Todos Santos, Guatemala - Mar 2015
Another visit to Todos Santos has come to an end. As usual, it was filled with highs and lows. There were lots of smiles and laughs, as well as some very emotional moments.
Thursday and Friday were travel days. This year our group consisted of 7 people, including Rose, who was the client that won the opportunity to go with us. Thanks to everyone’s generosity we had 12 totes worth of supplies and presents. Luckily we had no issues getting everything through Customs and loaded on the plane. Our flights were smooth and the drive to Todos Santos was crowded and long, but accomplished safely.
It is always exciting to arrive in Todos Santos to see old friends and meet potential new friends. Change is slow in Todos Santos, but always visible. The archaic jail has been replaced by a small park-like area. The French fry/chicken stalls have moved. Changes are never major, so even minor changes are quite noticeable.
Saturday was Community Day. As usual, organized activities were presented in the square to the delight of the children. Amaria is a school teacher from Guatemala City that happily donates her time to this activity each year. The children enjoyed games, crafts and face painting by Stacey. In Canada, “tween” boys would be much too cool to do crafts, but in Todos Santos, they jump right in. The older children are also wonderful about making sure their younger siblings participate as well. Sadly, there are many very young children working shining shoes and selling things. This year many of those were able to take time out to participate as well.
While the activities were occurring, Lisa (our own Allandale technician) and Guillermo, went to the school and repainted the hopscotch squares. They gave the squares a special GAAP flare by putting information regarding pet care and rabies prevention onto them. Lisa and Guillermo were assisted by Mario and Cristino, the two boys that we provide school funding for. The entire outside of the school could use a paint job, so that is a goal for next year.
Saturday night is “Movie Night”. This year’s movie was Dr. Dolittle 3. The movie is well attended by children and grownups alike. This year there were approximately 100 people in attendance. The Allandale gang brought popcorn all the way from Canada which was popped and distributed. There were also small toys distributed to the children. Can you imagine the joy of something as simple as a glow bracelet when you have no actual toys to play with? There are certainly children with toys in Todos Santos, though the vast majority do not have any store bought toys and just make do with whatever they can find. One day we saw a little girl entertaining herself with a plastic lid. I remember a story my grandmother told about the only store bought toy she had as a child and how devastated she was when it was broken. My son had so many toys as a child that he probably didn’t even play with all of them. Seeing children with no toys, but smiles on their faces is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.
Sunday morning we were able to get up early and take our traditional walk around the village prior to heading to breakfast. It is incredibly exciting to see people and animals that we remember from previous years. It is even more exciting when the people recognize and are happy to see us. The majority of Sunday consisted of unpacking and prep work for Monday. Since the plan this year was to do many more spays and neuters than in the past, we needed to be particularly organized. To that end, we had training sessions for everyone involved in the afternoon. It’s a lot of work to take an empty community building and turn it into a functioning, though primitive, hospital in one day. Sunday we were again assisted by Mario, Cristino, and Cristino’s brother, Roberto. It is amazing to see how much Mario and Cristino have matured and how much more outgoing they are since they are able to attend school. Cristino’s brother, Roberto, is now at an age where he will be requiring support for school and Mario’s sister, Roxanne, is currently working rather than attending school due to a lack of funds. School is not readily available for the older children. They are still attending public school, but must pay for schooling, books, supplies, internet time for homework, and clothing for school. Also, many families cannot afford to lose the income provided when a child goes to work. So any funding for the children must cover both school expenses and lost income.
A few of us were graciously invited to visit Cristino’s home on Sunday afternoon. Cristino’s mother, Santos, was so pleased to invite us into her simple, but clean and organized home. This family of four – mother and three sons – lives in a single room home. Canadians would be ashamed of such simple surroundings and would likely not invite anyone to visit. This charming woman was happy to show us her home, her son’s homework, and most of all the love that she has for her children. She gave us the best hot chocolate I have ever had. Monday through Friday was spent working from 8am to 5 or 6pm doing surgeries, vaccines, and preparing for the next day. Previously, we have only done surgery on dogs, but this year we spayed and neutered cats as well. We have also only done rabies vaccine in the past since it is provided at no charge by the government. This year, thanks to a generous donation by Idexx, we were able to give the canine distemper vaccine as well. Next year, it would be nice to give the feline distemper too. There are so many moments that stand out from the week, but I will just mention a few. It has been a financially difficult year for this area and many of the dogs were extremely thin. It is very difficult to tell people that are barely able to feed themselves and their families that they need to feed their pets more. One little boy brought his dog in for vaccines. Both the little boy and his dog were so very thin. You want to take them both home and care for them, but the reality is that all we were able to do was to give the dog a big pile of dog cookies and the little boy a bag of chips and an apple.
There was a lady that brought her dog in to be spayed. Once the dog recovered enough to go home we watched the lady carefully place it in a crate the size of two milk crates combined. She then placed the crate on her back with a strap across her forehead and prepared to make the 45 minute walk up and downhill to her home. Melissa was going to give her money for a taxi, but our interpreter offered to drive her home. Melissa and Andres set out to drive the lady and her dog. They dropped her off at the top of a steep hill and left her to finish the downhill walk to her home. Andres explained to Melissa that it is a fact of local life to walk up and downhill with heavy burdens.
Many of the children come every day after school. There’s not a lot that happens out of the ordinary in Todos Santos, so our being there is a big event. The children are so sweet and cute. They love watching surgery and interacting. This year we were lucky to have some dolls that one of our clients knit. We passed these out to some of the children. We also gave one of the dolls to Juana. Juana was the absolute cutest 80 year old lady. Juana was there with her cat for surgery. Many of the little girls enjoyed manicures thanks to Amy, one of the veterinarians. Melissa and Andres applied temporary tattoos to many of the children as well. Andres is a godsend while we are in Todos Santos. He speaks English, Spanish, and Mam (the local indigenous language). We spend the entire day calling for Andres to come translate.
Sadly, we had two anesthetic deaths this year. This is not surprising given the poor condition of many of the dogs and the limited facilities we have. The deaths hit everyone hard as these were the first deaths in many years. However, the Guatemalan veterinarians that were there explained to us that we were doing everything we could and most Guatemalan veterinarians will not run these types of campaigns in rural areas due to the high risk involved. They thought that we should be quite satisfied with our overall success. We were worried that the local people would be discouraged by these deaths, but there was not a single surgical appointment cancelled.
Santos asked us to visit on Friday to say goodbye. A group of us stopped at her home on our way for a final walk around the village. Once again she invited us in. She was busy making tortillas over an open fire. With great emotion, she told us (in Spanish) how grateful she was for the help we provided her family and the fact that our help allowed her boys to attend school. She said how much they loved to learn and how happy she was that they were receiving an education as that was their chance to have a better life. With tears in her eyes and her voice cracking, she told us that she looked forward to seeing us again next year and that she hoped everyone would still be alive and well. Santos told us to remember that no one knew what day would be their last, and to live life to the fullest. She explained to us how important family is and the ability to get together as a family. She told us that her parents own the home she lives in and that she fears that if they die she will not have any place to live as there are other family members that may want to sell or live in the home. By the time she finished speaking, everyone had tears in their eyes and many in the group were openly crying. Santos hugged each of us and again wished us well. The strength of this woman – a single mother, no work, providing for her children as best she can – is incredible. There are people and animals suffering here in Canada and all over the world. Todos Santos just happens to be the little part of the world that we are trying to make better. Each year we go and provide education, it helps improve the lives of the pets. Spaying and neutering helps prevent unwanted puppies and kittens. Rabies vaccines help to keep the pets and humans safe. Trying to get even a few more children educated may help their families break out of a life of poverty. We are so grateful to all of the clients that support this project in so many different ways. If you ever want to know more about Todos Santos or if you want to consider visiting with us next year, please do not hesitate to contact us. And make sure to check out The GAAP (Global Alliance for Animals and People) website at www.thegaap.org to see information on all of the great work that they do. The project coordinators, Elena and Guillermo, are fabulous people that have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place for animals and people.