¿Qué onda?

Hanna and I have a list going.

Los columpios. órale. compú. chingón. cafetal.

These are the words that have filled my experience in Jalte thus far–consisting of a mixture of Spanish medical terminology, slang, and vocabulary relevant to my research project, these “words to know” are ones that the pair of Harvard undergrads quickly jot down as we spend our days traveling between the Partners in Health office in Jalte and the community health clinics that lie 2-3 hours away. Like our lives here, they themselves are our many worlds melded into one beautiful language.


It has been two weeks now, and my thoughts about being here have accumulated much faster than I (or the internet connection) can handle, but I will attempt to share a bit about my experiences. These two weeks have been filled with time spent in D.F. (Mexico City), San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Jaltenango (the town where I now reside), Palenque in all of its ancient beauty, a local Catholic church where I attended misa (part of my tradition of experiencing religion in some form in every country that I visit), the local mercado where I buy my daily mangos (alas, some things never change), and long drives amidst the rolling mountains of the Sierra Madre and the small communities that are tucked away within them.




Mass at the local Catholic Church


Visiting the rural communities in the Sierra Madre

But more than anything, I have gotten the sense that I am a member of a part-Mexican, part-American, part-physician, and wholly passionate family here. Much like my House at Harvard, we leave our belongings without worry wherever we please in the quaint green house-turned-office that lies just a hop, skip & a jump from the town center.


Though beautiful, the town center in Jaltenango is a world away from the communities in the Sierra

The whole troop of Compañeros en Salud (CES) affiliates eats breakfast and lunch together and greets each other with a hearty “!Buenos días!” or “¿Qué onda?” when someone walks into a room because to go without saying anything is anathema to the environment here. And just like greetings, our music is also plentiful. From Juanes to Jessie J, the tunes of the day percolate throughout the house, though things are quieter during work hours when the staff of CES, pasantes (young medical students from all around Mexico), and students like myself and Hanna spend our time in the office located at the lower level of the house. We may be the only two undergrads here, but we are treated with the same level of collegiality as are any of the other physicians or medical residents that fly in from Boston and land on our doorstep in Jaltenango. This has been another wonderful aspect of the family we have here: it is ever-expanding. There is certainly never a shortage of new people to meet or conversations to be had about what brought one young medical student from Ohio to work in rural Mexico, or why two physicians decided to fly in from Louisville to teach a course on ultrasounds to the pasantes this weekend.

And fortunately, every day is different. This, after all, is one small town with a unique and ever-changing  Mexican rhythm. You just have to learn to dance along.

This morning, for example, was a mango morning. Iván (a Mexican university student who is working on a mental health project for CES), Hanna, and I took the short walk to a local tienda where I perused the mango selection. This reminds me of Tanzania, I thought to myself as I inspected the fist-sized yellow globes of goodness piled high in a small wooden crate. But despite my sweet memories of a very fruit-filled summer two years ago, I know too that every country’s mangoes are different. They may be universally sweet, but I have already come to recognize Mexican mangoes for their own distinct hue and sabor.

IMG_4482Easily accessible tiendas along the streets of Jalte

!Qué vaya bien! The shopkeeper smiled to us with the friendliness I have come to love and expect of this small town as we collected our fruit bounty and took it back to the office. This morning was a particularly peaceful one–my favorite kind of weather, I announced as we walked side-by-side. The sun wasn’t yet out in full force and so the air was decidedly fresco, as if a few tentative tendrils of spring had begun to reach beyond their winter dungeon. Though of course it’s not really “winter” here at all–at an average of 70 or 80 degrees fahrenheit on any given day, I know I have little to complain about as I see email weather alerts from Harvard about the blizzard passing through Cambridge. Ay, qué pena.

Today was the day that we met John, Andy, and Patrick–all new arrivals from the States. ¡Buenos días! I say enthusiastically, testing out their familiarity with Spanish. It’s always an interesting dynamic here since the majority of us know English (and know that those around us know English) but yet do our best to defer to Spanish. And I certainly like it that way (as it helps us non-native speakers who are trying to improve). John was from Louisville and had just arrived this morning, while Patrick is a long-time employee of CES who had been expected for quite some time. With gifts of chocolate and tea in tow, his voice added to the already bustling chatter that always fills the CES office por la mañana.

Settling in at my workstation (it’s really pretty informal, but we have all claimed our respective “spots” in the office), I opened up my computer and Hanna and I prepared to finish some of our readings for this afternoon’s class. We would be having a guest lecture from a Professor who had studied the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and done fieldwork there for over a decade. With the PDFs open on my screen, I scrolled through and settled on my plan for completing them within the next two hours. But first, café. Good thing the kitchen is but steps away. :)

No problema, this was my first cup of the morning, despite the fact that my day had begun much earlier–our first class with Professor Kleinman was at 7am. Early or not, Professor Kleinman was absolutely chipper as he video conferenced us in from his iPad. 21st century technology, I tell you. I’ll admit that I had my reservations about this long-distance, high-tech learning style, but my fears have been assuaged as I’ve had the opportunity to have some of the most enriching conversations of my undergraduate career with professors who are among those whom I admire most in their respective fields. I know that I would be hard-pressed to have the same level of exposure in my typical undergrad lecture hall. Professor Kleinman is teaching a Clinical Ethnography course this semester that is specific to the two of us GHEO scholars in the inaugural year of the program. Despite being one of the most renowned medical anthropologists in the field, he is incredibly down-to-earth and I have always been enamored by his lecture style and willingness to share stories about his own research experiences. Today we would be discussing our research projects in depth and delineating key tenets of the requisite methodology. At one point, Hanna asked a question about the division between quantitative and qualitative methods of research collection–how could we explain and justify the difference to the subjects of our studies? And to those who would be receiving our research? While both varieties certainly have their merits, I’ll admit that before I came to college, I had only been taught in the use of quantitative methods and so assumed that this was what I ought to focus on.

Professor Kleinman paused por un ratito. “You know, I had this same conversation with Paul Farmer and Jim Kim 20 years ago,” he began in his characteristically reflective tone.


Your job is not just to collect data, but to collect stories,” he explained, “and their usefulness is that they help to illustrate both problems and impact.”

I was nodding in agreement at Professor Kleinman’s slightly pixelated image staring back at me from the computer screen. Soon I could hear the sound of horns and rapid Spanish  rumbling in from the windows behind us; it was almost 8am and Jaltenango was waking up just as our morning lecture was ending.

Yes, indeed, I thought, we’re here to collect stories. From patients to pasantes to the dilligent doctors who left their jobs at large Boston hospitals in order to run rural community health clinics in the most impoverished state of Mexico, I could think of many people whose stories I wanted to hear.

!I-chaaa-ni! I jumped slightly in my chair. That was Héctor. Well, of course it was Héctor. A young Mexican physician with an incredibly lovable sense of humor, he had already become like the big brother I never had. I smiled as his characteristically ebullient smile waltzed into the room as if of its own volition. He now knew how to pronounce my name correctly, but he wouldn’t let me forget that it had been the hardest for him and all of the other pasantes to learn. ¿Qué onda? he asked as he did every morning.

Fabulous, I told him with a grin. After all, how could my day not be going well? Mangos, café, and discussions about the theoretical underpinnings of medical anthropology and its practical applications. And it wasn’t even 8:30am.

Not a bad start to the day.


I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this scenery: La Sierra Madre


One thought on “¿Qué onda?”

  1. Aww this is amazing. Sounds like between the mangoes and Kleinman lectures and visiting church, you’re figuring you’re way around. And picking up quite a bit of Spanish too, like a lot of Spanish. xo

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