Health & Healing in Guatemala Rachel Carr

Day 1, Friday March 10

Bienvenidos A Guatemala!

Refreshing rest stop on our way from Guatemala City to Panajachel

Day 2, Saturday March 11

More Coffee, please

Coffee beans for days.

After traveling from 2 AM the day prior and settling into the town of Panajachel, Guatemala, it was nice to start off the trip with a few days of relaxation. We first had breakfast at our hotel, Rancho Grande Inn, which consisted of pancakes (slightly different from American pancakes but no less delicious), the best homemade strawberry jam, fluffy heuvos, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. A small boat from the inner harbor of Panajachel took us across breathtaking Lake Atitlan to the village of San Juan La Laguna, attractively lined with shopkeepers selling their beautiful hand made goods and children playing in the streets. We hiked up to the coffee plantation, Cooperativa La Voz, where we were given a tour of the grounds and shown how the coffee is made from start to finish. The tour ended with a colorful lunch of beans, veggies and guacamole and then we were all treated to coffee. The coffee was wonderful; as you can see in the photo below it looks more like a milkshake. By the time everyone had purchased plenty of coffee to take back to the U.S., we were all exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel. This first day really left a lasting impression. It was surprising to me how much work goes into making the coffee, from coffee bean into the package. It was also amazing to see the pride the people have in the items they make, as they should because it takes many hours of hard work. As we hiked down from the cooperative, I stopped by a store and saw a small girl sitting down and sewing near the front of the shop. In this type of community, it's important that parents pass along skills to their children and they do so starting from young. There are no strict child labor laws in place and the people need the money to live. It is appropriate to societal standards and it keeps the family healthy and active in working together. However, I wonder how many children have to miss out on an education just to make money for their families?

Iced coffee from Cooperativa La Voz in the village of San Juan La Laguna in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Good bye San Juan! Boat ride across Lake Atitlan

Day 3, Sunday March 12.

Easy like Sunday morning

Hotel Rancho Grande Inn
Biscuit; My beautiful breakfast date, Khyati; Guatemalan Pancakes

Sunday morning greeted us with another beautiful, sunny day to start the week. The hotel's courtyard kitty, fondly named "Biscuit" {by Lauren} also bounded over to greet me. Sadly, this was our last day here so it was time to say goodbye to Biscuit as well as gorgeous Panajachel. We had a breakfast similar to yesterday's but this time accompanied by fresh fruit. For today's adventure, we headed to the Atitlan Nature Reserve in Panajachel to zip line on the "Ultra X-tremos", a circuit of seven zip lines that cross the San Buenaventura Valley with a stunning view of Lake Atitlan as you glide across. Before zip-lining, we stopped at the reserve's Mariposa Dome, where hundreds of butterflies flew around our heads, occasionally landing on a finger. The hike up to the zip line was hot and exhausting but well worth the expended energy! The zip lines were beyond thrilling. The zip line ended in a ropes obstacle course for those dared to try it. The men who ran the ropes course were very polite and welcoming to all of us. They were also patient in teaching us how to stop at the end of the line. Even with my broken Spanish, I was able to have some great conversations with them! Though we were not from the same country, that did not matter at all.

Excitement before zip-lining; A beautiful mariposa; Cute snack shop at the reserve

The bus then took us to Chichicastenango for a steak house lunch: soup, tamales, rice, potatoes, and steak in a yummy sauce. Something I found surprising is that we were all served shots of moonshine with our lunch. I wonder if teenage drinking is less of a problem in Guatemala because there are less limitations on alcohol and because it is allowed at a younger age? After lunch, we shopped in the buzzing marketplace for an hour before boarding the bus to next destination: Quetzaltenango, also known by its Maya name, Xela. We settled into our new hotel, Loma Real Inn, and headed to the AMA (Asociaciõn de Mujeres del Altiplano) House, which would be our new location for most meals and several events while in Quetzaltenango. Everyone at the AMA House was extremely welcoming and kind beyond belief. As I went to sleep that night, I was excited to see what the week would hold.

First meal at the AMA house

Day 4, Monday March 13

Way up i feel blessed

High in the mountains of Ostuncalco, Xela

9132.11 feet. That's exactly how high we were upon arrival in the Maya village Ostuncalco. Looking around at the livestock, humble houses and filthy feet, I couldn't help but feel slightly ashamed that I ever complained about anything in life. Here, the people didn't have much, yet, I didn't have to look far to see a face smiling back at me. The Maya people are full of joy and contentment. Something to truly admire. The day started out with unexpected kindness, where we gathered around in a circle with the Maya people to introduce ourselves. At the end, they presented us with bouquets to thank us for coming, before we had even started working. It was a touching moment.

Today was Day 1 of stove building. After a demonstration from experienced masons, we split into groups and were assigned to a family's house. Thankfully, Aisha and I had the help of Dr. Pontes or this task would have been more than daunting to begin. Slowly but surely we finished the first layer; then another. As I filled in the spaces between cinder blocks with cement, I realized that this stove was going to be used for years to come. We were building this stove to eliminate the problem of smoke in houses while women cooked. I couldn't be more thrilled that we had the chance to improve their quality of life. I was happy that this sweet mother and her young children would soon no longer have to deal with coughing, breathing or other health issues related to smoke inhalation. As I looked around at all the children, I saw patches of small red bumps on the children's cheeks; up close they looked more like scabs. Why did so many of the children have those bumps and what was it from?

Mother & Baby; Aisha and Dr. Pontes working on the first level of our stove; Sweet girl enjoying her tamale

Day 5, Tuesday March 14.

Breakfast at AMA House with Alessia and Lauren, Ready for Day 2 in the Village

strength of a woman

As I turned around, I thought my eyes were deceiving me. The large bag of rocks I had just tried to pick up, that I couldn't even lift off the ground; she was carrying them! This Maya woman is the woman of the house who we were building the stove for. I was astonished. Not only did she carry heavy bags of supplies for the stove but she also helped us mix mortar and lime for the cement. It truly was a team effort, even the kids pitched in. Often in the U.S. I feel that a woman is seen as weak or inept, and I believe that women perpetuate this idea by allowing men to do certain tasks that a woman could easily do. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it is a cultural difference that I did not see propagated in Guatemala. In fact, as our second day in the village came to a close, I realized I had not seen any men around. I found myself pondering, where are the husbands and fathers of all these women and children? We finished our stove today; the rest to be completed by the masons. The day ended with a fire ceremony at the AMA house that I felt incredibly blessed to take part of. I thought it was wonderful how every topic was covered in the ceremony, from thanking God for simple and daily necessities, such as water to praying and remembering those with addictions to praying that mothers would take care of their children to the best of their ability. Truly an experience that I won't forget.

Brother, Christian and sister, Damaris, of the house we built the stove for
Last day of stove-building with the family in their house (mother, daughter, son pictured)

Day 6, Wednesday March 15

The greatest gift: health Care

Line of village people waiting to receive a health check-up

Today was one of the happiest days for me. A long line of mostly women, some men, and children wrapped around the medical clinic that our group had set up. For many of these people, this was quite possibly their first time getting height, weight, BMI and blood sugar and pressure taken. One man came up to me to have his weight measured and as he stood on the scale, his feet covered the display, so that I couldn't read the number. As I tried to adjust his feet, I couldn't get him to move his feet off the display without asking the translator to ask him in Spanish. I realized he genuinely had never used a scale before and it was shocking to me. More than that, it made me consider how drastically different health care is in Guatemala vs. the U.S. It is something I believe we take for granted and is something that not everyone has access to, yet is vital. In the future, I aspire to become a doctor and travel abroad to serve medically. This trip had already began to give me a small taste of what I could expect from an experience such as that.

Myself at the weight station; Dee, Annalise & Lupe; Megan measuring height

In the afternoon, we helped teach nutrition to a classroom of kids. They seemed to be fairly knowledgable on what kinds of foods and drinks were healthy and not healthy! But are these children's parents able to provide them with a well-rounded meal? Are they getting all the vitamins and minerals they need to grow properly? Those were just a few of the questions I wish I had answers to.

School children.

After school let out, the kids played with us and wanted to take lots of pictures. This was by far the highlight of my week. I adore children and aspire to become a pediatrician in the future, so I can travel to villages such as this and take care of them. Though I didn't know much Spanish, I knew enough to be able to communicate with the kids. They wanted to know what my name was and how old I was. They asked how to say several words in English as well. These children have such precious hearts and innocent souls. I never wanted to leave.

It all started with "puedo trenzar tu cabello?" (can I braid your hair?)
The group of kids just kept growing!

Day 7, Thursday March 16

I was sick today, but the view sure cheered me up. I felt well enough by the afternoon to head to the hot springs for a swim.

Day 8, Friday March 17

Always an adventure

Today we woke early, sad to leave Quetzaltenango but excited to head to Antigua. On our way there, we visited the Mayan ruins of Iximche, Guatemala. As I stood a top their hand built structures, two thoughts went through my mind. One was, WOW - what an amazing experience to be here and know that at one time this was a busy village swarming with ancient peoples. What was life like then? I wonder what their health care system was like, how they went about treating illness and injury without the advancements that we have now. Another thought was...Now I know how much hard work went into all this construction (because of the stove building process!) and how much collaboration and effort went into completing such a task. It was a hot and sunny day; perfect for taking pictures. All in all, I very much enjoyed visiting this site!

Mayan Ruins of Iximche

A few hours later we left for Antigua, Guatemala. The long ride was well worth it! We arrived at an absolutely stunning hotel which had beautiful rooms. Even the toilet paper was rolled into a cute design. The bed felt like an enormous cloud. The amenities couldn't have been more perfect. After relaxing for a few hours, we enjoyed dinner in the cute town of Antigua. Later that night, a few of us went out to celebrate our second to last night in Guatemala and let me just say it was an interesting night. I even saw Wiz Khalifa. What are the chances that he would be there on St. Patrick's Day in Antigua, Guatemala at the same exact time as us? I guess that's what you call coincidence... or maybe, luck.

Day 9, Saturday March 18

it's not goodbye, it's see you later

Our last day in Guatemala came far too quickly. It was our free day to spend as we pleased. Some slept in and relaxed by the pool, others went into the town to explore and shop and I did a little of both. The breakfast at the hotel was the most incredible array I've seen; there was a station for anything one's heart desired: omelettes, crepes, baked goods, deli meats, a smoothie station...the options were endless. It was heavenly.

Just a taste of all options at Hotel Camino Real in Antigua.

Danielle, Aisha and myself explored the gorgeous town of Antigua and met up with Rich, JT, and Josh for lunch. We spent the afternoon in the market, haggling over goods, and returned to the hotel with happy, tired smiles and lots of souvenirs for loved ones. Antigua was definitely a tourist town in nature, with pricy boutiques that lined the streets, and friendly pups with owners, unlike the immense amount of wild dogs in the rural parts. There were not as many health risks to be concerned with, thankfully, and we were able to drink the water and eat just about any food for the most part. I felt so at home.

Delicious lunch and ice cream for dessert
The Lactating Fountain

For our last night in Guatemala, we went all out with Lupe and had such a blast! One of the reasons I had so much fun (besides all of the fantastic people I was with) was because a man, whose name I forget, came up to me and asked me to dance. At first I was wary but after deciding that he was harmless and simply just a good dancer who wanted to have fun - I decided to say yes. So much twirling was involved, I could barely keep up but he was so accommodating and friendly. He genuinely wanted to share his salsa skills with us and also danced with many of the other girls in our group. He didn't care whether or not we were good at dancing or even really knew how. He was just there to have a good time and that stood out to me. However, I am happy that we previously had a salsa night with professional instruction so I was able to keep up. He even offered to buy me wine, which I kindly declined but thanked him for dancing with me.

Danced the night away!

Day 10, Sunday March 19

Homeward bound

The most bittersweet of all days.

Finally it was time to say goodbye to Guatemala, which we had grown to love so much! We enjoyed another delicious breakfast at the hotel, bright and early, and then boarded the bus by 8AM to head to the airport. As much as I didn't want to leave, the week had been exhausting (the good kind) and I was ready for home sweet home. We had plenty of time in the airport to collect any last minute souvenirs and have lunch before boarding the plane. In the airport, I realized I still had some remaining quetzales, though not much, so I searched for something small to buy. I finally found a cute pack of cards that had the Guatemalan flag on each one but they were slightly more money than I had. I figured - hey, I'm still in Guatemala, right? So I can probably still bargain with the cashier. That is exactly what I did and she was willing to let me purchase them for about a dollar less than priced. I chucked to myself at the fact that would never happen in the U.S. That was one part of Guatemala I wished I could take!

While on the plane to Texas, I ended up sitting next to a physician and first year med student, from a medical school in San Antonio. Wow, I was thrilled - not only was it unexpected but made me enthusiastic about doing the same thing in the future. We were able to converse about each other's trips and I found out that their trip was similar to ours. They even had been in Antigua at the same time as us!

Upon arrival in Texas, we had a long layover so the first place Aisha and I headed was to buy food. Where else? We finished off our meal with yummy frozen yogurt and after picture taking and chatting, it was time to board our flight for Newark.

Up close and personal with frozen yogurt

I truly enjoyed my time in Guatemala. I couldn't have asked for a better experience, more wonderful and kind professors, a more fantastic group of students who became like a big family, or more amazing Guatemalan people that we met everywhere we went - from our bus driver to the sweet cleaning lady I had the chance to talk to. To the adorable children from whom I purchased hand made goods from as well as children from the village, to our incredible tour guide and friend, Lupe! That does not include everyone but I am thankful for all hose I had the chance to meet and connect with. I wonder, will I ever have the opportunity to return to Guatemala?

All of us :-)

It surely is not adios forever, it is hasta luego!

Guatemala City -> Houston, Texas -> NJ

Questions

  1. The way healthcare is delivered and practiced in Guatemala varies from region to region. When I first arrived to Guatemala City and then to Panajachel, I noticed that the cities did not appear to be as poor I had imagined them to be. However, I learned that the wealth distribution in Guatemala is extremely unequal. This means that there is a majority of low-income people while the top 1% minority of the country controls much of the wealth. So even though Panajachel was beautiful, it could be even better maintained if those who cared most about the city were financially able to afford it. Additionally, those who have more money would be able to afford proper health care, while the poor may have to rely more on each other. The culture and social life of Guatemala was incredible to me because there was such a sense of community and friendliness wherever I went. All of these sociocultural, economic and political factors work together to form the ways healthcare is viewed and practiced. It makes sense that in places like the village we visited in Ostuncalco, the health information was highly limited and practices that would be well known in the U.S. were not known there. Nonetheless, a benefit of having such a community is that each person will take responsibility for other members in that community, whether that person is sick or hurt. Ladies will take care of other pregnant women or ladies in need of care because they have knowledge passed down from generation to generation which is so valuable and important. Further, when the bone-setter spoke about natural methods of healing via medicinal herbs in the village, I saw that numerous women listened carefully and took notes. That is another way that healthcare is promoted and practiced in these parts of Guatemala. Overall, there are many systems of healthcare in Guatemala but most of the systems need improvement and training. Health care clinics, like the one that we held in the village, and classes, such as the sugar shock and hand-washing groups, are one small way that the people can become more informed.
  2. Guatemala has a universal health care system but benefits are difficult to provide and guarantee to all citizens because of limited resources. Sometimes those resources cannot even be accessed by all. Guatemala is still a developing country and therefore, the healthcare system leaves significant room for improvement. It is clear that standing inequalities have no clear endeavor to change for the future. With that being said, the healthcare system does not properly meet the needs of the Guatemalan people so the implications on health equity and social justice are unfortunately not the best. Health equity, defined by Heathy People 2020, is the “attainment of the highest level of health for all people” — and is certainly not true for Guatemala. Health equity ties into the concept of social justice in that if health equity is achieved, it implies that no one is disadvantaged based on their social status or standing. Though health policy exists, it alone is not adequate enough to fix the health needs of the people. However, an important concept that the Maya people do have, that is unique to their culture, is the idea of curanderismo, a system of healing defined by traditional practices that address all the needs of the people who use it. Although the Guatemalan people may not have ideal access to health care, they do have methods and are not helpless, as some may think. There are many benefits to naturalistic healing.
  3. When comparing Guatemala to the United States, where I was born and raised, it is easier to see differences in culture versus the similarities. However, I believe it is important to culturally understand both in order to develop personal understanding of that culture while also building respect for it. Traveling and visiting a country for yourself is most definitely the best way to grow more aware of it. In the United States, people tend to be more individualistic whereas in Guatemala (specifically the village I was in) there was a huge sense of community. Upon arrival, I would see the women gathered in a circle cooking lunch around the fire. It was really nice to see that aspect of the culture and I think life is better when you have others to lean on. Language is another big difference between the two countries. Spanish is spoken by 60% of Guatemalans while Amerindian and Mayan languages are spoken by about 40%. However, over 80% of Americans speak English. Many of the people in Guatemala do not speak English, though some speak a little. Not many English speaking people in the U.S. speak Spanish either. The diet is also fairly different but not so drastic that I had trouble enjoying the food. All the foods eaten are foods that I would eat in the United States but perhaps prepared differently or made with other spices. Since I am a cheese lover, I noticed right away that cheese is not eaten as a regular part of the diet. Beans, however, are even served with breakfast which surprised me as I had never experienced that before. The prices of goods were also significantly less in Guatemala. In Antigua, I saw a hotel advertising a room for $8/night and I saw beers for $1. In touristy shops, costs were the same, if not more expensive, for some items. As for education, both the US and Guatemala provide free education funded by the government and have primary, secondary and tertiary educational levels so it was wonderful to see that the kids were in school upon arrival at the village. This does not necessarily mean that all children will reach the highest level as education as most children do in the U.S. Finally, the biggest difference is the level of poverty experienced, which also ties into matters of cleanliness. It came as a shock to me that their toilets were literally a hole in the ground. There was no sink to wash hands, although the mother of our house filled a bowl with water and poured soap over our hands. Their feet and legs don’t stay clean because the ground is so dusty. In general, the atmosphere is completely different from that of the U.S. They do not have any of the advancements that we have here that make life so easy for us (though some have vehicles) but because they don’t know anything different, they seem happy, and that is what matters.
  4. When I registered for this trip, I initially thought that a challenge I would face was getting sick on the trip. I am prone to get really exhausted and sick as a result and I wasn’t sure how my body would handle traveling and the unfamiliar country, even though I had been to Haiti before. Though I got minimally sick, I think the biggest barrier/challenge turned out to be the language. I have taken a year of Spanish in college before but I definitely did not know enough to have a full conversation with a native. I wished that I could speak fluently so I could have deeper conversations then just hello, how are you, and what’s the cost of that item? Being able to speak the language more beyond the basic level would allow me to get to know individuals at a more personal level and I truly hope that one day I can learn the language fluently and go back to these countries and reach these people further. Other than the language barrier, I didn't feel that anything else impacted me as a challenge as I feel that I can generally adapt well to new situations and surroundings.
  5. I learned just how much I value this kind of service to others. It has been my dream from the age of fourteen to become a physician and travel to parts of the world who don’t have quality health care. Since I believe that health services are one of the best gifts someone can provide to another human being, I want to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of other people because I believe that serving others throughout one’s life should be a priority. I absolutely love to travel as well, and this trip strengthened that desire. This trip also taught me that not everything will be inside my comfort zone but that I can handle that and be happy even when things are not as I'm used to. Guatemala was an incredible stop along life’s journey and one that I will never forget. I am so grateful and feel so blessed to have been able to be part of such an amazing group of people, each with different backgrounds, life stories, and goals but with one thing in common, and that is eagerness to use their capabilities and energy for those who are less fortunate. Last but not least, the Guatemalan people taught me so much about hospitality, community, selflessness and contentment…but the list could go on. The people taught me that it's not about what you have but that it’s what you do with what you have and that is what I strive to live by.
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Rachel Carr
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All photos taken by Rachel Carr

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