I'm Not Tough Enough to be a Guatemalan Woman

I’m not tough enough to be a Guatemalan woman. Any Guatemalan woman can tell you that.  I try to be as tough as a Guatemalan man, and sometimes I succeed.  If a compañero is hauling 100 lbs of cement on his back or 100 lbs of chicken feed, I try to lend a hand.  Though I can feel my spine permanently compacting as I haul bricks up a mountain, I never complain.  It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s because a few steps in front of me is a woman, hauling the same load I have.  The only difference is she is doing it barefoot, with the weight balanced on her head and a baby on her back.  I’m looking for my final resting spot before the coronary hits while she’s supporting life for two.  I'm just not that tough.

That point was brought home to me in living Technicolor this week.  Mayra is a coworker and friend who was diagnosed with cancer in her nether regions and was scheduled for a hysterectomy.  This is a major event for anyone, but for a woman who lives most of her life in a 2-room adobe home with her husband and five kids, it should be earth-shattering.  Or would have been if she were as frail as me.  A few minutes in a local public hospital waiting room is one of the more terrifying experiences I can imagine.

Escorted by her husband Pedro, Mayra had her hysterectomy.  She asked for it on an outpatient basis, wanting to get home to her kids.  Besides, even at a public hospital, an overnight stay was more of a financial burden that the family could bear.

Pedro is a loving husband. Over the last few weeks, he had been working odd jobs and storing away extra cash so his wife could take a taxi home from the hospital, rather than the bus.  A taxi should cost about Q200, about 7 days of work for Pedro.  Pedro had saved twice that.

The taxi drivers outside the hospital were vultures.  The same mentality that motivates them to double-charge tourists at the airport kicks in at the hospital carport.  Sensing vulnerable prey, the taxistas charged Q350.  In pain, but nobody’s fool, Mayra refused all taxis and boarded the public bus with stitches just 2 hours old.  She had been awake for less than an hour, but her mind was clear.

Two bus transfers and an hour of bumpy roads later, she’s ready for the final leg home.  “Let’s take a taxi for the last part of the trip,” urges Pedro, and she concedes.  The drive in a 30-year-old school bus has softened her resolve, but only a little.

“Give me the cash and I’ll take a taxi home.  I’m fine.  You go look for work.”  She sends Pedro on his way.  Pedro is reluctant, but knows that they need money right now.  Besides, the fury of a hysterectomy patient scorned is not a pretty thing.

Mayra looked at the cash, more than she had held in a long time.  It represented all Pedro had saved leading up to her surgery, some Q400 or perhaps $50.  A gold mine.  To return with that much cash to her town would mean it would get spent on something frivolously silly.  She couldn’t let that happen.

With Pedro now working, she headed for the market.  There she invested her cash in 25 chicks and 200 lbs of chicken feed on which to raise them.  Feeling a little tired and thinking those sacks of chicken feed looked particularly heavy today, she allowed herself the luxury of a private taxi ride all the way to her door.

Me?  I wish I was that tough.  I’ve barely made it all the way through this article without complaining about the machete cut on my left pinky that really stings when I type the ‘x’ in ‘taxi.’  I’d like to call Mayra for some commiseration, but I’m not sure she’d understand.