Thursday, March 28, 2019

One Minute

After the past few heavy posts, here is a bit of a breather! The lovely Lake Atitlan.


I took this video the day we found the abandoned kittens. It was about 85°F (29°C) and a beautiful cool breeze was coming off the Lake. Love this place! 💜

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A Trip To A Guatemalan Walk-In Clinic

I am currently reading "7 Habits of Highly Effective People". I think one habit should be "don't fall on your face!" 😄

Yesterday afternoon I was coming home from taking the wee kittens to the vet. I was rushing into the house, trying to fend off overly happy dogs, when I felt something catch against my ankles -- a pole? -- and then I was falling fast. I saw very clearly the wooden stair coming up at my face. BAM!!

There's always that moment after an accident -- and I've had many -- where you're just trying to breathe. Pain was exploding from my right eye. Blood was pouring off my face, and as fast as it was hitting the tile floor, the dogs were licking it up (little savages). I was hyperventilating and just saying "oh" over and over. After a few minutes, my brain started sidestepping around the biggest pain and began assessing other damage. Both knees hurting, both hands hurting, left shoulder hurting but not right. Blood, more blood, running like hot thick tears over my face.

I dug my phone out of my pocket. I called Rob a half a dozen times in a row, no answer. I called Pete, no answer. Iva, no answer. I started again, Rob, Pete, answer. Damn. Where is everyone? I was scrolling thru my contact list when Pete called me back with his customary cheerful, "Hey, what's up?" I said, "I'm hurt. I need someone to take me to a hospital or something." Pete, my hero, says without hesitation that he's on his way.

Well, new problem. My front gate is locked and Pete won't be able to get in. So that means I have to get up off the floor and get outside to meet him. It's then that I realize the kittens are sitting next to me in their cat carrier! I was so worried that I had squished them when I fell, but I knew I was in no shape to check on them now so I put them in the bedroom. Then I grabbed a washcloth to press to my aching eyeball and I went out my front gate. Woof, just that short distance made me soooo dizzy! I sat down on the ground outside my gate to wait for Pete.

Just then, my neighbour came strolling out of his house. He took one look at me and said, "Are you okay? Do you need an ambulance?" (In Spanish, of course.) I said that I was okay and my friend was coming. He asked if I fell and I said yes. Then he asked something else about my house and I just repeated that I was okay and my friend was coming. It is really hard to speak a foreign language when you're injured, I tell ya! The nice guy waited next to me until Pete showed up on his bike with his girlfriend, Victoria.

Luckily for us, a tuc-tuc was passing by, which is super rare on my gravel road that goes basically nowhere. We flagged him down and Victoria got in with me to go to the emergency clinic. We had a few moments of confusion when I couldn't remember what it was called, and Pete was saying stuff in Spanish, but soon enough we were bouncing off down the road towards help.

For those in Panajachel who don't know where the walk-in clinic is, here is a map and a streetview of it. It looks like a daycare. There is kids play equipment out front and a rose garden. But there is an attendent on duty 24/7 for medical emergencies. If there is no doctor at the time, they will get you an ambulance up to the hospital in Sololá.

Centro de Salud in Panajachel, Guatemala
Map of Panajachel showing Centro de Salud (emergency clinic)
We walked into the Centro de Salud not knowing what to expect. None of us had been there before. I only knew about it because an American friend had gone there once. There was a small waiting area with chairs and benches. There were only two or three people waiting. In another room was the reception desk. I sat while Pete and Victoria talked to the desk. I think it was less than 10 minutes and we were called in. Wow, short waiting time! We walked into the room where the reception desk was and it turned out that was the exam room and treatment room and records room and everything all in one. Behind a curtain was an exam table, where I gratefully lay down and tried to relax.

Me smiling for a Facebook photo!
Next pleasant surprise, the young doctor spoke English! He set to work cleaning the blood from my wounds while asking simple questions about what happened. He told me I had two bad cuts near my eye. (I helped him with the English words for eyelid and eyebrow.) He said I would need a few stitches.
He started getting his supplies ready when he realized he didn't have the right thread to stitch my eyelid. No worries! He just wrote out what he needed on a piece of paper and sent Pete and Victoria out to the pharmacy to get it! So funny! I found out later that P&V drove all over town looking for the right thread. I guess the doctor wanted disintegrating thread, very thin, for my eyelid, while normal stitches would be suitable for the eyebrow.

Anyway, several needle jabs and a bit of sewing and I was all fixed up! Four stitches in the eyelid (scary!) and three in the eyebrow. As he worked, another man literally held a flashlight to put more light on my face. They also started talking in Spanish about ordering some churrasco -- barbecue. Chicken or beef? It comes with tortillas and salad. Do you want coffee or juice?

When he said we were done, I got up and woozily walked to the counter. The receptionist doled out a pack of painkillers and a big bunch of amoxicillin (antibiotics). The nice doctor asked me my name and my age. Then he wrote the instructions for the pills on a paper for me and explained it to me verbally as well. I thanked him profusely and asked, "How much?" He said, "Free." WHAT??? Free emergency healthcare and meds?? Sweeeeeeet. I said to the doctor, "Gracias! Disfruta tu churrasco!" (Enjoy your barbecue!)

Another tuc-tuc home, a brief visit with the kittens, whom Rob had fed and put in their crate, and then I went straight to bed!

Thank you so much to Pete and Victoria for helping me. I owe you a cake or something! And muchisimas gracias to the great doctor at the clinic!

Scroll down if you want to see a gruesome picture of how I looked this morning!

My lovely face in the early morning light. Ewwww!
P.S. The thing I tripped over was a broom! The dogs had knocked it over and it was wedged across the doorway.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Thank You For Your Kind Words

I want to thank all the nice people who commented or wrote to me privately to tell me that they support me and that they know the only thing I care about is the animals. I know that my last post was heavy stuff. But actually, I feel relieved that I could finally tell my side.

The hardest part has been the evil people. I can't even comprehend how some people can come up with the mean things they say. Where do they find these evil thoughts? How do they justify the horrible things they say? How do they live with themselves? I mean, I could never have imagined the malicious gossip, the lies, the personal attacks. I never once thought to invent evil things to say about another person. I stick to the facts. Yes, I'm obviously an emotional person, but wouldn't you be, considering what has happened?

The worst evil thing people are saying is that these three innocent dogs died because I am a bad mother. I'm starting to cry right now just typing that. What a horrible thing to say.

Imagine this scenario, if you will.
You are a poor mother living in the slums of Detroit (or wherever). You have five children. You and your husband both work but your jobs barely pay for the necessities. This month, you chose to buy groceries for your family rather than pay the electric bill.
Then one of your daughters gets sick. You think it's just a cold, so you spend a bit of money on medicine. But she doesn't get better, she gets worse. So you take her to the free walk-in clinic. There, the overworked doctor says he wants to keep your daughter overnight. You comply and go home, leaving your daughter at the hospital.
The next day, no one calls to tell you how your daughter is doing. By late afternoon, you are so worried that you walk the mile over to the clinic to ask. The doctor says, "Oh, she just has an infection. Give her these pills and she will be fine." The nurse brings your daughter to a wheelchair. She is not better, she is worse! She can't walk. She looks at you with sad, hopeful eyes.
The nurse gives you a bill for $600. It says, "Treatment". Nothing else. You pay it, knowing that you will have to make excuses (again) to your landlord for not having the rent money. You pick up your daughter and carry her to a taxi and go home.
At home, you put your daughter in bed and give her favorite meal: grilled cheese. She eats a bit but she is so sleepy. You get her to take her pills. You kiss your child goodnight and tell her you love her.
In the morning, your daughter is dead.

Who would you blame?
The mother? For not having a clean house?
Or the doctor, for not LOOKING at your daughter and seeing how sick she was?

Would you fight?
Would you fight for your dead child even when people told you that you could go to prison for it?

And what if this happened THREE TIMES?

The unfairness of this situation is almost unbearable. I try to tell myself that I did what I could. I didn't really expect to win against the vet. But I had to try. And I had to set a precedent. Perhaps no one else had the courage to say something. Perhaps just by making a formal complaint, I have scared the vet enough that he will make changes.

My dogs are gone. My spirit is badly damaged. I don't know if I will stay in Guatemala or move somewhere else or even go home to Canada. I am still just trying to get thru it one day at a time.

But one thing has brought light into my life. Or rather three things.
Yesterday while walking home from seeing a friend, I found three abandoned kittens on the river road. I did not hesitate. Not for one millisecond. Bert stood back and watched with knowing eyes as I gathered the three tiny balls of fluff into my arms.

This is who I am. I am an animal rescuer. 

Three little kitty babies!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

I'm Going to Go To Prison For This and I Don't Care

People are a bunch of assholes.

Sahara and BabyPup and Venus died last year.

I filed a denuncia (a formal complaint) against the vet, Dr. Isael Estrada, of Clinica San Martin in Panajachel, with the Colegio de Médicos Veterinarios y Zootecnistas de Guatemala. My filing said that I believed he was negligent in diagnosing and treating these three dogs, which led to their deaths.

I haven't been permitted to talk about it. I honorably stood by this rule when others spoke badly of me on  Facebook, when people sent me panicky private messages, when people approached me in person on the street. I didn't say anything in public to protect the privacy of the case.

But tonight I received the ruling and it shocked me.

It wasn't that the College sided with Dr. Isael Estrada and dismissed my case. I expected that to happen. I expected Dr. Isael Estrada to twist the facts to protect himself. I expected the College to support their vet and their reputation, and to reject the words of some unknown woman.

What shocked me is that Selaine D'Ambrosi of the AYUDA charity that I have so selflessly supported for four years LIED to the tribunal.

"4.- Que la Señora Selaine d'Ambrosi, Socio Fundador, Presidente y Directora de Ayuda para la Salud de Perros y Gatos (programa de bienestar de los animales sin fines de,lucro del Lago de Atitlán), hace constar que la Señora Cristel Gunn fue voluntaria de AYUDA como un cuidador de casa, sin embargo, la Señora Cristel Gunn fue despedida por negligencia y las condiciones precarias en las cuales tenía a los animales". "

English: 4.- That Mrs. Selaine d'Ambrosi, Founding Partner, President and Director of Help for the Health of Dogs and Cats (non-profit animal welfare program of Lake Atitlan), states that Mrs. Cristel Gunn volunteered for AYUDA as a foster parent, however, Mrs. Cristel Gunn was fired for negligence and the precarious conditions in which she had the animals. "

This is so untrue and so hurtful. They "fired" me after I had told them I wanted to file a denuncia against Dr. Isael Estrada. Selaine's husband, Harold William, sent me this message:

Dr. Isael represents Ayuda and Ayuda represents Dr. Isael.
Based on this support structure of 9+ years, the Ayuda board of directors unanimously voted to discontinue services to you.  The puppies that were brought into Thursday's clinic are the end.  Unfortunately, and even though we believe that he is not involved with your malicious actions, this same discontinuance of services applies to Rob through your relationship with him.
As a courtesy to Dr. Isael, he has been advised of your intentions in order to prepare himself...
Both he and others have been advised of slanderous remarks you have made about him and his practice.
As a courtesy to you for appreciation of past services in support of Ayuda, I am informing you that slander is taken very seriously in Guatemala.  It is punishable by prison.  Especially in the case of an extranjero non-resident attempting to jeopardize the credibility and livelihood of a Guatemalan professional and his family. 
Your call, but we hope that no more of your frivolous and attacking remarks reaches any of our ears. 
I am advising you of these things as both an officer and co-founder of Ayuda Para La Salud de Perros y Gatos.
I told them that I was filing the denuncia as a personal complaint and I wasn't involving AYUDA. Harold replied:
If you really have all these professionals who confirm that your accusations are TRUE based solely on your anecdotal information then go for it!..However, even if he was found to be guilty of your charges it does not change the fact that your public accusations are slanderous.  Which by the way, Dr. Isael has been made aware of through his own resources (including his competition) and is now considering taking formal actions against you.
Cristel, even though he would not take you back if you walked into his practice and apologized to him and his staff, given the state of things, it would seem proactive and wise to do so anyway in hopes to head off your having to go to court to defend yourself.  The case would have nothing whatsoever to do with his professionalism.  It would be about his witnesses testifying that they heard you saying explicitly damaging things about him.
And by the way, in any case which you still might want to file against him about his practices, consider this.  Besides the Pana Muni, the University, dozens of interns who have worked under him (i.e., Walter), and surely hundreds of witnesses who would be willing to stand up for him in court, the animals in question all came through your home and lived in conditions which even you have admitted were not suitable environments for the for-profit/shelter/personal (hoarding?) in which those animals took ill.
I/we do not want to see or get involved in any of this or see you get hurt.  But you threw the first stone, kept throwing them, and now he's pissed.  Hopefully, for your own sake, you have enough sense to at least attempt to make amends.  I hope you'll think seriously about this.  There's just no way you can otherwise win.
So Selaine lied to the Tribunal of Honor by saying that they "fired" me because my house was a pigsty. In reality, they shunned me because I told them I was filing a denuncia and they were scared and angry. They didn't care about the dogs. They cared only for their reputations, their egos, and their statistics. ("Look at us, we're so great, we saved 100 dogs this year.")

Also, please note that Harold readily admits to spreading the news that I was going to file a denuncia, including telling the vet  "and others". The ironic thing is that they were threatening ME with persecution for slander, yet I had told next to no one, and here is Harold blabbing his mouth off and probably causing more damage to the vet's reputation than I ever did. Un-fucking-believable.

Anyway, the tone and accusations of these and other messages that were sent to me really shook me up. (My poor sister can attest to that!) Many people advised me to not proceed. I was really scared. I didn't file the denuncia for many months, trying to put it out of my mind.

But it was eating at my soul. Every time I stepped onto my porch, I remember Sahara lying there dead. Every time I scrolled thru my pictures, I saw sweet BabyPup. Every time I petted Velvet, I was reminded that I had failed to save her sister, Venus.

So in February, I completed the documents and with a sad but firm heart mailed the denuncia to the College of Veterinarians.

I did it because I needed to know that I had fought for Sahara, BabyPup, and Venus. They were beautiful, innocent dogs and they didn't deserve their horrible deaths. I was responsible for them. They were my dogs. When they got sick, I took them to a vet that people told me was good. But I soon learned differently.

Those are the photos that I attached to the denuncia. Here is the link to the other files. 

The files are mostly in Spanish, but I have included my notes in English. The translation to the denuncia is not word for word, of course. I won't repeat all the details here, for brevity's sake, but I will amend with some thoughts.

I must say this: Dr. Isael Estrada Atz is a fine surgeon. He has performed hundreds upon hundreds of spay/neuter surgeries at AYUDA's low-cost clinics at Lake Atitlan. No one can fault his surgery techniques or rate of success. The service he is doing for AYUDA is incredibly valuable. I never wanted to shut down his practice. I only wanted to incite change. I wanted his superiors to visit his office (which they never did) and give him suggestions as to how to improve so more beloved pets didn't die.

The Clinica Veterinaria San Martin office in Panajachel is inadequate for housing animals overnight. The animals are kept in a separate garage where no one can monitor them. Dr. Isael Estrada does not perform even the simplest of diagnostic tests, eg. Parvo SNAP tests, to confirm his diagnoses. He is rarely at the clinic in Pana because he has another office in Sololá, and because he spends many days helping AYUDA. Often when an owner goes to pick up their pet, he is not even present to talk to them. His staff in Pana are poorly trained, or not trained at all. There are no medical records kept to indicate what treatments have been given, if the animals are eating and how much, or if the IV fluids are being absorbed properly. (See my notes about Venus and her kinked IV. She basically died of complications due to long-term dehydration and starvation.)

I am not the only one who has noticed the poor care animals receive at his office.
Below is a link to a blog post from a few years ago about Shanti, a street dog rescued by a woman who was visiting Lake Atitlan. I personally wrote to her and she confirmed that it was Dr. Isael Estrada who treated her dog. At that time, there was no office in Pana, only in Sololá.

In her email, she wrote: 
"I really thought what happened to Shanti was a one-time thing/a mistake otherwise I would have contacted the animal rescue group. I was just happy to get him home."
I have heard other sad stories. In fact, a member of the Board of Directors of AYUDA had a dog who had to stay overnight at Clinica San Martin. When my friend went to pick up the dog, the poor thing was cowering in a crate in the garage, covered in urine and feces. He washed the dog before letting the owner see him that way.

My life has been hell here the past few months. I have had panic attacks. I didn't leave the house for two weeks, relying on "Bert" to get me groceries. When I did finally venture out, I walked with my head down, terrified to see someone who will accost me in public. I took back roads to avoid people. I wore plain clothing to not draw attention to myself. Sometimes I would turn around before getting to my destination, overcome with tears. Sometimes, I would walk out of the store crying, unable to finish shopping because my overwrought mind was endlessly repeating horrible scenarios of being approached by spiteful former friends.

Not only have I had to deal with the deaths of three foster dogs in two months, but I also had to deal with malicious gossip and "shit talk", as my friend aptly called it. I have tried to remind myself that no one cares what jerks say anyway. I have tried to maintain my ideals and my integrity. 


In Guatemala, you can go to prison for slander. That may be the case here. I am not permitted to say bad things about anyone in public. They can sue me. 


I am quite possibly the most honest person you will ever meet, and one of the most virtuous. (Outside of those religious folks!) Do you know that I have never done drugs? NEVER. I don't even smoke marijuana, which is rampant here. And I drink alcohol maybe once a month with friends. 

I have a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Guelph where I majored in Zoology, the study of animals. I worked as an Animal Control Officer with the Humane Society in Guelph shortly after graduation, but couldn't handle the euthanasias, so I quit and went to work for a no-kill rescue organization.

I buy dog food before I buy human food.
I feed my pets before I even make myself a coffee in the morning.
And every day, multiple times, I touch the head of every pet in my house and look in their sweet eyes and talk to them and give them love & attention.

I don't have children. I never wanted them. Animals have been my passion for as long as I remember. Helping animals is my reason for living. 

I want to write more but this is already very long. Please comment with any questions you have and I will try to answer. 

Thank you to my friends and family who have stuck by me, who listened while I wailed, who have offered advice and comfort. I'm sorry for the stress I have caused you. I don't know what I'm going to do next. Oh, wait. Yes, I do. I'm going to go pet Queso and Rui and Moo-Moo and Honey-Bear and Velvet. Good night.
Queso & Rui, my kitty boys. Guatemalan rescues!
My Moo-Moo. Love this dog. She is always so happy! She was from a litter of puppies that I rescued early last year. Her brothers and sisters were adopted but I had to keep her, she was too cute to give up!
Honey-Bear! She and her mother were picked up by AYUDA at the market in Panajachel. Her mother was released after her spay surgery. I decided to keep Honey to socialize her so she could be adopted. She is ready to go for anyone that needs a sweet, quiet, beautiful dog.
Miss Velvet! Her sister, Venus, was one of the dogs that died. Velvet's other sister, Violet, was adopted. Venus is smart and adorable and looking for a forever home.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Culture Fatigue in Guatemala

Everyone talks about culture shock when moving to a new country, but I think for me I would use the phrase culture fatigue. As of April 1st, I will have been living in Guatemala for four years. You'd think by now I'd be used to it! And in a way, I am accustomed to how things work here, but that doesn't mean I'm okay with it.
Don't get me wrong: I love Guatemala! If it was actually that bad, I would have left by now. But there are little things that are a shock at first, and you think you can accept them as part of the culture, but you never really do accept them, so it just gets tiring. Hence, culture fatigue.

Examples: gringo pricing, unexpected power outages, dangerous driving, suicide showers, and street dogs.

Why do those things bother me? Well, I'm from Canada, a rather liberal and civilized country. (If I do say so myself!) I expect non-racist pricing, fewer power outages (not none, haha!), traffic rules and consequences for breaking them, hot water showers, and animal welfare laws.

And there are so many other things that even worse here in Guatemala, things that I can't comprehend: child marriages, abuse of women, and of course widespread corruption.

And have you heard about Mayan Justice? Also known as vigilantism. It's when the indigenous people act as judge, jury, and executioner in a crime. They rarely have a trial. Accusations are founded on eyewitness or just hearsay. Mobs will attack police officers and stations to remove indigenous criminals in order to deliver punishment that they see fit. They literally burned two 19-year-old boys ALIVE for threatening tuc-tuc drivers. Those boys are dead for making a bad decision at 19 years old. They will never have a chance to change their circumstances, to repent, mature, and live their lives.
The mob mentality here is inexcusable. I understand where it comes from though. The civil war that ravaged this country for more than 30 years left a dark hole in the hearts of indigenous people. I know it will take a long time to reverse the distrust of power caused by the genocide of the Mayans at the hands of the Guatemalan military. But it breaks my heart to see angry men taking the law into their own hands. Whipping a man at the park for beating his wife -- that I understand. That's merely public shaming and a bit of temporary pain. But burning people alive? While a crowd watches and does nothing? Horrifying.

So my complaints of lukewarm showers and power outage seem small and petty. But these are the things that make my day-to-day life just a little bit irritating, the things that wear me down, the things that make me throw up your hands and go, "Why am I here?"

So how do I deal? Easy. Walk to the beautiful Lake Atitlan. Drink heavenly coffee. Admire jaw-dropping sunsets. Eat the freshest, most luscious fruits and veggies. And rescue as many street dogs and cats that I can.
Oh, and laugh at my Canadian friends who are knee-deep in snow while I'm here in shorts and a tshirt watering my freshly blooming lilies. 😎

Red lilies blooming in my garden.
For more information on how to cope with culture shock as an expat, check out this short article at Family Move Abroad.