2006 Dental Adventures in México
On the 17th of February 2006, fellow Rotarian Esther Knight and I flew down to Huatulco to join Ara Run for another eventful week of volunteer dentistry.
The local harbormaster, Ernesto, had already advised Ara on which village would be best suited for our program. Now we just needed to get organized and get started.
Destination 2006: Our target community for 2006 was Santa Maria Xadani, a mountain village one hour drive from Ara's home base at Huatulco.
The village's records went back more than 450 years. The population of the area was around 1500, though as Ara explained it's hard to really tell since some locals never officially register themselves or their children.
Our Sponsor: This year, thanks to Melissa De Lorenzi, of Henry Schein Ash Arcona, our trip was sponsored. Her company graciously provided some much needed dental supplies. I picked up a toolbox from a local hardware store and filled it up with all the new supplies.
While last year we were scrambling to organize for the first few days, this year we would get right to work. The only drawback was lugging that darned toolbox around the airports as my carryon.
Perfect Weather . At this time of year, you can absolutely count on beautiful weather in Huatulco. It's very sunny, dry, and hot in this southern part of Mexico. We never saw a cloud all week long, and every day must have hit the low 90's.
The Sound of Joy. While soaking in the beach scene, Barb ventured down to the water to cool off with a quick dip. She came back flush with excitement, and insisted we all come with her down to the water. She had us wade in to waist-deep level, lie back in the gentle waves, and just listen…
The sound was of pure joy. There was so much laughter and the happy chattering of children, parents, grandparents and couples. These weren't tourists, they were local native Mexicans who came down by the busload to enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach. They were making the most of this and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Though I couldn't understand a single word anyone was saying, their universal message of happiness and family love was crystal clear.
Our Own Shrine!Along the roads in Mexico, you'll occasionally see a little shrine off to the side, apparently dedicated to someone who lost their life there. The single-lane dirt road to Santa Maria Xadani was an adventure in itself. We endured 22 km of winding single-lane road with bordering some sheer drop-offs into bottomless ravines.
Esther and I joked, perhaps a little nervously, about sliding off the road down one of the ravines. We envisioned someone building one of those little roadside shrines for us, complete with Rotary symbol and Canadian flag.
Ara would use his horn frequently as we came to any blind corners. That way, oncoming traffic would know we were approaching. Despite his effort, oncoming traffic would just come barreling along, and we had a few close calls.
Seems the only occasion people moved really fast down here was in driving a car or one of those skinny pickup trucks with a rack in the back for everyone to hang onto – Mexican version of an open-air bus.
Thankfully, Ara's driving skill and his yellow Jeep (courtesy of Ralph) came through and kept us safe.
Breezy Location. Upon arrival to the mountain village, the first order of business was to find an appropriate location for our trailer. Out of the direct sun was a priority. We chose a narrow passageway adjoining the main square – right next to the 2 town jail cells (which fortunately weren't occupied). Our location offered a pleasant surprise - it funneled a cool breeze even in the heat of the day. That brought some welcome relief as the temperatures reached an afternoon peak.
Lighting Issues. How Many Dentists does it take to change a lightbulb? We initially struggled to get the equipment going. We never did get our dental light operational. The only lighting we had was a single bare bulb on the ceiling of the hallway. I did a lot of squinting that week.
It's a Small World. Turns out that our little village was a tourist stop-over on the way to a coffee plantation. The hotels in Huatulco put together a mini-bus excursion and each day a handful would drop by now and then for a brief surprise visit. I'm not sure who was surprised more…
We met people from all over North America; Toronto, Vancouver, Kitchener-Waterloo area – even one dental assistant from Winnipeg and another from Calgary. We offered to put those assistants to work right then and there. They respectfully declined our generous offer, even after we proposed to pay them “double” our going volunteer wage.
A Gift For Your Tooth.Esther did a terrific job of connecting to people. She kept them well informed and helped to move them comfortably through our little dental factory.
Along the way Esther had a few translation challenges, much to the amusement of all the locals waiting for their turn in the chair. Apparently, for the first few days she had been telling people I was going to give them a gift for their tooth, instead of fixing their tooth.
I told Esther that I was now very suspicious of her translations. After all, she could be telling them anything. Perhaps that I was having unnatural relations with the village's donkeys. Esther was not so amused by that, which only made me all the more suspicious of what she was telling them!
Strong Teeth – Less Cola. The people here had very strong teeth. I noticed that some of the children had Fluorosis – mottling of the enamel – from exposure to high fluoride levels. In a hot, dry climate, water evaporation can lead to high mineral concentration in a local water supply. Apparently these villagers were not as affluent as the ones last year in Barra de la Cruz. That meant they were drinking less bottled water and far less Coca Cola.
No freezing needed. Because their teeth were so strong, I rarely found cavities penetrating deep into the teeth. I did most of the work without any local anaesthetic. Perhaps that was a little risky, considering most of these people owned a machete and knew how to use it. Nevertheless, everything went well and all our patients seemed quite comfortable.
Does It Hurt? One lady told Esther that a dental student had visited the town a while back. Apparently the student hurt the first few villagers and no one else wanted to risk any dental treatment after that. News travels fast in these small towns. Supposedly the word got around that I didn't hurt, and seemed to know what I was doing. So, fortunately, people were willing to give us a chance.
Courageous People. Most of the people we saw had never seen a dentist before. Yet, there were only a few patients all week that I would call fearful. Seems the villagers, having probably endured much hardship, could easily handle a little dentistry.
Community Cup Revisited. As with last year, we still had many people sharing from a drinking cup – thankfully not that same one from last year! Occasionally the wind picked up and if the cup was empty, it blew over onto the ground. That signaled time for a new cup.
This was one of many “efficiencies” that helped speed things along. With our disinfection protocols pared down, patients could be turned over quite rapidly. We were able to see a high volume of people each day.
Brass Tacks. It wasn't all fun and games - we did a lot of actual work this year. Esther kept close tabs on the stats. We saw 171 patients over the 4 days, delivered 158 fillings, and extracted 18 teeth. This was more work than I would typically accomplish in a week back in Toronto, though certainly not of the same caliber.
Thar she blows! We had trouble with the compressor gradually losing pressure. I thought the tank might be waterlogged and losing pressure capacity. Ara and I opened up a valve to clear the tank and when the cap blew off with a huge whoosh, the villagers all cleared the area in seconds. Seems they thought we were a little crazy or dangerous. They decided to stay away for a little while, so we had an early lunch that day.
Turns out that the saliva ejector was drawing far too much from the compressor. I stopped using it and the compressor held up its pressure from then on.
Tyrannical Dentist. This was a volunteer effort, and it seems I was getting under the skin of my designated dental assistants (Harriet and Ara). It took them a few days to get the routines down and at least a few times they were ready to toss something at me.
Aye-yie-yie-yie... As one afternoon dragged on, Esther could sense everyone was getting tired and a little cranky. I suggested she sing some Mexican songs and she did just that. She even got the villagers to join in a little singsong. Apparently, Quando Quando Quando was originally a Spanish song.
The only Mexican song I could remember was a tune from an old Frito's Corn Chips commercial from the 1960's about a Frito Bandito. Turns out that this is a popular Mexican song that Frito had adapted for commercial purposes. The villagers laughed at my Frito rendition and sung along with Esther's conventional version.
Hot Shower. After the long day's work, and a dusty ride back to Ara's place, we all looked forward to a quick shower to refresh. (Sorry, no photos of this one)
Ara's Cure. After a long day's work and ingesting some questionable food, Ara brought out his surefire cure for any stomach ailment – a shot of rather potent Mexican tequila. This wasn't that watered-down stuff we can buy at our local LCBO. I'm not sure if it actually worked, but it certainly loosened us up for some lively conversation.
Barb's Feasts. While we ran off to the mountains to work in the dental mines, Barb stayed back to prepare our evening feasts. One night she had to run off to the airport to pick up some visiting friends, and told us to help ourselves. We couldn't believe how much food there was, and we did our best to finish it off. It was a belt-loosening experience.
When Barb returned, she was surprised to find we had almost devoured everything in sight, including most of the next's night's eggplant dish she had been preparing in advance.
No-See-Ums. We didn't see many bugs, but supposedly there was threat of Dengue in the local community. This was a nasty tropical fever also called “breakbone fever” because that's more or less what it feels like. It's carried by mosquitoes and it takes only took a single bite from a contaminated mosquito to become infected.
Harriet warned us that a recent outbreak had been sweeping through the town and she had suffered a bout of it herself. How could paradise be infested with such little demons?!!
We all got a lot of bites on our legs, though I suspect they were from small flies that looked much like miniature black flies. Not much defense against those little rascals. Ara's remedy was rubbing a freshly cut lime on any bites. Supposedly this helps reduce the itchiness and speeds healing.
A Drunk Under Every Lime Tree. On our first day there, we noticed the town had its share of drunken men who spent much of their day lying underneath the shade of trees. Ara informed us that drinking is often a problem in these small Mexican towns. Yet, from what I saw of the many intoxicated Canadian & American tourists stumbling about the streets back in Huatulco, we couldn't claim any superiority on this matter.
When Ara went searching for a lime to tend to his bug bites, he noticed the drunks seemed to have a preference for lime trees. Wisely not wanting to disturb any drunken Mexicans, it took Ara a while to find an available tree.
Mexican Moonshine. The locals here brewed a moonshine concoction they called mescal. At the village restaurant they offered us a taste. In a reckless moment I ventured a small sample. Not that I've ever tried paint thinner, but this mescal could probably strip furniture. Ara decided to buy some and the lady poured a half litre into an empty pop bottle.
When we went for a walk around town, Ara carried his bottle of mescal with him and we joked that he truly looked like a local, and that he'll need to find his own lime tree for the afternoon.
Back at home, Ara transferred the questionable liquid into crystal decanter so it would be more presentable. So be warned – if you ever go down to Ara's for a visit, stay away from those crystal decanters!
Power Negotiating. On our last day in Huatulco, we had the chance to do a little shopping. They have some terrific deals on jewelry. Fortunately, Esther and Harriet were there to help me in the barter process. As tough negotiators, they managed to drive a hard bargain. I spent all my money and most of Esther's in the process.