And if you’d like to see bigger photos, just click on them!
|Sunny day in the plaza in Quito, Colombia|
Your least favourite? Why?
There wasn’t a single country where we were not enjoying ourselves the entire time, but one that stands out as a not-so-pleasant experience is Bolivia. Some comical but serious advice from people prior to going there was to “eat nothing” there to avoid getting sick. Well, this was the only place on the trip that one of us was unwell—Ted had some gastrointestinal illness for about two weeks, so that put a damper on things!
“Spending so much time in South America helped me begin to witness and understand people’s day-to-day lives in so many different areas.”
Bolivia was admittedly less comfortable than other places we’d been, including Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. It was not uncommon for us to see people blatantly defecating or urinating in the streets (watch where you step!) and there was garbage everywhere. There were also a couple incidents where we were sure we were going to be robbed (not uncommon), but thankfully we dodged it in different ways.
The famous South American celebration, Carnaval, was going on while we were in La Paz, Bolivia. In many places throughout the continent this is a big celebration, but in La Paz it meant a parade one day followed by the entire city shutting down for about five days. And when I say the entire city—I mean pharmacies, tiny street stalls, restaurants—everything. It was an absolute ghost town. We had already spent more time than we wanted in La Paz, but each day we went to the bus station it was either completely empty or it was filled with employees drinking in the bus ticket sale booths (but refusing to sell any actual tickets since all the drivers were home drinking!). All that being said, Bolivia still had one of the highlights of our trip—the Uyuni salt flats. After being stuck in La Paz for days on end it was a refreshing surprise to our trip.
|Carnaval dancers in Bolivia|
Bolivia was the least developed place we visited and it begrudgingly holds the title of the poorest country in South America. This is evident by things like the number of people using the streets as a public bathroom (perhaps because most toilets you must pay for), and also the number of young children working in stores and restaurants instead of being in school. One of the sad things I remember seeing is people living in their shops—the mattresses they slept on were inside their tiny stores, their living space no bigger than 6 by 7 feet. Lack of clean drinking water is a definite issue there, and the cheapest thing to eat is always candy and junk food. Dental problems are rampant there, too, which is evident by toothless smiles, blackened teeth and for the few who could afford it, metallic veneers. I am sure there are astronomically high rates of diabetes and heart disease, but due to the poverty, I’m sure it’s hugely underdiagnosed.
|Optical illusion in the Valley of the Moon, Chile (salt flats)|
I have always been interested in South and Central America culture and people. Parts of it are rugged and so worn down but people’s spirits are incredibly bright despite their adversities. I really want to work in places like that, which is why we spent so much time exploring the culture there. If you have any interest in public health in developing countries, I think it’s valuable to immerse yourself in it to understand it better before trying to generate solutions that may not realistically work or be well received by locals.
“…you realize how global public health efforts need to be creative, realistic and address issues at different levels.”
Spending so much time in South America helped me begin to witness and understand people’s day-to-day lives in so many different areas, all with varying socioeconomic levels. I learned a lot about how and why people make the decisions they do—especially with unhealthy food options that are definitely detrimental to one’s health. We saw firsthand how healthy greens and produce were hard to buy, but once found were always wilting, fly-ridden, and really overpriced. But shiny, colourful junk food was everywhere and unbelievably cheap! Being on a backpacking budget, we totally fell victim to this and could really understand why people make the choices they make. I gained 10 lbs just in the first month being there (I can’t imagine how I’d look if we stayed longer!).
|Streets of South America|
|Jen and Ted explore the Galapagos Islands|
|Jen and Ted atop Machu Picchu|
|Jennifer performing a glucometer check|
Last year, I volunteered as a nurse for two weeks in Nicaragua with a medical volunteer trip with an organization called Friends of the Orphans Canada (FOTOCAN). Our work involved providing medical check-ups, vaccinations and health teaching to children at the orphanage. With the support and donations of hospitals and clinics, we were able to bring in lots of equipment, medications (including the vaccines that many of the children were behind on due to lack of money from the government to buy these items), eyeglasses, clothing, and much more. Fortunately, the kids at the orphanage are generally very healthy and enjoy a higher quality of life compared to those in the community as they receive food, education, and job support. For this reason, many of the children aren’t actually orphans, but are voluntarily enrolled by their families so that they can live a better life.
“I knew after this experience that I wanted to devote my career to improving global health.”
|Nursing duties in Nicaragua|
We provided other valuable services including optical check-ups, providing eyeglasses and much-needed dental care. I’ll always remember when a volunteer called me over to help because while as they were brushing a child’s teeth, they were all falling out because they were so decayed. Prior to arriving in Nicaragua, our group connected with local health care professionals and specialists who also accompanied us in our clinics. This was extremely valuable since many people required specialist services and/or follow-up care after our departure. We had a local gynecologist, optometrist, many nurses, and a dentist volunteering with us. Combined with our own group of doctors, nurses, dieticians, and many other health professionals, we were able to efficiently see huge numbers of people in a short period of time and subsequently connect them with specialists if needed.
|Enjoying a quick nap in Nicaragua|