“Melanie, a baby is coming,” I hear Mallory softly speak outside of my door. It is almost 1am at the women’s birth center and clinic here in rural Guatemala.
I groggily open my eyes and throw on my ratty grey sweatshirt and some warm socks; the climate here in the mountains is much less oxygenated and quite a bit colder than that which I have become accustomed in the humid jungles of Costa Rica, so I have brought the warmest clothes I own…which isn’t saying much.
Mallory and I head down the tiled steps and then down the long hallway into the small delivery room to find a woman with a bulging belly standing next to two of the other midwives who do not live at the center, but are on shift for tonight. They are exchanging words in a local Mayan language, but kindly switch over to Spanish upon our arrival. Mallory, a midwife who gave up her job in Seattle to live for a year in Guatemala helping to develop their local women’s healthcare, is fluent in Spanish but only knows a few words in this aforementioned indigenous language.
Though the mother is quite dilated, the lack of intensity of her contractions indicate that it might be awhile longer until she is ready to give birth.
Thus, I discover that, unlike the Hollywood movies, the process of labor is mostly a waiting game.
She spends the next few hours walking back and forth in the (aptly named) waiting room, stopping only to endure her increasingly intense contractions. However, she does not do this alone. Although her husband is doing his best to get some rest on the floor, her 3-year-old son does not leave her side, taking each step with her and even mimicking her squatting and rocking motion when the contractions become almost unbearable.
It is at this time that I take the opportunity to reflect upon the incredible experiences I’ve had this week:
After traveling via bus, plane, bus, bus and finally boat, I met up with Mallory at Lake Atitlan, one of the most popular tourist spots in Guatemala, and for good reason. The stunning lake, surrounded by multiple mountains and volcanoes is absolutely breathtaking. Mallory rented us an incredible airbnb (accessible only by boat or foot) in the town of Santa Cruz, where our mutual friend was getting married. We spent the first day getting to know the other attendees with a challenging but beautiful 8+ mile mountain hike followed by lunch overlooking the lake. The fun continued the following day at the wedding itself, which was filled with a healthy dose of laughter, tears, local food and music. In truth it also brought up a new awareness of my own sense of loneliness at not having a partner, which was difficult…but more on that another time.
The next day, and after an early morning adventure of stand-up paddle boarding on the lake, we moved to a hotel in another town called ‘San Marcos,’ where I met Mallory’s soon-to-be business partner. Mallory will be moving from her current position with the ACAM Midwives to develop her own practice here on the lake with Hannah, a young Belgian woman who’s stories of her bravery in regards to activism for women’s healthcare would make your head spin. (Check out their website: midwivesofthelake.com.) Hannah has been living on the lake for sometime now, but had been eager to find a practice partner, which she was lucky enough to find in Mallory.
Though I had visited this town the last time I was in Guatemala, it was a completely different experience knowing that one of my closest friends would be living there. We spent the next few days trying out restaurants and yoga classes, imagining what her life will be like. We were even able to pick up the keys to her storybook new cottage, nestled in the hills with the area’s quintessential majestic views of the lake.
Then, shit got real.
We headed back to Mal’s home in Concepcion, only a two hour drive, but a world of difference. The views of the grand lake with signs advertising hotels and hostels turned to small local homes, yards with cows and pigs and not a tourist in sight.
That night we were woken up at 1:30am as a woman was going in to labor. We made it downstairs just moments after the baby came out. I felt a strange sense of fear from the mother and disappointment from the dad. Turns out that, sadly, I was right. Later I would discover that he was so upset that the baby had been born a girl that he ended up leaving his wife the next day. That got me thinking about why some babies are given that set of cards to play in life, while other’s are born to the Beyonce’s of the world (OK, we all know that there is only ONE Queen B, but you get my point).
After a few more hours of sleep, we woke up with the sun at 5am to drive through the mountains on the bumpiest road I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them) into an even more remote community, where we were greeted with a long line of pregnant women, all eager to benefit from the mobile clinic that Mallory’s group has been incredible enough to provide for them once per month. Mallory even let me feel useful by playing secretary while she took the baby’s measurements and heartbeat via ultrasound.
After having a delicious dinner back home with the midwives (and trying my hand at making fresh corn tortillas…I did OK!), we were back at it again the next day in a different community. This time, however, we had to carry all of the equipment up a steep and treacherous hill. The view, however, made it all worth it.
Exhausted, yet happy, I settled into sleep…but not for long, which brings us to the beginning of this post.
To say that this trip has been an adventure would be putting it mildly. It has helped to shift something within me; something which I know I won’t be able to fully process until I am back in Puerto Viejo and have had a chance to actually rest for a moment or two…
It is 3:30am when mother-to-be is having her worst contractions. She grabs onto me tightly. I can feel her quiver with pain. She rests her head on my chest while she moans and breathes heavily. I have to hold back tears at how moved I am by this woman’s strength and that I have the privilege to hold space for her at this momentous time.
A few moments later, Mallory decides that it’s time for the baby to come and, with that, we help mom onto the bed. In just a few pushes the baby is fully in the world and immediately lets out a loud scream, which is music to my ears. She is a healthy baby girl and, unlike my first experience, the parents of this child are delighted. Mallory lets me cut the umbilical cord, again, doing me the service of making me feel helpful. Soon after the baby is safe in mom’s arms and sleepily enjoying her very first breakfast, we leave the happy parents to bond with their new daughter and Mal and I head back upstairs.
I can’t quite get back to sleep after the excitement and so, the next day, I am so beyond exhausted that I am punch drunk with energy…enough so to write this blog post.
Guatemala, you are one for the books.