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TopeThe roads in Mexico are a pleasant surprise compared to the deteriorated byways that we had gotten used to in Costa Rica. We have a wonderfully paved road outside of our home, and it has been some time since I’ve had to swerve like a slalom skier to avoid ramming one of our wheels in a pothole. However, what makes the Mexican driving experience unique are the “topes” (pronounced tow-pays)

Topes are the Mexican version of speed bumps, although an American speed bump can’t hold a candle to a tope. Usually taller than they are wide, they’ll give you a bone-shattering shock if you happen to hit one unawares, bringing about a tongue-lashing from any passenger who just might be in your car. Believe me, it only takes one or two of those experiences to learn to slow down when driving, especially through small towns and neighborhoods.

The big problem with topes is that they are usually in the oddest places. From time to time, you can find them before a busy intersection or at a school or church crossing, but often they’re in the middle of nowhere, and the diamond shaped indication signs usually only give you a few feet of warning before your vehicle crashes into the unforgiving mound of resistance.

Topes, though, have a much larger meaning for the missionary or ex-patriot. The tope signifies the unexpected resistance that we experience as we continue in our work of cultural assimilation. Cruising along a comfortable speed, making strides in language, food, and relationships, inevitably we face topes that remind us that the land that we are in, although each day more familiar, is truly foreign.

We’ve been in Mexico almost 8 months now, and we are comfortably eating the yucatecan food, speaking more aporreado (what is referred to as the yucatecan accent), and building friendships with people in and outside of the church community, but we still experience our topes. Mine most recently has been in the form of our front yard.

Formerly working an 8-5 job in the states, I prided myself with the ability to keep up my front yard. I mowed regularly, trimmed the bushes and spread fertilizer in the spring and fall. Not given to excesses, except one post-season when I mowed the Yankees interlocking NY in the grass, I still felt satisfied in having a green, presentable garden.

Remembering all of this, I fell in love with the small, manageable green space that our current house gave me. I had visions of “working the land” again, and looked forward to the wealth of sermon illustrations that this labor of love would afford me, but the more I got involved in the day to day hustle and bustle of being a missionary in Mexico, the less and less time I had to devote to keeping up the garden.

So, by chance, I happened to find a gardener who could help me at least trim our trees. At less than $17 American, it was a deal that I couldn’t afford to pass up. Then came the tope. Unable to find the same gardener, I asked for a recommendation from our landlord. I contracted one of the two he recommended to trim our trees, this time for what I thought would amount to about $20. The bone-shattering shock came, however, when I realized, after the work was done, that it was to be $20 for each tree. Ouch!

Determined not to fall into the same mistake, but still needing a gardener more than ever, I contacted one after comparing the quotes of our neighbor’s gardener and one other who works in the neighborhood. We were needing help for our heat suffering grass and weed infested flowerbeds. After having negotiated what I thought was a good price, I let him go to work, but soon into the labor, I began to find the hidden costs, $20 more for extra insecticide, $70 for more plants, etc. Can someone say “TOPE!”

We expect blockades in ministry. We anticipate the frustrations that we may have to face in communicating our heart in a foreign tongue, but I guarantee that problems with the care of my front lawn never even entered into my mind. Like topes these complications hit me unexpectedly.

Still, I have to say I’m thankful for my tope experiences. Although they’ve been painful, they’ve slowed me down enough to think about my life and work. They’ve proven to me time and time again, that Dave Godzwa alone can’t get the job done. There needs to be someone else involved with a higher perspective, one who can guide us through even the unexpected situations.

So, although I’m sure that I’ll continue to feel the bumps along this road of cultural assimilation, I’ll thank God for them because I know that they’ll slow me down enough to refocus my vision on Him–the one who’s mapping my course, and who just happens to know where those topes are.

Photo Credits:

Above: Members of the Chi Alpha Spring Break Missions Team, Julia, Bethany, Ashley and Kelsey spell tope while standing on one. Photo by Bethany Chroniger

In article description: A photo of a common tope warning sign.

New Traditions

This year, the Godzwa family rang in the New Year a bit differently. No watching the ball drop in Times Square for us. We welcomed 2007 Mexican style. That meant of course there had to be fireworks, lots of them, and the traditional eating of the grapes.

That’s right, when the clock strikes 12:00 Mexicans have a tradition of eating 12 grapes, one for each chime of the clock. The tradition started in Spain in the early 1900’s, some suggest, as a way to trim the excess of an especially large grape harvest for that year. Later, the custom was transported to Mexico where the grapes have taken a special significance. Each grape represents a wish for the new year: Health, Work, Love, Peace, Money, Success, Prosperity, Joy, Happiness, Harmony, Friendship, and Luck.

Of course, we all have our traditional ways to celebrate the New Year. Why don’t you share with us your favorite by dropping us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

Well, however you had opportunity to ring in 2007, we do hope your celebration was festive, and we wish you all of the blessing and joy that following Jesus brings to you in 2007.


Monday left you feeling a little bewildered? With the Christmas rush, I’m sure that all of us have asked ourselves if we are coming or going, but how about if you ran into a sign like this one?

We have had a pretty good time with navigation through Mérida. The city is laid out like a grid even streets running north-south and odd east-west, but once you reach the street called Circuito Colonias, which is basically a circle route around the older central neighborhoods, throw logic out the window. We’ve now tried to navigate the eastern portion of this road three times, and each time we’ve ended up in a different location. Of course it’s no surprise with signs like this one leading the way. I guess things like this show us we still have a bit more to learn about this city.

Things have been a little quiet here on for the last week, but it’s not because we’ve been taking a Thanksgiving vacation. In fact, as I write this, I’m in the lobby of our hotel for the Mexican General Council, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.

Thanksgiving is a decidedly American holiday. So, since Latin America doesn’t recognize it, life goes on pretty much like any other day. Events are scheduled, business is planned, and missionaries need to leave in order to attend church events.

Still, before I left for council, we had a chance to spend some time at Chichen Itza. This was the last great city of the Maya people which rose to prominence in the year 900 A.D. and collapsed about 1200 A.D. The site still holds much cultural and religious significance today.

I’ve added pictures of our trip to the which you can view by clicking on the picture above or following this link.

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Day of the Dead

I received an email from one of the readers of the site asking about the Day of the Dead rituals that occur here in Mérida. She was wondering if it mirrored the traditional practices that take place throughout the country, or if there was a certain Yucateco twist to the holiday. Not being one to disappoint, I decided to give what insight into the event that I have in this post:

First of all, one needs to be clear about the Day of the Dead as it is traditionally celebrated. Throughout Mexico, the first two days of November are a national holiday during which the country remembers their deceased relatives. The first day is a day set aside to remember the deceased children and the second is “El Dia de Todos Los Santos” or the Day of the Dead proper. During these days, altars are made in homes with pictures of the dead relative along with those things that would have been special to the person during their lives: a sweater, a jacket, a picture or possibly a toy for a child. Also, the deceased’s favorite foods would be on display with the idea that, during these days, the relative would visit to be with the family and partake of the meal there on the altar.

During this time as well, there is much attention given to the family gravesite where flowers are placed and the debris that have collected during the year are cleaned away. One Maya village takes this idea of cleaning to the extreme, and actually exhumes the dried bones of relatives that have been dead for 3 years, cleaning them and placing them on display in boxes. The ritual is detailed in this Yahoo news article

Also, it is said that, during the day of the dead proper, the family gathers at the gravesite in order to enjoy a meal with the dead relative. I tried to witness this tradition, stopping by the General Cemetery here in Mérida, but, possibly because of the rain, I found only a few families placing flowers.

Here in Mérida, there is another holiday celebrated during the same time called El Hanal Pixan. It is a ceremony that predates the arrival of the Spanish and also honors those family members who have died. The picture above, from the local paper Diario de Yucatan shows girls dressed in the traditional Maya “huipil” making tortillas in front of an altar constructed in order to celebrate this event.

We’ve found it hard to experience this holiday living the midst of an evangelical society that has rejected its practice, but I find myself personally torn by this rejection. On one hand, the worship of dead loved ones as a way of receiving favors for ourselves with God or as a way of helping them somehow reach eternal rest are ideas that I reject as being groundless biblically, but the Bible does not consider our loved ones as dead to us. Paul states that to die to be with Christ, and that our spirits continue to live after our physical deaths. Hebrews chapter 12 states that the saints (believers) who have died form a kind of “cloud of witnesses” that seem to cheer us on in our own Christian walk. So in this sense, our struggle to try to forget our dead loved ones seems as well to be a bit unbiblical. I still haven’t had enough exposure to the rituals involved to make an unbiased judgment. So I’ll save any conclusion for much later. Of course this could be something to talk out in the comments section!

So there you have it, a bit of a survey of what went on during this past week as Mexico and the Yucatan celebrated the Day of the Dead. Next year, we’ll hope to be more on top of the action so that you can see more of the sights, and possibly sounds of the season.

Update 11/10/2006: For more about Day of the Dead around the missionary world, see this feature post on Missionary Blog Watch.

Some time ago I wrote about Gallo Pinto, the breakfast food of Costa Rica in this post entitled “Happy Monday.” Well, as a comparison, I’d like to take a little webspace talking about the Yucateco breakfast called, “cochinita.”

Here in Mérida, pork is king. Not to say that there aren’t other meats, but if you are going to eat yucateco style, pork is the food of choice in the majority of the dishes from breakfast to dinner. So let’s talk about this most important meal of the day. Here’s the scoop on cochinita:

Cochinita is basically a pork sandwich. On the street, the marinated pork is usually cooked on a open fryer in front of you or ahead of time in an oven and then brought to the site, but “real cochinita” is cooked underground. That’s right, a hole is dug and a fire is built. When the only the hot coals remain, the meat of the pig is cooked in a clay pot that is buried in this pit. The result, I have heard, is delicious, but I’ve yet to sample it so, on with the cochinita of real life.

The sandwich is served on a hard roll, on which the sauce of the meat is ladled first, and then the pork is laid, by hand, on top. Now there are two types, cochinita especial, which is all meat, and the cochinita normal, which includes “other parts.” This family has yet to sample the normal, but our mentors, Paul and Sandy Kazim tell us it’s the more flavorful of the two. Finally, some onions finish the sandwich along with some picante, which never fails to accompany Mexican dishes. The result is the traditional breakfast food of the Yucatan.

Now I explained this dish to my brother, Mike, who told me that it needed something else, like eggs, in order to make it breakfast, but the Meridians don’t seem to miss it. What do you think? Are you ready to give up your Wheaties yet?

This Sunday marked my first opportunity to preach in Mexico. I was able to share at the Centro Familiar Cristiano “Cristo Viene,” which translated reads Christian Family Center, “Christ is Coming.” The church is pastored by Berta Sabido Castillo, a pediatrician/minister. She invited me to speak specifically to the teens of the church during the Sunday morning service. I was able to share about my personal experience of being called by God when I was fifteen. It served as a springboard as well to preach missions.

The message was well recieved and many came forward to pray following the service. Also notable were the new relationships that were formed that will last long after the words of the message have been forgotten. I was invited back to help teach leadership principles to the cell group leaders, and our familiy was invited to spend the afternoon celebrating the 21st birthday of her son Josué, who also is a student in the Bible School.

We enjoyed sharing a meal of pollo asado, chicken cooked in rasins, orange juice and olives, along with lots of tortillas. The kids were excited about drinking Coke, which is the beverage of choice here in Merida (sorry Pepsi fans), and having a part of the cake, “tres leches.” A custom of the Yucatecos is to have the person celebrating to take a Mordita, or little bite of the cake before it is cut. The picture above is what resulted during the bite. It is also a custom to push the person’s face into the cake when taking the bite.

We’ve enjoyed this opportunity share a little bit of the lives of those who are working for the Lord here in Merida, and we’re looking forward to more opportunities to come.

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A Culture of Waiting

Life is moving in fits and starts here in Merida. There is a sense of going forward and yet standing still. It is somewhat like the noonday sun which heats this city to over 100 degrees regularly. The day continues on, but life just seems to stop under the heat.

The thing that I am referring to is our housing setup. We’ve gotten an air conditioner installed, but another needing repairs is still in the shop, waiting to be reinstalled, “mañana.” Our internet is hooked up, but our telephone will require another possible 22 days in order to be connected.

Our missionary friends say that when it comes to dealing with everyday life in Mexico, getting one thing done is a good day, getting two things done is a banner day, saying that you’ve accomplished three things would make you a liar.

So we’re learning that enterning into the culture here in Mexico takes a different kind of patience. A patience that will allow us to take the delays in stride and help us to make friends along the way.

Photo Credits: Photo uploaded by A30_Tsitika’s photos and is available at:

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The sidewalks are empty. The shopping centers are deserted. There is an eerie silence in the streets. No, this is not a city-wide disaster drill, we’re watching the World Cup.

What is this you say? Well as you have noted in my previous post, soccer is not simply a sport, it is a way of life for many Costa Ricans specifically, and world sport fans in general. In fact, although baseball is America’s Game (and my favorite), soccer is truly the world’s sport. The World Cup is a tournament that takes place each 4 years, in which one country wins the right to be the world’s best in the world’s biggest pastime. 32 teams have classified in the years preceding this tournament and have won the opportunity to play for the title. The US is in it, and the Costa Ricans, having beaten the US last year in order to receive their classification have also entered into the tournament.

So what is this baseball loving north American supposed to do? Well, go out an buy a jersey and root for the home team of course! (Fortunately Costa Rica doesn’t come up against the US or Mexico in this round.) As a school, we watched the defeat of Costa Rica 3-2 against Germany last Friday, and we rooted and booed with the rest of the country glued to their TV sets. I realized, of course, that my Spanish wasn’t getting much better in the process, aside from being able to practice rolling my r’s with the announcers, but something happened in the process that was more profound than the conjugation of verbs. As I sat side-by-side with Ruddy Pizarro and his brother, sharing one of their passions, I found myself identifying just a little bit more with the culture that God has called us to serve and moving closer to the incarnational model of ministry that Christ modeled for us. And, who knows, although Spanish grammar is on the schedule, 8:00 AM tomorrow may just find us seated around another game as Costa Rica takes on Ecuador.

For more on the World Cup ’06 through the eyes of missionaries, Jim Cottrill, the man with his finger on the pulse of evangelical missionary bloggers at, has posted some great highlights, including a World Cup Prayer Guide.

Photo credits: CLF (2006). Predator Absolute & Teamgeist. Retrieved from:

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Well you can’t tell from the picture, but this week found Jonathan sick for the third time in 2 weeks. This time with a fever. We are now in the start of the rainy season here, and like what happens in the States during the onset of winter, it seems like people come down with sicknesses during this time of year in Costa Rica.

With the kids in the Kinder program here at CINCEL it has been quite a ride. The ladies are doing there best to keep up, but sickness has taken hold of many as the children pass germs more readily because of the need to stay indoors. Today, the day Jonathan went back, three were sent home with fevers or symptoms of infection. So pray, please, for the kidos. When they’re down it really adds to the pressure of learning and adapting to the language/culture.

Now of course with sickness comes the great variety of home remedies, and Costa Ricans have an abundance. (One that was prescribe for the stomach flu that hit last week was a rice/cinnamon drink.) Now one home remedy that most believe in is the use of a tepid bath to bring down a high temperature. The only problem is that, here, bathtubs are almost as scarce as dish washers!

So what is one to do with a sick child, and no tub in which to give a bath. Well, if you are a missionary, you improvise! We hauled 11 action packers full of clothes and household stuff to Costa Rica. Their size and shape made them perfect for the taking on the plane with us, but the one-piece plastic construction also makes for a great substitute for a tub for a toddler with a temperature among other things. (Fellow missionary Kevin Stewart used one of his for a bassinet for his newborn.) So, the night before last, Jonathan got one of only a handful of baths in Costa Rica. Only this time his plastic tub also doubles as a suitcase.

That brings me to the last part of the post. Why are bath tubs so scarce here in Costa Rica? Well, the first answer that I received to that question was that it was because they were so expensive. However, is it because they are scarce that they are expensive, or is it because they are expensive that they are scarce? (If that confused you email me and I’ll explain that subtlety.) So in probing deeper, Kelly found that the Costa Ricans believe in taking cold showers. They feel that the cold shower helps their skin to stay younger, and helps their breathing as well. (One teacher explained that deep breath that one takes in when entering the cold stream is good for the lungs.) In fact, missionary Jon Dalahger when hosting a building team had to have electric shower heads installed in homes where the construction workers would be housed because none of the homes in that area had hot water tanks. So, according to one theory, since tubs are usually for taking baths in hot water, the fact that Ticos shower in cold water made the tub unnecessary.

So, if you are planning trip to Costa Rica, don’t assume your hotel will have a tub, or hot water for that matter, and if you are traveling with the kids, you may be surprised at how versatile your luggage can be.

Update: 6/7/2006 Jim Cottril has included this post in his compilation of missionaries blogging about culture on Missionary Blog Watch Check out his comments and the other posts that he has included.

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