POLOCHIC VALLEY, Guatemala — It's an unlikely setting for a medical operation.
The doctor, 35-year-old Tyler DeLange, sits hunched over in a small chair made of roughly hewn wood, his long legs cramped underneath a makeshift "surgical table" of the same rudimentary craftsmanship. He's traded his sweeping, white coat and polished dress shoes for quick-dry hiking pants and boots encrusted in iron-rich, red mud. The floor is made of packed dirt; the walls, cinder blocks.
DeLange prepares for surgery nonetheless. The nearest medical clinic is an expensive, three-hour bus ride away, and the man in front of him, a Mayan with stoic eyes and a salt-and-pepper five o'clock shadow, has no money and a painful, marble-size cyst bulging from his forearm. DeLange, a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to the poverty-stricken Polochic Valley of Guatemala to help just such people.
Well, that and he was hoping to find a wife.
Tired of singles dances, cruises and conferences, DeLange, who works as an emergency room physician in Washington, D.C., decided last year to organize an international humanitarian aid trip. He invited his friends, they invited their friends and soon enough, he'd formed a bona fide non-profit organization.
"There are always social activities," DeLange said. "Without a wife and kids to care for, opportunities for service — that's what we singles are lacking."
The group's inaugural trip to Guatemala went off without a hitch (except for DeLange's own up-close-and-personal encounter with malaria and dengue fever), producing two happily engaged couples and — for the people of Guatemala — a brand-new, two-room secondary school. This year Singular Humanitarian Experience, as DeLange's little operation is known, is headed not only to Guatemala, but also to Bolivia and Nepal. Young LDS singles from all over the world flocked to sign up for the expeditions.
"We bond much better doing humanitarian work than if we just talked for a few minutes after church," DeLange said. "We're working together. We're sweating together. That's the way to get to know someone."
Though the trip was conceived as a sort of "ultimate" singles activity, a nine-day stint in a developing country with Singular Humanitarian Experience is all but devoid of traditional Mormon mixers and getting-to-know-you games. In Guatemala last July, DeLange and his friends dug the foundation for the area's first hospital and helped to teach local villagers the basics of midwifery, dentistry and emergency medical care. Schoolteachers conducted development workshops for the area's education professionals. Business specialists helped native women to design their own business plans.
Expeditioners describe the experience with tears in their eyes.
"It was life-changing," said Bryan Hill, 34, who, in Salt Lake City, works as the assistant manager at the Gateway Mall.
"Eye-opening," added David Erickson, 33, a dentist from Mesa, Ariz. "Like serving a mini-mission," said Tyler Berg, 30, a business analyst from Washington D.C.
In the green, mist-filled mountains of the Polochic, eight winding hours from Guatemala City, life is raw. Expeditioners make their homes among the villagers, in sleeping bags on the cement floor of a tin-roofed community center. On arrival, they are greeted by a crowd of locals: women dressed in long, handwoven skirts and traditional shawls, men dressed in lovingly patched second-hand clothing from the States. It takes the expeditioners only a few steps through the sticky, red mud to realize their shoes (and clothing) are unlikely to survive the trip.
During the day, it's humid and hot. Expeditioners put in a good eight-hour day of work. In the evening, it rains. There's time to teach the local children American games and try (usually unsuccessfully) to beat them at their own. The nights end with ice-cold baths and dinner — tortillas and beans — shared with new friends.
"I learned true happiness from these people," Berg said. "All they need to be content is food and family. They have more fun with a flat soccer ball than I have with all my expensive electronic toys at home."
The villagers treat the young Mormons with love, carrying their heavy bags of medical supplies up hills, cooking for them and cleaning out their toilets uncomplaining each night. "Gringos!" yell the children, when they spot one from afar, jumping up and down, waving their dirty hands.
There are moments of joy: when a mother gives birth to healthy twins; moments of frustration: when one of the dentists-in-training gives up because he's having nightmares about all the blood associated with extracting teeth; and moments of spiritual edification: when a little boy proudly sketches out an imaginary doctor's office in the dirt where the community's new hospital will stand.
"I'm very happy in my heart that these young people have come," Ricardo Ical, 57, the area's LDS branch president, said with the help of a translator. "If they had not come, we'd be sleeping right now. Now, the sleepiness has left us. We have the tools to help ourselves. Now, we're working, always working."
DeLange didn't meet the woman of his dreams — on this expedition at least — but his heart was touched by the warm relationships he built as he trained the Guatemalan rural health workers.
"I can't imagine that I'll ever get tired of this," he said. "I want to help these people for the rest of my life."