Monday, March 22, 2010

By this all will know.

Last weekend we attended the Special Assembly Day in the city of Volcan. Volcan is about a 5 hour trip from where we are in Bocas. 10 of us from the English congregation traveled together, including a woman named Hilda who was attending her first assembly ever. We met at 6:00 am at the boat dock to take a rising sun-lit cruise to the main land, and then crammed into a taxi van for the rest of the trip through the hills. Upon arrival in Volcan a local brother took us to our lodging places. All of us were able to stay with brothers and sisters who lovingly opened their homes to us.

The next day was the assembly. This was the pinnacle of the trip. The Volcan Kingdom Hall was filled with missionaries, special pioneers, and need greaters from all different parts of the world. Each person met had a more encouraging experience than the last. And every single one was so sincere and humble despite all of the sacrifices made and hard work they're accomplishing. It was like talking to a living year book. I don't think I've ever before felt more spiritual focus in one small room! There were a little over 100 people in attendance, which completely filled the hall. Men, women, old, young, all different races, many complete strangers warmly embracing one another with the biggest of smiles. Clothed with the perfect bond of union, indeed.

The house we stayed in happened to have a map of Panama hanging on the wall. We were drawn to this like moths to a flame, since oddly there aren't any maps of Panama anywhere in this country! The morning after the assembly, I read the map over breakfast. It's ridiculous to be so close (relatively) to the capital of the country without plans to go visit it! The solution: "Liz! Let's take a bus to Panama City today!!" We only had the clothes on our backs and what we wore to the assembly, but the spontaneous adventure was totally worth the sacrifice of wearing the same underwear for a few days in a row. It's ok Mom, I have roaches in my house, I went 5 days without a shower, and who knows whose poop bubbled out of my shower drain one day when it rained a lot, things take on a different perspective...

After convincing Liz, we were off to David to buy our bus tickets for what we thought was a 5 hour bus ride to Panama City. Our tickets were for the 1:20 pm bus which somehow was lost and didn't arrive until 3:00 pm... finally boarded the bus. Despite the lady in front of me having a "lay in my lap" setting on her chair, the bus was very comfortable. More of a tour bus type than the usual pimped out school busses cruising the streets. After a few hours on the bus we thought we'd ask how much longer till we arrived. The answer "Diez de noche." "What?? 10 at night???" Unfortunately, our translation was correct. We arrived at an airport sized bus depot at 10:00 pm. Where would we sleep? This was at the discrection of the taxi driver who we were hoping could understand our gringa-spanish. He took us to a hostel called La Jungla House. There we were greeted by a very eccentric but incredibly friendly panamanian named Sebastian, who repeatedly reminded us he was the "receptionist". Slumber was sweet.

Pancakes were made for us in the morning, and Sebastian helped create an itinerary for our short stay. Our first destination: Casco Viejo. It's the oldest city on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The historical French/Spanish architecture give this area a very romantic feel. Buildings painted all different colors, orange, pink, blue, green standing side by side with ramshackle balconies overhanging narrow, one way, brick streets. All of this sits on a peninsula that provides a picturesque view of the city's skyline.

Next stop: The Miraflores locks of The Panama Canal. Slow, but impressive. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide by 1,000 feet long. An average of 52 million gallons of fresh water is used in each transit. The lowest toll to date was paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the Panama Canal in 1928. He paid only 36 cents. The highest toll paid was $331,200. And yet, the men who run the vehicles that pull these massive ships through the canal are only paid around $3.00/hr.

From there it was back to the bus depot to catch the overnight bus back home which departed at 8:30 pm. The seats on this bus were impossible to recline, which made watching the very large man in front of us savagely trying to force the back of his chair down for roughly 20 minutes, quite hilarious. The man to the left of us had a spanish radio station that cut in and out of static blaring from the speaker of his cell phone, even though he had earphones pushed in his ears. And the lady in front of him sprawled an entire king size sheet set out over the two bus seats she occupied. This was the scene of the motley crew on that bus. It only got better when I was awoken around 2:00 am by a very stern police officer on board checking passports while his drug sniffing Cocker Spaniel checked the cabin below. By 7:00 am we were home sweet home.

Sadly, we'll be leaving this lovely place in just a little over a week. This will be my last rambling blog post. However, Panama has provided a refreshing oasis of simplicity. It's easy to understand why less is more after even just a few short months of life in a country like this. People in this area of the world make the time to enjoy living. They greet every person that passes with a kind "Hola!" and a warm smile. Their lives revolve around relationships with others, not the possesions the have. Most importantly, they hold dear their relationship with God. To hear them express their ardent love for what they've learned is a souvenir miles above the rest.

Although bittersweet, one journey ends only for another to begin!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wildlife attacks.

We recently moved from our cute little wood shack up in the woods over to the town of Bocas on Isla Colon. Our apartment definitely provides a true "Bocas" experience.

This whole time I've tried my hardest to apply the theory that we're invading the local bug's, animal's and other random life form's space. We - big, destructive humans come in and ruin the poor little thing's natural habitat. So with that in mind, I've tolerated bats eating our bananas off the kitchen counter in the middle of the night, coming home to roaches lounging with their feet kicked up on the couch, and roaches darting out of the kitchen cabinets at my face like a raging bull charges a red flag. Worse yet, while sitting in the kitchen I suddenly heard the scampering of little feet behind me. I turned to see what that could possibly be only to find myself looking at two very large rats frolicking around in the middle of the living room. My shrill, frantic screaming and the rapid movement of jumping up on the five foot high counter in an instant caused one rat to wisely turn around and run out the front door it came in and the other to run behind the couch, stumbling over my shoes in the process. Liz and a broom handle came to the rescue with that problem. Still, I tolerated it. However, a few nights ago my patience nearly came to it's breaking point.

Liz had decided to sleep over at a friend's house. I came home alone, ignored the roach playing in the clean dishes and started getting ready for bed. Pjs on, teeth brushed, bug repellent slathered on.... just as I turned on the bedroom light and lifted my pillow to crawl in, our eyes locked. An easily 1 1/5 inch roach. How lovely. Liz, the bug killer wasn't there to rescue me, the problem was all mine. I stared it in the eye for a minute or two wishing I could communicate with it. You know, work out some kind of deal: I'll leave a pile of bacteria on the front stoop for you every morning and night if you'll just promise that you nor any of your buddies will ever be found in my bed again. Obviously that wasn't a real option. So, I grabbed a spatuala, the longest weapon I could find and went for the kill. The frightful hesitation on my part allowed for it to run over the edge of the mattress and out of sight. After playing a fifteen minute game of hide and seek without it being found I realized I needed another plan. I ended up taking the only sedative in my possesion - benadryl, tying a mosquito net we had brought with us to the four bed posts, wrapping myself as tight as possible in the cascading 4 feet of the net, and shining my flashlight on my face all night. I was pathetically overtaken by the paranoia of seeing it's twitchy antennae pop up over the edge or waking with that little scoundrel cuddled up in the net with me. Sleep? If only.

FINALLY the sun came up! I fought my horrible mood and all of the excuses I had come up with to not meet the service group and got myself ready. One of the first days here another visiting sister Hannah and I met a woman named Ruby. Ruby is probably in her late 50s early 60s, and has the warmest smile. She gives us hugs and a kiss every departure. Hannah has been studying the Bible with her since that day about a month ago, but left yesterday so she wanted to say goodbye to Ruby. We had our usual study and I said the closing prayer. After saying Amen, Ruby continued praying and said "And thank you Jehovah for Hannah. Be with her on her travels home so that she can be safe and make it back here to Bocas again. And thank you Jehovah for opening my eyes to understand all these things that I didn't know before. Amen." Seeing the humble appreciation for Bible truth well up in the hearts of these people is worth sleeping with all of the bats, rats and roaches in the whole of bocas! The blessings always outweigh the sacrifice, always.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A journey to the clouds

We woke in the wee hours of the morning to board a bus from David to Boquete, Panama. This wasn't just any bus. This was a pimped out, pure white school bus replete with 5 foot chrome exhaust tips, a rainbow of lights on the roof and BOQUETE scrolled in reflective tape across the entire windshield. Not to be forgotten is the latin music blaring in the background, because who doesn't need that at 5 AM? I sat next to the cutest Panamanian man in his late 60s who's femur was half the size of mine. I'm goliath to nearly every person here.

Boquete is a darling little town nestled in some of the best coffee growing mountains in the world. Here we were greeted by two brothers who live in Vulcan (just on the other side of the Volcano from Boquete). They were our guides for the hike. Backpacks full of tents, water, food, clothes and the 7 of us all climbed into a pick-up truck to take us to the base of Volcan Baru. I was able to ride in the bed of the truck with all of the gear, score. There is no better way to enter new surroundings than with the wind in your hair, the scent of dew and pine needles in the air and the unframed view of beautiful hills including the one on the docket to climb.

The climb itself was challenging, at times agonizing. The walk in these clouds was a bit different than the connotation suggests. Steep is an understatement. Every corner reveals a steeper stretch. The path takes you over boulders and crushed stones that make it as if you're walking on marbles. Sweat dripping out of every pore, lungs aching. Carrying 40 pounds on my back my legs couldn't help but tremble. Every so often though, we were rewarded by the beauty around us, it made the pain worthwhile. One spot in particular was so beautiful, so vivid it looked fake. The sun was shining on a large golden hill speckled with granite colored rocks and sparsely scattered trees with silver faced leaves that I'm sure were there for many generations. The clouds started billowing in like the steam from a hot shower fills the bathroom on a cold winter day.

There was a major communication gap between our guides and us. Almost every conversation went like this:

¨So, how far have we gone already?¨
¨Cinco kilometers.¨
¨How long is the entire hike to the top?¨
¨Cinco kilometers.¨
¨How much farther to the camp tonight?¨
¨Cinco mas kilometers.¨
¨How much tomorrow from the camp to the top?¨
¨Cinco kilometers.¨
¨And we've already gone cinco kilometers?¨
¨Si! Cinco mas kilometers!¨

The answer to any and all questions - ¨Cinco mas kilometers.¨

After climbing what is in reality 12.5 kilometers viewing countless thick forests that look like broccoli heads to be plucked and eaten sounding the loudest crunch of all crunches, laughing to the point of tears and peed in pants, and testing our bodies to their limits we made it to camp.

I woke up at 5 AM the next morning to hike the last kilometer to the top just in time for the sunrise. The 11,398 ft. summit is marked by an 8 foot tall cross, it´s the highest point in Panama and allows you to see both the Pacific and the Caribbean at the same time. At the top there was a girl sitting in the cold, windy darkness reading her Bible. She had made it to the top just a few hours before that. She´s a med student from NYC, Eileen. I introduced myself and she said ¨Yeah, I'm just up here reading my Bible. This whole hike I couldn't help but think of God and thank him. It's so moving seeing all of this is. Such a spiritual experience.¨ I couldn't agree more, I shared the scripture in Romans with her about how things this beautiful make God's existance inexcusable.

It's without words to describe watching the sun rise from that vantage point was. Literally breathtaking. It's majestic beauty pulls hard at your heart strings. I couldn't help but think of how the sun eventhough incredibly powerful, faithfully rises over those mountains every day but doesn't have the capacity to know how beautiful it is, or to show any appreciation for it's surroundings, it's existence. I felt puny in relation to my surroundings standing on the top of that volcano. A speck of dust. And yet, we have the unmatched privilege to comprehend creation itself. We as humans out of all other earthly creations are able to give God our heart, to thank him for every good thing he provides, and live in a way the proves our appreciation. Powerful.

The hike down seemed like an actual walk in the clouds. However, I've never been more aware of every muscle in my body as I was the next day. The volcano physically kicked my butt!

Back island side we had 5 students come to the meeting Saturday! One is Nadine. She's a very educated woman for this area. She has a degree in literature and science and up until recently had a prestigious job. A Brother and Sister that are currently visiting found her about 2 weeks ago. She's absolutely fed up with religion and the hypocrisy of it all. During the watchtower study on showing love she made a comment that will stick with me for a long time. She said ¨You can't just go to people saying 'Hi, I'm here to talk about the Bible.' People's hearts are getting hard. You have to find another way. Go to them with a smile, a song, let the people know you really care about them. Because I'm telling you, the last few weeks it worked for me, it worked. I felt the love that this is talking about.¨ Sincere personal interest, love, never fails. After the meeting I asked her what she had thought of it. She said ¨Oh, I loved it! I hate churchy things and all the jumping up and down and the minister going on and on about things and you just sit there thinkin 'what are you saying??' But this, this was so nice!!¨

The work continues!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The far flung corners of the earth.

The ministry here has been keeping us very busy. I have about 3 studies in the works. There's also a couple that has been here 3 months that are leaving soon. The have over 15 studies that need to be taken care of. Although our primary goal is to find English speaking people, we try to cover the entirety of the islands. We talk to Spanish speaking people the best we can while we're searching for English speaking ones. Lot's of work to do! Panamanian's put a very high value on the Bible. They respect it. And clearly see the benefit of it. They're not distracted by illusory possesions, and fast-paced life.

Yesterday was definitely a highlight for me. Kelly, Liz and I decided to make it an extra long day. We had started a very long road last week and needed to finish it. So, we got on our bikes and started our trek. I'll take a brief moment to tell you about my bike. It's a beach cruiser, and a boys bike at that. I'm certain the whole village has seen every pair of underwear I brought trying to get on and off of that thing. Skirts + bikes should not be an equation. This bike has no gears, it's just one speed, the brakes are nearly non-existent, and the chain falls off on average every 3 minutes. All of these factors make riding through the jungle a challenge. Patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue. I repeat that to myself many times over. Anywho, back to yesterday. This road is a crushed stone road that leads you from one side straight through the middle to the other side of Colon Island. You travel through dense rain forest, around sharp corners and up and down steep hills. We were surrounded by palm trees, banana trees, bamboo shoots, huge trees with canopies spanning nearly 100 feet that have long tarzan ropes hanging from them, the deep howling of monkeys, countless birds chirping. A ways down the road I saw a dirt path that went off into the jungle. Excellent. We walked down the path into vibrant green, completely untouched by humans. The air was so wet, like it was raining without gravity. Just little drops of water floating all around you. We even spotted a sloth! His cute, furry, mangy body glided over the tree branch as he took such slow, steady steps.

Most of the people down this road are indigenous. One family we met lived in this little tiny wood hut, probably 20 square feet. When we arrived all the little kids came running out to greet us, 9 of them! Birth control? Not so much. They ranged in age from roughly 4-15. Their father couldn't read so Liz and Kelly read to him from the Bible and one of the magazines. I was out on the street with all of the adorable, bright-smiled kids. They huddled around me giggling. Unfortunately, I couldn't communicate with them very well not knowing much spanish. But, I learned all of their names. The oldest girl Teresa which she made sure I pronounced Terrrrrrrrrrrresa... yeah, I have to work on the r rolling a wee bit. I remembered I had some stickers in my bag with me, so all of their darkly tanned, soft hands had furry pigs, goats, chickens, and sponge-bob square pants faces on them when we left. They were thrilled!

I also met a very nice older man down that road. He speaks english. When I talked to him about a peaceful world he said "wouldn't that get boring?" I told him "Many people would think so. But, think of all the beautiful places to explore and visit. I've only been here a few weeks and have barely touched the surface. Or all the people to meet. I could spend years getting to know you and you're just one person out of 7 billion alive!" He said "Yes, yes, I agree with you. I don't believe it would be boring either. I was just testing you to see if you really believed it." Before we left he asked "What church are you from?" We told him we are Jehovah's Witnesses. He said "I thought Jehovah's Witnesses. You know why? Because all of these years, the only people that come all this way out here to share good news from the Bible are Jehovah's Witnesses." I've now committed myself to riding all the way out there regularly.

We finally reached the other side of the island 4 hours later. It was 5:30 at this point and the sun goes down at 6:30. The darkness fell very fast on our ride back. Complete darkness, intimidating darkness. We made it half way back when finally a big bus passed that agreed to tie our bikes to the roof and bring us the rest of the way into town. From Bocas we jump on a small water taxi to head back to the island we're currently living on. And then a half hour hike up through more jungle to our house. An exhausting, but highly rewarding day.

Exploring the islands themselves, we've come across beautiful white sand beaches. A cemetery with an open grave exposing an entire skeleton. Bugs of all sorts, too many to list.

The way of life is very simple here. The average Panamanian earns $1.25/hr and works extremely hard for that. They live off the land. My diet has mainly been rice, lentils, eggs and bananas in all different combinations. Rice and eggs, lentils and rice, eggs and lentils, you get the idea... it's nourishment, that's all that matters. The water is sourced by what falls from the sky mainly. That is when rain falls from the sky.

6 nights ago our rain water tank went dry. Of course it rained every day we got here until the tank went dry. Since, not one drop. So our relaxing, outdoor shower with an ocean view has been out of order. I haven't showered in 5 days. Who knew anti-bacterial wipes could be so refreshing? We have a small barrel of water that we've been able to use for washing dishes and things and dumping some over our hair. Without that we'd really be in trouble. It's all about the adventure, so I'm embracing the dirt!

Saturday we leave to Boquete, Panama for about 5 days to hike Volcan Baru. The volcano stands a little over 11,000 feet high.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Grand Entry

San Jose, Costa Rica, is where we spent our first two nights in Central America. An adorable hostel by the name of Hostel 1110. San Jose however, is an armpit of a city. Dirty, chaotic, loud, lacking of charm and character. I was eager to get out of the hustle and bustle into the beauty of the country.

Friday proved to be the outlet into unmatched beauty. We boarded a bus in San Jose at 9 am. This was our transportation to the Panama border. We were told it would be around an 8 hour trip. Of course the port-o-potty door would have a ¨not in service¨ sign hanging on it... good thing we sweat a lot. The bus departed the unfiltered urban air into the lush rainforest which smelled of refreshing dew and pure earth. The kind of air you wish you had lungs the size of five gallon buckets for since breathing it in feels that amazing. We traveled in and out of dense green foliage, through small villages filled with little wood huts, banana plantations, coffee fields, and through tunnels carved into mountains. This bus also doubled as the area´s Fedex truck, stopping to pick up bags of goods along the way and delivering them to overjoyed locals. Kelly and I rode pretty much the entire way in honor of dogs, with our heads sticking out of the window. It was worth every bit of debris in my eye, all of my now dirt clogged pores and my extra red right arm.

At the Panama border you have to walk over a nearly delapidated bridge about 200 feet long and a good 100 feet above a river. The metal is rusting through and the wood boards have about 6 inches inbetween each one, which forces you to look down. The bridge is just wide enough for semi trucks to travel across, and not so comfortingly, those travel across at the same time as pedestrians. Just a wee bit of a blood pressure rising experience. Little did we know we were supposed to get our passports stamped on the Costa Rican side before walking across that bridge, so we ended up going through the same hair raising experience 3 times. Yikes!

At this point we boarded a small van busting at the seams with sweaty people to a City called Almirante. Here is where you board the boat to the islands of Bocas Del Toro. It was perfect. Emerald green islands speckled throughout the crystal clear water with a faint orange sky as the backdrop.

From the main city Bocas you take an even smaller wood boat to Isla Bastimentos, our current home. The house we´re living in is called Up In The Hill. Quite literally, it is very far up a hill. At this point it was a little after 8 pm. I brought a backpacking backpack and an old-school rectangle suitcase, Liz has her backpacking backpack and a large duffle bag, and Kelly has a backpacking backpack and a regular size backpack. Liz and I were extremely jealous of Kelly at this point. The trail to our house starts with make shift sidewalk that is very steep, imagine a regular staircase without the stairs, just paved over. That's how steep it is. This ¨sidewalk¨ lasted for about 10 minutes and then it´s uphill straight through the middle of a jungle, through mud, over tree roots, surrounded by night monkey´s, sloths and lots of bugs. This part of the hike that's supposed to take 25 minutes took us a good 45 as we were carrying everything but the kitchen sink up there with us. Stupid Americans. I´ve never been so sweaty in my life! My neck felt like I had been sprayed with watered down jelly, disgusting, exactly. Liz ended up sacrificing her duffle to the side of the trail a little ways up, which the police were not so happily gaurding for her when she returned.

Our house is the most adorable thing you´ve ever seen in your life! An ex tv producer from Argentina and his wife from Scotland live with their two children in a house not too far from ours. He said 18 years ago he wasn't happy with his life anymore so he moved here and built these houses himself. It's completely self-sustained, solar panels power the electricity, the shower is outside using rain water stored in a tank, and the house itself is made of bamboo and carved timber. It sits under the brightest stars I've seen in my life and has a beautiful veiw of the ocean that lulls us to sleep every night.

We met many of the English speaking Brothers and Sisters today, they're of course wonderful, kind people. Our first day in service will be tomorrow. More updates soon!