Medicine, trades, and cuisine in Guatemala

Somos Hermanos summer 2013 at Lago Chikabal

During the first three weeks in Guatemala our days were filled with excursions and cultural conferences. One of the presentations that was particularly interesting was by a comadrona (midwife) who discussed some of the common cultural remedies that are used during the entire birth process; from herbal teas for different stages of labor to comprehensive massages to induce lactation. The presentation gave us a glimpse into how medicine is able to serve entire communities without the use of modern technology and medications. She passed around branches of the dried plants that have been used for centuries for various problems from anesthesia to inducing labor. While stopping a hemorrhage with the application of a plant-based paste seemed unlikely, there were aspects of the practice she described that I think western medicine can learn from. Comadronas do not have privileges in local hospitals and therefore deliver about 80% of rural births without the use of ultrasounds, modern anesthesia medications, or C-sections. She described the massage practices that she has used for over 30 years to ascertain the positioning of the baby and also to rotate a baby that is in the breech position. The success rate of rotating breech babies instead of opting immediately for the invasive C-section, that has become so commonplace in the United States, made me think that perhaps access to invasive procedures is diverting us from easy solutions. I know that there are a lot of things we can teach developing countries about medicine but there are also things we should learn from their practices.

Naturally colored hand-made wool in Momostenango

On the weekends our group of 22 medical students traveled to different parts of the country to learn about the culture and see the scenic landscapes Guatemala has to offer. The weather in Xela was much like Portland, with a long rainy season and a reliable shower almost every afternoon, although it was definitely warmer during the day. Different parts of the country varied in many aspects and we were able to appreciate the diversity in language, food, lifestyle, occupations, and access to healthcare. As part of the program we were introduced to traditional aspects of the Guatemalan lifestyle from hand-made goods to native cuisine. We visited a family in the city of Momostenango where they made hand-woven commodities like rugs and clothing. After watching a demonstration we were able to help with the spinning of the wool and weaving the patterns into the rugs. It was definitely a lot of work, the rug I bought for less than 20 dollars took 6 months to make! One of the things I liked most about this presentation was learning about the natural resources that have been used for centuries to provide color for thread and fabrics [the color red is derived from a bug called Cochineal. On a separate occasion we had a presentation about the production of chocolate and then visited a factory where we got our hands dirty mixing the pure cocoa bean with sugar before helping to package it up for local distribution.

As a foodie I think I may understand a culture in a major way through my taste buds. Our group was impressed by the diversity of food available in Xela – we had everything from Sabor de India (Indian cuisine) to Esquina Asiatica (Asian fusion). However, the flavor of the native dishes is something that I still have a hard time describing. The traditional food is definitely not Mexican in flavor but has some similarities to its northern neighbor. Lunch time was the biggest meal of the day and lucky for Sara and I our family was kind enough not to serve hot dogs and mayonnaise during every mealtime (unlucky for others in the group).  The most traditional dish was called Pepian and it was a stew type potatoe and chicken dish that was accompanied by rice and steamed tortia dough. We had a group cooking class to learn how to make Pepian and other native dishes.

Traditional Guatemalan dish Pepian
Guatemalan family making tomales
Toasting cocoa beans for home-made chocolate