Safety Last

When you spend your whole childhood with a protective mother and father, loving and nurturing grandparents, cautious teachers and coaches, and friendly neighbors, all in a community with a neighborhood watch that questions even the mail man arriving at an unpredictable time, safety is a given, not a privilege in the eyes of a child. Then there are the children that wake up on a dirt floor because the rain started falling and the dust turned to mud, the kind of mud that breeds flesh-eating infections, bloodsucking parasites, or brutal viruses harsh on fragile, hungry bodies; or the children that watch their beaten mothers struggle out of bed to walk four miles with a baby slung around her and one broken sandal on her foot to the community center for vegetable handouts. Some fear their fathers or the man in the makeshift hut next door because when their mother leaves for the day, sexual abuse could be the next horrible challenge they face, or maybe just starvation. Just starvation. I can think of hundreds of uneasy occurrences that happen on a daily basis all over the world, none of which happen to me.  For me, life is separate from the horror I learn about in school, watch on the news, and witness on mission trips to Guatemala.

When traveling to a foreign country, I always think first about the awe-inspiring sights I will see and the adventures I will have, next about the culture and the plausibility of fitting in, and last about the length of the plane ride and how much Dramamine to pack; it seems that the more exotic the destination, the more wretched the journey there. I typically fail to worry about safety, though, because that’s what parents are for. Well, not everyone’s parents, I guess.

Going into the malnutrition center was like traveling back a hundred years, when doctors and nurses wore cloth surgical masks and simplicity triumphed in medicine. No powerful machines, no beeping monitors, no automatic doors, no electronic thermometers. The air was muggy, dense, repulsive. There were no smiles on the children’s faces. The nurses kept on, determined, moving from room to room in hopes of helping any child they could.  The unusual odor was nauseating, yet depressing. The bleak room smelled of unwashed clothing and flesh, mixed with a vomit and sour milk; but the implications of this stench were far more nauseating.  My brief visit to Casa Jackson was shocking and disturbing, yet more worthwhile than anything I took part in during my short stay in Antigua, Guatemala. Bony, mistreated, malnourished babies wore blank stares on their faces and passed-down clothing on their tiny frames. There was not enough love to go around.

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Cautious we were as we placed their delicate bodies in our arms. Most of my classmates took turns holding one child and then the next, trying to equally distribute attention, but I picked up eight-month-old Maria Jose and didn’t put her down. Her big, almond-shaped eyes glared up at me with no joy behind them. She lay silently in my arms, wrapped three times in a fleece blanket. Seventy-five degrees the thermometer on the wall read. She felt hunger but did not show it until I lifted a spoonful of vegetable mush into her mouth, and she eagerly wolfed down the whole bowl. She felt the discomfort of a dirty diaper before I noticed a smell different from the stench of the room, but didn’t cry because “normal” for her meant sitting hours in her own filth; fussing never warranted a reaction before, why would it now? How is this the place for the lucky ones, the ones that were saved? Some of these children starved because their parents simply did not have the resources or ability to keep them fed and healthy, while others had suffered the horrendous consequences of unstable caretakers that favored one child over another. Either way, they had been unfed, unloved, or uncared for in their own homes by the people that were supposed to love them the most in the world. It baffled me.

The lengthy ride back to our host family’s bungalow served as the close for our emotionally exhausting day at Casa Jackson. For the first time since arriving in Guatemala I felt unsafe. We had been ushered from here to there, led by guides everywhere we went, like sheep herded by shepherds in a field, told what food to eat and which kinds to avoid, our whole itinerary and menu planned out for us. I knew it was a mission trip planned by Villanova and therefore everything we did would be somewhat protected, but it had started to become a little suffocating; I had only ever traveled with my unorganized parents or my risk-taking brother, so the whole buddy-system using, to-the-minute method bothered me. The first time I felt unsafe, as I sat scrunched up in the back of a Chevy pickup truck on the chaotic, traffic law-less roads, zigzagging through the mountains, the pressure and confinement lifted like the morning haze of a clear day. Karl listened to music, enhancing the moment, Chimere studied her notes, making the most of the moment, Erin sat nervously next to me, trying to forget the moment, and I examined all of my surroundings as they whipped by, capturing the moment. For the first time since landing in Guatemala, I felt unsafe, yet safely situated in the lifestyle I attempted to embrace. Only a sheltered individual would crave such a thing.

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