Saturday, October 26, 2013

Breakdown in Solola: (8) Peeing in the Dark

(It's just the night sky...)
I just started laughing. There was nothing left to do... and so I just threw back my head and laughed, the kind of laugh that starts somewhere deep in your gut and bursts up through the top of your head. You know, the laugh that shakes your whole body with relief and makes you gasp for air. I think it was just my final and full yield to the situation, an acknowledgment that it all comes down to God. I really don't have a grip on this thing we call life... at all. And it's ok. 

The driver however, was not privy to this inner dialogue. He looked a little scared and I heard him explain through my snorting and tears that the truck was roto (broken). I replied, es no problema. He repeated my words with a furrowed brow and I just raised my palms up with a shrug and said, "si, es no problema" and then resumed the cathartic release in that truck cab on the side of the mountain in the darkness, with help still over 2 hours away.

The driver climbed out of the cab and began to bang around under the truck. Using the light of Caleb's iPod, I found a plug for a car charger. I opened the door and jumped out into about half a foot of water (of course) and then climbed up the truck bed and inside of the Terracan. I found the car-charger for my phone, climbed back into the tow-truck cab and plugged it in. Remarkably, it worked even though the truck was shut off. 

My phone, the phone that I had received calls on all night, was so dead that it took several minutes of charging before I could turn it on. Crazy God. Who says miracles don't still exist? But a miracle in a cell phone? Sounds absolutely crazy.

Caleb and I sat in that cab while the driver continued to attempt a repair. I have no idea what was wrong with it. But I did know that I needed to pee, and so did Caleb... and so off into the darkness we went. There was an old bus abandoned off the side of the road and it provided perfect cover.

We returned to the truck, the driver climbed in and turned the key. The engine fired up and off we went, heading for home. He shuffled around the visor, selected a CD, cranked up the stereo, and drove like a maniac. 

From the speakers blasted the voice of Kenny Rogers, singing "Coward of the County." I was exhausted. I was spent. I was feeling my own mortality. I listened to the words of the song, and somehow became deeply touched. So now I was singing along at the top of my lungs, wiping tears and slinging snot. "Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man."

As I sang, Caleb was sleeping sitting up and his head kept going from my shoulder to the drivers shoulder. The driver just kept driving faster. I think he was motivated to get these gringos home.

Meanwhile in the other car... a sleeping Sterling had pee'd not once, but three times on the lap of her grandmother. Sharon had no other option except to accept the christening. They all sat crammed in that tiny car, soaking in baby pee while the driver drove down the center of the two lane road, scrunched up over the steering wheel. 

Eventually, we caught up with them parked on the side of the road outside of San Lucas and the tow-truck took lead as I directed the driver towards our colonial. He must have had enough of my singing, because the last hour had been without music... with him talking loudly in his cell phone. Talking about the gringo in his truck.

I can understand quite a bit more than I can say. He apparently wasn't aware of this.

And so... we pulled up, completing a 3 hour drive in about 8 hours and I had to explain to the 3 guards at the gate of the community why I now had my car on top off a truck and my family crammed into a little white clown car soaked in pee.

They lowered the shotguns and let us through. After the not so simple task of explaining to the driver where to turn, we arrived home and lowered the Terracan to the ground. I signed the necessary papers and watched the tow-truck and car pull away. It was 11:20 and we had all made it home.

It was nothing short of a miracle.

In our family we always talk about looking for the "God moments" in the course of a day. This had been more than a God moment... but there would be plenty of time to consider all that happened. We all collapsed into bed and let the night take us.

I sit here at my desk with sunlight streaming through the windows and the sounds of my kids playing upstairs. The Terracan is parked in the drive fully repaired. The water pump had failed, causing a chain reaction of destruction: the cap blew off the radiator, the gaskets blew out of the transmission, a valve had jammed in the engine block, the oil filter had blown off... in total, 17 components of the engine had failed. All starting with the failure of a water pump.

We had been pretty worried about the cost of the repair. Resources are very limited. Our budget has no wiggle room! But God wasn't finished with this story yet. After working on the Terracan for over 2 weeks, the mechanic drove it to our house and handed me the bill. Q6,283.50 which converts to about $750.00

I wrote him a check, shook his hand, drove him back outside of the community gates and drove back in silence. 

Let me tell you what I love about my family. The next morning, we got up, had breakfast, loaded everyone, including Remus the dog, into our 1998 Chevy Blazer and turned tires onto the highway, taking a day trip to Antigua. You get knocked down, you get back up again.

I started this story out by telling you that I never pray for safety. And that's true. I still don't. We just aren't promised safety. Great things aren't accomplished by being safe. Jesus himself told us that in this world we would have trouble. 

But, He also told us "to take heart, for He has overcome the world."

By the way, in two days I am driving back to Panajachel. Who wants to come?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Breakdown in Solola: (7) Nothing's Ever Easy

I heard a quote from Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guy from TV. He said the worst thing he ever heard was the phrase, "Work smarter, not harder." He said that is the wrong message. Instead, he offers "work smarter AND harder."

It seemed the world was committed to have us learn that lesson this night. It wasn't enough to be smart... we had to commit to working hard at getting home.

The night sky darkened as the day became a memory. It seemed like an impossibility that just a few hours earlier we were eating quesadillas on the lakeshore. The brightness of that memory had been painted over by the near misses and dark moments of the day.

We stood there with Freddie and his friend, trying to make awkward small talk. This was difficult because they spoke no English, and my Spanish is terrible. It was made even more tedious because every time he looked at me, his eyes seemed to glance down to the knife on my belt. I felt bad about that, but the truth was I really didn't know this guy, and there was no way I trusted him.

Hours went by as we stood there illuminated by the stark high beams of trucks and buses that blasted past us and swerved around the dead Terracan. Each time a van came down the hill, I expected that it was for us... and they just kept passing us by. Everyone was tired. We hadn't eaten since lunch and it was way past dinner time. The girls had to pee. Sharon took them across the street where they hid behind some trees and overgrown weeds.

It started to feel like help was never coming. Another group of men started lingering around the top of the hill, eyeballing us and talking to each other with laughter. I saw Freddie watching them and saw him begin to tense. They started walking our way. Not again. I want away from here. 

The tow-truck suddenly came around the bend. He saw us and turned around in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. Everything changed. With his spinning lights and hulking mass, cars yielded and drivers stopped honking and fist shaking. The crowd of young men turned and walk away.

I was looking for the van and instead noticed a small white car. Apparently that was our van. Edgar called me again on the the dead-phone and after a discussion we decided the ladies would ride in the car while Caleb, Remus, and I rode in the tow-truck.  They went ahead and took the welcomed relief of sitting in the car. It took about 30 minutes to hook up the Terracan and load it in the flat-bed and the driver started to pull away. He was leaving us!

I ran up to the truck, grabbed the mirror and swung myself up to the chrome step. I opened the door, tossed in the dog, and pulled up Caleb. The driving started fussing at me. I couldn't understand the words, but the meaning was clear. He did not want us riding in his truck. I wasn't getting out. I told him as best I could that it was necessary that we ride with him. He was ordering us out and I kept saying "NO." If he wanted us out, he was going to have to drag us out.

Suddenly Freddie appeared at the driver's window. I reached into my pocket, grabbed a 100 Quetzales bill out of my pocket, hid it in my hand and reached that hand out to Freddie... reaching across the drivers chest.

Surprised and bewildered, Freddie took my handshake as I thanked him and pressed the money into his hand. I gripped his hand tightly and said, "ayuder" (which translates as "to help" but meant... help us please).

Somehow he got the message as he looked down at the money in his hand. At that moment he became our advocate with the driver, leaning in and arguing with a furry of words I wouldn't be able to understand if I lived here 100 years. The driver threw up his hands, spat out some foul list of words, threw the lever into "D" and up the mountain we shot.

We were going home!

The car with the girls went on ahead of us and out of sight. The big truck with my Terracan in the back lurched up the mountain as the driver ground through the gears. About half a mile up the steep grade, the tow-truck broke down.

Stranded again. Stranded in the absolute thick-darkness, mountain region, middle of no-where in central America with my 12 year old son, my cute little rich dog, a cell phone that only works when Edgar calls me... and a very angry driver. An angry driver who doesn't want us in his truck.

He shut off the engine and was motionless. I slowly rolled my eyes his direction, not wanting him to see me turn my head... and he was staring straight at me through the darkness.

(the story concludes here Breakdown in Solola: (8) Peeing in the Dark)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Breakdown in Solola: (6) We Need Help

I stood there, tense and holding my breath... staring directly into the eyes of the biggest of the two men. This situation was surreal, it was impossible. How could I be standing here with a dead cell phone in my pocket that would receive phone calls from the one man in the world that could help me... with my Papaw's knife clutched in my hand... alone and vulnerable on the edge of a steep mountain on a blind curve? Everything I held dear in this world stood behind me.

I was standing with my weight on my right foot with my left foot firmly on the ground between me and Freddie. I was poised for the fight of my life. My demand that he walk away hung in the air between us. I tightened my grip on the knife and rehearsed in my head the sequences I had studied in a martial arts studio years ago. I stared dead into his eyes. Everything in the world seemed to stop. Nothing existed in that moment except the two of us. I could see the air catch in his breath. Finally, he moved...

...he took a step back, turned to the other guy and they began walking away. I watched him closely as they walked down the mountain, the opposite way from which they had came. And then he reached for his cell phone. 

I turned to Kellie and said, "he is making a call. Our night is about to head a very specific direction. This could go one of two ways. He is either legitimate and he is calling Edgar to clear this up, or he is calling his buddies, telling them about the stranded gringos... we are an easy target."

He ended his phone call and spoke with his partner. They stood about 50 feet from us and quietly watched us.

For what seemed like hours we stood there, watching each other from a distance. I wanted to run... but we had nowhere to go. All we could do was wait. Things were about to get better, or irrevocably worse. I could feel my jaw aching from the intense expression in my face. My heart was pumping and adrenaline was demanding some sort of action. This waiting was torture!

The phone again rang in my pocket. I didn't want to release the knife, so I shoved the keys into a back pocket and opened my phone. It was Edgar!

"Chad, are there two young men standing near you?" "Yes." "Ok, they are the mechanic. You need to let them help you." "But... Edgar, neither one of them is Arturo... he says his name is Freddie." "Yes, Freddie is Arturo's son. He is there to help you." "You said I was ONLY to take help from a man named Arturo! I nearly stabbed this guy!" "No, let him stand with you until the tow truck and van arrives... he knows the area and will keep you safe."

I looked over to Freddie who was watching my conversation. I moved my right hand in front of me and showed him as I folded the blade and put the knife back into the holster. I showed him my open hands and walked towards him and his friend. "Lo siento mi amigo" (I am sorry my friend). "Necesitamos ayuda" (we need help).

My entire body seemed to deflate as I let myself relax. I felt like I was tingling from head to toe. My legs felt like rubber. I leaned back against the wall and looked up at the night sky. I noticed the cool wind blowing down the mountain and I gave thanks to God. He had answered my prayer and had held my hand still. Things could have gone so badly wrong... but, I realized that we may now have a path home. I started to laugh under my breath... I must have sounded insane.

The night was far from over. I had no idea what else was coming our way, but at least for this moment... I allowed myself to cling to hope.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Breakdown in Solola: (5) My Papaw's Knife

His jeans were frayed and worn. He wore big black boots with steel toes. He was a metal-worker. He could peel an apple with this knife in one long strip. I used to sit in his lap and watch the blade slice through the red skin of the apple, guided by his thumb. He would slice the apple into crispy, ivory sections while I reformed the shape of the apple with the peel.

As I reached for the dead, but ringing cell phone, my right hand brushed against the familiar worn leather case that held Papaw's knife. As always, I found a deep sense of my own meaning in that smooth, worn leather that had ridden on his belt for decades.

In disbelief I held the phone, staring at it while it continued to ring out the X-Files ringtone. I found it ironic that I was standing in the dark, abandoned on the road, watching my dead phone light up to that sci-fi theme.

I could see the caller id. It was Edgar. I was afraid to answer... somehow fearing that my attempt to answer it would shatter the miracle. And so I answered it in a swift movement and breathlessly said, "Edgar?"

"Chad... where are you? Go back to the truck. Don't leave it." Edgar had shaken the alley ways and far reaches of Guatemala to find a guy who had a friend who had a friend who was a mechanic in Solola. We were to stay put until he came to inspect our vehicle and to wait with us until help arrived. Edgar was very clear... you must make sure you have the right man. Be sure to make him tell you his name. His name is Arturo. If it isn't Arturo, you must get away.

I hung up the phone and gave the family this welcomed news. Help was coming. Knowing a local man who would stand with us changed everything. We would be safe. I gave everyone strict instructions... "when he walks up, do not say his name. I have to make sure it is who I am looking for."

We stood on the side of that road for another 20 minutes. Somehow my cell phone was now at about 25% capacity. It had increased. From the darkness above, silhouetted by traffic lights, walked two men coming near to us. I could hear their voices. One pointed at us. They increased their speed towards us.

I was looking for ONE man. Not two. Maybe Arturo brought a friend? I couldn't chance it. We were too close to finding a way home. I remembered Papaw's knife. With the main blade open it is 10" long, with the blade being half that measure. I turned sideways so the motion was unseen and I unclipped the holster, removed the knife, opened the main blade, spun it so the edge faced down and out and held my hand slightly behind the backpack strapped on my back. 

I had learned years ago that holding the knife in this manner allows you to slice in a upward motion as well as stab in a downward motion. This grip gives you an attack move whether your arm is going up, down, or sideways, and also reduces the risk of slicing your own hand.

I slid my left hand into my pocket and grabbed the keys to the Terracan, with the keys protruding out from between my knuckles. I was prepared for whatever was to come. I wrestled with this in my mind. Was this the right thing to do for a pastor, for a man who says he trusts in God? Shouldn't I turn the other cheek? Shouldn't I just trust in God?

I figured the answer just might be yes. But I couldn't live with that. I would rather die, attempting to defend my children and face God, trusting Him for the judging of my soul, than to live an eternity knowing I stood by while my family was harmed. Let the judgment fall on me. My God is a just God. I asked Him to give me wisdom... and a sure set of hands.

Of course... I was probably over-reacting. The men approached and began speaking rapidly in Spanish. They had to shout because of the noise of the traffic and even still the occasional screech of tires and blast of horn. I interrupted him and demanded his name. 

His name was Freddie.

No. Oh no. This is not my man. This was NOT Arturo! He kept insisting that he was a mechanic and that he could help me. He and his friend continued to step closer. I readjusted my grip on the blade and the keys. I felt sweat run down the center of my shoulders and I resolved myself for what was to come. 

I leaned in towards them and with intensity I said, "I don't know you, you are not the man I'm looking for. He will be coming. GET AWAY FROM MY FAMILY NOW."

Every muscle in my body was tensed for what was to come. My God have mercy on what I am about to do... 

...and may I strike true. 

(continue the story here Breakdown in Solola: (6) We Need Help)

Breakdown in Solola: (4) Abandon the Terracan

(Me and the Terracan...
on a brighter day that seemed a lifetime away.)
I could hear my breathing in that moment. I watched the bus sliding closer... I could hear and sense the on oncoming truck screeching around the bend towards us in the other lane, his tires also locked up trying to avoid us and the bus... I remember the look on the bus driver's face as he went by, missing us with a final jerk of the wheel and mere inches. As he passed by, our entire vehicle shuddered with the force of the near miss. My own body gave an involuntary shiver. My back was soaked in sweat. Somehow 3 vehicles passed on a narrow two lane road cut out in the mountain.

But it didn't happen just once... I lost track of the times that a bus or truck would come full force around that bend to see our large SUV motionless, blocking the lane. Blasting horns and shaken fists swerved by us. Each and every time I was sure that we would be hit. I remember looking at Kellie and saying, "I NEED SOME OPTIONS HERE."

I thought of Edgar, our friend who was nearly 3 hours away. He was the closest help I could think of... and so I began sending him a text. He responded and together we were desperately trying to brainstorm a way out of this problem.

Edgar said he was very worried for us. He said "hold tight, I will have to call you back. I don't know what we can do." I sat in stunned shock as he ended the call. He said this was bad. I had never before heard Edgar say something was bad. He is the man that I pour out my problems to and he replies, "ah, it is no problem."  Tires continued to scream past us while their drivers smashed on the horns. 

Somehow knowing that Edgar recognized this as a serious problem caused me to drop into a whole new mindset. It seemed almost primal.

This was survival time. The decisions we were about to make would determine whether or not we made it back to our home in San Lucas... I wondered if I would ever tell this story, or if I did, what type of ending would it have?

While we sat there, a small explosion came from the front of our vehicle and vapor began to rise all up from both sides and the front. I wanted to laugh with the madness of the moment. I was terrified that the engine might explode, but I just sat there, feeling like I was done. I had nothing left.

My mother in law, Sharon said it looked like smoke, and suddenly everyone was near panic.  I checked the mirror for traffic, waited until it was clear, opened the door and lunged out. I ran to the front and crawled down on all fours to look up into the engine. There was fluid spraying on the engine block. It was just steam, not fire. I dodged oncoming cars and jumped back into the driver seat, telling them it wasn't a fire.

Suddenly my phone beeped at me. The battery was about to die. You have got to be kidding me! No... this was my only lifeline. I jumped back into the Terracan, I frantically took out my phone and began to type on my Viber app a message... but it just kept processing, I never got a confirmation that it sent. And so I began to text him...

I was sitting there in that moment wrestling with thoughts... if we stayed in the vehicle, we would likely be hit. If we abandoned the vehicle and took off on foot, we would be exposed and easy targets of crime... and there was no doubt that the Terracan would be stolen.

I resisted the idea of losing our vehicle. This was the car that we held a benefit concert to get. Our friends and family had all dug deep in their hearts and wallets to help us raise $9500 through  donations and a concert. If we lost it, I knew we could not replace it.

But then I thought of our family sitting in that car on a blind corner on a steep mountain pass. Right at that moment another bus came screeching by and again we were nearly hit... nearly driven into that stone wall. Suddenly my priorities properly aligned. I no longer cared about that hunk of metal. I cared that my family get through this night.

I again began typing the words to Edgar. "We are abandoning the vehicle. Heading out on foot to Solola." I hit send, the phone again beeped, vibrated, and died. The screen went black and the power button was useless.

Putting the dead phone in my pocket I told everyone to grab their backpacks and carry anything they want to keep. Whatever we leave behind is lost. I grabbed our passport copies, our insurance card, the car title, my laptop, and Remus the dog. We had to wait until we had a clearing in traffic... and then rush out and slam the doors.

At Sharon's advice, I had ran back into the Terracan, inserted the key, and shifted it into neutral. There was an indentation in the wall where I could roll the vehicle back and get some clearance from the road. With no power steering or breaks, and with fluid spraying from the engine... it was difficult, but we got it done. 

The car was no mostly out of the road... but we still couldn't stay here. We were attracting the wrong kind of attention. Cars were starting to stop and people were staring at us in groups. We were an easy target. Americans with smart phones, money, a vehicle, and a little rich dog... come and get it. We had no other choice but to make a go of it on foot.

This was it. We were alone. Walking down the side of a mountain in the dark with trucks and busses roaring past us with inches to spare. My car was sitting on the side of the road with steam blasting out from the hood. I knew I would never see it again.

I told my family, "we'll just walk down the hill back into the city. Let's find a place to sit down and have dinner. We'll look for a hotel or place to stay. Edgar will come for us in the morning." I tried to sound light hearted and give a smile, but I think I likely just looked insane.

They all looked at me like I had lost my mind. But there was no other option. We silently began walking down the mountain.  Behind me I could hear cars swerving around our vehicle and I listened to voices as words were shouted I could not understand. 

This might be the moment when I learn how real my faith is to me. I wondered how I might face the various nasty possibilities that ran through my mind. I would not go down easy. I stiffened my shoulders and tried my best to look confident and casual. 

For the first time I came face to face with the reality that this was not going to end well. I cried out to God in that moment... I need YOU! I have NOTHING. I am OUT of answers. I need you. I need you. No matter what happens, I am yours... but I need you. I thought of Job. I thought of the disciples who suffered. I remembered that we are not promised safety.

And then...

...from my pocket I heard the theme song to X-Files. My ring-tone. I was getting a call from the dead cell phone in my pocket. I stopped completely still in sheer disbelief. I had watched that phone die. I had tried to turn it back on. It was dead. DEAD.

And now... it was ringing.

(continue the story here Breakdown in Solola: (5) My Papaw's Knife)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Breakdown in Solola: (3) Get Out of My Way!

I close my eyes shut tightly against the image of my children being pulled from the car and I drive my thoughts towards moments that ground me.

I think of the day we all found our favorite ruin when we took a wrong turn in Antigua. I remember taking this photograph as my heart burst with the floodgate collapse of realized happiness unexpected. Somehow I was so blessed to be in this place with such a beautiful family. I remembered thinking even then... but this is not promised. This is not guaranteed. Things could go dark. I remember locking that moment away deep in my heart as a reserve for a time such as this.

Everything I held onto tightest was in this car. This car stuck immobile in this moment of time while my mind was realigned by this powerful memory. I found a sense of purpose as I visualized my families feet on the path heading towards the ruin. If today was to be our ruin... so be it.

We are confident of the God who leads us. If today is to be our final day, then let me hit my knees on the stones of this narrow way.

I looked back up with the man and told him, I am sorry... I thought the car was drivable. I am just trying to get home. He continues to insist that I coast backwards back into the thick of the town and he will find us a place to stay the night. I feel deep in my gut that this man is not to be trusted. I have this overwhelming conviction that if I take him up on this offer, things will not end well.

I ask God for help. I have no answers. I need a miracle.

I turn the key... the engine fires up... but will it GO? I place my foot on the brake, I slip the engine into drive... I take a deep breath and then SLAM my foot down on the pedal.

The Terracan lurches forward with a roar!

But people are everywhere. There is no clear path. I am convinced this is my one and only shot to get away from this place. I am convinced that everything depends on it. I slam my fist down on the horn, roll the windows up tight, and drive into the crowd. The people are frantically jumping out of the way and shoving others aside. I know now that without a doubt, I am offending and angering a crowd of people. 

I force my way into traffic, hearing other horns blast out and people are now yelling to others to get out of the way. We accelerate up the mountain pass as my tires squeal against the stone street while I jerk and weave between people on foot and vehicles in the street. I go from side to side, even driving into the gutter to avoid collision. We crest the top of the hill and begin driving out of the city. 

Solola is now behind us. I tear down the mountain pass in a concentrated and determined frenzy. My hands grip the wheel with determination and my mind takes in every nuanced curve and tilt of the pavement as I anticipate the bank of the narrow curves. I keep checking the rear-view mirror... convinced that angry men will be in pursuit. I can't imagine that we will get away. But as a few kilometers pass between our tiny family in that car... my breathing begins to deepen and my hands relax their grip on the wheel. We are safely rolling towards home.

The mood relaxes in the truck and like anyone who gets through a tough spot, we begin to downplay the situation and even laugh about it. We come to the next climb in the road. The next few kilometers are a significant climb in altitude as we have to cross over another mountain to get to San Lucas. I hit the ascent with a powerful acceleration, and my heart starts to turn to ice in my chest as I feel our speed begin to slow.

I press the pedal fully to the floor and the I began shouting, "NO, NO, NO... you've got to be kidding me! NOT. AGAIN!"

We are on a narrow mountain pass. It is dark. We are on a steep angle on a blind curve. There is a rock wall to my right, a double yellow line in the center of the street, and traffic is coming down the mountain at high speed. The cars behind us can not safely pass. We can't go forward. We can't go backward. 

I hear tires screaming on the pavement and look up at the mirror. An old school bus used for public transportation is sliding sideways, into oncoming traffic, trying to avoid colliding into us. The driver is laying on his air-horn.

My entire body tenses up. I shrink down into my seat and close my eyes as my head fills up with the demon shriek of screaming tires and the blasting horn.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Breakdown In Solola: (2) "American? You Cannot Be Here!"

The way home. An impossible distance.

The windows were darkly tinted black and so up to this point, the men pounding on the sides were unaware of how many people were in our vehicle. I sat there as the Terracan rocked back and forth with their pounding and looked at the face of my wife, my mother-in-law, and my children. Rolling down the window could be a game changer when the crowd learns that a single unarmed, gringo male with limited spanish has with him in the car two women and three children.

That option seemed impossible. How could I expose us? But there was no other option. The shouts grew louder and the crowd was beginning to swell. There was no way out. I pressed the button and allowed the window to roll down a few inches. The man who had been pressed against it took a glance at my pale skin and shouted above the chaos...

"American? Do you speak English?" "Yes, we are stuck." "You need to move your car, you cannot be here." "I can't, it won't go." "You need to trust me, you CAN trust me… I used to live in L.A." "What can we do?" "Put it in neutral and I will have my friends push you off the road."

Desperately I try to ignore him, I turn of the engine, pray a desperate prayer that the car will go… I turn the key, the engine starts, I throw it into drive and hit the accelerator… and nothing happens. Nothing. Defeated and feeling bewildered I slide the shifter into neutral as I turn back to the man who is continuing to insist that I can trust him, that his friend is a mechanic, that he can take us to a safe place… I turn to him and say… "Push."

He shouts to his friends and immediately I feel the vehicle lurch forward. He tells me to take my foot off the brake. Now feeling humiliated on top of being freaked… I release the brake and the men begin pushing us up the hill. The crowd parts slightly as the man from L.A. very insistently directs us to a small shoulder area off the road. Traffic begins roaring past us with horns blaring and hands gestating out of windows. 

The man from L.A. is back at my window and he is shouting that we must get out. I shut the engine off again and bow my head. We were not safe here! We could not get out of the car! No-one even knows are location! The crowd does not appear friendly and now they know we are Americans. They know that we have resources… and they know how vulnerable we are. I open my eyes as I look up to the darkening sky. This will get so much worse if we are stranded in darkness.

I turn the key, the engine starts… I slam the lever into drive and stomp the pedal. The Terracan slowly begins to crawl forward. We all shout as I roll up the window and push my way into traffic. 

We get about 100 yards up the road, we turn a corner and begin ascending again up the mountain.

The pedal falls underneath my foot. I have it pressed to the floor… and the engine again fails to respond. We come to a stop again in the road and I reach for the emergency brake as we start rolling backwards… again.

I feel panic try to rise in my chest as I gulp air, take a moment… and then force a smile. I say calmly, "we've stopped again."

Mr. L.A. leads the crowd as I watch them come closer and closer in my side view mirror. Resigned to the moment, I roll my window down and turn to meet him as he approaches. I am out of answers. He looks angry. I don't know what to do. He yells… "what are you trying to do? Why did you move? We had you off the road and now you're blocking it again!" 

The hill is now to steep for them to push us up and so he tells me I need to put it in neutral and roll backwards to where we were. The crowd looks angry to me. Again traffic is backed up behind us and the noise begins to grow.

I can't go forward. I can't go backward. We have no way out. How can this be happening? I shut the engine off and roll up the window. I just need a few moments to calm my thoughts. Surely there must be a way out of this. I need to think!

The pounding on our vehicle starts again and more intense than before. Are they trying to help? Are they trying to get to us? Hands are now slamming on the glass. I imagine it shattering… and us being pulled out.

(continue the story here Breakdown in Solola: (3) Get Out of My Way)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Breakdown in Solola: (1) I Never Pray for Safety

For the past 13 years of my life my routine was largely the same. There was an underlying comfort in selecting the color of my necktie and beginning the day with the snug knot of a half windsor.

There is a comfort and security in the mundane that is often overlooked, but can not be overstated. I begin this story on the rooftop of our home with birds flying near me as if I belong here. In the distance the light, warm sound of a marimba plays, carried on the soft, warm wind and accompanied by an occasional blast from a high caliber rifle shot. This is Guatemala. Reality here has no allowance for the mundane.

I never pray for safety. I don't think we get that guarantee. I pray that we remain in the will of God. If we remain in His will, then let the danger come. Our timeline extends beyond these days. 

We began our trip that day with a pre-check: mobile phones, laptop, certified copies of passports & car registration, insurance card, multi-tool, water, nutrition bars, toilet paper, first-aid kit, knife, extra shoes, rain gear, sunglasses, bug repellent, sun-screen, cash, and my pocket Bible. We had a car-load with all three kids, Kellie, her mother, our schnauzer Remus, and myself. It was Sharon's first day in Guatemala and we wanted to share some great experiences together. Everyone was thrilled to have Grandmother along.

I had been to Panajachel several times but this would be my first time driving. We set the navigation, stopped for fuel, and made our way through Chimaltenango and up into the mountains. It was a typical drive for this area... we came to a mountain pass where the road had collapsed into the ravine below, and followed the dirt path the locals had made that led an alternate route through.

I put the Terracan into all wheel drive and shifted into the lower gear as we made our way zig-zag to the base of the mountain. As we reached the bottom we all grew silent as I came to a slow stop and we all contemplated the fact that the trail led to the river. It looked to be a good 50 feet wide and the water was rolling quickly from the prior night's rain. I had no idea how deep it was, but I could see tracks leading from the water up the steep bank on the other side. 

Clearly, other cars had made it.

I considered turning around and finding another route... but things aren't ever that simple here. We really had two clear choices... go through, or go home. Well, we didn't come here to be meek. And so we made sure everyone was buckled in and items were secure... I engaged the transmission and we drove forward with purpose. When driving through water, you of course worry about the depth and the strength of the currant, but you also know that you can't risk driving slowly. Too fast and you may hit a rock or hole and break your axle. Too slow any you may begin to sink into the muck.

I hit the water at a pretty good rate and the water cascaded up both sides of the vehicle like wings. We crossed the river and began climbing up the side. The Terracan was a beast. We were living out a scene from an action movie and not a single tire even slipped. I felt like a gladiator riding his stallion through battle. 

Driving through a river at the bottom of a ravine at the base of mountains and volcanos in central america... this is awesome.

We made it Panajachel, Kellie successfully negotiated a great price for a boat and a captain and we crossed lake Atitlàn to have lunch at a cliffside bistro overlooking the 1100 foot deep water that rested between the bases of 3 volcanos.

The day had been perfect. We drank Coca-cola from glass bottles, shopped in the artisan street market, and left early at 4:00 so that we could get through the mountains before the sun set. The roads were not safe at night... with turns on mountainous sheer drops without guardrail, and bandits searching for easy targets.

Kellie and I were exchanging warm smiles and feeling a sense of relief. This had been our first trip without a Guatemalan guide to this part of the country, our first time hosting a family member... and everything had gone incredibly well. We were talking of a stop at a hacienda for a grand dinner at a cheap price as we came down the mountain from Panajachel and into the small town of Solola.

Solola was a typical sort of Guatemalan town. The streets are very narrow and filled from edge to edge with people, animals, cars, trucks, bicycles, and vendors. It is like a scene from Indiana Jones as you slowly drive your vehicle directly through the massing crowd of people. Traffic was single file as we navigated our way gently through the fray. 

As we made our way to the end of town the road began to rise sharply up to begin the entrance into the mountain pass. Suddenly I had no acceleration. I could press the pedal down with my foot... but the engine would not respond. The Terracan started to fall backwards down the hill.

I reached down and yanked up on the emergency brake, abruptly stopped our downward motion and avoiding disaster. Again I pressed on the pedal with no result. I slammed on the button for to active our emergency flashers and turned off the engine. Horns began to blow. People began to shout, and a crowd began to swarm around us. 

Some started pushing at the Terracan, rocking us back and forth. Others were knocking at the glass, and even beating fists against the doors. I no longer felt like a conquering hero. This was turning into a different sort of feeling... deep in the pit of my gut I felt a powerful grip. Everything in the world seemed to concentrate down to this moment as I suddenly was aware of every sight and sound with a crystal clear sort of clarity. 

We were in trouble. 



I remember thinking... there is no way out.