Monday, June 18, 2012

The Story of a Border Crossing

I thought you were all due for a little comic relief here, and we had a day that was pretty laughable last week. We had headed down to the Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo with Greg's dad who was here visiting. He wanted some time to soak up the beach and treat the kids to something nice while he was here.
While we were there, we found out the rates the tour company's were charging to bring folks over to Panama were really low right now as it the low season for tourism here. Looking at the calendar, we realized visa renewal loomed just ahead of us next month and with me having a trip to the States planned at the beginning of the month and our chapel construction under way, it was better to leave now than later. So we booked the trip to leave on Monday morning. The van would be at our hotel to pick us up at 8am.
The first fun was that all of our clothes were really gross from the weekend at the beach and needed washing. We went to the places that were advertised as laundry mats only to find they were actually women who were willing to wash out two loads of laundry for the small sum of $40. So we opted to figure it out on our own. Somehow my husband convinced the boys that standing in the shower in their bathing suits hand washing the clothes was fun. And he convinced me that these clothes would dry enough on the porch of the hotel overnight that we would be able to pack them up in the morning.

(Photos from our trip to the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo)

I scrounged up enough clean clothes for everyone to have something to wear the next morning while the bos worked.  The clothes got washed and hung to dry outside. Somewhere in the middle of the night one of the worst torrential down pours that anyone seems to remember began on the Caribbean coast. It rained almost 16 hours straight. The clothes outside were wetter than they had been when we hung them up. Trying to be a trooper, I gathered them in to a plastic bag and figured we could dry them when we got where we were going. I headed to the room where the clean clothes and suit cases were to get us all ready to go. Only to find it was locked.
And upon further investigation, it turned out the hotel did not have any keys for the door. At this point, we had just minutes to be ready for the bus that would arrive to take us to the border. The boys made do with whatever mish mash of dirty pajamas they were wearing and headed to the lobby to wait for the bus while the Greg and the hotel maintenance man attempted to break into the bedroom. Soon the boys returned announcing that the bus had arrived. I mentally prepared myself to have to journey to Panama in my pajamas as I strapped on my sandals and prayed Memorares to the contrary. Greg went to buy us some time with the bus driver.
Finally, after disassembling the door frame, the man was able to get into the room.  I threw the bag of wet clothes into the suit case and handed it off to Greg while I quickly changed from my pajamas into my most comfy maxi skirt and a t-shirt. The maxi skirt would prove to be a poor choice as the not-so-good, terribly rainy day wore on and the water slowly creeped its way up my cotton skirt from its edges which were all too close to the ground. I was wet from the knees down for most of the day.
Minutes later, we were in the tour bus headed toward to border town of Sixaola. We arrived without incident and exited through Costa Rica immigration with no problems. Then we proceeded toward the bridge which spans the border of Costa Rica and Panama. We were to cross it on foot, pass through Panamanian immigration, and meet the tour bus from the Panama office on the other side. So, in the rain, trailing kids and luggage behind, we stepped out onto the bridge. It is a 103 year old wooden suspension bridge which clearly  has not had much maintenance in the last 80 years or so. There is a brand new bridge being constructed just on the other side of it, but apparently there is some governmental scuffle about whose job is to finish the last portion where the two sides (the Costa Rica side and the Panama side) meet.  The old bridge has gaps between its wooden boards large enough to make a mom's heart beat hard and fast and to complete negate the convenience of luggage with wheels. The rusty grates that provided protection from the edges of the bridge had gaps of their own. We walked slow enough to keep anyone from slipping on the wet wood boards but fast enough to keep anyone from getting interested in what was over the edges of that bridge. We arrived at the other side wet and relieved.

(Photos of the bridge crossing)

The line for Panama immigration was pretty long and we stood there in the rain trying to make the best of it all. We were rewarded for that by meeting the most warm, kind Panamanian immigration officer in the office on the other side. He was so excited to see our big family headed into Panama and to find out that we were missionaries that he waived the entrance tax for all the kids.
We found our van driver, dragged our luggage down the flight of steps that led to the street below the bridge and started on our way through Panama toward the islands of Bocas del Toro, our destination. A short way into our journey, the van driver received a phone call and then turned the van around and pulled into a restaurant parking lot. He informed us that the bridge we needed to cross into the dock town of Almirante was closed at the moment, so we would stop here at the restaurant for a while to see if it would open. I assumed this had something to with the weather.
So wet and getting tired, we savored the chance to sit, eat and sip a few cokes while we waited. The driver beckoned to us that it was time to head out and we headed in to the van. He informed us that the bridge we needed to cross was being blocked by indigenous workers who were protesting not being paid for their work on the banana farms. He would take us to one side, where we cross past the blockade and meet another van that would take us the rest of the way to dock.
We arrived at the foot of the bridge to giant traffic jam that was piling up as people took one taxi to one side, crossed and met another on the other side. Just at the edge of the bridge, under a large blue tarp, peacefully stood one hundred or so protesters. It's so hard as a missionary to just keep going on with life in those moments, to not stop at the sight of such injustice and join the protest. But our kids were wet and tired and getting them to safety was our first priority. We quickly walked past the blockade and met the van on the other side.
Now three hours behind schedule, the van sped around the winding mountain roads toward the dock. This apparently was not an ideal follow up to our unexpected lunch, because just as we arrived at the dock, Brendan showered the entire inside of the van with everything he had consumed. I smiled weakly at the horrified young back packers who had narrowly escaped the shower and attempted to clean us both up with some amount of grace. This was no easy feat as the place we had arrived was a wooden dock which was drenched with rain with bathrooms at either end marked men and women, but behind both of which were just holes in the dock's wooden planks opening into the water below. I found a sink outside and managed to get us slightly cleaned up, but remember, changing clothes was not an option as everything in the suit case was now even wetter than it had been before we left. We waited around the dock avoiding the humiliating glances of our fellow travelers as we had been informed that our boat taxi had been delayed due to weather. The boat finally arrived and we loaded up our luggage and hopped in, putting the motion sick traveler on the outside end.
We crossed the canals of Almirante and headed out into the open Caribbean Sea toward the beautiful islands of Bocas del Toro. We arrived without reservations for our three night stay and with the assumption that in off season it would be easy to find a place to stay. An hour and a half later, both the boys and I were begging Greg to just take any place that had room for us. He was finally able to make a reservation at some cabins on the island just across from Bocas Town and we grabbed some dinner and headed over.
From that point forward, our border crossing trip changed course. Bocas is one of the most beautiful, interesting places I have ever been filled with some of the most interesting people I have ever met. We soaked up every lovely minute there and fell thoroughly in love with the place.

(Photos from our time in Bocas)

When it came time to head home, we crossed the border and made our way back into Costa Rica and then to home without event. This is the crazy, funny, beautiful missionary life we lead. Full of once in a lifetime experiences that make great story telling. And as I often say to my kids, "Who gets to do this? We do! Why? Because we love the Jesus who first loved us!" How awesomely amazing is that?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Joy Abounds

I have not been able to find the time to blog for a while now. I wish there was a way to make my Facebook status updates show up as blog posts. I find it so much easier to update regularly there than here. When I post here, it's like I need to have something worthwhile to say. More than what I bought off  the fruit truck that day or the fact that I realized I haven't driven a car in six months. But these little tid bits really are the fabric of our missionary lives here. And it occurred to me that the last couple of things I posted here may have made it seem like I walk around with the weight of the world on my shoulders all the time here. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The truth is, joy abounds in our life here. Much of our time is spent just the same way it was before, living our family life to the fullest, playing games, reading books, cooking meals, making beds, learning algebra and division and subtraction with regrouping. And of course, joy abounds in those things. Greg and I both earnestly enjoy the challenge of cooking here. Figuring out how to use the things we can get regularly to create interesting nutritious food to share with our family and, quite often, our friends.  Today, my boys water colored sky backgrounds and made city sky scrapers out of paint swatch strips while I hung the laundry on the line to dry. It was a moment to savor. Tranquility, peace, joy filling every corner of our home.Creativity drawing out the best in my boys.
Then there is the life outside my front door. The life of the place we live. Yes, there are people here, friends, who struggle to make life work on a daily basis. Yes, there are times when the pain and injustice of poverty slap me in the face and it hurts. Yes, there is a longing in my heart for the people I see in the street every day to know Jesus and the great gift of mercy and salvation we have in our all-loving God. But most of the time, walking around this town, what I feel is joy.
I pass the homes of friends and we call greetings back and forth. Usually, someone comes to the gate to talk a bit more or beckons me in for a visit. Older ladies pat my hand and take my arm and walk with me for a bit. One of my favorite parts of any walk through town is running into my friend Don Luis.
Don Luis is a stroke victim and has lost most of his speech abilities as well as the use of his right hand and leg.  He walks with a cane and significant limp. But walk he does. All day.  We have a little game we play each time he sees me. He offers me his good hand for a hand shake but quickly pulls it back before I can reach for it. I then proceed to try to catch his "mano magica" as I have come to call it. He has his own rule. I can only play with one hand since he only has one hand. When the game ends with me catching him, I dance and cheer in my victory. He laughs. Other times, I cheat a little and steal the cap he's wearing and kiss him on the forehead instead. Or poke him in the belly and run. Whatever way it ends, it always ends with him laughing. And me too. Because despite our brokenness, despite our weakness, for the both of us, joy abounds. Yesterday, Don Luis was standing on the bridge listening to the music wafting from a festival they were having at the school. As I walked home from that very festival and headed toward him on the bridge, I heard the other men calling to him asking him why he was not dancing. So I took his hand and danced with him. There, in the middle of the bridge, dancing freely for all to see with Don Luis, who just that morning had been so frustrated when he couldn't get the words out to make me understand what he was trying to tell me, I was overcome with joy.
One night as we were leaving the priests house to head home, we crossed the gate at the same moment that an indigenous family was entering to spend the night in the hostel that the church provides for them when they are traveling to and from town. The woman who passed me was dressed in a t-shirt, brightly colored skirt and black rubber boots, as the indigenous women usually are. There was a baby strapped to her back, tied with a piece of old cloth, also very common. The baby had fallen asleep as she walked and his head hung backwards, bobbing with each step. As she crossed me, I said to her, "oh pobrecito el que sueno tiene", meaning "oh poor baby, how tired he is". She smiled brightly, flipped her back toward me so I could see the baby better, then held up her hands which held a live hen by the feet  and a machete. She giggled and answered, "which one?" We laughed wildly there in the dark at the gate to church. The baby stirred. My kids noticed that the t-shirt she was wearing was from the Christian Youth Theater organization, which has been a huge part of our lives and a major blessing for us. We smiled the whole way home marveling at how close that made us feel to our old lives. And how sweet and funny that moment was.  Because even after walking for hours in the dark, when your baby sleeps gently on your back and dinner wriggles in your hand, and you have arrived finally at warm shelter for the night, well, joy abounds.
The other night, we were at the rectory going over chapel plans with the priests. Greg handed me a machete that he was going to borrow from them. I stood there for a minute feeling awkward with the machete hanging at my side, then announced to Fr. Johnny, "Look, I'm becoming just like an indigenous woman. I just need a skirt with pretty flowers and a pair of rubber boots." He smiled as he added, "and a baby on your back." A few minutes later, I found myself on the porch, arms full of a beautiful indigenous baby boy as I lent his mother my telephone so she could call her mother and let her know she and the children had arrived safely in town. We chatted and the baby cooed in my arms. My heart swelled there on the porch. Because when your husband chats with the priest in your mission and the topic of the conversation in the construction of a chapel which your imperfect "Yes" to God inspired in another beautiful family AND your fluency in the language affords you the opportunity to make jokes AND someone entrusts you with her beautiful baby and gifts you with conversation while you wait, well, joy abounds.
I keep wishing there was a way to capture it all in images to share with you, this joy, the beauty I experience every day. But the truth is, this is my life. Every day. I can't frame it in perfect pictures. I can't carry a camera around just in case Don Luis' smile is extra bright that day or I happen to end up on the porch with a beautiful baby in my arms or the canopy of clouds and banana trees above the clothes line is especially peaceful one morning. What I have are words. And I hope in this humble offering you can see that joy abounds in this life I live. That amidst poverty and brokenness and real, gritty every day life, God descends to be with His people. And when we walk in that grace, joy is what we find.
I will, however, include here this month's video news about our mission as I think it does portray a bit of the life with live with great joy. I hope you smile watching it.