El Cambray

The heavy rains at the tail end of the rainy season have taken their toll on some areas. In a town near the capital, nestled in a valley between two hills, the rain caused death and destruction.

Half a mountain of mud and clay slid down on top of an estimated 150 houses around 9 pm, Friday night. Estimates of the missing range from 300-600, but no one really knows. The valley was so narrow that there are meters and meters of mud and dirt on top of the houses, many of which did not collapse completely, leaving people alive inside the ruins. We know this because they are texting their friends and family from under the mud.

Despite this, bodies are being pulled out. One woman told cameras that her son had been found with his head wedged between the wall and the bed, while her husband was found under tree. Both were taken to the hospital, but she stayed on site, because one of her sons was still missing.

One of the things I really love about Guatemala is how quickly people organized to help those left homeless. There are bottles of water, food, blankets and clothing being donated, not all from NGOs or foreigners, but by the Guatemalan people themselves. They know what it’s like to be without and they hurry to help.

As of last night, 55 survivors had been pulled out of the mudslide and taken to the hospital. This is another worry, because the hospitals here are in a downward spiral. I wrote about my MIL’s issues but we’ve been learning that it is far, far worse. I’ll write a post on this in the future, but basically, the public hospitals are out of supplies. They don’t have gloves, IV kits, or even basic medicines to bring down fevers. I’m not sure how they are going to handle this sudden rush of landslide victims . . . unless people also donate the items necessary for surgeries and basic medical treatment.

For now, the nation watches anxiously, cheering for each survivor pulled out and feeling saddened with every lifeless body that appears.

What On Earth is Going On in Guatemala?

The kids and I have been ridiculously ill the past couple of weeks and while the boys are doing fine now, I’m still feverish and not doing a lot, hence the severe lack of posts here. However, some of you may have noticed that something is going on in Guatemala. Something big.

I’m not going to go into it all here, but you can read about what is happening in this Buzzfeed article. It gives a very good overview of things.

What I am going to talk about is my thoughts on this whole thing. I’m proud of Guatemala. This may not be my natal country, but it is most definitely my country now and I have never, in 13 years, seen the people of this country pull together like this. It’s amazing and beautiful.

Guatemala has a bad reputation for being violent. There have been many, many protests in the past, but never have I seen this many people involved, from every social level in this country, protesting . . . not just together, but peacefully! Millions of  people in cities across Guatemala are coming together, sick of the corruption and ready for change. Will it change? Will Guatemala become the country it has the potential to become? Maybe . . . maybe not. I don’t think it will happen all at once, but this, the people of Guatemala getting upset and taking a stand against corruption is what is needed here.

A Third World Hospital

Just what is a third world hospital like? It all depends on where you go. I’ve had quite a few experiences with the public hospitals in Guatemala, but most of those were years ago, when I miscarried our early babies and when the two older boys were born. Dorian’s later surgeries and Dominic’s birth were in private hospitals, so dealing with my mother-in-law being in a public hospital was a return to a familiar world.

Most people know that third world hospitals aren’t going to be that great, but what other option do people have if they don’t have money? Something I’ve learned is that the system has gotten far, far worse than when I was giving birth in San Felipe’s hospital. Or perhaps it was simply because I was there for something natural and normal, rather than needing special help. Either way, here’s a look at what a public hospital in Guatemala is like these days.

1. Bring Your Own _____

The hospital will give you food and a bed. That’s pretty much it. The food is very basic, as is to be expected. There’s no fancy JELLO here! You’ll be served a spoonful of beans, a piece of bread and a melamine cup of atol (a thick drink, like gruel). If you’re lucky, you’ll get a side of veggies or a piece of plantain. It’s not filling, but it will keep you alive. Let me just say that this tiny amount of food is NOTHING when you’ve just had a baby and haven’t eaten in 12+ hours!

Now, while this is provided, there is NO water offered in the hospital. You will need someone to bring you a bottle of water or you will have to drink from the unfiltered taps in the bathroom. Which I’ve seen many women do, since there is only one visiting hour in the day. If you have your baby or go in early in the morning, you’re kinda hooped until 2pm.

2. Call Buttons, Shmall Buttons

Don’t expect to be able to call a nurse when you need one! There are no call buttons here and if you do get up to find a nurse, you’ll most likely be scolded and sent back to bed without any real help. I suspect the nurses are jaded and underpaid here and are tired of being unable to tell a patient that a doctor is on his way or give out any concrete information.

3. What to Wear

You can’t take anything into the hospital with you. When you arrive at the ER, one person may accompany you and that person will be given everything you have on you in a plastic bag, including earrings, underwear, and shoes and socks. You will be given a gown that may be in pretty poor condition (my MIL wore one with a huge tear in the side and no ties).

During the visiting hour, family or friends can bring you flip flops and such. Until then, you get to show off your assets. ?

4. Need Meds? Buy Them Yourself

The hospitals here work on a very limited budget and have virtually no supplies. When Dante had to go into the ER a couple of years back, there was a child brought in who had drowned in a well. They were trying desperately to resuscitate this little boy and one of the doctors was pacing the hall, calling every resource she could think of to try and find a ventilator so they could try and save this little one. They were bagging by hand until they could get hold of one. Can you imagine? That’s a vital piece of equipment for a hospital that serves at least a dozen towns!

My MIL needs a metal plate in her shoulder. The hospital does not provide this. Instead, they give you a prescription for it, should you be lucky enough to get a surgical consult, and it’s up to you to go and buy it. If you don’t have the money, your loved one remains in limbo, waiting until the family can get the pieces and the medications they need. The blood tests she required were also extra out of pocket costs.

As Irving put it, “This is basically a public hospital now, because you have to pay for everything except the bed!” This makes it extremely difficult for families who are unable to raise the money for a necessary operation.

 5. Doctors Off Call

When I had Dorian, there were no doctors in the hospital. Since the hospital in San Felipe is a teaching one, it’s full of interns and residents who seem really resentful of their need to be there. When things go wrong, there isn’t always a doctor around to step in and that can be dangerous. Fortunately, I never had an issue with that, but there are people who have.

All that being said . . .

I am very grateful that there ARE public hospitals here. They aren’t the best and they have many, many faults, but they also provide medical care to those who can’t afford it elsewhere. There are some doctors, like Dorian’s surgeon, who are true to their oaths and are willing to help their patients and make life better for them.

While most of my experiences have been bad, Dante’s birth was a wonderful experience with the help of two amazing female doctors in the same hospital where I had such a terrible experience with Dorian’s birth. So, I think there are a number of people working in these poor conditions, trying their best to help, but without the necessary resources to do so. That’s sad, but it gives me hope that things can get better.

Enjoy Where You Are

When I first came to Guatemala, it was incredible. The beautiful greenery, the colorful dress of the local indigenous people, the bright colored fruit in the market. Everything was amazing and new and beautiful. Well, almost everything.

13 years on, it’s all pretty normal for me. I rush from task to task, schooling the boys, working on my articles and ebooks, hanging up the laundry, bringing in the laundry . . . without really taking the time to stop and smell the roses, as it were.

Recently, I noticed that I’ve been complaining a lot. The rain coming through the roof bugs me. There are a million things that irritate me about living in Guatemala and living in this particular house. I am always thinking of “when . . .”

“When we have enough money to build a house up the mountain . . . ”

“When the rain stops . . .”

“When the boys are older . . .”

Well, it just seems silly. If you’re always waiting for something to happen to make things better it will just end up being a lifetime of waiting, right?

So, I decided to make a point of enjoying the things around me. I do this already with the kids, knowing they’re growing up fast, but what about other things? So the past couple of mornings, instead of complaining about the heat, I thought about how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful country and to enjoy weather that most people have to go on vacation to enjoy. :)

Here are a few pictures I took to remind myself of this.

Seriously, this place is gorgeous! I love living here.

What do you appreciate about where you live?

Getting Closer!

I’ve always wanted a piece of land with some animals and some semblance of self-sufficiency. My parents were very self-sufficient for most of my life and I had a huge stack of Mother Earth News magazines from the early days that inspired me.

Life happens though, and while I do live in one of the best countries for homesteading (hello, banana trees!) it just hasn’t been something we’ve gotten into. BUT, we’re getting closer. Irving has finally accepted the idea of getting some chickens. Zanelle has a chicken at her house, which is on a sort of leash, like a dog. I take all my kitchen scraps to it and the chicken is like a little puppy, jumping around when it sees me coming, cooing at me and eagerly grabbing for the strawberry tops and cucumber peels that I toss.

Even more recently, we were on one of our hikes and the boys spotted a goat. Now, I’ve wanted goats for a long while. I was raised with a herd of goats on our land and it seems more practical than a cow. Plus, goat’s milk makes pretty good cheese, which I’d love to sell.

Anyway. The boys were talking to the goat and the goat was talking back. Irving stopped to check it out and said, “You know, we could have a goat and take it up the mountain to graze sometimes.” That was all the encouragement I needed! I started to check out the goats for sale in the area and grill my dad about raising them.

While we probably won’t be getting the goats for a bit yet, chickens are definitely coming home soon. Irving will be building a little coop for them. He’s already building me some planters for the fruit trees and herbs I want. Bit by bit, we’re getting closer to the dream.

Nature Time

One of the things I miss most about living here is the lack of nature around me. Sure the neighbors have banana trees and coffee plants, but my patio is concrete and our bit of land is so small that there’s not really room for much. I miss standing in the middle of the forest and feeling the calmness of living things around me.

Lately, Irving has been taking the boys on hikes so I can get more work done. This has made it easier for me to work, but it also allows the kids to get a taste of nature that they don’t really get at home. They headed up to the piece of land on the mountain where I eventually want to live and they have been having picnics there. It’s a popular place to hang out . . .Melvin and Sofia 3 have been visiting, too!

The best part is that the kids are getting some serious nature time, which is pretty awesome. Now I just need to get away from the computer and head up with them!

Here Comes the Rain!

Well, my last post was about the heat, but literally the next day, it started to rain! We were pretty pleased about that. The boys watched the rain roll in from the hills.

Not only did it start to rain, but the temperature dropped about 10º in few minutes and we ended up with HAIL! The boys were so excited about it. They couldn’t believe that ice could fall from the sky. This triggered a nice little science lesson on how hail is made.

The hail was gone in a few minutes and then it poured rain. All three boys ran around outside and got soaking wet. We do enjoy our rain . . . especially at the beginning of the season.

Unfortunately, our patio has a little dip in it that collects water, so Dante was out there sweeping the water into the drain. It’s not actually necessary, since it will drain off at a certain level, but he had a blast doing it.

It poured all night long and was quite the storm, so we talked a lot about thunder and lightning, too. All in all, an educational night!

In the morning, we found this . . . too bad the bananas were still super immature and nowhere near edible.

Laundry Weather

We’re gearing up for the rainy season here, but before it starts, the dry season is really giving its all to make things dry. This means HOT sun all day long most every day. Great laundry weather!

Unfortunately, while this much sun is nice for drying towels and jeans, it’s kinda melty human weather. Apparently it’s not even 30º, but let me tell you, with the tin roof, it’s nearly unbearable! Practically an oven in here.

That being said, I know that very soon, we’ll be getting torrential downpours all evening and night. That will be nice, though the damp brings its own problems like mold and leaks in the roof that never appear until it’s REALLY pouring. Each season has it’s pros and cons, so I’ll just try to enjoy them all.

Weird Things You Get Used to as an Expat

I was looking at a friend’s photos on Facebook the other day and admiring her bookshelves and it occurred to me that this is one of the things I’m now used to. It’s weird to see overstuffed bookcases around here (though I have a few myself, of course). Other things that you get used to as an expat around here:

Guatemalan guard

Image via xoque - Flickr CC

Guards with guns. The first time I rounded a corner in Antigua and ran into a guard carrying a shotgun, it scared me almost to death. Now? I don’t even notice them for the most part.

Eating with tortillas. I’ll be honest, when I first arrived in this country, I really didn’t like tortillas. Eventually, I got used to them. The funniest thing though, is learning to eat with a tortilla in place of utensils. One year, my sister came to visit and we ate with the in-laws.

“Everyone eats with their hands . . . I’m the only one using a fork!” Yup, welcome to Guatemala. Who needs to dirty forks and spoons when you can just scoop up your beans with a tortilla?

Bombas. Firecrackers are set off nearly every day here, particularly around holidays and birthdays. For some bizarre reason, birthday bombas are set off very early in the morning, like four am sometimes! Early on, these always woke me, but now I can sleep right through them.

Constant shake-ups. Earthquakes happen a lot around here, which is apparently a good thing, since it means the pressure is relieved. Amazingly, it’s possible to get used to the windows rattling and the floor undulating beneath your feet!

stores in Guatemala

Image via Kate and Alonso - Flickr CC

 Shopping over the counter. While there are some shops that have shelves where you can go and pick things off the shelf, the vast majority of stationary stores, convenience stores, etc. keep everything behind the counter, often with metal bars for security separating you from the clerk.

This presents a problem for the non-Spanish speaking tourists. You not only have to know which store to go to in order to find what you need, you also have to know what it’s called in Spanish! Depending on the clerk, they may or may not be tolerant of your muddled vocabulary and hand gestures trying to describe what you need.

After all these years, I’m now accustomed to ordering what I need, but I do still miss the ability to scan the shelves of a craft shop and drool over products.

 Kissing cheeks. I’m a bit of an introvert, so hugs and kisses don’t come naturally to me, but here, cheek kissing is a very common greeting and farewell. I can’t say I’m 100% on it all the time, sometimes I’m not sure if I should kiss or shake hands, but it doesn’t really phase me anymore when someone leans in.

Lack of personal space. North Americans value their personal bubble and we tend to have respect for each other’s personal space. Latinos . . . don’t seem to have the same sense of space. In the first few years, I found it alarming to have people stand so close to me, or sit right next to me on a bench. I wondered what they wanted or if something was wrong. Now? While I still like my personal bubble, it’s not a big deal when someone moves into it . . . or several someones.

These are just a few of the things that I once found awkward or uncomfortable but now treat as normal. What have you gotten used to as an expat?


Learning to Cook Chapin

When Irving and I first started living together, we had some food issues. I made things like spaghetti and meatballs, carrots and peas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He was used to eating rice, beans and eggs, with the occasional piece of chicken or beef. He had a pretty strong aversion to most vegetables and NEVER wanted to try anything new.

That being said, he would eat anything I put in front of him, as long as he didn’t know what it was beforehand. I learned to start making dinner and not answering his “What is it?” questions. He would eat it and discovered that he liked a number of new foods.

As anyone who has lived in a foreign country can tell you, though, sometimes you just want food from home. So Irving would visit his mom to eat and this often meant he had a second lunch around 4 and our dinner was at 5. Needless to say, that annoyed me a lot back in the day. ?

Over time, though, I learned to cook chapin (Guatemalan) food. It wasn’t always easy. It took me nearly 7 years to get the hang of rice, for example. But I have managed to nail a few things! Here’s the breakfast I made Irving yesterday:

Fried plantains, refried black beans and eggs with chirmol on top. There were sausages, too, but they didn’t make it into the breakfast. He was thrilled!

Over the years, we’ve learned to adapt, as all couples do. These day, my food is a mix of Guatemalan and Canadian, with a little Chinese thrown in sometimes. I can prepare the basics in Guatemalan cuisine . . . tamales, frijoles revueltos, picado de rabano, pepian and tortillas (though my slapping technique is still lacking), but Irving has also come to enjoy more Canadian foods, like oatmeal that isn’t gruel consistency and has fruit in it, stuffed potatoes, brown bread and even tuna fish salad. He still won’t touch egg salad sandwiches though!