“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . .” ~ Matthew 28:19
The Delta flight departing Dallas/Ft Worth International in route to Atlanta arrived in the Peach State on schedule. Meeting up with a team assembled by Pioneer Outreach Ministries founders, Howard and Helen Toombs; we sat together in the airport terminal getting to know the 12 men and women from across the country who would be making the journey together on a four-week expedition deep into the heart of the Amazon Rain Forest. Our objective: build a house of worship and the faith of an indigenous jungle tribe who had recently received the gospel and would occupy that house.
Six or seven hours after take-off from Atlanta LAX, we disembarked the 747 directly onto the tarmac of Jorge Chavez International in the capital city of Lima, Peru. Exiting the plane, I quickly understood the need for the Environmental Protection Agency back home and was most grateful for it. Free-flowing toxins in the unregulated Peruvian air were nearly overwhelming, I felt nauseous. Burnt jet fuel along with diesel and gasoline fumes poured from aircraft exhaust systems and the tailpipes of automobiles, buses and commercial trucks lining the roads leading in and out of the airport. Thickened by plumes of gray smoke spilling from tall flue stacks in a neighboring industrial park, a brownish-yellow haze hung low in the rush hour sky. The only thing keeping the grizzly smog bank at bay, 30 feet or so above our heads, was the heat waves rising up in torrents from the near bubbling asphalt beneath our feet.
Wiping away the beads of sweat constantly popping out on our foreheads, we walked towards the terminal praying for favor with each step. Peru is probably not the best place in the world to be caught smuggling in contraband, but getting medical supplies to a people whose closest clinic would be a three to four-day journey, we thought the risk to be one worth taking.
Remaining poised, calm, cool and collected, we approached this burly, Lou Ferrigno looking customs officer who checked our credentials but nothing else. He did ask our reason for coming to Peru, however, and that set off flashing strobe lights, buzzers, bells and whistles in our minds. Howard and Helen had forewarned back in Atlanta to expect the question, but we were to say nothing about being missionaries or being there for religious purposes. The words “missions” and missionaries”, they told us, were red flags to the Peruvian authorities as missionaries were notorious for attempting to sneak things (however good) into the country and would result in a scrutinizing bag and luggage search that would consume time and may find us serving time. “Going on an Amazon fishing trip”, was my well-rehearsed reply, and it worked. It was also true, I did wet a hook a time or two.
Gliding through customs on spirit wings, we handed over our stamped passports to Helen for safe keeping, then hopped aboard a previously arranged charter taking a tired crew to the hotel where we would stay the night before making the second leg of our journey.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Lima is a gorgeous city actually, World-Class should they clean up the air. Founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in January of 1535, Lima is home to one of the oldest higher-learning institutions in the New World, the National University of San Marcos. The colonial architecture is breathtakingly beautiful and well preserved. Magnificent cathedrals, top notch museums and lots of interesting places to taste the cuisine of South America make this multi-cultural city worth visiting. We saw bits and pieces on our commute from the airport and would see more on the return but for now, there were things to talk about and preparations to make.
Following a morning devotional in the hotel lobby and a simple breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and a choice of grape or strawberry jelly, we loaded up the bus and were on our way back to the airport. The two-hour flight took us over the breathtakingly beautiful High Andes mountain range then down-down-down into the Amazon River Basin. Iquitos, the sixth most populous city in Peru, gateway to the Amazon, largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – boat or air only.
A city of a nearly a half-million people, we were pretty much mobbed by a herd of children desperate to extract an American dollar from our pockets as we exited the plane. “Let me carry that for you. Do you need someone to show you around? Let me help you, I can take you wherever you want to go”. Just about anything imaginable was in their little hands, draped over their shoulders or hung across frail looking five-year-old arms attached to twelve and thirteen-year-old bodies. T-shirts, shoes, jewelry, exotic butterfly collections, Piranha mounted on wooden blocks and if lucky, themselves as your personal tour guide. “I make you a good price; Anything you want; American money is okay”.
We would later learn whatever money these impoverished children might make peddling their goods would go into the pockets of their parents or pimps, and if fortune’s smile would be so kind as to find them invited to be a traveler’s private escort, just maybe they would get something to eat.
Coming face to face with people living in conditions several feet below substandard, the poorest of the Peruvian poor, was expected. I just didn’t expect those faces we would come face to face with to be so small; nor did I expect it showing up on the travel docket quite so early in our journey. My heart had been broken arriving in Iquitos, and would be broke again before we left the next day, but not completely shredded. That moment, about three and a half days up the river remained buried amongst the thick ferns and towering trees of the rain forest in a tiny village the natives called Pandora.
Early morning rainfall made for a muddy, slippery mess. Navigating the 45-degree slope leading down the river’s bank to the boat waiting to take us away was for us a challenge. The rows of merchants vying for one last sale, though, were unhindered by the slimy embankment. Sure footed, and quite industrious, they were all eager to make sure you made your way across the gangplank with the little luxuries unavailable the second you leave the landing. Like a troop of Carnies working a State Fair midway (minus the scent of corny dogs, popcorn, cotton candy, and beer); they held up their wares in display shouting aloud, beckoning you to their makeshift booths, “you don’t want to forget” this that or the other. Bottled water, toilet paper, an ice cold Coke (ice cold anything being something I would later kill for) snacks or a souvenir – “get it now – last chance”.
About a hundred and fifty feet, maybe two stem to stern, and about seventy-five feet wide, the big boat was an old clunker powered by a diesel engine in its belly. The loud rhythmic clanking of its cylinders pleaded for an extra quart or two of oil and was equally annoying as it was disturbing. Annoying in that the noise was pretty much a no sleep tonight guarantee while the thought of its giving up the ghost to leave us adrift or crashing into the river banks where some savage jungle tribe of pigmies looking for a head to shrink would hit the jackpot painted a not so scenic picture in my macabre imagination. I suppose I watched “Trilogy of Terror” one too many times.
Designed to be both a passenger and cargo vessel, river boats are the only means of public transportation throughout the Amazon basin for jungle dwellers and the adventurous tourist alike. Top to bottom, ours was a triple decker. Along with that obnoxious engine, the hull was the temporary home for peasants, those paying the lowest fare. Having precious little air flow below deck, it was horribly hot in the hull, sweltering. The stench of animal waste mixed with high humidity, not to mention the vermin (rats) and other nonhuman creatures I suppose lurked about, made for miserable conditions. However, it was just an ordinary day for native travelers, a place to perch with their goats, pigs, and chickens happy to be on the way back to home and family.
Deck level was for middle-class passengers (if there is a middle class in the jungle). They had it a little better, at least the air was less dense and an occasional breeze coming off the water would provide momentary relief from the heat and drive away the foul odors rising up through the cracks and crevices from below. The upper deck was the abode of the wealthy. By the standards of those in the hull, that was us. We were the big dogs on board; Americans, the only people on earth rich enough to enjoy the exclusive top floor accommodations
Although by comparison, a port-a-toilet would be spa-like, we had a bathroom to use, not a hole in the floor. We had a kitchen to cook a chicken in, a plate with knives and forks, and something that resembled a worn and weathered picnic table with a bench to sit at taking our meals. In likelihood, these people had never seen a port-a-toilet much less a clean bathroom, and any effort to describe my kitchen and dining room table would be met with a deer in the headlights stare of bewilderment. A bed with a mattress and box spring – what’s that? A living room? Privacy? Will no one see you pee?
The third deck was a wide open area with steel poles floor to ceiling and cross beams spaced and running at a distance between so to enable guests to hang their hammocks. Allowed for was just enough room to crawl (or if like me, fall) in and out of those mindless devils without sending your neighbor into a cocoon making spin or tumbling out on the floor. I had attempted lying down in a hammock a time or two as a kid but never had I actually had to spend the night in one. It took a few embarrassing spills to get the hang of it without getting hung up in it, but after a few practice runs, I was able to keep the number of bumps and bruises manageable.
The makeshift kitchen was located at the stern (rear of the boat) with a bathroom smaller than an airline lavatory directly behind. A paper thin graffitied wall separated the two. Water was suction pumped up from the river into a small sink for washing dishes and cookware, and into the commode for flushing. In fear of a stray Piranha or something else slivering up the plumbing, I refused to sit on the throne.
Having put away our bags and setting our living space in order, I meandered throughout the boat familiarizing myself with the available amenities (there were none) and looking for a muster station with a life raft in case that clanking engine caught fire. What? No muster station? No life raft? Definitely not a vessel owned by Carnival or Royal Caribbean. What had I gotten myself into?
Down in the hull, I walked among the people doing my best not to trip over anyone taking a siesta acknowledging those who would look my way with a head nod and/or a smile. Not knowing their language and making my little stroll without an interpreter to accompany me, communication of any kind was dependent on body language and facial expressions. A woman with a small child sat atop a small heap of plantains holding both the little one and a chicken in what looked a gorilla grip. The survival of one being linked to the other, her beady eyes darted back and forth in watchful guard. Her possessions weren’t much, but she was vigilant, ready to spring into action at the slightest threat of ill will from anyone, including me. I wanted to cry and as quickly as I slipped out of sight, I did.
Moving up the narrow creaking stairwell to the first deck, I stood alone port side at stern staring at the murky waters churned up by the propellers thrusting the big boat further upstream. Brushing away the tears trickling down my cheek I found my gaze shifting between the river banks on both sides about two or three hundred yards away. With the sun slowly dipping behind the skyscraper-like trees, darkness began swallowing the entire basin – just a few more bites and the day would be gone.
“So this is the Amazon”, I thought to myself. “Home of the jaguar, black panthers, ocelots, monkeys, the giant anteater, anaconda, parrots, toucans, green poison dart frogs, the infamous piranha and an entire host of unnamed and perhaps unknown creatures yet to be cataloged by science. 2.7 million square miles of river basin encompassing the greater part of Brazil, Peru, and significant parts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia”. At that moment I was so small, so insignificant. Like one out of the billion stars beginning to twinkle in the infinite sky above, I found myself but a droplet of water in a vast and mysterious landscape of shadows. “Why am I here, really?” I would know the answer but not yet, it would have to wait for Pandora.