Traveling to Central America - what to expect?
Prepare for a long first day. Be well rested and manage the day’s activities with a controlled pace. Packing in advance is a smart move as flights will likely be early in the day. Remember, these are international flights, so arrive at the airport with time to spare and expect extra security scrutiny.
Make copies of passports and other vital documents, and keep these in a separate location or with a travel companion on the trip. Consider taking smart phone photos and then texting them to the traveling team. Leave a copy with someone back home, as well.
Plan to carry on your personal luggage. If you choose to check your personal bag, the current airline baggage fee will apply and must be prepaid in advance in addition to your trip fee. Should your checked bag be lost, the support team will likely NOT be near the airport in the event a “lost” bag is found. It is suggested to bring a mid-sized backpack that you can carry with you throughout the week. The backpack will work as a tote, providing an easy way to haul things to and from the clinic sites or to carry gear for a jungle hike. Keep the backpack with you at all times.
Wear COMFORTABLE clothing and appropriate footwear. Bring snacks and a water bottle. The 1L screw top reusable Nalgene bottle with a carabineer works very well.
Flights run about 3-3.5 hours. Some are direct, while others require a change of planes, adding several hours of travel time. Once through customs (this can sometimes be a very long process), board the bus to the base hotel. Depending upon the location being served, this could add 3-5 hours to the journey. The roads are often winding through the hills, so it is recommended to take Dramamine before boarding the bus. Many of the bags will be transported on top of the bus, including large checked bags. Although they are covered with a tarp, rain is commonplace, so it is a good idea to pack items in a garbage bag which then goes inside your duffel bag or suitcase.
Arrival at the hotel will likely be very late in the evening. Though the areas may seem safe, it is generally not a good idea to roam around the town after dark. Always travel in pairs or small groups, even during the day.
Typically, clinics are set up in a church, community building, school or a private home. The resources are limited. There is occasionally no electricity. Usually there are flush toilets; however, they sometimes lack complete privacy. Rooms often don’t have windows in the traditional sense, but rather holes in the brick that allow for airflow. There may or may not be lights in the work areas, but it is never completely dark. Tarps and blankets are often used for privacy, yet the treatment rooms will become gathering areas and a source of great fascination for many of the local people. The rooms are often quite small. Assessments and treatments are regularly performed in a chair next to a small desk. As needed, patients can be laid down on a blanket or a foam pad.
The first full day will be spent getting familiar with the base area, sorting and unpacking supplies, possibly visiting and assessing the clinic area, getting to know the support team (bus drivers, translators, hosts, etc.). Clinics start on Monday around 8 am. There will be first day challenges as logistics are worked out – locating supplies, patient logistics, pharmacy processing, discharge instructions, etc. There will be a debriefing each evening to discuss improvements for the following days.
Depending on the needs assessed by the local host and team leaders, up to four (4) clinic locations could be established over the course of four (4) days. Changing locations each day provides an opportunity to experience and impact a wide range of local communities – though it does means dismantling and then setting up again at a new location (which is worth it!).
The logistics will likely change daily, and it may take a couple days to establish the best system. Usually it starts with triage, then a visit to medical, then to vision, then to dental, with pharmacy and check out last. Even when the system is not ideal and the pace seems hectic and inefficient, the people being served will be very thankful for everything the team provides. For those in healthcare, there will be no Press Ganey and no HIPAA, just quality care delivered to the local community.
Recommended Packing List
Although travel varies from country to country, here is a recommended packing list that may be helpful to you.