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Mérida Day Seven

This morning we headed to the once thriving and largest city of the Mayans, Chichen Itza. We were greeted by a tour guide who directed us to a map of Chichen Itza. He briefly explained the different architectures and its relationship to astronomy, religion and Mayan culture. Then, he led us to the entrance while we were filled with excitement and anticipation of seeing the monuments with our own eyes. Finally there it was, the Temple of Kulkulkan! This sacred pyramid caught everyone’s attention and we were in awe with this 75 feet tall marvel.

Left to right (back row): Camille Volper, Dr. Valerie Mac, Brianna Aalborg-Volper, Carly Hendricks, Tessa Shevlin, Lauren Higgins, Alex Alvarado, Ashley Pugh, Amy Yu, Roxana Chicas, Natalia Aranda (front row): Mary Schaeffer, Julia Spaar, Monica Schweizer, Megan Anderson, Tiffany Guo, Amanda Loyal, Dr. Vicki Hertzberg, Genesis Peniche

An impressive astronomic feature of the pyramid is that during the equinoxes each year, an illusion of a shadowy serpent created by sunlight makes it way down the platform. Another interesting element was that every time our tour guide clapped his hands near the pyramid, we heard a mysterious echo of a bird’s chirp. Specifically, we were told it was the sound of the quetzal, a divine bird to the Mayans. Several of us attempted to replicate this impressive sound; unfortunately, we could not execute the clapping technique correctly.

Surrounding the Temple of Kulkulkan were many other major monuments, such as the Platform of Venus, Temple of the Warriors, Observatory, and the Great Ball Court which had acoustic sounds of its own when the tour guide clapped his hands underneath the court’s rings. Again, we could not execute the clapping technique! Our final stop was the enormous Sacred Cenote –also known as the sacrificial Cenote to the Rain God, Chaac. Jewelry, weapons, tools, as well as humans, were among some of the offerings. It was clear that all monuments had social, astronomical or religious significance. Chichen Itza was a prominent ceremonial center for the Mayans. Being able to see the marvels that the Mayans constructed was definitely one of the many highlights of our Mexico trip. 

After walking around Chichen Itza in the hot sun for most of the morning, we were able to cool down and relax at the Xcajum cenote. The cenote was surrounded with amazing wildlife and a natural landscape. After spending over an hour and a half swimming around with the fish in the cenote, we ate at the cenote buffet which had some really great tacos. Following eating, some of us decided to hang out in the hammocks before heading back to the hotel.

On our way back, we decided to stop in Izamal, also known as the Yellow City. Almost every building in this city has been painted yellow.

In the center of the city is a convent and church, which was built atop a flattened Mayan temple/pyramid.  This convent boasts the largest atrium in the Americas and the second largest in the world following the Vatican atrium. Pope John Paul II visited Izamal in August of 1993 and performed a mass here during which he celebrated not only the Mayan indigenous population, but all indigenous populations across the Americas. The people of this town were very honored and erected a statue in his memory which can be found by the entrance of the church. Scattered around the city you can also find crumbled remains of Mayan pyramids that once were.

After returning to our hotel, we decided to make the most of our last night in Merida and explore the night life once more.  As some of us headed out around 9:30 pm, restaurants were just putting out their outdoor seating on blocked off roads inviting us inside. We found our way to Mercado 60, but not before stopping for the crunchy and extremely delicious marquestia filled with your choice of gouda cheese, nutella, or cajeta. Mercado 60 is an outdoor market with lots of food options and a live band.  As the live band played, people would go up and start salsaing with others to the music. Two of our very own found the courage to ask some of the locals to show them how to dance! 

Merida Day 6

Today we worked with the community of San Luis to try to prevent future flooding of some of the most devastated houses.  We were trying to help with the environmental hazards that are associated with standing water- such as providing a vector for disease and a breeding ground for pests. To help, we spent time using dirt to fill in the floors that were wet from the flooding rain. We also used rocks that were already around the houses, along with gravel we found, to create a barrier between the ground and the holes in the wall to prevent water from entering that way. Everyone had their own jobs, whether that be loading the wheelbarrow, ensuring everyone was hydrated, or carrying buckets of dirt for the community to place where they thought was best. The members of the community had expressed the day before how the flooding had severely hurt their self-esteem, but we hope that by helping them that they are empowered a bit more. In the afternoon, we attempted to teach our community partners the modules we had prepared, but it began to rain too hard to teach. However, we finished the community assessment we had started earlier, getting the chance to ask our community partners questions about things we had not gotten answered.

The question of how much to help is always a complicated one. Meeting physical needs like this was never really the intent of this trip but we knew that basic physiological needs have to be met first before anything else. With people’s houses being basically destroyed, there’s no way we could try and teach about oral health or composting and ignore those needs. So, we decided to help. Being a nursing student, I automatically default to wanting to help as much as I physically can. But, I’m continually learning that taking a step back and letting people do things on their own is sometimes just as powerful and impactful. Because of our short time there, we weren’t able to do as much as I’m sure a lot of us would have liked to. I do think we were able to meet some immediate needs and provide the community with the materials and hopefully the motivation to finish the job themselves. I’m proud of the work we were able to do today and am leaving feeling ever thankful for the opportunities we are afforded here at Emory and in the United States.

Merida Day 5

Flexibility was the word of the day for us on our fifth day in Mexico. Thursday started out like the other days, breakfast first thing before loading onto the bus to head into the community. Today Victor took us to the cemetery to learn a little more about the culture and history of Merida. It was shocking to see how different cemeteries are Mexico; they are bright and full of color. Our translators explained to us that in Mexico death is not feared but celebrated.

After our stop at the cemetery we continued on to San Luis, one of the neighborhoods in the south part of Merida that we had been working with during the week. The plan for the day was to work with community leaders to edit the health education modules we had prepared back in Atlanta, with the hope of teaching the community members later in the afternoon. When we arrived at San Luis one of the community leaders, Raquel, met us and told us how the rain the previous night had flooded many of the homes in the community. The mothers were currently trying to salvage their homes from the damage done by the rain and flooding.

Knowing that the mothers were focused on their homes we regrouped and decided to reassess the community to see what needs we could help meet in this moment. We sent part of the team on a mission to gather supplies while the rest of the team walked around to assess the community. Even with their homes completely flooded the people of San Luis graciously welcomed us, inviting us into their homes showing us the impact of the rain. After seeing the homes we saw that a lot of homes had deep pools of standing water that could cause a lot of health issues for the people. We decided to use our resources to provide gravel, tarps, shovels and other items that could hopefully prevent water from flooding in the homes. Our plan moving forward is to work with the community to remove some of the standing water and hopefully start creating some type of system that could prevent flooding in the future.

Though this day looked a lot different than what we had planned, it was truly an eye opening experience to see what the people of San Luis struggle with in their day to day. We were able to work with the community to come up with a solution to the problem they were facing today. It was just us nursing students coming in to fix a problem, it was all of us, students, faculty, translators, community members and partners, working together to move this community forward.

Mérida Day four

This morning we headed to a second community called San Luiz, which is about five minutes from Emiliano Zapata Sur. Last year, the group focused on meeting the people in the community but this year, an important objective for us was the community assessment for San Luiz. Taking what we learned from Public Health Nursing, we explored the community limits with Victor and conducted a windshield survey. Along with Victor, other key informants that we interviewed were many mothers who have lived in the community for several years and a woman named Roquel, who coordinates visits with local members, such as Victor. We collaborated with the interpreters and received additional subjective data from the women in the community during our morning walking tour.

During the walking tour, we began to see the stark reality of their living conditions. We were able to learn so much about how cultural, social, political and economic differences structured their lives, as well as how it affected their approach to health care. The homes are temporary structures that were either built from scrap materials the families were able to find, or that had been gifted to them. The materials varied from sheet metals, wooden frames to plastic tarps. We also learned many families did not have permits to build permanent structures and that it would take several years for the government to approve their application. As a result, they are technically considered squatters. They vocalized their frustration at the fact that some of the lots were empty or contained houses that had been abandoned, but yet they were still not allowed to build on that land. Many of the families are close to one another and we could tell there is a strong sense of support for everyone by the way they watched over other families’ children, advocated for the homes in intense distress, and simply from their conversations with each other. Lastly, the families lack access and face numerous barriers to essential resources such as schools, healthcare facilities, clean water, proper hygiene and plumbing, hospitals, costly surgeries, fresh produce, healthy foods, and better paying jobs. Despite these conditions, it was evident that these families worked really hard to make a living and to provide a home for their children. We were amazed to see their craftiness in their decorated homes and gardens of plants and vegetables. With all that they had, they still managed to display a sense of ownership, pride, happiness, and livelihood.

The severe poverty in San Luiz sets people up for an unfavorable environment that creates unsafe conditions, health risks and concerns, and unnecessary struggles. As nursing students and advocates for healthy living, it was clear that Environmental Health and its implications in San Luiz was our main concern. Health starts where one lives, learns, plays and works. Our community assessment shows that the people in San Luiz Community face multiple and complex environmental threats to their health and wellbeing.

The main problem each community member described was the flooding and water damage in their homes during the rainy season. Their homes would fill up to two feet of water and due to the structure of the homes and the surroundings, their only solution was to let it dry. The standing water commonly contains microbial contamination which poses a risk of human exposure and the likelihood of infection. Bacteria, fungi, and parasites quickly harbor these breeding grounds as there is no plumbing system to eliminate the water. Consequently, a high prevalence of illnesses from microbes is present. For example, the most common hospital visits for the children expressed by the mothers were gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. These illnesses are compounded by vector-borne diseases from mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas around the community. Furthermore, wet belongings in their homes can lead to fast growing mold that are hazardous to the community members and their pets. Spores can be inhaled through the air as family sleeps together in their unventilated, humid, small home. Because of these findings, we altered our plans for the rest of the week in order to address these environmental health issues.

Another environmental concern is the pollution and the practice of burning trash because there is no waste management system in place. Burned trash piles was common as we walked through the community. It contained leftover food, plastic bottles, plastic food wraps and electronics. This poses a health risk because air pollutants, toxics and compounds released from the trash are linked to lung and neurological diseases, increased risk for heart attacks and some cancers. In addition, shards of glass and rubbish scattered everywhere makes it unsafe for children to play around. We hope in future years to offer support through designing a waste management, composting, and environmental health program.

Multiple and complex environmental factors pose adverse health disparities and wellbeing to the San Luiz Community who are fighting to get ahead for their children and their future. Health concerns of several community members include deafness, blindness, congenital birth defects, cardiovascular diseases, dehydration, and gastrointestinal problems. Emotional distress and stress magnifies the health problems of the community members. These factors are further exacerbated by the social and economic disadvantages that the San Luiz’s children face. Such disadvantages and barriers include poor quality housing with fear of being kicked out, going to school that is several blocks away, playing around in a field of unpaved dirt with pollutants and contaminants, no running water, and having poor access to quality health care all add to the burdens of the community we encountered. It is essential that more support, programs, resources, research and individualized strategies need to be diverted to the San Luiz Community.

Merida Day Three

We started our third-morning sharing breakfast around a long table at our hotel restaurant.  On this morning we had a slower than usual start as we were scheduled for a lecture at the Comisión de Los Derechos Humanos, to be given by professor Adrian Verde Cañetas.  The talk was described to be one that discussed the architecture of Merida, but it ended up being much more.  Professor Canetas described the modern history of how the city of Merida came to be organized.  Present day neighborhoods were once haciendas, or ranches, that was owned by one wealthy family and farmed by endured servants.  As the source of economic power in the region shifted from agrarian to industrial, the haciendas were sold in parcels to new landowners or the city of Merida.  Those subdivisions became neighborhoods built with houses purchased by families of relative means. Our group learned that during this shift the economic power of Merida became firmly held by citizens who live in the north, while the poor neighborhoods reside in the southern part of the city, especially those located near the airport.  These communities would be the ones we worked with during our week in Merida.

A history lesson may seem superfluous to the work performed by nurses, but such knowledge is essential to providing respectful and competent care.  In learning about the economic scope of a region, a nurse can better decide on the necessary resources needed in disadvantaged communities.  In understanding a fraction of the economic upheaval propagated by the wealthy class, a nurse is better able to navigate the social mores of a city.  When outsiders come to help, they must be responsible for educating themselves on the history of an area because they will provide better care.

The remainder of our third day was spent teaching the various health modules to our group had created to the community leaders of Emiliano Zapata.  Our goal for the projects was to help local community leaders educate other residents of Emiliano Zapata on the following topics:  Dental Health, Talk with Me Baby, Preventing Child Sexual Abuse, and Environmental Health and Composting.  Some of the module content was created during the weeks proceeding the trip, but many of the groups finalized their modules after conferring with local community leaders.  The perspective provided by the community leaders assisted our group in creating content directly relevant to the community members.  With the help of the translators, we presented our materials to the adult leaders, who followed up our presentations by teaching the modules to children within the community. 

Mexico Immersion Day 1

After two flights and a slight luggage fiasco, we landed safely at the airport in Mérida. Once we arrived, Victor, our community partner here, was there to welcome us into his city. He is a very friendly and charismatic individual, and he helped us to practice our Spanish while we bused over to the hotel. Dr. Mac discussed the plan for the next few days, so that we would be ready to hit the ground running.

But before we were going to run anywhere- food. We got to the hotel and quickly changed before heading out to dinner as a group. The restaurant we chose offered a variety of Mexican and Mayan dishes; one of the most grandiose being a hunk of pork ordered by our very own vegetarian, Mary. After dinner we explored the town center. The sun had just set, cooling the area down by at least 10 degrees. People suddenly emerged onto the square, and it began bustling with activity and life. Although we had just eaten, our mouths watered as we strode past vendors selling churros, street corn, and other foods. We stopped at one of Victor’s favorite ice cream places, which boasted interesting yet delicious flavors such as corn and guanabana. Overall it was a great way to kick off the trip. Can’t wait to visit Emiliano Zapato tomorrow to meet with the community leaders and get down to business!