Archive | September, 2010

Oh I wish i had the runs…

30 Sep

A German couple arrived in our hostal this week with an interesting tale to tell, one that was set to make me envious. The young backpackers from Hamburg disclosed that they had been paid over €1500 to spend a few weeks traveling in Mexico and Central America in return for participating in a travelers’ diarrhoea vaccination trial. That’s right, not only were they given a free holiday courtesy of Big Pharma, they were also given the opportunity to enjoy it diarrhoea-free. Yes, they had to keep a poo-diary, recording the consistency of their bowel movements, and be in certain cities on certain dates to give stool samples to designated hospitals and medical clinics. But this is a relatively light workload for the compensation they were to receive. Oh and if thee Germans do get diarrhoea during their time in Central America, they get paid an additional $USD20 for each day that they suffer from the affliction.

By now a lot of backpackers following the gringo trail through Mexico and Guatemala have heard of the vaccination trial. Rumors about the trial abound, including that only Europeans are permitted to participate. Many still refuse to believe that the trial isn’t bullshit, since when most things sound as though they are too good be true in this life, they usually are. But this trial is an exception to the rule; it exists, and a whole lot of lucky people are benefiting from this scheme.

Sadly I don’t qualify for the study on a number of grounds. I am pretty sure that I have been immunised against cholera. I have also had the misfortune of suffering from diarroeah in a developing country at least once in the last twelve months (and I don’t think the trial doctors or anyone else would believe me if I told them otherwise). However someone involved in the Guatemalan component of the trial did drop into my hostal the other day and handed me a business card for a doctor’s clinic. It said that if I get the runs I can turn up at the clinic for completely free treatment, and $USD 120 cash in return for participating in the study. Well I am in town for a few more days so you never know, maybe I will still have the chance to profit from my poo. If not, I may have the chance in the future to benefit from the vaccine.

When I first head about the vaccine, I optimistically imagined that it might be able to be used to prevent diarroeah amongst the local population. Such a medical breakthrough could significantly reduce the infant mortality rate in Guatemala and other developing countries where too many children die from bad bouts of gastro. However I was shut-down by the North American medical students studying Spanish in Xela. They told me that the parasites that give travelers diarroeah are different to those that make locals sick. Because there big profit motive for Big Pharma to develop and sell a vaccine for travelers’ diarroeah, they are investing in creating one. Comparatively a vaccine for locals wouldn’t generate a lot of money, so we are unlikely to see one any time soon.

For more information about the trial check out the trial website.

The Virgen’s New Clothes

25 Sep

La Virgen de la Rosario (or Our Lady of the Rosary in English) is the patron saint of Quetzaltenango, the second biggest city of Guatemala where Alex and I have been living for almost a month now.

When locals speak of ‘La Virgen’ they are generally referring to the two metre tall statue of Our Lady who resides in the grand cathedral in the centre of town.

This image of the Virgin is no ordinary statue. Legend has it that centuries ago the Spanish carried the Virgin through Quetzaltenango on route to a church in the Guatemala City where the Virgin was destined to reside. However when the cart carrying the Virgin passed through the centre of town it suddenly became too heavy to move. Even the strong indigenous porters recruited to assist in the move also found that no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t shift the statue. The Virgin wouldn’t budge. When the Spanish finally gave up on their plans to take the Virgen to the capital, the statue suddenly became light again. This was interpreted by locals as proof that the Virgin had elected to stay in Quetzaltenango and protect the city and its citizens.

Many local miracles have been attributed to La Virgen de la Rosario. In 1902 a severe earthquake shook Quetzaltenango and much of the city went up in flames, including the cathedral. Mysteriously the only part of the cathedral to remain undamaged from the fire was the chapel of the Virgin, the permanent home of the statue.

Once a year on 24 September the Virgin briefly leaves cathedral. Rich catholics spend thousands of quetzales outfitting the statue in new clothes in which she is dressed in before being paraded around Quetzaltenango’s small Parque Central. We were lucky to be in town to witness this amazing ritual.

Alex’s Spanish teacher Hilma accompanied us first to the cathedral where we watched the beginning of the big mass in the Virgin’s honour. Hilma pointed out to us that this year the new beige robes that adorned the statue were embroidered with golden thread made from real gold.

To me it seemed that every parish priest in the city was present at the mass – I counted 20. The big wigs, including a couple of bishops and even a Protonotary Apostolic from the USA also turned out for the show. In the front row of the cathedral sat indigenous Mayan women outifitted in fantastic worn in special occasions including weddings, and important religious festivals such as this one. The most prominent aspect of this costume was a large white veil worn draped over a tall hat covering the face.

Shortly after mass began we left the cathedral to secure a good vantage point to watch the procession of the Virgin around the park that would begin just after the church service. The procession was the highlight of the day. Thousands of people had turned out to be blessed by the Virgin and be entertained by the spectacle of the parade. Lots of students from catholic primary and secondary schools were in the crowd wearing their school uniforms. It was lovely to see their faces light up when their parents or grandparents came over to give them a hug and a quetzal or two to buy sweets, which were sadly being sold by less fortunate children their own age.

Much earlier that morning a number of school and parish groups had worked to construct colourful alfombras or carpets made from dyed woodchips on the road outside of the cathedral. Like a red carpet rolled out for hollywood stars at blockbuster movie premieres, these temporary carpets were prepared for the procession of the Virgin to cross. Although this was the first time that I had seen alfombras, they are popular features of religious festivals in Latin America.

Colourful alfombras and the crowd

Loud firecrackers, smoke and perfumed incense announced the Virgin’s arrival at the park. She was perched high on a platform adorned with fresh roses carried by the most devoted catholic males. The cheering crowd through rose petals towards the statue as she passed them by. Others were clearly deeply touched by the occasion and silently prayed
in her presence.

The Virgin was followed around the square first by the clergy, then by lay parish groups marching under elaborate velvet banners. Tens of school marching bands and dancing groups decked out in special uniforms for the occasion came next. Even though their the brass instruments were a little out of tune, the passionate energy of the young performers invigorated the crowd. Luckily the last of the dancing groups completed their circuit of the park moments before the first drops of the afternoon rainy season downpour began to fall.

I have uploaded more photos from the procession to our Picassa album here.

Masses and prayers dedicated to the Virgin will continue for a month from 24 September. During this time the statue will occupy one of the holiest spaces inside of the cathedral; the alter from where priests say mass. At the end of the month the Virgin will return to her chapel for another year.