The dust was the thing that got me in the end. Wafts of fine red powder that drifted gently on the breeze after the slightest disturbance instantly churned into billowing, choking clouds whenever a vehicle spun by in the opposite direction on the unpaved track.

I was in the back box of a pickup truck and suffering from the early throes of a severe case of Montezuma’s revenge – the result of a bad decision to indulge myself with a street vendor’s ice cream cone in Belize City the previous day. Now, across the northern border in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, not far from the small city of Chetumal, I found myself desperately trying to forestall the inevitable with quick spurts of hyperventilation whenever the nausea threatened to send my lunch of black beans and rice back whence it came. Finally, a cloud of dust led to a sneeze that triggered a stomach upheaval over the side of the truck as my head bounced up and down and vomit splashed down my shirt.

Despite this severe discomfort I felt guilty. Guilty because here I was worrying only about my ability to find a dark, quiet corner in which to curl up and expire, while in the cab of the truck was a woman in torturous agony because she was trying to deliver a baby, but had developed life-threatening complications. And all I could think of was a bucket, a wet cloth and a pillow.

This happened 20 years ago last spring, when I joined a human-rights delegation to investigate the Guatemalan refugee camps in southern Mexico. After visiting camps in Chiapas, then touring clandestine safe houses in Guatemala filled with desperate, native Mayans fleeing a genocidal government, we had re-entered Mexico via Belize to visit camps near the Caribbean coast. As luck would have it, a Chetumal-based doctor with the Mexican refugee agency agreed to guide us out to the rural, remote camps in Quintana Roo. Along the two-hour journey, my stomach started doing back flips as my tanned face rapidly changed into a pale green.

While driving past the clinic of one camp, a nurse recognized the agency truck and came running out to flag us down. Soon after, she helped the young mother-to-be walk to the truck in her blood-soaked shift. I was exiled to the box, but I was secretly grateful to be heading back to Chetumal. All along the journey, the woman’s occasional screams of pain reminded me that my own self-inflicted illness was nothing compared to her suffering.

The next two days were spent by a toilet before jumping on another bus to take us back to our base in San Cristobal, Chiapas, several pounds lighter. I never found out whether the woman and her baby survived after we left her and the doctor at a hospital in Chetumal.

But I think of her from time to time. Whenever life starts to drag me down and the despair over how much better it could or should be sets in, I try to remind myself about how it is for the majority of people sharing this planet.  And that’s what truly struck me about the Indigenous peoples of southern Mexico and Guatemala, both the descendants of the ancient Maya: despite terrible oppression, vicious racism and crushing poverty, despair was luxury that no one indulged in.

That did not mean the people I met were passive. On the contrary, most were forced to flee because they had tried to resist, peacefully at first, and then increasingly through armed struggle in the face of torture, murder and sadistic mutilation. Despite all that, there was a choice to live life to its fullest in whatever modest circumstances people were afforded. I have never felt happier than when accompanying the dignity of people most would pity as downtrodden.

The civil war in Guatemala ended roughly a decade ago, but the conditions that caused it have not disappeared. In a country with a majority Indigenous population, white descendants of the colonial Spanish still own the country’s wealth, and with it, the political system. Attempts to address the genocide of the 1980s and early 1990s – as was promised during the peace process to end the 40-year civil war – have been muted, or derailed.

The struggle for dignity remains, however. A lesson learned covered in red dust and vomit, and remembered for a lifetime.