I hadn’t slept a wink on my midnight flight to Guatemala. By the time the plane began to descend around 5:00 am, I could barely process what was happening or where I was going. I looked out my window at the dark silhouettes of mountains, some topped with glowing lava, and the scattered lights of small towns in the countryside, trying to wrap my head around what lay ahead. My grogginess quickly went away after some sleep and delicious Atostado expertly prepared by my host Angela. However, three weeks after arriving in Tecpan, it is still difficult to process all that has happened in such a short time.
Every morning I wake up wondering what is in store, and every night I fall asleep desperately trying to remember every detail of the day – new people, places, words, and questions for the future. One day, I am at a diabetes clinic in a farm town at the end of a dirt road. Susanna and Carol, the two nurses I am shadowing, patiently instruct me as I fumble with the arm strap to measure blood pressure. Luckily the patients are all very kind and wait quietly as I place the strap around their arm. While I have only just arrived, and am sitting in on very personal conversation, they are relaxed, welcoming, and often talkative. Over years of visits, Susanna and Carol have built a bond of trust with their patients that has spilled over to me. The next day, I am invited on house visits with Magaly. We walk from home to home along green coffee fields, to perform checkups on toddlers under two years old. After greeting the mothers, we weigh each child to ensure they are growing at a healthy rate. Many of our young patients look at us with suspicion as soon as we enter the house, not wanting to be placed in the scale. While the process is short and painless, they protest loudly until it is over. Once back in the arms of their mothers, their tears quickly disappear and they are soon playing with their siblings. After a full day of meeting with families, I return home to the host family I’m still getting to know.
It is around 5:30 in the morning when my host mother Angela taps lightly on my door to let me know it is time to do the laundry. I jump out of bed, quickly throw on some clothes, and carry my basket of laundry out to the wash tub. Angela has been very kind to me in the few days that I have stayed in her home and I am eager to help out and become self-sufficient. I watch intently as she takes a shirt and sets it in the wash tub, applying soap, then scrubbing, then rinsing. Her hands move nimbly and in no time my shirt is clean. Now it’s my turn. I grab a shirt and awkwardly apply the soap, trying to remember the order of applying, scrubbing, flipping, and rinsing. After a few minutes of struggling Angela stops me. “No tengas pena Brian, yo la puedo lavar. Mejor regresas a dormir.” Don’t worry Brian I can do this. Why don’t you just go back to sleep. I try feebly to argue but Angela is insistent and eventually I concede to return to my room feeling slightly embarrassed and guilty. As a 23-year-old adult, I feel that I should be able to wash my own clothes, and certainly don’t want someone else to go through the inconvenience of doing it for me. I promise myself that next time, I will do better. While I try to doze off again, firecrackers can already be heard on the street foreshadowing a day of festivities.
It is almost Guatemalan Independence Day and Tecpan is abuzz with celebration. It is difficult to walk more than a block without running into a parade, complete with multiple marching bands, floats, and gymnasts constructing human towers. Children run through the streets blowing whistles and mortars explode high in the air with a puff of smoke followed shortly by an earsplitting boom. Steven, another volunteer, and I run to the ruins of Iximche on the outskirts of town. Upon arriving, we meet with a local church group who are hosting a Carrera de Torchas. The group will run to the Central Park of Tecpan carrying flaming torches like olympians. The runners range from children under five, blowing on whistles, to mothers with babies in hand. A car blaring music leads the way and more follow behind ready to offer a ride to those who need it. As the run progresses darkness falls. The only light comes from the runners’ torches, and the distant flashes of lightning. As we approach the city center, runners begin to chant; GUA-TE-MALA GUA-TE-MALA. As we arrive in the park the torch carriers gather together and lift their flames in celebration.
It has been difficult for my senses to keep up with the wide variety of experiences and emotions I have gone through since arriving in Tecpan. The constant stimulation of different foods, languages, and places all within a small part of Guatemala has been overwhelming. Similarly, my emotions have bounced between embarrassed, happy, lonely, excited and exhausted. I sometimes find myself frustrated at my own limited ability to absorb every moment of this experience. But during the instances of talking to my host mother at dinner, playing Jenga with my host siblings on the floor, and many others throughout the day, I feel incredibly grateful to be here and excited to contribute to the community I have found.
Brian McNamara, Development Coordinator and Research Fellow