Friday, November 29, 2013

4 Chicken Wings in a Stilt Shack - Exit to Belize

Wednesday was a busy day that ended with Caleb and I arriving home in San Lucas at 10:00, after Big Student Ministries. I dragged my carry-on bag out of storage and threw in 2 pairs of shorts and a random stack of t-shirts. I decided to read a while and finally pulled the 3 blankets up and shut my eyes. It was 12:17 and the alarm was set for 2:15. Only a couple of hours, but I wasn't worried… having learned from our last road trip, we had hired a friend to drive us. He is a professional driver, a mechanic, and a Guatemalan. He had made the 5 hour drive many times. I didn't even bother to look at a map. We were in good hands. I only had to drive us to the Puma gas station. Then he would drive… and I would sleep.

As it turns out though, at 3 a.m. we waited at the Puma gas station in San Lucas while he waited at the Puma gas station in San Cristobal. I couldn't reach him. And so… at 3:30, we powered up a digital map, and hit the road for our longest road trip yet. 2 hours of sleep after a 17 hour day with 5 hours to go on the road. Here we go.

Fear not. I won't subject you to an 8 series serial novel. This was a perfect trip. Finally. We had guidance via our friends, Edgar & Fontaine… and I had two chargers so that we didn't lose contact. 

I hadn't had any coffee, and was planning to find some along the way, but the road was deserted and shops closed until we nearly reached our destination, and by then we were too close to stop. We drove a full 5 hours, in the dark, through the mountains, in the rain, with insane semi-truck drivers 3 wide on a 2 lane road… all without incident. Well… nearly.

This happened in front of us. We were not involved and we were ok. It was far enough ahead that we came to a controlled stop. As Kellie said, this driver was fortunate. What you can't see is that his trailer is resting on a narrow ledge of land, being held by a tree. A tree that grows on the ledge of a cliff that overlooks a beautiful valley, several hundred feet below. Just a foot farther… and it would have been his last ride.

We have to have some adventure… right?

Edgar had a friend meet us at Puerto Barrios Izabal, the port city on the edge of Guatemala. Before leaving the country for our mandatory exit for visa renewal, we had to: get our exit stamps, pay taxes, purchase boat tickets, securely park our car, and make our way to the port. At the time I didn't think we needed help… but now I am thankful that we had her. Through her bad English, our bad Spanish, a lot of hand-gesturing, some patience, and a lot of laughs and smiles… she and her husband navigated us successfully through every step. 

Hopefully we will still have a car when we get back.

Everything here is done with a handshake and trust in each other. I find that both refreshing and unsettling! I handed over my car keys to a stranger without a receipt, and we bought passage on a small boat and received no paper tickets. The boat was set to leave in three hours, and so we dragged our luggage down the few blocks to the port and waited.

The local activity was amazing. The culture here is wildly varied from the area of Guatemala of which we are familiar. My attention was captivated by a very dark skinned man who looked to be of african descent, but spoke beautiful English and Spanish. He wore typical short sleeve shirt, woven with local cotton and tied at the chest with cord. His pants were hobbit length and the muscles rippled in his calves when he walked.

He was barefooted and his feet seemed hardened like mahogany. He was completely at home on the dock, carrying cargo, networking with the locals, and managing the loading of his craft. He approached Caleb and struck up a conversation that I found entertaining… but Caleb just seemed concerned and nervous! 

Kellie told me later that Caleb had been praying the night before that the the boat wouldn't sink. What must his thoughts have been as he watched that boat sink lower and lower with the enormous load? I think the entire moment was overwhelming for him! But Caleb is a survivor, and soon he was tossing luggage.

In just a few short words and toothless smiles, Mr. Mahogany Feet was showing Caleb how to load the boat. With about 30 minutes before departure, Mr. Mahogany Feet and crew allowed us to board.

This boat ride was incredible. It was amazing. It was one of the coolest things I have done in my life. And… like most things that fit this category, it was slightly insane. We were so ridiculously overloaded that we would have never left the dock in the U.S. It looked like one of those refugee boats of desperate people escaping Cuba. The front of the boat was headed full of goods and cargo, rising above the 8 foot canopy. 

Our luggage was strapped on top of it all, and three men, including Mahogany Feet were sprawled across the top. It seemed it was their job to make sure the cargo didn't fall off, and also they were the eyes of the captain. He was at the rear of the boat, with his hand on the massive outboard engine. I climbed in the boat and we made up the Gringo section… right in the middle, full row. 

This was our view facing forward. And so we sat there in our American-ness as Guatemalans and Belizeans boarded and packed stuff all around us. The immigration officials approached and gave a roll call, verifying our right to passage. One man was pulled off and required to pay more. I have no idea why. I felt oddly relieved when we pushed off and turned into the Caribbean for an amazing ride.

There are two quick videos to show you. First, how the family looked when we first launched.

And then how they looked about 30 minutes into the crossing.

Asleep! Tarps were available and most people used them because the spray was heavy. But the water was warm, the sun was shining, and the salty taste of the spray was perfect. I held Sterling in my arms, the tarp covering her while she slept and I let the spray cover me like a summer kiss. The boat would crest with the bow rising out of the water before it would fall back into the next wave with each impact sending a terrific explosion of water rushing past my head. Sometimes the angle of the impact or maybe the force of the wind would be enough that it would reach over the side of the boat and quench me with a covering like a warm blanket of summer.

Suddenly I realized that I was weary. I was tired. Tired deep to my core. Tired with the worries and the struggles of the last 6 months. It was a good tired though, the kind of weariness that you feel after a job is complete, or you stand back and see the result of the effort and you know that it was worth it. You know that somehow it was worth even more than you put into it, so much more than somehow it even could be. I let the waves fall into me and run down as salty tears on my face.

I was so thankful. The waves came on and on, each one of them somehow cleansing away the worries and the tensions that came packaged with the journey. I felt the spirit of God calming the noise of my mind like a gentle hand hidden in the spray. I allowed myself to become soaked.

As we climbed out of the boat and collected our smashed luggage, I realized that my hair was glistening white with salt that had collected. My face was covered and even my eyebrows were filled with salt. What an amazing metaphor. When we are touched by the hand of God, we carry away evidence of his presence. Everyone could see the result of the encounter. I smiled as I thought about the words Jesus spoke about salt and light.

We made our way through immigration and gained another stamp in our passports after answering the obligatory questions of "do you have: food, plants, animals, weapons, etc." It was wonderful to hear, "Welcome to Belize."

We walked a quarter of a mile, pulling our gear and me with Sterling riding on my shoulders. We crashed into our room, went for dinner, and came back to swim. Of course the day was Thanksgiving, our first major holiday without our families, and the emotion of that was silently resting on the periphery of our day. We gave thanks for them from here. 

We have so much for which we give thanks. The journey has been amazing. It continues to be so. The vision that God places before us just seems to inexplicably continue to open up in front of us. We thank you for your prayers, your love.

My Facebook post today kind of caught my emotion at the moment I wrote it, and I leave you with those words:

"Had 4 chicken wings in a local barbecue sauce in a small wooden shack on stilts over Caribbean water last night. Had to hike into the village square to get some local cash, because no-one uses credit cards. The nearest city is 2 hours away over rough terrain. There are no retail outlets, no malls, no restaurants. It was an hour boat ride to get here and our transportation mode is a group of pink bicycles. Our family of 5 sleeps in 2 full size beds. It is minimal, it is beautiful. It is perfect. It was the closest place to go to in order to meet our visa renewal requirement. This is the most remote place I have ever been to. Our family has a few short days to just spend together in isolation. This seems to be the perfect place to be on "Black Friday."

Kids crashed out after a full day of travel.

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