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A bumpy ride

| Tuesday, October 4, 2016

This summer, I spent eight weeks in Antigua, Guatemala, for the Center for Social Concerns’ International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP). Before leaving for Guatemala, I had many expectations — among them, I hoped to receive substantial clinical experience, to learn about the Guatemalan culture, to improve my Spanish and to help students with their homework. My ISSLP not only surpassed my expectations, but also came with a bunch of firsts: my first “rellenito” (a Guatemalan dessert), my first hike up a volcano, my first lava-roasted s’more and my first experience translating in a classroom setting, among many others. What I did not expect to add to this list was my first motorcycle ride (looking back, accepting a ride on a coworker’s motorcycle was probably not the safest thing to do in a foreign country — but I was not feeling well enough to endure the walk home after a long day at work, and she assured me that she was a safe motorcyclist).

Riding in my coworker’s motorcycle was surprisingly difficult. As the motorcycle accelerated, my hands tightened around the underside of the sharply inclined passenger seat and my legs desperately clenched the width of the driver seat as I struggled to keep myself upright. I felt incompetent scrambling to stay on the motorcycle as its only passenger — I had often seen as many as four passengers (many of which were children) sharing a motorcycle. I braced myself for every bump in the road, while my coworker, laughing at how tense I was, calmly maneuvered her motorcycle around each speed bump and pothole we encountered. When we finally arrived, I momentarily forgot about the forces I had to fight to stay in my seat and was overcome with gratitude. I was relieved that I did not have to walk extensively through the scorching heat in the feeble state I was in and I was thankful to have such a kindhearted friend in my coworker.

Although the ride was slightly uncomfortable, I knew I was fortunate. I was aware that not everyone could simply hop on a motorcycle and arrive at their destination minutes later. I could not begin to imagine the pain and exhaustion sick patients must have to endure in their treks to nearby clinics. Given the minimal support built into more economical footwear and the prevalence of swollen feet among Guatemalans (due to the genetic predisposition to diabetes as well as the typical carbohydrate-heavy diet), walking can be an unpleasant challenge. Even though buses are commonly used for transportation, a considerable amount of walking is generally still involved in the overall commute. In more isolated rural regions, leaving town to seek medical attention becomes even more difficult and comes with an additional opportunity cost, since extra time spent traveling means less time spent tending the fields. Unfortunately, the need for medical care seems ever-present in countries like Guatemala, where living conditions that involve poor sanitation and homes with dirt floors are constantly at odds with the human body. Ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, respiratory infections, intestinal infections and malnutrition threaten the well-being of adults as well as children and require regular medical attention. When a child becomes severely ill, the mother must take time off work to seek medical attention for her child, and more notably, the child will consequently miss school.

Thus health care is intrinsically connected to education, which is undeniably pivotal to the alleviation of poverty, owing to the plethora of opportunities having an education affords. The power of education cannot be overstated: It is the key to empowering the poor to achieve a sustainable solution to poverty. However, as long as other vital needs such as those for water, food, shelter or health care are in the picture, education will be put on the back burner. Therefore, the fight against poverty entails a multi-faceted approach that will address several aspects of poverty including health care, housing and education. And poverty is not a matter that can be tackled alone. Together, through direct service as well as advocacy for social justice, we must support and empower the poor, so that they may overcome the inequity that they have unjustly become victims to.

I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the ISSLP in Guatemala, which brought me out of my comfort zone and showed me the innate complexity of poverty. During my eight weeks in Guatemala, I embarked on a ride that showed me not only the streets of Antigua, but also the incredible motivation and enormous hearts of the locals who, despite the potholes and speed bumps that they have already encountered (and the many that inevitably lie ahead of them), courageously strive to overcome the odds that are so highly stacked against them, never once taking their eyes off their goal of securing a brighter future for their children.

Leigh Anne Tang


Sept. 22

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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