The New Moon Brings Babies: And other clinical pearls from The Doña.

The New Moon Brings Babies (so does the full moon): Fact. Looking back, it seems obvious, since all things womanly and motherly correlate are influenced by the moon, but much of western civilization has lost touch with that part of our heritage, thus I could hardly believe the extent of the moon’s power in ushering new babies into the world.

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A typical scene, waiting for a bus

A few Mondays ago, just as my stir-craziness from the previous week of little work was peaking, Eulalia told me that Wednesday was a new moon so we could expect a baby that day, and possibly more this week. That prediction manifested more fully than I could have imagined: A call Tuesday night meant a baby at 12:45 AM Wednesday morning. That story to come. Next, we delivered another baby on Thursday evening. Twelve hours later, we delivered our third baby of the week. Three babies in three days, just like she’d said it would happen.

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A typical scene at a complicated birth – a slew of women, discussing and problem solving on behalf of the laboring mother. It really does take a village.

The Wednesday birth was a wake-up call for almost too many things to remember. We arrived by way of our bombero chariot at about half past 8 PM and our patient, we’ll call her Lorena, was 6 cm dilated. She is 20 years old, and this is to be her first child – actually a few years late in her community. We knew we would stay, possibly all night, so I settled in with my Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth while the labor progressed. Poor girl. She was definitely the most agitated of the 3 births that I had seen at that point. With each contraction she looked about ready to jump out of her skin, and they were coming frequently, every 2-5 minutes. Finally, about 11PM, she was up and down out of bed, and I was using my newly imparted knowledge of leg massage (thanks, Ina May) to help make her more comfortable. Eulalia of course has used said leg-loosening technique on every patient, both pre-natal and intra-partum, I just hadn’t asked in as great of detail as was explained in Ina May’s book.
Eulalia checked again, 8 cm. We were close,IMG_9584 but maybe not close enough for Lorena’s liking. We attended her with leg and back massages and several position changes. During the labor, I struggled a little because the laboring mother was making what seemed to me to be very little sound, but the grandmother-to-be deemed it too much, and was trying to clamp down her mouth and nose throughout each contraction. The other common practice that I never quite understand in any birth (perhaps just because I haven’t seen it before), is the grandmothers exerting downward force on the laboring mother’s head/neck… I’m still not sure how or if it helps, but it was commonplace. In any case, as I watched that part of the grandmother’s “help” all I could think was, “well, this is different,” and, “I’ll be damned if anybody tries to touch me like that/clamp down my mouth while I’m trying to push a baby out,” but it wasn’t my birth nor my culture to advise, and so it continued. After an hour of hard pushing and lots of emotion and work from the mother and her 5 attendants, the baby was born: purple, limp, and not breathing. Standard practice, we suctioned her with the bulb and commenced with vigorous rubbing to stimulate her. Still, she remained barely gurgling and completely limp. Eulalia delivered a few breaths mouth-to-mouth before I grabbed the ambu bag and offered to help with oxygenating the baby. At that point, Eulalia handed me the baby and told me to keep going while she delivered the placenta.
After a little more than an hour, the baby was starting to move feebly, but still wasn’t breathing regularly, so to be sure, we took her into the hospital. She started crying like a normal baby and moving 5 minutes after we arrived. Go figure. They kept her overnight and everything was fine. It’s safe to say that while a challenging experience in the moment, I learned A LOT about difficult labor, and purple babies.

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Waiting for our bus home at 6 AM after the long night

 

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The second birth came about 36 hours later, thankfully, in our own home – it was Estela’s turn. (Eulalia’s daughter-in-law). Estela was a champ in every sense of the word. The next day, she told me, “It’s always the same, isn’t it? It’s just a terrible pain!” but in the moment, she barely showed it – she kept herself occupied by doing chores up until 15 minutes before her babe crowned. After a few minutes of pushing, she too changed to a gravity-assisted position aka squatting, and Eulalia caught her healthy baby boy a little before 8PM. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when he entered the world pink and crying.

 

           

Birth number three arrived barely 12 hours later inIMG_9624 Chimachoy. I could see my breath as we hoofed it up to the house at the end of the road. We entered to our mama-to-be sitting on the bed, looking characteristically uncomfortable but stoic. 10 cm dilated, she started pushing to no avail. Next step was engaging gravity, with still no results. “I don’t have the energy,” said Mom. “Well keep going, you have to!” Responded Eulalia. Five more minutes of what should have been a show of strength on the mom’s part, Eulalia looked up at the bureau standing behind the laboring mother. She pointed, “We need to cover the mirrors!” She said firmly to the attending family, who obeyed immediately. “No, all of them, you can’t leave anything showing, it sucks the energy from the room.” And so all the mirrors in the room were covered. Less than five minutes later, yet another healthy baby boy was brought into the world by the Doña. Placebo effect? Who knows. And who cares? Since it worked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe One Day You’ll Retire….

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Getting a newborn weight while taking another health-related consult via the phone

“Maybe one day you’ll retire…” I suggested one night. Three seconds passed before we both dissolved into laughter, Eulalia throwing her head back into one of the biggest smiles I’ve seen from her yet. 75 years old and still trucking.

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Waiting for a ride in Chicazanga, orange Gatorade and birth bag in tow.

Birth

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The moon on our way to my first birth of the experience

 

The first one came at night, just like Doña Eulalia predicted. It was 1 AM when the soft rap came on my door, “Chonita,” sang Eulalia, “Nos vamos ahora.” (Sonia, it’s time to go). I called back that I would be right there, threw on my warm clothes, my hat, and my tennis shoes, grabbed my little “Birth Bag” as recommended by MFM, and we headed out the door. The mostly full moon outshone the street lamps as we hustled through the cold to the house about a 10 minute walk from ours. I was so happy just to be called in the middle of the night, I didn’t care what time it was… It felt so authentic! And I was still marveling at how Eulalia knew that it would come at night.

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A random photo, but I was just obsessed with those tiny hands

When we arrived at the corrugated house at about 1:20 AM, the Mom was sitting bolt upright on top of her bed, shrouded in a thick blanket and looking very uncomfortable. Two toddlers were snoozing a few feet away, and her husband was running errands around the room. Doña Eulalia bid her to lay down face up to check her dilation. 10 cm, amniotic sack still in-tact.  We were golden. It’s worth noting here that in low-resource medicine (or at least from my experience here), gloves are used more for the practitioner’s protection than the patient’s. Eulalia donned one set of gloves and never changed them the whole night. Gripped by a contraction but a few moments later, her whole body went rigid and her face contorted accordingly. Her breathing sped and she looked momentarily murderous, but she did not utter a sound. Eulalia watched her, IMG_9403 “With your next contraction, it’s time to start pushing.” The next contraction came and she still refused to push. Eulalia instructed her husband to get behind her and support her upper body while gripping her hands to help her bear down. Next contraction, still no pushing, but her water finally broke and the baby’s head had begun its descent. Eulalia reached for my freshly gloved hand and told me to feel around to see what was going on. Sure enough, about five inches in, was a tiny head. “It’s so close!” I told Mom. “Just a few pushes and you’re done.” She looked at me skeptically as we explained how near the baby was. “I feel like I need to use the bathroom,” she said. Eulalia, smooth as ever even if her patience was starting to crack, assured her, “That’s the baby, it’s really time you pushed.”

Finally, with Eulalia, her husband, and I encouraging her, she pushed through her next two contractions, and just like that, a perfect baby girl lay crying at her feet. Eulalia bulb suctioned the baby and then went to deliver the placenta, leaving the towel drying to me. I was grinning like an idiot as I toweled her off and looked the around the chilled room.  IMG_9389A simple, somewhat cluttered space, corrugated metal on all sides but the floor which is concrete, the TV spewing fuzz and an old Meg Ryan movie, Eulalia’s little black birth bag sitting on a corrugated wood tabletop, a queen and a twin bed side by side. Two sleeping toddlers, a woman, her husband, a midwife, the grandma, and me. And now all of a sudden this (F*ing incredible) baby. Amazing. It’s not like I haven’t seen it before, but it still blows me away.

The baby was out at 01:59 AM, the placenta delivered completely intact about 5 minutes later. Eulalia had her instruments cleaned with alcohol before she clamped and cut the cord. As I dressed and swaddled the baby, Eulalia cleaned her instruments again with soap and water (including the bulb), and packed them away until next time. Several signs that point to rural Guatemala as a veritable baby factory – there was no overthinking skin-to-skin – we dressed the baby before we even handed it off, the whole family was present and very comfortable with the process, and we were in-and-out in less than 2 hours. We left the family with instructions to call if there was any kind of excessive bleeding, and otherwise we would be back the next day to check on them.

At 3 AM, we strolled back out into the cold, the moon had only slightly shifted its position in the sky. We agreed that it was a very smooth, healthy birth. I thanked Eulalia again for showing me how it’s done. She smiled and said we could now sleep soundly knowing we would not be woken. Oh, and she let me in on how she knew it would come that night: She had snuck out at 6pm to check on Mom, who was 2cm dilated then… So sneaky, Doña Eulalia! I smiled even bigger.

And sleep well, we did.

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Magic potions (aka alcohol and oil)

The 2nd birth I attended with Dona Eulalia was at night after 3 days of a stomach illness for, but with my intestines under control for 3 hours I decided to brave a birth in San Rafael, a neighboring me town about 15 minutes by car. It was raining like the Great Flood, so we called the Bomberos, again. God bless their helpful hearts, they drove us up the muddy mountainside to San Rafael and picked us up again when it was all over. Other than having no electricity, the birth was equally as smooth and uneventful as the first. She was 8 cm dilated when we arrived, so Dona Eulalia helped her cervix along with a little oil and stretching. IMG_9414She delivered a perfectly healthy baby boy at eight minutes after nine. Eulalia wanted me to help with clamping and cutting the cord, which I happily assisted in. What I did not realize was that she wanted to photograph me doing it, with her gloved and bloody hands. It was too late for me to intervene, so I simply watched in semi-horror as she placenta-ed my iPhone. And then I laughed and  made a mental note to clean the hell out of it later.

In both births, nobody made a fuss of congratulating anyone, it was simply another day, another baby. It amazes me that in two hours we can arrive, deliver a baby and some education, clean up, and leave the home in exactly the same condition we found it, except with a new crying baby. We are the storks.

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A Day in The Life

IMG_9152A day in the life with Doña Eulalia is in some ways rhythmic, slow, and simple, and in others more varied and exciting than I could have dreamed of. It frequently involves waiting for several collective hours, usually for busses, sometimes for meetings, and occasionally in the offices of other practitioners. The temperature while we wait is entirely dependent on whether or not we are in a cloud, which depends on which town we are in. Being in a cloud is actually much cooler than I would have given it credit for being. If I’m roasting in cotton pants and a T-shirt in Itzapa, all we have to do is go 15 minutes and 700 vertical feet up a dirt road, and if Chicasanga happens to be enshrouded, I will need a hat and my alpaca sweater to be comfortably warm. Enough about the weather.

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Sunrise on an early AM

Our days can begin as early as 5 and as late as 9, but always with a hearty  Eulalia-style breakfast. My showers are always hot, out of a basin, and heated over our open fire in the kitchen.  Those of you that know me well, know that personal hygiene may not always be my top priority, but I particularly enjoy my showers here… There is something to be said for sitting on a small wooden stool with cold tile under your feet and cold air drafting in from underneath your corrugated metal roof, pouring steaming hot water over yourself while a heavy rain pounds away on the tin overhead. IMG_9123

As I mentioned before, our days are usually a pleasant mix of transit, patients, pharmacies, and eating. And of course, waiting. We wait on curbs and in people’s homes, sit on grassy embankments and rocks, for our busses – all Blue Bird American Made – and if not busses, for a passing pickup, or perhaps our good friends the bomberos (whom we have strategically run into almost every day since I have been here).

Speaking of the bomberos, I mentioned in a previous post that the DSCN0768 local government  does not offer them financial support, not even for the diesel to fill their 2-wheel drive ambulance nor to pay their electricity bill at the station.  One day that Eulalia and I anticipated a ride from them, they picked us up and said they just had to make a small (40 minute) detour to Parramos to drop of their squad of youngsters to do some fundraising.

 

 

 

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Bus swag, enhanced with instagram

Riding the camionetas (chicken busses) here is another experience, though I think it is quite civilized compared to other countries. The locals all maintain a miraculous mental time table of when the busses leave for various destinations. Sometimes people ask to know with greater certainty, but for the most part there is this innate knowledge in everyone over the age of 10 about how to get where they need to go. It is Q10 between Antigua and Calderas, about an hour long ride. The busses all have names like “Dina” and “Yolanda” and Regalito de Dios.” Most are adorned (be way of detail) with various scriptures or blessings, from “Este bus está protegido con la sangre de Cristo,” (this bus is protected by the blood of Christ), to “Dios me Guia” (God, guide me). Who knows if it actually works, but I roll with it because the locals all seem to believe. The busses also include other personal touches; more religious idols, colorful wrapping on various pieces of equipment, a representation of a spider in a blown-glass looking handle used to operate the door. [0893.jpg]

I personally enjoy my time in the camionetas. Granted, I am more or less a leper when I ride alone – nobody sits next to me, and if they do, they move the instant another seat opens – but nonetheless I love watching the slow rhythmic interactions around me. Whenever anyone enters the bus, they give a hearty “Buenos Dias” or “Buenas Tardes” and the bus answers the same in a chorus back. They announce themselves in towns and around corners with a 15 second pull on the horn, so they are tough to miss if you didn’t already hear their engine.

I live with two dogs, two cats, four kittens, 20 chickens, a few gobbling turkeys, a few pigsIMG_9332 (their days are numbered),  two dogs named Tigre (for his brindle stripes) and Nero. Tigre is sort of a jerk, and Nero is among the most pathetic animals I have ever encountered. And then a few days ago, Eulalia walked in with the cutest, fluffiest bundle of puppy I have laid eyes on in some time. Her current name is Muñeca, but Eulalia is in the process of searching for a different one [0885.jpg].

 

 

I also am surrounded by some of the sweetest, most self-sufficient, and energetic children I have ever met.  Lately my boring adult-ness has gotten the best of me and I haven’t been super stoked on playing all day long, but these are the kids who can run for, play at the park, draw, paint, and imagine for hours on end. They slipped a PILE of drawings for me under my door when I was ill last week, and work our park schedule around when there are the fewest creepy gawking men playing soccer… What troopers.

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IMG_9463The pace of life here is mostly slow, but in other ways is remarkably accelerated. Kids are running around pretty independently at about 5, and start helping out with their younger siblings at about age 6. The boys go to work on their family farms at about the age of 12 or 13, and it is not unusual for girls to be married and pregnant at 16 with husbands who sometimes look shockingly their senior. That said, in six out of seven families I have attended, the husbands have been extremely attentive to their spouses, pregnant or with sick infants. I have even seen a few show up at the Dona’s home with the women for their 15 day check ups. The pickup truck is an important daily tool, for transporting all matter of people and products. It doesn’t matter if the roof has rusted through or you have 14 people crammed in the truck bed. If the motor kind of runs, it is put to good use.IMG_9311 Other daily necessities include for men, machetes and for women, “mantas” – woven blanket-type things used to carry everything from children to harvests. I swear, the women here are ALWAYS walking around with at least 40 lbs. extra weight in the form of toddlers slung around their back or firewood or produce balanced atop their heads. The Machetes come in handy for picking apart little landslides to free up the road in a matter of two minutes.

Skipping around again, I make this part of post with a certain amount of hesitancy because I am not an anthropologist nor a sociologist (and I do not want to  make assumptions or sound like I really know what I’m talking about academically), so please take everything I say here with a grain of salt because this is all how I feel. For me it is like this: I am incredibly happy with my simple life here, and it is easy to write about it as charming and romantic, but I wonder too if it doesn’t seem that way because I have a way out. The other side of the coin is that this is country where if you ask why someone’s daughter died at the age of 46, “Oh, she died of stomach pain.” Is a viable answer. In particular, Calderas is situated in such a municipality that doesn’t want to fund their emergency workers, who are then strictly volunteers, forced to send their youth volunteers out with little boxes with holes cut into their tops to implore the public for support.

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LuzVi, laughing as usual. Picking peaches

I have met two single mothers so far in our town, one of them works for Eulalia, helping with laundry, cleaning, tortilla making, etc. She was 15 when she had her first child,  her boyfriend at the time, 33. She says she was madly in love. It is normal here for the girls to be married and having children by 16, with slightly older men, but even with this cultural context, that age difference makes me bristle, seeing as it is strictly criminal in the US. She now lives with her father and step-mother, who it sounds like is less than supportive.  She says she made her mistakes, but now she is happy with her two kids and only wants to work for them and encourage them in their education. She has no interest in romance right now. The other lives up the street. Her husband left three years ago to go to the US in search of work. They had a 1 year old baby, and didn’t know it yet, but a second one on the way. Somewhere along the way, he disappeared. End of story. Nobody knows if he was killed or is sitting in prison somewhere, but the rumor stands that he never made it to the US. For Guatemala by the numbers or to donate, click here

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Eulalia, doing her thing in the peach orchard

All that said, Eulalia and MFM are working to change those statistics a little at a time. In my one month here, Eulalia was immediately caring for 28 pregnant women across five communities. She estimates in her time as a midwife she has attended about 4,000 births, only 4 of which were delivered deceased. She is an extreme asset to her community for women’s health as well as other fields, and she always knows when and to whom to refer her patients. She is partnered with the Guatemalan Centro de Salud, Midwives For Midwives, and various other Guatemalan and US-funded organizations working to collect data and deliver better healthcare for women and children. Again, to donate, go to the MFM website, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Doña

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Eulalia descending towards Calderas

The scene is set: 10:30 pm, dark, cold, and foggy as we leave a patient’s house; Doña Eulalia, 4’9” tall, 70 years old, with a large bundle of bledos (a local herb) tucked under her right arm, purse slung over her left shoulder leads. I offer her a light to better see the obscure path and she politely declines with a wave of her free hand. Together we scramble down a steep slope of loose dirt, startling chickens, startled by cows, and generally causing a stir among the odd dogs, pigs, and horses. We make it to the bottom, where the ambulance is waiting to give us a ride home.
The fog at this point offers maybe 3 meters of visibility, but that estimate sharply declines when they turn on their headlights and for some reason, the flashers. And so it is, after a 14 hour day seeing patients, we are barreling down a dirt road through time and space in a cotton-candy-cane whirl of red and white lights in the fog. Doña Eulalia and I look at each other and laugh, when all of a sudden the engine cuts out. Oh dear. We are still at least four kilometers from home. The driver leans his head back and groans and the other two bomberos (fireman/emergency workers) fling open their passenger side doors, grab on to the roof, and commence to rock the van with all their might. “It’s because we are out of fuel,” says the driver. Eulalia leans her head back and howls with laughter, “Ay pobrecitos!” she says. Suddenly, with the combined momentum of the boys rocking the van, the engine kicks in and we start ascending our hill again… All the while with the boys hanging out the open doors, undulating in rhythm to keep the van’s forward momentum. We carry on in that fashion for the next 15 minutes home, all the while with Eulalia’s laughter bubbling up like a spring. “Ay Sonia! Que vas a contar cuando vuelvas a Estados Unidos?! Este es loco!! Ahahah!” (Oh Sonia! What are you going to tell them when you go home?! This is crazy!). “I can’t make this stuff up!” I responded. We cracked up like this for some time, eventually having to pass our house to get to the bombero’s station or they would not have made it up the next hill. We get out to walk home. “How is it that the emergency workers are out of fuel? It seems like a rather important service…” I say. Eulalia shakes her head, “No, the state does not pay for their fuel, we will take them a gallon tomorrow.”
ear grin*.

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To even begin to explain how we wound up in that ambulance at that hour, I first need to explain three things: 1- Where is Calderas? 2- How did I come to be in Calderas? And finally 3- Who is Doña Eulalia?
To answer the first question, here is a VERY primitive and largely incorrect map that is unfortunately the product of four drafts, too many questions, and too much time. It is an attempt to explain to myself where exactly it is that I have been riding around in truck beds and ambulances. It has been very foggy and thus extremely difficult to orient myself according to the many volcanoes, so my apologies if it is very wrong, but Calderas is approximately as shown here:

 

[please check back when I have time to actually upload my drawing… sorry!)

 

To answer the second: I arrived in Antigua last Monday, excited about my future in Calderas, but also a little nervous and unsure of what exactly I had signed up for. To be clear, everything that could be explained, had been explained. I am here through a non-governmental organization called  Midwives For Midwives, or in Spanish, Comadronas Para Comadronas. The part of the organization that I am participating in is a homestay with a traditional midwife, no prior experience needed. With half a week down (out of four), it’s been pure magic. To find out more about the organization and what they do, (or to donate…) their website is a wealth of information, otherwise feel free to email me about my experiences here.

The third question is more to be answered over the next month, though even then I think a documentary would serve better than this silly little blog. Doña Eulalia is the traditional midwife with whom I have the great pleasure and honor of living with and learning from for a month. She is somewhere in her 70s and has been practicing as a midwife/health consultant for 35+ years. She lives in Calderas, Guatemala and has her entire life, and serves several communities in the surrounding area. However, for being from such a remote location, with little formal education, this woman is SHARP. She knows US geography and states better than most Europeans I have encountered. She remembers names and people’s hometowns and stories like they were her own. She has a tab on which countries in Europe still have royals. She owns large plots of land and grows her crops for export to El Salvador.
And all this on top of having seen – and knowing what to do about – just about everything that could ail a person. She is a master midwife with extensive knowledge of traditional herbal remedies. On my first day in the field with her I watched her flip a baby in-utero (to be head-down) in about 15 seconds with a pre-natal check-up. She makes house calls most of the week, but her door is always open. The people in her community come by at all hours of the day (or night) for check-ups, exams, questions, vitamins, antibiotics, Vitamin K injections, and a little gossip.
She loves her coffee, 4 times per day, if possible, picks flowers along her walks between villages, and knows all of her 34 grandchildren’s birthdays. She has seen more birth and death than I will ever know, and still attends each and every one of her patients with the same level of concern and compassion.

One such example led to our night-ride in the ambulance: We left the house about 9 that morning to hitch a ride to the neighboring pueblos for our house calls. After visiting a C-Section patient (4 days post op at that point), rubbing a few more uteruses, calculating a few dates, and catching up on the community news (births, pregnancies, and deaths), we arrived at a house in Chimachoy to do a routine check up on a woman 5 months pregnant. First thing in the door and Doña Eulalia takes a quick look at the 1 ½ year old at the woman’s hip and asks if she’s sick. The child is breathless, restless, and teary. Our patient told us that she had been to a nearby doctor a few days earlier who said some rest and fluids should do the trick. Eulalia furrows her brow, hands me her stethoscope, and asks if I can listen to the child’s lungs. Sure enough, the little girl has some gnarly crackles along with some wheezing. I report back and the consensus is that it’s time for a pediatrician. So Eulalia hops on her Nokia brick phone, makes a few calls, and lines up a doctor in Antigua that might be up to her standards. We spent a couple hours with the doctor, and thank god. The little girl was one untreated day away from an inpatient stay at the hospital in Antigua. The doctor herself was also a godsend in her patience and knowledge. The child received two nebulizer treatments in the clinic before the doctor sent the family with her clinic nebulizer, all free of charge. The whole visit cost 100 Q (about $13 USD), before the pharmacy visit.

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At this segment I would like to point out that one of the reasons I trust the Doña so much is because she has incredibly high standards for other practitioners – which is why she usually accompanies her patients into Antigua, rather than using the closer community hospital, and does not hesitate to make referrals the moment she feels the need for a second opinion. We went in to Antigua with patients twice in two days so that she knew they were receiving appropriate care… Neither one of them paid a single Quetzal for her time or services those days.

I’m out of time for the moment, back to the rustic life, but stay tuned for more on The Dona, our clinical adventures, and life in rural Guatemala. Que le vaya Bien! In the meantime.

How ’bout a little Culture Shock for Breakfast?

Apologies – I’m posting this immediately before I leave for Caldera, Guatemala where I will most likely not have internet. This is the story of my brush with the US between South and Central America, and I have not uploaded the proper photos yet – those will come later.

Sunday afternoon, my last day in South America, turned out to be perfect. I spent it relaxing around Lima with some new-but-old friends (coincidentally all from Calgary), and a friend I had made from Lima. We at delicious ceviche (the almejas are the best) at El Bigote, followed by a leisurely walk around Parque Kennedy, ate some top-notch ice cream (think white chocolate with passionfruit and little chunks of chocolate), and eventually went to walk the Malecon in search of the paragliders. Unfortunately the wind was insufficient for jumping off cliffs with parachutes, so Lea and I agreed we would meet in Lima another day to paraglide.

Speaking of that girl, if anyone is looking for inspiration on how to live life a little happier, more fulfilled, and maintain good humor, Léa is it. She is the same who said, “Oh no, I feel surrounded by love. I love it. My cheeks hurt from smiling,” while squeezed in the middle back seat of a car for hours, but also popped into hockey conversation with “Matt Cook. I could stab his eyes out with a knife… And I would do it no other way.” I would not have spent my last two days on the continent with anyone besides the serendipitous group that found me in Lima. They put up with my split personality – one part mellow, happy traveler, one part anxious, blubbering fool – and together we wandered the streets of Miraflores guided by our stomachs. A perfect blend of the best food and the best company, and ultimately a poetic summation of the magic of this voyage.

8PM rolls around and I made a typically rushed exit, eased thanks to the EasyTaxi App and a good driver (use it if you are in Lima! It really takes the guessing out of selecting a cab that won’t bankrupt you). At the airport, I wandered around looking for my gate that was behind doors marked “Emergency Exit,” prepared to both mourn the end of an era, give thanks, and welcome a new one, but I didn’t even have time for that. In the midst of my laps around the international terminal, I saw girl who I instantly recognized, and miraculously knew her name.

“Um, excuse me,” I said, my voice dripping with awkwardness, “But, I think I know you. Is your name Alex?”

She looked shocked, like she was considering running away, and then stepped in to save me: “Um. Yeah, it is… did you go to SU?”

…. What a small, small world. 2 years apart in school, merely acquaintances, and here we were on the same Spirit Airlines flight from Lima to Ft. Lauderdale from our many-month voyages across South America. We had so much to talk about that we nearly missed our flight even though we sat in front of the gate. And just like that, I flew away from South America, sped by good conversation and a surprising familiar face.

 

So lets recap: Lunch and dinner in Lima, a girl I knew from college, a flight sitting next to a highly confrontational, absolutely mentally-unsound man (3 tabs of Xanax and he still got into such a fight with the flight attendants that they almost involved the captain), which meant 5 hours of constant disruption, talk of how negative the US was, talk of how he was headed to Jamaica to sell his boat, and of course calling the flight attendants Nazis and threatening to sue for… Something. My bottled water cost $3, you are no longer allowed to carry your own, and I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, thoroughly dazed, just in time for breakfast with a side of culture shock.

 

After clearing customs with an automated machine, a printed a selfie- receipt, and a surprisingly friendly customs agent, I proceeded upstairs to the Spirit Airlines counter, aka Hell, where I waited for an hour surrounded by angry, cursing, hostel, impatient, gossiping Americans. Many of them had missed various flights, largely due to a lack of organization on Spirit’s part. Thankfully, I parted the counter after a pleasant interaction with a airline employee and a sweet, sweet woman who accepted she had missed her flight by her own accord. I admired her emotional steadiness; she seemed not to notice the frothing pit of medusas around her, and carried on to solve her own problems.

 

Crossing through security: Cue clean, shiny things, million-dollar marketing and product placement, bright lights, and loud top-40 music. If I didn’t know I was in the USA already, my terminal confirmed it. Where was my fresh papaya juice, buzzing flies, cartons of room-temperature milk, and sharp, smiling Latina? If I was there, I was indulging: a fresh egg and bacon sandwich hit the spot and helped me pass the time before my next flight. As did the free wi-fi.

 

 

It occurs to me that in some ways I wish I had had the time to contemplate what the end of that chapter meant, to ruminate and process, but in some ways perhaps it is better. It struck me that one of the things I have to come to terms with, is that this ethereal “thing,” this concept and goal and my driving motivator and life-force for nearly 3 years, had sailed by with grace and passion and laughter, and I will now have to live and work for something else… No problem, this life is still so good.

In 15 minutes, my new chapter officially begins as I make my way to Pollo Campero (Country Chicken) in Antigua, Guatemala, to meet and live with Doña Eulalia, Midwife and healer of her community of Calderas… I could not be more excited (or nervous). Chau for now! More to come in a week. Y le agredezco port todo!!

Mayday on May Day

May Day (or Mayday?!)
I woke up at 7 yesterday morning to the sunlight filtering in through the orange window covering feeling well rested. The girl in bed across the room was also stirring, and in time, we both sat up, smiled, and introduced ourselves. I find out her name is Andrea, she is Swiss, travelling around the world for a year, and is getting ready to board a cargo ship in Manzanilla, Mexico, bound for Shanghai, China. Damn. And I thought I was brave.
Then I check my phone. May 1st, 2014. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being filled with this kind of manic anxiety as I typed this. The kind that makes it difficult to keep a coherent train of thought (so I apologize for the sporadic nature of this post). I feel a little bit like I’ve been yelling ‘mayday!’ as my plane goes down, but rather than my life flashing before my eyes, the last four months are flying through my mind’s eye. How is it May 1st? How is it, that in Seattle, the weather is sunny and in the 80s, and I am preparing to wrap up my time in South America into a neat little bundle, give it one last hug, and tuck it away into a special place within me forever. How?
As I type this, my new friend Gena is sitting across from me, practicing her French on Duolingo. She found out yesterday that she has been traipsing around Peru for 6 weeks with a broken arm… Oops. This is our terrible view from the rooftop area of our hostel in Arequipa:

WIN_20140501_102232   WIN_20140501_102241

 

Last night we got drinks – Gena a couple of beers, and 2 pisco sours for me, of course, and caught up on the last 3 weeks of our bizarre and wonderful lives in Peru. I – made it as far north as Huanchaco for my first ever surf lesson, then down to Huaraz for some fresh air in the Cordillera Blanca, then back to Lima, then to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu with my parents, and then to Arequipa where I happened to find my dear friend Sheena (follow their better, consistently updated blog here) AND find Gena again. Since our first meeting in Lima, she had been to Ayacucho for over a week, back to Lima, then to Arequipa. We had both met countless wonderful people in those three weeks, people that taught us about philosophy and patience and kindness and politics. And there we sat, drinking our beer and Pisco sours.

 
When I look back at where I started, crammed into a plane in Miami bound for La Paz, about to cry I was so hungry and frazzled from rushing through the airport, it’s hard to imagine it was the same trip. The innumerable experiences I have had would be nothing without the people I shared them with. The people from Argentina to Holland, who taught me to laugh more a misfortunes, to not judge, to eat well, listen to good music, sleep anywhere, to enjoy life because it is indeed short, and we may as well take care of each other while it lasts. They were the people who taught me about their country’s policies and politics, and listened with amusement and minimal judgment as I attempted to explain why “America” had a reputation for being obsessed with guns, even in the wake of an elementary school shooting. We spoke of revolutions and dictatorships, of education and healthcare. We talked about family and our complicated relationships, of addiction, of our failed endeavors and greatest successes. And of course, we talked about life and death and what an astounding world we lived in.

 
Between the soul bearing conversations, celebrity banter, and discussions of bodily functions gone awry, we ate instant potatoes and packaged soup, fresh pizza and the finest dry-roasted rack of Patagonian lamb that $10 can buy. We walked, wandered, strolled, slogged, hoofed and huffed and moseyed, down cobbled streets and up rocky mountains. We boarded boats and busses and trains and taxis, subways and cablecars, motorbikes and moto-taxis, we floated down rivers on yellow inner tubes. We drank lots of wine and ate sushi on night busses, we cooked and cleaned and occasionally bathed. We sang Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez and tango and music in Portuguese. We drank Malbec and Mate and Pisco and Fernet and Singhani and gallons of fresh fruit juice. We sat for days on semi-cams busses and streaked across the desert in a 4×4, mercilessly ridiculing the rude Frenchies we’d met and simultaneously adoring the nice ones. We sat on the beach, smoked cigarettes, danced, drank, played games, ate more good food, and helped each other through some weird times. I would say that overall we enjoyed life, all the while gaining a slightly wider lens through which to see it.

 
On the other side I have been consistently humbled every time a local – no matter how well educated or well-traveled- looks at me wistfully when they find out I am a US citizen. I have my moments of shame for my country, but for the most part I have been reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the US, and I have done my best to be a good citizen of the world, the way most people I have met, both local and foreign, have been.

 
All this said, I think my real growth will have to continue at home, away from this fairytale land of international travel. Only then will I know how I have been shaped by my experiences here. Travel is (I think) one of the most wholesome and holistic ways to expand your mind, but I also have observed people that never stopped traveling, and while in some ways I commend their nomadic lifestyle, in others it almost seems as though they have missed the point. To travel is a romantic way to live, but to never return home seems to take the gift for granted. This life is made up of more grit than the risks involved in travel, and those that never return to the grime of daily responsibilities can lose sight of what a privilege it is to experience a new place and culture.
My experiences so far have been nothing short of enthralling and magical, and as much as it doesn’t feel like real life, this world has been my reality for the last four months. I am finishing my thoughts here on a night bus, and it is time for me to put myself and my nostalgia to bed for a bit – I will surely be surrounded by more Martian Peruvian landscapes when I wake up. Ultimately I am so thankful to the cosmos, be it Pachamama or someone elses God, for allowing me to partake in the world like this for a time.

 

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I will do my best to completely catch up my South America blog up as I end this journey and begin a new one with Doña Eulalia in Calderas, Guatemala. Thanks for reading 

Livin’ the Dream in Buenos Aires: A catch-up post from March.

Whatever I write here will be insufficient to describe how Buenos Aires livened my heart. Days were spent on and off the Subte, visiting museums, markets, watching the multitude of activities at parks, walking down the miles of bike paths, and eating lots and lots of ice cream. But for the first time in any city, I really felt myself come alive at night, frequently aided by several shared bottles of top-quality malbec (for $5-$10 USD). I stayed at Portal del Sur hostel in the centro, near San Telmo, where I made more top-quality friends from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Germany, and France. I can’t say my life was terribly exciting by conventional standards, but I loved every day in that city.
All my days began and ended on the rooftop starting with croissants and jam and juice and coffee and ended there with wine, beer, fernet and cola, regaeton, dancing, and foosball. Alyssa was with me my first few days in the city, and we were characteristically indifferent to how we spent our time, so a lot of it was passed simply wandering around the city, eating ice cream and empanadas and enjoying the street art and music. It took until my friend Karen arrived for me to really get out to enjoy the parks and varying neighborhoods.
The Players:
• Miguel (Michele), Italy: Tolerated Alyssa and I and our fits of inexplicable giggles, observed that every time a woman (or multiple) enter his space, they seem to bring a level of destruction and disorder usually associated with a hurricane. Also never attempted a conversation with our French roommates. Drinks good wine, enjoys Marlboro Reds.
• Pedro, Brazil: Nicest, kindest heart. Speaks fluent Portuguese, French, and English, is basically fluent in Spanish after 6 weeks of group lessons. Wants to learn German, is capable of repeating phrases in any language on the first try. Loves Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, and Tribalistas. Is great company for any day.
• Franka, Germany: My best-humored, most fun and imaginative friend. Helped with the theory of how/why Argentina lost the Islas Malvinas aka Faulklands (and many lives) in the not-so-epic war with England in the 80s. Concluded that the Alpaca sweaters that permeate the continent are likely made by slave-labor using the grandmas on the Islas Malvinas.
• Olivier, France: Gracious French Gentleman, somehow tolerated and contributed to our banter and sporadic energy. Bought good wine to share every night. Also brought good vibes and tranquility.
• Nacho, Buenos Aires, hostel employee: Always extremely helpful, studying film at Uni in BA. Hilarious, not bashful about pointing out my strange language habits. Good at dancing and drinking. Went out on a limb and took Karen and me to a percussion show where we were the only tourists… We loved it.
• Gabriel, BA, Hostel Employee: Even keeled, can keep up with the Irish in drinking. Always smiling. Amused that I was too afraid of the elevator to ride it.
• Simeon, Germany: Classically German, and excellent company. Speaks flawless English. Made a spread-sheet to compare potential apartments in the city while he spends a semester abroad.
• Caro, Buenos Aires: Without a doubt one of the savviest young women I have ever met. A friend of Henry’s older sister, she was gracious enough to take Karen and I around for a couple days to share her city, as well as being a host of knowledge from her country. She works for one of the younger political parties of the country and has already contributed a great deal of progress in her 10 years working for them.

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There were countless others as well, from a nice Dutch guy that I’m fairly certain was dealing drugs or something of the likes, to other employees, a pair of female German doctors, to the Uruguayan Abuela… This hostel seemed to draw in the best of humankind from all over the globe.
Not pictured is Bob, a roommate of mine and Karen’s for a couple of days. This is the story of Bob the way I remember it, although really Karen should corroborate it: I was in the midst of organizing my mountains of shit at the time, in stepped a gentleman looking to be in his 70, wearing a biking onesie and prescription sports goggles that appeared to be about an inch thick. He walked in and boisterously greeted me while he found a locker. I learned that his name was Bob and he was taking his road bike all over South America and was meeting his daughter for a leg starting in BA. I also learned within three minutes of our introduction that he snored and got up to pee every 2-3 hours thanks to his enlarged prostate. Thanks Bob, I was wondering about that. Bob proved to be about as sweet and endearing as my first impression of him. He had apparently broken his real glasses, so the thick prescription sports goggles endured.

 

Two months ago I Made it to Torres del Paine….

Torres Del Paine is the most visited national park in Chile, and with good reason. I have no excuse for not posting these pictures until now, but I believe it to be best explained in photos, so here it is (my narrative follows): Also  I couldn’t upload the crown jewel photos of the Torres afire at sunrise, so stay tuned.

 

Torres Del Paine was a dream come true for me in every sense of the phrase. I’ve since spoken to people who were less impressed, but to them I say pish posh. Alyssa and I visited the park during high season, when you were never alone on the trail and you had to get creative with tent spots because the real ones filled up so early in the day, and it still took my breath away every leg of the trek. I felt nothing but gratitude to the world no matter the circumstances of the day.

We did the “W” west to east, starting with Paine Grande and the Glacier grey, battling 80 km/hr gusts of wind and chortling every time we almost got blown over. The trip actually began with a nearly impossible stroke of luck; after a stunning ride on the catamaran to Paine Grande campground, home that night to probably over 300 campers, Alyssa and I pulled out our trekking poles, slipped on our gloves, and prepared for what we knew would be a cold, windy, beautiful, and potentially dark hike to Glacier Grey campground, where we had agreed to meet my friend and co-worker Sheena that night. About to set foot on the trail, we decided to pause for 2 minutes to ready the trekking poles before setting out, when all of a sudden… I heard my name! In the moment that the wind died down enough to hear, my name came floating out of the sky, and lo and behold, it was Sheena!! I have never been happier to see anyone in my life. We were both in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with hundreds of other people, in unfamiliar clothes, and Sheena and Craig found us. It’s hard not to believe in fate, because if we hadn’t stopped to take out our trekking poles, they would not have come upon us and we would have been hiking the four miles uphill to the glacier, partially in the dark, to a different campground. A miracle! We were happy to pawn off extra food on my hungry friends that night (they hadn’t packed quite enough for their 9 day circuit trek) and spend time with happy, familiar faces. Craig gave us the run down on the best way to go about our 5 day trek, and we spent the rest of the trail weaving in and out of Craig and Sheena’s path.

They had also picked up some friends on the back side, a couple from Wisconsin who we also shared several nights with.

At this point I think the park is better explained with my mediocre photos, but we spent the next five days marveling at the creations of time and ice and earth. We watched the landscape transform from giant, azure, glacial fed lakes, to near desert speckled with rivers and streams. We filled our water bottles straight from the river, as only minutes before it had left the glaciers. We watched the Torrent Duck swim upsteam in swift rapids (thanks to the Wisconsinites and their extensive birding knowledge. We dunked in ice cold water. We savored top ramen. We froze and sweated. On day 3 I enjoyed a hot shower at 5AM. And all the while, the Torres, Cuernos, and Paine Grande stood guard.

Our final morning, we rose at 3:30 AM to Ellie Goulding (my alarm choice), shouldered a lightweight pack, donned our headlamps, and set out at what felt like a dead run to cover the remaining 6 km (and 2000 vertical feet) to the base of the Torres before sunrise. That morning we watched several transformations – the moon finished it’s decent over the valley, and the sky was just starting to blush to the east when we arrived at the base of the Torres. Behind us and in front of us was a steady stream of bobbing headlamps, but from afar they were unmistakably fireflies. The Torres were still hazy shadows as we picked out our spectator seating, but little by little they emerged. As the darkness faded into a hazy pre-dawn light, the towers were impressive, and then the pink from the sky began to reflect on the rock surface, I thought, oh wow, that’s pretty. Then all at once, a piercing pink began creeping across the left-most torre, and within 50 seconds the entire formation was on fire. It positively took my breath away. It was such a privilege to witness – it felt like we had a 2 minute glimpse through the gates of a different world. I know I sound a little mushy, but I think I will hold those two minutes of utter perfection in my heart for the rest of my life. It was perhaps the only truly transcendental experience I can claim in my short life, so far. Also worth noting that it was the wee hours of my dear mother’s birthday, which meant that I had also missed a best friend’s birthday, so I thought of them the whole morning as well.