We’ve got a lot more to show you, but for now we’ve got to get back to other things. Stay tuned and thanks for your interest….
We’ve got a lot more to show you, but for now we’ve got to get back to other things. Stay tuned and thanks for your interest….
Guatemalan immigration laws state that American tourists are given a 90-day visa upon entry. Before the visa expires one, and only one, extension can be made for another 90 days, known as the prórroga. After 180 days are up, one must physically leave the country. We had already done our prórrogas at the capital back in October, so it was time for us to leave Guatemala. As we’re only about 25 miles from the El Salvador border, no big deal, right? Wrong! Unfortunately for us, there is an agreement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, known as the CA-4. This allows the residents of these countries to travel about freely without the need for a passport. The downside is that going into one of these countries does not qualify as leaving the other country, as far as immigration laws are concerned. So, as we could not afford five plane tickets, our options were 1) México, 2) Belize, and 3) Costa Rica. We had already been through México, and although it was the closest of the three (about 8 hours away), there would not have been a lot do other than cross and come back. Costa Rica would obviously have a ton of stuff to do, but it was also the furthest, about 14 hours away. We would also have to drive through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and we did not want to mess with multiple car imports back and forth.
So, Belize was it. We started doing some research and decided on staying as little time as possible in Belize, just crossing over and back like we would in México. We would instead tour Tikal, a well-known Mayan ruin site. We left Thursday morning with an 8-10 hour drive ahead of us. The route took us close to Puerto Barrios, one of the major ports of Guatemala. We were warned that although the road itself is safe as far as road conditions and crime are concerned, there would be significant 18-wheeler traffic to contend with. That was an understatement. Amanda drove the whole way (she’s the better driver) while I ‘navigated’ (mostly played Candy Crush but sometimes helped her know which way to go).
After the first three hours, we saw signs for some Mayan ruins. We made the spur-of-the-moment decision to stop and investigate Quiriguá.
Just as it was getting dark, we arrive at our hotel in Flores, a city-island (or, maybe it’s an island-city?). We rest up and do our fun at the border the next day. Visa stamps in hand and car import renewed, we line up some fun. We rent a boat to take us on a tour of the lake with stops at a zoo accessible by water and a climb up a buried pyramid to catch a nice view of the island.
Tikal. What can we say? It’s been on our wishlist since we started thinking about going to Guatemala. It would complete our ‘hat-trick’ of ancient American civilizations, having visited Teotihuacán in México (Aztec) and Machu Picchu in Perú (Incan).
For those who are interested in Tikal’s less-important draw (historical/archaeological footnotes), here’s a few photos of some ruins….
As Tikal is surrounded by miles of jungle, there’s a nice amount of wildlife around. Please enjoy…
Out of nowhere we got a WhatsApp inviting us to give the public talk in a small congregation near where Raúl Barrios lives. He’s the brother who crossed into México to meet us, got us through the border, and led us all the way to our home in El Progreso. If you don’t remember him, please see “2. The Trip” and scroll a little more than halfway down. Anyway, the congregation was short on speakers, asked Brother Barrios for some help, and he gave them our contact info to see if we could come. After we accepted, we were asked if we could give another talk on the same day, so one at 9:00 and the other at 3:00. No problem; we got to work making plans. Never turn down an assignment if you can at all say ‘yes’; there just might be a reward in store for making yourself available. Turns out, in this case Jehovah was asking us to go to a beautiful beach on the Pacific coast. Needless to say, we were very glad to have said yes and decided to make a vacation of it, as due to the Thanksgiving weekend, we had no work and the children had no school. We set out on Thursday morning.
Here’s what it looks like when it goes down
Those of you who know Mandy well will understand how much this meant to her. I think she almost cried.
Please enjoy a time-lapse video of our trek through the swamp
Of course, we spent a lot of time at the beach. The sand is black due to the volcanic rock
There’s something extremely rewarding about watching your children play in the sand and surf for endless hours. Maybe it’s that we didn’t have to move ourselves
‘Twas a good day at the beach, but it’s time to go back inside now
Rented three horses for a walk on the beach for Q75 (less than $10). Not really sure why they wanted Austin behind me, but Ana in front of Amanda. He was constantly almost falling off the horse when he leaned over to see what was up ahead.
At this point you may have asked yourself, ‘Weren’t they planning on giving talks or something?’ Well, yes, we did, and here’s the proof:
Well, the day finally came. Although we had already been to the 2016 Regional Assembly in the States, we accepted the work invitation. Boy, were we ever glad we did!
At 8:00 the doors open. I saw but one person running (a ten year old child).
When not everyone has a car and public transportation has stopped running for the day, this is how you get to/from the assembly location. Just after we took this picture, another brother jumped on the bumper and rode home that way, hanging on to the bar at the back
About six weeks out from the Regional Assembly, an invite came to work in the A/V Department; instruction was given to recruit five ministerial servants to help. This was not an easy task as typically elders and servants already have jobs by this point, and we had only been in the country about a month so we didn’t yet know anyone outside of our own congregation. We got to work and started the recruiting process in the nearest congregations first, including from congregations where we had recently given the public talk. The only remaining problem was that everyone involved was 100% unfamiliar with the sound system and we were unfamiliar with the coliseum where the assembly was to be held as well.
This was all actually good news since the more we have to rely on Jehovah in any given situation, the better the results. We were going to be busy, however, as there were a series meetings to be held in a short amount of time: one for our department, the pre-assembly meeting with all department heads and assistants, and a training session in the capital so we could get familiar with the equipment. However, the training session was cancelled at the last minute two weeks in a row, so we never knew what was going to happen. Although frustrating, we just put it behind us and when the opportunity came up the third time, we said yes (again). So at 4:30 in the morning on October 8, we headed for San Lucas Assembly Hall, just outside of Guatemala City
Please allow us to speak about the brother’s career since he was too humble to do it himself. His name is David Hibshman. He will be 100 years old in a couple of months. Charles Taze Russell gave his parents’ baptism talk. He started pioneering 83 years ago. He went to the fifth class of Gilead, came to Guatemala in 1946, and has been here ever since. In short: he has been a pioneer, missionary, circuit overseer, district overseer, zone overseer, Branch overseer, you name it. One sees absolutely no regrets in his eyes. He suggested to us that we look up the life story of some other individual, but never mentioned to us that his own life story had been published in the Watchtower. I really felt like the time listening to him was my reward from Jehovah for being willing to accept the assignment to work at the assembly.
Ok, so up to this point the five of us had been pretty spiritual. We had left at 4:30 in the morning, driven more than three hours to get to the assembly hall on time, and (mostly) paid attention to the training. We could have hurried back and made it on time for our 6:00 Weekend Meeting, but the fact that we were only fifteen minutes away from a pretty special place kept hanging out in the back of our minds. It seemed like the brothers were waiting for something to be said, so this is more or less what came out: “Brothers, we have already fulfilled our sacred service for the day. Even if we were to hurry back for the meeting, would we really be able to concentrate well after such a long day? Let us rejoice in what we have accomplished today.” So with a few calls to our wives, we were on our way to Antigua (“Honey, don’t tell the friends at the meeting that we’re in Antigua; just let them know we went to San Lucas for some training today and won’t be back in time”).
For those who don’t know (like I was), Antigua was the capital of Guatemala for more than 200 years starting in 1541. It was called something different back then (‘antigua’ means ‘ancient’ in Spanish). An earthquake destroyed much of the city and buried many buildings which were later excavated. No old buildings are allowed to be torn down and all new construction must match the old architecture. The stone roads are original. Following are a few scenes:
Allow us to conclude this post with a brief video of driving through some of the streets on the way out of Antigua..
Being with your family in a beautiful country can mean even so much more when you’ve got a beautiful Kingdom Hall filled with beautiful people to call home. Soon after we got here, the congre threw a rooftop welcome party for us! Food, games, laughs…
Nothing wrong with getting there early and enjoying talking with the friends before the brother with the key shows up to open the gate
What to do when there’s no power at the Kingdom Hall? You just go ahead and do the meeting by candlelight. The. Whole. Meeting.
Cleaning the Kingdom Hall is a privilege, even though you might have some fun while doing it
Gotta teach them boys early lest they grow up thinking cleaning is woman’s work
Yessir. Bailey felt like a million dollars when he got to ride home from Kingdom Hall like this
Let me tell you a story about a man named Jed. No, his name is Gerardo. Gerardo Rodríguez. If you didn’t read the previous post, you might now know all the effort he went through to help us realize our goal. When Gerardo found out we were driving, he talked to his brother, who used to serve in Mexico Bethel, to see if he could arrange some help. His brother called some old contacts in Bethel who in turn got him in touch with the circuit overseer who covers Nuevo Laredo, México. This brother in turn communicated with the circuit overseer who serves the congregations on the US side. Once the two COs got talking, they arranged for Brother Mata to be our escort from Laredo, Texas to Monterrey, México. Gerardo purchased a one-way ticket from México City to Monterrey in order to meet up with the Matas; they basically played a game of ‘pass the gringos’. He then drove with us in our van all the way to Puebla. On this post we would like to share with you some of the fun we had with him, his beautiful wife, Carmen, and their daughter Nayeli.
Driving through three countries with three small children a distance of 3,200 miles in a van with 220,000+ miles on it is not to be taken lightly. “Why would anyone want to do that anyway when flying is always an option?”, you ask. If you didn’t ask, now would be a good time, cuz we’re about to answer. Go ahead….we’ll wait.
There were a few reasons why that seemed like a good idea to us:
So, as you can see, it mostly came down to money. We did not have much in savings and so economy became a must. There were many worries at the outset, but we decided to make plans and trust in Jehovah. Proverbs 21:5 quickly became our mantra. We had to investigate the laws of both México and Guatemala as regards visas, vehicle imports, taxes, safety, etc. We had to get some work done on the van. For obvious reasons, a full-size spare tire became a high priority as that seemed like the most likely thing to go wrong on such a long trip. This was the result:
We set out on Sunday, July 17 at around 8:00 pm. Please don’t ask why we left so late. During our despedida, some very thoughtful friends filled a jar with little notes to read along the way. We whipped one out immediately and set out on our way. Little did we know how much that little jar full of notes would mean later on…..
We drove until 2:00 in the morning, slept for a couple of hours at a rest stop, and continued on our way. The next day we passed through New Orleans and decided to take a break for a bite to eat.
Roads trips of any size can be very hazardous to the attention spans of little ones. Thankfully, abuelita came to the rescue with gift bags of small toys. A sister in the hall did the same (thanks, Tía Melanie!). We purchased a wireless media server by SanDisk. Basically this little puppy creates its own wireless network to which our little friends could hook up their iPads. From there they had a choice of about 40 different movies. This thing will stream up to FIVE DIFFERENT MOVIES AT THE SAME TIME! Needless to say, many happy hours passed without incident.
We made it to Laredo, Texas without incident. Reynaldo Mata, a longtime elder from the other side of the border crossed over and met us. He got in our van and help us cross the border. Border towns always seem to be sketchy. In the wise words of Brother Obi-wan Kenobi, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. He helped us get the import for the van taken care of. He then took us to his house and fed us. He and his wife gave up their bedroom and allowed us to stay the night. The next day (after feeding us once again), they escorted us to Monterrey, about three hours away. Not because they had business there, mind you; they just wanted to make sure we got there ok. They then drove the three hours back home. We will never forget their hospitality and interest in us.
In Monterrey we met up with Gerardo Rodríguez, a brother who had been in our congregation in North Carolina for a while, but had moved back to México about eight months earlier to serve Jehovah more fully. He lives in Puebla, more than 600 miles from Monterrey. We had originally called him to ask if we could stay at his house overnight on the way down. His response was a clear no; he insisted on doing so much more. He bought a one-way ticket to Monterrey and stayed the night with a cousin while he awaited our arrival. When the Matas dropped us off in Monterrey, Gerardo got in out van and drive us all the way back to Puebla; we arrived about 3:00 in the morning.
We stayed in Puebla for a few days; please check out the separate blog entry if interested. Even after flying to Monterrey, driving our van 600+ miles back to Puebla, and letting us stay at his house for a while, Gerardo and his wife Carmen were not done showering us with love. Seeing how the suspension of our van had suffered during the first 2,000 miles of the trip, Gerardo insisted on taking half our stuff and putting it in his car. He rounded up a young brother, Joel, who had long-time Witness relatives near the southern border along with a couple from SKE, Daniel and Astrid, who are serving near Puebla. The nine of us set out early in the morning and headed for Tuxtla-Gutiérrez, about an eight-hour drive from Puebla. One the way there Gerardo’s car was acting funny. The gauges on the dashboard were randomly going from one end of the scale to another. Speedometer, thermometer, etc. He didn’t really know the cause of the problem and it was too late to do anything about it, so we just kept on our merry way to Tuxtla hoping not to break down. There the relatives of the young brother fed us and allowed us to stay the night with them in preparation for crossing the border into Guatemala the next day.
We set out early for the Guatemalan border, and the trip was rather uneventful (which is good). There we had another longtime elder, Raúl Barrios, waiting for us on the Mexican side; he had taken a bus the previous day in order to meet us on time. The problem was, we didn’t know what he looked like nor where to meet him. We pulled over and asked a random cowboy for some directions. Would you believe, the random cowboy turned out to be none other than Brother Barrios! What are the odds that the first person from whom we asked for directions would be the very person we were looking for? How did that happened? Was there some wise, loving, all-powerful being watching over us and helping us along the way? Why am I asking you these questions?
Raúl escorted us to the border, waited for us to cancel the Mexican car import, crossed over with us, and got our money changed for us so we wouldn’t be taken advantage of. Not to distract into negative territory, but we wound up stuck for three hours in a place that was no longer México but not yet Guatemala either. As with so many things in this world, money turned out to be the answer, so in a weird, wild flow of dollars, pesos, and quetzales, we were soon on our way. Looking back we can see now that México loved us so much, didn’t want to see us leave, and for that reason fined us in order to exit the country. In addition, Guatemala was so concerned for our physical well-being they just insisted on our getting the car fumigated and charging us for it.
Not too far into Guatemala we stopped to eat at a restaurant owned by a daughter of Brother Barrios. He insisted on his paying our bill, not the other way around. After eating, we pull out of the restaurant and Gerardo’s car hiccups and dies. He gets it to start again, but just after crossing the street it dies again and won’t start back up. What to do? We look at the battery, but a jumpstart won’t fix it. After we play around for about 15 minutes a brother who is a mechanic drives by and sees Raul’s daughter standing on the side of the road, so he stops to see if he can help. Then another brother who is an electrician passes by and sees the brother working on a car so he decides to pull over, too. Hmmmm….what are the odds that we had not broken down in the first 3,000 miles of our trip, but the moment we DO break down from a strange electrical problem 1) it happens at a sister’s restaurant and 2) within 15 minutes a brother who just happens to be a mechanic and 3) another brother who just happens to be an electrician pass by? We were soon on our way. Thanks again, Jehovah!
We stay the night with Brother and Sister Barrios, and so once again, after just meeting us, a Witness couple agreed to let us sleep in their house and eat their food. Late that night while making plans for the next day, Gerardo asked Brother Barrios for some advice about getting back to México via a different border. Since he had left Joel, Daniel, and Astrid in Tuxtla to see the sights, Gerardo would traveling back there alone, he really wanted to make sure the crossing was safe. We felt bad because Gerardo had done so much for us and there was nothing we could do to help other than give him gas and toll money for the way home. Brother Barrios recommended a little town named Mesilla, which is a border town with Jocote, México, but the problem was he didn’t know anyone there who could offer any advice. Was there ANYONE who had an eagle-eye’s view of the matter and who could perhaps arrange things in advance? Right before going bed, we decided to pull just one more note from the jar (you do remember the jar, right?). We hadn’t ever pulled a note at night, but for whatever reason we did that night. What did the note say??????
And so there was our answer. One again, Jehovah came through at just the right time. Enrique Soto is a brother from our congregation in North Carolina. The next morning, we got in touch with the Soto’s, obtained a phone number for their peeps in Chiapas, and got some good advice about border crossing in that town. It might not sound like much, but please think about the timing: at this point we had gone through over half the notes. If we had encountered that particular note earlier in our trip, we would have thought ‘oh, how sweet’, but the name of the town would not have meant anything and we would have forgotten about it when the need came up. Conversely, if we had read that particular note the next day, it would have been too late. What would have caused us to pull THAT particular note on THAT particular day just when the information it contained was useful? Hmmmmmm…….
So for the last leg of our trip, Jehovah once again came through. Going from the Barrios’ house in Escuintla to our house in El Progreso was smooth sailing. Low traffic, not-so-bad roads, and daylight hours. After Austin played games with his coconut for a few hours, we finally made it to the house we had rented.
Many times in situations in life, one can never say for certain if Jehovah intervened to help his servants out or not. But, Amanda and I firmly believe that there were just way too many moonshot coincidences and way too many brothers and sisters willing to help out complete strangers (isn’t that the biblical definition of hospitality?) to deny that Jehovah was blessing our efforts to serve where the need is greater. We sincerely hope that we will always remember the actual trip down to Guatemala. When times appear to be tough with our new life here, we recount some of these stories. We reason that if He blessed the journey, why would He not also bless the destination? Or…..maybe we are still on the journey and He has yet to take us to our final destination? Either way, the experience was not something taken lightly; there were many, many practical plans made. But in the end, we are convinced it was Jehovah that took us by the hand when things got scary and gently guided us through with the help of brothers and sisters. In all, four different circuit overseers helped make arrangements or provided us with important information, to which we are very grateful. In addition, the support of the friends in the congregation we left, the congregation we visited in Puebla, and the congregation to which we have moved was invaluable and we will never be able to repay them. May Jehovah bless them richly.
If you’d like to take a look at a time-lapse of our trip (at least from Lancaster, SC to Puebla, México), here ya go….
Well, here we go. This will be a work in progress for quite some time, but a blog seemed to be the most efficient way of sharing our journey with those who are interested without bothering those who aren’t. Before we get started, let’s get the legal stuff out of the way: