Look closely at the image above. Does that little girl look like an animal to you? Not in the metaphysical sense—we are all animals after all. But the customs agent at the La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City had something else in mind.
We were aliens descending.
The plane descends. A steep banking base line turn reveals a runway swaybacked like an ancient horse. Gravity works. We land hard between gray green military planes and seem to speed up a little as we roll downhill. The uphill climb then checks our progress.
About 20 men shepherd the carts and dollies piled high with boxes and gear into a too small room in the customs area. A ranking officer approached us. I was appointed to speak since on this trip I was the only one with passable skills in Spanish.
“¿Qué haces? ¿Qué es todo esto?”
“We’re bringing in medical supplies and equipment for a dental clinic in San Gaspar Chajul.” Keep it simple I thought to myself, there’s no need to talk about building homes for widows, besides, this is about as complicated as I can get in Spanish. Tell the truth, but don’t offer anything more than what is asked.
“¿Por qué quieres hacer eso?
“We’re working for a charity medical group.”
“No, no, quiero decir. ¿Por qué quieres hacer eso para los animales? Ni siquiera son humanos.” [I’ll translate this bit—”No, no, I mean…why would you want to do that for those animals? They’re not even human.”]
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say anything. The officer’s face was red. I knew what he said and what he meant, I instinctively acted like I didn’t understand.
“Lo siento…mi español es muy pobre…” I trailed off. He slammed the customs papers on his desk and signed his name with a flourish.
We were free to go. We gathered our stuff—duffle bags, boxes of medicines and supplies, a reclining dental chair, a water cooled diamond tipped high speed drill, knock-down cabinets I had made in my Dallas shop packed flat for the journey and countless other things. We made our way out to a waiting Canadian-built Bluebird school bus for the short trip to a posada for the night.
Our country has an ignoble history in its dealings with Guatemala. From arranging a CIA coup to overthrow the popularly elected president Jacobo Arbenz in the late 50s to supplying the machines of war to the military dictatorships in the 80s, we have a lot to regret as a nation. The training and matériel we supplied were used in a scorched earth policy in a war the government had with its own people.
Guatemala has two major populations. The Ladinos hold most of the wealth and property. The indigenous Mayans, scattered and separated by geography and dialects comprise an equal number in population, but are desperately poor, then and now—currently most Mayan males earn less than a dollar a day.
Our support of the right-wing military governments—ostensibly to prevent Guatemala from becoming a socialist democracy—resulted in the death of 200,000 in less than 10 years with another 50,000 “disappeared.”
It’s a terrible legacy.
One tragic and cascading result was a sea of widows and orphans. Our group traveled under the auspices of The Summer Institute of Linguistics, which was doing general translation work in the dialects and translating various books of the Old and New Testaments. Our work was not evangelical per se—we built homes for widows and built a dental and medical clinic. It’s true that the work we did buttressed the work of SIL as it provided the needed component of social responsibility. The men on the trip generally didn’t care as we went to do the work and demonstrate kindness in spite of borders or cultural differences.
We Were Aliens.
In a bit of irony, we were indeed across-the-border aliens, though we might just as well have been from another planet. It wasn’t just the language that separated us, as impenetrable as Ixil was with its clicks and glottal stops. We were mostly pasty white oddly dressed aliens. (The one black man on the first trip was a curiosity to the highland Ixil—and embodied the bogey man stories that mothers told their kids when they misbehaved. Children ran screaming and giggling from him wherever he went.) The people in Chajul seemed taken with me though. While the rest of our crew was off building modest homes for widows, I was stuck in town putting together the clinics. I had lots of volunteer children for helpers. I spoke Spanish which many of the younger ones could as well, and I’m naturally tanned—so I seemed a bit less of a threat I guess. The children quickly gave me a nickname since there was no transliteration for Barry. I was known as Fresa, the word for strawberry.
At the door to the dental clinic as we were getting started turning it from an empty room to something that was unlike anything else within 150 miles.
As mentioned, the indigenous peoples are separated by language dialects and terrain. Neighboring towns often have trouble communicating with one another. Even within the Ixil Triangle, where we were headed, the three towns that made up the points on the triangle had some trouble with language. San Gaspar Chajul, San Juan Cotzal and Santa Maria Nebaj all spoke Ixil, but with syntactical differences. A man from Chajul might say that a dog bit a man but one from Cotzal would hear it as the dog ate the man.
We were mostly professional men—doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, CPAs and the like—that descended into that place and time outside our own. Well, then there was me too. I was the anomaly—a stay at home dad by choice at a time in Dallas when those pursuing the mandate of greed couldn’t understand that choice.
We eventually landed, our alien horde, in the remote highland village of Chajul, the apex point on the Ixil Triangle. It was easy enough to fly south across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey from Guatemala City to Chajul belies what seemed easy on the map. In fact it took fifteen hours in that recalibrated Canadian-built Bluebird school bus to travel the same distance as if going from Dallas to Waco.
Los autobuses Trinitaria
A word to the wise—don’t sit in the back of the bus in third world countries with bad roads. The last row of seats, to which I was assigned by default as the last one on the bus, is not optimal. I wasn’t really levitating, it just seemed like there was constant daylight between my ass and the inadequately cushioned green naugahyde. One of the dentists sat across from me, arriving late with me to the bus. I don’t know how he managed to fall asleep in a sitting mode. He looked for all the world like a bobble headed doll. We were a few hours into the journey when we hit that massive pothole. I think I pulled a muscle in my back. Buddy, the dentist, hit his forehead on the railing of the seat back in front of him. He was a budding unicorn for most of the rest of the week. I’ve never seen a goose egg as big as that.
Buddy, prior to the goose egg
You can see one of the reasons the trip took so long in the image above and the ones below. We had to cross the Cordillera de los Cuchumatañes, a mountain range that separates the lowlands of Antigua and the capital with the indigenous highlands. Many of the turns on the often one-lane roads required a three-point turn on the switchbacks. Sometimes the drivers cut it too close and needed some help to extricate. A larger version of the photo above, which I love, can be found here.
Another delay—the bridge over the Xalbal River in Sacapulas, about half way into our journey, was a trestle bridge—with missing sections of concrete that gave us a birds eye view of the water below. The overhead trestle structure was low, so we had to unload all our gear from the top of the buses, walk it across, and then reload. You can see one of the supports for the bridge on the right above.
The current bridge, sad as it was, replaced the previous one washed away. You can see the foundation on one side of the lost bridge.
Eventually, we got to a point where we could see our destination. It was a long and bumpy road, we were anxious to get off the bus and get to work.
A view to San Gaspar Chajul. A larger view is here.
Main Steet in Chajul (It doesn’t really have that name—it’s known as Highway 3 on maps.) The road ends for practical purposes at the church, though there are some rough paths beyond. You can see what looks like a buttress on the side of the church, (larger version is here) which was built in the 16th century, as the roof had partially collapsed and the walls needed the roof or a buttress to remain standing.
A photo from the following year without the buttress as the roof had been repaired
We stayed in the SIL compound above during our time in Chajul. The sign reads Centro de Alfabetizacion Ixil Chajul Instituto Linguistico de Verano.
Arrangements were made to take over a small room near the local bodega and install the dental clinic there. It took us about 3 days to get it cleaned up, the electrical done, and for me to put together the cabinets that American Airlines allowed us to take with us on the plane for free. We had about 1000 pounds of extra gear that they donated the freight costs for us. Times have changed, but we were so thankful for their generous spirit.
We were just about done, shown below. Word got out. People were lining up after walking for miles to Chajul.
After getting the clinic done and operational, we only had two full days left to see patients. There were other dentists scheduled to visit Chajul on medical trips, and we planned on returning the next year as well.
Since I was the one that had some Spanish, I was elected to be the dentist’s assistant. I had to translate, and run the evacuation tube. I put my normal queasiness aside—although I’m not sure how—and helped as best I could. One problem was that many of the patients, and all of the older patients couldn’t speak Spanish. The girl pictured next to me below was my translator. Buddy the dentist told me what he wanted to do, I told Maria, the local girl, in Spanish and she translated that into Ixil.
You can see the connection made here—across language, across borders, across cultures, time, age and space. I’m holding the patient’s hand, talking in a calm voice to ease the fear she has of these large and terrible aliens. The narrative in Ixil was constant in the background as well.
Here is where we get to the meaning of the title and subtitle of this retelling. Nearly everyone who came in had serious problems. Oral hygiene was an unknown concept for many in the remote highlands. We did instruct, we gave out toothbrushes and explained cause and effect to the best of our abilities.
They all came in wanting rellenos—fillings. They couldn’t have them though. We did do a few, but in most cases, the teeth had to be extracted and the gums stitched closed. It was not easy to see, but the need was greater than my discomfort. There was nothing more important, in the things I’ve done in Guatemala, than to demonstrate love—love turned into something real—with a touch of the hand and a calm voice.
Buddy had the materials for fillings but they were mostly unused.
Ag Sn Cu Zn Hg is the formula for an amalgam, the common filling used before we’ve changed in this country to something better, more attractive and less toxic. Ag is silver, Sn is tin, Cu is copper, Zn is zinc and Hg is mercury. That’s what I have in my mouth, I’m glad my kids do not.
The metals represent what those in Chajul wanted. It’s not what they got. Instead of the metals, they got some short-lived pain and discomfort. They had to get used to a mouth with fewer teeth. But what they got instead was a filling of love from all of those who participated in these medical and humanitarian trips.
It was not safe for us to be there. We saw burned out shells of buses on the journey up to Chajul, left charred by RPGs. There was an army base about a mile from where we slept. An army made up of Ladinos. I never saw an indigenous Mayan in a Guatemalan army uniform. One night the army decided to let us know what they thought about what we were doing. Long after we had gone to bed in our triple deck bunk beds, we heard the unmistakable thump and shriek of 105mm howitzers being fired over our compound, exploding beyond on the surrounding mountains. The story the next day was that they were targeting some rebels that were thought to be in the area, but everyone knew what the army was really saying.
I know it sounds as if this post is all about me, but forgive me for saying that would indicate a superficial reading. The themes and undercurrents to this story are easy to see. I don’t think there’s a more important lesson than to go to a place of abject poverty to realize what it is we take for granted—to see the frailty and vanity of objects and possessions and put them in their proper place. I will forever be grateful for the trips I made to the Ixil Triangle. It was a delight to hear the children who remembered, in our returns in subsequent years, that when the Trinitaria bus rolled into town, there were little chirps of recognition. “¡Fresa! ¡Fresa! ¡Fresa esta aqui!”
I’ll leave this story now with a couple of uplifting images.
One of the most important holidays for the year is Mother’s Day. There were no presents bought, there was no industry to provide a thing to purchase. The children went into the countryside and picked flowers. There was a parade with painfully tuned instruments. Everyone was happy, especially the moms.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company, had a program in the early 90s, that if you were going to a third world country, and you promised to distribute them for free, they would send you a few boxes filled with synchilla jackets that were made from remnants of their regular retail jackets. They called it the Coat of Many Colors program. I was able to take 70 or so over several years to Guatemala. I don’t know i f they’re still doing it. It’s why I still buy Patagonia stuff if I have a choice. I didn’t actually distribute the jackets. We were careful not to give things away as individuals. We gave the jackets, and other donated items, to a consortium of local pastors. They were best able to determine the neediest recipients.
Thanks so much for spending your time with me on this post. I appreciate your friendship—treasure would be a better word. Thanks.
A note on the images: this is one of the gifts from my oldest son this past Christmas—he took it upon himself to scan some negatives I had laying around. I have a lot of projects that are in various stages of thought and preparation, I’m grateful that he found meaning in this and am thankful I have such a thoughtful and giving son. He didn’t need to go out and buy something for me. He gave me his time and his love.
I was still using a film camera during my trips to Guatemala. I noticed something right away in putting this together. Many images were not recorded, except what was imprinted in my now faulty memory. Film was time and money. Digital cameras are time and pixels. I rely less on my memory with digital, but I still miss film, even though I take many, many more shots with digital to increase the chances of a lucky shot.
Images taken on a Minolta SRT101 35mm SLR with a 50mm 1.4 lens. The film was Kodak Gold 100, and as you can see, the negatives show the effects of time rattling around in a shoebox.
Update: My son, the one I mentioned above who scanned the negatives, just sent me an e-mail:
Great post, great writing, great photos, great story. it’s nice to finally fill in some blanks between your annual departure and subsequent return as a tanned, bearded, and generally unrecognizable man knocking at the front door.
all content and images copyright © 1990, 1991 and 2010 by barry b. doyle
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