At the airport, we held our breath as we walked through customs, but no one questioned our checked bags, filled with prescription and over the counter medications. We lugged them through a crowd of onlookers awaiting the return of their loved ones. They were smiling and holding flowers and had their bodies pressed up against the barrier in anticipation. This first impression of the people of Guatemala hinted towards a love for family and community that would characterize the rest of my week there.
After another day of travel and exploration, unexpected downpours and a broken down van, we made it to Xela, where we stayed for the week. There, an anthropologist spoke with us about the culture of Guatemala. His words were moving, as he told of a people that struggle to maintain a system of government that doesn't quite fit them as a community. He spoke of villages where the children too young to go to school would offer their help to women who were expecting. They would place their hands on her belly and talk to the child, who was not considered potential for life, or a fetus, but someone who would someday be a part of their community. He told us to remember that we will not be better people once we leave Guatemala, only people of more experience. That we should use our experience to see what is lacking in our own communities.
We spent each of the next five days serving different groups of people, but love and closeness of community were apparent in all of them. I cannot count the number of times we heard "thank you" or "thank God" or the ostensible lack of complaint. I shadowed Guatemalan doctors, and filled prescriptions, and played with kids unbothered by how hard they had to work or how their drinking water almost constantly made them sick. We worked through double translations and cultural differences and trying to come to terms with the fact that we left each day having taken more than we had given; we took lessons of simplicity and joy and love.
The people we met were not angry or resentful, only sorry that we had to provide what their government did not. While there are both private and free, public hospitals in Guatemala, the former is far too expensive an option, and the latter often requires several appointments with different physicians in cities too far away. That the people we worked with were willing to take just one day off of work to see us was impressive. Some only resorted to clinics like ours when their traditional, herbal medicines failed.
Throughout the week I couldn't help but be reminded of the words of the anthropologist, who said to use our experiences to see the needs in our own communities. I couldn't help but see the faces of the homeless men and women that I had worked with throughout the school year. Those men and women had far greater access to health services than the people of Guatemala, but they always came to our medical van. Most of the time they just came to talk. It is obvious that they suffered not from a lack of healthcare, but a lack of the sense of love and community that is so abundant in Guatemala.
It is difficult for me to summarize everything I learned from the people of Guatemala. It is a beautiful, and profoundly, humanly connected place. I hope that what I have left out in this entry can be supplemented by the photos I have posted below. I left out any pictures of me or those I traveled with, and any specific photos of Guatemalan people were taken with permission from both the children and their parents.