Monday, July 30, 2012


I just found out that I am going to be an Aunt! Auntie My sister-in-law is three months pregnant so it is still early days. Hope the rest of the pregnancy goes smoothly. I suddenly feel really old. Not old as in I feel decrepit, but I feel like I'm entering a definite stage of life where people get married, people start having kids. When I was young I would imagine my siblings getting married and I remember thinking how distant in the future those events were.

Trying not to worry about the mountain of stuff I need to do upon my return to the States, and take in my last few days here. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Surgery date set

Waited with Maria at Club de Leones again this morning, this time for a relatively short 4 hours. As anticipated, her health stats are fine so we went ahead and scheduled the surgery for 8 Aug, 8am (I told Maria this was an easy time/date to remember 8/8 8am, but she doesn’t do dates very well so she didn’t get it). As I’ve mentioned Maria can be quite exasperating at times, unintentionally. She was worried that she had high blood pressure, that she would be too nervous and shaky for the surgery because she is afraid and because she would be stressed out after having to attend to so many people staying at the house the week before…and then the 8th might not be good because she would be tired and nervous from the week before etc etc. Maria is very childlike, both physically and personality-wise. Most of the time it is refreshing, but during times like this I just want to sit her down and say, “Look, just do the goddamn surgery asap”. It has been tricky balancing being stern enough about getting the surgery and all the preparations for it done, for Maria’s sake and because I’m paying and want to make sure my money is going to its intended purpose, and also being forgiving enough and tolerant of things like her fears and nerves; they are her eyes after all. I think I am not very tolerant/patient with people who scare easily and/or get scared over things not worth being scared about. Because my pain threshold has always been high, and made higher by my accident and recovery, I’ve never been very sympathetic to people’s physical pain or fear of pain. But I’ve had to be very patient with Maria because she isn’t educated enough to understand a lot of things, and because of my limited Spanish. Maria’s eyes were very sensitive to the sun after the consultation on Tuesday and she was freaking out fearing she was going blind. But because I couldn’t say in Spanish “your eyes are very sensitive to sunlight because the doctor dilated your pupils; you aren’t going blind”, I had to just reassure her that the situation was temporary, she wasn’t going blind, and she would be fine in half and hour or so.
Maria is going to need three surgeries in total, spaced about a month apart. The first surgery will be on her left eye where there is on big carnosidad obscuring her iris/pupil. The second surgery will be on one of the carnosidades in her right eye; the third surgery on the second carnosidades in her right eye. Obviously, this increases her medical costs, but I’ll cover that.
The doctor said only 3 days are required for her recovery, but Maria is paranoid and wants to take off 15 days! This means she will miss 45 days of work for her three surgeries. She hasn’t been paid for any vacation days since she has worked for Acxa so I don’t blame her for wanting to take this extra time off, especially since I know Acxa will work her to the bone when she returns to work and won’t make any exceptions for something as trivial as, oh, I don’t know, eye-surgery?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tired and exasperated

I love Maria like one loves a 2-year old child. She can be so exasperating at times...she's a bit of a hypochondriac and I'm trying to reassure her that she isn't diabetic (she walks 2-3 miles a day, eats well, and is thin).

Went with Maria to get blood work done this morning. Again, a lot of waiting. I cannot wait to get back to the US and have people meet me ON TIME again.

Update: Yet again, the slug known as Acxa, has stalled our surgery plans. I had missed all my classes so that I could get all these appointments for Maria attended to, and to have the first surgery before I depart next Wed. The doctor had said that if Maria’s tests turn out okay (which they are – I collected the lab results this morning) she could have the surgery done next Monday. Acxa has refused to let Maria take the day off on Monday on the grounds that there are a bunch of new arrivals to the house. Bull-fucking-shit. Acxa could easily hire a replacement for the day (there is a nice friend of Maria’s who takes over for her when Maria is absent), or if she is indeed more than just a vegetable, she could lift her finger and do something for once. She is a vegetable (I picture a giant gourd :))– she doesn’t use her brain or body at all. She sleeps till 10a, goes to “therapia” (i.e. massage) after breakfast, returns for a late lunch, naps in the afternoon, watches TV the rest of the time until 1 am or so, then goes to bed. Repeat.
After discussing things with Maria, we think it is best for me not to confront Acxa about this and just let the surgery take place a week later. I have assurances from Maria that she will do the surgery – my fear is that Acxa will keep coming up with reasons to not let Maria take the day off for her surgery. I will be calling Maria regularly after the operation (the tentative date is 8 Aug).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What is a carnosidad?

Translated from using GoogleTranslate. Maria's case is severe.

CarnosidadLa pterygium pterygium is a growth or meaty, wedge shaped, in the cornea of ​​the eye. This high growth of connective tissue and usually starts at the corner and extends toward the center of the eye. An outgrowth or pterygium is the result of an abnormal growth process of the conjunctiva fleshy on the cornea.
CarnosidadLa conjunctiva is a thin transparent mucous membrane that lines the back of the eyelid and eyeball. The cornea is the transparent section of the eye which allows light to enter the eye. Because the cornea is transparent, what you see when looking at the cornea is the iris and pupil. The conjunctiva normally extends from the back of the lid over the entire surface. The flesh or pterygium occurs when growth begins to form fleshy conjunctiva over the cornea.
A fleshy or pterygium may grow large enough to cause vision problems.ada to sunlight (ultraviolet rays) and chronic irritation caused by the dry environment, appears to contribute to its development. The flesh or pterygium occurs more often in people who spend much time outdoors, and frequently exposed to sun, wind, dust or adverse weather conditions. Furthermore, the flesh or pterygia have a chance to grow three times more among men than among women.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of pterygium fleshiness or generally not serious, but can include blurred vision and eye irritation. Patients often complain of itching, burning and wants to scratch.
During periods of growth, the pterygium is swollen and shows a red. The pterygium tends to progress slowly and in many patients, stabilized without causing problems. However, if the pterygium grows over the center of the cornea, there is loss of vision.
What is the treatment for proud flesh?
In the initial period, when the discomfort is mild, you can use lubricating eye drops or artificial tears to prevent drying.

When the discomfort increase is necessary to remove the pterygium by surgery because you can change the shape of the cornea and affect vision significantly.

Finally...some news + no more donations needed

Finally, some concrete news re. Maria and her eyes. I know a lot of you are as eager to get some firm news as I am. My day went like this (you will notice a common theme):

6.30am: Arrive at the Club de Leones (I only made the connection to the Lion's Club this morning) to wait in line outside the building

7am: Door open. Wait on benches to get a number. Get #11. Wait to pay for consult.

8am: Start taking in patients to pay for consult. Wait some more.

9am: Pay for consult. Back to benches to wait

10.30am: See Doctor

10.30-12 noon: Mix of waiting and being seen by doctor.

12 noon: Go to lab to inquire whether they are open tomorrow (it is a public holiday). They are.

The news:
The carnosidad(es) in both eyes are very large and need to be operated on asap. One eye is looking okay to be operated on, the other is too inflamed and the inflammation needs to die down before that eye can be operated on otherwise there is too much bleeding. In spite of the waiting, I was pleased with the attention and service Maria received at this subsidized clinic for the poor/those who can't afford private care. The consult was the same as she would have received in the private clinic so I cancelled that appointment, especially since the same doctors work at this clinic and the private one we had an appointment at. Maria received her consult for 35Q (~5 USD)!!

Next steps:
We are going to the laboratory tomorrow morning to get various tests done to make sure that Maria is healthy enough for the surgery. We will return with the lab results to Club de Leones on Thursday, and probably wait some more. If the results are all right, Maria can go to Guatemala City on Monday for the surgery.

The cost:
Surgery: 1200 Q
Consults: 200 Q
Lab: 120 Q
Pay forfeited due to absence: 1000Q
Glasses after surgery: 1000 Q
Medicine: not sure but I am guessing it will be around 500Q
Eye-sight: Priceless
Total: ~$520 USD ---- this is MUCH less than I thought it would cost. This is because I thought we would be going through the private route, but it turns out that the public option is just as good and the surgery can be arranged quickly as well.

As a result, I do not need any more donations. THANK YOU so much to everyone who has donated. I have received $750 in donations, and am putting in quite a bit myself, so any extra will go towards Maria's much needed house repairs.

More on what exactly Maria's condition is in my next post.

Monday, July 23, 2012


A non-Maria post for a change...
 There are many nights I stay awake, thinking about climbing again. I often think about how I would climb a crack with one leg, jumar up a rope with my left leg dangling out, perhaps inelegantly hobbling up a 5.6. Sometimes I get really fired up, but a lot of the time I think about how I would inevitably compare myself to my climbing-self before my accident, and then fall into sadness. I am soooo far from being in shape, let alone climbing shape that I need to work off all those tortillas and other foods I consumed in excess here, first. My body’s metabolism is so messed up, which makes losing weight difficult for me. I think because I lost so much weight after my surgeries and during my recuperation, my body isn’t willing to lose all those extra pounds that it regained, fearing another famine. Or maybe I’m just completely kidding myself. With the exception of my really tight, toe-curling climbing shoes and a backpack, I haven’t sold any of my climbing gear. I imagine placing a cam (a nice BD #2) securely in a crack, clipping the rope in for the first time, and imagine how I might feel. Triumphant? Sad? Will I be able to enjoy just being outside again? Or will I be too mired in my past and current physical state to enjoy the experience? I’m not sure if I am ready to find out. Being in Boston might also provide a disincentive to climb on New England rock in New England weather.
I also think about the ethics of introducing my children, should I have any, to climbing. Part of me can’t imagine anything more fun and rewarding than sharing with your child a sport that can give you such a richness of experience. Another part of me wonders, given the risks and what happened to me, is it ethical for me to get my kids into climbing? I often imagine having a bad-ass little girl who will compete in the X-Games, but again, would I be a responsible parent for encouraging her to do so?

Saturday, July 21, 2012


I am so proud of Maria. We met at 7am this morning (Wed) to be the first people in line for the bank opening at 7.30am. My role was to help Maria with any writing and/or reading she might have to do, and also provide the money to deposit. I had asked Maria if she knew how to write/sign her name, and she didn't. I thought, and was told, that this would not be an issue; Maria could use her thumbprint as her signature. Anyway, we got to the bank and encountered a few obstacles. First, Maria's identification was so old that it was hard to make out the letters of her name. Second, Maria needed to be able to sign her name on a few documents.

Now, Maria has never held a pen let alone tried to write anything before this. I wrote out her name (I shortened it considerably, from Maria Dolores Aspuac Velasquez to Maria Aspuac) and asked her to copy it and practice a few times. She gingerly held the pen, her hand shaking out of nervousness, but after quite a few tries, she was able to write her name legibly enough to suffice. I was/am so proud of her. It must have taken so much courage to write for the very first time, at 50 years old, in a situation where a lot of pressure was being put on her. I feel like a proud mama, even though she is the one that is old enough to be my mother.

The earliest time when both Maria is able to take time off work and when the doctor is available is this coming Tuesday. I set up an appointment. We will also be going to the public hospital where the same doctor works and make inquiries (i.e. wait for a couple of hours before being seen).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Call for Donations

Bad news – Maria needs eye-surgery. Right now, glasses are of no use. The growth on her cornea is so big that it is obscuring her vision greatly, and needs to be removed. The damage is due to over-exposure to the sun. It was a 2-hour wait for the consult but it was worth it, to get this vital second opinion. At Hernando Pedro hospital, because it is very cheap, they just rush patients through and Maria didn’t get the right diagnosis.
We have the name of an ophthalmologist who can do the surgery. This doctor works in a public hospital and has a private practice as well, so I need to find out what the price difference is and how much that difference expedites the surgery date. I’m trying to figure out what words I need to learn in Spanish to do this.
Maria was very upset and crying, understandably. It made me sad and angry that I was the only one to hug her and comfort her, the only person to give a shit. Acxa (the Cruela D’ville of this story) certainly doesn’t. I want to get all this sorted out tomorrow, but Maria can’t get time-off from Acxa on Thursday or Friday…so things will have to wait till next Monday.
I have no idea how much the surgeries (one eye is done first, then a month later, the other eye) will cost. I (but most importantly, Maria) welcome donations. If you would like to contribute and help a wonderful person directly, please send payment via Paypal to:    
I know it is just one person, but she deserves so much better than the hand life has dealt her.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Update to update

Went to the optics clinic with Maria today but was told we had to return tomorrow because the ophthalmologist wasn’t in today :( This shifts our plans back a day, so now it is the ophthalmologist on Wednesday, the bank on Thursday.  We also went to the hardware store to get an estimate for the building materials needed to retrofit/ reconstruct part of her home: 6850 Q (1 USD = 7.7 Q). That is seven months worth of Maria’s wages. If Maria needs eye-surgery I won’t be able to pay for that and the house repairs, so I’m really hoping she doesn’t need the surgery.
Maria insisted on treating me to an ice-cream afterwards.  It was a delicious figs & condensed milk flavour. There’s something about ice-cream from developing countries that I have a soft-spot (and big stomach) for as it reminds me of the ice-cream I had as a child in Hong Kong. I used to make ice-cream quite frequently, and would give vanilla ice-cream some to Victoria and Andrey, my Ukrainian friends, who loved it because it tasted like “Soviet” ice-cream. I’m not sure whether that is a good thing  :) I was touched that Maria would spend half a day’s wage on me.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mission Maria update

The plan is to go to the second clinic tomorrow (Tue) after Maria finishes work, and then the bank Wed. same time. I hope to have a firm answer after tomorrow as to whether Maria needs surgery or not.

A huge THANK YOU to some of you who have written to me wanting to contribute to Maria's health care re. her eyes and her house. I told her and she is incredibly touched that people so far away care about her.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sad Sunday

As I've mentioned in previous posts, watching athletes / any athletic event is still, and probably always will be, difficult for me to watch. Today, I had the good fortune of being caught in the middle of a running road race. I walked to get my morning coffee and on the way there and on the way back, despite my best efforts to take an alternate route, I managed to be swarmed by runners. For part of the way, I was the lone salmon swimming upstream. I so terribly miss having that sinewy runner physique, being able to dress in athletic clothing (no, wearing a North Face jacket in San Francisco (wearing Athletic Clothing for no apparent reason - does not count), that feeling of running downhill after the uphill climb, running either alone in the early morning or in a crowd in a road race, feeling light and fast, being able to eat a gazillion pancakes to fuel my body...I'm not sure how to best handle these emotions. Just suck it up, weather it and let these feelings pass until the next thought that stimulates me comes along? Feeling sad in general about leaving Guatemala at this time, even though there is a lot to look forward to in the States.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Plan

Maria presented me with an itemized bill of all the necessary construction materials needed to fix up her house. Unfortunately, the project I mentioned in my previous post is no longer active. I am pleased that she has listed the items very specifically...I had expected some estimates written on a piece of paper, not an estimate from a hardware store. The plan is for me to go with Maria next week and open a bank account, as she cannot read/write. This was Maria's idea - a good one. I had thought that I would just hand over a big wad of cash and she would find some safe place to keep it, but she says her home is not safe from thieves.

So, some things to do next week:
- Open bank account for Maria
- Go with Maria to clinic for another evaluation/opinion
- Go with Maria to Chimaltenango to get glasses for her.

I feel like I really need to hold Maria's hand and nudge her because she is so used to shitty things happening to her that she just accepts it and gives up easily.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What a day (Hernando Pedro hospital + Maria's home)

Navigating the Guatemalan medical system teaches you Spanish pretty fucking fast.

This morning, I met Maria at 7am at Parque Central, to go for her eye-examination at Hermano Pedro Hospital. After a four hour wait, Maria was seen. It was a bit tricky because she doesn't read numbers very well so the eye-examination was tricky. It turns out she does not have cataracts but damage from the sun, impaired sight and perhaps some "corpulence/fleshiness" (the Spanish word is "carnosidad"). This is a bit of a blow because Hermano Pedro only does cataract surgery, so if Maria does need surgery she will have to go to a private clinic. On the other hand, it is good news that she doesn't have cataracts, but the bad news is that the damage done from sun exposure is irreversible; she can only prevent further damage by wearing suitable glasses. I am going to go with her to another clinic next week to get a second opinion. Finances are not the issue, as I am taking care of that. The issue is getting time off from is ridiculous that that is one of the major hurdles here.

After the clinic, we swung through the Mercado to pick up bananos and tomates - a very visceral experience. I had never been to that part of the Mercado before. Stinky, crowded, great. I went to Maria's home in the hills of Pastores, a town about 20 min from Antigua, but worlds away. The photos show just how poor her living conditions are. I almost couldn't make it up to her house because the path is very very long and steep. I had to pause several times. But I am glad I made it. I felt very welcome. I dined on tortillas, avocado (aguacate) and salt - it was very tasty, as we sat on rickety chairs on the dirt outside her shack - because that's what she lives in. The bus ride on the camunetta was a trip too. Quite a day. 

I couldn't capture just how awesomely visceral the bus ride was. This is the bus when it was "empty"

Lots of corrugated iron adorns Maria's neighbourhood.

Maize and frijoles are grown in the hills above her home.

The pathway up to her home. Couldn't capture how steep it is.

Neighbouring homes. They are palaces compared to Maria's.

Front door of Maria's "house"

The living room/kitchen/dining room

The space she shares with her son are just beyond. The flash from the camera make the place look deceptively bright. It is actually very dark.

The bathroom.
I plan on helping her with repairs to her home, maybe even get her to move homes if she can get signed up with a project which will provide her with a new home for 5,000 Q (~USD $650). I'd like to pay for her to move because the shack she lives in is a disaster waiting to happen. If an earthquake were to happen or a big storm, she is screwed.

Still a lot to do to make sure Maria's follows through on her eyes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Good news. Managed to get Maria to go to the clinic with me tomorrow morning. I am missing classes but this is far more important.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Progress with Maria

With the help of John, we have found a clinic that specializes in cataract surgery that will do her surgery for free. The only thing that needs to be paid for are the examinations and paying Maria for the time she has to take off work. She makes 50Q (~$6)/day. This is a tremendous opportunity, and I will be upset if Maria is too timid to arrange the time off with Acxa or if Acxa does not allow her the time off. I don't see why she should be opposed to it if I pay for Maria's time off. I'm very determined to see this through though, and can be a bit of a Tasmanian devil if I need to be.

I will be going to the clinic with Maria because she can't read, and try and help out, not that my translation skills are any good. But I want to be there. I am anxious to get her consultation and the date of her surgery sorted out before I leave as I worry that either Acxa will screw her over or Maria will just let this slide because she is too afraid, or too..whatever.

Actually, I just changed the post title from "A bit of hope with Maria" to "Progress with Maria" because I just got back from my house. Acxa was there. Maria was crying quietly in the kitchen while she was washing the dishes saying "No quiero, no quiero". I am going to ask a lady from Transiciones to speak with Acxa as I know things are delicate here in Guatemala and I'm sure I would end up trodding on people's toes (well, the only toes I care about are Acxa's ugly ones).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bloody furious

I am mad and very upset. I just had a 2 hour long discussion with Maria that was started by me mentioning my Dad has glaucoma. I knew she had cataracts but I didn't realize just how mad the situation is. Not only can she not afford the operation, Acxa (the bitch that I hate) will not allow her time-off even if she did have the operation. Acxa has told her, oh, it's not so bad, you don't need the operation. Maria's house is also falling apart, doesn't have lighting because she can't afford the light-bulbs. I'm sure this situation is not unique; there are a lot of asshole bosses who don't take care of their employees. I want to help so much, and I'm not sure how to go about it. I think it would be futile for me to talk to/confront Acxa. I want to give her some money for the operation and/or her house but I told her that the conditions are that none of the money goes to her son that is in jail; i.e. all the money needs to go towards either her house or operation. I trust Maria but I don't trust the people around her who she depends on to read. I have to ask her if she knows how to count money. In the meantime, I am going to email John and see what his thoughts are.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Quiet Sunday with a beauty queen procession

While I was around Parque Central I saw a procession of cars decorated with balloons, streamers, etc. each with a beauty queen sitting on blankets either on the roof or the hood of the car. My first thought was, I hope no one has to brake suddenly. I remember a "Tanya" (the cars had the girl's name stuck on the front/back of the car) because she had a whole train of cars (pickups loaded with friends/family) yelling her name. The girls were throwing flower petals to on-lookers. Couldn't help but smile at the whole affair.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Top 10 Things I cannot wait to do when I return to the US

1.  Leave the house after 6.30p and walk around without fearing for my safety
2.  Remove my shoes inside the house
3.  Remove my shoes inside the house
4.  Walk on even, non-cobblestoned terrain
5.  Eat fresh vegetables and fruit
6.  Sleep in a comfy bed
7.  Stop poisoning myself slowly with all the DEET I have been using
8.  Not having to inhale fumes from, clearly non-smog tested, old school buses
9.  Converse in the lingua franca fluently
10. Butter, lots and lots of butter

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sports on Television

The recent Euro Cup (football), Wimbledon and the Tour de France have been a bit tough to weather. I still have a really hard time watching these athletes celebrate their physicality and stretch the limits of their bodies. It makes me feel incredibly sad and envious. But I suppose I'm on the other end too, with the guys at Transciones. I felt a tinge bad writing rapidly in front of Nosario (who doesn't have arms).

Ladrones y huevos

It is telling that one of the first Spanish words I learned was the word for thief/ves: Ladrone(s). I think I’ve become a bit complacent with regards to theft of any kind. Very early this morning, I heard what sounded like loud firecrackers and a car alarm go off. It turned out to be a thief breaking the window of the car, which so happened to belong to one of the boarders here. I hope it was firecrackers and not gun shots. I live in a residential, very middle-class neighbourhood that I had come to believe was perfectly safe. Turns out that isn’t the case. I’ve been sleeping with my window open and usually keep it open during the day. Looks like I’ll be closing it from now on. Theft is as common as people sneezing in Guatemala but, for some reason, I thought Antigua was different.
I don’t know much about what is being done with respect to women’s reproductive issues, family-planning. From what John has told me, all these various groups with the First Lady’s Office have their causes but there is nothing comprehensive being done. They don’t have the money for one. It seems that there is a big emphasis on women and children within the NGO’s here but I wonder if they are a group that have been traditionally excluded in Guatemala or whether they are being emphasized to the exclusion of other groups. John was talking about an ex-diplomat who is working on women reproductive issues and he mentioned that she did work with men too, but it would probably be a machete if she had it here way :)
Had an interesting time talking about WWII, Rape of Nanking, and the Civil War in Guatemala with Eferin, in Spanish. Yes, he is very patient. 
 Maria was not around yesterday as she had to attend her son's parole hearing. He is in jail for being an accomplice in a killing. Her life just keeps sounding better and better.