It’s been a while since I’ve posted – and a lot has been going on! I could take a few hours and write it all down or you can just watch this! Thanks so much to Paul and the guys at You Tube channel Moving to Mexi.co for capturing our story!
Author Archives: Karen moves to Mexico
October – Turkeys and Pink Ribbons
October is not just Canadian Thanksgiving, It’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For me they kind of go together.
I cannot believe it’s been a year since I last wrote in my blog. Today. Exactly 1 year. So much has happened in that year. We continued to deliver food hampers until Christmas and then we moved to delivering soup in the back of a van throughout the neighborhood. In April we opened Refuge of Hope to children who come every day for meals, school and love. If you want to know more, check out our Facebook page or website. Lots of stories and photos there! I got so busy caring for these sweet little ones that I forgot to take time to write about it. Honestly, I think I forgot to take time to process it much at all. It was a whirlwind and it was scary and it was so awesome. Single moms. Their broken children. Our desire to keep families together while they found a way to get back on their feet. A pandemic. Fundraising. Hiring staff. It’s been a lot.
And then out of the blue the diagnosis. A blindside. A new journey that I didn’t expect or want and yet I embrace because it’s my new story.
In mid August I went for a regular checkup to a new doctor I had found whose office was right around the corner from my house. It had been years since I had gone for a checkup and I knew my blood pressure was high and that I had a painful lump in my breast. The internet told me not to worry – painful lumps are almost always fibroids, seldom cancer. But it was an irritation that needed to be dealt with and I squeezed the appointment in late one afternoon. Dr Susana did all the good doctor things – sent me for some blood tests and a mammogram. Here in Mexico, there is almost no wait times – I could get a mammogram any day I wanted and I scheduled it for a week later. There is also little wait time for results. By the time the test was finished the technician handed me a giant white envelope with the films and the report – things looked suspicious, a biopsy was recommended. I was not really concerned – there is no cancer in my family and the internet – it said it was a fibroid.
A week later I saw the doctor who would do the biopsy. I expected the jab of a long needle but he told me that the mass needed to come out, so he wanted to do surgery. Do you want it tomorrow or Monday? Well – Monday I need to be at Refuge of Hope, so let’s do it Saturday. Tomorrow.
The surgery went well. Because of the blood thinners I am on, local anesthesia was out of the question, and they used a general which meant I slept like a baby. There were a few small complications – the mass was close to the muscle which made it a bit trickier. My blood pressure didn’t want to come down so Grant had to go home for my meds. But when I woke up Dr. Chacon told me everything looked good, he wasn’t concerned about the mass. The sample would go off to Guadalajara for testing and he would send me the results on Thursday via What’s App. Which is a weird way to get a cancer biopsy result, but Mexico does love What’s App!
On Thursday I heard nothing. On Friday I heard nothing. Late that afternoon I sent the doctor a message “You said I would have the results on Thursday and I have heard nothing. I’m getting nervous…..” Silence. Ghosted by my doctor who always answers right away when I text him. On Sunday afternoon he sent me a message “Sorry I was busy all weekend so I didn’t answer you. See you at your appointment tomorrow”. No thumbs up. No “All’s well”. No smiley face emoji. Nothing about the results. That’s probably not good right?
On Monday afternoon I went to Dr. Chacon’s office. From the start he was struggling to look me in the eye. Stumbling over his words. “Your results….. your results…. Wait let’s look at your incision first. Oh, very good. Ok your results. Oh wait, let’s take out those stitches. Okay the results. Well, I can print the results. Where’s the paper. Oh, the results…..” I felt bad for him. He’s young. He wants his patients to be okay. He wants biopsies to be negative and lumps to be fibroids. So I looked at him “Should I ask my husband to come in?” “Oh yes please”. Relief on his face. A 2 minute reprieve.
We sat at his desk and he looked at us. “It’s bad. Your results are bad. It’s malignant”. Then he started talking cancer stuff, Spanish and English words flowing together. Understanding completely evading me. They would send the tumor for more tests to see what type it was. I would need more surgery – the margins of the first one were not clear. I would need radiation. I would need lymph node biopsies. I would need to meet with the oncologist. It was September 13th and I had breast cancer.
A few days later I met with the oncologist and 3 days after that I received the results of the chemical tests. By What’s App of course. A whole new vocabulary I was just learning. Estrogen negative. Progesterone negative. HER2 positive. Ki-67 30%. Aggressive Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Fast growing. Radiation would not be enough. The recommendation is minimum 6 months chemo, then 16 sessions of radiation.
5 days later I arrived at the hospital for another surgery. More lump removal and the lymph node biopsy to find out if it had spread. If they found it had there would need to be brain and bone and lung scans. By the time I woke up in the operating room the pathologist already had the good news – it had not spread. It was not in the lymph nodes. The surgery had removed the cancer. Unfortunately, because of the aggressive type of cancer and the danger that cells might have been left behind, chemotherapy and radiation are still the recommended treatments.
6 weeks. From a simple checkup to a second surgery to remove cancer. From spending my evenings searching Pinterest for preschool crafts to days researching cancer terminology and clinics and treatments. From mornings being dive bombed by hugs from little ones to having to tell them that Tia is a bit sick and can’t pick them up right now. From planning work trips and Christmas plans to counting the weeks on the calendar to choose the best dates to start treatments.
Honestly this has been hard. The day I was in the hospital recovering from surgery, we found out my father-in-law was dying from Covid. In Canada. My poor sweet husband, having to choose which hospital bed to sit beside.
But also, it has been easy. Because it’s just how life is. We don’t get to choose the path. We are tenderly placed on it and when it hits a hard spot, we gather up all that we are and all that we have in our souls and we walk through it. We gather our people and we ask them to pray because really, we know it’s out of our hands now. We can’t embrace how wonderful life is and how good God is if we don’t acknowledge that there is also brokenness around us and within us and the goodness surrounds that too.
Why am I sharing my story here? Why am I telling strangers about my toughest times? Because I simply don’t want to hide. I don’t want to try and remember who knows and who doesn’t and when people say “How are you?” I don’t want to just say “Fine” and do the fake dance. This is my story today. I am okay showing my weakness and asking for grace. I have lots of decisions to make very soon. I am not committed to the standard treatments being offered. I am also not scared to look at them and analyze them. To weight the percentages and prognosis. To look at alternatives.
So in this October, this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I choose to focus on Thanksgiving, rather than pink ribbons. On turkey and pumpkins and family and gratitude. Because the choice is mine and I am truly thankful!
“For the Lord is always good. He’s so loving that it will amaze you— so kind that it will astound you! And he is famous for his faithfulness toward all. Everyone knows our God can be trusted, for he keeps his promises to every generation!” Psalms 100:5 TPT
Some very exciting Thanksgiving News
We have 2 pieces of VERY exciting news to share…
But let me back up a bit. Today on this Canadian Thanksgiving, I am once again reflecting on all we have, remembering where we have been, dreaming about where we will go. Last month marked the 5-year anniversary of our move here and it would be an understatement to say that my life looks absolutely nothing like I expected it to. I have had a lot of 5-year bubbles in my life, but this one picked me up and took me to a place I had never known existed and had not bought a ticket for. I have always promised to be real, and I know you are wondering if we’re still happy here or if that bubble has burst.
It is hard to answer that without acknowledging that 2020 has been LOCO! For everyone. In the world. And it has indeed been crazy for us too.
If you follow my social media accounts, you already know that we have been delivering food to those in need in our community for the past 7 months. Our Golf Cart Rental customers scattered in March and within a week we were delivering bags of staples to those who were most affected by the tourism shutdown. Beach vendors, restaurant workers, hotel employees, market vendors – no tourists meant no income and that meant no food. Most had no reserves, no savings, no pantries, no stockpiles. They were instantly in trouble and our empty golf carts were perfect to deliver supplies throughout our town.
In these 7 months we have changed. Yes, our daily routine is different. We have met new people. Learned about new colonias and barrios. Seen Mexico through different eyes. But it is more than that. It is us. We have changed.
When we first moved here 5 years ago, it was our intention to build a beautiful house in a beautiful development with a beautiful view of a beautiful bay. We always planned to help others – we were already connected to volunteering at a local orphanage. But I think I saw our service at a bit of a distance from our actual life in the suburbs. 2020 drew us into the center of pain and poverty. We became friends with women with bruised faces. Homeless families living under tarps in fields. Seniors with untreated broken bones. Children with rotting, black teeth from their steady diet of coca-cola. Animals with protruding ribs and open sores. So much sadness and need and pain.
But also, so much love and strength. New relationships with strong moms carrying babies on their chests or backs – heading to the beach to try to sell a few trinkets. Families banding together to care for one another. Loud music and laughter and fiestas because birthdays are just really important here. Everywhere we go now, people waving at us and offering us frozen fruit water and crafts and tortillas to thank us. One mom told me last week that her 2-year-old daughter was very angry at us. When I asked why she said her daughter had seen us drive by a few days prior and we hadn’t stopped to talk to her. She had called after us but we didn’t hear and we didn’t stop. She now looks forward to seeing us every week and I look forward to seeing her too. That’s not just offering charity – that’s friendship.
A few months ago we made a decision that this work is part of who we are now and this week we signed some very important papers. That’s our first piece of good news. Grant and myself and our friend Francisco signed the final documents to register Refuge of Hope, Bucerias as a charity here in Mexico. It wasn’t easy. Legal things never are here in Mexico. And then you throw in a pandemic and you can only imagine how slow it all was. But it is now official, and we have some very cool plans for working in a community that I didn’t even know existed 5 years ago. A community that I would have been frightened to drive through just a few months ago.
Which brings us to our second piece of Thanksgiving news. A few months ago, we stumbled upon a big, abandoned building on the edge of the community we have been working in. We immediately felt a pull to the building and after a bunch of miracles we found the owner, made her an offer and today she accepted. We also were able to find the owner of an adjacent lot and make a deal with him. So, on this Thanksgiving Day, it appears that we are about to be the owners of a true Refuge of Hope!
We have lots of pictures and visions and thoughts that we will share with you in coming days. We will need your support as we create a place for the children of the neighborhood to come for meals, after-school care, help with homework, skills training, psychological and spiritual guidance. Maybe even a residential children’s shelter. We are excited. We are terrified. Mostly we are grateful that in the midst of pain, we have seen and experienced great hope.
You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat Isaiah 25:4
So Happy Canadian Thanksgiving friends and family. We miss you terribly but we know we are exactly where we are meant to be in this crazy 2020 and so are you! And don’t worry about us – we managed to find ourselves a traditional turkey dinner in a beautiful garden under the stars. We couldn’t be more grateful!
Rice and Beans, Beans and Rice
Wow – our last post was 6 weeks ago and our lives look very different – and yet surprisingly unchanged. In our last post I told you we had delivered 25 bags of food to people in our community who are now unemployed. Today we will deliver our 1,000th bag! And considering each family is at least 5 people, that’s over 5,000 people who have been fed using the donations that our friends, family and coworkers have sent our way.
I have lots of stories and each day I have updated my Facebook page with pictures and musings of the day – I just haven’t sat down to update my blog. I promise I will.
When we started this feeding program, we spent time researching what should go in our bags of staples. We googled and we spoke to other groups doing the same work. We asked some of our local friends who themselves were struggling. Our goal was to feed a family for a week. After a few changes and substitutions – balancing cost with need – we came up with these ingredients:
- Macaroni – 220 g
- Rice – 900 g
- Oats – 1 kg
- Black beans – 900 g
- Milk – 2 L
- Tuna – 295 g
- Chicken bullion cubes or powder
- Corn flour
- Tomato Sauce
- Chicken – ½ or whole.
- Digestive Cookies
For those who don’t have refrigerators we give eggs instead of chicken.
We also include one lime cream dessert cooked by a single mom who we are trying to help get on her feet. She wants to start a restaurant and we thought it would be good exposure to send one of her favorite products out into the community. Helping Ana Luisa start her new business will certainly be a future project for us and a future post!
After a few weeks of delivering these bags, after spending so many hours shopping and bagging these items, we began to wonder how people were managing. Were these the right items to get you through a week? 5 days? So we did what any good researcher does – we staged an experiment. Could Grant and I live off the contents of one of our bags for one week?
We had a few rules to make it a bit easier:
- I could use any spices or condiments I already had in the house
- We could eat any food we found – ie fruit on trees
- We could eat food given to us – within reason. I did turn down one loaf of homemade bread that I really, really wanted but I knew was cheating
- Beverages were not part of the experiment – losing my coffee would not be good for anyone!
So how did we do? I’d give us an 8 out of 10. It was easier than I expected in many ways. I learned how to make tortillas from scratch, to take dry beans and make a delicious pot of savory beans, to use the basic tortilla to make tostados and taquitos and empanadas. Most of it was delicious.
What didn’t go well?
- Making food from scratch takes more time and creates more dirty dishes. The beans need to be soaked the night before, the tortilla dough need to be made and allowed to rest for a while. The rice wasn’t instant – neither were the oats. That was all difficult while trying to increase our food delivery work and being gone a number of hours each day. My slow cooker was definitely my friend.
- I really needed more vegetables. A salad please. More fruit. I admit I did grab some frozen berries from the freezer to add to the oatmeal today.
- Canned tuna is weird here. It’s not chunky – it’s runny. I’m not buying that again.
- I really miss eggs in the morning. And bacon. And toast. And bacon.
- You really have to watch packaged food down here for bugs. The day I opened the bag of macaroni to add to the soup, hundreds of little black bugs invaded my counter. Some got boiled – the rest just ran everywhere. As I was digging behind things on the counter to catch the bugs, I found a dead mouse in the Borax ant trap. That was just a bad day with lots of screaming.
What did we eat? Here is our menu and a few pics – honestly, that part went better than expected. A lot of Rice and Beans, Beans and Rice. But with different spices it wasn’t so bad. This was our menu:
Did we cheat?
Surprisingly little! I did put some peanut butter on the boring cookies. A tiny bit of pineapple in the Chicken Fried Rice. Some frozen berries in the oatmeal and empanada. We bought a mini croissant from a street vendor because he really needed a sale. One family we delivered food to insisted we accept their gifts of tamales and hot chocolate and jello. And one total cheat Meatball Stroganoff with friends who invited us to their home – because in the end relationships are more important than experiments and we needed laughter more than beans.
What did we learn?
This bag of food was enough for 2 of us for this week, but most certainly is a stretch for a family. Mexican families eat a lot more tortillas than we do, so I know that is a filler and we have lots of flour left. We have rice and beans left, and could have eaten much smaller bowls of oats each morning. The chicken went a long way and families could make bigger pots of soup than we did using the chicken stock. I would like to add a few more veggies – more carrots, maybe some peppers.
Our biggest lessons were the emotions we experienced and the recognition of how blessed our lives have always been. As self-employed entrepreneurs, we have had financial ups and downs. There have been seasons in my life where I took the calculator to the grocery store to make sure I stayed within a super tight budget and days where I had to put things back when the total ran over. I have clipped coupons and scoured sales flyers. And yet on our very worst day, we had fridges and cupboards overflowing with fruits and vegetables and staples. Our pantries have never truly been empty. We have never gone hungry. My children have never had to chase down strangers in a golf cart to beg for food. And nothing I have done has caused me to deserve the privileged life I have lived.
This experiment, this whole last 6 weeks, has messed with our minds. Last week (and probably tomorrow) when I ordered pizza, Grant reminded me how many food bags we could provide for that amount. The disparity is uncomfortable, and we want to learn how to be grateful for what we have and to turn that gratefulness into generosity, not into some kind of unproductive guilt.
I won’t lie – I am glad this week is over. I am ready to get back to eating what I want – a pizza, a big salad, some peanut butter on a slice of toast, a steak off the BBQ. Did I mention bacon? The people we are serving don’t have that option. For many we will deliver their 2nd or 3rd or even 4th bag and they will eat it all again. More rice, more beans, a couple of oranges divided up. And they will also be grateful that strangers from Canada and the US and Mexico donated money so that their children could go to bed tonight with food in their bellies. Thank you – your generosity has blown us away! I don’t know how long this will last. Every night before bed I look at the money left in the bank and tell Grant “We have enough money for 200 more bags”. 5 more days. And then it multiplies. And we keep delivering.
To Donate to Food for Families:
After I finished writing this post, I made our last pot of rice, warmed up the last bit of refried beans and reheated a few tortillas. Then we looked at each other and agreed …. we need meat. We grabbed a piece of beef from the fridge, heated up the BBQ and made some proper tacos. So 7.5 out of 10 it is…..
Through Our Covid-19 Window
Many of you have been reaching out to make sure we are okay down here and to ask how things look in our neighborhood. While Mexico is a couple of weeks behind Canada and the US, we are facing the same situation, the same questions, the same directives and the same fears as you are dealing with north of the border.
As of today, there are 94 cases and 3 deaths in Jalisco, which is our next-door neighbor. In our state of Nayarit, there are 8 cases reported and 1 death. But we are being told that Apr 2-19 is when our trajectory will rise. We have been given the same STAY AT HOME orders as you have. Schools have been closed for 2 weeks, public gatherings have been shut down and hospitals are ramping up in preparation. There are, however, some dynamics that are unique to our location, our culture and the economic situation that look different. For instance:
- Tourism: We live in a tourist area and the majority of local people work in that industry. I read that 70,000 hotel workers in this bay were laid off this week. Restaurants are closed, empty beaches have no customers for the wandering vendors and people who spend the winter and spring months entertaining snowbirds are juggling on empty street corners. The busiest week of the year, Semana Santa, has been canceled. People here are panicking, and many small businesses have simply refused to close. Social media posts begging people to stay home are bombarded with the same angry comments, “If I don’t work, my family doesn’t eat.”
- Social Assistance: While the government has started talking about helping, there is simply no infrastructure or systems in place to do so. If you are a family of 10 living in a tiny one room shack made of tarps, who even knows you exist? Who is coming to give you help?
- Economic reality: Many people here live day to day. When I say paycheque to paycheque, I am not talking about enough for a month. Many workers here are paid weekly, some even daily. And that daily wage might only be minimum wage, which is just over $100 pesos – that’s $5 US dollars a day. They work to get enough to live for a few days. In my community, many don’t have stocked pantries, full freezers or emergency funds. Many don’t even own a fridge. To be told to stay home for a month, or even a week, is not possible. To be out of work for months, is devastating. The threat of contracting an unseen virus seems much less scary than the threat of watching your children starve. People here are scared, and it is not of Covid-19.
- Fiesta Culture: I am quite sure Mexican people have built in genes that compel them to sing and dance and hug and laugh and PARTY all the time. They are not created for quarantine. At all. Last night I took Nacho for a walk, and just a few doors down from my house, a neighbor was holding a party for a 3-year-old. At least 60 people crammed in an empty lot and spilling onto the street in front. Music blaring. Young families with their children. Crowded around tables piled with food. As if they didn’t even know we are fighting to wipe out a deadly virus. A party for a 3-year-old who probably couldn’t care less. This is going to be hard for my fun-loving Mexican friends.
So we are fine down here, relaxing in our garden and walking alone on the beach. This morning we took our breakfast to the beach and watched a whale just off the shore. It is very strange, however, to see so few white faces around. It has been another sharp reminder that this is indeed our home now. As so many friends scrambled to find flights north, we settled into our own cocoon of safety.
But we are concerned for our neighbors and have begun to look for ways to help. Our golf cart rental business is shut down, but we have used our carts to pick up leftover food items from tourists heading home. Our carts spent a few hours Sunday evening driving our local church leaders around town delivering 100 meals to people in the community who are already facing shortages of food.
Bloom Church from Regina sent us a donation and we used it to put together 25 bags of staples to deliver to people we know are already starting to suffer.
I know you are struggling, and your city has needs too. But if you want to share with what we are doing here, this is what $20 Canadian ($15 US) will purchase:
- Macaroni – 220 g
- Rice – 900 g
- Pinto beans – 900 g
- Black beans – 900 g
- Milk – 2 L
- Tuna – 295 g
- Chicken stock – 490 g
- Tomato Sauce – 1 L
- 1 whole chicken
This will feed a family for a few days, maybe a week. If you send us that amount, we will purchase and deliver the bag of groceries to a family that is hungry. You will be a part of what we are trying to be down here – a refuge of hope in a place of brokenness.
So stay safe friends and family – we’re only a video chat away always! We will all get through this and just maybe, the world will emerge as a kinder place, where we truly cared for ‘the least of these’.
The Saddest Goodbye
This is the saddest blog story to date, but I have promised to be real about our life here and sometimes that means sharing the tough stuff too.
One of the things that drew us to move to this area on the Bay of Banderas was our work at the Children’s Shelter Manos de Amor. From the very first visit, we fell in love with the children and with the work that was being done in the shelter. Children who needed a safe place because their own moms and dads and grandmas just couldn’t care for them. For many reasons. For hard reasons. Every little one had a story and we became a part of each one.
We taught them English. We drove them from their little homes in surrounding villages back to the safety of the nest. We held them as they cried and wiped up a LOT of snot with our shirt sleeves. We had them live in our home on weekends – one little one for 6 weeks while she awaited surgery for an illness too terrible to talk about. We organized fundraisers and we painted another layer of bright yellow paint over muddy fingerprints. We sat in a hospital room with one living in silence as he received the cochlear implant that would finally give him sound. We gave our hearts fully to them and felt God’s hand in every minute of it.
Unfortunately, over the past couple of years we have also experienced some disappointing things that have now caused us to step back and away from the home and the organization. Some values that don’t align. Some behaviors that we can’t justify. Some attitudes that are contrary to who we want to be and who we want to work with. Some missing accountabilities and foggy transparency. I am not going to give details here – you can contact me if you want – but as a member of the Steering Committee who worked for almost 2 years to repair some of the breaches, we now realize that it is time to move on. As a committee we were almost fully united in our plea – please hear us or we must leave.
I won’t lie – our hearts are broken. But we also feel peace in knowing that when you do what you believe is right, good things can happen. Even when it hurts. Love always wins and standing up for love, demanding integrity, fighting for kids is always right.
We are definitely not done caring for the ‘least of these’ in our community. We see intriguing doors in front of us and we are so excited to move ahead with passion, expectation, grace, forgiveness, and hope. There will soon be more snot on our sleeves, and we are pumped! Stay tuned…
Normal – Not so Normal
Last week we had a visitor from Canada – one of my very favorite people ever. I always tell visitors that our doors are open, the rent is free BUT when they get home they must write a post about their experience with us. Their story, their thoughts, their lessons. That is the price of spending a week in OUR paradise. So here are the thoughts of my dear friend Niki who blessed us immensely with her presence in our lives and in our home:
I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week in the home of some of the people I love and admire the most on this planet this past month. Typically, when I travel to Mexico, it looks a lot different than it did this time, because this time I got to experience “normal” everyday life, living on a dirt road in a local community in Bucerias with the Swansons. Although, I would not really call it normal in any way, shape, or form.
As I arrived in PV, we climbed into their cute little VW bug. The first thing I noticed was their warm welcoming smiles and hugs, (man do I miss these people), second was the fact that I knew how to say “no Gracious” to each person at the airport who asked if I needed a cab – and in fact I think some of them could see I wasn’t completely vulnerable to that ask. Third as we climbed into their cute little VW bug I realized that my hair would not look like I combed it at all for the next 7 days. The wind blowing through it, flying in my face and the adventure had begun.
Within hours we were walking through the local market. Quite different than the market most tourists probably experience. 2 Blond girls walking through the paths stood out like a bright light on a dark road.
I was in awe of how my friends knew their way through the winding dirt roads and how they have learned to navigate their way in this totally different world.
We had to find the produce stand, and after a while we did and got the vegetables we would need for the week.
We then headed out to an area of great need. What may be a 20 minute trip at home – took about 2 hours here. It was where we would pick up a child who needed a ride back to the Orphanage for the week. I had been here before, so my heart and head were more prepared this time. But in so many ways, it still felt surreal, like a movie “is this the same world I live in?” “How can this be?” I did however see some improvement from the last time I was there and that made me happy. The moment we began to drive back to the Orphanage the little boy we picked up, immediately knew he was safe, and fell asleep with his head on Karen’s shoulder. These people live love! They are some of the very few safe people that these children know that are completely safe. To walk back into the Orphanage after 4 years and see the ones who have grown up, to miss the ones who are no longer there, and to recognize that even though this is better than the children being at home – this is still not the greatest place for these children to grow up. Again, my heart was changed.
The days consisted of driving and delivering golf carts to tourists in town enjoying Mexico. Walking the streets, and seeing the most interesting sights. There were days when we would be driving back through the streets in a golf cart when I would hear “KAREN…KAREN…” and Karen would say “Grant Stop the cart..she would jump out and the children would run down the street and throw their arms around her. You see this is who the Swansons are, they are love, they love the least of these, and again, I was the one who was blessed, inspired, and encouraged.
You see I actually went to see the Swanson’s to find some healing for my own heart. And what I learned once again is that, it is more blessed to give than to receive. And although I did receive when I was there, I also was able to give love along side of the Swansons, and this is where the healing happens.
One afternoon I spent some time with a local friend and when she dropped me off, nobody was home. So I sat in the golf cart in the street and looked, and watched the dogs, the chickens, and the people. I heard the sounds of the language I don’t understand, felt the warmth of the sun, for almost 2 hours, I just took part in what was going on all around me, and again, I was blessed, and more healing happened.
At the start of the week, Grant said – “Here are the keys to the golf cart – go ahead.” I was terrified to do that on my own. But as the days went on, I realized that I am braver than I think, and I began to venture out a little bit more each day, and again, I was blessed, and more healing happened.
All of this to say some people move to Mexico to retire, some people go to have fun, some people go for a vacation, and I believe that those things can all be very good. I got to have fun, eat at the street taco shops, cool local restaurants. I got to visit with some amazing friends I have made over the past years, see a local preschool operate. I got to meet some pretty neat tourists, I got to eat a cheese burger on the beach and watch the sunset with amazing people, I got to see the magnificent beauty of whales jumping and experience the rugged beach of a community close by. I also got to help the Swanson’s teach children English, hand out hugs to kids who don’t get enough of them, I got to bless a young momma with some clothes for her kids, and was humbled by how hard she was working to provide for her family, I got to hear the stories that tug on my friends hearts, and see the weight they carry as they just desire to help so many, and through it all I got blessed.
Joining with my friends in their NORMAL – NOT SO NORMAL lives was not the typical vacation to Mexico, but it has been one of my favorites by far. To the friends who sent me on the plane, to the friends who let me serve and live beside them, I was the one who got blessed.
Love can look like a lot of things to a lot of people. But what I saw with my own eyes was a life of love being poured out to so many who just need a chance. And again – My life was changed.
Normal doesn’t have to look so normal after all!
A Wedding on our Street
It’s been a while since I have written a blog post and this week, I was challenged by a few different people about that. Some were friends. Some were strangers who have been reading. What happened to us? What happened to our story? And I realized that we have settled into our life here and now it feels normal. Just normal. And I forgot that there’s nothing normal about what we do here, and I need to continue to share it all. Not because you particularly need to hear it – but because I need to tell it. To stay in the moment, experiencing the wonder of it all every day.
What could be a better story to share for my big return than a wedding story. Everyone loves to see a bride and a groom on their big day, and we had a wedding right outside our door this week. An impromptu wedding and honestly, while the bride looked beautiful, the groom didn’t look all that impressed.
It all started with our neighbor named Brittany who lives 3 doors down. She’s around 8 or 9 and although she doesn’t’ speak English, we have lots of conversations and laughs together. Every few days she comes over to take Nacho for a walk with her dog Luna. Apparently on one of those walks, Nacho and Luna fell in love and Brittany decided it was time to formalize the relationship.
A few days ago, we came home to find a note shoved under our door. The note (translated) said: “Hi, I am Luna. Nacho, tomorrow you will marry me. I love you. Please wear a suit. At 1:00. It will be at your house.” Enclosed with the note was a red and white bow tie. To go with the suit, I suppose.
Unfortunately, fate was not on the side of the betrothed. The next day the skies opened and for 3 days it rained. There was no wedding. But on Day 4 the sun came out and the doorbell rang. Luna was standing there in her lovely white wedding dress and her flower girl Brittany was carrying a bouquet of yellow sunflowers. It was time and I quickly tied the red and white tie on Nacho. After 3 days of rain, his white tuxedo coat was a mess, but Luna didn’t seem to mind.
The wedding was short – the groom easily distracted by nearby tires. A quick sniff of the butt instead of a kiss. But Brittany thought it was perfect and we laughed a LOT as Luna kept tripping on her dress in her excitement.
So no, there’s nothing normal about our life here. Up north, I never would have taken time on a Thursday afternoon for a dog wedding with a tiny neighbor who didn’t care that I speak a different language than her. I wouldn’t have spent this morning on my hands and knees drawing chalk art with children from hard places. I wouldn’t be listening to a DEAFENING mariachi band outside my front door while I write a blog story about what it means to live our normal life. And just maybe I wouldn’t be this happy!
Love Always Wins
Now that tourist season is over, our little town is quieter and visitors to the Children’s Shelter where we work are fewer. That has given me some time to think about the many families and volunteers who visit us over the winter and to ask the question that others have asked me “Is it good for strangers to visit children who come from hard places?”. Honestly, there are many answers to this question and as a disclaimer, let me say that this post is going to contain my opinion based on my experience. That’s it. My personal gut feeling. Which I think is okay because….. it’s my blog! It’s my story. If you have a different opinion – well that’s okay too.
Grant and I brought our daughters to visit Manos de Amor for the first time in December of 2011. We knew we couldn’t keep vacationing in beachfront resort Mexico without also engaging in dust covered back street Mexico. So, we googled, we went shopping and we showed up at the door that would change our lives forever.
I will never forget that day. We had absolutely no shared language, but we played games and colored pictures and ate soup and wiped snotty noses and honestly, we didn’t consider if our presence in their home could be hurting these little ones, we just wanted to love them. Perhaps our motivation was more to assuage our gringo guilt, but our love was genuine, and our laughter was shared.
Top: Me and Brayan Bottom: Rubi, Carlos, Grant & Fernanda
Since that time, I have read books and online articles and watched videos that tell me that short-term missions projects or visits can be harmful to those we think we are helping and as a member of the Steering Committee of Manos de Amor we discuss how to best invite guests into the home in a way that is safe. I have read strong arguments and stats on both side of the issue. But as I reflect on my personal experience and observation, it always comes down to one simple phrase: Love always wins. Showing love is always good and caring for the poor is always right. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be healthy boundaries, and if you come to visit us, we are going to give you a brochure with some guidelines we want you to follow. Affection and attachment and giving of gifts can be confusing to children who come from backgrounds of abuse or neglect. It would take more than this blog post to share all my views on HOW to do this well, but I want to assure you that you CAN make a difference with your once-a-year visit to our home. I know because it happened to us!
That first day 8 years ago I met Brayan and Carlos and Fernando and Daniella and Rubi and Jackie. This week, as in most weeks, I waved at Jackie on Facebook while looking at pictures of her little girl. This morning I sat in church with Fernanda and Rubi and we shared gum and hugs and Rubi reminded me to bring her prize to English class tomorrow since she finished 5 lessons this week. She was proud of herself. Last week I ate Tacos Pastor with Brayan and Carlos and a small thing happened that day that prompted me to write this blog.
Brothers, Brayan and Carlos, 8 years later
The past few months whenever visitors have come and wanted pictures of the children, Carlos would hang back and when I prompted him to get in the picture he would say “No Karen. No picture”. He is a preteen and I respect that he is setting his own boundaries. He doesn’t want to be in pictures with strangers. I think that is fair and I told him that. Even when I tried to take his picture he would say “No Karen. No picture.” But on Thursday, Carlos took my phone from me and asked for a selfie with me. He applied some filters, opened my Facebook app and posted the picture with the caption, “Carlos. Karen. Friend” with a bunch of emojis of smiles and heart and thumbs up. He looked happy in the picture. And it hit me really hard. I have known Carlos for the better part of his life. Longer than his dad was alive with him. Far longer than his own mom knew him before she left. What started as an afternoon visit from strangers turned into a selfie and a caption filled with love. A friendship.
So, if you are wondering if it is a good thing to visit us next time you are in town …. YES. It is. Not to fix us but to serve us. Not to give us stuff but to show us love. To learn as much as you teach, receive as much as you give. To empower rather than enable, to respect rather than judge. Your heart will be broken – that I guarantee. But in the breaking, your love will grow deeper. And if you’re lucky, you might just find yourself living on a dusty street in my neighborhood eating tacos and taking selfies with little Mexican kids.
It’s not that complicated. Love always wins.
For Everything, There is a Season
I have had many people tell me the main reason they couldn’t live in a southern location like Mexico is because they would miss the changing of the seasons. I know what they mean. The crocuses and tulips popping through the ground in spring after the many months of cold. The hot days and nights of summer with vacations and BBQs and lake swims. The reds and golds and oranges of fall leaves. The new crisp air and the change of wardrobes from cutoff jeans to long jeans. From flip flops to sneakers. Everything pumpkin spice. And then the inevitable sudden blast of that first snow. The beautiful frosty trees and the not so welcome blizzards and wind chills and trapped at home snow days. Life in Canada, especially in Saskatchewan, is defined by the change of the seasons and conversation about the weather. Good and bad. So much talk about the weather.
I have learned that here in Mexico there are season changes too – they are just more subtle and don’t look all that much different to the untrained eye of the tourist. But after a couple of years around the calendar, I now recognize that it is time for the shift. We are heading into rainy season and the signs are around us.
First is the temperature. Last week, for the first time in a few months, I felt the trickle of sweat running down my back. My hair screamed to be tied up on top of my head rather than resting on my skin. We turned the air conditioner on in our bedroom to give us overnight relief as we slept. It is getting hotter. Here in Bucerias, the change in temperature is slight – only a couple degrees higher – but the humidity makes it all feel more uncomfortable. There is less difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures, so our cement houses just do not cool down. We are fortunate that our house stays comfortably cool – I can’t imagine those families who live in home with no fans, with thick tarps for walls and roofs.
The dust. Oh, the dust. It has not rained since January – and that was only a few drops. The last real rain was in November – 6 months of closed skies. The unpaved roads spit out giant clouds of dust every time a vehicle rolls by. The plants are gasping for air, their leaves completely choked by the fine dirt. And yet, amazingly, flowers still bloom. The bougainvileas who don’t love water all that much are in their prime now – thick with every color imaginable. And the mangoes. The mangoes are coming! My house has not fared as well. With windows open for needed breezes, every surface is covered with a thin coat of the fine dust. As fast as I remove it with my soft microfiber glove, it returns.
So much dust….
And yet…. new life….
Critters emerge. First the ants. A couple of weeks ago we sat down for our regular breakfast in the garden and saw a GIANT pile of dirt that had been pushed up through a crack in the pavement overnight. As we looked closer, we saw hundreds – maybe thousands – of large ants running around the hill they had created. Coming out from their underground palace. Some say ants sense when rain is coming. That they are getting ready to head indoors. That will NOT be happening in this house my little friends!
We also were visited by a large poisonous cane toad last week – probably looking for water after a long period of winter drought. As per usual, puppy Nacho needed a 3:00 a.m. visit outside. I haven’t decided if he really needs to go peepee every night, or if he is just too bored to sleep – I strongly suspect the latter. But I staggered down the stairs and into the garage to let him out the front door. I could see something in the stray cat’s food dish which sits in the garage and as I bent down and looked closer, I saw the dangerous cane toad. Nacho sniffed at is as well which could have been deadly for him. Cane toads are extremely poisonous and dogs who touch their skin can die within 20 minutes. Being as it was 3:00 and my superhero protector was snoring deeply upstairs, I found a pail and covered the food dish, leaving it for a morning evacuation by someone other than me. Unfortunately, when hubby went down in the morning to bravely save his family, the little poisonous darling had escaped and now I live in fear of whether he is long gone or whether he is waiting amongst the garage stuff to reappear. We have moved all pet food and dishes inside to keep everyone safe, and I am wondering if that was raccoon cat’s plan all along – conquering the final frontier to move from the garage and into our home for good.
The most obvious telltale sign that seasons have changed is the absence of straw hats and palm tree shirts. The tourists have left. Our town is quiet. Many restaurants and shops have closed until October. Our garage is full of unrented golf carts getting bright green makeovers in preparation for fall. Soon Mexican tourists will begin to arrive on the beaches with their giant coolers and pulsing boom boxes.
These are the signs that tell us that rainy season is almost here. Hurricane season officially began this week. There are 19 hurricanes predicted for the Pacific side of Mexico this season. Living in a bay, we are mostly sheltered from such occurrences, but many of our neighboring communities are at risk. As the dangers of the hurricanes pass us by, the winds and rains of the accompanying tropical storms will make themselves known. The clouds have started to roll in. It is almost time. Time for the heavens to open and the pounding rains that come quickly and stop just as quickly. The fun of watching little children dripping with sweat, running around enjoying the cooling waters on their faces. The deep puddles for jumping in…. and getting stuck in. The powerful thunderstorms and mesmerizing lightning shows over the ocean.
These are now my signs of the changing of the seasons. As I think about why that matters, why people love to see the beginning of a new season, I realize that change always brings hope. A new season means the possibility of a new dream, a new experience, a new start to a difficult chapter. We are wired to look for crocuses and sunshine and rains. To rid ourselves of dust and disappointment. To start again. So Happy Spring to you up north and Happy Rains to me and my neighbors here! For everything….. it is time.
To everything there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.