I’m going to Guatemala, the Lake Atitlan area, on an eye care missions with optometrists, thousands of pairs of used glasses, a bunch of modern equipment, and a lot of good people, all of us volunteers, all of us committed to helping people who cannot afford eye care improve their vision. We’ll operate a four-day clinic in a small town under volcanic peaks inhabited primarily by Mayan Indians, some of whom will speak neither Spanish or English but rather Queche, a pre-Columbian language. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been there, and I can’t wait to return. I like the people, both those we serve and the volunteers, I like the work I do in the clinic, and I long to get completely out of here, if only for a little while.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my home and the shack. I’ll miss them. I love my community. But I’m pretty sick of being bombed by the news. I hear the internet is iffy where we’re going, the Wi-Fi intermittent, the phone service spotty. That’s OK by me. I’m long overdue to unplug for a while. It’s been a long haul since the election, the inauguration, the fiasco of watching this administration flounder around carrying out ill-conceived campaign promises, to say nothing of Illinois politics in the background continuing to damage my state.
It feels like a bad soap opera. I am reminded of my family watching “As the World Turns”, a half-hour soap opera every day after lunch. Dad would go to sleep in his chair, I would hang out in the living room, usually reading, half listening to the show, but Mom would be wrapped up tightly in the snowy black and white broadcast.
Occasionally she would react out loud when one of the characters announced a divorce, divulged a secret, or a calamity took place at the hospital, the lawyer’s office, or the country club. It was a world which didn't include our family. Sometimes she yelled loudly at the characters.
“Oh don’t tell me you’re going to do that!”
It would wake my Dad and he would sit up out a deep sleep, alarmed, sputtering.
“Ellen is leaving Don for that damned Eric!”
“Jesus Christ Catherine, it’s only a TV show.”
Mom would later talk about the characters to others like they were part of our family, often on the phone to my Aunt Lou, also a faithful As The World Turns watcher.
“Ellen is going to regret this one boy. Don will have a new woman so fast it will make her head spin. Probably Sylvia, that new nurse they hired in at the Emergency Room. She’s been giving him the eye for weeks.”
The same kind of thing is playing itself out in my house only it’s not a soap opera. I wish it was. This is reality, although our government and the news it spawns seems to resemble a reality TV show more and more. My wife hears me, alone, barking at a TV much bigger and clearer than our old RCA Victor on the farm.
“SHUT THE HELL UP!”
Sometimes she rushes into the room, alarmed.
“What is it?”
“Our government is detaining green card holders at the freaking airport and THIS BOZO IS DEFENDING IT!” (I didn’t say freaking, maybe not bozo either.)
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she says. “Settle down.”
“BUT THIS IS AMERICA GOD DAMN IT!”
The Guatemalan people may well be concerned about American politics, but they have other concerns as well, especially the people we will serve in the clinic. Nutrition is one, finding health care including vision care is another. My wife and I and forty some Americans are going to Guatemala to help families learn about their vision, correct it if needed and in some cases save it from debilitating eye disease. They have neither nearby professionals or facilities to provide eye care, nor do they possess the means to travel to where those resources are located and pay for them.
It’s not all bleak however. I swear the people living in Guatemala have an eye for beauty, and a knack for building it into their lives, that we do not. They seem also to have infinite patience, and a peacefulness the gringos serving them lack. Maybe we’ve lost those qualities. Maybe our smart phones have sucked it out of us, like tiny digital vacuum cleaners.
The Mayan people have strong communities, each village around the lake with their own identity. They seem to know who they are and what they believe as a people apart from the Guatemalan government and its politics. We need to find that again as Americans. It’s a privilege to be in their world, if even for a short while. I fantasize about putting the shack on a flatbed truck, towing it down there, finding a spot to put it on overlooking the lake, and leaving this all behind. I had a shack when I was younger, further South in Ecuador, overlooking the Pacific. I don’t think a shack with a waterfront view is in the cards now, at least in the foreseeable future.
I’m about ready to go. I’ve found my passport, my Swiss Army knife, and my traveling notebook. The Pez dispensers are loaded. I have a bottle of Bushmills for the suitcase. I have a small roll of Benjamins. Now all I have to do is pack. I’ll take notes down there, maybe some pictures, and write a report when I get back. Maybe I'll even settle down, but I doubt it. Until then I have things to do. Talk to you again in March.
photo by Lance Kinney