goers and head for the water too.
We walked along the shore, moving down the beach away from the crowds, who were mostly gathered near the aisle to the ferries, and eventually we walked out of the fields of garbage and onto a far less crowded stretch of black sand beach. From there we hit the water proper.
I’d not been in the Pacific in a very long time. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time, I was so young. However, I figure that having been born in California and having spent a year in Guam, it’s pretty likely that at some point my parents plunked me in the Pacific drink. We’d been warned before coming here that the water would be rough and it certainly was. I’m far more used to the Atlantic beaches along the North Carolina coast, but this one had waves that didn’t play around. They weren’t exactly huge waves but they packed a wallop that could surprise you. One of my favorite things to do is to try and stand still and let a wave wash over me, remaining as steady as I can against it. Not with these waves, I didn’t. These waves would smash into you, dunk you under, rub your face in the sand a bit and then spit on you. It’s kind of a rush, though, to be at the mercy of nature in that way, though.
At one point, I got a bit further out than was probably wise and found myself treading water. Not usually a big concern for me, but I was having difficulty returning to the shore, and I’m a pretty good swimmer. I was expending a great deal more energy in trying to return to the shore than I was getting good results from. I was afraid I might be caught in a rip current and if so I knew I would need to swim along the shoreline until I broke free of it. (Watching the geek channels pays off, kids!) If I was in a rip-current, I don’t think it was a very one, at least only as far out as I was. It didn’t take very long at all for me to come out of it and get closer to shore.
We stayed in the water body surfing and having a great time. I was glad the beach had turned out to be a not entirely scary experience. After about 45 minutes, Astrid called us all out to leave. Once we were out on the beach, we saw that Jenna was still in the water and was farther out than looked safe, caught in the riptide. Andrew rushed in to help her while the rest of us prayed. I think it turned out, though, that she wasn’t so much caught in a riptide as she just hadn’t heard Astrid calling.
Back at the beachside motel, we showered the black sand off of us, as best we could, and gathered up our things to leave. I had brought a bottle of water in my backpack, so I took it over to the edge of the second story and leaned on the bamboo railing while I drank. I looked out on the water for what I figured would be the final time. Then, just as I’d finished almost all of my water, the bottle slipped through my fingers, bounced of the railing and disappeared over the side. My immediate impulse was to go down and get it and throw it away, but as I looked over the side to see where it fell I found I couldn’t tell which of the 100 odd bottles already on the beach below was mine. I was amused and horrified at the same time.
Instead of going directly back to the aisle’s entrance to make our exit, we took an alternate route through the back “courtyard” of the motel. There were families grilling out there, very much in vacation mode. Our route came out onto a back avenue that eventually intersected with the aisle. Once on the aisle we tried to keep in much closer contact with one another, particularly while passing the dance club again. The strange man from before didn’t approach us a second time.
As we cast off in our ferry to go back across the inlet, I noticed that the gentleman seated next to me, a fellow Gringo by the looks of him, was NOT a part of our mission team. I think he had just snuck aboard, realizing that the ride was paid for and that he would at least not stand out to local eyes among us. I didn’t speak to him, but he looked a bit nervous about the whole thing.
Once on the other side, we continued to try and stick together as we passed back along the street and toward the parking lot. As I walked, two of the girls in our group dashed up and took hold of my backpack and asked if it was okay if they followed along with me. They said that two young men from the crowd near the ferries had shouted something at them in Spanish and then had begun following them. I told them they should walk in front of me, if they wanted. When they looked back the men had dropped their pursuit.
That night, after supper, we held a benefit auction for future Word of Life campers. As Marcello explained to us, it costs around $35 American money to send a child to camp for a week at Word of Life. So the items we were auctioning would go toward that goal. We had been told in advance of the trip that this would occur, so some of the team members had actually brought items to auction, such as was the case with a number of items of jewelry—some specifically made for this auction. Other team members just took advantage of what we had on hand to auction. For instance, Ashley had brought a barely used tube of body lotion, which she auctioneered herself and raised $35. The rest of the time Rick Brooks was our auctioneer.
As you can imagine, with an oral surgeon and a number of doctors as bidders, some of the items went for quite a bit of money. In most cases, the items weren’t worth nearly the amount paid for them, but that wasn’t the point of the auction in the first place.
I wound up buying a bar of Irish Spring soap for $35. I’d actually had my eye on it already and was willing to pay the $35 for it before the bidding even began. When it came up for auction, Alex, Oswald and some of the other missionaries began screaming “Eriiic, Eriiiic!” and then holding up their water bottles to represent the fake Woolite bottle from my story the night before, indicating that I really needed some soap. I went along with it and made the winning bid for $35. Unfortunately, I was not paying attention to what Rick was doing and looked away in Alex and Oswald’s direction for a moment, so I didn’t see Rick hurl the box of soap at me. Just as I turned back around, the box hit me in the side of the face, actually glancing off the bone just to the side of my eye socket. To everyone else, it looked like the box had hit me right in the eye. I played it up, wobbling my head and saying, “Hey, I didn’t need that eye.” Rick was mortified that he might have injured me, but I told him I was fine. Still, it was another close call in what felt like a day of close call wounds.
The auction wound up raising $1686, which will send a total of 48 kids to camp there.
We wrapped up our evening around 10 p.m., as we knew we would all need to be up early in the morning to head out to the airport. Most of the team would be flying back to the United States, leaving Dr. Allen, Mary Ann, Andrew, Flo, Butch, Ashley and I to head over to El Salvador the following week. We knew Sunday was going to be a long day.
We had no clue just difficult Sunday would prove to be for us.
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.
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?”
“How much water do you drink per day?”
“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
TOTALS FOR THE WEEK
Patients Seen: 1983
Prescriptions Filled: 1752
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.