Masters of Disasters

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By Gabriel Vasquez

Imagine speeding across two countries in an ambulance with only a faint sense of direction, unable to speak the local language, fearless of what may be lurking around the corner, courageously riding on a promise that you made to help save the people of a remote Guatemalan village.

Everything seems to be going all right, until you’re assaulted and almost hijacked – only the people clinging to your bumper screaming, kicking and desperately trying to board your vehicle aren’t roadside bandits or thugs.

They’re Guatemalan officials, trying to tell you to turn back because you’ve entered their country illegally.

Such was one of many stories that New Mexican Rotarians Greg Chalmers and Jon Morrison got to tell upon their return from Guatemala earlier this year.

“They didn’t speak Spanish,” said Deborah Simon, president of the Española Rotary Club. “They mistakingly crossed illegally into Guatemala. Guys were jumping on their ambulance trying to stop them. The Rotarians swung the ambulance wildly trying to get them off.”

Chalmers and Morrison were en-route to Uspantán, a remote area nested in the mountainous highlands of central Guatemala, attempting to deliver critical medical supplies and two ambulances as part of the Española Rotary Club’s yearly trip to the region.

Uspantán has roughly 43,000 people and 184 villages. In addition to Spanish, four Mayan languages are also spoken there.

The series of trips to Guatemala began in 1997, in conjunction with the Los Alamos Rotary Club, sparked by the request of a Guatemalan town that asked area Rotarians for assistance in installing a potable water system. The trip was such a success that it gave birth to several other projects after rotary members learned about other vital needs in the region.

Los Alamos Rotarian Paul Frederickson said reading about the club’s involvement in Guatemala prompted him to seek membership and be a part of what he now calls a “life changing experience.”

“I read in the Monitor about a water project there and the large number of cholera cases,” he said. “I immediately signed on with Rotary.”

Frederickson and his wife visited the Uspantán region shortly after becoming Los Alamos Rotarians.

“It was really an eye-opening experience for me to go down among the Mayans who had almost no money,” he said. “The villagers put in a whole lot of sweat equity. They’re out there digging trenches to build pipelines, happy because there will be no more cholera.”

This year’s trip came after Rotary members noticed the inefficient, sometimes primitive way in which villagers transported their sick to far-away clinics and the minimal amount of supplies available to medical workers.

“A third of the villages have no roads to the communities,” Simon said. “The man of the family usually has to strap a chair on to his back, put the sick person on the chair with a sheet over him, and carry him for miles.”

Simon said the emergency trip to a nearby health clinic could take all day, and even longer if the person carrying the sick is not able to receive assistance from someone with a vehicle once he reaches a main road.

This, coupled with high rates of pneumonia, intestinal infectious diseases and inadequate sanitation around the country, significantly reduces survival odds if prompt care is not received.

While a 1979 Chevy van donated from Phelps-Dodge and a 1984 Ford donated from the town of Bernalillo may not solve all of Guatemala’s problems, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, Simon said.

“We’re always amazed at how these projects are really life-changing for these communities,” she said. “When we select a project, the ideas come from them. They let us know what their priorities are. Nothing is given to them, it’s always a partnership.”

The group of four Rotarians began their journey in Albuquerque in the spring of 2008, drove to Brownsville, Texas, where they crossed the border into Mexico, then Chalmers, Morrison and Albuquerque Rotarian Robert Boverie took over driving duties as they traversed into Guatemala.

Simon flew into Guatemala City to set up appropriate permits prior to their arrival.

During their trek through Mexico, the Rotarians faced countless amount of delays. On the second day in, mere hours from crossing into Guatemala, the engine in the Chevy van could take no more. It gave way. Chalmers and Morrison continued their journey without Boverie, leaving him and the junked Chevy in Veracruz until it could be repaired – which would hopefully be within 10 days.

“One of the conditions under which foreign vehicles can transmigrate is to stay on one route,” Simon said, “and make it from one border to the next in under 10 days. The penalties for violation are severe.”

Simon contacted the pastor of San Pablo, a Guatemalan town near the border where she spent her childhood days, asking for assistance in getting the broken-down van into Guatemala. The pastor contacted the local fire department.

“In Guatemala, we invent nothing but can fix anything,” the fire chief told Simon. “If you can give us that ambulance, we can get it working.”

The fire chief crossed into Mexico and had the ambulance towed, Boverie said.

Eventually, and after crossing back and forth several times from Mexico to Guatemala until the working van was legally registered, the team arrived in Uspantán and was met by Simon and six other New Mexico Rotarians. The welcome was overwhelming.

“When we arrive at the villages they set off firecrackers, place banners on the side of the roads, decorate their buildings with balloon and crate paper, and set up platforms with fragrant pine needles for us to sit on,” Simon said.

Speeches were given by village leaders, traditional Mayan music was played on flute and drums, and a special dinner of turkey and vegetable soup was prepared by the women, who cooked in large tin vats – a celebratory item.

Next year, clubs from the 5520 Rotary district plan to help install a potable water system in the Guatemalan town of Cerritos, in partnership with local residents who have agreed to perform the unskilled labor. County government will be providing engineers and designers for the project.

The 5520 Rotary district includes several clubs around New Mexico and West Texas, including the Los Alamos chapter.

Funding to equip clinics was obtained by donations from 20 Rotary clubs from New Mexico, West Texas and Guatemala.