dr bart roach with children in guatemala

Tri-City dentist finds beauty, adventure, purpose in Guatemala

Tri-City dentist finds beauty, adventure, purpose in Guatemala

 (Note: this blog post is taken from a February 7, 2016 article in the Tri-City Herald. To read the article and see more photos on the TCH site please visit: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/article58713633.html)

Editor’s note: Tri-City dentist Bart Roach recently returned from a weeklong trip to Guatemala — his seventh visit to the Central American country. He reconnected with an old friend, surfed, talked to school children about oral hygiene and made plans for a return trip this spring.

The owner of Three Rivers Dental in Kennewick and co-founder of the nonprofit Sonrisa Immaculata plans to bring a full team — including five other dentists — in April to deliver dental care to people in the highlands.

Guatemala is a difficult place to get to from Pasco and is often associated with images of historic violence. Hopefully, by the end of this article your impression will shift from images of civil war to “The Land of Eternal Spring.”

The country is a landscape full of colonial and pre-Columbian ruins, flowers, handmade textiles and emerald volcanic mountain ranges akin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

And it’s worth every minute of travel time to arrive there.

I left Pasco at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and despite the short six-hour flight, I did not arrive until the following Sunday at 7 a.m. While that sounds burdensome to most seasoned, direct-flight jet-setters, it afforded me ample time at the Sea-Tac and Los Angeles airports to reflect on the nature of my seventh trip to that land of beloved poor, rich in spirit.

Seven is a biblical number of new beginning, of creation, and while this trip was not going to be action-packed with extracting teeth, I was on my way to the lost Pacific coast of Guatemala to reunite with a friend I had not visited since 2006, on a beach of Mesoamerica I’d never visited before.

I spent my airport hours considering the effect our exploratory mission could have on the health of the community, and I boarded my red-eye out of California excited to connect with my Guatemalan amigos.

I packed light — a few clothes and 1,000 toothbrushes to hand out to kids. When in the Third World, keep it simple: Stash your credit cards in disparate places. Do not bring anything you are not prepared to leave behind.

My assistant, Makenna, arrived the night before. After I landed, we met up and a $40 cab ride ferried us from Guatemala City to the fabled cobblestone streets of Antigua.

Town built for horses

This historic capital is nestled between three active volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. It was once one of three seats of Spanish influence in the New World, along with Mexico City and Lima, Peru.

The city was founded in 1524, with the viceroy governing the expanse of land from the Darien Gap in Panama all the way through Chiapas and the Yucatán. Earthquakes destroyed the city sequentially over a 200-year period until the capital was moved in 1775 about 60 kilometers east to its present location.

Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site with baroque hacienda-style homes lining the cobblestones. Bougainvillea flowers cascade over the walls, accenting ancient wooden doors.

Ruined churches and cloisters are present on every block, roofs collapsed, with headless saints standing with outstretched arms from antique church facades. Wild rose, hibiscus and calla lilies grow among the tumbled stone ruins. Brightly clothed indigenous Kaqchikel women sell loads of flowers to local businesses while their children peddle watermelon, mango and the ubiquitous textile crafts of the highland states.


This town of 10,000 people is home to more than 100 Spanish schools, where travelers the world over come to learn the language with one-on-one instruction from accredited teachers.

Most of the nongovernmental organizations and medical missions in Guatemala are based out of Antigua, and it serves as the jumping-off point to the many natural phenomena of this most geographically diverse country. The streets are full of tourists — tall Norwegian beauties on gap year before university, medical students from the U.S. volunteering between rotations, retired folks looking for photo opportunities, backpackers on the “circuit” and a healthy community of expat writers and esthetes who have given up on the rat race of the first world.

Makenna and I arrived mid-morning to my friend’s hotel in Antigua and were quickly ushered to a new Razor 4×4 — the perfect vehicle to navigate the cobble and congestion of a town built for horses.

We screamed out of town, literally, to dirt roads leading up the mountainside past diligent mountain bikers on the ascent, past newly-planted avocado groves, and native women tending cooking fires and patting out tortillas. We sipped San Carlos beers at the top of the mountain on the terrace of a new locals-only restaurant that grows its own vegetables and fruits, enjoying the expansive vista of volcanoes in the clouds, Antigua’s Ciudad Vieja and mountains beyond mountains.

The Lost Coast

Our Monday shuttle to the Lost Coast arrived on time, and after collecting four 20somethings from Australia, we wended our way out of town through huge shade-grown coffee plantations in the shadow of the Acatenango volcano.

We slowly made our way through the countryside until pine trees transitioned to cocoa palms and table-flat fields of sugar cane.

I shared my passion fruit and tangerines with our gracious companions. After two hours on a perfect highway, we took a left onto a sandy dirt road for the last bumpy half-hour to the El Paredon township.

Coco palm hedgerows and cane fence enclose pastures trimmed short by dusty cattle, fat and happy. Wide open coastal range land hems fields of recently harvested Rosa de Jamaica, a flavoring made from hibiscus flowers.

Ranchers sort cattle with a lariat and the help of their children, ushering steers out of the shade of their thatched-roof, open-air barns.

Papaya trees line the road, their bulbous fruits hanging perilously toward the sand. At the hand-painted wooden sign, we turned left into The Driftwood Surfer and were greeted by a toothy, tanned bro and the roar of a surf break just behind the hostel.

We deposited our jeans and gear in a (thankfully) air-conditioned room and met my long-lost friend Rusty for a cold one in the pool.

And so commenced our first team meeting for Sonrisa Immaculata Exploratory Mission 2016. The plan was to keep it simple — coordinate with Carla, a British director of a community development organization, give a presentation in two days to parents and children about the tooth decay process and the dental peril of lollipops. Hand out toothbrushes and posters. Have a good group spit with the kids. Answer parents’ questions. Done. Cheers.

The next afternoon, we loaded up in the back of the Driftwood’s Ford Ranger. I hopped in the bed and got my camera ready for the three-minute drive into town. Once Carla was on board, we toured El Paredon, chatting with locals excitedly working on paving the first road in town.

We met the “Big Chief,” a community leader and pastor, to get his blessing on our efforts in the school. His daughter implored us to come with her to the school she works in an hour-and-a-half away, where the people are even poorer than in El Paredon. Despite the early morning departure, we obliged, as it is a maxim of mine to always accept an invitation to road trip the Guatemalan countryside.


With plans in motion, we returned to the Driftwood for a lunch of fresh sawfish over locally grown greens, fresh shrimp ceviche and limed mineral water.

As the sun bowed down from its zenith, temperatures waned and Makenna and I made our way to the beach to meet Felipe for our afternoon surf lesson.

With Felipe’s help, Makenna caught her third wave and rode into the beach. We charged back to the hostel pool across piping hot black sand, feeling satisfied with our novice prowess on a longboard.

When the sand cooled, we played in the 4 p.m. pickup volleyball game and waited on the sun to set over the Pacific for that flash of elusive green light, just as it dips below the horizon.

The business end of toothbrushes

Six a.m. came early Wednesday. Makenna and I were escorted to town by a mutt puppy from the Driftwood, who cowed other dogs along the street and chased away semi-feral pigs rooting in the fields.

We loaded into a pickup and soon were tooling upriver on a homemade ferry powered by a ragged, 10-horsepower outboard.

Flocks of white birds skimmed the river chasing shoals of minnows darting between the roots of the mangroves.

We unloaded on the far bank and drove for another hour past Dole banana plantations and cane fields until the road ended at the provincial school. We spent the morning giving presentations in Spanish to children, who stared wide-eyed at the giant white guy trying to explain sugar and bacteria and the need to brush their teeth.

After a tostada snack with the kids at recess, we discussed the logistics of setting up a future clinic on the school grounds. We soon were back to the Driftwood for a repast of English-style fish and chips, vegetable curry and hibiscus refresher with lime.

By 10 a.m. the next day, we were back to the elementary school in El Paredon with 200 kids buzzing around playing tag and soccer and celebrating the school day being over.

When the parents arrived, we called our meeting to order. The kids formed neat lines according to grade level and listened attentively as I did my best to explain cavity prevention — highlighting many times how destructive suckers are to the development of teeth and the value of baby teeth. We ended by passing out toothbrushes and instructions for use.

Many of the kids had never held a toothbrush before, holding it by the business end and trying to brush with the handle.

A few parents brought their kids forward individually for diagnosis of acute problems and to find out when we would be back again to help them.

Reactively, I told them April. So now I’m committed.

I’ll be back in April with gear and a team, ready to do real dentistry in the sand. I’m going to book my flight right now.