I’m not sure where to start with this post. Today is June 20th, the summer solstice. I’ve been here now for just over 2 weeks. A lot has happened within me in a very short time. The first two weeks were difficult and I found myself circling back to the theme of transition over and over. This move to Guatemala has pulled the rug out from under all of my comfort. Nothing is familiar here, everything is new. People speak in rapid Mam, which sounds nothing like any language I’ve ever heard. My midwifery skills are being stretched in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The landscape and the earth are so different. Everywhere I look I see steep mountains. Everywhere I walk I have to climb until it’s difficult to breathe. The air up here is thin. Rain pours from the sky every afternoon and thunder roars and startles me. I miss the ocean.
I’ve had many moments of doubt. I think about life back home and how easy and predictable it feels in comparison. I have asked myself multiple times why I would voluntarily put myself into such a challenging situation and questioned whether I am on the right path. As all that fear and anxiety stirs around inside my head and my heart, I find myself trying to grab on to something stable. I want to feel grounded here. I want to feel comfortable NOW. I want someone else to swoop in and make me feel better. I want something outside of myself to help me. When I am drowning in discomfort my instinct is to grasp whatever I can to make things feel safer. But the universe had other plans for me.
On Tuesday we did another mobile clinic in another community called La Victoria. It was a busy day. We saw 16 pregnant patients and 8 general medical consults. Thankfully this week there were no major complications. I did a lot of the obstetric visits and ultrasounds on my own as the doctor was busy seeing the general medical and pediatric consults. That night I was tired and fell asleep quickly, around 10pm.
That morning at 1:30am I woke up to my metal bunk bed shaking violently. It was pitch black in my room and I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming. After about twenty seconds, I was fully awake and realized that it wasn’t just my bed shaking, but the whole house. We’re having a massive earthquake, I thought to myself. I was too scared to leave my room while the earth was still quaking, so I hunkered down under the door frame and waited for what felt like an eternity. Once the shaking stopped, I reached to turn on the light but the power was out. Shit. I found my phone on my bedside table and turned on the light and slowly made my way toward the door of my apartment. I knew the two on-call midwives were downstairs and I wanted to get to them. Doña Cristina, one of the midwives, was already upstairs outside my door calling my name. “Mari!!!”, she called to me. I sighed with relief when I heard her and opened the door and threw my arms around her, not wanting to let go of her comforting presence. She took my hand and we went downstairs to the midwives’ room where Magdalena and her baby girl Diana were sitting up in bed. The four of us sat there together for some time as the phone started ringing with calls from all the different ACAM midwives checking to see if we were okay. Thankfully were all physically unharmed. A few aftershocks came within the next hour or so. I eventually went back upstairs, exhausted but wired with adrenaline. I laid awake for a while before finally drifting back to sleep. I woke up the next morning feeling tearful, anxious, and frustrated. I kept dropping things and felt shaky and agitated. Why did this have to happen when I so desperately wanted to feel more stable here?
I talked to a few loved ones that morning and did some yoga to calm my nerves. As the day went on the adrenaline faded and I began to think about how interesting this was. Here I was trying desperately to control my circumstances and make everything feel solid and safe within my first weeks here. Then, like some clever cosmic joke, the universe literally shook me. It was as if it said “Of course you don’t feel stable or grounded yet you idiot!! And just to make sure you get it, I’m literally going to move the ground under your feet!”
Sometimes the universe sends us subtle signs. Other times it hits us over the head until we get it. Of course this is hard. I am simultaneously learning about an entirely new culture, developing new skills, trying to understand a healthcare system that doesn’t make sense, and just barely forming the connections that will become my support network here. I am completely groundless.
I didn’t like that feeling. All week I fought against it. I felt restless and unsure of myself and frustrated by the challenges I’m facing. I went to Xela (the closest city) for the weekend to get away from work and meet other travelers. I met some nice people in my hostel and saw some friends I had met the previous weekend. I went out on Friday night and had some fun, but generally felt a sense of unease throughout the whole weekend.
On Sunday morning I navigated the confusing bus system, which eventually got me back to Concepción Chiquirichapa and back to ACAM. I knew that Lucia was one of the midwives on call that day and I was looking forward to seeing her. I felt an unexpected sense of relief when I walked in the door of the center. It was a glimmer of the feeling you get when you’ve been away from home and you walk through your door and feel so happy to be there. I took note of the feeling.
Lucia is unique among the midwives. Of the fourteen women who staff the ACAM clinic and birth center, thirteen of them are Christian. Most are Evangelical or Catholic. Lucia, however, is deeply spiritual in the Maya tradition. She is considered a spiritual guide and is training to become a Maya priestess. She knows the ancient spiritual traditions of her ancestors and shares her knowledge generously with me. She speaks with me in private because the other midwives disapprove of the Maya spiritual practices. The inculcation of Christianity here by the Spanish runs deep, even among the indigenous.
We ate dinner together and talked for several hours afterwards. She taught me that there is no Maya “religion”. It is a culture with spiritual beliefs deeply rooted in the earth, the sun, and the moon. She taught me about the energy centers in the body, which felt similar to the chakra system in yoga. She taught me about the Maya Nahuales, which are like spirits or totems. There are twenty Nahuales and they correspond to different days. Your day of birth falls on a certain Nahual and each one is represented by an animal and a symbol. Each Nahual has certain characteristics, which I can crudely compare to the different signs of the zodiac. She calculated which Nahual fell on my birth day, which is the Aqabal, represented by the contrast between sunrise and sunset, darkness and light. I showed her my tattoo on my left arm, which is a quote from one of my favorite pieces of art by my brother that says “Darkness makes the light brighter”. When I told her what it said on my arm she gasped. She couldn’t believe that the quote I had written on my body aligned so exactly with my Nahual. She told me that if she were me, she would never stop hugging that arm!
I felt enlivened and reassured by this connection. I felt myself soften and allow my heart to open. Maybe I am meant to be here. Maybe things are unfolding as they should. Yes I am groundless and it’s scary. Staying in the discomfort of my own vulnerability and fear is a challenge. And yet, all of this instability is where the juiciest transformation occurs. I feel that fire of transformation burning bright, just like that sunrise of my Nahual!
Tomorrow we will go to Tui Pox, another mobile clinic community. I’ll do more writing about the clinical work I’m doing with my next entry. This week we did welcome a baby girl at ACAM! Please enjoy the pictures. Sending love!