Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2015 Guatemala: The Road to Mach

Where to start.  So yeah, the bus.  After a fun filled day in Lanquin (and boy was it packed to the gills with fun, adventure and team time!), we boarded the bus for a very long ride.  I think it wound up being around 10 hours and I would love to say that it flew by...but it just didn't.  What it was though...was quality time. Being displaced in Guatemala...being in a new country, a new culture...without any cell phone reception or a data plan or friends, family, our favorite blanket, our beds, our shower...those comforts...we were off kilter, off balance but in a beautiful way.

You see...that very same discomfort is what started to bring us together.  We were all from a place that we were used to...a place we called home with the comforts that go with it...the routines we had built and become used to and truthfully that we knowingly abandoned to head out on this journey to something...somewhere in the wonderful country that is Guatemala.  We had seen it in pictures and maybe heard stories but now we were in it...together.

We came to learn, to grow, to be stretched, to smell things that were not pleasant, to smell unpleasant (as happens on a bus after 10 hours), to be hungry, to share food, to be each other's comfort...together.  it's tough if not impossible to put the formula that is a team trip to guatemala into words...but it's real and it's not always easy but it's so worth it.  We were being stretched...being shaped...being melded into something beautiful.  On one level, two important things that happened on the trip were - 1) we became, were shaped into, grew into an authentic community and that's nothing to scoff at.  It's VERY tough to replicate here in the US where we have all the comforts we're used to.  If we get thirsty, turn on the faucet, pickup a bottle from the back seat...no biggie.

In Guat, you don't have those options.  you have to share to make it work.  you have to accept things from others to get by. of course you can have some of my bug spray.  Yeah, the sunscreen is over there.  No biggie - you can have the last tortilla.  I'll take the uncomfortable seat for the next 4 hour stretch - you relax and get some rest.  Let me bang on the concrete floor for a few hours...please. I want to help.  Let me do it.  I'll drive.  You relax.  and LOVE...just love.  It becomes something different when you're reliant on one another.  It's a team thing. It's a body thing...a community thing. and it's beautiful.

Taking a break from the gushing there's also the flip-side.  I'm an introvert so talking with people, being with people, connecting and being real with people takes energy.  That's not saying that I don't like it because most people are great and it's a good time but from an energy standpoint, it drains my batteries.  In my normal world, that's no problem. But in Guat where there's 29 people in tight quarters, working hard, emoting, smelling, eating, playing, stepping on toes, crawling over each other, grabbing each other (scott!) for 14 DAYS...my batteries run low. I know that I'm that way and I'm super ok with it but it needed to be managed. so by day 10 or so, I was done with people and I was very thankful and greedy about any downtime we had.  I spent many mornings walking around by myself because I need that time.  I need ME time and that was a scarce commodity on the trip.

So yeah, we're on the road to Machaquila.  There was an angst in the air.  We all knew that we were on the road to the place where we were going to do the most work.  To get our hands dirty and open up our hearts to some Guatemalan kids and that it was going to be rough.
We arrived in Mach and it felt like home from the get go.  Spirits were high but we were exhausted and as we took our room assignments, we lazily looked around at the "eco resort" we were staying at, unsure.  It may sound fancy, but this place was rough - even for me and I consider myself a pretty easy going guy when it comes to living conditions.
 Mach ~ the big Red Dot

Our rooms were in the rainforest - literally and had vines going up the sides, giant trees right outside which is fantastic.  BUT...that comes with getting all up and personal with nature.  Regular sightings of giant bugs in our rooms...6" locusts (grasshoppers), a myraid of moths, mystery roaches or all sorts on the floor, noises from here and there that came from something living and my favorite on our second to last day - a snake.  I saw just the tail of it as it slithered from our bathroom into the space under the floor of our room and it was unmistakable.  That wasn't a confidence builder but we made it.

The next morning we loaded up and headed off to the orphanage on what was to be quite honest, too short of a trip to get there.  I didn't have time to do my final mentally prep work and arrived a bit awkwardly. I didn't really want to get out of the car, unsure of what was inside the orphanage but like cattle, we shuffled in, assaulted by what we saw.  This was the first time anyone from our group had been there and you could feel it.  Kids everywhere - some 56 kids in total - wandered around the gated property.  You could tell it was their place and they felt at home but also that they were used to outsiders coming by...whether to drop off another child, to talk with the couple that ran the place, to serve for a bit then leave...it was clearly their place and they were trying to figure out who/what/why we were - it was tangible, in the air.

the awkwardness was shattered when a little boy named Noah (if I recall correctly) ran up and just started giving huge (for him) hugs with his little 2 yr old arms.  A bundle of joy and a huge smile, he cracked the ice and flipped the dial from awkward to OMG I'm going to cry.  From that little dude radiated a love and an equal measure of "PLEASE LOVE ME!" that it was painful and the utmost joy at the same time. He ran around from person to person, smashing us open in a matter of minutes.
The other kids gradually did the same but in a more rote fashion, out of obligation more than affection but we had already crossed the line.  We were ready to love on these kids in any way we knew how...and we did.

We intuitively split into two groups - most of the women went to work with the kids - teaching them to brush and floss their teeth, singing and doing crafts with them...just loving on them and getting to know them.  Most of the men gravitated toward one of the 3 physical labor projects - starting to chip away at the areas of the concrete floor that were damaged and eventually repairing them, replacing a few toilets that had stopped working and building a new structure up the hill from the orphanage which they would use for church gatherings, devotions and storage. None of the work was easy and only a few of the group had done much work in those fields but we all charged in with as much energy as we could muster.
As we worked, the kids in the orphanage continued to feel us out.  There were 56 kids in the orphanage ranging from babies (3 mos old) to 17 with two older girls of 22 and 27 that needed special care and were not ready to be on their own.  Bear in mind that this place was run by an older married couple - just two of them - and they were making do.  Two people can only go so far.  thinking back to my posh setup at home where Sokny and I occasionally struggle with just our two boys, I couldnt imagine doing life full time, 24/7, 365 with 50+ kids.  It's just insane. On top of that, they don't get any support from the government.  From what I could discern while we were down there, they raised funds from the community via a sign posted at the entrance to their property that solicited donations as well as likely significant funding from another western church based organization.  Needless to say, they struggle.  Their meals were much the same as what an average guatemalan eats - black beans, tortillas and on good days, meat.  While we were there, we saw a few cow heads that they were butchering and cooking as well as a few other odds and ends that have likely never made it to my table in the US.
Anyhow...the kids were everywhere.  some played, some did crafts, some sang and ran around but others wanted to work. It felt like they were yearning for that father figure.  To learn a trade, to do something well and to be commended for it.  To learn, to love and to be loved.  It was tough and I struggled with this.  I'm very task focused and for a long time, I was getting frustrated by them as they constantly grabbed any spare tools and started banging, scraping, and just being in the mix of the work.  I'm admittedly slow in this area and it took one of our younger team members - Tim - to sit down and be patient with a few of the boys as they painted on some of the primer for the concrete for me to realize that we were not just here to work (as I said, I'm not the brightest...even when on a trip built for us to serve).  After getting over my frustration at the fact that the job would take 3 times as long with the kids helping, I saw how he was mentoring them, loving them and teaching them. They just wanted to be near us, to help, to be validated and Tim did that.

With that example, we all started pulling the kids into the work.  Fathering, mentoring, teaching and just spending time with the boys that wanted to get their hands dirty.  We ripped out toilets, they helped carry the left overs out of the building.  We chiseled concrete, they held the chisel.  We cleaned up bathroom floors that were in dire need of cleaning...they were in there with us.  On it went, side by side.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

2015 Guatemala: building a new community

Waking up in the morning in Lanquin revealed an amazing valley. because our group is so large, they put some of us in the overflow housing which was a 5 minute ride up the hill.  it looked like what would be the retirement house on the hill for whoever owns the little hotel place we're staying at.  Right on top of the hill overlooking fruit tree orchards and the entire valley.  270 degree views of lush green hills, accented by darker pockets of rainforest.

After taking time over the last few days to acclimate to the Guatemalan culture and get to know the team a little,  this was to be a time for us to crack the ice and play together but first - breakfast.  we walked down the dirt road a kilometer or so to the main hotel area then down to the community area on the river.  The morning light revealed that the river was wide and flowing with a power that we just don't see out on the south west coast of the US.  So much water, moving in a living, churning mass with a tiny waterfall trickling down on the opposite bank.

As the team trickled down to the breakfast area, the buzz about the day began to circulate.  This was to be a day of play with the team with the first item on the agenda being a float session down the river in inner tubes. In my head, I began to question the water quality of said river but quickly learned that this river came straight out of the earth - literally.  The river swelled up from an underground cave which we would be exploring later in the day.

I rushed to finish my breakfast and eagerly boarded the truck that would take us up to the start of the river and our tubing adventure.  After getting used to the area a bit, jumping into the chilly river washed any hesitations about the trip away.  Emotions ebbing and flowing between being on vacation and a nervous anticipation of the work to come moving through me as we began to drift down the river in tubes.  Laughter and levity...taking in the beauty and splendor of God's creation...being God's children filled with Joy, ready.

In the moment, I loved it but thinking about it after reaching the shore, these moments of pure joy weighed heavy on me.  "did we come here for a vacation? this is too much fun...when are we going to do some real work? This is not what I signed up for!" but looking back at the end of the trip, I realized that these first days were crucial to first helping us unwind from our lives back in the states, to connect with our new team and fall in love with the country of Guatemala.  These days helped us to live, talk, speak, breathe, eat in the NOW.  to BE on the trip...to remember that we are God's creation, living for Him...but that those moments are held in tension with being God's child.  to experience the people, places and things that He built for us and revel in them.  to be joyful, happy, to love, to emote... and yeah, the journey we travelled individually and as our new team was crazy! 10 hours in a bus or SUV with no cellphones, laptops or bubble zap games to distract made for some great talking time...great time to dig into what each of us is about...to remember that we are all down here for a reason and to share our passions.  why are you here?  why am I here?  what has God done in my life / what is God doing in my life / what do we hope God is doing in us down here?  we collectively travelled not just the windy, dusty, bumpy rainforest roads but also the windy, scary, fun, hidden paths in eachothers lives. we shared and listened...dreamed and bubbled over...laughed and cried a bit together. community...shaping...connecting...wow.

The river really was great.  I couldnt get enough of it...even after getting off the tubes for the next group to run down the river I spent the downtime running up the river then floating down...swimming across exploring, jumping, splashing...oh the joy!  it was as if I were a boy again just taking it in.

When everyone had made it down the river, we jumped in the cars and headed off for part two of our adventure for the day - Semuc Champey.  I didnt really understand what this place was having unintentionally left my itinerary in my hotel room in Antigua...I embraced the not-knowing and just rolled with it...and this place blew my socks off!  ok, I wasnt wearing socks but I really did enjoy this place.  We started with a 1km hike to the base of some beautiful falls along a raging river...

then split off for the overlook.  Basically climbing up the side of the valley, we quickly gained elevation until finally emerging at a beautiful overlook with the pools of Semuc Champey glistening below.

Semuc is a unique place in the river where the raging mass of the river actually goes underground (a FREAKY sight!!)

The pools that Semuc is known for are actually above this section...where yet more water streams down from the valley and forests above into natural limestone pools with a very mellow flow of water and gentle falls.  Pictures just don't do it justice but here are a few of mine and stock online pics to share some of the beauty:

 We enjoyed lunch at Semuc and had time for an awesome baptism of a few team members - Ariana and Paul.  It was a beautiful afternoon in a heavenly setting.  As the afternoon began winding down, we started our hike back to the vehicles.

Semuc is a local gem and as such, has it's share of tourism though the remote locale helps keep this number down.  Because there is a lot of cacao grown in the area, local kids can be seen selling pucks of chocolate - fresh roasted and ground up with sugar and flavors. I bought way too many of these and ended up eating a similarly indulgent number but it was just too good.  We hopped back on the SUVs with a few on the roof for good measure and headed back to Lanquin.

The final adventure for the evening was exploring the aforementioned "start of the river".  In reality, this was a few things...the cave where the river comes blasting out of the earth, an underground grotto with fast flowing water (ie, dangerous/don't get pulled under or you die/freezing straight-from-the-earth water) and oh yeah, home to 23 million (plus or minus a few thousand) fruit bats and they were just waking up.  We hike up into the cave along a well defined path (assuming you had a headlamp and we did) about a kilometer before stopping and turning out the lights. Our pal Hugo explained that the Mayans believed this was a holy place where they could pray to the spirits of the underworld. It was essentially an altar and one that was still in use as evidenced by the plethora of candles and soot that lined the walls and ceiling.  It was intense and after some history, we turned out all the lights and sung a few worship songs.  It was an intense pitch black...one that we almost never see.  No stars, no lights, nothing...just black.  our song echoed through the caverns, augmented by the flight of the waking bats.  They fluttered about as we let everything go...nerves on edge by the history of this place...the intense dark...the days events preceding this...and the anticipation of what was to come...and just belted out a few worship songs.  Intense...check out the pic:

Just kidding...but seriously...it was can't-see-the-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. After some soothing silence, we hiked back down and split off on an offshoot climbing down a guano covered offshoot down to the grotto.  It was neat seeing the water flowing out of one wall then under a ledge on the other side of the small chamber but I had no desire to get in the water.  A few of the team did and spread lit candles around the chamber.

After the intensity of the grotto and the caverns, I was excited to be near the exit of the caverns again. As dusk turned into night, we sat at the exit of the caverns as the bats rushed out to feed on whatever fruit they could find.  I was blown away by the sheer volume of animals leaving and exhausted from a packed full day of adventure.

The next morning, we packed up and headed out to what would be the majority of the trip, work and emotion in Machaquila...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

2015 Guatemala day 1-2: unpacking

I had planned to blog realtime in/from Guatemala but my laptop decided that it didnt want to work for the vast majority of the trip.  As such, I'll be unpacking and sharing the adventure after the fact in a series of blog posts.  This first post is the only one that I was able to write realtime...after just 2 days in country...as I was beginning to unwind from normal life and connect with the team.


so Guatemala

we have been here two days now and now it’s starting to feel like we’re on the cusp of doing some work. The first day we understandably took the day to recover as our red eye flight brought us into the area at 7am we started with a nice breakfast then headed back to check into our hotel for the night.  After a short time and a bit of exploring Antigua, we boarded the bus and cars and headed up to an overlook of Antigua which was framed by a nice old cross with the Volcan de Agua in the background.  It was a nice way to let the fact that we were in Guatemala start to soak in.  

I fell asleep for a bit on the way up which was a great way to start to catch up on much needed sleep. After some time at the lookout, we drove through Antigua and up a steep set of switchbacks up to our lunch spot which was amazing.  it also featured an overlook of the city but from the other side of the valley.  the restaurant itself was a farm to table setup with the farm on premises - the restaurant was situated in the middle of the farm with fruit and vegetables growing all around. 

The afternoon rains hit as our food arrived so we migrated off of the amazing overlook patio to the safety of a higher, covered patio…then the rain really started coming in and with an amazing display of lightning and thunder which was quite the sight as it lanced across the valley, booming along the way.  We started opening up conversations with the members of the team - getting to know each other in baby steps as is so often the case for introverts like myself.  The combination of not having constant connectivity…distractions that we so often overlook in our lives back in the states and the content face time with each other made talking the natural thing to do.  

Slowly realizing that we are all here to do the same thing…to experience the same thing…to do the same work…to just let God work in us, through us and among us is a powerful connecting force and opened into discussions, blossoming relationships that are just the beginnings of foundations that will strengthen our church, the kingdom and each other. 

We had more time to explore the city then wandered down to the Whiskey Den - a local establishment owned by one of the many partnerships forged in the early days of Bryan and Wayne’s travels to Guat. Not my thing but I found a nice ice cream place to grab a scoop to pass the time. Dinner was another nice spot around the corner and more of a calorie filling formality as we were all exhausted to the point of wanting to skip altogether but for the simple need of calories. 

Finally returning to our rooms, I showered and changed…washing my clothes in the shower with me then retiring to post the days pics and check for messages on google. 

I started the day early and walked out into Antigua for some early exploring.  Everyone else was still sleeping so I found a few places online that looked interesting, checked the map and headed out.  Both spots were closed so I just ended up making rounds, getting familiar with the layout and grabbing some bread to accompany the cafe from the hotel lobby. Made for a nice break from the team which is something I need to be intentional about to let my brain sort through things and also got some semblance of a workout in. 

After breakfast, we packed up and headed out towards our destination for the day - Lanquin. Infrequent breaks were mandatory for a group our size but we finally ended up making it to the destination around 830pm or so. Lots of driving…some dirt roads and a few folks riding on the roofs of the 3 SUVs, highlighting the potholes and random bats flying about as we descended into the valley of…something. 

It was pitch black as we arrived at what now feels like paradise.  We are setup at a hostel built up the slope of a steep riverside with the community room overlooking the river.  a fantastic dinner was setup for us with tons of flavorful vegetarian options over candlelight.  

Walking down onto the dock on the river reveals a fast moving REAL river with LOTS of water that we’re going to attempt to ride down in inner tubes tomorrow.  Kinda freaky not knowing what’s in there but whatever…not the first not the last small challenge…let’s do this!  

Bug spray is our friend down here as the mosquitos are drawn to the water and the bats to the mosquitos.  No internet here tonight…i guess they shut it off at night or something so updates will have to wait but that’s ok.  feels like and sounds like a club here as the team unwinds and mingles…letting the cares of life wash away. 

It’s great knowing that sokny and the boys are hanging out in philly right now…a great distraction for them and a great parallel adventure.  Time for some more water and downtime then sleep…somewhere...eventually.