The One About Xela

Having completed my first week here, including a full day of simply wandering around the streets of Xela, I figure it’s time to share a glimpse of my life here (minus school, which I’ll talk more about later this week after I’ve had my first clinic). So, without further ado, here’s Xela in pictures!

My Xela home!

My Xela home!

My room in Xela.

My room in Xela.

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Typical street in Xela

Parque Central!

Parque Central!

Main Cathedral

Main Cathedral

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Because why wouldn’t you hang advertisements on the old beautiful church?

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Just a pretty building we found…

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La Democracia – a bustling, colorful market that sells anything you can imagine, including avocados bigger than my hand!

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“Almuerzo economico” – Saturday’s lunch special!

Chicken buses!

Chicken buses!

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Walmart really is everywhere..

View from Panorama - a restaurant overlooking the whole city!

View from Panorama – a restaurant overlooking the whole city!

Tomorrow will be my first actual clinic here, now that we’ve had several days of teaching on Mayan medicine and tropical diseases. More on that soon!

Until then,

K

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The One Where I Used a Machete

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to join my school on one of its social missions: to build safe stoves for the families of rural Guatemala. In many homes, families are cooking over open fires, which is problematic for a multitude of reasons. There’s the obvious fire hazard, along with the threat of respiratory disease due to smoke inhalation, and also the less obvious fact that an open fire doesn’t allow control of the heat, so much of it is lost, requiring more wood or other fuel to cook the same amount of food.

My school channels much of its tuition into buying the supplies for these stoves, and the students volunteer to provide the labor once per week.

The day began with my first chicken bus ride!

 

I have yet to take a good picture of a chicken bus myself, so here’s a stock photo!

Basically, a chicken bus is a school bus clad in colorful designs or cartoon characters jam-packed with native Guatemalans in local dress. I was kind of bummed because the one that we took was unfortunately just plain yellow, but I have to admit I never thought I’d be riding a school bus again!

As the bus headed farther and farther outside of the city, the change in socioeconomic status was visible. The scenery transformed from colorful storefronts and houses to dilapidated sheds without doors in fields of dust:DSCN1208 DSCN1209

Our group of four arrived at a small little home barely larger than my bedroom in the US, which was home to a couple and their three sons, ranging in age from 1-6 years old. There were stacks of concrete bricks, sand, and concrete mix waiting for us, but we almost immediately ran into a problem: the family did not have a water source in their home.

Upon venturing across the neighborhood a few times to refill buckets of water at a neighbor’s house, we got to work: soaking the bricks so they would adhere to the cement. Mixing cement. Stacking the bricks in a precisely measured and leveled rectangle.

And my favorite job: chopping apart concrete bricks with a machete.

My handiwork!

My handiwork!

In the end, we’d made this:

Our stage 1 stove! There are two more stages to be completed in weeks to come!

Our stage 1 stove! There are two more stages to be completed in weeks to come!

There’s no doubt that the extreme poverty of this family was striking, but what stood out even more is their generosity. While six year olds in America have no qualms asking for a laundry list of items for Christmas, the six year old in this house divided his single cookie into five parts: one for himself and each of four volunteers.

Why is it that people with nothing share so willingly, while people with everything hold on tight?

The One Lost in Translation

I can almost guarantee you this situation is happening in some hospital, somewhere, with some patient: the medical team walks in, asks a few simple questions in English, and gets the correct answers. The team then proceeds to explain the entire treatment plan in English, assuming that if the patient can respond to basic questions, they must have a grasp of the entire language.

My experiences this week have made me acutely aware of how dangerous this situation can actually be. When speaking to Guatemalans, I can demonstrate a reasonable grasp of Spanish, and often receive responses that are far more complex than I can fully understand. Sometimes, I just get the general gist of things. Other times, I make incorrect assumptions and miss the point altogether. Or worse, I may not have even the slightest idea what was said, but don’t feel comfortable enough (or can’t remember the words!) to ask them to slow down. But typically, I’m only trying to buy a bus ticket or understand my host brother’s new job, so a few words lost in translation are usually not a huge deal.

But when explaining a cancer diagnosis or the risks and benefits of a surgery, losing words in translation is not an option we can afford. I have no doubt there are patients for whom English is a struggle, but they may be too embarrassed or respectful to interrupt to remind us that they can only handle the basics. No wonder patients have difficulty complying with treatments, or even articulating what exactly their medical problems are.

Though I came to Guatemala to learn Spanish via cultural immersion, this trip is also a firsthand experience confirming the importance of using interpreters, avoiding assumptions, and checking to ensure patients are understanding their providers, regardless of language.

The One with the Mayan Ruin

Yesterday, I was awake for 20 hours straight, a feat reminiscent of my surgery rotation. But at least this time, there was no pre-rounding, no vitals to be recorded, and no scrubbing into operations.

This time, I was waking up at 2:30 AM for this:DSCN1112

Even though it was cloudy (apparently normally, it’s also really foggy), there was something incredible about sitting at the top of a Mayan temple watching the sky change colors over the trees, with a chorus of colorful birds and howler monkeys around you. (Howler monkeys are unbelievably loud!!)

And thus began our trip to Tikal, an impressive Mayan ruin situated in northern Guatemala. If the above scene seems vaguely familiar, it’s because a similar shot is featured in Star Wars Episode IV… awesome!

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The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (R) and the Necropolis, as viewed from atop Temple II, all within the main plaza.

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Temple III, which you’re allowed to climb via steep steps that are far too high for short legs, but I climbed anyway!

Those are MY hands. Holding a tarantula. And nothing terrible happened.

Those are MY hands. Holding a tarantula. And nothing terrible happened.

These sprawling ruins are the remains of what was once the capital of a booming Mayan civilization, and features six very large temples among a collection of causeways, plazas, and the acropolis. Three restored temples may be climbed, while most other structures are closed to the public, although, shhh!: our guide let us step into one of the palaces, where we were greeted by bats!

After a long morning of exploring the ruins, we were grateful for a relaxing evening in beautiful Flores, a charming island town just an hour away from the ruins. How freaking cute is it?!

We stayed at Hotel Mirador del Lago - Viewpoint of the Lake!

We stayed at Hotel Mirador del Lago – Viewpoint of the Lake!

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Parque Central de Flores

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All of the buildings are so colorful!

Tonight, I take off for Guatemala City and will catch a morning bus up to Xela, where I’ll make my home for the next four weeks. I’m so excited to meet my host family, visit the medical clinic I’ll be working in, and start really learning Spanish!

Until then,

K

The One With the Guatemalan Paradise

I’m covered in bruises and scrapes, to the point that it even hurts to sit.

And it was SO WORTH IT. I mean, look at this place:

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Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever gotten to visit, and my day here was absolutely incredible.

We climbed slippery rock steps for 40 minutes to reach this viewpoint:DSCN1039

Then we jumped, swam, and slid down waterfalls in this gorgeous water:DSCN10681

We took a tour of the Kan’ba Caves, which was simultaneously awesome and terrifying. We were provided hand-held candles for lighting and climbed down a rickety ladder into the water below. At times, we were treading water with our candle hand held high, and at other times, we were clenching the candle in our teeth as we climbed a waterfall via a rope ladder. I think the most terrifying part, however, was when we had to drop into a hole with a waterfall pouring in and no view of the other side… just lower yourself, take a breath, and drop! (No pictures, because I wasn’t risking my camera in the cave, but click here to see the Google images…)

But we ended our day of adventure with the ultimate in lazy river rides, and cruised down the river in tubes.

Easily one of the most incredible days of my life. And tomorrow, it’s on to Flores so we can visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal!

Until then,

K

The One Where I Resurfaced in Guatemala

Oh, hey.

Yes, I’ve been incredibly neglectful of this sad little blog for months, and for that, I apologize. However, turns out it takes up a lot of time to travel across the country to interview with eighteen different residency programs. But the good news is, my rank list is completed and certified, and I will hopefully be matching in (drumroll, please!) Combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics come March.

But we can talk about that later. The more exciting news is that I’m typing this from here:

Lanquin

…in beautiful Lanquin, Guatemala, a little town in the eastern portion of Guatemala well-visited by tourists because of its proximity to Semuc Champey, a gorgeous natural wonder which I’ll be visiting tomorrow.

Wait, rewind… I guess I should tell you how I got here. I enrolled to participate in a Medical Spanish course at a school at a little town up in the mountains called Xela. I’ll be there for four weeks starting this Sunday, staying with a host family, and embracing some cultural immersion to improve my Spanish, which I’m discovering needs LOTS of work. I’ve been grateful for my travel buddy who has spent two weeks here already and has a much better grasp on the language.

But for now, I’m fumbling through my Spanish and enjoying a week of tourism. I arrived in colorful Antigua on Sunday and spent the evening ambling around the beautiful town. Most of my photos, however, happen to be from early this morning… we had intended to book our bus for 2 PM today so we could enjoy a leisurely walking tour of the city, so when we discovered late last night that we’d miscommunicated and booked 8 AM, the only option was to wake up at 5:30 AM and enjoy a sunrise tour of Antigua. We weren’t disappointed:

One of Antigua's charming, colorful streets.

One of Antigua’s charming, colorful streets.

Inside the Las Capuchinas convent... because they'd left the door open at 7 AM, so we let ourselves in...

Inside the Las Capuchinas convent… because they’d left the door open at 7 AM, so we let ourselves in…

Nuestra Senora de la Merced

Nuestra Senora de la Merced

I just can't get over this archway with the mountain in the background. Gorgeous.

I just can’t get over this archway with the mountain in the background. Gorgeous.

The other highlight of my (three-day) trip thus far? Hiking Volcan de Pacaya. The ascent was PAINFUL (and my legs are still sore), but the incredible views were totally worth it!!

An incredible view...

An incredible view…

This view negated any doubt that the trip to the volcano was worth it.

This view negated any doubt that the trip to the volcano was worth it.

Some areas are so hot from the lava below that you can roast marshmallows...

Some areas are so hot from the lava below that you can roast marshmallows…

Volcan de Pacaya itself.

Volcan de Pacaya itself.

At the top of the world...

At the top of the world…

But for now, necesito practicar mi espanol! Hasta la vista!

K