Thursday, March 6, 2014

Day 7 - The End of the Spear

We began our day by going over to the Marbut's home to share a little love. They hadn't gotten much in the way of Christmas gifts from back home yet, so their families sent them down with us. Along with the usual toys, comic books, and the like, we brought down some things sorely missed by the kids like Dr. Pepper, root beer, and Lucky Charms. I can't tell you how much fun it was to bless this wonderful family.

After Christmas at the Marbuts, we toured the Hope House, a home for girls started by Joil and his family. A few years ago a young girl was dropped at their doorstep with nowhere else to go. Their care for that girl started became well known more and more unwanted or struggling girls were brought to them. The home now consists of living quarters, a classroom, and a few other amenities. The girls all attend local school, but are tutored daily at the house as well. Now there are about 35 girls there full time. The first girl that was dropped at their doorstep has now graduated and is in a training program for missionaries. There are big dreams and unlimited potential for this home.

While Nick IV was doing some video work, a few of us took the short trip to the primary church for Joil and his work. A few hundred people regularly meet together in a modest two story brick building. Every month all of the local pastors from the villages in Joil's network come in to Sucua for some pastoral education and training. Their trips are paid, but in return they bring some trinkets to sell in the city and to mission groups that come in. There is some jewelry, small pots, and that sort of thing, but the most popular item are short spears the Shuar use for hunting small game. Several of us purchased one or two as a keepsake.

Before long it was time to hit the road. We bid farewell to Leah, Matt (and familiy), and the rest of of the local team. Joil, Roberto, and the 8 of us would make the rest of the trip. We were only going as far as Banos that day so we could take our time a bit. After lunch at a little restaurant (which was showing Arnold Schwarzenegger's Total Recall for some reason) we stopped in the town of Shell.

Some of you may be familiar with this town from the movie The End of the Spear (Amazon listing - actually a a generally well done film) A small group of missionaries lead primarily by Jim Elliot and Nate Saint had established a missionary base in Shell in the early 1950's. The story everyone knows is of a few men who courageously tried to reach an unreached tribe by dropping supplies and information from a small plane (lovingly dubbed the "bumblebee" by locals). After a year or two the team gets the courage to land on a small sand bank, but they are savagely murdered by the tribe they were trying to reach. The families of the missionaries eventually do reach the tribe and spend the rest of their lives spreading the message of God's love and reconciliation. Leah, Joil's wife, actually felt her call to missions while visiting Rachel Elliot on the field. It's one of the great and terrible modern martyrdoms.

There is a bit more to the story though. One of the pastors that Joil works closely with is a member of the tribe in question. The whole event was big news in the bush so tribesmen came from all of the surrounding area to see for themselves. According to him, there are two primary pieces to the puzzle that aren't shared in the commonly told story:

1) There was a young man who had caused trouble in the village by trying to run away with one of the women. Somehow, he ended up taking a ride on the plane for a few minutes. The missionaries were likely trying to make a connection and he was likely trying to escape. When was confronted in the village, he told the leaders that it was the North American's who were at fault. The motivation for the murders wasn't one of ignorant fear, it was one of misguided retribution.

2) When the first spears had flown, three of the missionaries were dead instantly, but the remaining two were just injured. As the warriors approached to finish them off, the entire sky above them was filled with a host of angels singing. The warriors all dropped their weapons in awe, but it was too late for the missionaries. They immediately knew that they had committed a crime against a power they'd never witnessed. It's a fascinating piece of the reconciliation story.

The missionary group that the men were a part of were cessationists, meaning that they didn't believe that miracles or the Holy Spirit moved in physical ways in the modern world. They've always dismissed this crucial part of the tale  and so it's not been widely told outside of native circles.

In the center of Shell, there is a large fountain with a replica of the "Bumblebee" on top as a memorial to the work that started there. It was absolutely incredible to see how far the Gospel has reached in the last 60 years. We had literally been at the edge of its reach just two days before and could see how some of the dominoes fell in to place over the previous decades. God's work takes many things and among them is time.

After our stop in Shell, we hopped back in the bus for a few more hours and made our way to the Samari Resort and Spa, our retreat in Banos for the evening. The reception building was leftover from an old monastery and the rest of the buildings in the complex were designed to match it. This was as nice of a place as you could hope to find. There was an onsite spa with an indoor pool, sauna, turkish bath, hot tubs, and cold tubs. A few of the guys had massages (they ran significantly cheaper than the U.S.) and we all enjoyed the fresh mountain air. We were so close to the base of the volcano that was erupting over Banos that we couldn't actually see the summit for the cliff that loomed over town. It was a little disconcerting, though, seeing abject poverty literally right next door to our well kept comfort and the pristine mountains.

Dinner was probably the most interesting thing at the spa. There was some delicious soup served with a soft cheese and avocado followed by a most unusual main course. We were all presented a tray of sorts with some potatoes on one side, salad on the back, and a couple of sauces on the other, Chimichurri and a red pepper sauce of some sort. In the center was a piping hot lava stone that was literally cooking our meat. The shrimp, beef, chicken, and sausage all came out partially cooked and then we were responsible for cooking it to our likeness. It was a little bit like grilled fondue. Desert followed with a trio of tres leches, flan, and a chocolate cake, all of which were delicious.

At that meal we began to reflect on our days in the jungle. We each shared some of our personal highlights from the trip and all joined in a few laughs over some of the mishaps. Our return to normal life was just starting to creep in to our minds, but we all did our best to relax and enjoy our surroundings.

The beds were incredibly comfortable, but my (and Jonathan Burkett's) evening was ruined by the extreme discomfort of my chigger bites. I won't go in to to details, but my legs are still a ways off from completely healing and its been about a month as of the writing of this post. We still had one more night in Ecuador before I could sleep in my own bed again though.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Day 6 - The Rainforest

Each night it had rained a few minutes in the darkest hours. The last night we were in Nueva Israel the rain started and then never stopped. We got up and packed away our things. before the morning service. When the children had gathered, we gave them all a dose of de-worming medicine to at least help fight the ever present parasites for a while. The service itself was our last time with the villagers. In addition to the usual goodbye group pictures, we gifted the pastor with a few bibles and a few of the older women gave a couple of the guys some aji peppers. We were all touched by the hospitality of the villagers and the witness they shared in spite of our language barriers.

The boats came soon enough, in spite of the rain. Fortunately most of the rain had been what I would call a gentle soaking rain so far. We were all wet, but no one was terribly uncomfortable yet. That would quickly change. We all managed to load up our gear and get in the boats without incident. We just hoped and prayed that the rain gear on our packs would hold.

Todd, who was in a different boat, later told us that, early on in the trip downstream, they didn't take a bend well and the side of their boat hit a stump pretty hard. A portion of one of the side planks cracked and was pushed out from the rest of the plank. Needless to say water was coming in at an alarming rate and even the constant bailing wouldn't make a dent in it. The locals quickly communicated that he needed to fix it with force. One solid whack to put the cracked portion back in to place and the water (mostly) stopped. They weren't sinking so it was back to business as usual.

The waterfalls that had been trickles on our way in were now gushing torrents down the steep banks. The rain picked up significantly while we were on the river in addition to the discomfort of being in an open vehicle speeding through it. I knew we were in trouble early on when Nick IV commented on how warm the water felt. It didn't take long to realize that the water was still the cool river we'd known, but we ourselves were getting colder and colder. The extra depth meant that our boat's bottoms didn't scrape quite so much, but the quicker current made some of the shallow areas a little trickier to navigate. I had to hop out a couple times to help push the boat off a bank. Fortunately my boots were waterproof enough that my feet stayed mostly dry throughout. By the time we made it back to Puerta Morona, we were all soaked to the bone.

Once we were all out of the boats and hunkering under whatever small awnings we could find on shore, a slight challenge arose. The bus was apparently stuck at the ferry a few miles down the road. It's operation was in question because of the changing water levels. Joil hired a couple of pick up trucks to take us back to the bus and we all piled in . Despite all of us being crammed in the backs of these trucks and all of our gear just being piled on the covered top without any way to secure them, we were grateful to have something over our heads and just laughed at the new wrinkle in our plans.

Before long we were back in the bus and grateful for the dry clothes we'd each kept ready for the occasion. The rain had brought the clouds down low and the drive back to Sucua was mostly disguised behind heavy fog. Every few miles we'd be slightly delayed where a fresh landslide was being cleared from one side of the road. The coffee and sandwiches someone had brought with the bus were a welcome sight to our chilled bodies.

That evening Joil and Leah welcomed us in to their home. They'd recorded the Super Bowl as a gift for us, though the game itself wasn't much of a gift. The evening of fellowship and rest was followed by a good nights sleep back at our hotel in Sucua. Another long day of driving would greet us in the morning.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Day 5 - New Frontiers

The morning service on the fifth day saw the first of our groups testimonies to the village church. Todd Campbell and Jonathan Dunn both shared. Both were nervous about speaking, but they both did an amazing job telling personal and emotional stories of God's power in their lives. Matt Richardson gave a message on Daniel and the Lions' Den and was kind enough to use several of us as characters. Good laughs were had by all.

We spent the next few hours putting the finishing touches on the previous day's projects. I helped attach the roof to the well structure. Another mid morning break came with yucca, plantains, and aji. This time the tea was made from boiled lemongrass and quite fragrant and soothing. The real excitement for the day would come next though.

Umberto's (one of the local pastors) brothers came down from their village, Tin Tenti, in two more canoes. We didn't have all of our gear, but having to fit all of us in to just two canoes proved to be a bit of a squeeze. When we were still within arms reach of the shore, water started gushing out one of the seams in our boat as we settled in to the water. We were a little concerned that this 6 inch vertical fountain might not bode well for the boats structural integrity, but the locals didn't seem to mind. A few hand fulls of the muddy clay were grabbed from the river bank and tossed to us. Nick Serban IV then had to just plug the gap. It took a few hand fulls, but eventually the leak stopped. The sun would dry it out in a few hours and boat would just be the stronger for it. Our boats on the trip in had been close enough that it was easy to reach our hands down and touch the water. This time the water was at most 3 inches from the side at all times. Anyone just casually gripping the side would be leaving their fingertips in the water.

The 45 minute trip upstream was fairly uneventful. The river continued to narrow slightly, but was still quite substantial. Every so often we would pass a gold panning raft, one of the few income producing activities in the region, though it was highly illegal. Every sharp turn and shallow spot was still an adventure, but the rain the previous day had alleviated some of the water level problems. We reached Ten Tenti without incident.

This village was a bit further off the river than Nueva Israel. A small group of huts was fairly close to the water and that's as far as Joil, or any foreigner for that matter, had ever gone in to the village. We would be the first non Ecuadorean people ever welcomed in to the village (and I'm still incredibly humbled by that). The village proper centered around a large, grassy hilltop that carried a nice breeze. Aside from the meager government constructed buildings, the houses were all large sticks and thatched roofs. We were taken to a large pavilion at the far edge of the clearing and seated on the benches that ran around the outside. All of the villagers came after us and greeted each of us. Two different batches of chicha made the rounds several times. Both of these were a little more pungent and chunkier than Nueva Israel's. This was not helped by me us noticing one of the women cutting her batch with unfiltered well water.

We were officially greeted by a presentation from the village chief, one of Umberto's brothers. During this the believers in the village (of which he was not one) were brought in front of the assembly and praised, which was a curious thing to say the least. Joil and a few others spoke for a while, but I couldn't tell you what was said at all. Afterwards Jonathan Burkett, Nick III, and Joil set up in a corner with all of the medical supplies we'd brought to treat the minor things we were able to and to give council and prayer to the things we weren't. The rest of us were taken over for our welcome feast.

The handful of Christians in the village were primarily from one family. At some point last year a little girl, about 7 years old, fell out of a tree and was impaled on a stick. She needed medical attention desperately. Someone in the village directed her to Joil's missionary network which was able to get her to a hospital and treated. Through the process her family heard (and saw) the Gospel. When she returned to the village (Still was a colostomy bag for at least 6 months) they started meeting regularly and a few other villagers began to believe. There are still only about 6 or 7 believers in the village, but they have been gifted some land for a future church. We were at the edge of Christendom in more ways than one.

Our lunch was incredible. Our appetizer was a platter of raw sugar cane. It is too fibrous to swallow, but a sweet nectar rewarded anyone who chewed on it a bit. Of course, we had yucca and plantains. The aji wasn't quite as finely ground there, so the bites could be a bit more dramatic if we weren't careful. The first course was a mixture of chicken and hearts of palm wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked on a fire, served with a boiled egg. While we were eating this, the live grub worms were brought out. A few of the Ecuadorans travelling with us took them as is, but kindly asked them to cook them a bit for us. Johnny Rocket sat his beside his food while eating and it crawled around the banana leaf until he was ready for it.

These grubs are quite the delicacy. Along with the hearts of palm, they can only be harvested by chopping down an entire Chonta tree. Apparently, it is the thing most craved by pregnant Shuar women, as we were told several times.

The second course was armadillo in broth. This was probably the best thing we ate while we were in the jungle. It had the flavor and texture of a good, moist smoked pork. After a while the grub worms came back. They looked a bit deflated now. Nearly all of us ate one and everyone but Lukas Serban kept it down. The flavor was actually quite nice. It tasted pretty similar to any grilled protein, but the texture was...unpleasant. The outside was almost a bit chewy, but, at some point in the bite, the yogurty innards would just squirt in your mouth. Fortunately the head, which was crunchy like a half popped popcorn kernel, helped keep that from being the last sensation of the worm.

Before long we needed to return to Nueva Israel. We headed back to the canoes. Most of the village came and saw us off as they were heading to spray pesticides around the village perimeter. Once they disappeared only two small children were left on the beach smashing what appeared to be an old car battery against the rocks for fun.

We all rested when we returned to the village. Most of us bathed or chatted among our selves. Dinner was yucca, plantains, aji, rice, and wanta (a large rodent thing). The evening service provided some time for the rest of  us to share a testimony, along with more song and dance. It was a great service and the people have an earnest heart for God in that village. Fortunately the kinks were worked out the night before and the lights worked splendidly the second evening we were there. We were all eager to get some rest before our long day back on the river afterwards.

For me, each subsequent night's sleep got worse and worse. The chiggers were really irritating me at the this point and I didn't have anything to really treat them. The hammock just became more and more uncomfortable with time. At one point I woke up hyperventilating and feeling claustrophobic in my mosquito net for no apparent reason. I've never had an issue in small spaces before, even on the several spelunking trips I've taken. My rest would have to wait for Sucua.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Day 4 - America's Game

Our mornings in the village started around daybreak, not that any of us wanted to spend any more time than we had to in our hammocks. While we'd be eating whatever breakfast we'd packed (trail mix and a bite or two of beef jerky for me), Alberto (Nueva Israel's pastor) would blow on his version of a shofar to call the village to morning prayer. By the time most of us made our way up to the church, most of the local children were already sitting on the wooden benches listening to their Proclaimer.

The Proclaimer is a small black box with an audio version of the bible in the Shuar language. Most of the Shuar only have a basic level of literacy, even in spanish. The adults are generally all bilingual, but the children primarily speak Shuar. With no written form of Shuar, the Proclaimer is the only way that the Word can be delivered to these children. For many of the unreached Shuar villages, their first contact with the Gospel is through one of these little black boxes. A village is given one as a gift and asked to listen to it twice daily. The novelty of having something spoken in their own tongue usually is enough to persuade them to try it out. After a while, the people from the unreached village begin to seek out their neighboring believers to ask questions about the stories they hear. Matt Richardson had some part in the translation of the bible into Shuar, but I'm not sure of the details.

After a few minutes' morning lesson at the church, we surveyed the work for the day. A few people would start on the church's new solar panel, a couple would work on the pump, and Jonathan Burkett and I would start decking the bridge. Francisco was cutting the large boards we'd carried the day before in to manageable pieces about 3 ft wide. Segundo got us started and Jonathan and I would take turns holding the board and straddling the metal struts to drill the self tapping screws. Bosco, a local villager, was our faithful third hand. We got along well enough despite none of us speaking the other's language. As we progressed, he learned our process enough to take one of the drills for himself.

What we didn't realize at the time was that Bosco was the leader of the village. We were aware that the chief and the pastor, though brothers, didn't always see eye to eye when it came to the affairs of the village. Jonathan and I were humbled to later learn that this man who was so eager to get his hands dirty and contribute to the work was also the man we least expected him to be.

A little while after work began, we were all called over to the dining tables for breakfast. As you might guess, this consisted of yucca and plantains with a little aji to season. A delicious tea of sorts was provided by boiling Guayusa (I believe anyway, I couldn't find anything online spelled like my notes and pages like this seemed to match my experience). I would be just as happy, if not happier, drinking that than most any herbal tea I've had. We had a pleasant break, but work was still to be done.

The decking was finished without a problem. Segundo and Francisco made some steps to access the bridge and Jonathan and I moved on to other things. The solar panel pole was assembled on the ground and had to be hoisted up by several of us, but went up without a hitch. The well proved a little more problematic. After testing the water at the first site, it was decided that the dense clay might not refill as quickly as some more porous soil. There were two other previous wells at other points in the village. Most of the team and several of the locals all pulled the pump and piping assembly out of the ground and hauled it up to each of the other sites only to eventually determine the first had been the best after all.

All the while children played around us. They were always curious as to what was going on and parts and pieces of the projects provided new and unexplored playing surfaces. A few team members had brought along some small toy cars and foam balls that the kids would be racing up and down half sawed planks or tossing back and forth. We couldn't help but stop and play with them every so often.

Lunch came and was no surprise. Yucca, plantains, aji, rice, and chicken greeted us again. All in all it was much better than we expected, though the chicken was always especially lean compared to the genetic giants we're used to. We could easily understand why Joil would always bring along a little hot sauce or seasoning though. Years of this meal would start to grate on a pallet. I should probably mention that chicha was still present, though it rarely made it down to our end of the table after the first few meals.

After lunch, almost everyone decided to break from the work for a few minutes. A few of the guys had fashioned four bases out of our extra wood planks and one crude baseball bat from a scrap piece of wood. A few of the foam balls Todd had brought were commissioned as baseballs. No one in the village (or, to my knowledge, any of the Ecuadorans at all) had ever seen or played a game of baseball. Joil and Matt did their best to give very basic instructions and we divided in to a couple of teams. Needless to say, hilarity ensued.

I think we expected the children to struggle a bit as even our own children do. Everyone helped the smaller ones hit and I don't think anyone was actually held to any semblance of three strikes. The grown men that were struggling with the basics that we take for granted were probably the oddest sight for me. Most of these guys were stronger and better athletes than I would ever hope to be, but that wouldn't stop them from standing on top of home plate when they went up to bat or hitting off handed. It was such a delight to see them start to understand or to passionately chase after a fly ball only to crash and hop back up laughing. We were all out there to have a good time. Nobody cared that somebody ran to the wrong base or if the rules weren't closely followed. We could share in a communal moment of joy and laughter with no expectation of anything beyond it.

Eventually more work needed to be done. A few of us worked on staining the church, some set the well structure in new footers, others wired the church for new lights from the newly established solar panels. The lights needed a ladder and that meant that the rough tool made of about 8 planks nailed together had to be held perfectly vertically by Jonathan Burkett and Steve while Todd clamored up it as carefully balanced as he could. We didn't have any sort of mixer, so the aggregate and dry cement were piled in to a volcano shape and water was added in the caldera to be folded in. The work was always done and with a smile by all of us.

At one point a brief rainstorm came upon us. Several of the children had been playing soccer with a nerf football that someone had brought. They played for a few minutes in spite of the rain, but Maria stayed out for several minutes longer. I'm not sure that anyone noticed, but there was something about her standing alone in the rain with her head sunk down that broke my heart. A slight darkness always seemed to hang over her and, I don't know her story at all, but for me, hers is the face when I think of what generations of abuse, abandonment, and poverty can do to a generation.

The day finished with my first bath in the river. I had discovered at some point that day that chiggers had found their way onto my ankles, shins, and thighs at an alarming level. In addition to my incredibly sun burnt knees, I now had incredibly itchy, swollen, irritated bites all over my legs. The river water was cool, having started as mountain runoff, and soothed them a bit. I probably could have stayed floating there for hours if the thoughts of whatever parasites and unforgiving bacteria might live in the water hadn't gotten the better of me after a while.

The dinner that followed consisted of chicken noodle soup, yucca, plantains, and aji. That evening we attempted to have the villages first after dark service with the new solar powered lights. However, the batteries ran out before the service even began in earnest due to some unforeseen electrical issues. Fortunately having this trouble that night allowed us to repair, improve, and test some of the systems before we left. The rest of the evening was lit by a variety of headlamps and obnoxiously bright flashlights.

Each service the children of the village would sing for us and we provided a couple of songs in return. I'm not even positive what we sang that first night, but it didn't much matter. They couldn't really understand us and we couldn't really understand each other. Our musical ability about matched our Spanish language skills and a joyful noise was all that was made.

I was tired enough when we went to bed, but couldn't fall asleep. After my second trip to visit a particular tree behind our lodging, I was attempting to navigate our crowded room, undress, and slip back into my hammock as inauspiciously as I could. This was made more difficult first by my decision to turn off my headlamp so as not to disturb the others and secondly by my inability to actually set my bottom on my hammock. I managed to sit just a little too far back and tumbled over the hammock, in to the mosquito net, and ended up squarely on the floor. I had to turn my headlamp on at that point, not that there was any keeping subtle, and untangle the mess I'd made. It was quite a stressful affair in my tired and disheveled state. I do think it provided at least some mild amusement for the other guys though.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Day 3 (pt 2) - The Tree

After arriving at Nueva Israel that afternoon, we were all eager to get some work done before sundown. The canoes pulled up at the base of a 15 foot high mudbank that lead to the village. We grabbed our gear and struggled up the washed out steps that had been crudely carved in the mud. The village proper was about 50 yards through some overgrown grass.

Keep this grass and the fact that I was effectively in shorts in mind later.

We met Matt Richardson and a few local Shuar pastors that had come down a day or two ahead of us to prep the jobsite. Our team was divided among the three closest buildings. A Lukas Serban, Nick Serban IV, Steve Kennedy, and Segundo (Joil's head contractor) stretched their hammocks in the cover of the one room schoolhouse. My hammock was tucked in the corner of a small community building with a central enclosed room and one open side. I shared the space with Nick Serban III (Our pastor), Matt Richardson (Joil's Missionary Associate), Francisco, Umberto, Dany, and Johnny Rocket (All Ecuadoreans traveling with us, Johnny Rocket being the son of Umberto. He earned that nickname from someone in our group on first introduction.) The rest of our group (Joil, Jonathan Burkett, Jonathan Dunn, and Todd Campbell) stayed in the school teacher's home as the teacher was away on break. All of the buildings were made from rough hewn planks and beams with corrugated tin roofs. We began to get our bearings once we'd each established our bug free sleeping arrangements.

The village itself consisted of two large fields divided by a 15 ft wide, 10 ft deep gulley. There was a communal open, thatched roof pavilion that served as kitchen and dining area, the three buildings previously mentioned, large open pavilion built by the government at the far end of the second field, and the church. The resident families each had an acre or two of land, walled off by various flora, which usually housed one hut and occasionally an out building or chicken coop. Scrawny chickens, turkeys, and stray dogs wandered throughout.There was a community toilet (read outhouse, but actually had a porcelain seat) built by the government in the center of the village, but it had never been used because of its poor placement. The actual community toilet was a small structure about 4 or 5 feet high with old trash bags for walls. The hole itself was just a 1 ft by 5 in gap notched out of one of the half dozen floorboards that covered the waste. If a user wasn't careful, chiggers were waiting to for anyone who sank too low to the hole. This area was to be avoided at all costs, though our unusual diets caused some members to visit very regularly.

There were two main things that brought us to this village plus a few small projects we'd get to as we had time. The first was the gully. Even in the dry season a small stream ran through it, creating quicksand along the bottom. The locals had laid a couple thin boards across the bottom at one point, but even these were regularly washed out and completely inaccessible during the rainy season. When the rains came, the village was literally cut in two by the flooded gully. The second was water, or rather, the lack of water. The villagers hiked about a quarter of a mile to a freshwater stream sourced by a nearby spring. They were fortunate to have even the small flow this provided, but they still gathered their drinking water about 10 ft upstream of where they did their laundry and bathed, not to mention the animals that regularly used it.

Fortunately another mission team had come about 3 or 4 years ago and installed a few basic water pumps. Unfortunately, the weak plastic pumps couldn't handle the load of their 4in pvc pipes. They broke within a week of installation and the village was immediately without access to uncontaminated water again. 

That first afternoon a few of us assembled the metal frame for the bridge, which had been prefabricated in manageable pieces back in Sucua. Another group started assembling and setting the metal frame for the new cast iron pump we'd brought. A third group began to dismantle and chop down a tree that a group of conga ants had taken as their own. All the while the villagers began to interact with us more and more. A great deal of laughter, joy, and cooperation can be shared across language barriers. The work was going relatively smoothly and quickly and we all were happy with the first results.

I'd missed the memo about the conga ants ( and thought we were just chopping down the tree because it was in the way. When I stepped too close to the base of the tree, it didn't matter that Francisco, who was running the chainsaw, was yelling in Spanish, I knew to get out of the way. You should read the wikipedia article about the conga sting. Without available medical care, anyone stung would likely be useless for the remainder of the trip. 

Fortunately the concrete footers for the bridge had been set by the team that came before us. We would need, however, to gather the wood we'd use to deck the top. This turned out to be a far more harrowing tale than one might expect in the middle of a forest. We had been warned that the tree in question was a bit of a hike away, but we had no idea the magnificent size of the tree itself or the heavy hardwood planks. We hiked about a mile over the fresh water source, up a hill covered in shoulder high grass, down over a couple more muddy holes, and finally got to to a tree that must have been 4 or 5 feet in diameter at the base. It was pure, furniture quality mahogany that was worth a small fortune back in the states. Any question about why a closer tree couldn't be taken for our purposes was immediately put out of our minds. Clearly they'd been working this tree for a while, but there were still several buildings worth of planks to be had.

The most incredible part of the lumberjacking had to be that Francisco, our resident saw expert, only had a chainsaw to work with. He would take a bit of string dipped in burnt motor oil, eyeball out a plank, mark it with the string, and then freehand carved mill quality planks with his chainsaw. There were two plank sizes, one about a 2x12x12 and another about a 4x12x12. The 4x's were close to 50 or 60 lbs, which wasn't so terrible in and of itself except for the fact that they were 12 ft long and we had to hike a mile through the bush to get back to the village. A few of us, myself included, only made it about halfway before collapsing from exhaustion. Jonathan Dunn and Todd Campbell, however, showed us all up and went back for more.

By the time we'd all made it back to the bridge, the sun was just starting to set and it was time to call it a day. A few of the guys went and bathed in the river. I hung back to make some notes in my journal. Segundo was kind enough to point out, in very limited spanglish mind you, that I was writing very slowly.

Our dinner could not come quickly enough. We'd packed enough MRE's (military surplus meals for the field) to carry us, but the villagers were insistent on feeding us every chance they got. Our welcome meal started with some fresh banana leaf tablecloths laid over the crude, long picnic table in the eating pavilion. Boiled yuca pieces and plantains were laid out along the length of the table. Aji, the only condiment, and one we'd come to know and love, was passed along for each of us to dole out a portion. Joil would subtly bring out a hidden bottle of soy sauce to flavor his yuca, which desperately needed it. Once most of us were seated, the Chicha was passed around, much to the chagrin of all of us. The bowl would come to each of us and we knew what it was and equally knew that, for hospitality's sake, we couldn't refuse it. The main course of rice and miscellaneous chicken parts soon followed. The luck among us got a breast or a leg, while the unlucky would get some inedible organ that we'd slide to the children around us. Most of the bones would be tossed to the dogs.

Food Guide:
Aji - a) a very small, very spicy pepper b) A condiment made from grinding said pepper with a very coarse salt to make a salty, grainy, spicy paste
Chicha - A drink made from a time honored process of the village matriarchs chewing on yuca (or occasionally plantains) and spitting it into a gourd. This masticated yuca and spit would be left to ferment. This fermented mixture would then usually be cut with some water. The alcohol in the Chicha would kill off anything in the water and make it safe to drink. It is a milky white color with occasional starchy chunks. It tastes like brewer's yeast with a splash of sour milk.

After our meal, we all retired to the first night in our hammocks. While I was fairly uncomfortable sleeping in a mosquito netted hammock, not much would stop me from sleeping through that night. I only remember waking up once to visit a nearby tree and then crawl into the light sleeping bag liner that served as my only protection against the bitter 60 degree cold of darkest night. Our adventures would continue in the morning.

Day 3 (pt 1) - The River

Our third day started early for all of us. We were up, dressed, and on the bus by 5 am. Joil arrived a few minutes after we were all loaded up, so it was Roberto, the driver, who tried to explain in the simplest Spanish he could that Tungurahua (the volcano over Banos) had erupted shortly after we drove through. Between our lack of Spanish and the early hour, it took us a while to figure out what he was saying. Roberto only laughed at us when we all looked a little spooked once we understood. The landslides and ash flows that occasionally block the roads are just a product of living in the largest concentration of volcanoes on the planet, I suppose. Favorable winds prevented any major damage and the locals just build the expectation of unpredictable disaster in to their every day lives.

Our journey began by bus. The early morning hours were on a major highway, but the Condor Mountains still stood between us and the true Amazon basin. Fortunately this road had been paved a few years ago, but its curves and ever present landslides still belied its rugged past. Most of the drive followed a few rivers. Joil took the opportunity to share about the the decades of war that had ravaged this part of Ecuador. We could literally see Peru and drove through the hills where Ecuadorean commandos finally routed the invading Peruvian troops about 20 years ago. We would pass through two military checkpoints along this part of the journey. When Joil first started journeying into these parts, the war wasn't officially over, but they had reached an armistice. The checkpoints were intimidating, thorough checks of all luggage and passengers. The men would be pulled off the bus and held at gunpoint while the troops searched through their bags. Now these last bastions of governmental control served mainly as recording points in case anyone disappeared in the jungle. Beyond the second checkpoint, the region became much more tribal in governance and the government was minimally effective at best.

Along the way one of our team members, whom has had major recurring prostate issues, started having some related trouble. He asked Jonathan Burkett, our medical expert, if he had anything, advice or medication, that could help. Jonathan responded something like he didn't have medication or profound advice to give, but "What I have, I give to you". The back of the bus proceeded to pray healing over this team member's pain and physical struggle. A few minutes later, his pain was gone and his body was performing normally and continued to do so the remainder of the trip. It may have seemed only a small miracle, but I think back to Joil's word for us on the first morning about how if we make any sort of move towards God, it allows him to make a mighty move in us. 

Fortunately the roads were still paved and, after a ferry ride, we arrived at our port of departure, Puerto Morona, sometime around 9 or 10 am. Puerto Morona was no more than a handful of roughly built buildings and some concrete steps down to the rivers edge. The foundation of the concrete was oddly high off the surrounding bank from regular floods and erosion. Our "canoes" greeted us there.

These boats were maybe 15 feet long and most consisted of six boards, two for the sides, 1 for the bottom, and 1 for the back. A few small boards served as braces and seats throughout. The boats were held together by tar, mud, and a few nails with a modified motorcycle engine atop a gimbal on the back. The drive shaft had been replaced by a 6-8 foot poll with a small propeller on the end. The length allowed for greater maneuverability through the shallow waters for these rudderless craft. One local stood or sat in the front to guide the driver in back through the various branches, trees, and shallows. Leaking wasn't so much a concern as it was a reality. Each boat had some sort of cut open plastic bottle used for bailing. Jonathan Dunn and I shared the duty on our boat as we sat closest to the back. Gear was placed in the front so that it was the furthest thing from the water. Most of our boats had 5-6 people, our gear, and a few jerry cans for our gasoline. We rode so low in the water that a sharp turn or an errant lean easily pushed an edge under the surface.

Even at this edge of the Amazon basin furthest from the coast, we were still only a couple hundred meters above sea level. The rivers took literally a couple thousand miles to drop just a few hundred feet to the coast. The result was a wide, flat, winding river surrounded by flood plains. Even in the dry season, as we were, the deceptively slow river used its heavy volume to push a strong current. The banks were ever changing with each heavy rain and any structure not up on a bluff was usually stilted at least on the river facing side. It was easy to see how a massive snake or a 500 lb catfish could easily thrive in the wide muddy waters.

We started on the Rio Morona, an relatively easily navigable river even in the dry season. We passed many boats of villagers taking their wares (usually some plantains, or other small agriculture) to market. I managed to even catch glimpse of a pink river dolphin before we left this main channel. The sun was out and the temperature was close to 80 degrees fahrenheit, which caused me to regret zipping off the bottoms of my pants before getting in the boat. (It was a decision I would later regret for reasons beyond the inevitable sunburned knees, but that's another day) There was no question that this muddy water was not drinkable except for the most dire of circumstances.

Occasionally a small hut or village would crop up along the banks of the Morona. Each settlement was usually marked with another of those bright political flags. It wasn't quite obvious if the local people actually cared about their parties or if they were simply capitalizing on the free swag to mark their turf along the banks. Small naked children would occasionally be playing among the the rockier banks. Men and women may be sitting up on their ramshackle porch watching the obviously foreign visitors go by. All of the buildings were rough hewn from the local forests. Most had thatched roofs and little more than large sticks for walls. Most every person we passed would offer a reserved smile or a cordial wave, but most seemed to hide a slight wariness. I'm not sure if it was out of contempt, fear, or cautious curiosity, or if it had nothing to do with us at all and everything to do with the hardscrabble life along the river.

After a couple of hours on the Rio Morona, we transitioned onto the Rio Cushimi. This smaller tributary posed a few more challenges for our drivers. The further up river we got, the narrower the channel. This was when we began to notice the effects of the unusually low rainfall this dry season. One or two of the boats had to jump out and push their canoes through the shallows a time or two. We all had to stop at some point and gas up though. The tiny motors couldn't handle any more than a couple of hours use without refueling. The banks were a little steeper here and occasionally small waterfalls would vary the landscape. The wider muddy banks of the Morona were slowly replaced by large stones and rocky shoals. We still weren't anywhere near the foothills of the mountains, but must have certainly been back at the farthest reach of the mountain rivers' influence.

Sometime mid-afternoon, around 2:30 or 3, we arrived at our home for the next few days, Nueva Israel (New Israel). More on that to come this evening.

The map below is my best guesstimate as to how we arrived at the village. Sucua and Puerto Morona are on Google maps, but there are literally no roads shown east of E35. A few topographical maps from some geological survey revealed a road along the Rio Santiago heading east from the highway and that seemd to match our path, both in direction and landscape. The rivers are marked appropriately, but the two villages we worked in are nowhere to be found, so I guessed roughly based on our time on the rivers. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Day 2 - (most of) The Drive

The altitude had been hardly noticeable on our arrival, but the thin mountain air just south of Machachi (which sits somewhere in the neighborhood of 9,500 ft above sea level) can not be totally ignored. I awoke gasping for breath sometime in the depth of the night, but my conscious self quickly adjusted my breathing again and it soon passed. Unfortunately for Jonathan Burkett, his nausea would persist through the day, but more on that later. Our breakfast wasn't until 7, but most everyone was awake by the first hints of dawn. We couldn't believe our eyes when we stepped out of our rooms.

For anyone curious, here's the hotel's website: It was a nice place, but not nearly as nice as those glossy photos make it out to be. 

We found ourselves in a valley full of verdant green fields and surrounded by massive Andean volcanoes. The twin peaked llinizas were the most stunning as the dawn bathed it in its warm light and Ruminawi was just visible through the low morning clouds, but Cotopaxi, the largest of the peaks, remained obscured that morning. Even the comparatively unremarkable hills still approached 15,000 feet through the valley. There is a reason this part of Ecuador is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Beyond the predawn bird calls, the first sound I remember that morning was the whir of Nick Serban IV's helicopter. Nick's primary purpose on this trip was to shoot and produce a few video projects. He had a small drone with a GoPro attached that he used for aerial shots and the like. It was a curious site that drew spectators from among the few people out that early in the morning, but its strangeness would only grow as our settings grew more primitive. Our pleasant breakfast of granola, eggs, toast, and coffee soon followed before our departure about 8 that morning.

We made a brief bottled water stop and Joil shared a morning devotion. He shared the reciprocal nature of God's work, preparing us to make a move toward God during the week and to expect His abundant move toward us in return. He left us with two goals for our time in Ecuador. First, expect God to move. Second, find each of our purposes this week. He shared a touching story of returning to a village many years after he'd first visited. He was greeted by a young man whom he didn't recognize, but certainly recognized him. The young man ran back to his home and pulled out an old Polaroid photograph of Joil's first visit several years prior. This young man barely had held on to this as one of his few prized possessions and subsequently been the catalyst for his whole family coming to Christ. Our purpose may not be obvious in our eyes, but God's plans are always at work.

Most of us spent the day as spectators, just watching the fascinating world of the high valley and foreign cities pass us by. We passed through city after city of half finished houses, faded advertisements, and disheveled people. Joil explained that taxes were lighter on unfinished properties, so most families left some form of exposed rebar or glassless windows on their homes and businesses. Laundry was often strung out to dry among the half finished pillars. Most of the shops were small, crowded places, with faded signs. The unmistakable bright spots on most every building, even in to the deep jungle, were the bright blue, green, and rainbow flags claiming political allegiance for the upcoming elections. Even here the socio-economic dichotomy of the politically connected were glaringly obvious.

Jonathan Burkett's day was undoubtedly the most unpleasant. The altitude had taken its toll and he lay hunched over from nausea until at least lunch time. Nick Serban III, our pastor, took it upon himself to massage Jonathan's neck and back with the relative coolness of a water bottle, much to the hilarious delight of the rest of us.

At some point we crossed over the continental divide and began descending through a steep volcanic valley to the town of Banos for lunch (and to use their Banos). Our lunch was a delicious selection of chicken, pork, potatoes, and corn. Joil took the opportunity to share a few tales of a few of the monsters he's seen or heard tales of in his time in the Amazon basin. The list included, but is not limited to, a 22ft anaconda, piranhas, caiman, 500lb catfish, and a not entirely confirmed 10ft long electric eel. Our descent continued in earnest from here.

Apparently about 1 hour after we stopped for lunch, Banos' resident volcano, Tungurahua, began erupting. Footage can be found here (though we didn't actually witness it):

The road down the valley was treacherous at best. the spots that had been washed away in landslides and rebuilt with concrete were obvious any time a curve gave witness to the road ahead. The bus would pass within a few short inches every time a car would pass in the oncoming lane, which was about every 10 seconds. The valley's steep walls were joined by canopy zip lines that the locals used to access the road and the tourists used for their amusement. The whitewater that carved this valley ran a few hundred yards below. The skill of our driver, Roberto, can not be expressed enough.

Even the foothills that followed put the "mountains" back home to shame. Eventually these started to shrink too and by the time we reached our destination, Sucua, we were surrounded by (still sizable) forested hills. Our dinner was provided by a local church member whose newly built restaurant consisted of a large, open patio amongst large fields where his cattle and crops could grow. We had an incredible dinner, better than most restaurants back home, of fresh mashed potatoes, sauteed vegetables, and our choice of surf and turf (Steak in an incredible brown sauce and a shrimp skewer) or a Shrimp Arribiata. The owner had an incredible story of finding and trusting God and His provision throughout. After relaxing and meeting Joil and Matt's families, we made our way to the Hotel Romanza, our home in Sucua.

The accommodations left a little to be desired, but nothing beyond what we'd expected. The blotchy plaster and dusty, small, oscillating table fan bolted to the ceiling were easily forgotten with the presence of WiFi. All of us got a chance to speak with our wives. Sarah was especially excited to see her dada. After a few minutes of prepping our bags for the trip into the bush, a few of us walked down to a little supermercado around the corner. The streets of Sucua were just starting to come alive in that evening our. I took my Naranjilla aqua fresca and Kinder Egg (I know its childish, but I love them) and we went and sat in the town square for a few minutes.

Everything in the square was well kept and relatively modern, except for the faded statue of Christ atop the otherwise neon lit fountain. A few woman laid out their trinkets and people of all ages wandered through the comfortable night air. Our peace was interrupted by a raucous political parade on one of the main streets. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles packed with politically active Ecuadorans rode past, honking, dancing, and yelling all the while. This went on for a good 15 or 20 minutes before we gave up on the peaceful evening and returned to the hotel. We had a long day ahead of us and relished the somewhat comfortable beds that night.