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Letters from Guatemala
Wednesday, July 17, 2013 • Posted July 19, 2013 10:48 AM

While doing research in the schools of Guatemala’s highlands in 1969, I sent letters home describing some of my experiences. The following is taken from those letters:

Momostenango, July 11. Yesterday I made the mistake of taking my tape recorder to visit the school at Tierra Colorada. That little extra weight got pretty heavy as I traversed the ten kilometers up and down the mountain trails on foot. It was a beautiful walk but I think this country is entirely vertical. I did not see one vehicle in all that way.

I was just interrupted by a knock at the door. It was an Indian lady who asked if I would buy an egg from her. I got five cents out of the kitty and bought her egg. It is a shame that they don’t consume more of what they produce; malnutrition runs rampant here.)

This morning I set out for the villages of Xequemeya and Canquixaja to check out the schools there. Xequemeya is twelve kilometers from here and Canquixaja is directly across a big canyon from the former. This time I carried nothing but my camera (strapped to my belt) and my clipboard. It seemed about twice as far as yesterday’s trip and seemed to be all uphill--both ways!

The “road”, and I use the term loosely, winds through pine-covered mountains past streams and waterfalls. No gringos ever get out there so I was asked several times by curious Indians in broken Spanish where I was going and why. I met some friendly Indians, some cautious Indians and some very drunk Indians.

The school in Chequemeya is a two-room adobe building built in 1912. It has no water or electricity. There is a multi-holer outhouse on the hill behind the school. There is a new school being built in Canquixaja. Near the latter are some hot sulfur springs where the Indians are wont to bathe. I checked out the springs and found a couple just exiting the water and, fortunately, mostly dressed.

Anyway, I thought I was going to die before I got “home” today. I figure I walked vertically between 25 and 30 kilometers without daring to drink the water I found along the way. I feel better now after a cold shower (there’s no other kind) and several soda pops. I drink a lot of soft drinks. I don’t think there’s a stream in this area of the country that isn’t polluted with soap or urine.

Guatemala City, July 15. El Salvador has apparently bombed Honduras and tensions are high here in the Capital. The people out in the hinterland don’t really know what is going on. Most of the action seems to take place between the politicians in the big cities. Perhaps what the poor country folks don’t know won’t add to their everyday stresses.

In Cunen I will be staying in the house belonging to Guatemalan senator Rafael Castillo who has been appointed Guatemala’s ambassador to the U.N. His house is purportedly in need of repairs but it is a roof over our heads. Dr. Lyman and his family will be there until September. While in Momostenango, Dr. Lyman operated on the mayor’s toe. His little toe grew over the one next to it and caused him great pain to walk. I helped the doctor build an operating table out of new lumber and he cut the mayor’s little toe off. After he recovered, the mayor said it was the first time in years that he could walk without pain.

I have spent quite a bit of time interpreting for the medical team. An Indian will express his health concerns in Maya-Quiche. A local will interpret into Spanish. I will then interpret the Spanish into English. The doctor will ask a question in English and the process is reversed.

The Indians are coming from all directions to see the American doctor. He has to give each of them a shot whether they need one or not; otherwise, they don’t think they have been treated and will refuse to leave. It’s the first time I’ve seen people smile when the needle comes out. Dr. Lyman gives lots of placebo shots. The most pervasive malady among the Indians is anemia brought on by intestinal parasites. A hemoglobin reading of 6 or 8 is common but sometimes a man or woman will walk in with hemoglobin of 2 when normal is something like 14. After treatment the reading can go up to 4 and the people express how much better they feel.

A relatively well-to-do mestizo woman rode a bus for hours to Momostenango all the way from the Capital when she got wind of the American doctor working in the mountains. She introduced herself to Dr. Lyman and presented him with a cardboard box filled with pills, creams and salves. She had had an infection for four years and no doctor seemed able to help her. In the course of answering the doctor’s questions, she just happened to mentioned in Spanish that she was always thirsty. When I passed that along in English to the doctor it was like an electric light went on in his head. He sent the woman with the nurse to get a urine sample. After running a simple test on the sample he said, “She’s diabetic! We won’t be able to control the infection until we are able to control the diabetes. I can’t believe nobody else in all this time has checked that out.”

The doctor has no lab equipment, no microscope, no x-rays and almost no medicine. The mayor has cleaned out a primitive library for a doctor’s office and is fixing up an adjoining room so beds can be put in for a hospital. According to the statistics in the village of Cunen, during the month of May there were 23 births and 28 deaths. Most of those who died were children between the ages of one and five. Whooping cough and measles were the major causes of death.

Next week: A man will walk on the moon? What is the matter with this crazy gringo?


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