Sunday, May 15, 2011

7) Southern Beaches

Imagine this: 

Something wakes you from a deep, peaceful sleep, but all you can hear is the sound of waves crashing into the beach just meters away. You sit up and look out the mosquito netting of your open air tent to see millions of stars shining bright in a cloudless sky. The leaves of the palm trees dance in the gentle sea breeze by the light of the full moon. You watch each wave crash into the shore. You can't take your eyes off the breakers, they are mesmerizing. You don't know why but you find a peace, a comfort, a contentment with the crashing of the ocean waves. Each wave resonates deep within your heart and soul. Words cannot describe it, but the sensation is palpable. The thought of laying back down and going back to sleep crosses your mind, but then you realize that dawn is just about to break. The sky is beginning to lighten ever so slightly in the east as the sun is preparing to make its entrance. There is no way you can go back to sleep, the thought of watching the sunrise has perked your mind like strong cup of coffee. After crawling out of the tent, you take a deep breath of crisp ocean air. You smile, you can't help but smile, because you truly are happy in this moment. After taking it all in: the waves, the stars, the moon, the warm breeze, the black sands, you begin to walk barefoot down the beach towards the sunrise. You can't remember the last time you felt the sensation of warm sand between your toes, it feels so good. Rumor has it that the black sand beaches of southern Guatemala are ugly and not worth the effort to visit. These rumors must be true because you are all alone in this special place, there is no one else in sight. As the sun prepares to appear over the surf, the sky changes color from deep blue to burnt orange to bright yellow, and every shade in between. The rich colors are reflected in the white foam lapping at the beach. If that wasn't enough, a sliver of light appears on the horizon. Then right before your eyes it transforms into a perfect sphere of deep, flaming red. It hurts your eyes, yet you just can't look away. Words cannot capture the moment. You feel a peace deep within, you can't remember that last time you felt like this. Come to think of it, you can't recall if you've ever truly felt this way before. You close your eyes, hoping to burn this visual symphony into you memory forever. Although there is no one else in sight, you know you're not alone because you feel the arms of your Creator wrapped around you in a strong embrace and you hear His voice whisper , "This for you, I knew you would love it. I am here with you. I love you." Yeah, life is good.

This was my life for two weeks on the southern beaches of Guatemala.

I met one of the gals from my Nebaj trip during my time in Antigua. She said that she and a friend were headed down to Sipacate to hang out on the beach for a few days and asked me if I'd like to join. I'm always up for an adventure, especially if it involves hanging out on a beach. With that, we loaded the car rolled out of town. We stayed with at a small surfer hangout just west of Sipacate called the Salty Beaver Beach Lodge (yes, the owner, is very aware of the double meaning).  Peter is a cool Canadian who is giving life in Guatemala a go. He bought the small piece of beach front property a few years ago and has been slowly developing the place. So far he has a large concrete patio and well equipped kitchen, both shaded by a thatched roof. He also has a beautiful swimming pool just meters from the beach. This is by far the nicest pool for miles, it even has the beaver logo tiled into the floor. I must say that he has the most comfortable hammocks I have ever been in! I have become quite the hammock snob, and Peter has the creme de la creme, no question. It really is a great little place. Check it out on Facebook.

The place was lacking was accommodation, but Peter was in the process of building a few private rooms with a dormitory upstairs. The concrete shell was there, but there were no walls. He mentioned that he was eager to get the building framed and finished so he could have a place for people to stay. I told him I would be happy to help, in return he was willing to feed me and let me use his tent too. Sounded like a good deal to me. So, I spent my mornings framing and putting up siding, then relaxing in a hammock through the heat of the afternoon. Everything was going smoothly until the 3rd or 4th day. Peter had climbed up a very sketchy ladder to frame in a wall. He got a little off balance and the ladder collapsed on him. Luckily, the hammer missed my head by just inches and I was unscathed. Peter, however, was not so fortunate. He yelled in pain as he hit the ground, legs tangled in the ladder. He held his ankle in agony, there was no question he was in extreme pain. After a brief examination, I wrapped the ankle, then iced and elevated it. I knew this was more than just a sprain and I highly recommended going to the hospital, but he wanted to see how he felt in the morning. By late afternoon, he was in so much pain we had to put him on Codeine. (By the way, you can buy almost any drug, minus most anesthetics, over the counter in Guatemala. Any antibiotic you want, no prescription needed. Pain pills? You tell them you are really hurting they will give you Morphine. I even bought Diazepam (Valium), both pills and injectable liquid, all I had to do was ask. I'm surprised drug abuse is not more prevalent here.) Even with Codeine, Peter could not sleep through the night, so the next morning a friend brought him back to Antigua. Turns out he fractured his Calcaneous (heel bone) and they had to put a pin in and cast the ankle. This was not good timing: he finally had someone to help frame and this happened. Guess that's life. Anyway, he told me I could stay as long as I liked and eat anything in the fridge as long as I kept working on the construction project. Again, that sounded like a good deal to me, so I hung out all by myself at the Beav for another 3 or 4 days. I did my fare share of physical labor, but there's no question that I enjoyed many hours in the hammock.

The view from my favorite hammock.

My favorite hammock (thus far) in the whole world! 
The afternoons were too hot, but the mornings and evenings were just perfect. As the day would start winding down and the sun hung low in the sky, I would find a comfy spot on the beach or in one of my favorite hammocks to enjoy the sunset. Another great thing about the beach here is that the sun both rises and sets over the Pacific Ocean. So, if the sunrise wasn't magical enough, chances are that the sunset would be just as spectacular. I watched a number of spectacular sunsets on the beach, but there is still something special, something magical about the rising of the sun, watching the earth come to life after a night of rest. I was able to get some great photos with my little compact camera. I am amazed at how the colors turned out, imagine how great the photos would have been with an SLR! This is definitely my favorite set of photos yet, so check them out on Flickr if you've got a moment.

As my time at the Salty Beaver was drawing to a close, the food supply was diminishing. Knowing that Peter wouldn't return for a while, I decided to move on. After a 15 minutes in a Tuk Tuk, a water taxi ride through the lush mangroves, and another 15 minutes on foot, I found myself at the Paredon Surf House.  Paredon is a tiny village at the end of a very long dirt road. There is not much around except this cool surf camp. It is a nice, comfortable, relaxed place run by a few cool Swiss guys. I had met them earlier in the week when we ventured over to rent surf boards. Word got out that I am a veterinarian and their ears perked up. They had a number of dogs and cats that needed neutering, I said I could 'fix' that problem. Another 'exchange of services' was about to be made.

The facilities at the surf house are simple yet satisfying. It is a very comfortable and communal living situation with relaxed, friendly folks. They have 2 thatched bungalows over looking the ocean, but they were too warm for me. I chose to stay in the dormitory above the main building, one of the neatest dormitories I've ever seen. There are about 10 beds in a huge space below a massive, vaulted palapa roof, each with its own mosquito net. A marvelous sea breeze would blow through, keepin me cool at night. The food is great, the people are very kind, the beach is wonderful, and the surfing is good.

I have never, I mean NEVER, been a morning person. If you doubt this, ask my parents about the frustrations they went through trying to wake me up for school all through grades K-12. Crawling out of bed didn't get any easier for me in college, vet school, or even after I got a real job. But something magical happened on the southern beaches, my circadian rhythms changed. I would wake up on my own every morning between 5:30am and 5:45am, just before the sunrise. I was fully awake and ready for the day, a feeling I had rarely felt before. It was as if I was as if I was meant to enjoy the sunrise each morning. This is just one of the reasons I fell in love with the Pacific coast, there is no question I will return one day.

I spent quite a bit of time in the water. The waves were a bit large for my comfort, so I spent the first day swimming, getting comfortable with being smashed around. It's amazing how much power a 5-6 foot wave has, especially when it hits you off guard. What's even more amazing is how calm the sea is just beneath even the biggest of waves. I quickly learned to dive below the curl rather than trying to fight through it. I then spent many frustrating days trying to stand up on that darn surf board. I don't know why it was so hard for me to get the hang of it, but I just couldn't get up after catching a wave. I was fine once I was standing, it's not much different than snowboarding, but the standing up part kicked by butt. I was very jealous of the folks who were up and riding after just 2 hours in the ocean. Guess I'm not going to be a professional surfer, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Once I was settled in (meaning a few days of surfing and quality hammock time), it was time to refresh my surgical skills. Although I bought needles, scalpels, gauze, antibiotics, etc. at the farmacia, I was lacking anesthetic as well as surgical instruments. In addition to pharmacies, there are shops all over Guatemala called 'agroveterinarias'. These shops are like our granges or feed stores. However, like the pharmacies, they carry a number of pharmaceuticals only available by perscription in the States. Each agrovet is run by someone who claims to be a veterinarian. I have talked with a number of these 'vets', and every single one has very limited knowledge of anything veterinary or medicine related. The sad thing is their fees are less than a properly trained vet, so they often get called out first to a sick animal. As you can imagine, they usually don't help the situation or they make it even worse. I feel for the poor animals. At one point I met a horse breeder who had a stallion with an abscess on his jaw. Not only was he told to treat with the wrong antibiotic, but he was also given the dosage for a medium sized dog. Come on people, at least read the box and get the dosing right.

Welcome to my operating room.
Anyway, we went drove into San Pedro in search of a vet. Luckily, we found a real-live-certified vet. After a great conversation in Spanish, we convinced him to come out to the surf camp and let me use his anesthetic and tools. When we were rounding up everything needed for the surgeries, he had a heck of a time finding his one bottle of Ketamine. He said it had been a while since he'd spayed or neutered a dog as he blew the dust off the bottle, so this would be a good refresher for him. I thought, "This is going to be an adventure," and it was a good one.

As you can imagine, even the formally trained vets (and anyone else in the medical profession) do not receive the quality of education that we get in the Western world. Not only that, they have a very different way of doing things. I have done vet work in Honduras and Costa Rica, so I understand that things are done differently down here, there is not much that surprises me anymore. For example, in many places they use zip ties to ligate the pedicles and uterus during a dog spay. It's quick, practical, and they don't cause infection problems, so why not? It's a great idea, but would never fly back in the States. However, the vet said he only gives a partial dose of anesthetic because it's more economical and he likes the way they wake up quicker. I hate to see animals in pain, especially if I am the one inflicting the pain. Plus, it's hard to operate when the patient is moving around. So I made him give the full dose of anesthetic. The cats, on the other hand, were overdosed and didn't wake up for at least 5 of 6 hours post op, just a wee bit of inconsistency my dear vet friend.

"Yes, I  do it for the children."
It's not everyday (or ever) that the locals get to witness surgery, so a small crowd had gathered to watch the festivities, many of which were children. I always like to have a little fun when I get an opportunity such as this, so here's a little trick I learned from a vet in Costa Rica. After making the incision and externalizing the first testicle, it must be separated from the tissue connecting it to the scrotum. At this point, I pretend like it takes all my strength and effort to pull on the testicle. At the very moment the connective tissue releases, I let out a scream as I rip the testicle away from the body. You should see the look on their faces! It's the same beautiful reaction every time: the children scream and a look of horror crosses the face of each onlooker. After a tense moment I look up, laugh, and tell them all this it was just a joke. Eventually, they find the humor in it too and they see that the second testicle comes out much easier than the first. This always adds a certain richness to the educational experience. Yes, I do it for the children.

The vet especially got a kick out of my little stunt. He was taken back initially, but soon had a grin from ear to ear. I figured I could teach him a few things with my surgical training, but in fact, he taught me some great tricks for third world conditions. Of course, sterility was minimal (no surgical drapes and I didn't even use gloves), the suture was old, operating on a dining room table, etc. What surprised me the most was that he used tampons to soak up the blood at the incision site. Minus the lack of sterility, it is an excellent idea, since that's what they were made to do. Why hasn't anyone else thought of that? I cannot say that I will carry a box of tampons with me wherever I go (explain that one to the boys at customs), but I will definitely use them in my future surgical endeavors.

In exchange for my testicle rippin' abilities, they let me stay at the surf camp and use their surf boards whenever I wanted at no charge for the week. I was able to observe my patients in the days that followed. Everyone healed well, even the bloody gloveless spay. I did have to pay for my food, but it was a sweet deal. An afternoon of surgery for a week of fun in the sun, sign me up! This was the first time I actually enjoyed the perks of my profession while travelling, and it will not be the last, for I am discovering a nice little niche for my veterinary services overseas. Many more stories to come...

The Salty Beaver Beach Lodge and the Paredon Surf House are great places, I would highly recommend both to anyone heading down to the southern beaches of Guatemala. Whether you need a hard core week of surfing or just to kick back and relax in a hammock, you will find it on here. If you do go, please say hello for me.

In summary, these two weeks were a very special time for me. I cannot describe how beautiful and peaceful this experience was, it really did strike a cord deep within me. Even though I had spent a few months back home in Montana before leaving for Guatemala, this was the first time I was able to truly relax and clear my mind since my resignation in August. I literally felt the stresses of the past few years of life lift from my shoulders. It was a time for me to decompress and find that small voice of peace inside that is muffled, even suffocated by the busyness of life.This was that beach experience I had been dreaming about for so long, I was living my dream.

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