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.

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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…

 

Giving, Kindness & Acceptance

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Recently I was invited to join a group called South of the Border Bloggers (SOTB), a group of writers who have all had experiences like mine living in Mexico and other countries south of the US border.  I have never considered myself a blogger or a writer, but I like the idea of connecting with others who have their own crazy stories to tell and of sharing ideas and thoughts and maybe even support.   Each month the group picks one topic to write about and this month, in honor of American (and Canadian?) Thanksgiving they chose the title Giving, Kindness and Acceptance.

Although I don’t have American or Canadian cable TV, I do have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.  I hear what is happening in the world.   I know that giving and kindness and acceptance are having a difficult time right now.  Definitions are shifting.  Opinions about who deserves acceptance and who needs to give it are being debated by politicians and churches.  Kindness is being lost in polls and demonstrations and hashtags.   They say that the solution to gun violence is not more kindness but more guns and the streams of broken people seeking shelter and safety are not brothers we should give to but invaders coming to take from us.  They…. We…. are building walls to separate us rather than bridges to connect us.   No, I’m not picking on any one political party – it’s just all of us.  We all do it.

IMG_20160704_174431_edit_editI know I do it.  One of the things I have struggled with here is looking into the bitter eyes of the children I work with, and not being filled with anger and judgement towards their parents and caregivers.  Oh, how I want to judge.  Drug addiction, prostitution, poverty, alcoholism, violence, abandonment.  So many mistakes that have landed on the shoulders and hearts of these children.  It’s not hard to justify my stinkin’ judgey attitude.

 

This month as I considered this topic and as I considered Thanksgiving, I was reminded that “but for the grace of God go I”.  I know how much I have to be thankful for.  In fact, every day in 2018 I have been writing in my Lovely List – 20181113_162547_resized.jpgI have over 950 items now.  The hummingbird in the garden today, the laughter with my husband, the help of a friend, the crazy antics of a puppy, a text from a daughter, a really good taco …. So many things to be thankful for.  Family and faith and home and my daily bread.  But I also recognize that I did nothing to deserve any of it.   Where I was born, who I was born to, the education I was given, the security I have always had and always taken for granted…. I did not earn any of it and do not deserve it.  Not more than the sweet boy who lives in a one room house in the slums made of tarps, or the 5-year-old who was given an STD by a relative or the young daughter raped by her father who she trusted.

So what does acceptance look like in this place?  I don’t think it means that we accept injustice.  We must keep fighting that.  But I am trying to accept that these parents are doing the very best they can.  I accept that they were also broken as children and don’t know how to give love or guidance because they’ve never seen it.  I’m trying to believe that it is in the acceptance of the broken, that we can finally get to the giving of the kindness.

So Happy Thanksgiving to my friends North of the Border!  Enjoy the turkey and the trimmings and the love of your family.  Don’t feel a bit guilty – you have been given a great gift.  But please, take a moment to give away some kindness, to offer love and acceptance to someone who might not seem to deserve it.    Put the debates on hold and the Facebook rants on silent and the judgements in the trash can – and just go #love someone!

“Freely you have received; freely give”  Matthew 10:8

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45139569_10215621288638874_8553295776481017856_nCheck out some other thoughts on this subject by the SOTB

 

 

A Major Purchase & More Bureaucracy

Finally! We made a major purchase, licensed and registered it with the State of Nayarit and it WORKED almost perfectly.
You’ll remember that in late July we drove our truck and trailer back to Canada to sell. It wasn’t pretty – the accident, the near arrest, the breakdowns, the late arrival. (Maybe our Worst Trip Yet!)  It was ugly, but it was done and since then we have been keeping our eyes open for a replacement truck. A couple of weeks ago we got serious about the search. Grant has a new business idea brewing (stay posted!) and he will need a truck to make it happen. We had expected to buy a vehicle in Guadalajara, but after a LOT of online research, we decided to check what was available locally. Big club cab trucks aren’t all that common here, so it didn’t take us long to check out every used lot in the Bay and to settle on two options. A sleek, shiny black truck and an older bright red one – both Dodge, both heavy enough to haul a lot, and both roomy enough to transport a crowd of little Mexican children. Both in good shape. The red one was considerably cheaper but also considerably older. We test drove them both, had our mechanic give them the once over and chose ….. (insert drum roll) … the black one!


20181101_123714_resizedThe main hurdle to purchasing anything major here in Mexico is figuring out how to pay for it. The dealer only wanted cash – no cheques, no bank wires, no drafts, no credit cards. Just a lot of cash. We started raiding ATMs and then realized since I would be in Canada for a few days for family business, I would be able to get most of the pesos we needed from our bank there. I called ahead to order the rather larger number of pesos and when I arrived, I was thrilled to be told they had just received a shipment of mostly $1000 and $500 bills. My stack of bills would be manageable. Oh, the irony of going all the way to Canada to find pesos to purchase a truck in Mexico.

The dealer had promised to repaint the truck hood which had peeled a bit under the grueling summer sun and on Thursday we went to pick it up and get the legalities of registration taken care of. We expected the worst. When dealing with bureaucracy we always expect the worst. We’re rarely disappointed. Remember our story of buying my little VW?  (Shopping for Wheels) Or registering the trailer? (One Full Year to Get Some Plates)  It never goes smoothly, and we didn’t expect it to this time either.

First, we had to get it inspected and the serial number verified – last time that cost me a ladder! But that went smoothly, and we were only there for about 1 ½ hours waiting in line. The next stop was the registration office in the town of Mezcales. It was around noon and they are open until 2:00 so we were confident we could get this done. We knew the next day all government offices would be closed to recognize Mexico’s beloved Day of the Dead – a day to remember and celebrate those loved ones that have passed on – but we still had 2 hours and we really wanted to get those plate before the weekend. But of course, no. They were already closed. “Why are you closed today?” “Well tomorrow is a holiday, so we closed today at 11.” “But the holiday is tomorrow.” “Yes, so we are closed today.”
Well okay. I guess Monday will work. Today we headed back to the office knowing there would be a big lineup after the two-day closure. We arrived at 8:30 and at 9:00 when the doors opened, we were at the front of an already long line. We had brought multiple copies of everything – we’ve been through this drill before – but after the shuffling, stapling, reshuffling, restapling we were sent across the street for more copies. 3 copies of this, 2 copies of the rest. Fine. More copies, more waiting in line, more shuffling, more stapling, many of the copies handed back to us as unnecessary (but you just told me to get them???) and finally, we were handed our new license plates. We also realized that we were supposed to have renewed our registration on Azulita the Volkswagone every year and we hadn’t done that since 2016, so we took care of that too. Oops.

20180915_091319_resizedSo, Grant is back on the road. We are again a two-vehicle family. Well three if you count our favorite, the little blue golf cart which really has become our main mode of transportation over the rubble and through the potholes. Our lifestyle is so very different here that I know we could get by with just 1 set of wheels, but I am not quite ready to let go of my own sense of independence and identity. My freedom. I really have absolutely nowhere to go that I can’t walk to or bounce to on the golf cart, but I’ve owned a car since I was 16. My powder blue convertible is just one more of those material things that I continue to cling to as some kind of weird crutch to prove that life is normal. That I am okay when so much is uncertain. That I can go….somewhere….  I know that’s not where my comfort lies, but hey I’m just being real here!  Besides, who doesn’t want to see a couple of old people and a fluffy white poodle heading to the beach with the roof down and the music blaring. It’s all part of the dream and we’re loving living it!

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Maybe our Worst Trip Yet!

It wouldn’t be the first time a road trip between Mexico and Canada clobbered us with challenges and frustrations, but our recent trip last week might top them all.

We knew we would need to take our truck and trailer back to Canada within the next 2 years – our truck was not the correct type or year to be imported – and since Grant’s family had planned a reunion for the August long weekend, we decided that would be a perfect time to drive north. Our intention was to leave Wednesday or Thursday at the latest, drive 2 or 3 days on smooth Mexican toll roads, eat our way through American restaurants, spend a couple of days in my Canadian hometown with my family and some friends and then hop on a plane to Alberta for the reunion on Friday. Somewhere in there we would take our trailer and our truck to a consignment lot and eventually jump on a plane back home. It was a good plan. It should have worked. But…..

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The first snag was that we really wanted to have the trailer painted a spiffy black, so it would look a lot younger than its actual years. Of course, when the painter guy said it would take 2 days, he actually meant 4 days, which meant we didn’t get away until Saturday morning. The driving days would need to be longer, the restaurants more fast food than sit down, but we could still make it. Until Guadalajara. Only 4 hours from home we hit our biggest, and scariest, challenge to date.

Guadalajara is a REALLY BIG CITY and we knew it was going to be tricky driving a truck pulling a 30-foot trailer through there. But the highway goes straight through the city. It really is just put the car in Drive and go straight. Unfortunately, Mexican motorcycle drivers seldom just go straight and, on this Saturday, a young man on a motorbike decided it would be faster if he could just weave in and out between vehicles, making the 2 lanes into 3. What he didn’t calculate well was the width of our dually truck and that trailer. As he tried to drive between us and the car beside us, he scraped against the side of the truck, bounced off the trailer and landed under the tires of a Jeep behind us. We didn’t see this happening, but we did hear the squeal of brakes and tires and when Grant looked in the mirror he saw the Jeep run over the young man. We still didn’t realize we had been involved in this accident until someone beside us yelled for us to pull over.

And that’s when we realized this was serious. It looked like the young man was okay, but we still didn’t have a clue what had happened and no one around us was speaking any English. Immediately we pulled out our insurance policy and called an agent – please come, we’ve been in an accident. It didn’t take long until our agent was there as well as the agent of the other driver. Still, no English. So of course, we did what we always do when we can’t speak the language – we called our friend Francisco. 35 times we called Francisco over the next 8 hours as we sorted this all out at the side of the road.

In Mexico, accidents are basically about the insurance settlement – you don’t leave the scene until the insurance has been settled. For the next 2 hours the police measured scratches and took photos and wrote statements while the insurance agents negotiated. Finally, our agent told us that they had reached a settlement – everyone would pay their own damages and that would be the end of this. Huge sigh of relief. Maybe this would be okay. The motorcycle guy obviously had injured his legs and feet, but basically seemed okay.

And then his dad arrived and decided that he was most definitely NOT taking that settlement, and in fact was deserving of receiving money for his injuries. Now I get that Dad was worried for his son, but the police were very adamant that this accident was the young man’s fault and he did not deserve any cash, but Dad was not having it. Either give us money, or we’re going to court.

At that point our agent told us that the deal had fallen apart, we would be going to court on Monday, which meant our vehicles would be impounded tonight. And they could keep them impounded for up to 2 months if they needed further investigation. Oh my gosh. 4 hours into the trip and our vehicles were being seized.

The negotiating continued. The police and the insurance guys kept pushing the father to accept the deal they were offering. If we indeed went to court on Monday, he would probably lose and then he would be responsible to pay all the damages on all the vehicles. But Dad stayed firm and then he made the call that escalated this all to the next level – he called an ambulance for his son. Now this young guy had been sitting there for 3 hours and definitely should have gone to a hospital, but calling an ambulance increased the severity of the situation – and that is when we got the call from Francisco who was clearly upset. The agent had called him to tell him that Grant – as well as the driver of the jeep and the motorcyclist – would be going to jail for 48 hours. Until court on Monday. Grant was going to freaking Mexican jail. I stood there shocked. 48 hours? In jail in Guadalajara? Where no one spoke English? This was so not good. The police lined the other driver up with Grant and 2 women officers came with the necessary paperwork to process the arrests. By this time our friends in Bucerias were frantically calling everyone they could think of who might be able to help. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance of Francisco and Veronica arrived to see if he could help. He didn’t speak English either, so we will never really know what went on, but he started negotiating with everyone, pushing them to let us go, trying to find a way to make a deal. By this time 5 or 6 hours had gone by and just when we thought the day couldn’t get worse it started to rain. POURING with giant hail stones. They let us jump in our truck and then the streets flooded. Water to the top of the police car’s tires. Just so dark and dismal as we sat waiting for them to take Grant to jail. We hadn’t eaten since 7 am so we were starving. Our agent had gone to buy us a bottle of water, but we had nothing else.

The police kept going back and forth to the hospital and finally things shifted for us. The police had continued to pressure the boy and his family to make a settlement. They continued to resist until the police said “Enough, this accident is your fault and you’re going to jail. You’ll be paying all the damages as well as paying fines for dangerous driving”. Right there they arrested him and took him from the hospital to the jail. They were still planning to come for Grant and the Jeep driver, but after his arrest, motorcycle dude’s family left him alone – they had had enough of this mess – and he agreed to take a settlement. To pay for his own damages and not go to court. Which meant we would be free to go. It was another hour or two before all the papers were drawn up. We had to agree to:

  • not press charges
  • not ask for damages
  • pay the police officers 500 pesos for all their hard work (negotiated down from the 1000 they asked for at first).

By this time, it was after midnight. It was still raining, and we had to find a hotel. We were exhausted, hungry, scared and just really grouchy. But we were okay, Grant was not in jail and the hotel we found agreed to take puppy.

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Of course, this wasn’t the end of our troubles. Not even close. The next morning, we came out of the hotel and saw we had a flat tire. After changing it, we left the hotel, eager to get out of this city. We had only been on the highway for 2 or 3 minutes when a siren pulled us over. You have got to be kidding me. I don’t know if we were flagged in the system or if it was a coincidence but again we were on the side of the road trying to talk to policemen who did not speak English and did not look happy. We finally understood that we were not to drive on this highway with this vehicle – we could only drive on the side road, the lateral. Fine, we will do that. And we would have to pay a fine. On Monday. 1200 pesos. Oh my gosh. I do not want to stay here another day. Can we pay you here somehow? Well if you give us 2400 pesos we can pay your ticket for you on Monday. So another 2400 pesos down the drain to the Mexican ‘legal’ system. But we were free to get out of town.

Over the next few days we had challenge after challenge. 5 hours inching along in a 106 degree lineup to cross the border into the US. Vehicle problems. Tires wearing. 5th gear shot. Some kind of broken belt. Which pointed to some other part that was needing to be replaced. The realization that it was now August and Grant’s driver’s license had expired in July and he couldn’t renew online because it was time for a new picture. Every day more hours behind schedule.

We had already told our family we would not make the reunion by Friday. But Saturday. We would be there Saturday. Our oldest daughter was driving 2 days from Vancouver, so we were not about to give up. But each day it seemed less likely. Our flight was booked for 5:00 on Saturday morning and Friday at noon we were still in South Dakota. Which meant we had to drive through South Dakota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. We had to drop the trailer at a consignment lot 40 miles north of Regina. We had to drop the truck at our mechanic’s shop. Which we did. At 2:30 am. One hour before having to head to the airport. One hour to spare. After 1 week on the road with accidents and breakdowns and border delays and police encounters, we had arrived with 1 hour to spare.

I know you’re asking why we keep doing stuff like this. Why do we keep driving back and forth hauling vehicles full of weird stuff, encountering weird people and experiencing weird situations? I guess because we’re weird people who are in the middle of doing something pretty extraordinary. Trying to build an unusual life in the best way we know how. Yes, we could have stayed in Canada until all our ducks were in a better row, until our language was better and our bank account bigger. But then we would have missed hugging little Perla today, would not have little girls who need a safe home living with us on weekends, and would not have realized that the things that are most worthwhile in life are always the most difficult.

“I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” – Rising Strong by Brené Brown.

In the end, we had a fun weekend with family from Canada and the US and Sweden. We celebrated being Swansons. We hugged our daughter and played fetch with our puppy and ate soup with Uncle Paul and Aunt Rita and celebrated cousin Albin’s new log home. We told our stories and laughed about the whole crazy adventure. And then we got on a plane and came home – because this is now home and it is indeed all worth it!

Miracles on the Road

Everything that is good….. is also hard

After our disappointing trip with Gael to Guadalajara last month, we are back on track! But none of it has been easy and I realize that good stuff is sometimes just hard to pull off. You must believe deep down that it’s worth it or you might be tempted to cry or scream or quit.

You’ll remember that last month Gael absolutely refused to allow the audiologist to do the essential brain stem test at the hospital in Guadalajara. He wouldn’t put the headphones on, he wouldn’t let her look in his ears, he just wouldn’t cooperate. She told us he should have come sleepy or asleep, but no one had told us that. She did suggest we try to convince him to wear a hearing aid for a few months to get used to the idea of a device and miraculously he loves his blue hearing aid and wears it all the time.

Gael Goes to Guadalajara

We were pleased when we found another audiologist who could do the test in Tepic. That’s 2 ½ hours from here, as opposed to the 5-hour drive to Guadalajara. It’s an ugly, windy, curvy, narrow single lane road through the mountains, but a couple hours shorter, so we set an appointment with Dr. Veronica and set off.

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Narrow curvy mountain roads

The appointment was at 5:00 in the afternoon – which meant we had to figure out how to be sure Gael was ready for sleep at exactly 4:45. On Wednesday night the orphanage director Veronica took Gael home and kept him busy playing and dancing until 12:30 am. She then woke him up at 4:00 and took him back to the orphanage at 6:00 to get ready for school. After lunch he had his mandated shower with no fragrances or gels and at 1:30 we hit the road for Tepic. He was tired…. really tired…. and we kept him busy with tablet games and sandwiches and bananas and juice and anything to keep him from falling asleep.

We also took a set of headphones like the ones the audiologist would use. In case he wasn’t asleep, we wanted to make sure he would be cooperative, and our German friend Manuela looked hilarious wearing the headphones that were connected to nothing. He liked them and was happy to put them on during the drive. Unfortunately, that led to our first challenge of the day. To wear those headphones, he had to take off his hearing aid and his mom, who wasn’t carrying a purse, wrapped the device in her shirt. And then we stopped at a Pemex gas station to use the bathroom and buy some drinks and an hour or so down the road when Gael decided to put his hearing aid on it was nowhere to be found. We searched every inch of our van, but the hearing aid was definitely not there. We knew the gas station was a possibility, but it was too late to turn back – and who could even remember which of the one million Pemex stations we had passed might the be one we had stopped at.

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Maybe?

After arriving in Tepic, we got on Google maps and Google Earth and narrowed down where we thought we had stopped. I remembered the nearby grocery store, we knew it was on the edge of a town (but was in Las Varas or Zapulcan?) and we remembered the general shape of the building. Once we felt confident where it was, how could we contact it? The internet only had a 1-800 number for Pemex in Mexico, no local numbers, and I am not kidding when I say there are millions of them. Every couple of miles. They’re everywhere. And then I remembered that our church has a sister church in Las Varas. I only knew that because our team from Canada had done some work there a few years ago. I messaged my friend Pastor Fredy and his wife Michele and begged them to contact the pastor in Las Varas and ask if someone would go on a hunt for us. Which of course they did and within a ½ hour they messaged – they had found the hearing aid. They had it. We could stop on the way home and pick it up. Disaster narrowly averted. That was Miracle #1.

By that time, it was about time for our appointment and just at the right moment, at exactly 4:45, Gael snuggled into his mom’s arms and fell asleep. Deeply asleep for the next 7 hours. Miracle #2. The test was done. The findings confirming once again that an implant will work for him – his brain function is good. The audiologist told us we are working with one of the best surgeons. We had the green light we needed to move on to the final step, the MRI which we can get done in Puerto Vallarta next week.

With the test complete, the hearing aid found and Gael asleep, we headed for home. It was already 7:30 in Bucerias and we weren’t thrilled about driving the curvy roads in the dark, so we decided not to stop for supper. We would stop at a gas station or taco stand along the way for a quick bite. We should be home by 10:30ish. Except we totally weren’t.

About a ½ hour into our drive it started to rain. Not good news for already dangerous single lane roads. At first it wasn’t a hard rain, so Grant calmly flipped on the windshield wipers – only to find that the wipers on the van we had borrowed from Manos de Amor were completely worn out. No rubber whatsoever on the wiper. Just a metal noise scraping on the very wet window. I panicked as the rain distorted our visibility. And then Miracle #3. The road widened with room for us to pull over. We were not in or near a town, basically in the middle of nowhere, but there was a tiny shop right there. Right there. And it sold car oil, and belts and windshield wipers. Within 5 minutes we were back on the road. And then we weren’t. We were standing still. For the next 3 ½ hours we stood totally still. And watched as 9 ambulances and a fire truck passed us. We knew it was bad.

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Waiting …. hoping the rains would stay away…..

We were starving by then and when Manuela saw a light far in the distance she decided to walk down the highway to investigate. Sure enough, it was a Pemex (I told you … they’re everywhere!) and she returned with sandwiches for all. And a cockroach. Whatever.

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Eventually we were able to move ahead slowly, and we saw the devastating accident that had stopped us. Today we heard the details. A semi’s trailer had shifted as he rounded a curve and the truck tipped on to a passing Tour Bus which flipped on its side. 32 people were badly injured. It was sobering and scary and sad and the rest of our ride was quiet. Today I read that shortly after we had finally passed through, a crane that had come to help move the overturned vehicles had lost its brakes on the hilly road and tipped over on its way back to Las Varas – the same place we were heading – and the highway was closed for 4 more hours. Perhaps Miracle #4 is that we had moved through in the small window of time before this next disaster and we had not been nearby when it happened.

We arrived home at 3:00 am instead of 10:30 pm. A one-hour test had turned into a 14-hour adventure. But the lost hearing aid was found, the windshield wipers were intact, we were safe, and Gael was cleared to move ahead with Miracle #5 – receiving his gift of hearing.

I like to think I’m stubborn. That I can persevere. But I am so grateful that I don’t know the details of each step of my life before I walk them. That I don’t know the frustrations and the mistakes and the pain that will be there. That I just trust that it is worth it. That life is worth it. That loving others is worth it. And that on the tough days, there will always be Miracles.

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UPDATE: Today we drove the hour back to Las Varas to meet the kind people from La Fuente church who had found Gael’s hearing aid. Turns out the aid was found in the parking lot but wasn’t run over or damaged at all. That’s Miracle #6!

It’s Raining Coconuts

Our poor little Azulita has had a lot of issues from the potholes and speed bumps and curbs in our neighborhood – and today from the skies.

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Many stories.  Funny, irritating stories.  First the keys lost in the ocean which led to a tow truck to the dealership which led to the smashed windshield which led to many weeks of Mananas.

     A Crappy Week of Mananas

     The Car Adventure Continues….

There was the especially giant speed bump hidden in the shadows in San Vicente one night which led to the broken radiator which led to the broken air conditioner which led to many more weeks of Mananas.

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A few weeks ago there was the curb that jumped out of nowhere which broke the radiator again and the air conditioner lines again which led to the welder guy which led to the backwards welding which led back to the welder guy which eventually fixed the problem.

 

20180119_104729And then today.  We were driving home from the Immigration office celebrating the issuance of our new green residence cards.  Heading to a celebration breakfast date. On the beautiful and smooth tree lined streets of Nuevo Vallarta.  What could possibly go wrong here?  And then the sky was falling Chicken Little.  As Grant slowed for a speedbump, a coconut fell out of a tree, smashing our headlight and bouncing down the road spraying its refreshing water along the way.   Sigh.  Here we go again.  On the up side, our windshield wasn’t smashed, our convertible roof was up, Azulita’s body wasn’t dented.  Just a headlight.  And probably many weeks of Mananas!  The adventure continues.

An Uncertain Christmas

Generally, I like change.  I like when surprises sneak up on me.  I like when things are new, unexpected, adventurous, unknown.  You can’t move to Mexico and expect things to look even remotely familiar.  But Christmas is different.  Christmas is about tradition, about recreating memories, about things staying the same.  And for that – well this Christmas I was just a bit sad.  This is the first Christmas that we have not been with our own daughters.  Flights were too expensive; job vacations were too short.  This year it didn’t make sense.  Still, reason and common sense gave way to se24899711_10155086227796198_3210385353696014323_nlf-pity.  After all, this was the year I thought we would finally build a proper family Christmas.  Among our 3 loads of belonging, we had moved our big old Christmas tree, our stockings, our ornaments.  Snowmen and stockings and candles and the tiny Nativity scene.   My roasting pan and that old gravy bowl.  My tablecloths and napkins and those cute little snowball place card holders.  Everything I needed to finally make a family Christmas dinner in this new home.  Familiar.  Safe.  Traditional.

So when we agreed to postpone our family time until spring this year, I admit I was disappointed.   I briefly… really briefly…. considered flying north to them but I knew that was not right either.  We were needed here and as December unfolded, I began to see the plan emerge exactly as it was meant to.   Since the last weekend of October, we have enjoyed opening our guest rooms to three little girls who need a home and as Christmas approached, I realized our tree and our decorations and even our stockings still had work to do.

Of course, as often happens here, the road became bumpier and more uncertain the closer we got to Christmas weekend.   It looked like we would have the girls for the weekend.  We shopped –  for toys and groceries and surprises.  We hung our own daughters’ stockings in preparation for Santa’s arrival.  Nope.  They’re going with mom.   Tears from everyone.  Nope.  Mom changed her mind – please come get them.  More tears.  More pain.  So much pain.  But finally, it was Christmas morning and I looked around our breakfast table and rejoiced that our chairs were full and our table was overflowing with Christmas treats and Christmas love.  Unlike my own daughters, these children hadn’t even considered looking under the tree or looking in the stockings.   I had however found a letter under the tree on Christmas Eve written by 10-year-old Marely.  “Santa, they say you’re not real but I still believe in you.  If you are real, please tell me the truth -Yes or No”.  Over breakfast, when Grant said, “I wonder if Santa came, she actually looked pretty angry.  “No.  There’s no Santa”.  “Well, let’s look”.  They ran to the stockings and I was elated with the pure joy on Marely’s face “He came, Santa came”.  I don’t know what she really believes, but for this year at least, she got to experience being a child with a stocking full of treats and gifts under a tree.

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Christmas Eve Candlelight Service

 

 

Christmas morning surprise!

That evening, we had a traditional Canadian Christmas meal in our tiny garden.  On Friday I thought there would be just 5 of us, but by Monday night our family had grown to 13.  Canadians, Americans, Mexicans of all ages.  Spanish and English jumbled together.  So different than our normal tradition.  So exactly the same.

 

As always, the happy stories are mushed together with the painful stories.  The joy of a Christmas weekend is paired with some truly difficult moments and I have new respect for all foster moms and adoptive moms who love children who come from difficult places.  The same little hands and arms that gave generous hugs of joy, left painful bruises and scratches when they realized mom wasn’t coming for them.  Gifts that were purchased with love were stolen and hidden away.  So much laughter mixed with so many tears.  But that is the whole point of the Christmas story.  A baby coming into a broken world.  Love wrapped in flesh.  A father to the fatherless and the orphans.  Peace that passes understanding.  Not the Christmas I expected but oh the Christmas I will cherish.   Joy to the World!

A Long Awaited Christmas Gift for Pricila

You know well the story of our little weekend girls who have not been able to attend school because they have never been registered with the Mexican registry.  In Mexico the rule is “No birth certificate = No school.”   In Canada, that process happens in the hospital when our children are born – it is free and it is easy.  It is automatic and I never had to question whether my children would be allowed to attend Kindergarten when that big day arrived.  But here, it costs money to get a birth certificate and it means going to a few different offices and filling out reams of paper.  So some moms just don’t get it done and that means their children will never receive an education.  The children who come from difficult places, who need education the most, cannot access it.  This has been the case for Britani and Pricila and Mama Vero has been working for many months to get the papers processed.  Unfortunately, mom must be involved in the process and that has not always been easy in this family.  But over the past couple of months mama has been living nearby and has been cooperative.

The process has been long and it has been difficult. Surprise, right?  Because Britani is now 7, her papers were no longer available at the hospital where she was born.  They had been sent up to Tepic – a 2 ½ hour drive through winding mountain roads.  Veronica, our Super Hero Orphanage director, made 2 trips there but must now hire a lawyer to start a whole new process because too much time has passed.  Since the process was underway, the school allowed Britani to begin classes but only for 2 months.   If the papers aren’t here in 2 months she will not be able to continue.  Unfortunately, the clock is ticking down and it is not looking good.  But it is just a matter of time and perseverance and eventually Britani will be registered and in school permanently.

Yesterday the word came that Pricila’s papers were ready to be signed, fingerprinted, sorted, copied and stapled and this morning we all headed over to the Registration office.  Pricila put her tiny little fingerprint in all of the correct boxes, Mama signed the papers, and then Grant and I, as her Padrinas, signed as the witnesses.

That made me think about our roles in these little girls’ lives.  We have indeed been witnesses… to so much –  their pain, their poverty and their brokenness.  Their laughter, their affection and their hugs.  We have witnessed their sad faces and their joyful hearts.  We have witnessed their pranks as they snuck up on a sleeping Grant and scared him half to death.  We have witnessed their messy morning hair when they knock on our door at 5:30 am and their late night pyjama movie parties where they slather their popcorn with ridiculous amounts of hot sauce.  Last week I witnessed a single tear from Mareli as she watched the ending of a happy Christmas movie.  Oh how we hope that we can continue to witness these precious lives and maybe more importantly, we hope to BE WITNESSES to them … of love, of family and of future hope.  Of God’s love for little orphan girls.

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But for today, Feliz Navidad Pricila – next month you’re going to Kinder!

More Chasing After Illusive Papers

This week we tackled the next step of our legal residency and while it was eventually successful, it was not without the expected challenges.  As our first year of Temporary Residency comes to an end, it is time to renew our residence status for 3 more years and renew our Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for our truck.   The good news is that there is lots of information online as to how to do both of those things.  The bad news is that absolutely none of it is accurate.  Rules change here often, and online advice has not kept up.  We decided to start by heading directly to the Immigration Office to get the correct papers and procedures.  The process is pretty simple, even though it will mean 5 trips to the office in Nuevo Vallarta:  One to get the correct papers and instructions;  two to deliver the papers and photos and many copies of everything and to get the form that must go to the bank;  three to take the financial paper to the bank and return with the receipt and again many copies;  four to get our fingerprints taken when the application has been approved and; five to pick up our new Residency card.   The clerks at the Immigration Office are friendly and helpful and although it is time consuming and really poorly organized, it is not difficult and hopefully we will get an email next week saying we are approved for 3 more years and can come to give our fingerprints (which we just did a year ago and …. uhhh… they haven’t changed).

The vehicle was a little trickier.  There were so many different opinions online as to how to renew its TIP.  We asked the Immigration officer and she said we needed to go to the Customs office (Aduana) in Puerto Vallarta – across from Costco, beside the wine store.  Okay that works – I need groceries, I need wine, we can make a day of it.   When we walked into the Aduana office I stood in shock – there were DOZENS of people waiting for an appointment – maybe HUNDREDS.   It was a huge building with SO MANY PEOPLE and none of them appeared to be speaking any English.  The first woman we talked to told us we would have to take the truck back to the border.  Ah no.  Another person please.  Finally the English-speaking supervisor appeared, gave me the form we needed and told us she couldn’t help us.  We needed to go to the Aduana office at the airport.  They could help.  Sigh.  Every post I had read online said the office at the airport was absolutely NOT the place to go.  But I was more than happy to get out of that madhouse –  the airport was the next stop.

When we got to the airport, we wandered around for a while looking for the Customs office.  We found the Immigration counter – but no Aduana office.  We approached the Information Desk and a Spanish clerk directed us to the office we were looking for.  “Go outside and turn left.  Go to the end of the building, go around the corner and walk until you find the only grey door.  Knock on the door until someone comes and then tell them you want the Aduana office.”  Okay – sounds easy.  Even in Spanish, I thought I understood.

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Imagine eyes staring through that slot!

We eventually found a grey door, but there was literally nothing on it indicating it was an Aduana office.  In fact, as I stared at the door, I notice a tiny slot in the door with two brown eyes staring at me.  After jumping out of my skin, I told the eyes that I was looking for the Aduana office.  “Uno momento”.  And the slot slid shut – was I at a government office or a rent-by-the-hour motel?  After waiting for 5 or 10 minutes, a Customs officer opened the door, and we explained what we wanted.  He took our papers and began looking through them.  And I mean ALL of our papers.  Papers in our file folder that had absolutely nothing to do with this process were inspected.  “Okay, let me get someone to help you.”  Big grey door slam.   After we waited in the tiniest triangle of shade for 15 or 20 minutes, another Customs Officer came to the door and we told her our story again. She looked over our papers and told us we needed 2 copies of these papers, 3 copies of those.  Again, the copies.  “There is a copier in the middle of the airport.”  Okay we will be back with our copies.  But the desk in the center of the airport said “No Copies.  Maybe at the nearby business mall.”    Which meant leaving the airport parking lot.  We had, of course, parked in the absolute last stall of the parking lot, and when we got to our car we realized we had forgotten to pay for our parking at the machine – INSIDE THE TERMINAL, at the furthest spot from where we were now standing.  We trekked back to the Arrivals area of the airport, paid to get out and drove a mile or two to the mall where we indeed found a copy store.  After getting our copies, we headed back to the grey door.  We knocked on the door, spoke to the eyes, waited 10 or 15 more minutes in the blazing sun and eventually another Customs Officer – now our 3rd – came to the door, inspected the papers, shuffled the copies around and told us to wait a few minutes.  It was now 2:00 – we had left home at 9:00 – and we were hot, thirsty and hungry.   But in another 10 or 15 minutes the grey door pushed open and the Officer handed us our papers – with the needed stamp.   Our truck is in – again.  For 3 more years.   And I am considering taking donations, so Customs at the Airport can have a sign, maybe even a desk and a chair, to help weary travelers who don’t want to stand outside in the parking lot while papers are being shuffled.

3 times waiting – at least – and we’re all fighting for that one triangle of shade

As we have worked through all the steps to live in this country, I have been frustrated but I am also super excited.  No one would ever go through all of this craziness unless they knew they were meant to be here, unless they were already rooted in the soil and breathing the air.  We have been grumpy, we have been angry, we have laughed, we have cried – but we have never doubted.  And that makes me happy.

How Can We Help?

The thing we have struggled with the most and continue to struggle with is how to best help the people we find in our path here.  Every day we see a need, feel some pain, touch a wound and we are not sure when we can or should help.  It is not just about money – maybe it’s least about money.

I have told you many stories about some of the families we have come to know and love.  Recently I have been sharing about the 3 girls who have stayed in our home after mom lost her house.  We are living week to week in that story and last weekend we waited at the orphanage on Friday afternoon to see if mom would come for her girls.  2 of them were in school (yay!) and the agreement was that at 4:50 she would come to pick up her youngest and then walk to the school to gather her other 2 for the weekend.  We waited and at 5:27 we decided she mustn’t be coming and we needed to go pick up the 2 at school at 5:30 and bring them home with us.  I was relieved.  We jumped in the golf cart and about 4 blocks from the orphanage we saw mom slowly walking towards the school.  So now my conscience had a battle.  Should we meet her, hand over her 5-year-old who was with us and deliver her to the school to get the others?  Or should we turn down a different street, so she didn’t see us, go get the girls and take them home.  Honestly, I didn’t want them to go home with her – but she is their mom and she appeared to be doing the right thing – although late and without her youngest.  So, we pulled up and

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Watching Mom walk away with ‘our’ girl

offered her a ride to the school.  I knew the oldest daughter would not be happy – she wanted to go home with us – so we quickly left before we were seen by the girls.  No one needed a scene outside the school.  We continued on to drop off 3 of the other Mans de Amor children in another town 20 miles away and stopped for some seafood.  We were quiet – I imagine this is how divorced parents feel when the ‘other parent’ gets their kids for the weekend.  We were worried, angry, frustrated.  But we are not their parents and it seems mom is trying.

About the time we were leaving the restaurant, I looked at my phone and saw a number of missed calls from the orphanage director.  She had the girls, mom didn’t actually want them that weekend because she had no beds in her ‘new’ home.   Relief.   They would be ours for one more weekend at least.

We headed back to Bucerias to pick them up and then we were faced with another moral dilemma.  We had an extra bed in our garage.  Our friend Diana had left it there and told us to give it to someone who needed it.  I knew the orphanage had another little bed to be given away.   We could help them set up their house so that they could again have their daughters with them.  I could make happen the exact opposite of what I wanted.   Oh, the struggle that went on inside.  No bed = the girls stay with me.  Beds = the girls go home.

I talked to Veronica that night and she said “let’s meet tomorrow morning and take them the beds.  Also, they want you to take your truck and help them get all the things that were thrown in the street when they were evicted from their last house.”   I knew – albeit grudgingly – that this was the right thing.  Let’s help them make a new home.

Saturday morning, we drove to their new house to pick everyone up.  House is a bit of an exaggeration.  There was a tiny cement room.  The yard was surrounded by a wire fence and miscellaneous filthy blankets were attached to the fence to create walls.  There was a piece of tin over it all.  That was the home – a fenced yard.  But it was theirs and it was not much different than many others in the neighborhood.

Off we went to help them find their discarded stuff.  We drove into one of the worst neighborhoods in Bucerias.  Grant and I had driven through there before in the golf cart and had said we didn’t think we better come back – a little rough.  But we helped them load and unload their few belongings and left them to set it all up.  The littlest one

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Family Saturday errands

stayed with mama and we took the 2 middle girls to the swimming pool for the afternoon.   I was very upset – I didn’t want them to go live in that little house – and when some tourists at the pool tried playing with the girls I grabbed our stuff and said “Let’s go” – no stranger is going to talk to my kids.   Except they’re not my kids and the home their mom is making for them is all she can provide.   The best way to help right now is to empower her to be the best mom she can be – offering support when she needs it.  That is what my mind tells me, my heart was struggling to agree.

That night the two youngest daughters were excited to stay with mom.  The oldest still refused and stayed with us.  We had some good talks about the importance of family and we told this angry 9-year-old we would be there if she needed us.  If you are scared, you know where we live.  She talked about her other siblings – besides the three of them there are 3 more brothers, 2 more sisters.  The sisters live with Grandma.  She doesn’t even know where the brothers live – Brian and Juan Carlos and one other. They are just teenagers living on their own.   It was a sad conversation and I feel so much pain for this child and for the mom who has lost all but 2 of her 8 children.   For now at least, the girls will continue to come to Manos de Amor during the week so mom and her boyfriend can find jobs.  Our weekend house will be open if they need us.

This family is not the only one we contemplate helping each week. There are constantly people showing up at our door selling things, needing things – maybe legitimate needs, maybe scams.   There is one young man who comes once or twice a week and rings our doorbell and asks if we have work.  We get him to sweep leaves or wash our car or other small tasks.  We give him 20 or 50 pesos, usually whatever food we have around.  Grant noticed his shoes were almost completely worn out and gave him some sandals.  Another day some pants.  A leash and some food for his scruffy little dog.  Well you’re not going to believe this.  Today he came to our door as usual and this time he said – “I am Juan Carlos.  You know my sisters.  You know my mom.”  It was one of the lost brothers!  For the past 4 or 5 months we have been feeding and clothing the brother of these three sweet little girls.  No one but God could have joined us all together.

I don’t know what our continuing role will be with this family.  The oldest daughter does not want to go home with her mom.  She does not like the mom’s boyfriend.  I don’t know that it is right for us to keep her with us.   I want to support a relationship but how can we help it become a healthy one?  How can we help reunite the brother with his siblings and his mom?

Today we stopped at the orphanage and all 3 girls surrounded us and gave us letters they had written to us.  Yesterday they had been in a fight with one of the boys in the home.  The letter said they were sorry for fighting.  (I didn’t know anything about the fight – not sure why I was getting the apology 😊) And then the last sentence of each letter – one to Grant, one to me.  I love you Grat. (They can’t say Grant).  I love you Karen.  Hugs all around.   And the story continues.