When the sun rises on Guatemala City, the true nature of the city comes with it. In between the staples of North American life, the Taco Bells and the Sherman Williams, is a city of painted cinderblocks, street vendors and beggars. Crowds flock to the square in front of the Presidential Palace where these groups congregate.
The scents of roasted corn and fresh cut fruit permeate the air in the market as vendors shout their inventories to anyone who will listen, and even those who won’t. One man carries a large bag of boiled peanuts while another totes bags of cotton candy. Old women sell baskets while children sell baskets of various fruit. Near the road a man slices the skin off pineapples and sells the cut fruit for about 60 cents. It’s sweet and wet and sticky and a little sticky. A few streets of way under a sign that says Tipicos is the underground market, where hand woven goods meet with various tact types of mass-produced t-shirts. The vendors there act the same, calling out their goods as we walk by. Several say proudly that their goods were made in Atitlan, where we’ll be going on Saturday.
Beggars sat on cardboard outside the large Cathedral de Santiago de Guatemala on another end of the square. Inside, there was a christening and confirmation going on. Outside, in the square, a large stage was being set up for a visit from the most recent Latin America Idol winner. Those stereos duel with a marching band that’s leading a processional for the celebration of a saint.
When we left Guatemala City, it didn’t take long for high rises to give way to the cinderblock slums and automobile salvage yards. Small homes were stacked on each other closer to the city, but as winding mountain roads snaked and hair-pinned northwest to Chichicastenango, homes of brick and scrap wood and sheet metal began to take the place of the cinderblocks.
Driving in Guatemala is like skateboarding down a roller coaster with no harness and no helmet. Buses loaded with people, some hanging on top of the bus, barrel around jackknife turns while swerving around traffic. The road was out in some place where mudslides, the consequence of carving the roads out of the mountains, had washed it away. In some places, the road narrowed to two lanes. Pedestrians, whether children on foot or men on bicycles, traveled the same roads in a way you don’t see too often in the United States. At the end of this treacherous stretch was the city Chichicastenango, a town full of gray one-lane wide cobblestone streets and devoid of the chains that dot Guatemala City.
But the people are the same, which has made Chichicastenengo perhaps even busier of a city than Guatemala. The market may only be open two days a week, but people still line the streets in an attempt to sell whatever they can. The streets are still packed with buses, cars, and any other mode of transportation that can possibly take a person from one place to another.
Most of the streets of Chichicastenango are one lane wide but the natives still drive like an open field. Only now pedestrians are more prone to walk directly in the street. The buildings are concrete or cinderblock and the city can seem quite chaotic at times.
However, the people of Chichi have been like everyone else in Guatemala. They are helpful, understanding and cordial. They run on their own time, a trait that makes it difficult for a person whose life is normally centered on deadlines.
From my limited experience with the two cities, it’s amazing how two cities so different in size and scope can come with the same feeling. The people have, thus far, been friendly and hard-working.
Our next stop is in the mountains. The first village the missionaries will visit is so remote that they haven’t had any medical care in years.
Lightning was still arcing in the sky when our plane traveled through the heavy turbulence into a landing so hard that my father, who was sleeping in the seat next to me, let out a yelp and clenched the seat in front of him.
In Oklahoma, it was just after midnight on Sunday when we landed after long delays in Houston. I stepped off the plane, taking my first steps into Guatemala City.
My first sight was a Playstation 3 set up in the terminal a few steps away from a Pizza Hut.
In many ways, Guatemala City is a lot like any other major city. In the rainy Guatemalan night, or rather really early morning, familiarity was not hard to find. Whether it was the logo of the Volkswagen dealership or the Sherman Williams paint store near the airport or the Burger King that are identical to the stores at home, one could be forgiven for believing they were in the United States. Despite the suitcases of pills and syringes and various other medical implements, the customs agency didn’t examine the suitcases. That was a far cry from what Bill Brewer remembered about the first time he came to Guatemala in 1991. Then, customs wouldn’t let one suitcase of medicine through without searching it, much less 20. Now our customs forms were given a quick glance and we didn’t lose a step as we wheeled them out onto a waiting bus where we met one of our interpreter’s for the trip, Raul.
It’d be easy to look at the flashing fast food signs and find such familiarity, but even in one night the differences started to creep through. I could smell the water even through the persistent rain. I couldn’t tell whether it was sulphur or something else, but it reminded me immediately of the first thing I was told about my trip to Central America. Never drink the water. Even after midnight we could hear the blaring horns of a taco truck as it drove past, its driver unhappy with the speed of the buses’ progress on the street. Dance clubs darted the street view and we had to take a detour to the hotel when we ran into a police blockade. Shortly before we got to the hotel, a man was walking through the street in plain view, his eyes darting around as he held a loaded shotgun in his hands.
Raul told us that such a sight was common, not only in the relative metropolis of Guatemala City, but throughout the country.
“It’s everywhere,” Raul said.
It was well after 1 a.m. when a doorman at the hotel locked the door behind us when a drunk man knocked on the glass and tried to get in. We’re exhausted, but in a few hours we’ll leave, traveling to southwest Guatemala to the city of Chichicastenango where we’ll set up our base for the bulk of the trip.
On Saturday, a group of volunteers will leave Oklahoma City and fly into the Central American country of Guatemala. Their suitcases will be loaded with bottles of medicine, latex gloves, bandages and anything else they can pack along with them. They’re medical missionaries and from through Monday through Friday, they’re going to provide basic health care to natives in rural areas.
Guatemala is located south of Mexico and west of Belize and Honduras in Central America. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are more than 13 million people living in Guatemala, according to the most recent estimates. The average life expectancy is roughly 70 years and the risk of infectious diseases is high. More than half the population is below the poverty line.
That’s part of the population the medical missionaries will be targeting. The group will base out of the city of Chichicastenango in southwestern Guatemala and travel to rural villages to set up clinics. Many of the people they’ll treat have no other access to medical care.
I’ll be with the group, helping out where I can. I’ll be blogging throughout the trip, assuming there’s internet access throughout.
The group consists primarily of medical professionals, a doctor, a dentist, and three nurses. Including me, there are five others making the trek as well.
What’s it going to be like for doctors to provide health care to places without running water or electricity to people who may have no other access to a health care?
Come Monday, I’ll find out.