8. Fun on a visa run

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.

This would certainly give us the chance to see a bit more of Guatemala

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).

 

Overturned tractor trailer #1. Yeah….I guess they do go a bit too fast

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.

Pfft. It’s not THAT old. No, wait…that says ‘756’, not ‘1756’. Yeah it is that old, sorry

 

My three cuties at one of the smallest monuments at the site

 

Here’s my best buddy at one of the tallest

 

After visiting here, I took an interest in Mayan writing as it’s so intricate and beautiful. I’m still learning, but loosely translated, this passage says: “You may be asking why we did this. Well, one summer day we complained to our father that we were bored and had nothing to do. He said, ‘Go outside and carve something on big rocks; that will build character in you kids.’ So, kids of the future, if you’re reading this more than a thousand years from now, never tell your dad you’re bored. Just stay inside in the air-conditioning and watch Netflix.”

 

In addition to the numerous monuments, Quiriguá also has a ball court. Here’s Bailey climbing the stairs to the other side. To have the energy of a ten-year old again…

 

SUCCESS! Here’s the Ballcourt Plaza. I believe they played a sport called ‘RunAroundAlmostNakedThrowingVeryHeavyThingsForNoParticularReasonBall’

 

GO TEAM!

 

Overturned tractor trailer #2. Back on the road after seeing Quiriguá

 

Couldn’t beat the view as we got closer to the border with Belize

 

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.

 

Mandy can make any outfit look glamorous. This is Austin’s ‘trying not to reveal how much fun I’m having’ smile

 

Lago Petén Itzá is very beautiful

 

The Petencito Zoo has native (indigenous? They’re from there. You know what I mean) animals. This is called a ‘bird’

 

Seemed very, very strange to see a bunch of raccoons at a zoo, but I can’t really vocalize why

 

Jaguar. Those eyes tho.

 

“Pizotes” were Bailey’s favorite animal at the zoo. He had no idea how much more of these little critters we would see the next day

 

“Tepezcuintle”. A medium-sized, completely indescribable animal. Not sure if cute or ugly

 

Next stop on the lake was a trip to a buried pyramid. They apparently have so many of these things around here that it’s not really worth digging every one out. Kinda like remote controls in the cushions of American couches

 

The hike to the top of the lookout tower on top of the pyramid was a bit rough, but it did afford a great view of the island-city of Flores

 

Bailey really loves fish and wanted a fresh one for dinner. Mission accomplished. That little man really loves his seafood

 

Next morning we head out for Tikal after breakfast. Austin is pretending to be Chavo here

 

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).

 

Although Tikal has some minor historic and archaeological value, it’s true importance is obviously due to it’s having been used as the location of the planet Yavin IV in the original Star Wars movie.

 

Here’s how they did it

 

We were not the only pilgrims to this Mecca

 

An absolutely indescribable father/son bonding moment. And yes, we were both wearing Star Wars shirts

 

Nailed it, Bailey. I love you, my friend

 

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…

Saw several spider monkeys. The last sentence on the sign is the only one that matters. However, just like washing your car to make it rain doesn’t work, we never could actually get them to perform their claim to fame.

Goodbye, Petén, and thanks for all the memories

 

 

7. Monterrico

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.

 

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After a three-hour drive on an awful road with lots of deep baches, we arrived at the lancha. The most direct way of getting to Monterrico from where we live involves putting your vehicle on a small ferry for about a half hour in order to traverse the length of a mangrove swamp

 

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Hmm….”picop”. Just. Plain. Adorable.

 

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Although the ferries look pretty shady, they manage to put the big boys on no problema

 

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The ride was very exciting to all of us, especially the children

 

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Nice shades Bailey!

 

So we get to the other side of the mangrove swamp. Here's a picture of the lancha on the other side
So we get to the other side of the mangrove swamp. Here’s a picture of the lancha on the other side

 

And here's the taxi station
And here’s the taxi station

 

 

We quickly managed to get ourselves stuck in the sand. Fortunately we saw a house being constructed nearby and the workers had a 4x4 with a pull chain. Q50 got us on our way again
We quickly managed to get ourselves stuck in the sand. Fortunately we saw a house being constructed nearby and the workers had a 4×4 with a pull chain. Q50 got us on our way again (about $6.50)

 

One of the first things we did after getting into town (aside from getting stuck) was to visit the Tortugario. Here they incubate endangered sea turtle eggs, and when they hatch they allow people to release them for Q10, about $1.30.
One of the first things we did after getting into town (aside from getting stuck) was to visit the Tortugario. Here they incubate endangered sea turtle eggs, and when they hatch they allow people to release them for Q10, about $1.30.

 

Typically this is done at 5:30pm and there is a crowd of people and a bit of a rush. This was the crowd one night during our stay
Typically this is done at 5:30pm and there is a crowd of people and a bit of a rush. This was the crowd one night during our stay

 

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However, Don Tito let us go out on our own at around 1:00. We had the whole beach to ourselves and had all the time we wanted. We picked ten baby turtles, hatched earlier that day. Here’s the bucket from which we were to pick.

 

I normally associate the appeal of an animal with its taste wrapped up inside a tortilla, but these guys are just too, too cute.
I normally associate the appeal of an animal with its taste wrapped up inside a tortilla, but these guys are just too, too cute.

 

How can you say no to this little face?
How can you say no to this little face?

 

They were so cute I just wanted to pop one in my mouth and eat it
They were so cute I just wanted to pop one in my mouth and eat it

 

OMG! Cuteness overload!!!!!!!
OMG! Cuteness overload!!!!!!!

 

Natural beauty at its best
Natural beauty at its best

 

We eventually had to let the little guys do
We eventually had to let the little guys go

 

 

So long, little squishy
So long, little squishy

 

 

Here’s what it looks like when it goes down

 

 

The outside of the hotel we chose looked okay, but once we got inside, we noticed something very, very troubling. Would we be able to pull through and have a good time in spite of it?
The outside of the hotel we chose looked okay, but once we got inside, we noticed something very, very troubling. Would we be able to pull through and have a good time in spite of it?

 

At least the restaurant at the hotel was somewhat close to the beach
At least the restaurant at the hotel was somewhat close to the beach

 

Kids can spend hours on end playing in the pool
Kids can spend hours on end playing in the pool

 

Seems like just last week that Bailey was terrified to put his head under water
Seems like just last week that Bailey was terrified to put his head under water

 

Mandy caught some hammock time after the pool
Mandy caught some hammock time after the pool

 

That night we hired a guide to take us out on the beach after dark to look for momma sea turtles laying eggs. We found one.
That night we hired a guide to take us out on the beach after dark (8:00 – 10:00) to look for momma sea turtles laying eggs. He found one. This one laid 96 eggs that night

 

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It was an extremely educational experience for our children. We’re so glad we chose to do this

 

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These creatures are simply awe-inspiring.

 

 

Those of you who know Mandy well will understand how much this meant to her. I think she almost cried.

 

And this
And this

 

Austin ate some sand. To a father who sometimes (often) gets frustrated with his messy antics, this was tremendously funny
As the mother sea turtle was trying to spread sand over the eggs she had just laid, Austin ate some sand. To a father who sometimes (often) gets frustrated with his messy antics, this was tremendously funny

 

We got up early the next morning to go on a tour of the mangrove swamp. We had seen some during the ride over with our van, but this was a slower-paced tour and would last two hours instead of the thirty minutes for the ferry
We got up early the next morning to go on a tour of the mangrove swamp. We had seen some during the ride over with our van, but this was a slower-paced tour and would last two hours instead of the thirty minutes for the ferry

 

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There is but one family that lives in the swamp. They live very simply, but very happily we were told. Seems like we’ve heard advice to that effect before….

 

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They have three children, aged 7, 6, and 1. When they saw us coming, they got in their boat and rowed out to see us

 

I found the little girl's beauty very captivating
I found the little girl’s beauty very captivating, especially the color of her hair. Note the water lilies she has in her hand

 

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They rowed up right next to us so the little girl could hand Bailey the flowers to give to Ana. We were touched by her gesture.

 

 

Please enjoy a time-lapse video of our trek through the swamp

 

At breakfast one day, the owner set up a TV and put a game of fútbol on. Austin immediately stopped eating, turned around, and was completely glued to the set for the rest of the meal. Not sure if he was rooting for Real Madrid or Sporting, but he sure was into the game
As we ate breakfast that day after the tour, the owner set up a TV and put a game of fútbol on. Austin immediately stopped eating, turned around, and was completely glued to the set for the rest of the meal. Not sure if he was rooting for Real Madrid or Sporting, but he sure was into the game

 

Of course, we spent a lot of time at the beach. The sand is black due to the volcanic rock

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Not sure if cool or gross
Not sure if cool or gross

 

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

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DCIM100GOPROGOPR0630.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0641.

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‘Twas a good day at the beach, but it’s time to go back inside now

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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.

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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:

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This is the Kingdom Hall in Monterrico. It should be obvious, but this picture was not taken on the day we gave the talk

 

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They bring in the sound system for each meeting, and it would appear that they also bring in a television for the midweek meeting. Note the TV mount on the wall

 

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Fifteen publishers in the congregation gives one a lot of opportunities to answer during the Watchtower Study

 

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Kids always like meeting kids. Why do they have to grow up to be people?

 

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For hospitality two German sisters invited us to their house. One is in her 50s and the other is in her 30s. The younger one basically lives in a treehouse on top of the older sisters house. There are tons of iguana that live in the trees surrounding their house. Can you find the two in this picture?

 

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This is the treehouse. The sister has been living here for thirteen years. What a great example of being able to live simply in order to pioneer. She was a special pioneer until the Branch removed almost all of them. She now supports herself giving relaxing massages on the beach

 

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This is the Kingdom Hall in Sunzón. It is completely open-air with a thatched roof, which is typical of buildings in the area

 

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The sound system is also installed before each meeting. Note the shelf on the wall for the TV in order to show videos. Why is it that brothers in the States can’t seem to get to the meetings on time to just check the batteries in the mikes, but in other countries the brothers make time to completely set everything up each time? Sorry; my negativity will now cease

 

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There are no elders in this congregations and just one ministerial servant. As they only have one mike, the reader is reading in this picture while the conductor sits down
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The Kingdom Hall sits on a donated plot of land that belonged to a sister. On her property she has a pashta farm. We would call these loofahs. She gave two long ones (about three feet each) to Amanda. How much would that have cost at Bed, Bath, and Beyond?

 

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Well, Monday morning came and it was time to head back out. We couldn’t resist the urge to play with some baby sea turtles just one more time

 

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Seriously, who could say no to this face? (The turtle’s, not mine)
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So long, Monterrico!
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Monterrico is a very beautiful place
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Last picture of baby sea turtles, we promise

 

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Back to the lancha to cross the swamp one more time. This is the view from the other side.

 

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Talks done. Had fun in Monterrico. Life is good

 

6. Regional Assembly

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!

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After unpacking everything from the truck from San Lucas, we get to work running cable and setting up the equipment

 

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2000+ plastic chairs were shipped in. They first served as ladders to facilitate the washing of the windows. In case you’re counting, that’s 25 chairs high

 

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All set up. Still some echo issues, especially in the back, but we made a few tweaks and decided the human bodies absorbing the sound would take care of the rest

 

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The nicely-done sign gave a high-visibility witness to everyone coming in to Jutiapa

 

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The view from the other side. Yeah, that’ll do just fine. Well done, brothers!

 

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Gotta get ’em trained early. Sitting at the sound table always makes little boys feel special

 

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Keijirou and I were at the jacket-optional A/V table together the entire three days. That’s our boss man behind us

 

 

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Most of the A/V crew. Platform was behind stage, of course

 

 

At 8:00 the doors open. I saw but one person running (a ten year old child).

 

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Always exciting to see someone from your congregation having a part on the assembly. Our coordinator was chairman one afternoon

 

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Hot Stuff mopping up the floor one morning before doors opened at 8:00

 

20161021_174139When 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

 

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Due to a shortage of money, it is customary for nearby congregations to host friends who live far away. Several stayed in homes of publishers in our congregation, but more than 30 slept on our Kingdom Hall floor, including a couple of elderly sisters. No complaints, just thanks

 

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How does this compare with the hotel you last stayed at for your regional assembly? Did you complain about the complimentary breakfast, how you didn’t get the fridge you were promised, or how it was more than 15 minutes away from the coliseum?

 

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A game of Jenga helped the visiting friends pass their time at our Kingdom Hall after the day’s session

 

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Ana brought over some games to play with the girls who were visiting

 

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Someone loaned the friends a stove and the sisters got to work cooking for everyone

 

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These are two fleshly sisters who stayed with us in our house. They have being going from one area to another for almost 30 years, according to where the Branch sends them. They start congregations, build them up, and then move on, spending about four years in each area. They are now on their seventh assignment. It was very encouraging to know them and benefit from their ability to live simply

 

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Please meet Daniela. She’s an interested person who comes to our meetings. She is deaf and has taught herself some Guatemalan Sign Language. She and Ana have made a connection of sorts, and Daniela was thrilled that Ana would sit with her during the assembly one day. Like many deaf people, Daniela understandably seems to suffer from feelings of isolation, so we always try to make her feel welcome, even though we can’t communicate with her as much as we want to.

 

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This is Sydney. He’s 11 and is the son of one of the elders in a nearby congregation. I’m so glad he and Bailey got the chance to know each other a bit more

 

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This is Diego. He is 11 years old and is a regular pioneer. Being baptized and pioneering at such a young age is not that uncommon here in Guatemala, which was part of the draw for us. It’s nice for the children to have friends that will be examples for them and make them want to do more for Jehovah

 

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Three beautiful ladies from the Los Laureles – El Progreso congregation. Mandy and Ana were wearing typical Guatemalan attire. Their outfits were handmade by a sister in the congregation. The Quiché-speaking women, many of whom live in our territory, wear these outfits

 

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With a Japanese couple from a nearby congregation. She is also wearing typical attire, although fom a different area. I think it says a lot about a person when they are willing to adopt the culture of the area where they currently reside, instead of alway insisting on their own

 

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After a long three days, we decided to ‘go American’ on the way home. The kids had been begging to go to Wendy’s since the day we got to Guatemala, and their time finally came just three months later. These were three very happy children

 

 

5. San Lucas and Antigua Guatemala

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.

To summarize:

  1. No one has been trained on the equipment
  2. The brother in charge is not familiar with the building where the assembly is to be held
  3. The team is made up of brothers from three different countries each speaking a different language (Spanish, Japanese, and English)
  4. A little over a month’s notice before the assembly

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

 

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Outside view of the San Lucas Assembly Hall. Quite a contrast from the scenery of nearby Guatemala City

 

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Note to self: anytime you see an older brother or sister who lives on Branch property, always make sure to meet them. Always. Little did I know when I asked for this picture to be taken how much meeting this brother would mean to me.

 

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From the speaker’s perspective, the San Lucas Assembly Hall auditorium is shaped like a “V” with two sections of seats and a wall in between. At the back of each side is a mural with a scene of Paradise

 

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Closeup of the mural on one side. You might see the national bird of Guatemala, the quetzal, on the upper-right corner

 

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There she is

 

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The other section of seats…

 

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…and a closeup of its mural. Again, there is a queztal in the upper-right corner

 

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Boy, to have skills like this. However, now that we put that thought in writing, who has more skills, the artist who can paint a scene with a puppy, kitty, and bunny, or the artist who actually made them alive?

 

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Amazing detail even on the small house in the lower-left; note the reflection in the windows

 

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Training got underway just fine, but I was nowhere to be seen. What could be more important than what we came here for?

 

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Why, talking with this brother, of course! I spent about 45 minutes listening to him. It was hard to get him to talk about himself; he kept bragging about others’ accomplishments and not his own.

 

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.

 

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When they finally pulled me away from him to listen to the training, Brother Hibshman left to go back to his apartment. On my way out we saw this.  One thing we read in his life story afterwards really took on some meaning since we had seen it with our own eyes: “I have served Jehovah from my youth, and now in my advanced years, I thank Jehovah for my good health that permits me to handle my assigned duties. As I do regular Bible reading, I often come across scriptures that I think my beloved Helen would have underlined in her Bible.” One wonders how many times he has read the Bible all the way through.

 

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:

 

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Can’t remember why this was interesting, but at the time it seemed important enough to take a picture. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment below

 

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A rare two-story house. Very narrow

 

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Amanda and I had gone more than two months without any real coffee, so I was super-stoked to get some espresso-roasted whole beans which were locally sourced from Guatemala (duh). They even gave me a free cup with the purchase! Life was good here in the coffee shop.

 

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Sounds like the start of a bad joke: “An American, a Japanese, and a Guatemalan walk into a Chinese restaurant….” In what world other than Jehovah’s organization could something like this happen?

 

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We climbed a (very) tall hill to get a view of the city from above. Although breathtaking, one wonders if it is ever a good idea to build a city at the foot of a volcano

 

 

Allow us to conclude this post with a brief video of driving through some of the streets on the way out of Antigua..

 

4. La congre

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…

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*** Note the pickup bed topper / entertainment system shelf / children’s play cave on the left ***

 

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The congregation splits up into “Broadcasting groups” each month to watch the latest episode. Ours met at the Kingdom Hall one time and ate supper together afterwards. Eating at the Kingdom Hall will be a recurring theme here

 

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This is where all the fun happens

 

 

20160901_180904Nothing wrong with getting there early and enjoying talking with the friends before the brother with the key shows up to open the gate

 

 

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Why is it so hard to get all children to look at the camera at the same time?

 

 

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On our second midweek meeting we got to do the return visit as last-minute substitutes. It would appear that Austin (bottom left corner) was not at all impressed with his parents’ performance

 

 

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We were integrated into the meeting program soon enough. Many people can’t pronounce “Bailey” so they started calling him “James”. Not really sure that’s any easier to pronounce, but whatevs….

 

 

This is the night we had parts back-to-back-to-back. Please note the complete lack of suit coats. In case you’re wondering: no, it does not take any time at all to get used to. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; it’s more like your body asking you, “Why haven’t we been doing this all along?”

 

 

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.

 

 

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A beautiful young couple with their sweet little girl, Madison. They are in our service group now

 

 

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This is Cecilia, our sound servant (not kidding). You can always count on her to make sure everything is ready to go on time (also not kidding). It will definitely be sad when the time comes for a brother to be trained (also also not kidding)

 

 

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Meet Deyvis. I call him ‘Big D’ because even by U.S. standards, he’s a big dude. Being with him makes me feel normal

 

 

 

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This never gets old. Ever. Oh, how I miss those days. So, so much

 

 

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This is the body of elders. I have already learned so, so much from the other three and I know there is much, much more for them to teach me.

 

 

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What to do after the meeting? Why not move the chairs in a big circle and eat supper altogether? Seriously, why not?

 

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

 

 

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Gotta keep those stairs free of debris, girlfriend!

 

 

Yessir. Bailey felt like a million dollars when he got to ride home from Kingdom Hall like this

 

 

3. A Week in Puebla

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.

 

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Please check out some life lessons Gerardo gave our children while letting them work at Mr. G’s
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We spent a Saturday preaching in the Nahuatl field. Check this out to learn more
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Here you can see a bit about the city and Gerardo’s family

 

 

2. The Trip

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.

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There were a few reasons why that seemed like a good idea to us:

  1. Five airplane tickets would have cost about $4,000 which we did not have
  2. Only so much luggage would be allowed on the plane so we would have had to purchase many things we already owned once we arrived at our destination
  3. Arriving by plane we would have needed to purchase a car almost immediately. Most of the friends in the congregation do not own a car, much less a spare. We did not want to be obligated to purchase a car out of urgency when we already own one
  4. Gave us a chance to get to know México. México has become our ‘comfort zone’ culturally speaking, and we always wanted to do more than visit el DF. Never hurts to have a Plan B in your back pocket.

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:

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Yeah….the back end still seems to be riding a little low in spite of all the work, but it sure is better

 

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…..

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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.

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Best oyster po’ boy I have ever eaten. In fact, probably the only oyster po’ boy I have ever eaten, but that’s beside the point. It was goooooooooooood

 

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Bailey says the fish sandwich wasn’t half-bad, either

 

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Next came Texas. As you may know, everything is bigger in Texas.

 

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.

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Mom seemed very disinterested in watching movies, however

 

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.

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I have absolutely no idea what in the world Brother Mata and I were looking at, but it must have been very important

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.

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Yeah, a double rainbow. Things were starting to look pretty good on our trip

 

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Let’s take another look at that puppy. Yes, Jehovah is indeed good

 

 

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The view was very beautiful along the way. We bought a GPS with road maps of Mexico to help us out

 

 

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Thanks, Garmin! Now we know there is a road ahead

 

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Hmmmm….so this is what happens when you ignore those “low overpass” warnings. Not sure one could just strap down the roof of a semi and go about one’s merry way if this happened in the States…

 

 

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.

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“Hi, we’re eight complete strangers riding along with your nephew. Mind if we eat your food and stay the night in your house?” “No not at all; this is Jehovah’s organization!”

 

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.

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No, really; you must pay to get your car fumigated when you enter Guatemala. Best $2 we ever spent to fumigate our car.

 

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!

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Coincidence? I think not

 

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??????

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“Happy journey. If you go through the border of Mesilla, Guatemala near Cuahtemoc, Mexico, Chiapas, if you find a small town before reaching the border called Jocote, I’m from there. Enrique Soto.” On the back it said:  “If you come to find the town Jocote, ask for my brother Gabriel Martinez; he is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”

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…….

 

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Right before we left, Brother climbed a coconut tree and harvested one (coconut that is, not tree) for each of our children. Please take a close look at the coconut Austin is holding as it will appear again. We will always remember his generosity and hospitality

 

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Austin was more interested in the coconut Brother Barrios had cut down for him than he was SpongeBob Squarepants on his iPad. He played with that #$%^ coconut just about the whole way to our house. It really speaks to the nature of children. Even in techno-centric 2016, kids really enjoy the things Jehovah gave them more. His father could learn a lesson, but that is for another day

 

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.

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WE’RE HOME! Amanda is actually capable of jumping much higher than that (insert white joke here); I’m just slow at hitting the button to take the picture

 

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And Gerardo? Looks like he caught up with Daniel, Astrid, and Joel just fine. Doesn’t look like they’re suffering. These four people look like they’re having too much fun

 

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Thanks again for all your help, guys! You really made the trip enjoyable

 

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….

1. A brief introduction

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:

  1. Please use good discretion in sharing this blog or repeating experiences from it. We all know where to go when doing research to find good experiences, right?
  2. We aren’t recommending this for others. This was a decision we made after much research, prayer, and consideration of our personal circumstances. We do recommend, however, the following articles to those who may be interested: w09 4/15 pp. 20-23     w09 12/15 pp. 4, 5     w16 October pp. 13-17
  3. Although we may share some thoughts that may include scriptures, articles, and opinions, none of this should be interpreted as ‘teaching’. We’re simply sharing our experiences with friends and family.
  4. All that being said, if you DO consider doing something similar after doing said research and prayer, please be prepared for some incredible experiences and wonderful blessings!