In the village of San Jacinto, as in much of rural Guatemala, the streets are paved with hexagonal cobblestones and are lined with small tiendas, selling everything from toothpaste to tamales. Here and there, people have tied their livestock, and as we walk along, we see a big goat nibbling the weeds beside a church. When we look closer, we see that he is technically tethered to a tiny boy whose job it is, apparently, to hold the end of the tether and follow the goat. He tries valiantly to pull the goat away from the weeds and back to its grassless lot, but the goat outweighs him by about 250%, so goat and kid amble down the street.
Compared to lots of things, this is civilization as we know it. All 41 of us walk through town in the bright morning, ready to have a clinic that doesn’t require hours of uncomfortable transportation. We have a fifteen minute stroll while our equipment rides down in style in Robert’s pickup truck. What could go wrong?
Our last clinic day was spent in a gymnasium, where we saw hundreds of patients and where one of the students, Paul, got to do surgery on a guy stretched out in the bleachers.
This was not exactly Paul’s idea. The patient came in complaining of a bullet. Not a bullet wound–that had happened two years previously. Now he just had a bullet lodged in his side, and he was tired of it. It was a bothersome bullet.
As it happens, we had some lidocaine, some betadyne, a scalpel, and a flat surface, so about an hour later, Paul had the bullet, the guy had some stitches, and we had some photos that I am not, after all, going to post. Sorry for getting your hopes up. We went on to inject knees with steroids, pull massive amounts of wax out of ears, and learn some universal truths. One of these is that patients in Guatemala do not like hearing the “lose weight and exercise” message any more than American patients do. Another is, you cannot look into the ears of a screaming two year old unless his mother is willing to grab him, which she isn’t. Possibly a third thing is that a screaming two year old in a gym is a lot of screaming. Joining in will not help all that much. A fourth thing is that someone always wants to cut line because (s)he is too important to wait like everybody else. This person never wants to accept “just-like-everybody-else” status, and may also scream.
So it was a hot, noisy, bodily-fluids-intensive kind of day, and it seemed to go on forever. The bleachers were magic bleachers; they never emptied of people. It seemed that we had justas many at four o’clock as we had at one, and just as many at one as we had at nine. We started to run out of medicines, but finally, at almost six p.m., we were running out of patients, too.
Remember that it gets dark early and suddenly in the tropics. The reason for this is the direct angle of the sun — at our latitude in Virginia, sunlight grazes the earth for a while before the orb of the sun lifts into the sky. In the tropics, the angle is more acute, and the sun pops up without much fanfare — and pops down, too. It’s dark by 6:30. Exhausted, dehydrated people are loading tables, equipment, and the pharmacy bags into the back of Robert’s truck, and some of them have begun the uphill walk to Songs of Joy. Robert gets in the truck and . . .
We have gone all over these mountains in ancient and terrifying Toyota vans, cattle trucks, and chicken buses. We have come home in the dark with no headlights. We have pounded our spines into our eyeballs on jump seats only slightly softer than volcanic necks. What we haven’t done is had the slightest mechanical malfunction . . . until now.
The truck will not start. Manly types wallow around under the hood and on the cobblestones under the truck. They try this and that, including some sort of mechanical magic that is supposed to convince a starter to work. Nada. So, half a mile from home, exhausted and dehydrated people get behind the truck and, yes, push it all the way up the hill to Songs of Joy. It is entirely possible that San Jacinto has never seen a bunch of gringos pushing a truck full of equipment up a hill, so the village turned out (again) to watch, even the goat.
Our time is done. Tomorrow we will leave at five a.m. for Guatemala City and Antigua. On Saturday, the miracle of air travel will fling us from G.C. to Washington, D.C., in fewer hours than it took us to get to Songs of Joy by bus. We leave behind some medicines, some gifts, some memories — oh, and the image of a ten-gringopower pickup truck, rolling along the cobbles of San Jacinto.