Published: March 10th 2011March 3rd 2011
"You're going where?" a neighbour asked.
I told her Guatemala, then added, "on a surgical trip."
Further explanation could have followed, and should have, but I was tired of talking. I wasn't in the mood. With one week to go, my mind was on other things, like packing, and I felt I owed it to myself to give the minimum response. Also niggling at me was the sense that people do not necessarily care about my life-changing experiences, even if this time I have been given the opportunity to do a job that is meaningful, attached to hard work and risk, and disconnected to things.
To be honest, I don't blame them. Why should we get all excited about someone else's adventures, really? I'm as guilty of this as anyone else. Recently, I was handed a stack of wedding photos taken on a beach in Maui, and even though I tried to be genuinely interested, my eyes had glazed over long before the bride got to the luau. Being given the privilege to be part of a medical volunteer team working in a small clinic in San Juan Sacatapequez, a crease in the map north of Guatemala City, was no reason to be calling attention to myself. We are self-absorbed human beings and it takes maturity and acceptance to come to terms with the fact that no one needs to care.
I learned this the hard way when, back in 1988, we collected our savings and took our three young kids on an extended camping trip to Europe. Basically, it was five months in a car with a twelve, ten and four-year-old, and there were some days I thought the lid was going to blow off that thing. We had experiences which, for us, constituted huge adventures. We watched the Trooping of the Colours outside Buckingham Palace and got within inches of the Queen passing by in her coach. We woke to the sound of a tornado cutting a wide swath past our French campground. We admired the elegant decay of Venice and lost ourselves within its warren of bridges and canals. We "misplaced" the boys in Lichtenstein, luckily a postage-stamp-size of a country. We luged down a mountainside in the Black Forest, ate lamb chops so huge they hung over the plate, and had collective haircuts in a Yorkshire farmhouse kitchen.
When we got back to Halifax, friends showed polite interest at first but were noticeably underwhelmed. And who could blame them? They had been busy having their own equally agreeable family adventures and weren't nearly as interested in mine, no matter how transformative I found them to be. In my enthusiasm, I may have worn out the vertical pronoun. Probably, I did. And by chance I discovered a wickedly helpful thing. No one is half as interested in you as you are in yourself.
But hold on: there is curiousity. It's a travel writer's excuse for a carrying on in an annoyingly "Look at me!" fashion, and it fills entire library bookshelves. So if you're curious enough to keep reading (and I won't hold it against you if you're not) I'm eager to tell you about Project HANDS and how Ron and I happened to be invited to come along as part of a nonprofit medical team of surgeons and nurses who deliver healthcare to the indigenous Maya living in the mountains near Guatemala City.
Last January, on an airplane flying home from Mexico City, we sat beside a distinguished-looking couple, John and Rosemary Dudley. They had recently finished up their two-week stint in a rural clinic near Antigua, and were kind enough to talk to us about it. During the flight, they described the high rate of mortality and malnutrition in Guatemala, especially amongst the Mayan people, 91% of whom live in staggering poverty. Elective surgery does not exist, they explained, as hospitals are inadequately funded, poorly equipped and seen as places to die.
There is always the debate about what kind of help (if any) should be given to the developing world, if it allows a government to abscond from its responsibilities. But how do you turn away from a child with a cleft lip knowing that if she doesn't die from malnutrition, she will certainly be locked away in a back room for the rest of her life? I have seen this in Honduras and know it to be true. And how can you tell a man he will never be able to support his family because a hernia surgery is something that his own government should provide? And what do you say to the mothers and grandmothers, bowed in discomfort, suffering from every womanly thing? It is unconscionable that poor people should suffer while the the rich continue to quibble and lay blame.
So, for the next ten days, I will be journalling my experiences as part of the Project HANDS team, and posting them to you as frequently as possible. At 60, it will certainly be the writing assignment of a lifetime for me. And I won't forget to add my neighbour's name to the recipient list. After all, she had my best interests at heart, before giving me some words of advice.
"About that surgical trip..." she said, leaning towards me, "there's nothing they can do for your neck."
Then I packed my suitcase and boarded a plane for Guatemala.