Never take "short-cuts" in a foreign country, Guatemala

Never take "short-cuts" in a foreign country, Guatemala

, / 1862 0
Location: Guatemalan Coast
Date: March 2010

Colton, then 14, was less than amused at the street signs in Guatemala.
March 2010

While we were in Guatemala, we also took part in some other excursions.  This next excursion is probably the most stupid and careless adventure in which I have ever been apart.  I am embarrassed to even write about it, but I feel like it serves as an example of what not to do, therefore I’ve decided to include it in this blog.  I will warn those reading not to seek to have an excursion like this, especially with children.  So please heed my warning and remember something I hadn’t qualified as important until after this experience—follow the road signs and do not depend solely on GPS devices!  Roads in foreign countries are usually sub-par and even though a satellite device may lead otherwise, follow the marked signs!  With this warning hopefully cemented in your brains now, you can read on…
Trent (tall guy on right) as a missionary in Guatemala

While in Guatemala, we had more than the beautiful ceremonies of Antigua and the exhilarating hike of Pacaya to keep us busy.  We also decided to drive around to other cities that Trent had served in while he was a missionary and see if we could find any of his old friends from the Church.  One area he served in was Santa Lucia.  The distance calculator says it is about 28 miles from Antigua.  This city is down on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.  In driving time, that is about 1 1/2 hours.  Yes, whatever you think the driving time would be in the states, basically multiply that by 3 and you’ll have your estimated travel time for Guatemala.  (It’s even worse in other countries where the roads aren’t paved like so many were there.)

On the black sand beaches of Guatemala
March 2010

Since it is a coastal town, we took our bathing suits and towels and planned a day in the water.  The black sand beaches of Guatemala are amazing, and for one day, we drove into a town, found a local boat captain of a catamaran, and went out on the boat and around the marina.  The water in the bay was calm, but once we got out on a sand jetty in the water, it became treacherous.  The coast dropped off very quickly, and the waves were pounding.  As a mother of six, I spent the entire time we were there counting heads and trying to coax the kids to be done swimming in the ocean.

The kids testing the water
March 2010

After a long, fun day with no success of Trent finding anyone he’d known, we started our trip back to the hotel.  (Now starts our brush with death—or at the least with lots of danger.)   To get back to Antigua, it was necessary for us to take a highway south so we could get onto the freeway that would take us north back to our hotel.  After a long day of navigating the roadway, I looked on our van’s navigation system to see if there were any shortcuts.  Fortunately, there was!  I was so excited!  Though I can’t find this road on Google maps now, I promise there is road that cuts along the side of “Volcan de Fuego.”  Can you guess what this was?  Yep, a volcano.  So opting for the “scenic route” and hopefully a shortcut, we decided to veer off the path and head home.
Looking so innocent before the “shortcut”
March 2010

It all started out okay.  The cobblestone street was a little bumpy, but we continued.  About 2 miles down, the cobblestones ran out and we were on a dirt road.  This wasn’t so bad, but the potholes in the dirt soon became bigger and bigger, and as I looked at the kids in the back of the van, I could tell they were feeling the repercussions of taking the road less traveled.  Trent and I were both unsure, but we were so tired from the constant bump of the cobblestones, we weren’t ready to turn back, so we continued on our “shortcut.”  Soon, we came to a water crossing.  We knew it wasn’t a river because we could see 20 yards across where the road continued, but we were unsure of its depth.  There were people swimming close by, so we sent our 14-year-old son, Colton, to check it out.  When we saw it barely hit past his ankles, we hollered for him to get back in the van, and we moved onward through the water and safely reached the other side.

Colton bought us waters earlier in the day.
We liked making him have to try and use the Quetzal currency
and try to speak Spanish to the locals.
March 2010

We continued on this dirt road, which actually had less potholes now, for another 3 or 4 miles.  Soon, we hit another water crossing.  There weren’t any swimmers this time, but just like before, the road continued on to the other shore.  At about this time, I will admit that Trent and I were a little unsure if we should go on.  Trent stopped the van, and we began a discussion about turning around.  I continued to measure the distance left to travel on the navigation system and truly felt we would have wasted so much time if we turned back.  Plus I had the peer pressure of Colton chanting in my ear, “Let’s go on, let’s go on.”  Behind Colton was my sweet and sensitive almost 12-year-old daughter, Bailey, telling us we should turn around.  However, I didn’t listen to Bailey’s voice of reason, and I told Trent we should continue.

Volcan de Fuego

Once again, we sent Colton out for another water depth check, but this time, the water was a little higher—it was just under his knees.  We decided to brave it, and again, we made it through safely and our journey continued.  Three more miles down, we felt confident that this shortcut was going to be the best decision we had made all day.  Shortly, the road began to start winding through the rainforest that was situated along the side of the volcano that we were slowly climbing.  Traveling in the opposite direction ahead of us on what was definitely a one-lane dirt road, we came upon the Policia.  They were in a small mini-truck that had four people in the front seat, four in the second row of the cab, and about ten in the truck bed.  They were traveling slowly and pulled up next to Trent to ask him what we were doing way out there on these farm roads of Guatemala.  Did I mention everyone in the back of the truck was also holding a rifle or AK-47 of some sort?  It was frightening, but since I have seen this sight in many other foreign countries, I knew it was the norm.

Trent and the driver of the truck had a conversation in which Trent told him what we were doing, and the driver asked Trent if he had ever driven this path before.  Trent told him we hadn’t, but that our navigation system said it would connect to the main road.  The officer didn’t act like he knew either way if it connected or not, but he told Trent if he were him, he would turn around and take a marked road.  Trent then told me he also felt like we should turn around, but by now, Colton and I were determined to prove everyone wrong, so we both chanted, “Shortcut, shortcut,” so we continued.

Ahead, we saw a bus that had been abandoned many years before and, from what we could tell, was now someone’s home.  Right after the abandoned bus, we came to yet another water crossing.

Bella was all buckled up for our days’ adventure.
March 2010

I know what you are thinking about now.  Why on earth weren’t we turning around?  According to our navigation system in the van, we were a mere 6 miles from the main highway that would take us back to Antigua.  Even with all the water crossings and terrible roads, we were making great time!  Why turn back now?  At least that is what we thought.  When we came to this third crossing, there was a family of about five almost completely naked, bathing in the water.  They gave us quizzical looks, but not one of them grabbed anything to cover up.  I turned around to see all six of my kids gazing out the windows in pure shock.  Welcome to a third world country!

A typical water crossing in Guatemala

We nodded our hellos to the mostly nude family, and Colton quickly exited the van, ditched his flip flops for the third time, and waded out into the body of water.  This was the deepest crossing yet.  The water was now up to Colton’s waist, but I rationalized that he wasn’t the tallest 14-year-old, so we decided to chance it yet again.  (Remember, we were getting so close to our goal!)  Again the van made it through, though now something was dragging underneath the van.  The kids waved goodbye to the naked family, and we were on our way.

As we continued, we had to go up a steep hill that led us to a one-street town.  We had to drive very slowly because of the dragging under the car.  As we passed the little houses and lean-to’s, the porches were full of children and the elderly staring at us with a look of “What are these crazy gringos doing here?”  As we looked around, we didn’t see any other vehicles in the area.  Soon, kids left their porches to run behind the van and hit the sides of it with the palm of their hands.  Again, my kids faces were frozen not knowing what Trent and I had driven them into.  We wanted to get out of this one-horse town, and luckily, it was so small, we were through it quickly.

Example of the hillside farming so prevalent in this area of Guatemala
March 2010

When we continued on the farm road over the side of Volcan de Fuego, the sun started to set and the workers that were farming the tiered fields were beginning to emerge onto the road.  (Now I will ask you to please imagine what a farmer would have looked like in the late 1800s because that is basically where the farming level is in Guatemala.)  The farmers were dirty, in very shabby clothes, and carried huge machetes over their shoulders as they walked back into town.  Once again, my kids faces were in awe as they stared out of the windows, and we continued on our farm road adventure.

I will admit that I stupidly urged Trent to keep going.  With only 4 miles to go, we really had seen it all, so it I figured we should press on.  Down a little ravine with just an inch of water covering the bottom and then up the other side, we were getting so close to the main road.  By now the sun was at our backs, and we came to a fork in the road.  My map hadn’t shown any forks, so we were unsure of which way we should go.  The road to the left looked overgrown, like it hadn’t been used in months – if not years.  The road to the right looked well-used and a little more promising.  With no sign to tell us where to go, we decided to choose the right.  The ruts in the road made it look well-traveled, so we moved along getting so much closer to our hotel and still doing okay on our time.  Only about 100 yards down our chosen path, we realized it was the wrong road.  There was a very old farm tractor parked in the brush, and we knew we had taken a tractor trail.  Plus, the deep ruts in the soft volcanic soil made us realize we needed to get back onto the main farm road.

Our van high-centered on the rut in the tiered farming field
on the side of Volcano de Fuego
March 2010

We tried backing up but found it to be very difficult with the deep ruts and the soft soil.  Trent tried to do a 3-point turn, but before we knew it, we were high-centered with our van balanced like a teeter-totter on the middle of the road.  The reality of our situation began to hit us as we teetered back and forth.  We knew we needed some traction behind the back tires, and if Trent could pop the clutch, we thought we just might be able to get this van turned around yet.  Colton, Trent and I all jumped out to try and get some logs or leaves or any debris we could find under the back tires and try again.  After a family prayer, many trips out to the brush to take the little kids to the bathroom, and TWO HOURS of rocking the van, popping the clutch, and pushing with all our might, the back tire popped, and we were now officially stranded.

Blinded by the bright light of the flash after getting
accustomed to the darkness of the van
March 2010

By now it was pitch black outside, the insects of the jungle were in full force and my meager supply of snacks was very low.  I don’t even want to admit how sad our water supply was at this time.  When the tire blew, we knew we couldn’t fix it without jacking it up, and in the soft soil, that was impossible.  We started to access our situation. We were in a foreign country, we were deep in the jungle on a volcano, and we had six children with us who were tired, cold, hungry and thirsty.  We knew we had passed many locals that were only about 2 miles back, and who knew if any of them wanted to rob – or even worse harm – us or our children?  Trent and I both admit this was the worst domino effect of poor parenting decisions we’d ever made.

Bella was let free of her car seat as we waited
for our rescue party.
March 2010

We pulled all of the kids out of the van and gathered in a tight circle on our knees to offer up the most heartfelt prayer we had ever uttered in our lives.  Then we packed all six still-damp-from-the-ocean kids back into the van and assured them all would be alright.  It was now decision time.  Should Trent walk back to the town to see if he could find some help?  At this hour was that a safe option?  Should we sleep in the van all night and wait until a farmer came in the morning and hope he was kind and would help us?  Miraculously, we still had cell coverage, but who could we call?  We decided to call Trent’s parents in Chimaltenango to let them know we were lost, but not to try and come find us.  We didn’t want to have us all lost in the jungle in Guatemala.

After getting off the phone with Trent’s folks, we began to discuss our options for help.  I couldn’t stop brainstorming what others might do in our same situation.  We needed to find someone who knew the area.  We needed a local, but who did we know?  Then I realized we needed a guide, someone like the one we had used the day before at the volcano we hiked on the other side of Guatemala City.   I knew Trent had called that guide from our cell phone while he was trying to set up the tour the day before, and though he was a good 40 miles away from where we were located, maybe he knew of someone who could help us.  As soon as the idea popped into my head, I shared it with Trent.  He knew we didn’t have many options, and by now it was 10:00 at night.  He made the call.  They had a long conversation in which Trent circled the car about 25 times as he paced.  I imagined him trying to tell our guide in Spanish to go to Santa Lucia, take the cobble stone road, pass four water-crossings, drive by an abandoned bus, up to a tiny town, down a ravine and then up the other side, and when you get to the fork in the road take a right, and we will be 100 yards down the tractor trail.  It seemed like such a long shot.

The day had started out so fun as we left our hotel
ready for a fun day at the beach.
March 2010

When Trent hung up the phone, there was nothing to do but hide in the van to avoid all the bug bites we were getting from the jungle.  We could hear some sort of singing far off in the distance, so we felt we should lay low and pray that the kind guide from the day before would try to find us as he had promised Trent and then that he would actually find us.  We tried getting the kids to sleep, so they could forget that they hadn’t eaten any dinner.  Though we had a van, it was close quarters for our family of eight, and it got very warm quickly, but we couldn’t crack a window because we didn’t want to let the bugs in.  We were in our bathing suits with a few towels to cover up, and we all tried to get some rest.  Of course, Trent and I couldn’t sleep for a number of reasons.  Trent was worried about our safety, and I was worried about the guide missing the turn right at the fork.  We were stressed but tried to look on the bright side, and by now, our kids had thought of every parable possible of how you need to stay on the straight and narrow, don’t deviate from the path, follow the signs, you name it they had a funny allegory to try to make our situation humorous.

Believe it or not, at 2:00 in the morning, we received a phone call from our friend, the guide!  He said he was just getting through the little town and felt he was getting close.  We decided to have Trent and Colton walk down to the fork in the road to make sure they didn’t miss us.  In a wonderful answer to our prayers, we soon saw headlights and our little guide was there with about 25 “Turistica Policia” (at least that’s how they introduced themselves).  Included were the same truckload of police that we had seen earlier on our journey.  They each had their rifles slung over their shoulders as they gave us warm smiles and looks of “We told you so.”  Our sweet guide even brought a friend’s van, in case our van was out of commission, so he could get us back to our hotel.

The type of vehicle the “Turistica Policia” were driving when they found us on Volcan de Fuego.
March 2010

Our sleepy kids were quickly wrapped in the Policia’s jackets and loaded into one of the trucks.  The police began to change our tire and try to get our van back on the road headed in the right direction.  I jumped into one of the trucks with the kids since I wanted to keep an eye on them, especially since I had seen a few of the men put their rifles into the front passenger seat of the truck.  The police thought nothing of the fact they had just loaded my four smallest children who were 3, 5, 5, and 8 in the back of that vehicle without a parent with them.

Soon the men had lifted the van and turned it around. They all held it up on its side so a few could change the tire, and soon, the van was drivable again.  As soon as they were finished, the men all jumped into the back of the trucks, Trent and our two oldest jumped back into the van with our sweet guide, and we were back on the road to the hotel.  When we came to the fork in the road, we were lucky to have one of the police with us that was familiar with the road, and he did take the road to the left (instead of turning back to where we had started down in Santa Lucia).  Within 2 miles, we found the main highway and we were back on a paved highway into Antigua.  When we arrived, it was around 3:00 in the morning, and I began shuffling the kids back to our hotel room.  Trent needed to take care of the cost of our rescue mission, and at that point, we were willing to pay anything because we truly felt like we had been saved.

Better times while we were in Guatemala
Lexi, 5, made friends with a local while we were out shopping.
March 2010

When Trent came back to the room, I had already gotten all the kids changed out of their swimsuits into pajamas and tucked into bed, and I had taken a shower and washed at least an inch of dirt off of my body.  Trent told me that he had no idea what he needed to pay to thank our guide for his rescue mission – not to mention the 25 Turistica Policia who also wanted a cut for coming to find us in the middle of the night as our guide relayed to Trent.  So Trent just asked the guide what he needed to pay.  He said the guide seemed reluctant, but with the help of all the police, the cost of the van, and his tip, he felt that 1500 Guatemalan Quetzal would be appreciated.  Doing the conversion rate in his head, Trent realized that was only about $200 US Dollars.  He couldn’t believe that was all it would cost to pay for saving our family, so Trent gave him the $200 plus an extra tip for the guide, and he stumbled back to our hotel to get some rest after a very stressful night.

Of course, I don’t recommend this kind of adventure for any family,  and I’ll readily admit I am embarrassed that I got our family into this situation.  However, this is one of my kids’ favorite vacations they have ever been on and absolutely their all-time favorite story to tell.  From the naked people in the river, the children in the tiny town banging on our car as we drove through, to being rescued by the police and wearing the jackets, they all loved the adventure of it all!  Well everyone except Bailey because she knew we needed to stay on the straight and narrow from the very beginning.  She is also my most spiritual child and the one I’m sure I’ll never have to worry about making a poor choice.

So friends, this is what its like to be rescued from the jungles of a volcano in a third world country.  I hope you enjoyed it!  Now, never try this at home… 🙂