(Make sure to minimize the youtube screen after being redirected by the link above^. The idea is to listen to the song while reading the photo journal)
The first stop on the trip was the Cafe La Voz coffee plantation tour in San Jaun La Laguna. I think introducing students to the culture by taking them to the coffee plantation first was a wise choice. Geared towards tourists, the unique charm was reminiscent of the kind of welcome you would receive in America if you went to a tourist attraction here. Everybody was trying to sell you something they "handmade", and the merchandise looked suspiciously identical wherever you went. However, the attitude of the employees took me by surprise.
The people giving us the tour seemed to genuinely enjoy their jobs. Everybody was so happy, even the workers we passed on our hike up the mountain. I could not help but get the impression that the individuals we met and had the pleasure of speaking to do what they do because they have a passion for it. If not a passion, then an intense pride for their country and its resources. I am still not entirely sure which. I suspect the answer may vary depending on the person. The day was longer than expected, as this was also our introduction to the leisurely pace of Guatemalan life. As a result, the zip lining tour ended up being rescheduled for the following day.
Reaching the End of my Rope
My zip lining experience in Guatemala was very intense compared to the zip line excursion I participated in when I went to Jamaica. The zip lines were much longer and I found reaching the other side rather difficult. I am going to attribute that to my premature breaking. The tour guides were extremely helpful and clearly amused by our antics. They made it look so easy, meanwhile they had to hook up to the zip line and come rescue a number of us on multiple occasions. I am not sure if I would do it again. It was exhilarating but terrifying at the same time. I did not die this time but I am not so keen on tempting fate again.
I was amazed by the patience the guides had for our large group. Truthfully I do not know how we could have done the coffee tour and zip lining in the same day. I cannot speak for everybody else but my legs were killing me at the end of both days. I am way too out of shape for the hike up to the first zip line. The most eye opening thing about this day was my need for a regular exercise routine. I am way too young to be so unfit. The contrast between my level of fitness and the guides was striking. I imagine they are much healthier than I am, even when I have access to better healthcare. The manual labor and higher altitude could very well have conditioned their bodies to be more resilient than our privileged ones, which I find rather ironic. It makes me wonder if Americans rely too heavily on the medical resources available to us, and use our healthcare system as a crutch to support unhealthy lifestyles.
Getting To Know You
Day three began with an introduction to Asociacion de Mujeres del Altiplano- AMA and the highland support project. They welcomed us into the AMA family with open arms which took me by surprise. They did not even know us but they knew we were here to support the same cause which I suppose was enough. The women and men who act as the wind beneath this project's wings are incredible. They are so passionate and hardworking, willing to stop at nothing to make a difference and be the change in the lives of Mayan women in the highland regions.
Our arrival in Ostuncalco was enough to make my jaw drop. I knew it was going to be bad...but the excoriated wind burned cheeks of the children and the sunken cheekbones of their mothers made my heart ache. The women looked much older than they actually were. I am going to venture a guess and say it has something to do with exposure to the elements and poor nutrition. They also seemed wary of our presence which I understood completely. The fact that we were strangers coming into their homes coupled with the language barrier made for a rather uncomfortable first day of "getting to know you".
"A" For Effort
Stove building; sounds easy right? Wrong. After a thorough demonstration of how we were to construct stoves with proper ventilation for the home we were assigned, they handed us written instructions and sent us off. We started out optimistic; Parth, Annelise, and I. It was going so well, or so we thought. Our home was set apart from the rest of the groups so the masons made it to us last. Upon their arrival they proceeded to deconstruct our entire second layer of cinderblocks, cement and all. Needless to say we did not get the hang of it the first day. However I feel that our attempts and failures were so comical that the owner of the home warmed up to us. She even tried to help at one point.
I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to make a difference in this woman's life. It wasn't just about the stoves we were building, it is about the freedom they symbolized. Not only was ventilation a significant limiting factor as far as the health of the population was concerned, but the woman's role in this society was in the kitchen. The stoves we were installing would cut down the amount of time the women would be tied to them, leaving them with the freedom to engage in other activities they may have wanted to pursue or try but never had the opportunity. Regardless of my masonry skills, or lack there of, I love that I was able to help empower this woman in this way.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
I am pleased to say that the second day of stove building was much more successful for our group. We found a rhythm with the help of the masons and the home owners who decided we needed all the assistance we could get. I was certainly not complaining! We were figuring out how to overcome the language barrier sans a translator and it was actually working. I think that was one of my favorite small victories from that day. I struggle with Spanish to begin with but I was slowly picking up enough to carry on a conversation on my own. The family had warmed up to us and the difference was like night and day. I was learning so much from this community and it was entirely unexpected, however pleasantly so.
Unfortunately, we never were able to see the finished product, but that wasn't what mattered in the end. I had grown in ways I could never have anticipated in the short time I spent there. I felt a bond with this group of people that I could already tell was going to make leaving difficult. They readily welcomed us into their community and their homes in the days that followed. Their faces lit up with smiles and there was genuine emotion; a stark contrast from the flat affect they initially received our group with. I was awestruck by this change in countenance because I did not expect it to happen so quickly. I feel like Americans are much more wary of strangers and less receptive to the idea of accepting the help of others. We are too proud for our own good sometimes. I think our country would do well to learn from such a humble group of people.
The Health of a Population
As a nursing major, I have a soft spot for the day we conducted health screenings. It is so important to spread awareness of specific risks unique to a particular population. Especially one where primary prevention is the best defense against illness. I had the opportunity to assess height and weight, which was actually really neat because I had to utilize my limited Spanish as well as critical thinking skills to get the most accurate data. Taking their shoes off, placing their heels against the wall, and standing up straight were a few of the common barriers I encountered. Not to mention the measuring required me to get up close and personal with a number of individuals. I could not tell if they were put off by my close proximity but I made sure to look for nonverbal clues that I was making anybody uncomfortable. This was supposed to be an encouraging experience not a traumatizing one.
I am not sure how much the community was able to retain since we saturated them with information that day. They all seemed very engaged and receptive so I want to believe we reached their hearts to some extent. Their diet is the main concern we were able to identify in the short time we spent there. Too much sugar and carbohydrates with every meal pose a risk for diabetes. Some women had concerning finger-stick results and we did our best to educate them on the significance of the finding.
Knowledge Is Power
If I had to choose a second favorite activity, it would be the day we taught the grade-school children. This was a challenge for me in particular because I am not good with children. That is what made it such a moving experience. I stepped out of my comfort zone and it felt really good. The younger children had no idea what was going on but that was okay; if anything they practiced proper hand hygiene for a day. The older children were more engaged and took it very seriously which was adorable. It was difficult to emphasize the importance of proper hand hygiene when antimicrobial agents such as soap or hand sanitizer were scarce. The best we could do is teach them how to properly wash their hands in case they ever did have soap to do so. That was a little disheartening for me, but they seemed to enjoy the attention being on them and all of the kids were more than willing to participate in the simulated activity.
As I mentioned before, the best defense against illness in a society with limited resources is the utilization of primary prevention techniques. Knowledge is truly power. Educating the community about what they need to do to prevent disease and more importantly the reasoning behind it is the key to changing bad hygiene habits. I would not be surprised if they were hearing a lot of the information we provided them with for the first time. I do not believe they have poor hygiene by choice, rather I think it is a deficit in knowledge stemming from their environment and circumstance.
Goodbyes are never easy, and this was no exception. I felt a bond to this group of people that I did not expect to develop. I came to find out that working so intimately within a community as close-knit as this one will do that to a person. It was a pleasant surprise to say the least. I do not connect with people on an emotional level very often so the emotions I was experiencing during this heartfelt thank you from the Mayan women were foreign to me. Even now I am struggling to describe the way saying goodbye to these strong and beautiful women made me feel. This experience has changed me. Every time I think back to this trip I hear lyrics from the song "For Good" from the Broadway musical Wicked playing on a loop in my head.
"Who can say if I've been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good." - Wicked, 2003