Living Below Your Means
A New Perspective

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By GritsGuru
May 22, 2003

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Earlier this month I flew into San Luis Potosi, Mexico with some doctors, dentists and nurses from my town (Columbia, SC). We arrived after midnight and left early the next morning with medical/dental instruments and cases of meds. We drove a couple of hours north until we reached the tiny village of El Coyote. It was there that my education began.

Driving up a rough, rocky road to the village, I was overwhelmed with the gray, the ubiquitous gray. In this area, it may rain once a year and the only plants I saw were cactus, yucca, mesquite and maize. Dust covered everything. With the exception of the few plants, it could have been the surface of the moon. I was startled to see that transportation from the village to the nearest highway 10 km away was by donkey cart.

Along the way, I saw a tiny little hut made of hand-hewn planks of wood wired together, topped with a thatched roof made of maize husks. I thought it housed animals. It housed a family of 5 people. It was half the size of my kitchen.

Most of the houses in the village were made of adobe. Many had flat roofs made of brick (I never learned by what engineering marvel this was possible) and they could have been 2 years old or 200. After 15 minutes in El Coyote, the dust blown about by the winds in this high desert plain made everything the same grayish dun color.

Water for irrigating the cactus and the maize comes from a cistern and well, but no one in the village drinks it. A truck brings bottled water once a week, and for the people there, potable water is simultaneously a necessity and a luxury. Water is treated with the respect we might save for a bottle of Dom Perignon or Opus One.

When we arrived, there were already several dozen people, mostly women and children, gathered under an open shelter with a thatched roof. We set up shop in an adobe building, which had electricity and plumbing. Many of the homes there had the former; few had the latter. We took brief medical histories with the help of translators, and the patients were then seen by a dentist or a doctor, each of whom also had an interpreter. I served as the "pharmacist" by virtue of once having been a paramedic. A nurse, fluent in Spanish, worked with me to make sure the patients understood how to take their meds. I don't know how many people lived in El Coyote, but they kept coming and the doctors worked until 10 PM diagnosing, treating and doing minor surgeries. The dentist extracted tooth after tooth. By the time we crawled onto our sleeping bags (too hot to be in them), we had seen over 100 people.

One of the nurses had brought blue rubber balls to give to the kids. They were ecstatic. As I looked around the village, the only "toy" I saw was a sadly deflated soccer ball. Oh, if only our children could see that. The dentist brought toothbrushes, and every child got one. Judging from the number of teeth removed that day, most were receiving their first toothbrush.

The kids were like kids everywhere. They laughed and ran around and played with each other. Until they sat in the dentist's chair. Then, they were as stoic and uncomplaining as the most hardened Marine. And the adults never let out the first whimper, even when a procedure was painful. What was impossible to miss, was the depth of their gratitude for the services they received. While I don't know much Spanish, I didn't need a translator when I received their thanks.

We went to 2 other villages on the next 2 days, and it was very much the same in each place. The doctors continued to insist that they would not eat or sleep until all patients were seen, and it made for some very long, but fulfilling days. What I observed of those doctors was so unlike what I have become accustomed to from the medical establishment. What a refreshing change!

While we were in El Coyote, Nunez, and El Charco Blanco, the other half of our group (also 2 doctors, a dentist, nurses, translators, and a pharmaceutical sales rep as the "pharmacist") were in the Pame region of the state of San Luis Potosi, where they set up clinics and served the indigenous, non-Spanish-speaking Pame people. I gather from what they told me, that the Pame were even poorer than the people I had seen.

Poverty? It defies description and boggles the imagination. When I was a medic, I went to some of the poorest of this nation's poor in the rural areas south of Charleston, SC. But even in the midst of that poverty, I saw TVs, new clothes, cars, children wearing expensive sneakers and playing with toys that cost as much as a Mexican family could live on for a month. And I knew that, unlike the kids I saw in the high plains of Mexico, these SC kids were getting an education and receiving some degree of medical and dental treatment.

My time in Mexico was an eye-opening experience. We throw off the phrase "food, clothing and shelter" glibly here, but I saw people there who lived with only the most minimal of these necessities and had very little else. It gave me a new perspective on necessities vs. luxuries, and I will think twice before complaining about something I want, but do not have. It is a perspective that will make living below my means much, much easier.

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