Once sightseeing in San Salvador’s main neighbourhoods was over, I headed to the pre-RM’s hotel stacked in a taxi with only three fellow IFMSA-Québec delegates. I’ve been in Central America for only a few days, but I’m already used to local habits: I made rice and frijol (fried red beans) my staple food, jammed to Latin American pop music, and sat at the back of a taxi with five other people. Even before attending the pre-RM, I was lucky enough to meet other PAMSA (the American division of IFMSA) even before starting my training.
The diversity on the people living in the hotel rooms’ next to mine will never cease to amaze me: Central America countries look so similar, but are yet so different. Food, cultural aspects, and even language may not be the same ! Hopefully I will have the chance during RM week to meet and greet delegates from every single country.
All pre-RM trainings and workshops are hosted by the Universidad Evangelica of El Salvador, one of El Salvador’s seven medical schools. Most of my colleagues were attending the Global Health Equity workshop, while I was taking the PaPET (Pan-American Peer Education Training) as a SCORA member.
At first most medical students were rather shy, but we quickly learned how to collaborate with each other through the four days that the training lasted. Most of Day 1 activities were to help members create bonds with each other. However, getting to know the other PaPET attendees was harder than I thought: as the only non-Spanish speaking person in a group of 15 students from Latin America, I needed to get used to not understanding everything that is being said in the room.
Hopefully, after four days of full immersion, I can now understand the gross meaning of Spanish conversations between teammates, unless they speak too fast. I’d rather learn Spanish (or try to understand) instead of forcing the other students to speak English when I am part of the conversation. Cultural sensibility starts from accepting others’ language, and acknowledging their right to choose the language they speak is the first step to become a true global health doctor.
Being surrounded by Latin American people made me grow aware of the differences each country held. By the time the first day of the PaPET training was over, I’d already known everyone’s name and had tried to sing along Latin songs with other teammates. Growing up in North America shut my mind on the great cultural diversity that exists beyond “America’s” borders, and attending the pre-RM, a little less busy than the RM, will surely teach me that “Americas” is a word that should be plural.
After having spent an afternoon remembering names and discovering each other’s country of origin, we started Day 2 with small talks about mildly controversial topics, such as homosexuality, teen relationships, and drug addictions. Through debates, small working groups, and plays, I got to discuss with medical students from various backgrounds. I was surprised to notice that, even though most students were Catholic and lived in America, there would be many disagreements on the topics we discussed. For the thoughts we couldn’t express in words, we had the role plays to convey our thoughts to our teammates.
Even though I spent an afternoon in Day 1 acquainting my PaPET teammates, Day 2 truly unveiled everyone’s true opinions. Respecting others’ points of view, mostly based on personal values, was especially important: the discussions were an exchange of thoughts rather than a debate. Reproductive health is still a taboo in many countries, and I was surprised that even students from the most conservative countries would talk about the topics with ease.
Day 3 was the most interesting day, because we talked about more controversial topics and had to conceive a small peer education project. Abortion, women rights, and sex work were Day 3’s main topics, and discussions would sometimes even continue during lunch time. Since most of the students the PaPET are strong-headed, it wasn’t even to draw a conclusion at the end of the talks. The more the subject is controversial, the more it would be hard to convince others to change their mind.
Acknowledging others’ points of view is always important, but understanding them was especially important during Day 3. Some people would quickly point out that religion is the main culprit for more conservative opinions, but it isn’t always the case. Throughout the discussions, I realized that opinions aren’t only based on religion and its values, but also on the culture, the lifestyle, and peer pressure.
During the afternoon, I got to work with three students, all from Costa Rica, on a peer education project that we’d present at the end of Day 3. Our topic was sexual violence, and at the beginning it was difficult to highlight all types. The first thing that came to their minds was undoubtedly “rape”, but I quickly added that there both psychological and physical sexual violence exist. Also, I was surprised to learn how “machismo”, or the seemingly overpowering of the man over the woman, is still relevant in most Latin American countries.
I would sometimes find it difficult to understand most conservative opinions, but the more I spoke with teammates, the more I grew to know what shapes their thoughts. Having grown up in North America taught me that there is always a “right” or a “wrong” answer, but other Latin Americans students showed me how wrong I was: there are only answers that are closer to our personal values.
On Day 4, we left all our disagreements behind and collaborated, once again, to set up a play on a sensitive topic: peer pressure. In our play, we decided to highlight many situations where peer pressure is harmful for teenagers: driving under the influence of alcohol, eating disorders, drug use, bullying at school, and abuse in relationships. Even though those situations are common, we manage to show that they would not only hurt teenagers’ self-esteem, but also be harmful to their health.
Other teams’ plays were about teen pregnancy and abuse in relationships, and I was delighted (or not) to notice that teenagers’ issues were still the same in every country. As medical students from all over the Americas, we may not agree on their way to solve the issues, but we would all acknowledge their importance. Having been a teenager myself, I understood all the sketches even though they were in Spanish, because being born in North America doesn’t save me living and witnessing those issues.
Once the pre-RM, and sadly the PaPET, was over, we all quickly packed and jumped on a bus leaving for the RM. I’ve heard that over a hundred medical students will be attending, and I hope that the cultural sensibility I got develop though the training will help me connect easier with Latin American students.
Last note: I’ve some issues lately with my computer software, please be lenient since my internet connecting is often spotty.