Guatemala: Day 5

I took too long to keep up with blog (with good reason, as you will see!), which means I can no longer describe every single detail of my day. Sorry, guys—I know how riveting my breakfasts are.

Today we went to Chimaltenango, which basically means “City of Chemal,” but I didn't see a single Chimal anywhere. (Problem: I'm not sure Chimals are a real thing). The year before, hardly anyone had shown up for this clinic day with their pets, so we were rather surprised to find 5-10 dogs already waiting with their owners when we arrived. It was extra shocking to find both running water and electricity at the community center that would be our base for the day, plus a whole bundle of volunteers from the local shelter! These, however, were modern Guatemalans—they dressed and ate like we did, for the most part, and some of them knew at least conversational English. And once you get out of the Guatemalan boonies, EVERYONE has a stinking phone. I've never been a part of so many selfies in one day (Grandma: Selfies are when people take pictures of themselves. It's extremely narcissistic and extremely addictive).

Anyways, for once in our trip we had everything we needed but sufficient tables (despite the 3 tables we brought with us, which often doubled as surgery tables). With my less-than-perfect Spanish, I helped assign different volunteers to different tasks. They were all very willing to help and correct my Spanish (occasionally in a rather condescending manner until it became clear how poor their English was), and by the end of the day we'd all formed the bonds that stressful situations can cause, despite the language barrier.

Anyways, we worked steadily throughout the day expecting to finish our work at a reasonable time, but the dogs just kept pouring in. Probably a couple of cats, too, but those were honestly rather rare. After I messed up several times on several things (particularly in lint-rolling the dogs after shaving, which gets rid of those pesky hairs you can't brush off with your hands), I wrote a to-do list for setting up each new patient on my forearm. I got those things down, but then I couldn't remember which side of the table each surgeon wished to work on—this seriously affected their ability to perform their habitual surgery and catch the light from the windows at the same time. We might have actually had lights for once, but they weren't sufficient for this kind of work—I've never been quite so aware of the sun before. Anyways, I then drew a diagram on my arm to remember how to position the animals, and finally managed to get into something of a rhythm. By 5 p.m., we all had a solid system down, but at that point we were exhausted and still had quite a few dogs to do.

However, some of the drugs we used caused dogs to have hallucinations when they were waking up. That was a whole other challenge of this rural veterinary work—we only had injectable anesthetics (as opposed to an injectable/gas combination), and there's a reason that we use more complicated things in the U.S. This wasn't the first day dogs had gone through a bad trip coming out of ketamine-induced anesthesia, but it was the first day I really felt confident in dealing with the freak-out—the dogs scream, their dilated eyes twitch randomly, and they occasionally like to bolt headlong from our recovery area (which was just a corner of the room layered in newspaper.) It was especially difficult to explain to the owners what was happening with my mainly-conversational Spanish. I got really good at saying that a dog was only asustada (scared), no se duele (not hurting), and that they were having pesadillas (nightmares). I also got really good at calming the dogs. This basically consisted of keeping my hands over their eyes and ears and bear-hugging them until they calmed down enough to let a second dose of nicer drugs take effect, as ketamine makes you very susceptible to any sort of external stimulation. As I mentioned, we had a limited supply of drugs, but after several days we worked out a method of giving the nicer drugs intravascularly, intramuscularly, and subcutaneously in order to draw out the time they would work, so that the ketamine could eliminate itself without anymore panic attacks.

We worked from 8:30 am to about 8:30 pm, and I didn't sit down once except in the bathroom. By the time 8 pm rolled around, we were bone-tired and starving, when one of the dogs started to have a drug reaction. Self-appointing myself as the druggy dog-calmer, I'd checked on this girl a few times, but eventually I had to wrap myself around her to give her any sort of peace. The worried owner sat near me, trying to stay out of the bodily mess that dogs tend to make when blitzed out of their minds, while I tried to calm her and practiced on my Spanish. I think we ended up having to hit that dog 3 more times with drugs before it worked, so I stayed hunched around her for who knows how long, trying to move occasionally but mainly just letting things fall asleep so she'd stay still with her new stitches. I'm not ashamed to say that I did a really good job with this, but the most important part for me was realizing how much I get out of dealing with these stressful situations. I kind of thrive on it. If I had to spend the rest of my veterinary career dealing with simple cases, I think I'd be bored directly to death. And the gratitude on the owner's face, when I expected her to lash out at us for what we'd done to her dog (these reactions happen on occasion, but certainly aren't common, and she watched many other dogs leave happily), made all the aches and hunger and anal gland secretions covering me worth it. I was glad to have been there, and suddenly I didn't hurt anymore.

All of the people who'd worked with us, and many of the people whose dogs we had worked on, thanked us so many times our heads spun. For some reason, having a grown man thank me that much in Spanish made me tear up a little. I'm going to blame that on the exhaustion.

Standing around a dirty table in the dark, I don't think pizza ever tasted better.

In the end, we spayed/neutered about 41 animals that day, but at 8:30 we still had a head of us the 2.5-hour car ride to Monterrico on the coast, our next clinic destination. If I never try to sleep in the back of a van with no shocks again, careening down a mountainside over what must have been a billion speed bumps, it will be far too soon. And yet, it was STILL cool. At once point, the girls in front woke us to look out in the darkness at a tiny speck of lava we could see on a volcano off in the distance. Darvy (our Guatemalan van driver, tour guide, landlord, and all around awesome guy) says that if we return, we can arrange a hike up to look into one of the local volcanoes, which is now a personal goal. I made a lot of new personal goals this trip, and fulfilled goals I didn't really know I had.

Anyways, we finally got to our little hotel, Dulce y Salado, in Monterrico. We stayed for free because the Italian owners, Fulvio and Graciella, support our work here. They also cooked us breakfast, and a couple of local restaurants fed us dinner at night during our stay as part of the same program. The appreciation for our work was kind of unexpected, on my part.

Anyway, our rooms were awesome. The hotel had maybe 8 rooms, which were basically these little huts situated around a pool. Each bed had mosquito netting to protect us, and our breakfast was no more than 100 yards from the waves. I tell you what, it's more fun waking up in the morning to drink coffee by the ocean. However, we would only have seen our feet that first night as we stumbled towards our rooms if we hadn't been able to hear the ocean. Danika and I dragged ourselves the short distance to see the waves in the moonlight, and thought it a day well done.

Random things:

--Not sure if I ever actually described MY part in this trip, as I'm not a veterinarian yet and can't perform surgery. Basically, I did everything BUT surgery. I anesthetized, shaved, and scrubbed dogs for surgeries, I checked heart and lung sounds for safety, I scrubbed tables and instruments, I disposed of the random testicle that stuck someone's sterile glove, I held lights, I carried dogs back to Guatemalan huts, I fetched water, I...good gravy, I did a lot. I never went to bed with energy to spare. I also continuously fielded questions of a technical veterinary nature, which was fascinating and extremely educational for me but probably won't interest everyone else all that much. Suffice to say, I know A LOT more practical things now.

--There are, I think, 34 volcanoes in Guatemala. Guatemala is the size of Tennessee. By the time we got back to San Lucas, I was like “Oh, a volcano. Cool...”

--I want to look up the statistics for coconut-related deaths in Guatemala. There were palm trees everywhere, and I'm pretty sure getting hit in the head by a falling coconut could kill you. Still, the people did not appear to fear the trees as I did. Perhaps they are better at dodging than I am.

--This day was also our last day with Ligia, Darvy's sister and burgeoning veterinarian. She's already in school as I write this, and has 6 long years with very few, tiny breaks ahead of her. However, she's going to be amazing. She's going into this with so much experience already, and she honestly just has that certain something that I've felt with other amazing vets. She has the dedication, while she also has the ability to not be crushed by the sadness we see. I am honored to call her a colleague even now as a student—she certainly knows a hell of a lot more than I do.

--Telling the difference between Spanish words I don't know and Spanish names that people introduce themselves with can be very difficult. I said “mas despacio?” (more slowly?) more times than I can count.

--On our first night in Dulce y Salado, we saw an enormous toad in one of the foot baths that surround the pool (for washing off the black sand). It was actually the first time some of our Guatemalan friends had seen one.

--Did I mention that I got to barter for the first time in the Antigua marketplace? Did I even mention we visited Antigua's downtown area? We did, and spent some time in the local artisans market. One of the coolest parts about it was the amount of jade being sold. Antigua, or maybe Guatemala itself, is the world's jade center (according to somebody—I'll need to verify that). Anyways, I wanted to buy a painting for my apartment in Colorado, and managed to get the seller down by 60 quetzales (which is a little more than $7) on a 185 quetzal painting. I felt like a bad-ass, especially because I was supposed to let Sep, one of our Guatemalan friends, barter for me. She said she probably couldn't have gotten it any lower.

--Dealing with salespeople in Guatemala is similar to dealing with them in Mexico, or frankly anywhere with the barter mentality. If they catch your eye, you're going to have to do a lot of “no, gracias” to escape. I bought a few beaded quetzals (the national bird of Guatemala, as well as the currency) from a salesman walking around outside of the airport this morning, and had a hell of a time getting my change. Every time his hand went towards his money bag, he'd switch direction and grab something else “mas differente” for me to look at. I had only meant to buy 1 quetzal originally, so I felt compelled to tell him that he was very good at his job. It was most entertaining because we both knew what was going on, and it was fine as long as I wasn't feeling swayable. Once I escaped from him with my change, I made the mistake of exchanging some of my remaining quetzales (the money kind) with Danielle for American dollars, as she will be staying longer in the country. The man immediately jumped back to me with “You have more money?!? “ At that point, I fled.

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