Antigua was the first city where I spent time in Guatemala. It was both a relief, and a disappointment in some ways. I took a boat from Punta Gorda, Belize to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. I had no idea what to do when I got there, but followed the lead of a local woman on to a van which packed in more and more people in each town. I stayed a night in a bad hotel in Rio Dulce, and eventually made my way to Antigua after a three hour delay sitting in a stationary bus.
After recovering from my hectic border crossing for a few days, I made multiple attempts at locating several different “hogar ancianos”, or homes for the elderly. When I went to one of the places indicated on the map, there was a clinic of the same name, but they said they didn’t know where the home was. The second place had a coffee farm where the home was supposed to be.
I didn’t know how I was ever going to accomplish anything this way, but with receiving no responses by email, there seemed to be little other choice. Feeling defeated, I hiked on a volcano and volunteered at a farm so as to not feel totally unproductive.
I left Antigua with only stories from new friends, and set off for Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. The second day after arriving, something magical happened.
I stumbled in to a coffee shop for a latte, and met a woman who has been living here for two years and agreed to show me around. We went to the local funeral home and talked to Francisco about coffins and funeral arrangements. We then ran in to some other expat friends who ended up connecting me with multiple opportunities.
I was introduced to a local Mayan woman who was helping to care for her ninety year old mother. I visited their home, and helped in the only way I could which was to buy supplies. Caring for her mother for the last nine years has been a heavy burden on her and her sisters, but she does this job with love.
Caring for one’s parents when they grow old is expected in Guatemala, and going to a nursing home is not an option. In fact, there aren’t any here in Panajachel to go to. Their situation is not ideal, and there have been some medical complications due to lack of access to adequate care and supplies. While we tend to do better in these areas, at least here the aging mother is able to maintain social connection with her family, which can be just as important as physical health in the end stages of life.
The next day, I went to another home. A woman in her eighties had broken her hip, and I used my background in orthopedics to show her family how to position and transfer her. We instituted a make-shift transfer belt and draw sheet.
I taught about proper body mechanics, pain control, and skin care. Though they were better off financially than the last family, they were still not able to get a commode, bed pan, or hospital bed, all of which would have been available in the United States. It was the same problem for both families. Both had better access to caregivers than we do, but less access to supplies.
In addition to being invited into homes, I was able to visit the local cemetery. Instead of dark, dull colors, all of the tombstones were yellow, green, blue and pink. Graves were adorned with flowers, wreaths, and artwork. I felt content and at peace, which are normally not sensations one thinks when visiting a cemetery. It felt like the kind of place I would want to be remembered. This cemetery exemplifies celebrating life, rather than solely mourning death.
I went from having no experiences related to my cause, to many within a matter of two days. This is the way it is supposed to happen. Many people push me about what my goal is. When I tell them I want to observe aging and dying in order to become a hospice nurse, this answer is usually unsatisfying. “Yeah, but what are you looking for? What are you hoping to get out of it? What are you going to do with it?”
I don’t blame anyone for asking, but I do think in the United States we are so focused on the end product, we forget to stop and smell the roses. I don’t spend my whole time looking to answer a particular question, or seek out a certain thing. The experiences may be random or unplanned, but they will all fit together and make sense in the end.
When you open yourself up to the world, the world opens up to you. Whether you call it god, fate, karma, or destiny, I believe meaninful experiences will come to me if I share my passion with others. The universe works on its own time, and I don’t believe it’s my place to interfere.
There are great opportunities within formal organizations, but there are just as many out in the community. If I limit myself to hospitals, nursing homes, and NGO’s, I miss out on real life. My goal is to live with purpose, even when I don’t have any direction.