Christel Galachiuk, Leading the Way
Christel Galachiuk came to our attention via another reader who thought we should know how hard Christel had worked to help start the recent Spay & Neuter Clinic in Telchac Puerto, Yucatan. This little beach fishing village has become a popular place for expatriates, many of whom have been disturbed by the large population of stray dogs. Christel is blind and has a special relationship with dogs, as her seeing-eye dog helps her live her daily life. She wanted to feel safe walking around Telchac and contribute to the health of the animal and human community in her adopted town. We wanted to know more about Christel and thought you might like to hear about her too. Besides being another Canadian who has happily relocated to the Yucatan, Christel can give us insight into what it is like to live in the Yucatan with a visual handicap.
YL: When did you move to the Yucatan, and from where?
Christel : My husband and I moved from Ontario, Canada in 2007. Sarah became my dog in 2009.
YL: Tell us about Sarah!
Christel : Sarah comes from Morristown, New Jersey, USA. She was trained at the The Seeing Eye School, which is where Sarah and I became a team. Every time I need a new dog, I go to The Seeing Eye and spend a little over 2 weeks with my new dog (For the first dog, you spend just over 3 weeks). The training is very intense but the beautiful dog you receive at the end of the stay is worth every moment. When I have completed the training, I return to my home with the dog, and we begin to work in our neighborhood, learning new routes as we get comfortable with each other. Sarah is allowed to travel with me no matter the mode of transportation. She lies at my feet in the airplane. She fits right under the seat in front of me. It is a safe place for her because she can curl up and sleep throughout the flight.
YL: Why did you move?
Christel : I had been hit by a car in 2005. My guide dog at that time saved my life. We moved down here because after the accident I needed help but could not afford it in Canada. We found a young couple here who still work for us. They are wonderful! They help with cleaning, driving, and looking after our pool and gardens. The young man is Fidel, who is the co-founder of PAAR (PAAR: Programa Animales al Rescate).
YL: Are there any guide dog schools in Yucatan or Mexico? Any other support for visually handicapped people?
Christel : As far as I know there is no school that trains dog guides in the Yucatan. I also do not know of any Mexican in the Yucatan that has a guide dog. I believe there is a facility in Merida that teaches white-cane travel, as well as Braille and music. I have yet to find this place, but I would like to see what other programs are available to the visually impaired.
YL: What is PAAR?
Christel : I started PAAR this year. However, during the three years prior, the man that works for us, Fidel Crespo, and I had been taking animals to the Progreso clinic during their spay and neuter program. Telchac was overrun by street dogs to the point that I didn’t feel safe walking the streets alone. So we thought we would have them spayed or neutered and that would solve the problem. We decided that the 10 to 20 dogs we took to Progreso each year really wasn’t going to make a big difference in controlling the population, so this year I put out a request to everyone in Telchac to help with the problem. The response was terrific. We managed to sterilize 126 animals, and most of those animals were pets. The people of Telchac are to be commended for their cooperation. We feel that education is a big factor in solving the overpopulation problem of dogs and cats, especially in these small villages. We have visited the schools here in Telchac to talk about sterilization. We plan on furthering the education about animals with other visits to teach the children how to bath their pets, clip their nails, the importance of vet visits, proper feeding, and obedience. We also plan on doing mini spay/neuter clinics throughout the year, instead of a major clinic once a year. We feel that mini-clinics will probably be more effective in controlling the animal population. We are also hoping that we can have a guest veterinarian come and speak to town members and other officials in Telchac, so that they too can be educated in the importance of helping with this project.
YL: Why did you pick the city you now live in over any other in the Yucatan?
Christel : Telchac is what I think Mexico should be like. We fell in love with this area and wanted to move here.
YL: How is the city you live in different for residents than for tourists?
Christel : Most people seem to visit Mexico for the night life, entertainment, etc. Telchac is everyday living... no flashy lights, nobody trying to sell something, just regular wonderful people I love going to the centro in Telchac on a Sunday. There you can see families spending the day together just like I did with my family when I was a child.
YL: What is this city like for the handicapped?
Christel : There are ramps in some buildings that I have been in. However, they are not built to the US or Canadian standards. Usually they are extremely steep. There are no chirping street lights in the Yucatan or for that matter anywhere I have been yet in Mexico. In most malls or larger stores there are elevators, but they do not have Braille labels or large print. Most public bathrooms do have handicapped stalls, but the sink area is too high for somebody in a wheelchair. In most of the bathrooms I have seen, there may be a handicapped stall but getting into the actual restroom itself would be difficult with a wheelchair. And again, there is no Braille or large-print labels on the restroom doors stating they are for men or woman. There is no consideration for the handicapped when it comes to sidewalks. My gosh, they are a nightmare! Most of the sidewalks are broken with large holes, poles in the middle of the sidewalk, ramps that angle into the middle of the intersection and more. There are all types of overhanging items or things that just jut out into the walk area. Also, there are vendors in the middle of the already-too-narrow and over-crowded sidewalks in many areas. I think that the Yucatan is making changes for the handicapped but the changes are coming at a snail’s pace. And the changes that are being made are still not up to standards as we know them in the US or Canada.
YL: Did you buy a house right away or did you rent first.
Christel : We rented in Chicxulub for 2 years, just to make sure this was where we really wanted to spend our retirement.
YL: Do you think you made the right choice?
Christel : We certainly did! We love it here, and although we return to Canada for July and August, we usually can’t wait to come home.
YL: Do you have local friends or do you only associate with expats?
Christel : We have many local friends, and knowing and talking to them helps us with our Spanish. They are such friendly people and will do anything for you if they can. We also have many expat friends, and enjoy their company as well.
YL: Are you doing now what you thought you would do here?
Christel : Sort of. I never thought I would be the founder of a spay/neuter clinic, or help families that have visual problems or be working to convince big stores and shops that guide dogs can enter into them.
YL: Do you have a business here or do you work?
Christel : Both Marc and I are retired.
YL: What is the most interesting thing here for you?
Christel : Being involved with helping my community. When we drop presents off at the home of the family we sponsor, the hugs and kisses we get for just a little new jacket and a coloring book with crayons just melts my heart. You would have thought I had given them gold. I love animals, especially dogs, and being able to help the village sterilize and neuter so many animals was a rush for me. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could have 126 animals sterilized! I couldn’t believe the amount of people that were willing to help us accomplish our goal... it was remarkable.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Christel : What work habits? I get up in the morning, thank God that I did, and then pretty much have fun. That is why we live here: to enjoy NOT having stress or keeping to a schedule. Marc and I did that for over 20 years as resort owners and operators. If we now decide to do work on our computers, then we do. But for the most part we just enjoy each other and life.
YL: What do you love about living here?
Christel : I love the people. It reminds me of how simple life used to be everywhere. Family here is still important, and families enjoy each other’s company instead of sitting in front of a computer all day, every day.
YL: The last time you when out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Christel : The last time we went to dinner was in Cancun, at Señor Frog’s. Our grandchildren came from Canada and visited us for 10 days. We returned to Cancun a few days before they had to fly back so that they could shop and see the other side of Mexico. We think that other side is the side that is just like any other big city in the world but they loved it.
YL: Where do you take people that come to visit you?
Christel : We go to many places. You cannot come to Mexico and not see the ruins! So we take our guests to many of them. One of the most beautiful places to see are the many cenotes here in Yucatan. I have visited many and enjoy them very much, especially those that are close to the haciendas. These trips are not done with Sarah, my seeing eye dog. She gets to have the day off, although I am sure she would rather come with me but its just not a good idea. We also like to visit many of the small towns in the Yucatan. It seems that every town has their own specialty, like pottery, embroidered clothing, shoes, hammocks, and so much more. When Sarah does come along, most of the smaller stores do not have a problem letting us into the store. Usually she is a celebrity there. Mexican people love dogs, when they aren't afraid of them, and so my biggest obstacle is having them not touch her while she is working.
YL: What do you miss from your former life?
Christel : First and foremost, I miss our four grandchildren, our children, and our family. I really miss good sidewalks and traveling in my community without difficulty. I miss being able to cross a street at the stoplight safely. At present, I never cross a busy street here in the Yucatan alone. It really does scare me.
YL: What don’t you miss from your former life?
Christel : Snow!
YL: Did you speak Spanish before you moved here?
Christel : Not really. We only knew survival Spanish.
YL: Where did you learn your Spanish?
Christel : Most of our Spanish we learned here from the locals. We do have a course that we follow, and it does help as well, but mainly we learn from the Spanish-speaking people around us.
YL: Is there a language barrier?
Christel : I can speak Spanish, more or less; however, my Spanish is not good enough to carry on an in-depth conversation and for that reason, I am having difficulties explaining to people that Sarah is not a pet but my eyes. I would like to find a Mexican with a visual impairment that would be willing to get a guide dog. If the funds could be raised, and that person could get a guide dog, then he or she could be a walking advertisement who could help explain the importance of our guide dogs.
YL: What Spanish phrase have you learned lately and what does it mean?
Christel : Lo veo, y no lo creo It means, "I see it but I don’t believe it."
YL: What is your favorite food here?
Christel : Sopa de Limon
YL: How are you treated by Mexicans here. Do you feel welcome?
Christel : I am treated very well. However, when they first meet me, they assume I cannot even dress myself. But there are people in Canada that think that as well. I love the Mexican people. They are always willing to help me if I need it.
YL: What are the changes you would like to see in Mexico?
Christel : I would like to see many changes, especially for the handicapped. Handicapped people to me seem like they are treated as if they are helpless here. There are no compensations made so that travel is easier. The sidewalks almost everywhere are a nightmare for me. I couldn’t imagine being in a wheelchair. Sarah’s work here is difficult. I am not sure if her life is free from stress, but she loves the work. Recently, we had a trainer come to Telchac and help me and Sarah learn how to travel the sidewalks. The trainer taught both
of us. We had to learn that we could no longer enter into the wheelchair ramps at corners when we cross the street, as wheel chair ramps here would put us kitty corner to the opposite side. We would be right in the middle of the street, making it impossible to cross safely. Also, the ramps are extremely narrow, and a great deal of the time, there is no ramp on the other side. This isn’t a problem for me but could you just imagine being in a wheelchair? Sarah also had to learn about guiding me safely past poles in the middle of those already narrow sidewalks, and guiding me carefully around broken sidewalks, as well as maneuvering me past people without dropping me off the very high edge. Then there are the vendors that have anything and everything in the already-too-crowded sidewalks. Even the trainer was amazed how well Sarah does her job. He said “I have trained these wonderful dogs for many years and they can still amaze me as to how wonderfully they do their jobs.”
YL: Do you see any changes happening here?
Christel : Yes I have seen changes, but very slowly. I think Sarah and I are making a difference here where we live. We had the law changed in Merida in 2009, allowing dog guides the right to go wherever the public is allowed. And now we are trying to implement that law. Whenever I go to Merida or Progreso, I have to convince restaurants, shops and malls that Sarah is not a pet but an important part of my life. She is the reason that I am independent. Without her, I would not venture out of my home alone. I know she keeps me safe, allows me to travel, shop and almost do anything I want to. There are days I could just scream because we are faced with people who are ignorant of the realities of being blind and using a dog guide. But the days I walk into a store and am not stopped by a guard is such a wonderful feeling, especially knowing that I have made a small difference. Baby steps, baby steps... that is what I keep telling myself.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Christel : One of my biggest plans is to collect enough money to send a blind person from Mexico to a school to get a guide dog. My biggest stumbling block is the language barrier... not knowing who to go to when I am discriminated against. I think that somebody from here who is blind and has a guide dog could open doors quicker than I could.
YL: Are you a Mexican Citizen?
Christel : At present no, but as I write this, we have sent our information to become residents.
YL: What piece of advice would you give somebody that is planning on moving here?
Christel : Do your homework, especially if you are handicapped!
YL: If you could say something to the Mexicans what would it be?
Christel : Please understand that these beautiful dog guides are a big part of our lives, and an important help for those of us who are handicapped in this way. The dogs are not going to attack anyone, they will not eat food out of display counters, and they will not relieve themselves in each and every store we go into. They are well-behaved animals. They live for one thing only, and that is to please their masters.
YL: If someone wants to know more about living handicapped in the Yucatan, can they contact you?
Christel : Certainly! The best way would be through email. I can be contacted at Outofsight53@gmail.com.