Searching for treasures in the jungles of Guatemala

It is about 6pm sitting in our project “Office”. It was over 100 degrees F in the shade today, the humidity is a little better than the last few days, so I would guess it is about 90%! I am dead tired. I desperately needed a cool shower, stripping down only to find that there is no water. So here I am sitting not knowing what to do, tired, sweaty and smelly. But as I sit here, thinking about my day, I become energized from what we were able to accomplish today. For the last couple days, I have ridden a motorcycle through the forest, driven over 100 miles on rocky dirt road, crossed a river on a pure dugout canoe and hiked paths that were accessible by foot, all this to search for our treasure. I felt like was back in the times when Spaniards explored the world. We searched out far flung villages wherever the rumors pointed us.

click here for photos taken during our search

Actually we have been searching for people with Cleft Lips! It is one of the new projects that I am initiating here -- developing a new network as part of the Partner in Health which focuses on searching out the poorest of the poor in Guatemala needing surgery matching them up with visiting surgeons from the States and Canada. The goal is to search the remotest parts for people who do not have access to medical or financial means. Working for a multimillion dollar project as a business person, I sometimes feel frustrated due to the inability of overcoming the realistic challenges of the situation to bring major economic changes to the lives here. So I have been excited to start this project on my own because, I figured if I can not help people make more money directly and immediately, with this project, I can directly affect someone’s live immediately and dramatically with the potential of saving some lives!

So with this inspiration and motivation, I and my landload, David who I have selected as the local representative to make this sustainable, have been asking anybody we run across about any “sightings of people with cleft lips” the next surgeon visit is the end of this month. With time pressure and lack of experience, I felt we were like a couple new cowboys riding a wild horse into the woods. Many of the places, I have not been, sadly to say because I have been working with more business issues in the office. So as we ride deeper and deeper into the woods, I felt like a modern day headhunter..We were searching for someone, he was hidden in the woods somewhere, the only difference is that we had a motorcycle or car and our weapon was a shooting camera.

So our first day, we rode out to Monte Sinai which is actually not far from where I live in Salacuim, but we had to take a trail through people’s land and take a path through the mountains. After 30 mins of riding 2 people gabbing for our life on this old motorcycle, I felt like we ended up in a truly hidden and lost world. I was only able to see only 5 huts squeezed in between two mountains in a narrow canyon. Were they hiding from someone? Why did they not set up their community on a wide open plain where they can see the skyline and have open land to plant crops. Then I realized, they probably were hiding from someone as just a little over 20 years ago, Guatemala and this particular region was hit with the worst civil wars where hundreds of local in the areas were slaughtered. But as the shock of where we weared..I grew to love the beauty. The place was so tranquil, kids running around along with the farm animals and dogs without anybody disturbing them. No cars to worry about here running kids over. The place was cooler than Salacuim’s over 100 degrees. The coolness came from the breeze channeling through the canyon covered with lush green forest. The only sounds were the kids giggle and calls of birds echoing like souround sound in a movie theater! Hidden paradise.

We sat and waited enjoying the beautiful surrounding for Domingo, the father who has the Cleft Lips, to come back from a day working in the field. After a few minutes, we could see him in the distance coming towards us. I grew increasingly nervous. How bad will his lips be? Can I keep myself from staring at him? How will he see me, especially when I can tell people are not accustomed to visitors, especially a foreigner? I sat back and let David start the conversation. They naturally start to speak their native language of Quechi, which to me sounds like a series of grunts and gulps! I can tell from the facial expression that Domingo was a little suspicious. David translated that he was not interested because he is content the way he is. Later as we drove away, David added that he mentioned that I was perhaps there with my camera to take pictures of him to sell back in my country. Could not help but to think, even when you have the purest intention of helping them they still question my intentions. Volunteer work can be tough and frustrating at times. But it was our first “outing” and I saw a beautiful place, so I was not too disappointed.

That night we received that there has been a “Sighting” in another village. We got up early the next morning, drove a jeep to a place that I can’t even pronounce. We arrived after a relative normal ride on dirty and rocky roads, and found this lady who apparently had apparently had the problem. As we talked to her, she covered her mouth, making me think it was really bad. After asking her if I can see it, she removed her hands to reveal only scars left over from previous operation. It was barely visible, but it made the point how lasting the insecurity of disfigurement can have on someone. It inspired me more to look for kids to cure before the psychological affects becomes permanent. With luck we ran into a group of Red cross people who told us that they know for sure there were a couple kids on the other side of the area which we cover, 2 hours away. Finally, a confirmer sighting from a legitimate source.

So early this morning, we got an early start to head to an area called San Luis Palo Grande which most people have only heard of but never visited due to its remoteness. So after a hour and half on the main road, which is “paved” with rocks and mud, we turned into a mountain road. Ever few minutes we would stop to ask direction, only to be told that it was further ahead. I thought to myself, no way would someone live so far from civilization as we were already deep into the forest jungle. As we drove on, we would wave to the occasional kid playing in the woods or farmers working the plantation. Then all of the sudden, we looked at each other in the car with faces of someone who had just seen a God or someone. Finally David shouted, that kid had Cleft lips in Spanish!! I slammed on the brakes, turned off the engine and basically ran out of the car in excitement., leaving the car in the middle of the path. Afterall, what are the chances that someone else is gonna drive by. I never thought I would be so happy to see a disfigured kid!! But seeing the kid, I was overwhelmed with emotions, thinking to myself I have come to change your life!! Talking to the family members outside their palm hut, as people gathered around. I thought the 10 or so people who gathered around must have been neighbors but they were all part of the same family. I can see the mother was positive to what David was explaining that we were doing here. But all of the sudden the mood changed. Then David translated what one of the older sister was saying. She said how do they know that I was not gonna just run off her baby brother instead of bringing them to the hospital. I try to hold my disbelief back. Over time we were able to talk to the father and also another neighbor who also had a little girl with the same problem. After an hour of going back and forth in Spanish and Quechi, we were able to convince them to come to our project to meet the representative for Partner in Health.

So after a long day, my head hurts from the rattling sounds of the jeep bouncing on rocky roads, my palm is bruised from the steering wheel smacking my hand for hours, I feel like this is what I have come to Guatemala for -- to make a difference in someone’s life. And this is someone special in my mind, kids who have been disfigured to no fault of their own, but without the surgery, they would have been psychologically affected for rest of their lives.

No doubt, some of the work I have done have been frustrating. But this is some of my most rewarding days. I started this project on a whim of just wanting to help someone. Even thought at times I felt like I was chasing false rumors and thinking that no village person will trust me with the lives of their kids, the difficulty has definitely been worth the reward. I can’t help to feel as if I am a white knight riding into a little village to save a life. The operation will happen June 27 in Antigua, and if everything goes as planned, Every time I smile, I will think of a kid in a place not many people visit, there will be a kid who will smile also with pride and dignity remembering one time a stranger rode into his town and changed his life!!