There are a number of phrases that never come up in conversational Spanish classes. “Do you have worms?” is one that I never used, even in college. No one ever taught me to ask “How many times each day do you urinate?” either, or “Are you pregnant?” I think, looking back, that those classes would have been a lot more interesting had they included that stuff, but that is beside the point.
For the last two days, we have been working in mountain villages to the southwest of the city of Chiquimula. When I say mountain, I mean enormous volcanic ridges, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They are monstrous backbones of black rock, covered in scrubby trees or nothing at all.
And the villages are everywhere. A mountainside that looks completely desolate will, on examination, reveal a woman with several children, gathering bundles of firewood. A hillside so steep it seems to fall straight down will contain a drift of corrugated-tin houses, connected by well-worn paths. People live in every corner of the mountains, some of them in villages so poor that Chiquimula might as well be the moon – the people will never be able to afford the carfare for a trip.
On Monday, our first “real” clinic was in a village two hours away. That seems like a long way, but here distance and time relate differently. The roads are narrow, steep, and often in disrepair. The ancient Toyota vans that serve as taxis here (and that haul us up and down mountains) can usually only go about ten or fifteen miles an hour. Twenty miles an hour is a cracking pace. Things are complicated by the charming “tumulos,” or speed bumps, that serve as enforcers for speed limits in populated areas. Hit one of those wrong, and you will leave pieces of Toyota in the trees.
The vans’ owners make their livings on taxi trips, so they cherish their vehicles. Okay, none of them have working door locks, or windows, or, in the terrifying case of ours on Monday, headlights, but they run, and the drivers are excellent. And this is good, because we are not going to the corner 7-11, campers.
Yesterday, we drove a very long way on very bad roads, only to turn onto something that looked like a farm track. It led down a steep mountainside to a wide field, where we left the vehicles and hauled our stuff by hand up a short, steep track to a village. It was utterly invisible from below, but we realized later that the whole area was full of houses, hidden under the banana trees. We are not in Virginia anymore.
Today we had a clinic much closer, only an hour away, and not off the paved road. Tomorrow, we will travel by cattle truck (standing room only) to an area a couple of hours away. Yes, this is my life. I ride for hours in scary vehicles on scary roads so I can sit in the sun for hours, asking people if they have worms.
But the thing is, the people come, down the mountain paths, across amazing distances, on foot with old women and babies, to see the doctors. Can we help them? A little bit, and for a little while. What we give them that is more important than pills for parasites, though, is hope, an awareness that they are not forgotten.
These villagers are Mayan. They are on the very bottom of the Guatemalan social and economic spectrum.Somehow these bright-eyed, laughing children grow up to become men and women with blank faces and sad eyes. We tell them that someone cares, cares enough to do very hard things. Is it fun? Not exactly, and yet again, it is. I feel like a sponge. I promise there will be pictures, but it’s just too hard right now. Try going to Google Images and seeing what you get for “Chiquimula” or “Chiquimula highlands.” And pray for us and for these Mayan people (and the cattle trucks!)