Mayan Medical Aid
Photo: Catherine Barth
The police chief in Santa Cruz injured his knee a few months ago, while playing soccer. As I was caring for his injury, I joked with him that he was going to have problems chasing the criminals.

He laughed and asked, "Which criminals?"

We have not had any safety issues arise with any of our participants in the 12 years Mayan Medical Aid has been operating. Santa Cruz La Laguna is a rural village and a very safe place, much safer than any place most people ever have lived.

There is no gang or drug activity, nor are there the social ills associated with urban living. But those facts do not mean that we rest on our laurels when it comes to ensuring the safety of our participants.

During the operation of the program, we have had a wide range of participants, from 16-year-old, female high school students to undergrads, medical students, residents, and physicians of both sexes. We recommend that our participants use the same common sense that they would use anywhere. To date, that caution has served our participants sufficiently.

Santa Cruz has a 24-hour-per-day police presence, with two policeman on duty at all times. The police station is located approximately 30 feet from the Clinic. Although we appreciate their presence, we never have had to use the services they provide.

Santa Cruz has one road from the shore to the village. As such, Santa Cruz primarily is a walking town, and it is safe to walk from the clinic to the housing participants inhabit.

Although we never have had a safety issue, we recommend that single females do not walk alone at night. This common-sense recommendation is easy to follow for three reasons: 1) clinic and teaching are over long before dark, 2) there generally are other participants or tourist service providers to accompany our participants after hours, and 3) there is little to do here at night. As such, being out at night is not a common activity. Additionally, if participants choose a home stay, a family member walks with them on any occasion when they might want to leave the house at night.

Santa Cruz is a safe place to live and work, because the people who live here love and protect their peace. They also do not tolerate crime. A survey, approximately two years ago in the major newspaper in Guatemala, rated the Department of Sololá, which is the Department that encompasses Santa Cruz, as one of the safest departments in the country.

Day-to-day life here reflects the results of that survey. Whenever one meets another person on the road or a path, it is customary to make eye contact with each person one passes and to greet them, even if they are not an acquaintance.

I used to take a particular path home each night after work. This path was the path that many returning workers would use to come up the hill in a line, just as I was going down. Literally, I made eye contact with and individually greeted - and was individually greeted by - at least twenty people in a row. This tradition is not simply friendliness, it also is the manner in which the village maintains its social structure of peace and tranquility. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone watches out for everyone else.

Another case in point occurred recently as I was on my way to make a house call with several participants in tow. Just as we came to a fork in the path, a parade of approximately fifty women was coming directly toward the fork.

We were too late to take the turn first. So, courtesy dictated that we had to wait. As they made the turn and passed in front of us, I greeted each one, most by their first name. I was mildly astounded to realize that I had provided health care to all of them, as well as to most of their children and their spouses.

These occurrences are not to say that people here do not have disagreements. Our major conflict - or better said, competition - centers around who gets to pass first on the trails in which only one person can pass at a time.

Most often, I step aside and tell the other person to pass. But just as often, that person also steps aside and tells me to pass. I refuse to pass, but they make it clear that neither one of us is going anywhere, unless I pass first. Indeed, the people here are just plain stubborn in this way.

These days, I hardly ever argue the point. I just pass first, nod my head respectfully, and thank them for their kindness.

But one day, a small, elderly lady was coming in the other direction. I thought that this time I would get my way. So, I stepped aside and told her to pass. I figured that being the Doctor, taller, and insistent would win the day. But that was wishful thinking.

We went back and forth a few times, until she said that I had to pass first, because, as she chuckled under her breath, she had to defer to the older person. Now, granted, I am over 24 years of age, but this lady was older than me by decades. Nevertheless, she had me squarely in checkmate.

If I did not pass first, I would be insulting her by insinuating that she appeared to be older than I am. That kind of indiscretion was something she knew that I could never do.

Clearly, she was the better and more clever competitor. And even though I had suffered another defeat at the hands of Santa Cruz's unique brand of courtesy, I was grateful for the peace, safety, and good humor, which allowed me to lose.
Craig A. Sinkinson 2024
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