El Barranco

The following words are from an entry from my journal from November 17, 2009. I was living and working in rural Guatemala through the organization Midwives for Midwives. My mentor and teacher was Odilia, a skilled traditional midwife practicing in the rural highlands outside of Tecpan, Guatemala.



The woman wrapped with her head in a towel, a towel printed with a picture of snoopy, six blankets one on top of the other because at night it gets so cold. Her baby is a mound in the bed next to her, covered with the blankets.

The practice is to keep the babies’ faces covered, tapada, because the cold air causes sickness. The woman drinks pepsi out of a glass in the shape of a soccer ball. Her sister-in-law sits next to the bed on a green plastic stool. “How do you do it?” She asks Odilia.

Odilia has a wonderful laugh. It is innocent and childlike and puts everyone around her instantly at ease. She proudly wears a scarf that one of her students bought for her in a Walmart in Portland, Oregon. She wears long metal earrings that she splashes with cold water in the temascal (the Guatemalan sauna) so that they don’t burn her skin. She wraps a towel around her chest while she pants from the heat in the temascal. Though I’d never seen one prior to traveling to Guatemala, in the village where I live, every family has built one behind the house. In rural Mayan Guatemala the temascal replaces a shower or bathroom as a place to bathe and cleanse, not just the skin, but the heart, lungs and soul. During pregnancy, a temascal along with traditional massage is a cornerstone of midwifery care at weekly visits.

The temascal burns 110 degrees and fills the air with smoke in the small chamber where we sit. This is the third temascal of Odilia’s day, with two more to go. She wraps her corte (skirt) around her body, folding it once, twice, three times, pulling the faja (belt) tight, her fingers expert. Expert at so many things, I wish I could make a movie of this for you, no better yet I wish you could sit in the room with me and watch her move. She is brilliant. I can’t even explain it.

“How did I do it?” Odilia responds. “I just do. Because I have to.”

The sister asks, “But what happens when you get sick?”

“I just get sick. A little while ago I got so sick, so very sick, a fever for a whole week. You know what a fever for a week means, right? Infection.”

“Oh yes,” the sister replies.

“But I still have to work. Six mujeres ready that month, todas las embarazadas y los postpartos (the pregnant and postpartum women) to visit, I have to go put them in the temascal and atender las reuniones at the school and to the church and al mercado and Los niños gritando y pidiendo, siempre siempre. A fever for a week. On the seventh day I had a dream. A very vivid dream. I was walking along el barranco…”

(I interrupt to ask, “What does el barranco mean?”)

“The abyss. The cliff … I slipped, I tripped and fell and I was just holding on, thinking this is it.

“I looked above me and all of a sudden I saw so many children, children and children and children, a crowd of them, standing on the edge of the cliff. They were calling out to me, saying Give us your hands! Give us your hands! We will save you.”

Odilia sighed.

“I was thinking, they can’t save me. They’re too small, and I’m too big. But they kept saying, give me your hands. You are not going to die.

“So I did, I gave them my two hands and each of my hands had twenty little hands and together they pulled me up, they pulled me back up onto el camino.”

The women sigh, “Ahhhhh.”

Los bebes. All of the babies that you’ve caught.

It was all of the babies that I’ve caught. They saved me. They remembered.


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