An Indian Doctor on Medical Mission to Guatemala

by Ram N. Agrawal

I had visions of Guatemala as a dusty, impverished, somewhat primitive country. I found out that I was sadly mistaken in this assumption. Actually, Guatemala is a beautiful country with mountains, valleys and beaches. The highlands of Guatemala where we stayed most of the time is lush, green and cold much like what we see in Himachal Pradesh. There are a lot of open spaces in the country as it is not that crowded. Certainly, the country is not as rich as the U.S. but we did not see any marked degree of malnutrition.

People are genuinely friendly and come in all kinds of complexions varying from white to fairly dark - results of a mixture of Spanish and people of Mayan ancestry, the latter predominating. Although the lingua franca is Spanish, but the Indians speak a medley of languages. In San Cristobal, they spoke the dialect "Pokamchi" which not everybody understood. Oftentimes, we had people translate Pokomchi into Spanish which again was rendered into English. These linguistic differences notwithstanding, the language of humanity transcends all such barriers.

The diet consists mainly of beans, fried bananas, corn and rice. I didnt notice too much meat eating although it was available. They use a lot of chillies in their meals. On a Thursday when we visited their biweekly bazaar, we noticed all kinds of chillies and fruits including mangoes, which though good do not quite taste like our Indian "langaras or maldah ", the best in the world. Their currency is Quetzal-approx.2.2 quetzal to a dollar which is readily accepted everywhere.

On the last day of our stay in San Cristobal, the local populace gave us a farewell dinner when they entertained with their native music called "Mirimba". It is so good that you have to hear it in order to appreciate its appeal.

The people are so patient, it is unbelievable. There was a woman waiting to be operated upon on Friday. One has to be starving for 6 to 8 hours before any surgery can be done. As we were forced to attend the farewell on Friday lest we offend our hosts, it was nearly midnight before the party ended. This poor woman was waiting patiently for her operation having had nothing to eat or drink for the past 36 hours. When I realized that, I profusely apologized. But she smiled and indicated that it was no problem and she was glad that we were not going to cancel her surgery.

The country is not stark poor but the medical care there leaves a lot to be desired. There are hospitals but no medicines and no facility available for surgery and maternity care unless one can pay for it. In India, even for the poor, Government hospitals would povide basic care for free.

After our mission was over, we bussed to Antigua, about 500 years old settlement next to a volcano which used to be the capital of Guatemala till the volcano destroyed it in 1776. It is well preserved and almost like the French quarter in New Orleans. There are a lot of eateries in Antigua but one has to be a little careful lest one gets Montezzuma's revenge, a form of food poisoning. We roamed around the city, bought a few things including jade for which Guatemala is quite famous.

The next day we flew to Tikal which has a lot of arceological digs. We were told that this is the third most visited ancient site in the world. I presume the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal must be the other two.

The Mayan civilization was quite thriving at one time but then it suddenly disappeared even before the arrival of the white man, nobody seems to know why.

All in all it was a memorable experience, something I would love to relive again.

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