by John Paschal
It’s nearly 6 p.m. in Guatemala City, and the dark clouds are shouldering the white ones above the nearby mountains. The rain and the sun are competing, or cooperating, above that high jagged green, and we are secure behind hotel windows in the hours before the work begins. Tomorrow marks the start — the start of when smiles emerge more brightly from the places they were meant to be in. It marks the beginning of our Austin Smiles surgical mission at the Moore Pediatric Surgery Center in the heart of this big city.
But how did we get here? How did we — 32 friends and spouses and strangers — make it to Guatemala City?
Well, here’s how, and only in hindsight is the first part funny.
We arrived at the Austin airport this morning at precisely dark o’clock, so excruciatingly early that I had to wake the roosters on the way there. Seriously, you know it’s early when the bands on Sixth Street are still putting their drums in their vans before they head to IHOP. I mean, the last time I was awake at 4 a.m. Austin time, I was in a completely different time zone.
Zombies are in style these days, which is good, because I stumbled onto Flight 1743 somewhere between somnambulism and The Walking Dead. I don’t even remember getting on the plane in Houston. I’m not kidding. Did it happen? It must have. I’m here in Guatemala City, just as the mist is whispering down the mountains and darkness is cradling the lights, but I just don’t remember it. Perhaps one of these good people, these 30-plus volunteers, claimed me as carry-on luggage. In any case, shortly after boasting that I wouldn’t take a nap on the plane, I promptly took a nap on the plane. I dreamt that my wife, Dr. Sybo Zapata, was working a crossword puzzle. I woke to find that my wife, Dr. Sybo Zapata, was working a crossword puzzle. Sometimes dreams do come true.
Anyway, shortly after sabotaging her efforts by suggesting a four-letter word for a five-letter space, I raised the shade and looked out the window to see another sort of dream, green peaks giving way to wrinkled canyons that spilled into twisting streams. In the distance, plumes of moisture became pillars of clouds, strange white columns between the gray crowns and the blue heavens. Below me, beside the shadow of the plane, small settlements clung to steep green hillsides and splayed across emerald valleys.
This was me, I suppose, waking into Guatemala.
The earth was quiet in its statement, silent in what it was saying so far below. The people all around me were talking and happy, or silent and anxious, expectant. Perhaps the same could be said for those on the ground. Shades and moods are always adjacent.
It is dark now, nearly lightless at 6:15. The sun will rise, as it always does, a bit too early. And then the work will begin.
The first of 100 or more patients from around Guatemala will enter the surgery center. In the days to come, the vast majority of those patients will emerge from the center the same people but with different lives, their cleft palates or cleft lips repaired.
I’m still pretty tired, but honestly, I can’t wait until morning.