DATELINE: Monday, March 28, 2005

We met Oswald and Rita’s housemate’s Monday morning. Rita had risen and was making a huge breakfast of waffles for us when Christina came in the back door. I hadn’t realized it until then, but there were concrete steps just outside the sliding glass back door that lead up to a second floor of the house where Christina, her husband Cody and their foster daughter Mia Rene stayed.

We didn’t know a lot about them at this point, but Rita soon filled us in that Christina was an American who had been living there with them in Guatemala City for over a year while she and Cody waited for the application to adopt Mia to reach its completion. Cody was a youth minister from North Carolina and he stayed back in the states most of the time, but would come down to see Christina and Mia as often as he could. Foreign adoption is a lengthy process in Central America and there is a lot of waiting around and applying and reapplying involved. Christina had been with them so long that she had actually assisted as a translator and missionary during the Word of Life medical mission trip of 2004. In the months since then, Christina and Cody had gone from merely wishing to adopt Mia Rene to actually becoming her legal foster guardians in Guatemala, a major step toward ultimately adopting her.

Christina came in with Mia Rene. Mia, who was only about a year and a half old, was a little shy at first, but she quickly warmed up to having strangers paying attention to her and was soon all grins.

We learned that we actually had a connection to Christina beyond just being fellow countrymen. Though Christina and Cody live in North Carolina now, Christina was actually from West Virginia and grew up in a town only about 50 miles from our own. Small world.

It was kind of cool that we met Cody and Christina when we did, because that day was going to be a pretty major one in their lives and they already knew it. We were meeting them on the very day that they would finally learn whether their adoption of Mia would be approved or whether they were in for more months of waiting around. Naturally, they were both very nervous and excited. Cody explained that they had been at this process for so long that he’d started a blog about it just so his family and friends could keep abreast of the latest details in the ongoing struggle of adoption. That site The Adoption of Mia Rene had become quite popular with folks around the country and there were quite a few people who were waiting with baited breath for news of Mia’s parental status.

After finishing our waffles and spending some more time talking with Cody and Christina, Oswald told us it was time to go. We thanked Rita for her hospitality, told her we would be praying for her regarding her own impending infant and then headed back to Marcello’s house with Oswald.

We didn’t expect to find Dr. Allen or Marcello at the house and our expectations were right on the money. They along with Butch had gone to the U.S. Embassy to see about his new passport. We didn’t have any idea how involved a process this would be, but figured it couldn’t be too quick. We just hoped they had better results than Cody and Christina. Once Andrew and Flo arrived, we began packing our meds and supplies so we would be ready to leave as soon as Dr. Allen and Marcello returned.

My neck was hurting a bit so Ashley cracked it for me, all Osteopathic-style. After that, she began working on cracking Andrew’s back and neck and sharing neck-cracking tips. I decided to go check email and returned to Marcello’s computer. I mainly wanted to see if anyone had responded to my Easter message from Sunday. One such response came from my mother-in-law, Susie.

She wrote:

Hi Eric and Ashley. I need to let you both know, Red has had a bad fall off the roof of the new building. Very broken up! C4, T1, T2, T6, 3 ribs, left wrist a jigsaw puzzle, cut to the bone on outer right thigh. In lots of pain and upper body/neck brace. Prayer needed! NO PARALYSIS!!!!! Airlifted to Asheville trauma center for 4 days…home now.

Glad to hear that the mission is going good. and glad to hear that no pickpockets hit you!

Be careful and stay safe.

Love, MamaSan

Reading this made my blood run cold. I immediately ran to get Ashley.

When she read it, she burst into tears, but not from sadness. She was overjoyed that her pa was still alive. And she knew from the line “NO PARALYSIS” that a miracle had to have occurred in order for him to still BE alive. People do NOT usually break C4 and live, let alone live without any paralysis.

We phoned them as soon as we could.

Ma had been worried we would be furious with her for not having contacted us sooner. However, as she had said in her e-mail, the accident had occurred only six hours after we had left Charlotte. She knew if she told us then that we would have turned right around to come back and she didn’t want that to happen unless it looked like Pa was going to die. As it stood, it was pretty clear to them early on that while he was in really bad shape and wasn’t completely in the clear, he wasn’t paralyzed and was not at death’s door. We understood this and were not mad. I would also later learn that if I had actually looked through all of my other e-mail in my regular account, I would have found a message from several days earlier telling us we needed to call home ASAP.

Ma told us that Pa had been up on the roof of the log-cabin garage he’s building when a piece of roofing tin that wasn’t properly nailed down slipped out from beneath his foot. He began a slow, almost controlled slide toward the edge of the roof and then fell off. He was going feet first when he fell, which would still have hurt but would probably not have sustained him any more than a broken ankle. However, on his way down, his leg caught on a nail that was sticking out from the end of one of the untrimmed logs of the structure and that tore a long gash down the side of his leg and served to spin him around in the air so that his head and neck then took the brunt of the fall. He landed on his left wrist and then his neck and back. This knocked the wind out of him, and Pa later told us that he was pretty sure he was a goner right there because when he couldn’t immediately breathe he figured he’d snapped something good that had severed his control of his lungs. Gradually, he was able to start breathing again.

Pa’s Uncle Bob, who lives in a house right next to where the garage is being built, happened to look out when Pa fell and saw the whole thing. He called 911 and came running. A neighbor was soon on the scene as well, and Uncle Bob sent her to go get Ma, because for all he knew Red was dying right there.

Just like Ma’s letter said, Red was back home by the time we called. She let Ashley talk to him. He was feeling pretty good on opiates at the moment, but sounded good. Ash hung up and we both just cried and hugged one another, thanking God that Red had been spared.

After lunch, we loaded up the van, putting most of our luggage full of medication onto the luggage rack on its roof. There had to have been 700 pounds of worth of it up there. At one point, we debated whether to leave behind the spare tire that was taking up valuable space behind the back seats of the van. We finally opted to leave it in, because even though we were doing a lot on faith for this trip, it always helps to stay prepared. We left Marcello’s house around 1 p.m. for our journey to El Salvador.

We’d only gone a few miles when Marcello realized that he did not have his passport on him and since he would be needing it for the journey we turned around to go back. As we did a sharp U-turn as part of our trip back to his house, something in the left front tire began to make a horrible sound. It was kind of grinding sound combined with a clunking that did not sound one bit good. But since it only seemed to happen when Marcello made extreme turns, I hoped for the best. Unfortunately, most of Marcello’s turns are extreme turns.

Once we got his necessary documents, we hit the open road as fast as Marcello’s gas-pedal foot would let us.

Several dozen miles into our journey, we learned that there were actually some limitations to how fast Marcello could go, outside of those imposed on him by traffic and speed limit signs. With the van fully loaded by us and all that luggage on the roof rack, we found that if Marcello got too much above 75 mph the entire van began vibrating in a most loud and disturbing fashion. I was about to explain to Marcello that the vibration was God’s way of telling him to slow down, when he took the hint on his own and kept things below 75. We also noticed a small red light on the van’s dash-board that read “MAINT REQD”. We asked Marcello if he was aware of it.

“Yes. Isn’t it pretty?” he said, grinning like a madman.

Once again, as soon as we had left the higher elevations, the air became hot, humid and nasty. We opened the van’s long windows as far as they could go, which, in most cases, wasn’t much. In fact, I had to stuff a racquetball between the glass and the van’s frame to keep one open at all.

Our route to El Salvador lead us directly back the way we’d come that morning. We passed Chiquimuilla, then the camp itself and then by the road leading to Pasaco. Within a half hour of camp, we had arrived at the border.

I’d only been through a national border situation once before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. This one came in two parts, the Guatemala section and the El Salvador section. As we arrived at the Guatemala section, Butch handed us customs forms to fill out. We then left the van and walked over to the median building between east and west bound roads where we handed our forms and passport over to a man at a window. He typed us each into his computer, brought us up on his screen and gave us a piece of paper saying everything seemed clear and it was okay with him if we left Guatemala. This was all done within sight of the van, which seemed like a good idea as there were some folks eyeing our luggage atop the van who also looked to be doing complicated equations in their heads gauging how quickly and easily they could make off with some of it. With us standing RIGHT THERE watching them, though, their equations didn’t work out so good for them.

We then got back in the van and drove down the road to the El Salvador section of the border. This was a slightly different affair, as we had to park the van and actually go inside a building to attend to the next step of the border crossing. There were lots of teenagers and other folks standing around outside the building too, also eyeing our luggage. We decided we needed to do this in shifts. So Ash and I stood guard at opposite corners of the van while Marcello, Butch, Dr. and Mrs. Allen, Flo and Andrew went in to do their paperwork. After Butch and Marcello came out, we went on in where we were greeted by very friendly border agents who smiled at us from behind glass windows. We decided the reason they were smiling was due to the arctic breeze we could feel coming from the gap in the bottom of the window. It was a sharp contrast to the humid air on our side of the glass.

“I could stand here ALL DAY LONG,” I told Andrew as I basked in the little blast of heaven coming through the gap.

All in all, the border was fairly painless.

We went through a few small El Salvador towns that seemed very similar to the small towns we had seen in Guatemala. However, the further we went into the country the more things began to change. For one thing, El Salvador seemed to have an active litter removal program in place. While we drove, we saw at least a dozen teams of orange-vest wearing workers picking up trash along the roads. The towns we passed through seemed progressively cleaner the further we went. Then I noticed foliage began to look more tropical and we soon found ourselves driving along the coastline itself. The scenery was spectacular, what with it being late in the afternoon with the sun getting low in the sky, casting golden light across the ocean and all. Occasionally, we’d catch a glimpse of what looked like pristine black-sand beaches with nary an item of garbage to be seen. Only Butch could get pictures, as his was the only window that wasn’t tinted and could fully open.

For the past three years, Ashley has maintained that one day she’ll move to Guatemala to live in the beautiful mountain town of Xela, where she visited on her last trip to Central America. There she would open a clinic where she would use only osteopathic manipulation techniques to help her patients. And she would not accept money but work exclusively for chicken and squash. Upon seeing the coast of El Salvador, though, she altered her plans a bit. She announced she would still spend her summers in Xela, where the weather is cool, but would now winter on the coast of El Salvador, working for fish and fruit.

We had experienced some of the more unfortunate aspects of both Marcello’s van and his driving throughout the journey thus far, but as we began hurtling up and over the curving winding coast-line roads of El Salvador, one of the earlier problems came back to haunt us: the tire. The grinding/clunking sound we had heard from the front left tire earlier in the journey returned each and every time Marcello went around the curves on our very curvy road. It might not have made any unusual sound if anyone but Marcello had been driving, but he insisted on taking these curves at Nascar-inspired speeds. And whenever we hit a straight stretch, he would speed up until the van started to shake again, then bring it back down. So it was a seemingly never-ending series of horrible van noises, no matter the topography. My fear was that the tire that was making the horrible noise would blow out while we were hurtling along one of the curvier sections of road, sending us off a cliff or into oncoming traffic, or some equally lethal combination of the two. And there wasn’t a seat-belt between the 8 of us.

This is when I began to pray in earnest. My prayer was a simple one. “Dear Lord, please protect the contents of this van, including the passengers and all the van’s working parts. If we must have a blowout, please keep us safe.” I continued to pray this as we continued careening around the coastline.

After a while more, it also occurred to me that if we did have a blowout and died horribly, no one back home would ever know the details of our trip. I’d been keeping my journal throughout the first week of the missions, and had been doing an almost play by play note-taking account of learning of Pa’s accident and of our trip to El Salvador thus far. It seemed a shame it should all vanish if we were killed. (I know, hardly a thing to be thinking about when death, or at least potential death, is on the line, but that’s what my mind was doing then.) I began thinking that it might be a good idea if I put instructions in my journal for it to be mailed to a friend should the rest of us perish.

Before I could put this plan into action, however, we had a massive blowout.

The blowout occurred a mere 3 miles from the Word of Life camp property in El Salvador. We had come to a very straight stretch of two-lane road with occasional businesses and gas-stations along both sides. Butch had also been telling us that he recognized the area from when he used to go jogging in the mornings while staying at the property. Suddenly there was this explosive sound from the front left side of the van followed by a roar and the entire van swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic. I was sitting on the left side of the van and leapt toward the right side as soon as the explosion happened on my side. What I didn’t see immediately, what Ashley had to tell me about later, was that when the van swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic, it did so directly into the path of an oncoming 18 wheeler. Then, call it a miracle or call it Marcello’s Indy-500 wannabe driving skills, but he somehow got the van back into our lane despite the 700 pounds of luggage on the roof that could easily have flipped us in less capable hands. Say what you will about his driving, God held his hands steady that day.

We quickly pulled over to the side of the road and Marcello saw that the front left tire was indeed blown out. Fortunately, it was a retread tire so we were still able to drive with it, albeit slowly. We plodded along at 15 mph with our tire making loud flappy sounds, trying to make it all the way to the WOL camp. After two miles, though, the sounds had reached a point that indicated we needed to stop driving. Coincidentally, this was when we arrived at a tire-repair shop that was still open at that time of evening.

The tire, now mostly shredded, was a sight to behold. It was soon removed and the full-sized spare tire we had nearly left behind was rolled over and put in its place. Meanwhile, Butch phoned Tito, the leader of the WOL mission in El Salvador to let him know where we were.

We all then stood around and just marveled at our day. Ashley pointed out that we were obviously meant to be here in El Salvador because otherwise we would not have had so many obstacles thrown into our path.

Soon Tito arrived with his wife Jo Ann, as well as his son and some other missionaries. They had a small mini-van and a pickup truck. We followed them for the remaining mile to the camp-property. The El Salvador camp was not nearly as big as the Guatemalan one, at least not that we could see in the darkness of night. It consisted of a large pavilion building that was still a work in progress, as well as a bano house and some other smaller buildings. We helped Tito’s missionary team unload our luggage from Marcello’s van and put into the back of a pickup truck, where it was tied down.

Dr. Allen tried to convince Marcello to stay the night in El Salvador rather than drive all the way back tonight. Granted, it was only a few hours away, less with Marcello driving, but we felt nervous on his behalf. If he had another blowout, there would be no spare tire. Marcello declined to stay. Fortunately one of the missionaries with Tito’s team was a Guatemalan national who needed to return to his home country. This man had agreed to accompany Marcello back on the journey that night and proceed to Guatemala City from Marcello’s camp on the following day. We felt better.

We said our goodbyes to Marcello and had one final group prayer with him, praying that our coming week’s worth of missions in El Salvador would be as successful as those in Guatemala.

After this, we the mission team were told to pile into the white mini-van for the trip from the camp to San Salvador.

Butch had told us that we wouldn’t be staying at the WOL camp property, which was a bit of a load off of our minds as the property had no beds anyway. Instead, we would be put up in a hotel in San Salvador, conveniently located near Tito and Jo Ann’s home.

Our trip to San Salvador took around 40 minutes, but it was a sheer joy. The van we were riding in was a fairly new vehicle with a powerful air-conditioning system that was on at full blast and ice-cold the entire journey. We basked in the coolness and considered it a small reward for such a trying day. And while the van had seatbelts, I don’t think any of us used them. After spending the day taking my safety on faith and having that faith rewarded, it seemed a little questionable to start worrying about seatbelts at this stage.

The van was owned and driven by a missionary named Sylvana. She didn’t speak a lot of English, but understood enough of it that we could communicate if necessary. Still, the drive was a quiet one.

San Salvador, at night, looked a lot like a typical large American city. Sure, the billboards were mostly in Spanish, but other than that it seemed like a lot of places I’ve been before. Everything seemed far more modern than even Guatemala City had. It felt a lot more like home.

We arrived at Tito and JoAnn’s house some time after 8:30 p.

While we waited for dinner to arrive, they turned on the television so we could get some news from the outside world via English-speaking cable news channels. Most of the news was about about the Terry Schiavo case, though we did catch a brief mention that the Pope was in very poor health.

We dined on Pizza Hut delivery that night. It was fantastic stuff, too. Much like the McDonald’s in Guatemala, this tasted exactly like pizza from home, only in Spanish.

We knew very little about Tito and Jo Ann, at this point, but soon learned more. Tito was a quiet man who didn’t speak very much English, or so we were lead to believe. Mostly, he sat back and listened while Jo Ann took care of communications with us. This was very easy for Jo Ann, as she was American herself. She and Tito met while she was studying at the Word of Life mission institute in Argentina, back in the 1980s. The two of them had eventually moved to El Salvador to begin the first Word of Life mission in that country. Though the WOL El Salvador mission team had been in place for a number of years, ours was going to be their very first medical mission, and I wondered if Jo Ann and Tito were nervous about it. If so, they didn’t let on to us. Instead, they asked us many questions about how our missions in Guatemala had gone and asked if there was anything special we would need to make our job easier. Mary Ann and I asked for shelves for the pharmacy, but told them we would make do with what was on hand if necessary.

Jo Ann explained that our clinic site would be in one of the poorer areas of San Salvador and that we should expect some hesitation from the locals we would be serving as far as the mission-portion of the clinics went. She said that most people in the country were devoutly loyal Catholics and there was much fear of family reaction to any switches to other branches of Christianity. (This is not to say that Catholics are not good Christians, by any means. However, people of all faiths can sometimes be more loyal to the religion itself than they are to God. And we weren’t really there to convert existing Christians, but to make sure everyone understood what true Christianity meant, regardless of their religion of choice.)

During dinner, a news report flashed across the crawl of the cable news channel indicating there had been another massive earthquake in the pacific and another tsunami was expected.

After dinner we loaded back up in Sylvana’s van and drove a few blocks to the Hotel Miramonte, where we would be staying. I don’t think any of us were sure what to expect from a San Salvadorian hotel, but this place was above and beyond our greatest expectations. The Hotel Miramonte was a fantastic place to stay. The only real difference we saw between it and any very nice American hotel was that a guard had to let you in through a locking door and everyone exclusively spoke Spanish.

Inside the lobby there were marble floors, a nice open air fountain area, comfy seating and a complimentary internet access terminal for guests. Our rooms were also spectacular, with more marble in the banos, a balcony that overlooked a nearby club called Skizofrenia and a nice view of the city park across the street. Did I mention the air-conditioning? Oh, it had air-conditioning O’Plenty. We were overjoyed.

After a long shower, Ash and I collapsed into our comfy bed, unsure of what the following day’s early start would bring us, but willing to tackle that when it came.

 

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