On Immigration

In light of the endless political discussion in the US on immigration policy, our current administration’s efforts to stem asylum seekers’ efforts, and the fact that tens of thousands of Guatemalans try to cross the border to the US every year, it is hard for me to not think about immigration on a near daily basis here. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know that what I’ve seen and heard in Guatemala has me wholly convinced that whatever our government is ostensibly doing to address immigration is hurting people, killing people, and certainly not solving a single problem. (For the record, I didn’t need to come to Guatemala to form this opinion…) I don’t want to write abstractly about the impact of US immigration policy on the lives of everyday Guatemalans. I want to share anecdotes of a few of the (many, many) interactions related to immigration I have had, and let these stories speak for themselves:

 

Some men here are able to make a living off driving, essentially a taxi service, often for gringos like myself. One such driver that I have gotten to know, Rodrigo, told me the story of how he got his start. When he was 15, his older brother went to the US and got a job at a restaurant in California, where he lived and worked for five years. He made enough money to give Rodrigo a small loan, and this loan allowed Rodrigo to buy a tuktuk (a small, rickshaw-like vehicle that is used as a close-destination taxi here). Rodrigo drove his tuktuk, paid off his loan to his brother, and saved enough money to sell his tuktuk and buy a pick-up. Following a similar trajectory, he drove his pick-up as a colectivo (a bus, essentially), and made enough money to trade it in for a car. He now runs a reliable and fairly profitable taxi business. Through the small initial loan from this brother, Rodrigo has made enough money to expand his home, and to support his wife and children. His brother is back in Guatemala, and has similarly built a home for his own family. I of course cannot verify these statements, but Rodrigo tells me that he could not have gotten such a loan in Guatemala for various reasons: 1) debilitating interest rates that he never would have been able to pay down, 2) denial of loan requests to anyone who does not already have a steady source of income and demonstrable assets, and 3) systemic discrimination against indigenous people accessing governmental services.

 

A nephew of my host mom’s, named Diego, approached me asking me to translate a phone call for him with a potential employer in the US. He didn’t know many details, but he had submitted paperwork and letters of recommendation almost a year ago to a storefront in Tecpan that offered work visas for Guatemalans looking to do contract work in the US. He hadn’t heard anything for 11 months (and the storefront had since disappeared, though this didn’t seem to bother him at all), but out of the blue received a phone call telling him to expect another phone call at a designated time. I immediately found the situation fishy, but agreed to mediate the call. What ensued was one of the strangest interactions I’ve ever had, with a voice on the other end that I truly could not decide if it was perhaps someone who spoke very poor English as a second language, or perhaps not a person at all, but an automated voice. This “person” told me that her name was Selina Murphy, that she lived in Los Angeles, and that she was offering Diego 6 months of work in LA, working in a factory that ships septic tanks overseas. Confusingly, she told me the company is called “Shell.” She said, “don’t worry! this is all legal!” which of course put me immediately at ease. She said she would be coming to Guatemala in the coming month to meet Diego in person (to which I thought, wow I can’t wait to see this robot woman arrive in Tecpan). She told me that they were taking one person from each department of Guatemala (what is this, a beauty pageant?!). We hung up, and I was alarmed by how well Diego felt the call had gone, and how confident he felt in its legitimacy. Eventually, “Selina” sent us a photo of her driver’s license (as all legitimate employers do), and my doctor-by-day-sleuth-by-night pal Lynne reverse imaged searched the license, which turned out to be for sale through Jamaica for fake ID production. I still don’t fully understand the point of this scam, but I am quite confident that Diego wired money somewhere in exchange for a promised visa. We have heard nothing but radio silence from our pal Selina since the drivers license. Diego has a young baby and is desperate for a well-paying job, and I think that sort of situation makes people less able to tell when they are being taken advantage of.

 

Leah and I recently found ourselves on a 4-hour camioneta (chicken bus) ride sitting right next to the driver, which we were thrilled about because we have had a LOT of questions about camioneta culture and have been waiting for the right moment to ask. What started as simple questions soon turned complex and heartbreaking. Our friend, I will call him Raul, told us that he drives every day from Guatemala City to San Marcos and back (probably a 12-14 hour trip in total). He sleeps in his camioneta in the capital every night. I was surprised at this, commenting, “wow that doesn’t leave you much time to see your family, does it?” He replied, “oh it doesn’t matter. My wife and 4 children are in New York. I got deported two years ago.” Crushing. He was very open about his story, and seemed happy to have some companionship for his long and monotonous daily grind. (I greatly enjoyed chatting with him, but I did wish for him not to turn his head a full 90 degrees to look at us every time he answered a question, all while barreling down the highway.) Anyway, Raul originally went to the US by himself about 7 years ago, finally making it to New York after four deportations from the Texas border. His wife and son followed one year later. Eventually, he flew back down to Guatemala to bring another daughter to the US; they crossed the border together and were separated and held in detention in Texas. He said he was told that “their papers were being processed,” but that absolutely nothing happened until he volunteered to be deported. At that point, his daughter was immediately sent to New York to reunite with her mom, and Raul was sent back to Guatemala. He eventually made it back to New York after several more deportations (keep in mind, each one of these trips costing thousands of dollars in smuggler fees). His next deportation came when his 14-year-old daughter crossed the border alone with a coyote (a smuggler), and was held in detention by herself for two months in Miami. She was eventually sent to New York to be reunited with her dad; however, just one week later, ICE agents came to Raul’s house and deported him yet again, as they had now figured out where he lived. Raul has been in Guatemala for two years now, unable to reunite with his family (including an 18 month old baby who is a US citizen). He speaks aspirationally of this son being able to get his dad citizenship someday, though he knows the US government will probably never grant him legal entry with 10 deportations on his record. He told us he will try to get to his family again someday, though he is terrified because he knows, with such a long record, he will likely end up in US federal prison if he is caught crossing the border again.

 

The husband of a neighbor of ours, Juan, has been in the US for 16 years. He left when his wife was pregnant with their youngest son, hoping to study and find work to support their soon-to-be family of 5. He has no papers, and as such, has not once been able to see his family in these 16 years. Juan and his wife talk on the phone or FaceTime every day; as far as I can tell, they are 100% committed to each other. His income in the US has changed the lives of his family here and the prospects of the children’s future. They live in a beautiful, comfortable house, one that you see walking down the street of Tecpan and know that there is a family member in the US sending remittances. The boys go to good private schools, and will attend university. There is healthy, fresh food at every meal, and enough of it. The house has TVs and wifi; they just bought a used car. The boys receive gifts from their dad from the US: soccer jerseys, sneakers, and iPhones. His wife has tried in the past to get a tourist visa to the US to visit; she was immediately rejected. As she puts it, “I don’t get it. All I want to do is go to the US and spend money in the economy, and then return to Guatemala. Why would I want to stay there?! I need my beans and tortillas!”

 

My heart breaks for my friends and acquaintances here. But I also know they don’t need my pity. They need to be treated like human beings, they need justice, they need equal opportunity. As Chata, my host mom, says to me every morning, “otro día, seguimos luchando.” (Another day, we keep fighting.)

Because I have no words of my own to conclude, I will end by retelling what a Guatemalan colleague earnestly told me a few weeks ago, “I hope you know that Guatemalans are hard workers. We like to work. It’s just that sometimes there isn’t enough work here. And I hope you come back to Guatemala someday. You are always welcome here. Everyone is welcome here.”

 

 

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Our big, beautiful, extended host family during Ben’s visit last week ❤

 

On Highs and Lows

The past month has not been easy. I have been told that my blog posts unfairly only depict the positive aspects of my life in Guatemala. On the one hand, true; on the other hand, who really want’s to hear about the weird rashes I get and the room temperature beet salad that gives me inevitable diarrhea? Well, if those are the things you want to hear about, this is the post for you! If not, just go ahead and skip this one.

It all started when I traveled to the Bocacosta, a hot, tropical part of the country which my loyal readers know usually causes my brain to melt and me to complain tirelessly. I simply wasn’t built for the heat. My second day there, I woke up with an inexplicably swollen upper lip that just screamed “fist fight,” which is an excellent look to have on when trying to convince patients to let you into their house to interview them about their kidney disease.

The week went downhill from there, and my face got swollen enough that my boss, a prenatal care doctor, commented, “you looked like you were pre-eclamptic, but I was pretty sure you weren’t pregnant so I wasn’t too concerned.” Writing it off as a strange reaction to a strange animalito in the Bocacosta (weird things happen in the Bocacosta), my body moved onto the its next medical predicament: near delirium-inducing fevers and profuse diarrhea. Sadly, my pal Leah fell ill at the same time. We took turns bringing each other Gatorade and acetaminophen when we found the strength and the will to not need a bathroom on the walk between our houses. Ahhh, friendship.

After a course of anti-parasitics and antibiotics (so sorry, poor gut microbiome), I revived enough to realize, “hmm, I feel pretty itchy.” Like the good med student that I am, it took my only a few minutes to realize that I had a textbook case of scabies. For those of you who don’t know what scabies is, it is a fairly gross cousin of bedbugs that usually afflicts nursing home residents or students in college dorms, or in my case, an unassuming medical volunteer staying in a hotel in the godforsaken Bocacosta. Add to my own personal pharmacy cocktail another anti-parasitic, and I checked scabies off my medical problem list. (Side note: a beautiful (and terrifying) thing about living in Guatemala is that virtually all medicines are over the counter, so I have spent the last year prescribing myself whatever meds I desire. Very convenient for me as a medical student surrounded by doctors, very alarming for antibiotic stewardship. I cringe every time someone tells me they had a “fever” so they went to the pharmacy and got an “injection” to cure themselves. What?!)

My physical health returned more or less to normal for a few days, until one morning I woke up to go for a run with Madi (alert! alert! new friend!) and found my right eye was mostly swollen shut. I sent a gorgeous selfie to Kirsten asking her if she was concerned (so convenient to have bosses who are doctors), pried my eye open, and went on my way. Madi and I spent most of our run laughing about the ridiculousness of my facial appearance, only to return to a text from Kirsten saying “I think it’s probably time you get some labs drawn.” We stopped laughing, made some PBJ sandwiches (we’d hate to get hungry!), picked up Leah, and the three of us went on a field trip to Chimaltenango, the department capital, in search of a lab.

We arrived to the lab fresh off the camioneta (chicken bus) only to learn that they were one hour from closing and refused to draw my labs. That is, until we pulled out every big gun we had. We all said we were “doctoras,” which was going really well until we were asked what kind of doctor and Madi choked and said, “well I still have a few years left before being and OBGyn…” Leah (the least medical of the three of us), quickly interrupted, “I’m a nephrologist!!” After getting our executive director on the phone who demanded that they draw my blood (“this is a matter of HEALTH”), they finally agreed, we gave ourselves a huge pat on the back, and we sat down to eat our PBJs and wait for the results.

Long story short, I had some abnormal test results. That, combined with the fevers, diarrhea, scabies, and bar-fight-esque face, convinced me to head back to Chicago for a few days and see a real doctor in person, rather than dictating my own blood tests at the lab and medications at the pharmacy.

Two days later, I landed in Chicago, where my mom and I had an exciting trip to the emergency room and a few doctors. Turns out when you’re a 4th year medical student, people pretty much let you dictate your care in the US as well! I told them I would like a course of steroids and that is what they gave me. Ironically, it took over 24 hours to get labs back in the US, whereas in the bustling metropolis of Chimaltenango it took all of 45 minutes. All resolved, and I enjoyed a few days resting at home with TLC from the parents before returning to Guatemala. I wish I had a more satisfying conclusion, but my odd array of symptoms was nothing more than an unlucky combination of gastroenteritis, scabies, dehydration, and a strange, strange allergic reaction on my face.

I hesitate to mention this because I have strong desire to make this blog lighthearted and laugh-inducing, but in this post I am striving for honesty and realness. It would be dishonest not to mention that my dear, dear grandmother also suffered a stroke and died during this same month, at the age of 92. She lived a full and happy life, but nonetheless left a gaping hole in the hearts of her big family. Chata’s (my host mom) brother also passed away this past month, at the unfair age of 40, from an aggressive colon cancer. He left behind nine siblings and a wife and two young children. Within 48 hours, I attended both Manuel’s funeral in Tecpan, which took place 20 hours after he died, as is custom in Guatemala, and my grandmother’s funeral in Helena, Montana, which took place 3 weeks after she died to give time for her big and spread out family to gather from all corners of the earth.

It is very hard to be away from family in times of illness and death, but I also took great comfort in supporting and being supported by Chata as we each grieved a dying family member.

I will end by commenting on how deeply lucky I feel to have the support of two families in two different countries when times are hard, and to have the support of parents and the financial ability to come back to the US at the drop of a hat when times are just too hard.

But I will ACTUALLY end with a few photos from a recent visit from friends, to not finish on a totally depressing note.

 

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L to R: Will, Katherine, ME, Matt, Dre – descending Volcan San Pedro on Lake Atitlan
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Matt is a very strong swimmer and he loves when I cling to him like a koala in the water
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Here I am working hard.
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Matt and I climbed up over Volcan Santiaguito, one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. Here it is showing off to us as soon as we arrived. We get it, you’re active!

On Running

Yesterday, I found myself high up in the hills surrounding Tecpan, halfway through a 12k race that I agreed to without understanding just how high into the hills it would take me, thinking, “how the heck did I get here?”

Luckily, the trail leveled out eventually, allowing enough oxygen to divert away from my legs and back to my brain, and I began to think about all the remarkable ways in which running in Tecpan, Guatemala differs from running on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.

Both present the runner with a host of unique obstacles that keep things interesting, rather than just being able to go into autopilot and pound the pavement.

Biggest obstacles on the UES:

  1. impatient taxis pushing their luck at stoplights (the customer is trying to get to Hamilton, damnit!)
  2. construction on Park Ave (always another luxury high rise to be built)
  3. leashes (including but not limited to dogs and schoolchildren)
  4. delivery bikes going the wrong direction down the 1st Ave bike lane (taking the 30-minutes-or-it’s-free promise very seriously)
  5. line out the door at Bagelworks (the people are, IMO, missing out on the far superior Bagel Bob’s just 20 blocks north)

Biggest obstacles in Tecpan:

  1. DOGS (This dog is barking a lot…does he bite? Or is he all talk? Is he more or less likely to chase me if I keep running? Have I woken up the entire neighborhood yet by sending their 20 dogs into a frenzy?)
  2. branches at eye level (unlike the beautifully maintained trails of Central Park, the trails of Tecpan are either unmaintained, or they are maintained to accommodate the average 5’5″ Tecpaneco runner)
  3. chicken buses (they love to fly around corners and cut just as close as they can to runners without grazing an elbow)
  4. market day (all bets are off on Thursdays in Tecpan – watch out for pickup trucks loaded with pineapples, women carrying 20lbs of avocados on their heads, roaming goats, and of course clothesline at eye level as people set up their tarps to sell)
  5. the stares (okay, not actually a physical obstacle, but definitely a new running experience for me to have everyone and their mom turn their heads to watch me run down the street)

Both present their own challenges, which at times almost make a treadmill seem appealing (though I will never, ever choose that option).

Hardest parts about running on the UES:

  1. Over the course of the year, dealing with temperatures both below 0 and above 90, neither of which I handle gracefully
  2. Brutally early mornings, sometimes returning home from a run before the sun has come up (this is less the fault of the UES, more the fault of 7am rounds)

Hardest parts about running in Tecpan:

  1. HILLS (impossible to avoid, leg- and lung-blasting every single damn time)
  2. Polluted air (once the above-mentioned chicken bus gets past me without grazing my elbow, it lets out a lovely cloud of black fumes which I can only imagine my lungs are not loving)

And yet, both are wonderful places to run in their own way as well.

Best parts of running on the UES:

  1. MARINA! The single most loyal and consistent running buddy I have ever encountered, she drags me out of bed on those pre-sunrise, below-freezing mornings, and she makes it worth it every time
  2. Central Park – a sanctuary and haven in the otherwise concrete jungle (the very first day I moved to New York, I got so overwhelmed that my mom and I had to take a break from moving to go sit on a bench in the park and look at some trees)
  3. Community of runners (as much as I complain about overly-intense exercise fanatics in NYC, it does make it more embarrassing to walk up a hill when others are watching, and for that I am grateful)

Best parts of running in Tecpan:

  1. Weather is always lovely. Literally always. Worst case scenario: overcast or windy, but virtually always in the high 40s-low 70s
  2. Scenery – a horribly painful hill likely leads to a beautiful volcano view, and the rolling, corn-filled hills prove endlessly beautiful
  3. Community of runners (similar, but different. I probably see 1 person running in Tecpan for every 100 in New York, but nonetheless, it’s so fun to run by the cute woman from the taquería down the street or a pair of young women pushing their way up a big hill.)
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View from yesterday’s run

With all this talk of running, I would be remiss not to mention that last week, in a momentary lapse of sanity, I signed up for the 2019 Chicago Marathon! I hesitate to turn this blog into a fundraising platform, but I will be running to raise money for the Chicago Women’s Health Center, This organization aligns brilliantly with my interests, as they provide reproductive health services to women and trans people in Chicago on a sliding scale, and they don’t turn anyone away for lack of insurance or lack of ability to pay. I have just set up a fundraising page here for those interested in donating (absolutely zero pressure). The page is extremely generic for now until I convince Dre to jazz it up for me.

If anyone finds themselves in Guatemala before May or in the continental US after May (that’s as much as I can pinpoint my future location), let’s go for a run!

On the People’s Questions, pt. 2

It’s been a crazy couple of months, and this poor blog has been dearly neglected! In the time since my last post, I have had two trips back to Chicago with great family time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well an extended Guatemala vacation with Matt and Lauren, which included climbing new volcanoes, exploring the Caribbean coast, lots of swims in Lake Atitlan, and of course a great game of soccer with the host fam.

Never fear, dear reader, I return to answer the last of your questions that you sent me way back when. I also hear the people are asking for more photos of my life, so I’m interspersing a bunch throughout this post that don’t have anything to do with the questions, but enjoy anyway!

Back to it…

How are the current Guate corruption scandals playing out on a local level? Do people talk about this in your communities? Are people aware that the UN commission chair was banned? Do they vote, or is the system so stacked against them that, like so many in our country, there’s just no point even trying?

Even though this question was written two months ago and I am just getting around to answering it, it has only become more topical in the interim. Here is a very good article from today’s NYT that summarizes the current political situation in Guatemala, and how much the US is part of the problem.

Response at a local level is wide and varied. My host mom speaks with extreme pride about how much the people of Guatemala played a role in the forced resignation of vice president Roxana Baldetti and then president Otto Perez Molino in 2015, who were both subsequently put in prison for corruption. Unfortunately, not much has changed in Guatemala since that time. The current president, Jimmy Morales, ran on a campaign of ending corruption in Guatemala, and is now systematically dismantling attempts to investigate his own administration for corruption and bribes, including by ending Cicig last week, the international anti-corruption commission that was started in the early 2000s to investigate civil war atrocities and impunity in all areas of government. There have been a lot of protests and blockades happening in the week following the president’s announcement. A recent conversation I had with a man from a nearby town put it well: he told me, “we indigenous people are lawyers, doctors, political activists now. We can read and write. They can’t pull the wool over our eyes anymore. We can stand up for ourselves in a way we couldn’t before, and the government will hear us.”

The parallels to our own government are of course painful and obvious. In the above article, the author purposely starts his article with a poignant description: “An unpopular president is backed by hard-line military, right-wing parties and conservative elites. He disdains democratic norms and institutions, especially when they investigate his family and top government officials. He recently went on national television to propose drastic measures to solve a crisis many accuse him of provoking. His claims were later exposed by the media as false…

This president is Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, a former television comedian. “ Up until that last line, he might as well have been describing a different former TV star turned president…

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Lauren and I hanging with Doki, #1 most attractive dog in Tecpan, possibly all of Guatemala

You say you still don’t know the reason for the blockade … I should think that it would’ve gotten some media coverage either on TV or on the internet … it sounds like some sort of strike or protest … is there a significant amount of civil unrest in Guatemala?  Is it pervasive throughout the country … or contained within certain parts of it.  Do you fear at all for your personal security?  Do you take any particular security precautions? … or is it the same level of vigilance as you’d exercise say in Chicago or New York?

Related to above, I would say I practice the same level of vigilance as I would in Chicago or New York! Thankfully, Guatemala has not reached the point of civil unrest yet with this most recent political uproar. I avoid Guatemala City because it is slightly more dangerous there, but I otherwise feel quite safe, within reason. I travel on chicken buses during the day with no issue, and I feel safe on the street. The large number of recent blockades are more a logistical headache than anything else for me – several times, I have been on one side of a blockade and the clinic I’m trying to get to on the other.

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Beautiful shot of a beautiful camioneta (chicken bus)

About how many ears or corn would you say you eat a day (in any form)?

Great question. I would guess I average about 3-4 ears of corn a day. Corn is the crux of the Guatemalan diet, and we consume it in various forms. The most common form is tortillas. To give you a sense of our tortilla consumption, there are four of us that live in my house, and we eat 10 pounds of tortillas in a week. TEN POUNDS! Other forms of corn are tamales and tamalitos (essentially steamed tortilla dough, wrapped in big leaves, yum), tortilla water (exactly what you are picturing….NOT my favorite), elote (straight up corn on the cob), hot elote drinks (called atoles), and of course, a touch of corn flour mixed into pretty much every soup, for good measure.

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Have we ever looked more attractive than with this magical volcanic sunset?

What are your favorite Guate phrases or words? / What are your favorite idioms or figures of speech you have encountered thus far?

Top 3 favorite Guatemala-specific phrases:

  1. “Saber!” – Literal translation is “to know!” But is used to mean “who knows!” This phrase originates from the Civil War, when the army would come into indigenous communities and question them on the whereabouts of certain people on their lists of enemies of the state. As the story goes, the indigenous Mayans, not able to speak much Spanish, would just put their hands up and respond with this grammatically-incorrect, one-word phrase: “saber!” Now, it has very much become a part of Guatemalan parlance, not just amongst the Maya, despite the fact that it makes no sense.
  2. “Casaca” – means “lies” or “just kidding.” A favorite phrase used when messing around; gets used on me a lot because people think it’s endlessly funny to mess with me or pull pranks.
  3. “A la gran chucha!” Literal translation: “to the big dog!” Used as “oh my god,” or “are you kidding me,” or “I can’t believe it” kind of sentiment. Great for expressing exasperation, disbelief, or any strong emotion.

Have you read any good books lately?

My reading has fallen off with my writing in the past few months, but in the fall I read “Educated” (Tara Westover), “The Girls” (Emma Cline), and “The Nix” (Nathan Hill), all of which I would highly recommend.

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Family photo (minus a few key players, plus Maquito who loves the camera)

What is the EMR situation in Guate hospitals/clinics? Where do you see the biggest opportunities for improvements?

One of my biggest and most painful jobs at the clinic has been helping to improve our EMR, including teaching our staff how to document correctly, doing manual audits of patient records, and working with our IT guru to automize and streamline data extraction from the EMR. That said, we HAVE any EMR, while as far as I have seen, most places in Guatemala are still operating with paper records…

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Are you sick of these volcanoes yet? Me neither.

I would live to hear about the medical side of your activity in Guatemala.  Are you mostly delivering primary care?  How receptive to your presence as a medical professional are the people you’re there to treat?  Are there others who practice indigenous forms of medicine, and if so, what are your relations like with them?

I spend most of my clinical time developing training materials and helping other people deliver primary care (eg, nurses providing prenatal care or family planning services), and relatively little time seeing patients myself. I do, however, see patients in clinics with the American doctors who run our organization and come down to Guatemala every month or two. Overall, people are very receptive to my presence. I am called “doctora” even when I clarify that I am a student, which I think comes largely from my white skin.

There are certainly indigenous forms of medicine practiced here, most interestingly, in my opinion, by comadronas, who are traditional midwives. We try to work in conjunction with comadronas rather than against them. Most of our patients come to us for prenatal care, and also go to their comadrona. When possible, we provide the comadronas with pulse oximeters, blood pressure cuffs, and fetal heartbeat monitors, to better equip them to safely attend their patients. Traditional medicine and Western medicine are not as in conflict here as one might expect: many people draw from both. For example, many of our diabetic patients take metformin as well as herbal remedies for their diabetes. Overall, the patients I have seen make logical health care decisions that align with their culture, family, upbringing, and financial and geographic circumstances.

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Wading into the Caribbean…that’s all for now folks!

On the People’s Questions pt. 1

Hello people of the world,

 

I am writing this blog post in a pancake-induced semi-coma from the comfort of my parents’s couch in Chicago. Home for Thanksgiving! Since I am currently gluten-incapacitated, this seemed like a good time to answer some of the questions the people submitted about my life in Guatemala (also about the spelling of my name. I’ll hold off on that one…if you have any questions about the spelling of my name please reach out in private). In order or receipt of questions, here are some answers. The response was overwhelmingly awesome, so I won’t get to all questions in this post so as to not put you reader to sleep. If your question isn’t answered below, it will come soon in a future post!

 

When I VERY briefly studied K’iche in Xela, I remember being fascinated by efforts to keep the language alive and current without just adopting words straight from Spanish. For example, a simple word like “horn”, in K’iche, has to be fully constructed to fit a language that has no word for automobile, internal combustion engine, etc. So they ended up creating a word that literally meant something like “loud noise from large animal to warn another large animal”. And that was for “horn”! You can only imagine words like “modem” or “flatscreen” or “social media” — and how tempting it would be to just adopt the words in Spanish instead. (And, of course, a lot of the kids DID just adopt the Spanish words instead, when speaking to their grandparents.) Are you aware of any of these sorts of linguistic tensions where you are?

 

This question, for those who couldn’t guess, is written by my dear brother Benjamin. I too have been studying a bit of Kaqchikel, which is the indigenous Mayan language spoken in the region in which I am living. (“Studying” is a bit of stretch…”having words spoken at me and then immediately forgetting them” is a more accurate description.) You are right that a lot of the words are constructions and combinations of already existing words. For example, the word for “bakery” literally means “place where foreigners’ tortillas are made” which I love because it really demonstrates that tortillas are the central Mayan food and everything else (bread, pastries, etc) are a strange foreign offshoot.

 

There is certainly a long and tortuous history of linguistic tension in Guatemala, which could be (and is) the subject of its own book. Examples that I have personally come across: my host mom, Marta, actually didn’t learn Kaqchikel until she was 20, because she grew up during the Guatemalan Civil War, in which it was too dangerous to be overheard speaking Kaqchikel because indigenous people were being intensely persecuted, so her parents didn’t teach her their own language in an attempt to protect her. More recently, there has been a concerted effort toward language justice and revitalization throughout the country, including that the indigenous languages are now a required subject in all schools. That said, my host brothers treat Kaqchikel class much the way we all taught Spanish class in grade school: minimal motivation to learn, and most of the time spent reviewing the colors and the days of the week and not a whole lot else. Finally, I feel my own small internal conflict about learning Kaqchikel. I feel a drive to learn and understand the indigenous language, to be able to greet people in their native tongue and to support the idea of language equity and justice. But, at the same time, when I leave Guatemala (or even just the one region I am in), Kaqchikel will never serve me again, while Spanish will be immeasurably useful in my future career. So I feel my efforts are better spent learning every bit of Spanish that I can. And there, within my own internal debate, I get a glimpse of how languages like Kaqchikel die out.

 

What’s a food you (as an american) think is delish that your host family would be like, waaa? (ie PB&J for aussies) And vice versa??? (Like guinea pigs for Peruvians)

 

Food that I think is gross that my host family loves: tortilla water. This is just a pitcher of water in which they soak the tortillas that got rejected for consumption because of production imperfections (aka the misshapen tortillas I attempt to make). Yet another way to increase consumption of more ears of corn in any given day.

 

Food that I love that they go “waaaa?”: I actually recently brought Marta back some Indian daal leftovers from a restaurant in Antigua. She was skeptical but kindly tried them. Her response, “wow that looked disgusting but actually tasted delicious!”

 

 Are most places BYOTP or is Guatemala more progressive than Ventanilla?

 

BYOTP = bring your own toilet paper
Ventanilla = rural area north of Lima, Peru, where Dre and I spent a summer doing research and constantly finding ourselves in a pickle with our pants down and no TP to be found.

 

Yes, Dre, most places are BYOTP, and often BYO soap, and sometimes BYO water to flush the toilet, and usually BYO pants to dry your hands on. But toilet included!

 

What’s the coffee situation?

 

Coffee is actually a really interesting phenomenon in Guatemala, because a lot of the delicious fancy coffee that we drink in the States is from Guatemalan beans. However, most people in Guatemala drink Nescafe or some other instant equivalent. Tragic. I think this is a combination forces at play: coffee in Guatemala has traditionally largely been exported. As a result, the domestic price is really high and so it hasn’t been a part of daily life for the average Guatemalan. Now, they are just used to their instant coffee and so the custom is perpetuated. However, Marta in her worldly ways has a French press left behind by a former house guest, so we live the high life in my house.

 

Are you being treated respectfully by most Guatemalans?

 

Absofruitly yes. I am often greeted with utter awe: “You are so tall!” “You are so white!” “Your eyes are so blue!” but aside from that, yes definitely respect. In fact, the Guatemalan health care system is so broken and disjointed that a large part of the permanent health sector is made up of various gringos coming down and providing care through medical missions or other NGO-based care. As such, locals often treat white people as authority figures. If anything, I am sometimes treated with too much respect, as in people think I am the doctor in the room and I instead have to clarify, “I am actually a medical student, please listen to the Guatemalan actual health care provider who is speaking to you.”

 

Can you share some photos of where you have been doing your runs?

 

Yes I sure can! Here are a few shots:
What do you do on the weekends?

 

Wide variety of activities. I often go to nearby Antigua or Lake Atitlan to swim or hike or eat fancy foods like quinoa falafel or acai bowls. If in Tecpan, I read and watch movies and bake cookies with Leah and play soccer in the campo with my host family. Twice I have been roped into going into Mass. But I am frequently traveling and/or working depending on who is in town and having clinics.

 

Have you been cooking? Did you find any vegetables?

 

I really haven’t been cooking, which is a strange phenomenon for me. Marta makes all my meals for me, and I also eat a daily rellenito which is a deepfried plantain stuffed with sweetened black bean YUM. And yes I have found vegetables! The amazing thing about Guatemala is that all the produce is incredibly local and often very cheap (eg 1 pound of carrots for $0.25, 12 oranges for $1.20, or 3 avocados for $1). That said, vegetables are definitely not as much a part of the daily Guatemalan diet as they are a part of mine, so I often try to seek out extra veg and/or emphatically express my love for them. Marta’s response: okay I get it this weirdo is literally obsessed with broccoli. My teenaged host brothers would like me to stop singing the praises of vegetables so that they could eat more fried chicken and Coca Cola, but such is life.

 

That’s all for now! My coma is wearing off so I’m headed out for a run. Happy best-week-of-the-year-Thanksgiving-week to all my fans out there ❤

On Life’s Road Blocks

This past week, I was in Xela with two of the doctors I am working with, Kirsten and Andrea, to see patients for a few days. The days were long, with early mornings and many hours driving, so I was eager to get back to my beloved Tecpan when we were done. On the afternoon we were heading out, we sat at lunch (at the Guatemalan equivalent of KFC which is called Pollo Campero), and Kirsten sighed, “well, I’d consider this trip a success. No accidents! No car trouble!” Immediately I thought to myself, well now she’s done it…

We headed out from Xela around 3pm, excited to be back in Tecpan before 6pm. Less than an hour into our drive, we received a call from a friend, Herman, in Tecpan who shared, “just so you know, there is a roadblock at Las Trampas (a spot on the highway that we had no option but to pass to get to Tecpan) and I’m afraid you won’t be able to pass.” *Nobody panic.* Figuring this guy knew what he was talking about, we did a 180 and headed to nearby Solola to look for somewhere to kill time for a few hours. En route, Andrea and I called everyone we could think of who might be a reliable source of information on the traffic situation, as well as scouring the news for any updates. Finding absolutely nothing, we felt conflicted. On the one hand, Herman seemed sure of his intel. (Side note: never distrust Guatemalans who are sure of a prediction. One of Marta’s favorite lines is “it wants to rain!” and she is right approximately 98% of the time.) On the other hand, we could’t find any info, we had another source telling us “I reassure you 1000% the road is clear you will have no troubles,” and we really, really wanted to get home. So, we decided to risk it for the biscuit.

As we got closer to Las Trampas, a long, long line of vehicles came into view. Uh oh. Everything from individual cars to motorcycles to school buses full of people who had been waiting there for who knows how long. We’d been deceived!!! We immediately pulled another 180 so as not to get barricaded in the line, and pulled over to the side of the highway. I hopped out and started asking people who were in various states of dejectedness what was going on. In short, nobody had a damn clue. One man thought the blockade was ending in half an hour, another was convinced it was going on all night. Another told me that two camionetas (school buses) had just parked perpendicularly across the length of the highway and abandoned them, and no one was quite sure what they were protesting. What an incredibly effective protest… 

We eventually made our way to a hotel for the night, realizing we wouldn’t be able to pass. We knew we had to get up early to be back in Tecpan in time for a 7:30am clinic, but we soon received a call from our source (who I by this point was blindly trusting), who said that the blockade would start up again at a cool 5am. Which meant we had to roll out of our hotel at 4am…

Fast forward to next morning: pitch black, world is quiet except for the three of us and the poor hotel worker who had wake up to manually open the gate for us to get out. Car doesn’t start. Turn the key again. Car doesn’t start. Repeat x25. I look despairingly at the jumper cables in the backseat. Hotel worker shrugs at me as if to say, “Godspeed sister. You’re screwed.” Finally, on the 27th try, the car starts. We peeled (pealed?) out of the parking lot at breakneck speed, scared to ever stop the car, lest it refuse to start again.

The final confusing moment of the adventure: we successfully crossed the barricade on the highway, but the whole area was a literal graveyard of abandoned vehicles, hundreds of them, so packed that we had to cross to the opposite lanes of the highway to find a spot of road to drive on.

Okay, so answers to the questions I know you are all asking. No, to this day I have no idea what the protest was for. No, I have no idea where all the drivers and passengers of the abandoned vehicles went (in particular the hundreds of poor bus passengers). No, I did not sleep enough hours. No, I have no idea how cars work and certainly would have had no idea how to use jumper cables. And YES, I will come back to the US an infinitely more patient person than I was when I left.

On Water…

No, no, not on THE water. I am very much retired. Though it’ll be sad to not come close to the brink of death for the third year in a row in the HOCR alumni race in a few weeks!

Anyway, a few words on where the water comes from here…

Marta, my host mom, has mentioned in passing several times to me various comments about the water that comes out of the showers and faucets in our home. “Best to wash your clothes before 7am, because that’s when we have the street water.” “Before you shower, let me go up to the roof and turn on the water!” “Make sure you flip the switch in my bedroom to turn on the water.” But every time I turn on a faucet or shower, there has always been water there… Needless to say, over the past few months I have become thoroughly confused and increasingly too embarrassed to clarify.

This confusion compounded by the following additional facts: our house has a pila, which is essentially a large tub of water that gets filled every morning (by the street water???) and is used throughout the day for washing hands, washing dishes, watering plants, etc. Other things that the pila is used for: Marta washing her hair. Sons brushing their teeth. Dog falling into pila (not a joke). Young host family cousins “fishing” from the pila with fishing rod won at the local fair. Further complicating factors: when Marta is not washing her hair in the pila, she is bathing in a temascal, which is a sauna of sorts at her brother’s house. Her sons boil large pots of water and bring those into the shower to bathe, despite the fact that the shower is functional and runs hot water! (As best it has been explained to me, this is out of “tradition” for how things used to be. But this was certainly not in the lifetime of the teenaged sons, so I think they are doing this out of habit…of their parents/grandparents.) All said, I think I am the only one who actually uses the shower to shower in.

So, one morning last week, I came home from a run around 7:15am and was the only one home (the rest of the family went to Mass at 5:45am…this is the topic of a whole separate post). Sweaty and eager to bathe, I flipped the switch in the bedroom like I knew to do, turned on the shower, and, as always, water came out. The water pressure was a little lighter than usual, but I didn’t think much of it. I covered myself head-to-toe in soap, and, right about at that moment, the water pressure lessened and lessened, until it eventually became a trickle, and then stopped entirely. Not a drop. Uh-oh. Think, Katie, think. I reached around the shower curtain and turned on the sink, thinking, I just need to splash this soap off my body with any water and then I can get out of here. Within 40 seconds, the sink trickled to a stop as well. Damnit. I stood there, covered in suds, completely dumbfounded.

Luckily, as if she had sensed my plight, I heard Marta come home just a few minutes later. Unaware that I was already in the shower, she shouted through the door, “Katie I hope you’re not about to shower! Let me turn on the water!” “Wow you came home at the perfect time!” I shouted back, lying, “I was just about to shower…what timing.” She ascended to the roof, resumed my mysterious water source, and I rinsed, grateful and embarrassed.

Later that morning at breakfast, I sheepishly admitted, “Marta, I think I still don’t understand how the water works here…I know it’s been 3 months but I’ve been too embarrassed to ask.” After a good laugh, she patiently explained to me again. Now I (sort of) understand.

Profound moral of the story: sometimes you have to ask embarrassing questions in order to avoid getting yourself in significantly more embarrassing situations.

Here’s an unrelated photo of me on a tire swing over Lake Atitlán. But there’s water in the photo, so…

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