Covadonga Days

(More photos coming soon)
The following account was written from the perspective of an Englishman used to a cold climate, now newly arrived in the hot climate of Mexico. For many readers this will be nothing special. For me it was like waking up in heaven ... almost!

Life on a different 'planet'

Imagine getting up in the morning and putting on warmish clothes, because it's cool outside (50°F), then taking most of them off by 10.00am because it's getting hot hot hot! By the middle of the afternoon the temperature reaches 90 to 95°F in the shade, cooling down to 85°F by 7.00pm, and reaching a comfortable 80°F by 10.00pm. By 4.00am, if you´re awake and outside, you´ll probably need to put on an extra layer again.

Imagine waking up to a dawn chorus of burros braying, cocks crowing, doves cooing and other birds chirping loudly... interspersed with the occasional barking dog and music played for all to hear. Sometimes you go to bed to the burro/dog/music chorus also.

Imagine going into the kitchen and choosing a ripe mango to eat with your home made Muesli, topped with papaya and pineapple, and tree-ripened oranges that taste so good they´re unlike anything you can buy in British supermarkets.

Imagine collecting water in numerous buckets from a pipe in the yard, which is pumped from a local well to large tanks on higher ground above the village. The pipe has water every two or three days, for just a few hours, so it´s a game to try to catch it before you become waterless. This is the water you use for washing clothes and flushing the toilet. Although it´s clean and germ free it actually contains unsafe amounts of Arsenic, so your drinking water has to be collected every other day from a modern filtration unit just down the road.

(Uploading photos is very slow... more coming!)
Imagine waiting until late in the day to shower because the water in the house pipes comes from black tanks on the roof, which are heated by the powerful rays of the sun. By late afternoon it´s actually quite warm. That's the nearest you're going to get to piped hot water here!

Imagine going over the dusty untarmacked road to a store which consists of a few rows of shelves behind a counter. When I first came here a month ago it held not more than 40 different items, though they´ve recently expanded their range considerably. This is the best stocked shop in the village. The other four hold very little. Nevertheless, despite the lack of choice, most of what you need on a daily basis is here.

Imagine being given (or buying) Tortillas and other goodies baked by neighbours in wood fired ovens that look like large bee hives. This bread is tasty - very very tasty - and may contain chillies, so watch what you're biting into!

Imagine driving for 45 minutes along a bone-shaking dirt track to get to the nearest town. This ´road´ would see off any ordinary car! Chevy trucks and tractors are the favoured means of transport here... oh, and horses of course. These have no trouble negotiating the deep dips and hollows in the road, and the occasional shallow stream... wonderful for stopping and bathing your hot feet in.

Imagine having to make this ´perilous´ journey every time you run out of cash (some stores in the town offer a cash-back service), or want to make a phone call from a public box. More well off villagers have cell phones which work from antennae on their roof. Others have phones which connect if they walk half a mile to higher ground where the water tanks are.

Ah, the town, the town! Here you find shops with a wider range of items, an Internet Café or three (hopefully one is open), and tarmacked streets that don´t kick up a cloud of dust every time a vehicle passes by. For a short while it can feel like paradise... but actually there´s nothing like home sweet home in the village.

Imagine being able to exchange dollars to pesos at the rate of 11.5 to the dollar. That means 100 dollars becomes 1150 pesos. And yet 1000 pesos here will last you a darn sight longer than 100 dollars will last ´on the other side´ (in the USA). You quickly feel like a peso millionaire!

Imagine living in a place where a vehicle passes by not more than once every half an hour, averaged over the day. That combined with the thundering of horse hooves on the hard ground as they ride majestically by is the full extent of traffic around here. It's true that the peace and quiet of this dusty rural idyll is occasionally broken by young men blasting lively Latin music out of their trucks. But this is Mexico and where there are Mexicans there there is music!

When I first arrived here it was a lot noisier. The young men of the area would congregate around El Shop late in the evening, because it has a drinks cooler, and broadcast their music out of their Chevys for the ´grateful edification´ of the whole neighbourhood. Sometimes they´d play live music too. Along with horses being ridden up and down the street, and trucks coming and going, it sounded like a regular fiesta!

Since I´ve been here, though, I´ve been aware of some spiritual warfare going on, so I've been 'prayer walking' the neighbourhood (praying for the people and quietly declaring the Lordship of Christ over the village) and an unexpected result has been that the drinking and loud music has died down considerably. In the early days, however, I was thankful for a noisy fan and wax earplugs which helped to maintain my equanimity and enabled me to sleep the sleep of El Gringo Inglés.

Finally, imagine -- just imagine -- in this wee little community, way out in the sticks, being able to go to the government medical clinic next door and log on to the Internet via their large satellite dish. Being a computer geek this is the luxury of all luxuries!

Sadly, since it´s a government run establishment you´re blocked from visiting any old website. But email sites are available, and thankfully Facebook also, if sometimes very slow. What more can a geeky Gringo need who depends on the Internet for communication with the Big Wide World?

A Shock to the System

This is my life. This is the reality of my existence, here in the sleepy village of Covadonga, Durango State, Mexico. It´s the middle of May and I´ve been here a month now. But after only a week such was the stark and powerful reality of this ´one-horse-town life´ that it felt like I´d been here for years.

Did I experience culture shock? You bet I did! In the first few days I´d get a short bout of it every day. Some days I´d wake up wondering where I was and what I was doing here.

As a student of psychology I recognised those feelings as a form of depression. Firstly there was something like post bereavement depression - a sense of loss - in my case the loss of nearly everything I was familiar with. Also there was a form of post natal depression (getting here was a kind of ´birthing´ experience) resulting from ´carrying the burden´ of a new way of life which I wasn't sure I really wanted.

Knowing that my time here was going be temporary made a big difference, of course, and having lived in a similar climate and culture before (South India as a child) I had a foundation of experience grounded in the past from which I could draw. The other saving grace was my faith in Jesus Christ which has seen me through many trials during the 40 plus years of my Christian walk.

Despite the emotional difficulties I resolved not to run away in a hurry. I believed that God had brought me here, and had done so for a purpose, so I resolved to stick it out. Now, a month later, I´m glad that I did. The sense of cultural isolation has largely worn off, and in fact I´m beginning to feel that my heart could settle here... even though my body might long for more creature comforts!

Well, it´s gone midnight as I write and I´m sitting in almost total silence, apart from the soft hiss of the computer fan and the loud chirruping of a cicada outside... oh, and the lowing of a cow in the distance who just wanted to be included in this blog! The sense of peace and well being is strong, as is the sense that life really doesn't consist of material comforts, but in being where God wants you to be, and doing what He wants you to do.

A Journey of (and in) Faith

It´s possible that you might be asking, "Why Mexico and why Covadonga?" What am I doing here? How did I get here, and who am I staying with?

I´ll answer the last question first. Her name is Sylvia and she´s an American ´Gringa´ from just over the border in Edinburgh, Texas. A more dynamic, and doggedly persistent septuagenarian ´missionary´ you´d be hard put to find. Sylvia and I became online friends back in 2007, and our friendship has blossomed and persisted until it´s finally come to fruition in this face-to-face meeting.

I´m going to tell you more about Sylvia soon, but let me first explain how I came to be here myself.

In the spring of 2010 I met an American woman online and we started chatting and getting to know each other. A year later, at the end of February last, she flew to London and we had a holiday together. We spent ten days ´doing´ London, Norfolk, Cambridge and Paris, and then flew to New York. For the following six weeks I stayed with her in her Hudson Valley home... long enough to discover that we were destined to be ´just good friends´.

When the time came for me to depart I had the choice of going East to visit a friend in the Middle East, or West to Mexico. I decided on the latter. (Go West not-so-young man!) So on April 12th I packed my bags and flew to San Antonio in Texas. From there I caught the midnight Omnibus (12.50am it left, in fact), and actually enjoyed the ten hour night-ride across the border into Mexico.

Omnibus (more comfortable than Greyhound) took me to Torreon where Sylvia´s daughter Rose lives. She and her Mexican pastor husband, Chuy, kindly put me up for two days while I became acclimatised to the heat. It was a delight to meet their three giggly girls and watch them being home-schooled by their talented mother.

There´s a considerable difference between the climates of Torreon and Covadonga because the latter is 4,000 feet above sea level. So although it´s hotter in the afternoon here (reminding me of the extreme heat of India), the coolness of the late and early parts of the day gives one a very welcome respite.

As well as enabling me to become gently acclimatised to the culture and climate of Mexico, Rose and Chuy treated me to a culinary extravaganza! She´s a great good and he makes wonderful fruit drinks. As the pastor of a small church Chuy´s income is very limited, but they certainly know how to make the most of it. (If you´d like to help them financially please let me know.)

On the second evening Rose and the kids and I relaxed in a small plaza called Las Margaritas, while Chuy went off on a pastoral visit nearby. As soon as we got out of the car I was bowled over by the multiple songs of tens of thousands of birds thronging the trees in the square. It was like a meditation experience. But instead of listening to the lapping of waves on a shore I was overwhelmed by the sound of a host of God´s creatures giving glory to the One who created them.

That lovely experience was tempered, however, by one of the harsh realities of life in the region. From the square we could see a smaller version of the huge statue of Christ which overlooks Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. This ´Christ´ was set on a hillside way off in the distance on the outskirts of Torreon. Rose said she´d have loved to have taken me to see it, but it was impossible to do so because the local Mafia have made that area their stronghold. Any unwary visitor stumbling into that region would be lucky to come away with only their valuables stolen.

Well, the next evening they took me to the bus station in time for the three hour ride to Peñon Blanco, the nearest town to Covadonga. Mexico is renowned for having the most extensive, efficient and comfortable coach network of any country in the world. Like the bus from San Antonio to Torreon this one had roomy comfortable seats and the journey passed quickly enough while I tried, with moderate success, to take photos out of the window.

One thing that struck me was the sheer quantity of arid uninhabited landscape visible each side of the well maintained dual carriageway. It came as a slight shock, therefore, to see tiny hamlets clustered around junctions on these toll roads. Those good but poor people obviously make their living from passing traffic alone... a precarious existence I can´t help thinking.

As we pulled into Peñon Blanco I had a strong sense of entering civilisation once again. Coming from a green, crowded, and built-up country like the UK, ´the power of the desert´ seen at first hand was quite overwhelming.

Where Torreon is large, spread out, hot and dusty, Peñon gives the impression of being a quaint, green and ´liveable´ town. It reminded me strongly of a similar town I´d visited in Brazil, back in 1996, which made an impression on me then. Something said to me that this is a place I could live in. Who knows!

Struggling from the bus with two large heavy suitcases, and two (yes two) back-packs, it was good to be greeted, out of the blue, by Sylvia. Her welcoming smile made me feel immediately at home, and once again I was grateful to come under the wing of someone who knew the people and region.

Sylvia then introduced me to the family (two parents and two small boys) who had accompanied her to Peñon, and showed me her Chevy truck with it´s small cabin. I marvelled at how they could all fit in to it, let alone return with me and my luggage. But like the proverbial sardines we shoehorned ourselves in and set off down the dirt track to Covadonga, while I ate a plate of tasty tortillas bought from a local roadside vendor.

As we bumped and lurched our merry way I expected at any moment to hear the cracking of an axle or two, heavily laden as we were. But Sylvia explained that this make of vehicle is ideal for the job, and since then the number of similar Chevys I´ve seen add weight to her story.

Finally the road descended into a river bed, with nine inches or so of still water, and it wasn´t clear where it picked up again the other side. I was wondering if we´d all get out and wade across, but without hesitation Ellias the driver launched into the pond at an angle and crossed it effortlessly, regaining the track again over some impossibly large looking earth bumps.

Before going to Sylvias house we visited a local home to drop some things off. They were keen to meet me and invite me inside. I did my best to hide my shock at finding conditions reminiscent of homes I´d seen in Indian villages as a child. The house is made of wattle and dorb (mud), and consists of a single large room split by a half wall partition, with a double bed in each section. The whole family - parents, and three children - share these. Somewhat incongruously a TV on a wooden dresser was playing cartoon DVDs. Sylvia's house, although primitive by European and American standards, is a condiderable cut above what I had just seen.

Sylvia´s Place

The main building on Sylvia´s land has three rooms separated by curtains, with toilet and shower rooms having their own metal doors. The kitchen, though small, has all the usual appliances, and doubles as an eating and entertaining room. The other two rooms are bedrooms.

Separated from that building is her office and work area which I am sleeping and working in. It has the advantage of being cooler than the rest of the house and gives me a welcome refuge from the afternoon sun.

Behind these at the back of her property is the beginnings of a community centre which Sylvia is building with her own money. This is her dream and vision ... the reason why she´s living in Covadonga. Her goal is to provide the community with a place for social gatherings of all kinds, including religious ones. She also wants to build guest rooms as well so that Gringos like me can come and take part in this wild cultural experience, and/or join a spiritual retreat of one kind or another.

But I´m rushing ahead of myself. First of all, who is Sylvia and what´s she doing here in the back of beyond?

A Woman with a Mission

Sylvia Askey is - or was - a second generation member of an exclusivist fundamentalist Christian group called the Church of Christ (Iglesia de Christo). By ´exclusivist´ I mean that they (or many of them) believe that they - exclusively - are the genuine church of Jesus Christ. In their eyes all other Christian denominations are apostate and not worth giving the time of day to.

In my book that makes them a religious cult. (I´ll shortly have a link here to an article about that.) From conversations with her, however, my impression is that Sylvia´s not so sure. She seems to have a open mind about it, believing that there are more moderate folk among them. Although she does now go to a ´normal´ church when in Texas, and baulks at much of the teaching she hears in Mexico, she´s unwilling to break off contact with them completely.

Good for her, I say! If you´re a praying person please pray that´s she´ll be able to influence them to become more moderate in their thinking, and eventually join - fully - the worldwide Christian community.

Sylvia came to Covadonga with the Church of Christ many years ago, with the purpose of setting up a mission here. She bought property here, and although she only lived a few months of the year in the village, she has slowly become accepted by the community. Now she´s retired from her supermarket checkout job in Texas, and is living here more or less permanently.

Over the years her religious views have changed... as have mine. The early days of my Christian faith were also spent in a somewhat exclusivist evangelical church, and it was an article I wrote about it and posted online, back in 2007, which connected us mentally and spiritually. My article got her to thinking, and as we discussed the ideas so our friendship grew.

Now I´m here as a friend to help her document what she´s doing here, and give her an Internet presence. This blog is my first step in that direction.

Interestingly, Sylvia reminds me of a missionary nurse who used to live in a small bungalow in the hospital compound where my family lived, when I was a child in India. Aunty Audrey we called her. Being here with Sylvia takes me back there and makes me want to visit my old Indian haunts once again.

(See the link in the side bar, or click here, to go to a page giving Sylvia´s own description of her work here.)

Partner With Us

So, that´s the story of my days, so far, in Covadonga. As time passes I´ll have more to write, so please keep abreast of what´s going on here by becoming a ´Follower´ - click the link on the side of this blog and you´ll be notified of updates. Please pass this web address on to your interested friends and contacts as well.

If you feel able to contribute financially to what Sylvia is doing here please don´t hesitate to ask us about it. Both she and I also have personal financial needs too, and ten dollars here, or ten pounds there, goes a long way here in Mexico!

Most of all we covet your prayers, and ask you to hold us up before the Father from whom all good things come. Thanks to those who´ve prayed for me to become acclimatised quickly. I certainly feel much better now than I did in the early days.

Finances are tight for me so I´d value your prayers and possible contributions. Although I've been in Leeds, UK, for eleven years I don´t feel that that´s where God wants me to be long term. So please pray that I´ll have peace in Christ as I look to Him for my needs, and wait for the next step(s) to be made clear.

Ciao... and God bless you richly!
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