This post has taken me a long time to write. Every time I come back to it, read the journals, remember the story, and think about my own personal circumstances surrounding the events, I can only write a few sentences at a time. I want to do justice telling these stories not just to me but to all of the people involved. It’s a delicate balance and I sincerely hope I achieve this.
Part of the requirement for my MPH degree was a 400-hour practicum in the field of public health, most commonly with a health agency or nonprofit. During the summer between my two years of grad school I was hired at a small nonprofit called Global HEED, which stands for Health, Education, and Economic Development. It’s a really cool organization with projects in Nepal, Rwanda, and Guatemala. It was founded by a couple of Emory Alumni and at the time was planning expansions to other countries and other programs. Their primary undertaking was the Guatemala program, which recruited and sent college student volunteers from around the country to a small rural community in the mountains of Guatemala to do health education, construction, and other outreach projects. I was hired on as the Director of Guatemala Initiatives.
What this job primarily entailed was to plan, organize, and lead a two-week long summer outreach trip for a group of five volunteers to Calhuitz, Guatemala, a very tiny and very remote village in the northern part of the country. Global HEED had an established relationship with this village and returned a few times a year with new volunteers to maintain ongoing education and building projects. I was to set up a budget, daily agendas, and all of the necessary considerations for this set of volunteers during their trip. The job came down to making sure my crew was safe, happy, and participating in meaningful work. I set about planning flights, taxis, pit stops, lodging, contact points, and projects as best I could from at home the states, using information from past Global HEED trips as a guide. We interviewed and recruited five volunteers from around the country to participate in that summer’s trip.
On August 6, 2010 I flew in a day ahead of the volunteers to Guatemala City to secure our hotel and van driver for the upcoming two-day commute from the capital to our host village. We were in a beautiful split-level inn with a large, open courtyard that all the rooms opened out to. I enjoyed a day there by myself to get a cell phone, meet our driver, and enjoy coffee and plantains on the porch before my volunteers arrived the following day.
I returned to the airport on August 7 to meet my five lieges (haha). I had seen pictures and spoken once on the phone to each of them but this was for all of us the first time really meeting. I did the old hold-up-a-sign-with-your-name-on-it and in a few hours we had everyone together; Sarah, a French student at Emory; Kaylin, a biology student at Stanford; Jessica, a nursing student at Emory; Evan, a physics student at Emory; and Martina, a Spanish student at UPenn. For most of them, this was their first time abroad. For all of them, it was their first experience living and working in a developing nation.
I would like to insert here that working in developing (formerly called “third world”) countries can be a huge challenge physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Many Americans are a bit ignorant about how the rest of the world lives day-to-day, especially outside of the capitals or tourist-fed larger cities of foreign countries. The reality of poverty outside the United States can feel like a slap in the face the first time you see it, and culture shock tends to set in pretty deep pretty fast. This will be a reoccurring theme in this blog, as many of my wildest (and most meaningful) life stories have happened on foreign soil doing the work of public health.
That night we stayed in the inn together, got to know each other over dinner, and talked about the weeks before us. It was apparent that I had a very cool, very smart, and very diverse group of students to look forward to working with on this trip, and I was excited to be their leader.
The following morning we loaded up in a tall van to head for the mountains to our village. We broke the trip into two days, making a pit stop in a town called Panajachel, home of Lake Atitlan– absolutely one of earth’s hidden pockets of beauty.
We met with a group of women there who were working with the Grameen Bank on microfinance projects to support their own households and communities. (Grameen Bank, the “Bank of the Poor” and Nobel Peace Prize-winning microlending programs: About Grameen) Over half of Guatemalans live in poverty and the nation has a very high disparity between the haves and have-nots; you are either very rich or you are very poor. Though this is a common problem in many developing nations, it is exacerbated for millions of Guatemalans of indigenous or indian descent; the country is made up of nearly 40% ethnic minorities (about seven total ethnic groups) who retain their native language to a large degree and are treated with a great deal of racism and prejudice.
These marginalized communities, although native to the land, are denied access to simple resources like education, healthcare, and equal opportunity for employment.
Grameen was there to help such local women learn how to become financially independent and set a model for other women in the community. Initiatives like this are why lots of white folks go to Guatemala to volunteer, and that’s part of why we were there.
We left Panajachel and Lake Atitlan on August 10 to head deeper into the mountains to Calhuitz. Much of the drive was on highways, but the final leg on that second day would be up very narrow dirt and mud roads, often with scrap-littered cliffs and drop-offs a few inches from our tires. It was the rainy season and mudslides were a common threat, in addition to flash floods and storms. We were looking at a seven-hour drive up to our village. Super.
If there was any time that my crew saw me a little bit stressed out, it was on the ride up the mountain to Calhuitz. I am not the biggest fan of vans-on-inclines– when I was younger I watched a church youth group van with a bunch of my friends tip over while going up a hill, everyone fine but still scary as shit– it is a bit of a phobia for me. And here we were in a very top-heavy euro van driving up a mud mountain in the rain and what felt like a 45-degree incline with a boneyard of other vehicles below. I didn’t speak much for those few hours because I had to really focus on not pooping my pants. Everyone else undulated between hysterical nervous laughter and pure terror, and the van door even slid open at one point just to taunt us. See below journal entry, August 10.
After several hours we finally arrived at the top of the mountain in Calhuitz, and I remember mentally bookmarking that that trip through the mountains did not seem like something the admins back in the states fully understood the danger of. As the person in charge of five other people’s lives for the next two weeks, I was kind of rattled. That same day, I wrote in my journal that the trip left me feeling lacking in certain preparation information. We were just three days in.