Roads here are not like roads around my hometown of Cincinnati. In Guatemala, there are a few key highways, each town has a few key boulevards surrounded by streets and avenues, and the pavement ends there.
Many of the routes between villages are in this ENDS THERE area. There is a main route from Antigua to Monterrico that follows the highway system, but we decided to navigate it on our own... through the mountains. The Shepherd family isn’t about taking the easy Gringo way, we came here for keeps, and we figure we want our eyes open now.
The route we took from Antigua to Monterrico was beyond our imagination. It was beyond what we have even seen in movies. Our Terracan is a powerful AWD diesel and we used its full capacities. When describing the choices of routes, our friend Edgar described this way as the shortest, but added that it is “no bueno.”
If you are in Guatemala and Edgar tells you that something is no bueno, then allow me to suggest that you either avoid it like a hive of angry bees or you be sure that you have your big boy pants on before stepping that way.
Satellite navigation has no respect of one way streets and many streets in Guatemala are one way. It also has no understanding of the fact that throughout much of developed Guatemala, there is no such thing as a left turn. So... even getting out of Antigua can be an exercise of intuitive direction (a skill that we are developing out of necessity).
So we found our way out of Antigua, using Volcan de Aqua as our beacon and began to wind ourselves around her vast base. The road rapidly depleted to a crumbly single lane with occasional breaks in the surface, but we are used to that and I smiled as I lightly held the wheel with my right hand and we cruised on to adventure with the weeks playlist cranking a nice bass line from the speakers.
The next little town, Santa Maria de Jesus was typically beautiful, crowded, chaotic, and uniquely Guatemala. We climbed the hill to the center of the town and then began our descent. We came to the edge of town and made a left hand turn into the outskirts... the pavement abruptly ended. After a few 100 meters I applied the brake and put the truck in PARK. I turned to Kellie who shared my nearly blank and somewhat apprehensive expression. This could not be the way.
We sat at the top of a ridiculously steep incline with no clear road... not even the dirt kind. It was more of a rocky, trash covered moonscape. The path ahead was full of large rocks, deep ruts caused by rain (we are in the rainy season... please lord don’t let it rain) with significant drop offs on either side. Nope... this is too much reality for me.
I skillfully (you know, backing forward and backwards multiple times while the locals watched from horseback) yes skillfully turned the Terracan around and we headed back into the small town where we pulled over beside a Tienda and recalibrated the navigation.
After 15 minutes we were convinced that there was no other route. At this point we were committed. We had come to far to take the other route. It was move forward or go back home to Antigua. And so... like I said, we came to this country to stay. So we shook off the jitters and again with skill, this time between a multitude of Americans on short term missions who wouldn’t get out of the street until I revved the big diesel (kind of fun) and the typical randomness of animals, small vehicles, and unexpected obstacles, turned the truck around.
I slowed down at the top of the hill, staring at it a second time. This time with eyes looking for a path, rather than eyes looking at the pitfalls. I dropped the engine into AWD, geared down and we safely made our passage. I commented to Kellie that I think the name of the town was originally just, "Santa Maria" but when people drove down that hill... so many of them cry out to Jesus that it became, "Santa Maria de JESUS!"
I had no idea that this would be by far the easiest hill we would navigate.
I checked the fuel gauge and remarked to Kellie, “I am not worried about our diesel level right now, but in an hour I will be.” We considered the distance to be covered and decided that we would be fine. Surely this mountain terrain absent of a road would not continue for long. We would come out the other side shortly, find a good road, and refuel at the first service station we saw. No worries.
About 30 minutes into the trip I realized what we were driving on... it was a horse path. We were the only vehicle making this trip. As we crunched, climbed, and bobbed our way through the mountain pass... we received many looks of amusement and amazement from Guatemalans on horseback.
But... it wasn’t just a horse trail. There was a second type of vehicle that frequented these paths deep into the mountains... massive industrial trucks that were tasked with garbage removal. It was right when we noticed that our green dot on navigation had finally reached the halfway point that we crested a turn and realized that our path ended directly into a massive dump.
Again I stopped the truck in disbelief. I noticed my knuckles where white-gripping the wheel and my shirt somehow instantly stuck to my back. I was so far beyond my comfort zone that I realized that none of us are ever really safe. In the vehicle with me was my wife and my three kids. The buck stops with me. I take a breath, make a joke, and we begin to make our way through mountains of trash (doing my best to avoid glass), shifting surfaces, massive trucks that make no effort to avoid our path, countless dogs, and desperate people who watch our shiny vehicle pass over and throw their endless search for edible food.
A couple of men on horseback rode up to our vehicle and walked beside us. I do not know their intent. Although the a/c is broken on our truck and the air was stifling, our black tinted windows remained tightly closed as I wrestled with the conflicting feelings of wanting to reach out and make contact with these beautiful people who are desperate for the same things that I want... and realizing that it could also be very unwise to do so.
We came to Guatemala to serve... and we are driving on our way to the beach through poverty... and I felt overwhelmingly hypocritical as we passed them by.
I have no justification for this. We are a family who God has called to serve. Our preparation is complete... our mission begins in 2 weeks. We took this break as a respite for our family. The kids have given up everything... friends, belongings, grandparents, their school, their language, their culture.
And still... it is not an easy thing to take this break. I fear that people looking in will think poorly of our intentions, that we just came here on their goodwill to play. I have had family tell me exactly those words. This time is a necessary breath of air for our family. We are here for keeps. There will be time to serve. More at times than we can handle...
We passed through the area, with me deep in thought, the sobering reality juxtaposed with my own story had driven out the fear in my mind. The condition of the road somehow worsened at this point. We were now descending rather than climbing... the turns were steeper, the corners tighter, the road surface was covered with large boulders that threatened the undercarriage of the vehicle.
I worried about our tires blowing. I had a spare and I knew I could change it... but my imagination considered the possibility of two failed tires. We continued to descend. My shirt was absolutely soaked now with a combination of the heat and the level of concentration required to keep four tires on the path. My fingers now ached from the long tight grip that I had been maintaining on the wheel as I constantly rotated it back and forth to avoid holes, rocks, and stay clear of the unforgivable ledges.
There simply was no room for error.
Navigation showed us that we were 3/4 of the way through. I had kept glancing at our fuel gauge since we first left that little town. We were now at 1/16 of a tank of diesel. I considered our reality, and then I turned down the stereo and addressed my family.
“It could be that we run out of fuel before we get to the main road. We are close enough to walk though, so I need you all to decide now what you want to carry with you. We can’t take it all, and we have to consider that whatever we leave behind will be taken. The people here aren’t bad, they’re just desperate.
So, I need you to think of where your electronics and hard to replace valuables are. If we run out of fuel, we need to be mobile within two minutes and making our way down the mountain. Does everyone understand? We will be fine, but we need to grab what is essential, stuff it in your pack, and make our way to the city.”
The reality was that we could not sit in a stalled vehicle. We would be too vulnerable. Crime is typically not as big of an issue outside of the cities, but we needed to get off this mountain before nightfall. If we moved quickly and efficiently... we could make it.
|Driving as quickly as the path allowed... racing against time.|
The gauge continued to fall and it seemed to fall faster the farther it fell... like gravity was pulling it towards a terminal velocity. I found myself talking to the truck like a coach, “come on, you can do it... give me these last few kilometers.” I kept the stereo playing and the conversation light as I also was in constant communication with God. I was just asking for His eyes to be on our situation, and for me to make the right calls. I thought of Him turning water to wine and I thought of Him blessing the loaves and fishes.
I also thought of the apostles who suffered, of Abraham who was asked to sacrifice His only son, and I understood that we are not promised safety simply because we follow Him. Rather, I believe that suffering is a necessary part of following God. I have no doubt that our ministry and our family will be required to pay that price. I was aware that the bill could arrive on this day.
I noticed 3 cell phone towers on the horizon. Our path was winding us them. The altimeter had fallen to just a few meters above sea level. The fuel gauge had somehow stopped falling. I didn’t allow myself to contemplate why.
We made what was just another of countless ridiculous turns in the road, and found ourselves now driving in a dry river bed towards a significant city. As we passed underneath the interstate that was our next leg in the trip... I considered the storm clouds in the distance. I understood where the water would surge if the sky opened up.
I laughed as I remembered the description of this route, “es no bueno.”
Our navigation was malfunctioning and sent us into a dead end where the road had collapsed just as we entered the city. There was room to turn around... but only just enough. There was the road behind us, and drop offs on the other 3 sides. For the third time I put the truck in PARK to collect my wits. We could not stay here. Our fuel was nearly depleted. We were not in a safe part of the city.
I dropped the windows so that we could all lean out and watch the edges. The concrete had actually crumpled and fallen in places... so I didn’t want to get my tires near those edges. Backing up wasn’t a desirable option either, the way wasn’t safe.
We had come so far and our nerves where shot. I remembered breathing training in yoga that allowed me to extend muscles and hold painful poses. I employed those breaths and techniques in that moment as I listened for the sound of rubber tires slipping on loose concrete. And this time... with true skill and care, I turned that vehicle around. I prayed for guidance, and began making turns based on gut feeling.
We came through a narrow alley to a busy 4 lane highway. A fuel station sat on the other side. Even a day ago I would not have attempted the crossing. But after the experience of the past two hours I had gained a new sense of determination and confidence. I eased out into the traffic and made my way across... Guatemalan style. Traffic won’t stop for you, but people don’t want to hit you either.
I used my 2-year old level of Spanish and purchased Q400 worth of diesel. To our shock we were refueling on the street that we needed. The highway that would take us to the Pacific Coast.
So what do you think of our little adventure? Perhaps you believe I embellished it to thrill you? Or maybe I toned it down a little so that you don’t think us too risky or foolish. I guess all you can really do is take my word for it... and know that I may have even chosen both.
What I can do is tell you what I learned. I was reminded of our mission. I was forced to contemplate where we’ve been, what we have to face, and what the reality is of our circumstance. I believe even a little bit more than before that WHO we are is not based on our context. It is based on the content of our soul.
I am reminded of the great C.S. Lewis... and smile as I think of His words that so perfectly fit our context.
We are Surprised By Joy.
Even when the time comes that we are required to suffer... the real promises of God will kick in. We can have Peace that passes understanding, and we can have Joy in times of trouble. We are promised that in this world we will have trouble... but we are also told to take heart, because God has overcome the world.
I think we are going to take the long way back to Antigua, but if you are ever out my way and you want to flirt a little with adventure... just say the word.