Monday, 13 August 2007

The Mayan way of giving birth

Eucevia, a Mayan woman in her late 20s, lived in an aldea or outlying village from San Juan Comalapa, my Peace Corps town. She came into Comalapa for the Tuesday market and for the weaving club meetings, always with a lovely smile and greetings in Spanish and her Mayan Kachiquel. She sometimes had a toddler in tow and a baby in her shawl, a basket balanced on her head, always a small gift which I had to accept as part of local custom. One day she came troubled into town, unable to find a doctor for her babe in arms with diarrhea. We found the usual remedy in the pharmacy and she headed back, hoping for the best.
I didn't see her for several weeks, so went on horseback to her aldea, about two hours' away. I had been to her compound with several tiled houses, one for the kitchen, the other a bedroom, another for storage, a work area in the center for animals, threshing wheat or drying maize. She was nowhere around, rather unusually. I waited a while and finally I saw Eucevia coming up from the river with a basin of washing on her head. Her usual smile was missing, I sensed something amiss. She had only her toddler daughter with her, no babe in arms. I could see straight away that the little boy had died, 'I'm coming from washing his things' she said. We sat together and were silent. What could we say? Her little girl shuffled her feet, no one felt like talking.

invited me to eat, and we sat heating tortillas and beans, finally finding something to say. I then made a promise that when she had her next baby, I'd come to help deliver it, as I was doing research on midwifery practices, working with my friend Dona Martita, who attended childbirths. Eucevia and I looked at one another and sealed the promise to be together for the next childbirth.
Time passed quickly and we kept making progress with our weekly meetings for the Mayan women's weaving group, growing both in numbers and the women's confidence. Eucevia kept showing up, and I noticed under her expanding belt and skirt that she was indeed pregnant. Mayan women have practical clothes, a long wrap around skirt held up by a 12 foot long woven belt that they wind around and tuck the end underneath. The belt both holds the skirt up and acts as a protection for the stomach and back, especially useful during pregnancy. Their blouse or guipil can be split at the side for easy breast feeding when the time comes. Eucevia's waist was definitely getting bigger, and she promised to remember our pact. I told Dona Martita about the forthcoming event and she, the experienced midwife, agreed to come with me at any time day or night.

One night I heard a knock on the door at 10 pm, far past the time for visitors to Tom's and my little house on the far edge of the town. It was
Eucevia's husband, 'The time has come, please come.' I rushed on my bike to Dona Martita's, she gathered the equipment and we quickly got horses from the local stable, grateful that it was a full moon lit night. Eucevia's husband led the way, and we arrived at their compound at the top of a hill, surprised to see Eucevia greeting us. She insisted on offering us tortilla and beans, and Dona Martita and I thought to ourselves that this was a false alarm. After she was sure that we had eaten and had enough to drink, Eucevia said, 'It's time', and asked us to come into the bedroom house, a separate building. We asked her husband to boil water and we went inside.

There was a simple wooden plank bed, covered with
petates or straw mats, some blankets, a basin. The bed was quite high up, resting on saw horses. Eucevia by now was having more frequent labor pains, and her water burst. Dona Martita and I asked her to lie on the bed, and she said, 'No, this is the way we do it.' There was a rope lasso hanging from the rafter, and Eucevia knelt on the bed. Dona Martita and I took Eucevia's cue and realised the wisdom of her position. She half squatted with her legs apart, held on to the looped lasso with both hands and pushed. We got ourselves ready to 'catch' the baby, and sure enough, quite quickly the baby just about fell out of Eucevia, helped out by gravity rather than her having to push out while lying on her back, a method presumably invented by doctors so they could more easily see what was happening. A baby girl literally fell from heaven into the world, and all that Dona Martita and I had to do was to catch her, be ready there for her to arrive.

Dona Martita and I tied off and cut the umbilical cord, cleaned the baby and gave her to Eucevia, still alert and eager to greet her new daughter. We called the father who came to rejoice with us. They invited Dona Martita and me to spend the night, and we camped out in blankets in the same room with Eucevia and her daughter. By now it was cold, and we huddled in our blankets on the floor, Eucevia and her daughter on the bed. We kept talking late into the night, we three women, savoring the stillness, the dark, the closeness, the joy of witnessing the birth done the Mayan way. As we finally fell to sleep at about three in the morning, I yet again realized I still had so much to learn and felt fortunate that my friends were generous in teaching me. The still and silent darkness was a comfort, the lost child remembered with the new one newly brought into the world.

Sequel: 27 years later, I went back to visit Eucevia and her family, surprising them by driving to their aldea with some of the original weavers from the group we started in 1965-67. Lucia and Reina, two of the weavers, walked with me up the hill to Eucevia's compound. They were of course surprised to see me there with the women from Comalapa. The astounding thing was that it was the birthday of the daughter born 27 years ago, and she was there to celebrate with her family. So it was exactly on her birthday that I showed up unannounced. And the other amazing thing is that the daughter worked in rural community development with Oxfam, a UK charity, and she was teaching nutrition, mother and child care as well as enterprise development in remote areas, the work that I had been doing as a Peace Corps volunteer when I met her mother.
Phyllis SantaMaria

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

It Was a Big One

The peace and quiet of the dark tropical night was shattered when my roommate Peg leaped on my bed and started screaming. “There’s a snake on the floor and it’s having babies!” Fumbling for a flashlight I could see that it was true and we tried to escape the bedroom, one of the two rooms, plus bathroom, that composed our small house in Centro Uno of Nueva Concepcion.

Escape was the number one priority but proved to be difficult as the snake was parked in front of the door near Peg’s bed. The second door was used as a makeshift “closet” where we hung our bridles, hats, horse brushes, etc. Our 200 book book-locker was resting on the floor next to my trunk in front of the door. In our nervousness it took forever to shove things aside and try to control our shaking fingers to open the never used latch.

Escape we did, running screaming down the path in our garden, out the front gate, down the dirt road a block away to the handsome young perito agronomist’s house. Our hero, Francisco arose to the occasion and trotted out of his house pulling up his pants with one hand and brandishing the machete with the other. He soon dispatched the intruder, which turned out to be a 6 foot long poisonous coral snake eating a lizard ( hence the appearance of having babies ) We were indebted to him for saving damsels in distress and thereafter put on our shoes and checked out the floor carefully before walking to the bathroom in the dark.


Friday, 20 July 2007

Stories wanted from Guate VI, sample entry w photo


At our reunion we requested that each Guate VI-er post at least one story from their Peace Corps experience. Many stories warmed the air as we talked, and it'd be great to have them in writing and illustrated with photos. Dennis said that he had written stories for the Antigua paper and that he'd post them here. Let's each add to this collection. Here's a photo that ends the Comalapa mural outside the school, a reminder of the important contribution that the young people of Comalapa have made to history. We can do the same.
It was easy to upload this photo by pressing the photo icon at the top and selecting one from my photo file. We welcome your contributions! Con abrazos, Felisa SantaMaria

Guate VI: why we are blogging (Felisa)

Hola Guate VI! and our Global Audience

In London listening to traffic, after work pub goers on street below and still in Guatemala in spirit. I still haven't landed since returning from our reunion in Guatemala 7-15 July, 2007. I am still climbing up to the altar at Chichicastenango, viewing the murals in Comalapa, listening to the fountain at The Cloister, eating together at Dona Luisa's, laughing at our stories. I still am in that spirit of our being together, exchanging ideas, amazed at the connection. Such a depth to that connection, hard to believe that it has lasted for 40 years, that we can acknowledge what we did during our two years' of Peace Corps work and the preliminary three months' training in Puerto Rico. What riches we received, how that experience changed our views of the world from being a privileged minority of 2% of the world to being with the less privileged living on less than 50cents a day in the mid sixties.

To give a bit of context for those not in Guate VI: 36 US citizens succeeded in being selected to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala from Oct 1965 to July 1967 after three months' training in Arecibo, Puerto Rico (July-Sept 1965). Training included outward bound (drown proofing, rock climbing, four day hikes); technical, agricultural and community development subjects, physical training, Spanish and working in the community. The majority of the group were sent in pairs to do community development and agricultural work on the Pacific coast of Guatemala in newly settled areas where there were no communities. Lack of communities and paved roads, 110 degrees in the shade and 'frontier lawlessness' tested individuals' staying power. A few married couples were sent to the highlands to work in cooler Mayan Indian towns with interesting culture, others to special projects such as building 'Schools to Schools', dairy processing or cooperatives. Notably, everyone completed the two years' assignment. One was just about to board a plane heading back to the US early and turned back, saying, 'I can't leave my group'.

This 'blog' is for our Guate VI group to share our experiences from 1965 to 1967 plus other stories from some of our group members who have returned to live, visit or maintain contact in Guatemala. As one of our group. a tough Texan rancher, said tearfully at our 40th reunion, 'I [we] received more than we ever gave to our Guatemalan friends'.

We celebrate a time when the world was less complicated, had poorer communication infrastructure, was learning the lessons of the Vietnam war. For many of us it was our first time out of the US, the first time to learn a foreign language, much less be expected to use it to communicate for work. We were sent away for two years, and somehow we survived, it made us 'global citizens' and we have prospered for having had those two special years. This blog will be our space for sharing stories, what we want to to savor, ponder and share.