Thursday’s village is set high in the mountains, a two hour drive up winding switchbacks. The school and a few public buildings are in better shape than one might expect, so remote from civilization. The people work the fields, agricultural labor, from youth to old age. Bananas, corn, coffee, beans. If not working the fields, they process the crops, shucking dried corn from the cobs, or packing and loading heavy boxes. The toll on their bodies is harsh and limiting: Chronic back pain. Shoulder pain. It hurts when I reach up like this. What do you do for a living? I pick coffee. A woman, whose job is to husk and manually remove dried corn from the cobs all day long, with significant pain in her arms. Classic carpal tunnel, a minor ailment and easy fix in the States.
I am called to look at a month old baby, the newest of the local Lenca tribe, an indigenous people in the area. His mama is young, her round face and almond eyes soft but afraid. She walked down the mountain in labor, not knowing why her baby wouldn’t come, and showed us the vertical scar on her belly from her cesarean section. Because her dialect is different than the native Spanish, translation was difficult and details were few. She had no real understanding of what happened, other than that “head was up”. This little angel, with a halo of downy black hair, lolled in his mother’s tired arms, sleeping contentedly. She was breastfeeding exclusively and his chubby cheeks reflected the strength of her milk. But she wasn’t eating much, not hungry. What was she able to eat? Corn tortillas and salt. Frijoles? Si, when we can get them. How often is that? The translator is reluctant to ask, but does so. The young mama is more reluctant, and looks down at her baby instead. No father of her baby in the picture, she lives with her mom and dad. I am somewhat reassured, but there is room for postpartum depression in her tiny world, although the concept is as foreign to her as was the surgical delivery of her baby, no doubt. Certainly unlikely to understand or accept treatment, and more certainly unable to obtain access to it.
After lunch we go on a “home visit”, to see a local’s home. Curious and eager to learn more about the culture, we push our way up the hill/mountainside, climbing up a steep path littered with cellophane wrappers; Previous contents unknown, but probably a factor in the number of teeth extracted in the dental clinic.
At the end of a steep and breathtaking climb – literally - sat our destination: a disheveled shack, perhaps 15 x 15 feet, made of tin, the inside walls lined with the clothing of the 18 people living there. I can’t imagine 18 bodies lying down and fitting into this space. There is a dirty mattress on a dilapidated roll-away bed, but no visible linens or pillows. No men, or even boys, are here. Probably out working. Likewise, no other women are here.
At the front of the shack, tending a large cooking pot, stood a small woman, identical to the new mama I’d seen in the clinic. Indeed, she was one of six sisters, some living in this spot, some elsewhere. Her belly held a new babe, nearly ready for its life in this harsh world. It took two translators to process a sentence: one into Spanish, and one to then translate into the tongue of the Lenca tribe. No, she had received no prenatal care. Her birth plan involved squatting down and catching her emerging baby. Who would be there to help with the birth? Maybe a sister, a daughter, any woman who happened to be there. Or by herself. She had birthed her other four children the same way. Before leaving, the group gave her one of their crucifix necklaces, and prayed for her and her home and those within its walls. After it was done, she looked confused, as the translator tried to explain to her what a crucifix was, and what it was for. As the group headed down the hill, I asked for permission to touch, and laid midwife hands on her belly. I spoke softly to this unborn innocent, blessing it to be strong and fill its role in this harsh world, whatever that role might be. Mama giggled, I hugged her, and turned away from her, finally understanding that this is real life in a remote village, and it is enough. Struggle, as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Catching up with the others halfway down the steep, littered path, we stopped for a health check on an elderly woman who was unable to safely travel by foot down the steep, pocked road. We found three elderly women, with bright smiles etched into their faces, standing on the front porch of a large, well-kept white stucco home. How is your health? Is there anything you need? Ah, no, I am well… but perhaps something for my stomach… Our translator promised to send someone up with some Tums. The group turned to leave, but I jumped up on the porch for happy hugs and to try to express my admiration for how well they had used the years. Knowing that our security guard had to remain with any stragglers, I rushed through my few Spanish words, Muy bonita! As I touched each on the arm, and cuanto años tiene? Suddenly realizing that I don’t know more than uno through diez, I froze, but somehow one conveyed that she was 68, and that her friend was 90! I took these abuelas’ pictures and we all squealed with delight as they giggled and clapped each other on their backs, delighting in themselves and each other, amigas y familia. I dragged myself away, clinging to their laughter and hugs, skipping past the waiting security guard, who was unable to pretend disapproval.
As we sat on the bus later, each exhausted but renewed in our own way, laughter erupted as others showed photos and videos of another cheeky abuela, carrying a heavy bundle of firewood and sticks on her head. Teasing and dares ensued, with this spitfire of a woman dancing, cutting up, and doing her version of “Look ma, no hands!” Really, no hands!
Life, struggles, beauty, happiness, humanness. Entirely different, yet inherently the same. It stretches to the farthest jungles and mountains and the most humble of circumstances, but we are bound forever to those we connect with, however briefly.