Traveling and working abroad is always rife with opportunities to learn. Guatemala in particular is a land of rich complexity and at times has some hard lessons to teach. My time at the Health&Help Guatemala clinic has been a wild ride with many twists and turns, ups and downs, and sincerely eye-opening moments. So, here it is, my list of the top-ten tips and lessons I learned as a volunteer at Health&Help:
Uh-oh, you did it now! You signed up to travel across the world, to the mountains of Guatemala, to live in a little clinic with a bunch of strangers (I did it too). And honestly, good for you because that’s exactly what you have to do sometimes. Sign up, buy the ticket, and let it all wash over you. Looking back at my time as a volunteer, I’m glad I just went for it and embraced my decision. I’m more ready than ever to jump head-first into new experiences.
Let’s face it. No matter how qualified you may be as a medical professional or photographer or whatever, you enter a totally different environment when you come to Health&Help. The Guatemalan people and society, the specific demands of the clinic, the volunteers from all over the world, it’s all new from your home country and your usual place of work. Everyone has their own set of quirks and skills, and so too their weaknesses and individual challenges they must overcome.
I learned early on that the best thing to do is just keep swimming. You are going to be uncomfortable. You are going to mess up and be frustrated by something you didn’t see coming. You will fail, learn from the experience, think you have it all under control, succeed the next time, really think you have it, and then fail again. But that’s okay! As long as you keep trying to do the right thing, you will get better. You will get stronger. I would provide an example, but this is a process. It applies to the whole deal.
Ever tried to talk about healthy nutrition practices in English with someone who only speaks Spanish? Or harder still, only speaks Maya-K’iche fluently? It doesn’t work. Ever wanted to make a stupid joke to your fellow Spanish-speaking volunteer Nurse only to realize you don’t know the word for “octopus?” Wild arm motions only get you so far.
Learning and speaking Spanish is not only the key to being an effective volunteer, it’s fun! Make friends. Make jokes. Laugh at things that wouldn’t make sense in your mother tongue. I found my time here enriched so much by the ability to find common ground with patients and volunteers alike through language. Start studying now! And listen to Calle 13.
In my opinion, there is only so much you can learn about a place by living there. Guatemala is an especially complicated place with intense diversity and a dark political history. Without some knowledge of history or contemporary politics, a lot will be badly misunderstood. Read a book! Read a few books! Be as informed as you can about the country you are about to enter. I promise it will help you make some sense of a pretty confusing terrain. You will be a better, more patient provider and will spend less time scratching your head or making guesses.
If I’ve learned anything from the two beautiful strong women who founded this clinic, it’s that “impossible” is a state of mind. You can take leftover oatmeal and turn it into dozens of completely different and delicious meals. You can get donations from foreign strangers, consolidate the medication from many bottles into less, pack them tightly into luggage bags, hitchhike the bags across the Mexican border, fill the clinic pharmacy, and then sell the bags to pay for more medication. You can make tables from scrap wood.
Their example proves that creativity will get you a long way in an area with few resources. I’ve learned to see new possibilities in my environment and assess how I can be helpful. There is always something that can be done. Never say, “Never.”
The demands and complexities of clinic work can wear on people. The clinic isn’t exactly giant either. After working together all day with patients, volunteers often spend the majority of their free hours in common spaces, cooking, cleaning, and hanging out. With so many diverse and generally intense personalities around, it can feel a little cramped. I’ve learned to relish my alone time as an opportunity to recharge and reflect.
I recommend walking in the hills. Witness the sunset over the rolling highland countryside. Take a moment to sit on our bench a little ways down the hill. Retreat to your room to read a book. I’ve treasured these moments as they gave me a fresh outlook on my experience.
After talking at length with impoverished diabetic parents who have multiple anemic children and no money for education, some of my problems seem a little less severe. Let perspective be your guide!
The world is a really, really big place (though also a small place, I guess, if you let perspective guide you). At Health&Help, I interacted with locals and volunteers from all walks of life, from cultures as different as you can imagine, and with distinct views on the way things work. These differences are Earth’s most wonderful gift. Take advantage of this opportunity to share your perspective and culture with those around you while being willing to open your mind in unfamiliar ways.
This environment is ideal for becoming a global citizen. Be patient, try to listen, and be yourself while at the same time taking a walk in the shoes of others. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has something new to teach as well as learn.
You are here! So, enjoy it. Health&Help is a really unique place with a good heart. Through the ups and downs, be present and breathe in the experience. As I write this, I sit in the kitchen and listen to clinic-cofounder Karina and the doctors chat loudly. The smell of delicious Ukrainian food and black tea fills the air. I’ve spent the day talking with Mayan patients about their experiences and opinions regarding our clinic. The sun is starting to go down and I can see the distant hills turning blue in the twilight. The doctors laugh and I do too even though I don’t speak Russian. I leave in two months after living in Guatemala for over a year. It feels like the blink of an eye. For now, I’m appreciating the moment.
Some things you just need to be here to understand.
Author: Maxwell Reikosky