We landed in Oklahoma City just after noon on Sunday, ending my week-long trek with the medical missionaries. I decided to hold off a little bit on posting the final blog so I could reflect some on the experience.
Throughout this week I have tried to tell the story of a group of medical missionaries working in Guatemala. Along the way I experienced what they did, I was with them when they became the first medical team in Las Lomas and Joyabaj. I worked alongside them in Xepocol. I did my best to tell their story.
In some cases, I don’t think I did it justice.
Just like it’s impossible to experience Greece vicariously through a Travel Channel show, it’s not possible to truly capture the experience with words and photos. There’s a lot more to a story like this than just explaining what they do or how many patients they saw.
It consists of the local ministers tearfully thanking you for traveling where no other group had been willing to up to that point. It’s receiving a gift a small box of candy from a child for playing with them, or being hugged by a woman who waited outside in the hot sun for hours to see a doctor.
It’s the home-cooked meal in a place where they don’t even speak your language made by people who have never met you. It’s the realization that some of these people have never seen a doctor before, that some of those you just didn’t have time to see might never have another chance to see a doctor.
The people we saw in Guatemala work hard for as long as they can. From the time they’re little children they will carry loads that, if they were in a school child’s backpack here, would draw complaints from parents. But these children aren’t going to school, they’re carrying crops to and from fields or are bringing goods to markets.
They were tough, able to tolerate more pain than I know I could.
To us, the mountains and forests and lakes are pictures you’d expect to find on motivational posters. To them they’re tools for everyday life, soil to grow crops or roads to climb three times a week for firewood.
It’s hard to express what it’s like to be some place. I might be able to describe the environment, like how crop fields are planted on steep angles on the side of mountains or how a person might pick the fruit of a tree fresh every day for a meal, and I could even show pictures of these things, but it’s not a substitute for tasting the corn roasted and brushed with the juice of the lime.
These sensory experiences aren’t something you can replicate behind a computer, they’re something you have to experience in person. That’s not to say I think I did a bad job, but there’s just no real substitute for being there.
The Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo
Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Seeing it in person is absolutely astounding.
I’ve been told they call the region Gringotenega, or land of the Gringos, because it’s such a big tourist destination. It’s easy to tell why, when people sit around on the streets begging, it’s probably because there are a lot of tourists around. When children follow people for blocks trying to sell them dolls and stuffed toys, you know you’re in a tourist town.
When you sit in a lake view restaurant with a cheeseburger on the menu and Hotel California on the speakers, you know you’re in a tourist town.
We landed in Panajachel and took a boat across Lake Atitlan. The water was clear in two shades of blue. Surrounding the lake are forest-covered volcanoes, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro, around which clouds wrap around in whisps. . In the towns, shops and stalls of textiles, wooden carvings, fruit, food and anything you can find in most tourist markets across the country. You can see patchwork green fields, quilt-like in look, where the land is being cultivated.
It’s easy to see why tourists flock to this place. The scenery is incredible with monstrous trees and a multihued bunches of flowers. Textiles of every shade of blues, greens, reds, pinks or any color of the visible spectrum fill stalls. Paintings, especially of the lake, are common, as are detailed wooden masks that are more creepy than practical. We saw what we thought was jade traveling through Atitlan, but if it was jade, it was drastically underpriced. At the Jade Museum in Antigua, the prices were in dollars rather than Quetzals and the prices were much higher.
The phrase “you get what you pay for” comes to mind, and the likelihood that the cheap jade in the market may not be the real thing increased.
Boats, both of the speed and the cruising variety, take passengers across the lake. You can see locals rowing wooden canoes to fish for tilapia. I imagine you could spend months, if not years, on the lake and still be exploring it.
And if you look like tourists, you would probably have Guatemalan children following you every step of the way to sell you bracelets or stuffed toys.
We arrived at Antigua late and were greeted by some sort of street festival. Men, women and children all marched down the street behind a truck carrying a pair of stereos. They were wearing masks designed to look like old faces and danced in the middle of the street as a light rain fell.
That’s not something you’d see in Oklahoma.
Father Stanley Rother left his heart in Guatemala.
His body is in Okarche, but his heart is in Guatemala, buried underneath the chapel in Atitlan.
Rother was assigned to Guatemala in 1968.
“He was really a good fit there because down there it was rural and a lot of people farm. And so he knew a lot of techniques,” said Rother’s first cousin, Harold Wittrock.
Among his many accomplishments at the parish in Santiago Atitlan was the translation of the New Testament into the local Mayan language.
“It seemed like every time he began something that would help the people where they would advance, all of a sudden the government didn’t like that because they liked to keep the people poor,” Wittrock said.
In January in 1981, Rother was accosted on the streets of Guatemala City. He was told he was on the death list and should leave the country immediately. He left, but knew he couldn’t stay away for long.
“My people need me,” he said to an archbishop. “I can’t stay away from them any longer.”
“When he was here the last time, he just wasn’t happy. That was his family down there and the people were his family and they really admired him,” Wittrock said.
Rother returned to Guatemala in April. While he was there, he said that several hundred Guatemalan troops were camped at the edge of his parish in Santiago Atitlan.
After midnight on July 28, assassins entered the rectory and shot Rother twice in the head.
“If Stan would have been quiet and did his job and not confronted them, then he would have probably been OK. But Father Stan came from a father who was very outspoken,” Wittrock said.
The canonization process for Rother began in 2007. If accepted, he would be the first Oklahoman who became a saint. But at the end of his life, Rother connected more with his Guatemalan family than his Oklahoma family.
When the people of the Santiago Atitlan requested that his heart remain in Guatemala, his family allowed it.
So even though Father Rother’s body is in Oklahoma, his heart will always be in Guatemala.
Our last clinic day was on Friday. We returned to the church at Xepocol in the morning to find the area packed with women and children waiting to get in.
None of our group missed the trip this day. There had been some sort of 24-hour virus that affected a few people on the team, including our dentist and physician, but everyone had recovered and we all were there for our last work day.
Both offices found themselves tested throughout the day. Bill Brewer, our dentist, had with several wisdom tooth extractions. Some parents brought their children to him wanting permanent teeth pulled. He saved the ones he could and advised others that the teeth only needed fillings in town. I was with him for much of the morning, but fortunately I didn´t find myself nauseous like I was before. I even managed to help him pull one of the teeth.
Matt Crespo, our physician, saw a teenager with a heart murmur that he knew he couldn’t help. He knew they needed to see a specialist, but said when a family has problems seeing a regular physician, they´re not likely to see a cardiologist. Another young girl had jaundice and an enlarged liver. He talked to the pastor about trying to get her into a specialist in town. A woman came to him with congestive heart failure. He prescribed her some medicaiton, but she´ll need to try to see a specialist.
Outside, the children descended on the toys like ants on a dropped piece of food as soon as they were handed out. If there is something I’ve learned about Guatemalan children, it’s that they are usually very happy. If there is something else I’ve learned about Guatemalan children, it’s that they can be rather sly.
I imagine that’s why Guatemalan children are out in full force trying to sell things to in markets in the country. I imagine they are pretty successful at it. Whenever we passed out toys, children would run off to hide the toys they had and get back in line, pretending that they hadn’t received any.
Still, there were plenty of toys handed out and children weren’t left wanting.
At lunch time I sat in the van in the heat and pulled some food out of the cooler. As I made myself a sandwich a small Guatemalan boy approached us. He was one of the many who had crowded around the toys when we began passing them out earlier in the day. At first, he just sat there, watching us. I smiled at him and asked him his name. He asked me mine and I told him.
With my limited Spanish we were only able to have the briefest of conversations, but as we spoke I began to figure out why he had approached us in the van instead of waiting around the toys like the other children.
I made him a ham and cheese sandwich.
He smiled and thanked me, taking the sandwich. I don’t know why, of all the things that happened throughout the trip, that moment stuck out to me, but it did.
Everyone was exhausted when it was time to leave. After five days of waking up at 6 a.m. and long bus rides on bumpy dirt roads to villages where hot dust filled the air, it was hard not to wear on you. But no matter how tired anyone was, there was still sadness. Dog tired or not, everyone had enjoyed the trip. While the days may have seemed long, time seems to have a way of going by faster after the fact.
We make arrangements for what to do with the left over toys and medicine. The medicine will be given to a local clinic near Chichicastenango while the toys will be given to a local church and the children at Hogar Del Niño.
Tomorrow we leave Chichicastenango to travel to Atitlan for our last full day in Guatemala. While there, we will try to visit the site where Father Stanley Rother, a missionary from Okarche, Oklahoma, was killed in 1981. We fly out of Guatemala early Sunday, back for Oklahoma.
A few years ago, a 12-year-old girl ended up in the Hogar Del Niño orphanage. Her father was in prison and her stepmother was abusive, so she ran away to live on the streets. She was found by a police officer and eventually ended up in the home.
A 6-year-old boy was abandoned in the home after his aunt and mother said they didn’t want him. One young man has spent about 12 years of his life in the home. He’s now studying to become a teacher and hopes to become a doctor.
There are more than a dozen children in the home, most have been abandoned. From a young boy who was left in the park shortly after being born to a 10-year-old girl who was left in a police station. They have found a home at Hogar Del Niño.
“We receive children that are usually sent by a judge, either orphans, abandoned. They come out from families with violence or children that have been abandoned at a hospital,” said Lydia Garcia, who runs the orphanage.
The Oklahoma Connection
We arrived at the building in Lemoa, Guatemala on a clear Thursday afternoon. Several girls from the local community were standing outside, giggling as we drove up. Bill Brewer had talked about Garcia several times before. He knows her well.
The native Guatemalan was a translator for missionary groups before she got a scholarship from Oklahoma City University.
Garcia graduated in 1994, majoring in psychology. When she returned to Guatemala, she began to volunteer at the orphanage and took over last year when the director moved on.
At the orphanage children are surrounded by trees. Pears and limes are ripening on trees behind the building and the children help take care of the animals. Chickens and turkeys help feed the children and they sell some of the produce.
Garcia was all smiles when we walked in, showing off the classroom where they help kids with their homework. In the back, a small apartment had been built so volunteers have a place to stay.
The children who are there at the time are all smiles, a trait common for Guatemalan children, apparently even those who don’t have a family. I smile at one girl who is doing her chores. She says “Hello” to me, something that caught me off guard.
The children are put into private school and are even taught some English, two things not common in this part of the country. The six paid staff run and operate the orphanage from donations and money they can make selling produce from the outside garden. The children help where they can, doing chores and learning to take care of the animals.
The orphanage was founded in the 1980s by the National Methodist Church of Santa Cruz Del Quiche. The civil war in Guatemala had taken its toll and many children had been left orphans. Since then, private donations, including several large donations from the US, including several from Methodist churches in Tennessee, has made Hogar Del Niño into what it is today.
The practice of allowing foreign couples to adopt Guatemalan children was stopped by the Guatemalan government, although at least one of the children who was adopted in the past few years went to a family in Tennessee. Garcia said that was because the paperwork had been filed before hand. She also said that she is hopeful that the government will begin to allow it again.
More and more I’m amazed at how happy the children we have met on our journeys seem to be. It doesn’t matter where they are or what they have or don’t have. We didn’t see all the children at the orphanage, likely because some were still off at school for the day, but what we did see was something special. The orphanage gave the children an education and opportunity a lot of the other children we saw wouldn’t have. Despite what they had been through, they all seemed happy for it.
Today was a half-day in Xepocol, a mere half-hour drive from our base at Chichicastenango. It was market day in Chichicastenango and the crowds were much smaller for the clinic, but it was still a busy day for Bill Brewer.
Brewer’s day began early. A 15-year-old girl came in with four rotted front teeth. In his words, he had to take her smile away. I stood to his side and held a flashlight as he worked.
The decision to pull the teeth was never one he’d make at home, Brewer said. “That’s what a lot of people at home don’t understand.”
He gave the girl anesthetic and began to work. I was fine at that point. He began to pull the teeth, dropping them into a nearby wastebasket. Whether it was the bleeding gums or the heat or the visual of Brewer’s hands in the young girl’s mouth, I began to feel nauseous. I had to pass off the flashlight to Jay Hines, an old hand who had worked with Bill on three missions trips already, and sat down.
The patient was stronger than I was. She didn’t even flinch as her teeth were pulled.
“Welcome to the world of bush dentistry,” Brewer said.
The next patient was the same, although her teeth didn’t look as bad. I was able to watch as Brewer took out her four front teeth without getting queasy. That was more than could be said for her, she got dizzy and had to sit down.
I’m not afraid of dentists, but when I went under the knife for wisdom tooth surgery, I made sure I wasn’t conscious for it. When a Guatemalan woman in her 30′s walked into the concrete room with a rotten wisdom tooth, she not only didn’t flinch, she laughed when it was over.
According to Brewer, after what they had been through, having a teeth pulled was nothing.
Pulling teeth is all we really could do, but for a population that doesn’t place a lot of concern on dental care, getting a tooth removed can mean the end to years of pain.
When a 13-year-old boy walked in with a cavity in his first permanent tooth, the lack of concern became more apparent. Brewer tried to reason with the boy’s father that he could get the tooth filled in town, but the father insisted on having it removed.
“It’s not something I’d recommend on my own family,” Brewer tried to tell the father, who respondedby saying he was more worried about the filling falling out.
“It frustrates a guy. You try to save teeth all your life and have to take out one I could save,” Brewer said.
In the US, a filling wouldn’t have been difficult and family probably wouldn’t have been so adamant about having the tooth pulled. For that moment I shared the frustration. Coming from a country where dental hygiene is rather common, the idea of being happy that teeth were yanked out is foreign to me.
The boy smiled and shook our hands when it was over. In the end, he was being treated for pain. In Guatemala, that was more important.
You learn a lot about a country by experiencing the culture in the city. You learn a lot more by traveling through it.
In the cities and anywhere else tourists gather, like the popular Restaurante Katok between Guatemala City and Chichicastenango, you see a population full of vendors. T-Shirts, wooden toys, dolls, bead and jade jewelry and fruit can be found without any struggle. You’ll also find a fair share of American goods, goods purchased and resold from other cities, pretty much anything you set your mind to. Children call out “Fruta” to passers-by in hopes of selling their cheap wares, unless they’re experienced enough to walk between where you’re going and ask you personally. Step out of the gas station near a major city and you’re sure to be approached by a man selling bootleg DVD’s or a woman selling baskets.
But ride the buses, most of which are old American school buses bought cheaply and driven to Guatemala, in any direction and you’ll see a different story. You’ll see homes of cinderblocks and sheet metal with garages consisting of wooden posts and a blue tarp. In the Sierra Madres you’ll see people walking across the mountain roads without shoes carrying bundles of firewood on their heads. You’ll see emaciated dogs and cows walking freely and eating whatever they can find.
But even in rural Guatemala the commercial is prevalent. Copyright enforcement seems to be nonexistent, so Winnie the Poo or Sonic the Hedgehog of the remodeled American buses is common, as is seeing Porky Pig shilling pork rinds. Companies hang banners for cell phone ads along the road, but they also paint advertisements onto houses, freestanding walls and even rocks, although they’ll have to compete for space with political parties.
Behind all of it in southwest Guatemala is the brilliant mountain scenery. Fields of corn hang on the sides of mountains and everything from pine trees to bamboo to cactus can be seen in the fields. For the traveler, seeing a banner advertising cell phone plans for gringos, amigos and extremos right next to a farm that has been active for more than a hundred years can seem odd. For Guatemalans, it just seems like a way of life.
Vacation this year – with the consent of my indulgent husband – was to involve a road trip of nearly 1,600 miles to see the Mall of America in Minnesota.
But when we got the news that our dog has cancer and needs lots of pills, a “staycation” in Oklahoma City was in order. We knew there were plenty of things we hadn’t gotten around to trying.
Our first stop was Oklahoma History Center, with a bargain entry fee of $5 (unless you’re a senior citizen or a student, and then it’s cheaper).
The center, which is across NE 23 from the Governor’s mansion, has a gorgeous view of the state capitol from an atrium that displays a replica of Wiley Post’s airplane, the Winnie Mae.
We studied displays from the early days of television in Oklahoma City, including Danny Williams’ Adventures of 3-D Danny show; a video game that lets you try drilling for oil; a space capsule salvaged from the Gemini program; and a tent mounted atop a vintage car that – so they say – slept four.
Next came a trip to Remington Park, where we ate too much at the casino buffet and played a little video poker.
At the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, my husband enjoyed the firearms displays; I liked the sculptures and bronzes.
A couple days later we were among the thousands who headed downtown for the American Idols Live concert at the Ford Center. Dinner beforehand was at Falcone Pizza and Deli, where (who knew?) you can get a chocolate egg cream to drink. (Hint: It’s a fizzy New York treat that doesn’t involve any egg.)
The next day, we lined up at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art for tickets to view Roman art from the Louvre, on display through Oct. 12. A guard told me that visitors are pretty respectful of the priceless sculptures, some of which date to the time of Christ. Nevertheless, he said, some people can’t resist the temptation to touch.
Lunch was at Pops in Arcadia (5 miles east of Interstate 35 on State Highway 66). We ordered thick burgers and picked out bottles of grape and black cherry pop. The bottle opener in my husband’s pocketknife came in handy.
Having trouble choosing a root beer? A manager knows the finer points of each brand. There’s a wide variety of other soda, including birch beer, sarsaparilla and even diet chocolate soda.
We bought a bottle of Green River soda for my mother, who remembers it from her childhood. And believe me, it’s scarily green.
At week’s end, we hadn’t run out of things to do. Riding the boat on the Oklahoma River is at the top of our list of things to do next time.
- Chris Schutz, staff writer