Examining Our Own Lens
After spending two weeks in Xela, Guatemala and two weeks in Totonicapan, Guatemala, I had only begun to realize that I was scratching the surface of a rich and vivid interconnection. I had begun my research under the assumption that I would be “investigating the emergency medical system in Totonicapan, Guatemala.” Upon starting, I felt immensely frustrated.
An old neuroscientist-bluegrass teacher of mine once described researchers as either “lumpers” or “splitters.” The lumpers often liked to take individual observations (similarities between chemical structures, correlations amongst animal behaviors, movements of celestial bodies, etc.) and explain how they all lumped together. The splitters had a different approach. Reductionist in nature, the splitters would observe the larger phenomena and dissect them (the chemical components resulting in the taste of a banana, the electrical causes of lightening, the differences variations in sound have on the tympanic membrane).
As a self-ascribed philosopher-scientist I knew that I had a mix of both. I have a general tendency to ask “Why?” and once I get a semi-answer, this search opens up a whole new bag of questions, generally resultings in more questions ad-infinitum. However, if you ever wish to convey a discovery it has to be succinct, and it helps to connect the patterns you see with overarching philosophical statements.
The deeper I fell into Guatemala, the deeper I realized the difficulty, perhaps even impossibility, of translating these observations into linguistic phenomena we call sentences.
My frustration began as I noticed my research becoming increasingly particular. I was no longer simply conducting research in Guatemala — instead I was observing human interaction within a small rural community. I felt as if I was Howard Carter, just beginning to chisel away one corner of King Tut’s Tomb.
Splitting: Noticing Differences
Once in the community, I spent a week with the Bomberos Voluntarios. When I was with the Voluntarios I would begin by sitting with them, asking about the types of emergencies they saw, what they wished to learn, what equipment they required. After the first day it became much more than a “needs-based analysis.” Many of the voluntarios had day-jobs as tuk-tuk drivers (akin to taxi drivers), construction workers, and call-center operators. This wasn’t the story of just one or two firefighters but instead all firefighters. The entire country of Guatemala is primarily staffed by volunteer firefighters who are also trained to handle medical emergencies along with the usual fires and hazardous materials.
As my time with the Voluntarios would wean late into the evening and the tint of the red sun would pass lightly through the windows, a different environment unfolded. Over conversations of Mayan cocoa and banana bread, each person would begin to open up about their individual histories. One in particular, a very humble volunteer, showed me his early pictures from the 1970’s when he was the commandante in a small hut, equipped with one phone and a donated pickup truck from the states. They still use this pickup truck to date.
My second week was spent with the Bomberos Municipales. While the name varies, these firefighters were also volunteers. The separation between the two groups is long-standing and imbued with complicated political history, however they both exist for the same purpose–to serve their community. Many of these Municipales were much younger, they were attending school during the day and volunteering as firefighters during the night and on the weekends. Similar to the Voluntarios, the Municipales were well-versed in protocol, however they lacked basic equipment (blood pressure cuffs, oximeters, defibrillators, etc.) which would allow them to assess their patients properly.
At the end of the week, I was invited to a wedding. Gringos have nothing on Ladinos and Mayans when it comes to dancing, but nevertheless they were so welcoming. I gave a speech, was called a “proper ambassador from the United Stated” and even showed a few moves from Elvis Presley and the Beatles. It was not until the end of the wedding however, when everyone began to sing their individual community anthems that I noticed the amount of pride each group had for their own community. Instead of singing one overarching national anthem, each table would shout out the region they were from and hum along to their own anthems.
Lumping: Noticing Similarities
I began to notice something deeper about Guatemala. In a country torn apart by strife, corruption, war, and trauma, there was a sense of resilience which was poignant. Groups which lacked necessary medical equipment and training would make due with what they had, improvise, and continue to serve their individual community.
Imagine a land where you cannot trust the politicians (the most recent president is in jail and the vice president stepped down). Imagine a place where it is expected that any police officer can be bribed and the rule of law can be bought. Who do you turn to during a time of need?
In Guatemala, it is the Bomberos. A group of volunteers ranging from age 16 to 60 doing their duty because they feel compelled to serve their community. The community does not stop at some geopolitical boundary, instead, if there is an accident in a nearby town, volunteers from multiple regions will move as fast as possible to save as many lives as possible.
As a clinician in the United States I have seen complainers. I have seen people who will argue and fight over one malfunctioning piece of equipment or a lack of certain supplies. The Guatemalans I observed embraced a sense of “Amor Fati” for better or worse. Whether it was using the same oxygen mask over and over again, or tearing part of a shirt to make a tourniquet, they did what needed to be done. Necessity was the driving force behind this ingenuity.
In the United States, if there is an emergency, we call 911 and expect immediate response. In Guatemala, a person can call a variety of numbers and expect one person with a variety of life experiences and resources. Moreover, the firefighters themselves hardly know what they are walking into. Many reported large multi-car accidents, triage during earthquakes, or even rescuing a cat from a tree or a cow stuck in the road.
The Power and the Limitations of Language
While the people of Totonicapan depend on volunteers, there remains quite a bit of division between the Voluntarios and the Municipales. There is a sense of pride associated with belonging to each agency, similar to the pride people feel in regard to their home towns. There used to be reports of members of each agency physically fighting to rescue a patient. Both agencies continue to report that they will race to the patient to be the first one in command (and taking care of the patient). While both agencies agree that one unified system of communication between all emergency providers would be helpful, they continue to remain divided in their systems. Finally, both groups desire an experiential method of learning on common grounds (perhaps in the hospital) but no such initiative has begun.
To me, this represents the importance of a unified philosophy. Many firefighters would constantly express how committed to their community they were, how they were dedicated to patient care. I believe this is the first step, to express a common belief and then to share it with others. I spent countless evenings talking to volunteers and expressing how passionate I was about serving my community. It was during these conversations that a spark ignited. Instead of talking about protocols or emergencies, I began to feel a connectedness. We would discuss what it meant to serve the community, what it meant to extend a hand in a time of need, what it meant to truly care.
Here I was, uncovering just the edge of that artifact, and beginning to realize that it was indeed King Tut’s Tomb. Connections were being made.
Names may have divided us. We may have been Voluntarios, Municipales, Americanos, Guatemaltecos, but by the end of my time there, we all called each other companeros. This was the realization I came to.
Once these crucial conversations begin, we ourselves begin to notice how we feel and what drives us. There is a sincere power in noticing, naming, dissecting, and then connecting. I was able to see the intricate differences which divided each community and sub-community, and by doing so, an overarching pattern was revealed, the sincere intention to help.
Connectedness Manifested via Intention
Leaving Guatemala, I learned that I had only scratched the surface. My own personal explorations will continue to uncover and decipher new fragments of a larger picture. Perhaps what I thought was King Tut’s Tomb is actually a completely different artifact. This emphasizes the need for continual exploration, frequent dissection, and analysis through splitting.
However, the devil can also be in the details. Perhaps the most profound experience was responding to an accident in an area known as Cuatro Caminos. During this accident I immediately engaged my “emergency mode” and began to attend to the hemorrhaging victims at the scene. My companeros did the same. None of us used any language at the time, we simply worked in unison, tethered by one intention, save the life of the patients.
As social animals, I truly believe that all humans have various genetic and environmental factors which compel them to help others. We are all connected by a common tree of life. When language, pride, nationality, agencies, and all other identifying factors can be set aside, even for a moment, our natural intention to care for one another manifests.
Whether it is in Guatemala, the United States, or anywhere else, we must emphasize our capacity and intention to be there for one another, to engage our communities, and to care for the only home we have ever known.