Thursday, August 6, 2015

Traveling again

We are on the road again! After a few days in Ferrysburg, MI, unpacking  and doing laundry and visiting with both sets of grandparents, we set out for a family reunion in Colorado. The kids have traveled well and we've been listening to lots of books on CD and enjoying the varying countryside.

I think we've had more return culture shock than we anticipated. We are, of course, missing our friends in San Cristobal and also many of the sights and sounds and tastes of Mexico. We are continuing to try to practice our Spanish, and Peter especially continues to chatter away in Spanglish.  It took a few days for us to stop greeting folks with hola and trying to order in Spanish in restaurants. We are both missing where we were and also grateful to be back in the States. I think we have a deeper appreciation of our 'first' language (this morning we were on a rafting trip and both commented how different it felt to be able to understand everything the guide was saying effortlessly!) and a deeper respect for folks who live day to day in a 'second' language.

We are appreciating the wild beauty of Colorado and the time with extended family, and next week we'll be visiting a few of the sights the youth from Boston Square visited on their way to New Mexico - Great Sands and Mesa Verde - before heading back toward Michigan. We are so grateful for this time, and looking forward to coming home to Boston Square again in a few weeks.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Last Day of Class

Today we had our last day of Spanish class and said good-bye to our teachers and other friends that we have met at the school. We've been surprised at how close we've become with those with whom we have talked for almost three hours every day over the last ten weeks and how important they'd become in our lives. Saying good-bye was hard.

I'm by no means fluent in Spanish, but I (Jay) can hold a conversation for the most part--especially if the other person is willing to speak slowly for my sake. I'm suprised by how much I've learned in the ten weeks we've been here and how much more comfortable I am in the language now. I can tell each week that I've made significant progress. The challenge will be finding ways to keep practicing when we return to Michigan. 

As the week of classes drew to an end, we were asked a number of times by our teachers what we will miss in San Cristobal and what we are most looking forward to in our return to Michigan. The best answer to both is the people. We've been shaped in remarkable ways by the people here and the kindnesses we've been shown. By their patience in working through our language difficulties and their willingness to let us see a bit of their lives here. We've made real friends and we've even begun to feel a little settled. Just as the time is coming to an end, we've discovered jewels hidden in the city--restaurants with amazing food for just a few dollars, an aerial arts class that Emma and Brianna adore, extraordinary handicrafts around every corner, a vast array of fresh fruits and vegetables, and friends to play with in the local plaza. People we didn't know at all before we came have sacrificed their time and resources on our behalf. At the same time, it's also the people back home we're most looking forward to seeing again--friends and family and everyone who is such a part of our everyday lives.

We've finally begun to adapt to the cuisine here, and will need to find a way to add a bit more 'pica' to our usual recipes when we return. This trip has been an adventure that has been hard at times, incredibly rewarding most of the time, and although we can't articulate it specifically, we feel changed. 

Our apologies for not posting more here sooner--we were without internet for about a week after a small tornado went through the town. Apparently these are not all that uncommon--at least in the last few years. Our teachers said there used to be a mountain that acted as a blockade for the converging weather systems, but that mountain was destroyed in a search for oil. Now, solely in the last four or five years since the mountain disappeared, San Cristobal suffers three or four small tornados a year. They're not fierce, but they are a huge deal since the homes are close together and typically not built with tornados in mind. We've been told that many people lost their homes in the storm two weeks ago.

In the last couple of weeks we've continued to explore Chiapas.  We've visited a couple of water falls and a series of lakes (Lagos de Montebello) near the border with Guatemala.  Only Bri was brave enough to venture in for a swim.  One day we traveled to Tonina to tour a significant Maya temple site.  We climbed all the way to the top and back down again!

A highlight of the last couple of weeks was getting to participate in the first gathering of a new branch of Presbyterian churches, hosted by the ministry that our friend Gloria directs.  There were about 50 people from 3 different churches, gathered for worship, a meal and fellowship.  There were rich conversations about unity, and we got to receive communion with the folks there for the first time since we've been here.  After the meal there was an impromtu 2 on 2 basketball tournament.  Jay led his team to victory, despite some good natured teasing about his height advantage.  We were deeply moved by many of the stories shared and by the prayers offered on our behalf.

In our last few days here Jay and Emma are planning a day trip to go to Palenque to tour some more Maya ruins, while Peter and Bri and Elizabeth pick up a few more gifts and visit some favorite restaurants.  On Sunday we are hoping to visit another small presbyterian church in the area before packing for our trip back to the States.

Thank you again for all of your prayers - we are praying for you as well.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Language challenges

Today I (in theory) learned the last of Spanish grammar (Jay). The trouble is, I can't remember the supposedly "simple" things I learned the first couple of days here. It's all a bit of a blur. I can form most any sentence I want in Spanish--as long as I have a dictionary in hand--but it takes about five minutes to progress through all of the various verb endings in my mind to find the right one. Needless to say, having a conversation on the street is still a bit of a problem. Hopefully in the just-under-three-weeks we have left in Mexico, the repitition and practice will help cement these endings and also expand my Spanish vocabulary. I'm fairly afraid that I'll have just started feeling comfortable with the language at the moment when we return, and I'll instantly lose it all. It's been very good to study again and to use a different part of my brain. Even though I've studied a number of different languages in the past, I've never been conversational with a different language than English, so this has been a real challenge for me. I'm hopeful the last three weeks will bring remarkable progress... We've managed to see a bit more of the surrounding area in the last week or so. On Saturday we took a boat road on a river through a narrow canyon with cliff walls 2000 meters high. The day was perfect and the scenery was spectacular. We saw six crocodiles, a couple of monkeys and a variety of waterfowl, including storks and pelicans. It was much hotter than San Cristobal because it was at the base of the mountains instead of nestled high up in the midst of them. On Sunday we went to another nearby community of indigenous people. This one, San Lorenzo Zinacantan, was strikingly different than San Juan Chamula, which we visited two weeks ago. The Mayan influence in the religious practicies seemed less extreme, the people were generally friendlier to outsiders, and the entire village seemed to grow flowers (and thus the church was filled with flowers).
The flowers from Zinacantan are shipped all over the world and there are rows upon rows of greenhouses nestled in the hills through the approach to the village. The local clothes are covered with carefully-stitched flowers, so simply watching the people walk by is a delight to the eyes. We continue to learn many things about local culture and habits, the person who has been watching Peter for us in the morning has begun to give us cooking lessons because the food we cook otherwise is too bland, and we've stumbled upon a number of community-based political rallies. There was even one almost right outside our door that featured clowns. It was a great connection with the kids (even transcending language barriers), but I'm not quite sure if the organizers thought through the irony involved in clowns leading a political rally. Each neighborhood here has its own church and the name of the neighborhood is the name of the local church. It also seems like each church has a sort of plaza out  in front of it, often with either a basketball/soccer court or some play equipment, and it has struck us that the churches function as gathering points for the community. It's where people play and also where the political rallies happen. Our kids continue to deepen friendships with other kids at the local plaza as well as with the kids of the English family here also studying Spanish. We are very thankful for these connections. Elizabeth and I, meanwhile, take heart that each time we watch Pride and Prejudice in Spanish, we seem to understand a bit more of what they are saying. As they say here, "Poco a poco."

Monday, June 22, 2015


After several bleak conversations last week and the week before about the elections and corruption in Mexico, we were able to participate in something this weekend that felt like a wonderful place and time of hope.  On Friday afternoon we met our friend Gloria at a gathering of people from different churches throughout Chiapas, meeting to talk and eat and play and learn together for the weekend.  It was the third ecumenical gathering of these folks - people from Catholic and Methodist and Evangelical and Baptist and Presbyterian churches - gathering to learn more about what it could mean to work together for the good of their communities.  And it was really exciting - there were young people and old people and men and women listening to and engaging with one another.   One of the pastors invited the group to tell the story of the good samaritan and highlighted the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans and talked about how any sense of identity that we carry that prevents us from seeing the humanity of others is a false sense of identity . . . a lot of good food for thought!  It was really a privilege to be there, and a thrill to be able to understand a lot of what was being said and to be able to participate.

We are making slow progress with our language lessons - the girls are starting to enjoy meeting other kids at the various parks and playgrounds we've been visiting and being able to understand enough to learn new friends' names and to play together.  Peter has begun flirting with folks in restaurants, cheerfully greeting everyone with 'hola' and blowing kisses. It's a bit like dining with a movie star.  Jay has begun telling the girls some of the classic children's stories in Spanish on the walk to school each morning.  We've just finished 'Los Tres Cerditos' and began 'Hansel y Gretel' today.

We are continuing to enjoy the countryside around and the parks within San Cristobal, and to learn more about the indigenous communities that surround San Cristobal.  Last Sunday we visited the village of San Juan Chamula, riding on horseback!  The church and rituals there are a mixture of Catholicism and pre-hispanic traditions and last Sunday was the beginning of the feast of St John the Baptist.  The church was full of incense (so much you could hardly see!) and village leaders were putting new clothes on several of the important statues of the saints.  The floor was covered with pine needles and with small candles burning, and there were men with drums and trumpets playing.   Many traditional healers were practicing in the church at the same time, surrounded by lots of people and there were also a few men making fireworks on the side.  It felt very different from a Sunday at Boston Square!

Yesterday we spent much of the day at an ecological park closer to San Cristobal.  Brianna decided to count all of the butterflies she saw, but gave up around 17!  The park is along a gentle river and we had a lovely time wading and later hiking across a couple of bridges and up to a cave, where we disturbed a bat, passing a couple of fresh water springs along the way.  We are still amazed to look up each day and find ourselves surrounded by mountains.  It's really beautiful watching the storms roll in and out most afternoons, being able to see the rain on the various mountain tops.  The days here sometimes move slowly, but the weeks are going  by quickly.  We miss you all and are praying for you, and continue to be grateful for your prayers for us!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Poltical Ramblings

Last week Sunday we were warned ahead of time to stay inside all day. It apparently wasn't safe to be out on the streets. That Sunday was the day of midterm elections in Mexico, and there was a lot at stake--if the ruling party lost too much power, it could unsettle all of the Mexican government. In the days leading up to the elections, the local teachers' union had been very active, making things even more unsettled. They had taken control of the toll booth along the main road leading to San Cristobal. Apparently this happens rather frequently. Groups of protesters simply outnumber the toll booth workers, so the workers decide they would be better off going home for the day. When asked why the people put up with this, our teacher's response was. "Well, usually the other groups charge less than the regular toll..." When we asked why the police didn't get involved, the response was, "Well, sometimes the police are the ones who take over the toll booth..." The day before the elections, the teachers' union took control of all of the petrol/gasoline stations in San Cristobal. At first it was impossible to get a tank of gas in the town. Then they started giving away free gasoline. Apparently one of the teachers' union's points of protest is the still uncertain events that lead to the disappearance of 43 students in Chiapas last September. They want this resolved before the government moves on with new elections and new power structures. If you followed the news in Mexico, there were apparently some regions that experienced violence durning the elections, including the burning of a number of ballot boxes. There certainly was some intimidation involved and there were reports of votes being bought. Thankfully, here in San Cristobal, all was relatively quiet. The rumors that the Zappatistas were going to march into the city proved to be unfounded. That morning, though, I ventured out to a playground about a mile from our house with out children. I thought that at least should be safe. On our walk, we passed our neighbor returning in a taxi who had the driver stop so she could warn us that the city was like a ghosttown, the churches were empty, and we should stay home. Moments later an ambulance passed us, rushing into the city center. I began to rethink my decision to venture out... The usually jovial people who regularly line the streets were either missing or clearly reserved. I felt quite ill at ease on our way to the park. While there, however, the whole tener of the city seemed to shift, and by the time of our return, things seemed more back to normal. The upshot of it all seems to be that the rulling party lost some significant power, but most of that ended up being taken up by the relatively new Verde party--a party that was essentially created by the ruling party as a way to maintain power while making the people feel like they were voiting for change. The system, in just a few short weeks, has made me appreciate in new ways the system we have in the United States, despite how broken it seems to be as well at the moment. There appears to be very little trust in the government here, and a general feeling of not being able to do anything about it--yes, even more than in the United States. Our Spanish lessons continue to go fairly well. Elizabeth has had a number of people comment on how well she speaks Spanish. I'm still waiting for that elusive compliment. Peter continues to seem to understand it better than any of the rest of us, though unfortunately, he can't funciton as a translator for us yet. We've done some horseback riding and explored more of the city. We continue to be amazed at the rich cultural traditions that surround us here. Many of the buildings date back five hundred years or more and San Cristobal itself is surrounded by a variety of Mayan cultures--each one unique with its own cultural and religious traditions, dress, and sometimes even language. There are seven different languages spoken within just an hour or two of San Cristobal, and many of the speakers of those languages are unable to understand the other languages or even Spanish. For the funny story of the week: we went to the organic market on Saturday morning. By the time we arrived, it was getting close to lunch time, so we looked for some prepared food to buy. The girls were not too thrilled with the fried rice balls containing ham and peas that we first bought, and the quesadilla maker had just run out of beans, so finally found a sign that said, "Hamburgaesas" There were suprisingly cheap, so I went over and asked the lady if she had hamburgaesas. She said yes. I had expected them to be ready-to-eat, but she opened her cooler and pulled out a frozen pack of ten. She proceeded to cut into the pack to extract the two burgers I had asked for. At this point, it was too late to declare that I had only wanted them to eat now, so I thought that I might as well get enough to cook at home later. I upped the order to five (this was also conveniently one stack of the pack of ten, so she did not need to separate the frozen burgers). We stuck them in our backpack and later brought them home. All day I had been looking forward to the burgers--the first real American food we had bought in the market to cook ourselves. We are also overdue for purchasing several other staples in our kitchen at the moment, so it was burgers or bust tonight. As I started cooking them, I noticed they were cooking up to a strange color. Then there was a bit of a strange smell. Then we remembered that we had bought the patties from the same lady who was selling the smoked sail fish. Yep--they turned out to be fish burgers. A bit different than we expected. I'm not sure we'll buy them again, but they certainly fed us for the evening. We give thanks for the ways God continues to provide for us here. (We're now halfway through our time in Mexico!).

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A church without walls

One of the highlights of this past week was getting to worship in Pastor Edman's church in Tuxtla.  (Pastor Edman is the person who picked us up from the airport.)   The journey to church was a bit of adventure in itself - we went with our friend Pastor Gloria and her friend Deirdre, first by taxi to the bus station and then by bus for about an hour, around and down the mountain, and then by taxi again (yes 7 of us in a taxi plus the diriver!) to the church.

The church itself is in a clearing tucked away in the city with several large trees.  One of the trees is a mango tree, and a ripe mango almost fell on Peter's head!   The church has been around for almost 15 years and has a few small independent class rooms with two walls and a ceiling, and the main sanctuary, also two walls and a ceiling.  Tuxtla is quite hot, so it was lovely to feel the breeze throughout the service.

The worship service began with reading Psalm 100, and when I (Elizabeth) heard those familiar words, something in me felt at home, more at home than I have felt here yet or since.  We continue to be impressed by the amount of participation in worship services here - different people lead all the different parts of the liturgy and everyone reads the scripture readings together out loud.  We also continue to be impressed by the len
gth of the services!  Though this week, I was partly to blame - a slightly less than 20 minute sermon in English becomes about a 40 minute sermon with translation!  It was a very exciting privilege to get to preach and a new experience workng with a translator - the sermon was very much a joint effort! And the congregation was very patient . . . after the service we traveled to a small community outside of Tuxtla to pariticpate in a graduation celebration - lots of traditional food and a traditional mirimba band playing.

We continue to persevere with our language classes, sometimes frustrated by how slowly we are learning.  Peter is speaking spanglish and seems to understand more than the rest of us, but bit by bit we are understanding more.  We continue to explore the city and some of the parks nearby.  The girls joined an art class at a nearby art cooperative, and Jay and the kids visited a park near the city called Rancho Nuevo, with giant slides, a cave to explore and horseback riding.  Peter was thrilled by his first horseback ride and keeps saying 'Again! Again!' whenever we talk about it.

I aslked the girls if there was anything they would like me to include in this week's blog, and they said 'Amigos!'  We are very blessed to have a family from London also studying at the language school with children close to ours in age and we've done several playdates with them already.  Emma is eagerly aniticpating celebrating her birthday here in Mexico next week with a piƱata.

We are so thankful for this time in this very different and very beautiful place and we miss you all.  You continue to be in our thoughts and prayers and we are deeply grateful for your prayers for us.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Lessons in local cuture

As I am writing this, I am sitting on our balcony, looking out over the mountains, waiting for the rain to start. The mornings here are beautiful. Clear skies, warm temparatures, a certain glow to the mountains and the city. Unfortunately, that's also the time we're in Spanish class. We've commiserated with our fellow students that perhaps we scheduled our classes for the wrong part of the day. In the afternoons, the clouds inevitably roll in, and even those days where we thought there was no chance it was going to rain, it begins to rain. It happened to us again--we left our laundry out, and it got soaked while we were gone. We've also been caught a few times without our raincoats when we thought we would be bold and travel without them. Hopefully we're learning our Spanish better than we our our lessons about the rain. Last week, we noticed that workers were installing three sets of speed bumps on the main road down the mountain. It's a fairly curvy road, so it's not really possible to go too fast anyway, but there they were--installing speed bumps. We noticed our taxi drivers complain as they had to stop and inch over them, and then, on Saturday night, on our way to the birthday party of a friend we met here, we discovered a large gathering of men at the top of the hill, blocking the road. They had dragged large rocks across the road, and all the traffic was being diverted to side streets and other routes. The crowd seemed a little restless, so we carefully stayed to the side and made our way down a side road to the party. By the time we returned, the crowd had dispersed. On Monday, though, as we took a taxi home from our class, we were startled to discover that all of the new speed bumps had disappeared. They were gone and they have yet to be replaced. In another cultural lesson, we were planning to go to a church with an 11 o'clock service on Sunday, but we received a text from our friend at about 9:45 saying that the service had been cancelled and we were free to find a different church. We scrambled to get ready and headed to the main Presbyterian church with a service at 10. We arrived at 10:20, worried that we had missed most of the service. There was a person up front giving what seemed at first to be the sermon, but then we realized we came in the middle of Sunday School. Three hours later, we snuck out of the service just before it finished up. There had been no need to worry about missing the service! We've also helped with some English classes for local children and visited the main park in San Cristobal (the slides here are taller and seemingly more dangerous than the norm in the United States--and that is a bit of a problem when you have a 2 year old with no fear...). We continue to enjoy the views, the people, and the local cuisine and seem to have settled into a bit more of a routine. The girls seem to be having a grand time, but Peter still doesn't like to be left behind in the mornings when it seems like the rest of us are heading off on adventures. We've met a family from London who are also taking Spanish classes and have been traveling around the world for the past year. They have a little over two months left and then head home. They have three children who match up fairly well with ours, and the girls are excited every time they see them, and they've been a real blessing. Elizabeth is scheduled to preach this coming Sunday at a church in Tuxtla Guttierrez--the capital of Chiapas about an hour away. She'll be preaching in English and it will be translated, but still, this is pretty intimidating for us, so your prayers are appreciated. On a funny note, Elizabeth keeps mixing up the words for onion and hair. As her teacher pointed out, while they do sometimes use onion to help the hair grow, they never brush the onion. We also used the local bus system today for the first time--there essentially a slightly larger version of the old VW vans. We got on and realized we had no idea how to tell the driver to stop to let us off...thankfully the row of ladies across the way from us took pity on us and sorted things out for us.