Thursday, January 6, 2011

Meeting Good People Along the Way

6:00 am, Antigua Guatemala. After yesterday’s pre-sunrise run, I completed some frantic last minute packing and began my journey with cab ride to the McLean, VA home of Partner for Surgery (PfS) founder and President Frank Peterson and his wife Linda -- my seasoned colleagues, travel-mates and guides on this, my first ever trip to Central America. Like the night prior to so many of their previous missions to Guatemala, the Petersons had been kept up Tuesday night deftly squeezing essential medical supplies and equipment – including an Ohmeda Anesthesia Gas Monitor, a sophisticated medical device essential to surgery – into the six oversized suitcases we were transporting down with us. We boarded the first of our two flights for the day at 11:20 am. Skipping forward over a day of both pleasurable and educational conversation for me, at just before 8 pm local time, I was getting my first glimpse from the air of the lights of Guatemala City – a scene not unlike my first-time arrival in other major cities. Temperature on the ground – lower sixties after what the pilot said was sunny afternoon in the mid 70’s. Gracefully we breezed through customs without having to pay any unexpected or burdensome import taxes for the donated medical supplies we were carrying and met our driver Jorge – a Guatemalan citizen who once taught driving lessons in Annandale, VA – at about 8:30 pm. In the airport at baggage claim, the Petersons had an unexpected but welcome meeting with Ricardo Umana, former Chief Justice of the Guatemalan Supreme Court and a longtime friend of the organization. Our bags were quickly thrown on top of Jorge’s tourist van and we joined about seven other international travelers for the one hour drive to Antigua. (La Antigua Guatemala ("The Old Guatemala") served as the capital of all Central America from 1543 until 1773 – source:

As we approached the center of Antigua, paved roadway turned to cobblestone streets and I got my first quick look at local businesses – restaurants, small hotels, a gym, a sushi bar, a gas station, a local market stocked floor to ceiling with provisions of daily living – in this quant and cosmopolitan small city of 31,000 (source: I spent the entire drive chatting with two American Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) both of whom were returning from holiday visits home – Alicia Swift from Oregon and Aliyya Shelley from the San Francisco Bay area. Both know Jessica Momberg, PfS’s Director of Rural Operations, a former PCV herself. Alicia talked of her work in the Peace Corps Healthy Schools Program evaluating and monitoring the delivery of curriculum in Guatemalan elementary schools that introduces concepts of everyday best health care practices to school children in rural communities. She also spoke about her familiarity with international volunteer engineer missions working to improve access to affordable, accessible water. Aliyya, a third year PCV, now supports the work of over 30 first and second year volunteers who work with teenage girls and young women to promote behaviors and decision making that create economic opportunity and sustainable family planning. Alicia, a graduate of the University of Oregon, reflected on how her experience in the Peace Corps and rural Guatemala was challenging her to grow personally and professionally, reminding me of the early years of my own career working in a shelter for homeless adults in Washington, DC in the mid 1980’s. Their lives and career choices deeply impacted by the work in Guatemala, both talked about their plans to pursue degrees in public health or a similar field.

Finally, a few minutes before 10 pm, Jorge dropped us and our luggage at the Peterson’s home in Antigua. Just before the van departed with the remaining passengers, Aliyya generously advised me on a suitable route for my Thursday morning constitutional run. At the house, we settled in, Frank orderly arranged the medical supplies we’d brought and, after a quick snack, we said good night and called it a day.

Memories of the journey and the conversations I’d had throughout the day, great wonder about what beauties and treasures that sunrise will reveal, and anticipation for the 8:30 am staff meeting and the new introductions it will offer are the thoughts crowding my mind at the close of this exciting day. During our layover in Dallas, I learned that a last minute glitch was threatening to disrupt our long planned and painstakingly arranged training of Guatemalan Ministry of Health nurses later this week in Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Trouble shooting? Brainstorming improvisational solutions? Adjusting expectations for this important effort to detect and treat cervical cancer. Which blend of these activities will greet me in the morning? (Brian Carome is Director of US Operations at Partner for Surgery, a not-for-profit organization based in McLean, VA and operating in Guatemala. He will be writing here about his visit to Guatemala through January 12th.)

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