Bolivia Week Two

Maya Lapp


Bolivia 1After a few lazy days in Santa Cruz, we headed out to the medical clinic near Portachuello. The roads of Bolivia. What a topic of conversation!

I suppose to be fair I must mention that we spent a spoiled first week on 75% paved roads. No such luck out here in the middle of Nowhere.

Picture this: one normal sized car, with the normal two people in the front seats. Then picture five Bolivian adults crammed into the back seat. Two gringos (who happen to be my parents) clinging on to the sides of the car, one hand clasped firmly through the front window onto a handhold, the other scrabbling for a grip on the roof. Then add three more passengers sitting precariously half-in, half-out of the trunk, smashed up alongside all of the luggage and doing their best not to fly out at every bump in the road. I’m the one on the far left. I would wave hello, but I’m a little busy trying not to allow myself to be dumped out into the mass of mud that is supposed to be our road. Did I forget to mention that? Well, then, place this mass of twelve people packed into a five-person car on a “road” that is half puddle, half mud, with ruts sometimes a foot or more deep. This is the one and only road to the clinic we will be volunteering at for the next five weeks or so. And we will take this road at least twice a week, since we will spend our three-day weekends with Zena at NPH. (The other volunteers are no luckier, since they return to Sucre on their days off.) Incredibly, in that first journey on our way to the clinic, we didn’t get stuck once. We weren’t so lucky when we made our way back from one of the nearby communities, El Pilar. More on that later.

The first day at the clinic my mom and I spent like a typical internist at their first job—filing papers. There’s no doubt that the clinic needs it, since half the medical records are placed in large stacks that the docs have to search through to find their patients, but it’s also very monotonous. After a while, though, you get into a sort of rhythem and time goes by fast. We also were assigned the job of physical therapist, which is pretty amusing, since neither one of us has the slightest idea what we’re doing. I guess I shouldn’t sell us short—we know a few good exercises and stuff, but we’ve never had any training. Also, I’m the “translator”, as well, which is a bit of a laugh. My mom and I had some fun with a few of the patients, though. Some of them are actually interested in learning some exercises, while others obviously just want us to leave them alone. It’s good practice for my Spanish, for sure. Because of the wonderful roads, not many patients could make it in to the clinic, so the doctors finished with all of the patients before lunch, and we had the entire afternoon free. Which in my case meant, do some homework.

Lunch is a very flexible time. The docs like to get the patients done before if possible, so sometimes it’s postponed until 1:30 or 2:00. And we NEVER have lunch at 10:00, like at school. There’s a woman named Moomi who cooks us lunch, but we’re on our own for breakfast, and the volunteers take turns cooking dinner.

Moomi’s husband, Don Pepe, is the handyman. That first afternoon he took us out on a hike into the small forest to show us a few cool things. The first was this huge bump that was on a few of the trees, probably made by termites. He told us a myth about a gringo (foreigner) who when to cut down a tree. The locals warned him the big lump might fall on his head and kill him. Of course, the gringo paid no heed, and sure enough, when he was cutting the tree, the lump fell and broke his neck. Now they call the lumps matagringos (“killer of foreigners”). He also told us he brought a machete along to fight of tigers. He likes having a good laugh at the gringos.

The real reason we went out for the hike, though was the monkeys. He whistled their call as we walked, and they called right back. There was this one that we saw that Don Pepe said was bailando (dancing) for us. He was really mad we were in his territory. We had to head back sooner than we wanted, because the mosquitos were swarming around us, but we’ll go out for a longer hike sometime maybe next week.

Don Pepe is also a big soccer player. A bunch of the volunteers and a few of the Bolivian doctors played, as well. It was so much fun (I hadn’t touched a soccer ball in almost two weeks!), but it was almost unbearably hot. Even if you weren’t moving you’d be drenched in sweat within the minute. Running as we were, I got light headed and had to take a water break. By the end, we could all literally dripping and could wring out shirts out. It was gross, but well worth it. This is Bolivia, right? (While in Santa Cruz I went for a few runs with my dad and it was just as hot. The heat just drains the energy out of you. The fumes from the car don’t really help the stomach, either.)

I just realized that I haven’t introduced you to the clan of volunteers at the clinic, yet. There are four coordinators that spend the year here. They are Josh (Who has a thousand and one allergies. We had a bunch of nice meals while he was gone, one day. Sopa de mani (peanut soup), cheese, etc.), Megan (This is actually her second year. She’s been sick for a month. No good doctors around to cure her, I guess. She’s also the master muddy road navigator.), and a pair of twins, Hannah and Grace (Who swear they just happened to be born on the same day. They’re nothing alike. Grace is a nutrition expert, Hannah is some medical something or other. She was in the States for a week and left almost as soon as we met her, so I don’t know much about her yet).

Dr. John Clark is the only fully trained doctor, other than my dad. He’s been down for a month to this clinic for the past ten years, or so. Matt and Enrique (a Mexican) were two residents (docs in training) who were down for three weeks. However, this was their last week, so we won’t get to know them that well. They were both really nice and I wish they were staying longer, but it’s all a part of the experience. While you’re here you meet people for a few weeks, and then they’re gone. Just like that. The last volunteer is Michael, who will be here for another two (or three?) weeks. He’s also great fun. It’s kind of weird, because these guys are all in their earlier thirties, but they don’t feel that much older than me. I mean, their adults, but they’re not ADULTS, yet, if that makes any sense.

Day Two at the clinic was a bit more interesting. I went along with a group El Pilar to do desaparitacion (deparasiting) for the kids, as well as general check-ups. So yes, I’ll tell you about our road trip there and back. The path to El Pilar is even more of a mud trench than the road to the clinic. At one point on our way there we were driving along, and then suddenly the car tips drastically and slides sideways until we’re almost parallel to the road. I was afraid the car was going to flip, but Meg got it under control in time. The car has four-wheel drive, so I thought we’d get out with no problem, but no such luck. First Meg just tries to rev us out of there, but the car starts driving sideways down the road for twenty or thirty meters. I didn’t even know that was possible! Finally, she does this rocking back and forth thing with the car, until we gain enough momentum to pull our way out.

On the way back from El Pilar, we weren’t half so lucky. We got stuck three times, and we had to push (and pull with a handy-dandy rope in the back of the car) the vehicle out of the mud. For a mile or so we didn’t even bother getting back in the car, and instead were directing the driver what path was best on the road, and helping to push through the muddiest parts. But what can you say? This is Bolivia. I guess it’s better this happened on the way back, otherwise the patients would have been received by some mud-caked docs.

While in El Pilar I got the impossible task of trying to write down the kid’s names. Half of the kids would whisper their names, and even those I did hear were spoken so fast I had no idea what they said. They also often have four names, and they blend them all together when they say them, and…. Well, basically, it was a mess. Luckily, I got a Bolivian woman to help me translate them into something resembling normalcy. And the kids were so adorable!!!! I also got to sit in on a few check-ups, which was really interesting. One man had a metal valve, and you could actually hear it clicking. I understood 90% of what they were saying, which isn’t too bad. The medical terms messed me up, though, and there was this one woman who even the doctors had trouble interpreting. Much more interesting than filing papers.

Day Three at the clinic I was back to filing papers for a while, but then I got to sit in on a few of my dad’s patients, as well. I also got to see Michael use this mini ultrasound. The lungs don’t look like much, but the heart is pretty cool.

On Day Two some doctors stayed at the clinic to see patients, and got a grand total of zero. Day Three, however, was much more active. We actually had to have a lunch break, before getting back to work. The physical therapy department was hopping, as well. It was nice to be busy, but it also limited soccer and homework time. I’m actually having more trouble than expected trying to find time for my homework. I could do it while the clinic is open, but I’d rather help out where I can.

There’s also this tiny puppy named Preto who lives at the clinic and is adorable. (And that’s saying sometime, because I’m not a huge dog fan.)

It rained the night before our last day at the clinic, so the roads were exceptionally bad. The volunteers decided to drive out to the community that was supposed to come in that day, rather than having them come to us. We took two cars, but I was in the second car, and by the time we got there, the patients were all cared for and it was lunch time. Pretty good timing, eh? We spent the rest of the day in Moomi and Don Pepe’s house in that tiny village. It was odd, because we were in the middle of nowhere, with thatched roof houses, chickens and ducks wandering around, and a flat screen TV with a fubol (soccer) game playing. Priorities, right?

From there we drove to NPH for the first time. (We’ll go back to the clinic every week from Wednesday to Saturday, and then spend Sunday until Tuesday at NPH. For the most part, anyway.) This week was much more relaxing than the pasat one, but it was a well needed break. Until next week, folks!