Archive for the ‘Journeys’ Category

IMG-20130525-00320Late last month a group of 14 volunteers from Free Christian Church in Andover, MA ventured south to help with the work of Harvest Hands Ministries (www.harvesthandsministries.org). Our hosts were missionaries Terri and Gary Matthewson in New Mexico who are involved in many Christian efforts in the nearby Mexican state of Chihuahua. Over the last 13 years the Church has sent several such teams of volunteers.

The FCC team brought money for supplies along with workers eager to help the desperately poor people that live in this hot, arid part of the world. We were one of several such Church groups which come each year to serve Christ through the work of this ministry. It made me proud to be an American and a Christian to see how many people are willing to take their time and money to help those in need!

The team loaded up supplies in El Paso, TX and then crossed the Rio Grande into Cuidad Juarez, its international sister city. In addition to contributions for building materials, food and supplies, we brought seven hundred pounds each of rice, flour and beans. The food was separated into smaller portions and offered to the poor residents of the area.

Harvest Hands founded and supports Resplandor de Vida Children’s home located on the outskirts of Juarez. Most of our time on this trip was spent supporting this home. Volunteers come for a week or so, put in as much labor as possible and then the facility waits for more money and workers to further the work. This is was my second trip to the mission. My wife Annie, son Ben and daughter Mikaila have all made previous trips.

Resplandor De Vida is in located inside of a walled fortress with high concrete block walls topped by razor wire and a padlocked gate. There is another such compound a short walk away, also was built by Harvest Hands, which is where the mission trip workers stay along with the property caretaker (Santos) and his family. The bible verse on the sign states in English: “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart…”

IMG-20130525-00320There are intended to be two children’s dormitories, each housing 25 kids of each male and female. Currently there is one building finished housing 35, with the other still under construction. Completion will be as God provides workers and funds.

Here the children’s basic needs are met as well as special needs on an individual basis (i.e.: psychological and educational). The children are also given spiritual guidance through daily devotions, Wednesday evening church services and daily attendance at a Christian school.

Since this is a children’s home and not an orphanage, the children go to their familial homes on the weekends, returning Sunday evening. During the time when we were not working and the kids were not away at school, there was plenty of time to share the joy of Christ or just joy! We built ramps, played games and bought them new bikes through the generosity of folks back home in Andover, MA.

The facility is run by Joaquin Estupiñan, chosen by Harvest Hands due to his commitment to help children and their families deal with severe poverty. He knows most of the families in the area and has a great reputation for caring and helping when asked. There are extreme cases of neglect, abuse, hunger, despair, and other forms of distress. As part of the community, Joaquin can help as soon as he is made aware of a need.

This people live in quiet desperation, in scorching heat, filth, and with an often corrupt government. Juarez is often listed as one of the most dangerous places in the world. Still, despite the horrible poverty and difficult circumstances, they do what they can to survive…note the sign above which states in English: “Food is sold for pig”.

In addition to regular financial support from Churches throughout the US as well as visiting mission teams, there are also opportunities to support individual children. For a nominal fee Harvest Hands will be able to support an additional child who might otherwise not get to go to school, learn of Christ’s love, or get adequate food and health care. I strongly urge you to either take part in a mission trip, or offer monthly support for a child. We grow stronger as a person each time we support someone in need.

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There are a large number of great places to visit within a day’s drive of the Boston area: north-Vermont, Maine, NH, Canada; south-Cape Cod and the islands, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York City; west-Berkshires, upstate NY.

Because of all the potential journeys but with not enough time, we never made it too far “Down East” Maine. We have visited Boothbay Harbor, Camden, Rockport, and are almost regular visitors to Kennebunkport and Portland, ME- all great areas. But never had we driven the six hours or so to get to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

We had heard great stories about the beauty of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park; but was it worth the travel time? Would it be too cold? Would we be bored with nothing to do there? Summer 2012 it was time to find out!

At first we intended to stay at a wonderful oceanfront campground that was recommended to us: http://koa.com/campgrounds/bar-harbor-oceanside/. But I was not sure that my wife could take camping for a week, so we rented a lovely little cottage in Southwest Harbor, a charming small town on Mt. Desert Island. I would give the name of the rental agent, but we were not too happy with them…

If you have not travelled through some of the nicer destinations in New England, you might be surprised to find out that even small towns often have some amazing food options, and Southwest Harbor did not disappoint. Our location was removed from the constant bustle of Bar Harbor, but still had much to do.

Some of the things we did while on the island: biking around Acadia and up Cadillac Mountain (hard), dinner and drinks, shopping and boating in Bar Harbor, took in an entertaining Improv show, went to a farmer’s market, bought great baked goods from various people selling out of their houses, rode in a lobster boat with my grandson, spent a day rock climbing with my son on cliffs above the ocean (very hard and a little scary but worth it), drove the access road and hiked all around Acadia. We even saw a prettly lame lumberjack show: embarrassingly bad….

My son was happy as fireworks are now legal in Maine so that killed  a couple of nights. We wanted to fly a glider but ran out of time. Read a couple of books, played games, lots of good clean, healthy fun.

At 1,532 feet, Cadillac Mountain is the highest point along the North Atlantic coast and is the first place to view the sunrise in the United States in the Fall and Winter months. The panoramic views from the summit are amazing, and this entire area is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.  There is much to do outside, and gourmet food options are endless. But next year we will have the same dilemma: with so many choices and so little time….

Acadia National Park and Mt. Desert Island are strongly recommended!

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The last couple of years I have been after my wife to hike Mt. Washington with me. I had not hiked it since I was a teen and it seemed like a good idea. She, however, did not share my enthusiasm and as a retort, purchased the book “Not Without Peril” for me to read. This book describes in excruciating detail all the people that have died on the mountain in every month of the year.

Most people know that Mt. Washington has some of the worst weather in the world, and that it deserves a great deal of respect. Despite tremendous search and rescue teams,since 1849 there have been 137 deaths among those trying to reach the summit. Each year there are a lot of close calls, serious injuries and typically a few more deaths. The mountain is even listed in a popular blog (www.gearjunkie.com/worlds-10-most-dangerous-mountains) as one of the 10 most dangerous mountains in the world, mostly due to its unpredictable and extreme weather.

According to the Mount Washington Observatory website (www.mountwashington.org), due to the fact that the site is within a day’s drive of 70 million people, the summit receives a quarter million visits per year. Only a relatively small number actually hike; most drive to the top, take a shuttle bus or the Cog Railway. Most who visit the summit each year experience no problems whatsoever. Yet each year several “close calls” accentuate the dangers of the mountain.

Danger and death can occur for many reasons on the mountain, but generally involve ill-prepared hikers, skiers and climbers. Others are just accidents, with injuries sustained by slips, falls, falling ice, rock slides, avalanches, rushing torrents, etc. While the main causes of death are falls, hypthermia and natural causes (men and women of any age not as fit as they thought), people have died from car, carriage, slideboard, railroad and 10 from airplane accidents. Five people died from drowning in raging mountain streams.

You must be in pretty good shape to make this trek, and reasonably well prepared. I found out that another man who was about my age had a heart attack on the same trail the day after we went. He was out with his two daughters; one stayed with him, the other went for help. Sadly he did not make it.

Now I am often accused of not only looking for adventure and challenges that may not befit my age, but looking for partners that I can convince to do them with me. I am no reckless daredevil, but generally feel that I am fit and brave enough to do anything a few levels below Evel Knievel. Luckily my kids mostly share my desire for adventure, and will gladly join me as time and money permit.

Such was a trip in August with my two sons to the summit of Mt. Washington on the Tuckerman Ravine trail. We wanted to go up and down as fast as we could, and scout out the headwall for a possible ski trip there next Spring.

We intended to stay at a high elevation at the Lake of the Clouds Hut but it was full. So we stayed in Joe Dodge Lodge at the base and planned a quick trip up and down. (Joe Dodge Lodge is a pretty nice if spartan place, but don’t get the meal plan unless your palate is broad. There is only one item on the dinner menu and on our night it was fish balls. I could not get my sons to eat it, and the staff would not refund my money so I lost about $85. There are many other great places to eat in Mt. Washington Valley.)

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Although our trip was in August, it was cold and rainy at the base the morning we headed out. After breakfast we signed the registration book and ventured onto the Tuckerman Trail. We were not 15 minutes out when we came upon a group that was heading back in, having decided that it was too miserable and possibly dangerous to continue that day. Having come all that way, we did not intend to quit do to rain and slippery rocks, but were a little more wary.

The lower part of the mountain was not that steep, though it was challenging to walk up the slope on slippery rocks while keeping a good pace. With the ever-present threat of worsening weather on this mountain, there is always a certain motivation to keep moving rapidly.

By the time the first hour was behind us and the headwall was in site, amazingly we were blessed with sunshine which was not in the forecast. When we got to the steeper parts, the rain came back and we had really slowed our pace. I was a little worried about my 14 year old son, since he is not always the most cautious and there are several places where you can fall hundreds of feet.

Happy To be at the Summit!

The terrain at the higher elevations of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is like a rock graveyard, with nothing but large slippery rocks and small rivers of water charging down the mountain. Foggy as it was, we needed the sturdy cairns to mark our way. It is easy to get lost, and had to keep reminding ourselves to focus on these old markers.

It took us three hours to walk up in bad conditions, and about 2.5 hours to hike down. (Soaken wet and cold at the summit, we were tempted to take the shuttle back.) It was a good workout, and by the time we were almost back were were starting to stumble on the slippery rocks. It was a little easier than I remembered, but my muscles let me know I had worked hard for the better part of a week. I could barely walk up stairs for several days.

Since Mt. Washington is also home to the highest number of heavy cloud days per year in the continental US (244 on average), our chances for a panoramic view of the valley was slim. Sure enough, when we got to the top, it was if we were in whiteout snow conditions. We could not see the buildings that were right in front of us due to heavy clouds and fog. I have been to the top when there was a nice view, and it is much better than seeing nothing but fog. Still, it is pretty cool up there when you can’t see anything!

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Summit on a More Typical Day

When my wife sees something new and innovative that she likes, she says: “that is the coolest thing I have ever seen!”. Well King Spa & Sauna in Chicago and Dallas may not be the coolest thing I have ever seen, but it is pretty cool.

Jjim-Jil-Bang spas such as this have become a part of Korean community culture and are popping up in the US. Similar in some ways to Russian Baths, they feature hot and cold baths and saunas that are used to relax and de-stress.

I was recently in Chicago, and was able to spend a few hours at King Spa (www.kingspa.com). Very large and immaculately clean, my visit was thoroughly enjoyable. It is half gender-separate, and half co-ed.

Each man or woman enters the appropriate side into the locker room, where you are expected to immediately take off your shoes and get completely naked. I know this is big in parts of Europe and Asia, but it took a little getting used to. Bathing with so many men, with an occasional young boy bathing next to me: not my favorite thing. As far as nationalities go, I would guess it was about 60% Korean, 20% Eastern European with the balance everyone else.

The workers in the locker room MAKE SURE you wash thoroughly before entering any of the aromatic pools of varying temps. Everything is impeccably clean. I could have also gotten a massage and a body scrub, but I really do not think I would like a male masseuse scrubbing me down: one of those American peculiarities. I did enjoy the steam room before being handed shorts and a top to enter the co-ed area.

Between the two sides, there was a meditation room where some men sleep. Since you get 24 hours for your $25 entrance fee, some people spend the night. If you can sleep on a thin mat with many other people I guess it is a bargain!

Now clothed, I ventured over to the other side where men, women and children of all ages chattered and wandered. There was a large relaxation room with many comfy lounge chairs, televisions and free wifi. I made a mental note to avoid times when kids are present: it is hard to relax with kids are being kids.

I was surprised to find several saunas located in a much larger room. It included the amethyst room, salt room, Fire Sudatorium, charcoal room, among others including an ice room. I, of course, had to try them all! Some too hot, some too cold, some too many people inside, and some just right! Even though the signs say “Be Quiet!”, I found out that there are inconsiderate people in every language…

There is a pretty large Korean restaurant so I ordered a stir fry dinner which was very good. Not really sure what some very spicy vegetable dishes were, but it was enjoyable.

Again, I was foolish to come on a Saturday early evening due to the noise level, but I can see at the right time this would be very enjoyable and relaxing. I did not see any evidence that any of the men were overly friendly, so it certainly is not THAT kind of bathhouse. I just would come again when it is not busy and kids would be at home: like late on a weeknight.

Sliding to a free beer at finish line!

Just leaving the rope loops

The obstacle course/mud race known as the Ruckus Run (www.runruckus.com) had it’s Boston version Saturday, June 16 and Father’s Day June 17, 2012 at the Marshfield Fairgrounds in Massachusetts. Six of my kids and spouses, aged 13 to 31 ran with me on Father’s Day. Purportedly I was the oldest and my son James was the youngest participants of the day. We had the choice of a two mile track of mostly obstacles and mud, or a four mile track that added a long run through the woods and cranberry bogs. Being a competitive family that is always looking for a challenge, we entered the four mile Challenge Course.

The obstacles ranged from mud-filled paths under nets and bridges, to large mud-pools, to wooden barriers and large mounds to climb, to nets and ropes to climb through.  The obstacles made sure that we got a full-body workout and that we were tired, but in a strange way equalized the competition. The runners had to stop and use different muscles; those of us that are not runners got a break as it broke up the course every few hundred yards or so. Women and men under 5′ were at a little disadvantage as some of the barriers were high.

 

Very happy to finish well

Even with the longer run, we all finished between 40 and 60 minutes. While I am not a runner, I can push myself when needed, and I got through it fine. With my kids and grandkids there, we had a great day! It was a beautiful day, and we all had a great deal of fun! Free beer from Harpoon awaited us at the end of our run. We immediately started thinking of competing in similar runs.

There are races like Tough Mudder, Warriors Race,  Zombies, etc. Some are shorter sprints, some are “death races” over multiple days. Some are combative with either zombies or warriors attacking runners near the finish line.

Good workout and ready for beer!

The Spartan series of races (www.spartanrace.com) is interesting and offers a wide range of challenges. We already signed up for the 3+ mile/15 obstacle Spartan Sprint in Amesbury, MA on August 12, 2012. It acts as a qualifier for the 8+ mile/20+ obstacle Super Spartan race. After that comes the 12+ mile/25+ obstacle Spartan Beast race. Finally the Spartan Death race, which purportedly takes more than 48 hours which less than 10% of entrants even finish.

I always wanted to do a long triathlon, or even an ironman. But that would take months of swim training which I do not have time for. These obstacle course challenges are a lot of fun, and they can be tailored to your ability and fitness levels.

The people of Yana Cocha are a hard working group of indigenous people in the rural Andes. They are considered among the lowest of Ecuador’s social classes and are certainly not used to Westerners coming to visit and help them. Some were cautious at first, but all were gracious and humble.

They live simply in adobe homes with a smattering of modern conveniences. Nothing is built especially well, but they are proud of what they have and are quite hospitable. The people have a strong sense of community, and came together to welcome us with open arms, big smiles and great enthusiasm! We had an official welcoming as well as many, many unofficial gestures of thanks.

Often forgotten by the government, the indigenous people have been promised help by many different groups over many years; community leaders told us that our group led by Bruce and Cherith was the first to actually come through!

Moving Concrete Sections in Place

As is the case in much of Central and South America, sanitation is of a major concern. It is necessary to regularly disinfect hands as the people do not utilize the best sanitation practices, and the cleaning and disinfecting of food and water is typically not a priority. When one of the very polite people in the community would greet us with a warm “buenos dios” and shake hands, our hosts would immediately but quietly warn us in quiet English “disinfect your hands”.

Each day from 8:00 a.m. to usually around 1:00 p.m. we would work in the trenches with the community, helping to drain the area where they intended to collect the spring water in a concrete chamber. From there the water would be filtered and pumped to the homes along the hillsides. It was hard, filthy work, and very often we would be bumping into each other as everyone wanted to pitch in but there were often more workers than work. All of the community members were involved and were excellent, enthusiastic workers; some of the women even raked the mud with children strapped to their backs.

Beautiful Children Watching the Work

The working conditions were not deplorable, just wet, muddy and hard. We saw a few tarantulas working along us, but other than that we did not see any serious insects. (Tarantulas are not as bad as the scorpions we have seen on trips to Mexico and Haiti!)

Initially some of us were a little frustrated with the slow pace and the short days. We were there to work we reasoned, and wanted to accomplish something significant! However, we learned that while Bruce and HCJB designs and leads the effort, it is really a community project and they are to do most of the work. HCJB believes that we should be there providing an example and help, but are not to take over the run the project.

I learned to appreciate and respect this approach, as charity in America has largely been reduced to free gifts of provisions, and not conditional donations of work. Work gives the needy a sense of accomplishment and self-respect that blind donations cannot.

We were also In Yana Cocha to spend time socializing and fellowshipping with other Christians. Every day after work we would make lunch, play with the kids for a couple of hours, and prepare for an evening time of learning and worshipping together.

Sharing Roasted Guinea Pig

Food was generally very good, as our missionary hosts provided us with clean, healthy, tasty food! Cherith Rydbeck is a very good cook and had every day’s meal planned before we left Quito. We were discouraged from eating any local food, as again, sanitation and clean food preparation are not the highest priority to the community.

Still, there is a local delicacy known as “cuy” or roasted guinea pig that is served with potatoes and offered to guests. We knew that it was likely going to be offered to us and it would be a major affront to refuse a prized meal from a poor community member. Sure enough, around dinner time one night a large group of people showed up with more than enough servings of cuy and potatoes for all of us. A little gamey and having a taste all its own, I doubt it will catch on in the US.

We never got close to seeing the completion of this project, but we helped Bruce get it started. With God’s help it will be finished next year and about a hundred homes will have clean water and their residents will have made Christian friends in the United States.

Garcia Moreno Prison credit http://www.fotothing.com

In a visit to Ecuador last month as part of a mission team from Free Christian Church in Andover, MA, I was accompanied by Patrick, a civil engineering student, Myles, an engineer in the aerospace industry, David a well-traveled professional, and David’s two young adult children Marianna and John Henry. We were guests of Cheryl and Bruce Rydbeck of HCBJ Global, a Christian missionary group that now has a presence in 100 countries. Though our primary focus was working on a clean water project with an indigenous community in the Andes, we witnessed some other opportunities to minister to those in need abroad.

The first  was Garcia Moreno Prison in Quito, a maximum security men’s prison. Seeing that this is the FIRST maximum-security prison that I have visited in a third world country, I obviously did not know what to expect!  That being said, Bruce made sure we were fast learners by immersion.
The prison is in the poor historic colonial part of the city, surrounded by food vendors selling to the many family members in line waiting to see their incarcerated father, brother or husband. As one of the largest of Ecuador’s prisons, Garcia Moreno has been referred to as a “prison-city”. Designed to house 300 inmates in the 1870’s, it purportedly has housed as many as 1800. It has an economy of its own, where prison food vendors and “restaurants” are located throughout the prison. Everything from cigarettes, drugs, and prostitutes are sold, as are bars of soap, soda, and snacks.
In South American prisons there are no visiting rooms with glass walls; you simply are let into the prison population. On the visitor days, children and wives mingle with the inmates while prostitutes wander the cells looking for customers. Murders are somewhat common, and there have been many riots. In 2004 inmates took over the prison for 10 days, demanding better living conditions. We were all a little concerned about bringing lovely young Marianna in there; everyone except her that is. It turned out fine and in the two visits we had into Garcia Moreno there were no physical altercations.
Security was visibly high, with heavily armed men in flak jackets seemingly limiting what could be brought into the facility. There were several security checkpoints to go through. At the first one we had to turn over our passport; we were not really thrilled about that… At the second checkpoint, still outside, we were frisked (thoroughly) and given the first of several stamps on our arms. This is about all that would distinguish us from the population. At each point we would receive another mark.

Our Arms Stamped at Security Checkpoints

After being let into the general population, we were beckoned from all angles by men asking for “dollars” in a variety of languages and accents. Others were trying to sell us goods that were purportedly made by them. Everyone spoke at least some Spanish, only a few we met spoke reasonable English.

Conditions ranged from modern to simply medieval, with the only difference being an inmate’s ability to pay for his own standard of living. Money means everything here and there is a daily struggle to get money to pay for basic services. With it, you can buy yourself a reduced sentence and even your freedom. You can live reasonably well and anything at all can be smuggled in for a price. Without money, prison life is sheer misery.

Since prisoners have to pay rent for their cell and pay to maintain it, those without money just sleep on the floor in a communal area and eat sparse quantities of the barely edible food that is provided. Those that have family members who send them funds to bribe officials and guards might have a nicer cell with television and internet. Prisoners live with constant demands from other prisoners and guards for money. On occasions a prisoner’s family is contacted and told that he will be harmed if money is not forwarded.

The typical prisoner is a petty criminal or a tourist who made the mistake of purchasing, sharing or selling drugs and was caught. Sometimes they are desperate for money to get back to their homeland and unwisely choose to work with a drug dealer. There are stories of the drug dealers themselves turning in the future prisoner to curry some favor with police. We were told that very often men that  were caught with only small amounts were given the same sentence as a significant dealer in drugs. The dealer then can buy his way out, while the petty criminal without money just rots here.

There were no Americans in this prison so we got to know a few of the prisoners from around the world that spoke reasonable English. We brought them magazines and newspapers to pass the time. There are a lot of sad stories here; some have learned their lesson and are spending their time praising God and preparing for the time when they get out. Others are just filled with hate and despair, having given up and still using drugs in prison. Again, those with money can get by, those without money suffer continuously.

Consider “Leonard” from Canada who we met during a Saturday worship service. His family sends him money so he has been able to afford a lawyer and lives reasonably well in the prison. He looks fit and confident as he knows he will eventually get out and his time here is long but bearable. He could apply to his country to fill out the remainder of his term at home, but he would then be a felon in Canada and would never be allowed into the United States again. He says he owns property in the US. Leonard’s lawyer recently told him that he got his sentence reduced from six years to three years. The cost for this legal work was: $1500, plus another $5000 for bribes and fees to government officials and judges!

Leonard met a woman while in prison, perhaps a prostitute or a friend of another prisoner. They  developed a physical relationship and now have a child together. Though I doubt that the woman or the child figures in his plans when he is released, he proudly told me that he intends to make sure his new son will be able to get Canadian citizenship some day if he wants it. Sadly he did not mention the woman at all.

Marius is from Lithuania and is close to fulfilling the first three years of his six year sentence. He is one of those who has little money and is having a terrible time behind bars. Once his term is half-filled, he will be eligible for a work release as long as he can find a job and a place to live. Unfortunately for him, there are few jobs and he has no money for a place to live so he is stuck for now. Marius’ close friend Daniel is in a similar state, and they have the marks of helpless despair. Nether of their countries are doing anything to help them.

Consider Yanko from Russia who is hoping to get his country to transfer him home and let him finish his sentence there. He believes it will happen but has no idea exactly when so he just waits. If he is able to get a transfer, the Russian government will simply let him go free.

During a Saturday worship service held in a small packed room, we shared our own testimonies and encouraged the prisoners with the fact that God has a plan for them, even now. We told them that they eventually should be released and may still live a fine life once they get out. Even though most of the service was in Spanish and few spoke English, we knew that we are bonded together in our love for Christ and a desire to serve Him. We could see in their faces evidence of the hard life that they have led and the pain they have in knowing that they have made a mess of their life. But in faces of the more mature Christians among them, we also the joy and relief that they have knowing that God loves them and has not forgotten them.

Raw TV has a show called Locked Up Abroad where they have prepared a true-life dramatization of people who have been imprisoned in third world countries. If you want to get an idea of what the actual experience is like, check out http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xj4qs2_locked-up-abroad-ecuador_travel .  Much of the video was filmed in Garcia Moreno.