The most popular Holiday in Brasil is called Carnival. It’s a huge, five day bash that ends in a wild, anything-goes parade through the streets of every city in the country. The most widely known is in Rio de Janeiro. It began as a time to celebrate the beginning of Lent, which traditionally has been a forty day period to remember and celebrate Jesus’ death and rising from death. Christians, historically, have used this time to do certain things that would help them remember and take to heart these most significant events. Fasting or fasting from certain things became popular means to help one remember and improve one’s ability to renew a right relationship with God. Over time, as this relationship with God became less of a priority, and doing what we please became more of a priority, the wild celebration grew and the significance of the following Lent season diminished. Now, in Brasil and in New Orleans, the party is huge and widely popular and Jesus’ death and rising play no role. The goings on during this time are not healthy for anyone, especially teens.
Some years ago, the mission bought and cleared about 20 acres of inexpensive land on the Xingu River, about 100 miles north of Altamira, in the jungle, to be used as a retreat location. Each year, during the time of Carnival, about 150 – 300 youth (this year, about 150), from the churches connected to the mission, travel to this retreat center for a four day time of worship, bible study and fun. They call it Cristoval. It’s a wonderful substitute for these kids for what they otherwise would be tempted to participate in. Our family joined them this year and, though we can’t speak Portugese well yet, we thought it may be nice to just hang out with these kids as a family. It was an opportunity to connect (its amazing how well you can connect without speaking) with the people, and “experience” the rain forest setting. It truly lived up to this for us.
The boat trip up from Altamira was an adventure in itself. We left Vitoria after about an hour drive north from Altamira, in clear weather, about 6:00 pm. There were about fifty people on the boat that has space to sleep about half that number. The boat is about 45’ x 15’. There is a metal bar on each side of the boat to attach hammocks to and they hang in between. Our family had six “redes” hung on bar space about 2’ in length. We had to leave our large, American, personal space behind! When one moves in his rede, he bumps into the four people squashed above, below, and on either side. Communal intimacy! Then we hit a pretty major storm and we were rockin and rollin all over the place. Some kids were sick, some were pretty anxious. I was able to help with some medicine for sea sickness, an inhaler for an asthma attack, some anti-vomiting medicine, and some Tylenol. I “slept” on the wet floor for part of the night because of space. We actually tied off to a tree and waited for the storm to pass. This part of the Xingu River is about nine miles wide, so the storms can really stir up the water and this one tossed us around pretty good.
We arrived to a setting that was pretty raw. Pictures and words won’t do it justice, but we’ll try. Cleared jungle, in the middle of nowhere, on the river, used rarely, the air quite sticky and buggy. There was a structure on the grounds, about 80’ x 60’, with a roof and no walls, that would function as a place to meet and a place to sleep.
We set up our redes over a dirt floor that was swarming with huge, red ants, with large, crab-like arms, that once they grabbed something, would not let go. We killed all the ants we could (it became a morning ritual) and looked up to see a large tarantula where we would be hanging our “beds”. Some of the youth killed it with pleasure (Bets cheered them on!). A large brahma cow was tied to a fencepost at the beach upon our arrival and it was promptly killed and butchered there and the meat hung in the open. This would be our (and the flies’) staple along with rice, beans and noodles. Of course, the cow was pregnant and many kids found the dead baby (about the size of an adult beagle) quite fascinating.
Each day, there were two times of worship for an hour, followed by an hour message. There were two hours of games in the afternoon. Three meals were served at standard times. It was so good to see these kids, knowing the rough conditions in which they live, laugh and play and laugh among themselves (and at us when we tried to speak—in a very good-natured sort of way). The worship with these folks was incredible. It’s been the same at all the church services we’ve been to. They sang at the top of their lungs, danced to every song, and held no energy back in their adoration of God. They cheered, rapped, chanted, and clapped. Inhibition to expression was not part of the experience! It was a blast to watch, and to join. There were also obvious, sober renewals of relationships with God at each “service”. The joy of Jesus’ cleansing and forgiveness was expressed and many gave testimony as to what God was doing to their inner being. Personally, God challenged me to be more heavenly-minded. I can be easily too concerned about earthly things and I felt He encouraged me to give these things to Him and “care not” for the things of this world. It’s not that I shouldn’t spend time and energy doing earthly things (we all must do just that), but that my concerns and passions need to be more focused on Him and His kingdom. Trusting Him, with the earthly things (and people) I hold dear, is a place I so desire growth. As I focus on His character and His care for me, and His affection for those I love, my ability to trust Him grows. I can usually tell when a word is from God because I am motivated and empowered to obey.
We went on two walks in the jungle. One with all six of us on a nicely cleared logging path, and one with only dad and Ellie through thick trees and brush. Both were nice and allowed us to further experience the jungle. Ellie and I experienced multiple stings from some sort of wasp when we plowed through their nest. We returned quite a sight with some impressive welts and scratches (it took us about an hour to go and about 15 min to return!). Each exposure to the Amazon environment allows us to leave behind some of our Hollywood based insecurity about the jungle, and more appreciate the incredible beauty around us. A serious respect remains, however, for this somewhat raw environment.
We swam several times each day but we didn’t quite have the freedom we otherwise would have had because three camp kids got stung by stingrays. These things are pretty impressive. They are scavengers and lie on the bottom of the river, coming close to shore during the night. If a person shuffles his feet and bumps into one, it merely swims away. If, however, you step on one, it snaps its tail up toward the offender, stinging the person on the foot or ankle. It leaves what resembles a bullet hole. It releases a venom that causes severe, intolerable, pain for 6 – 24 hrs. I saw two of the three kids and they were writhing in waves of this pain. Mercifully, the stings were from small stingrays and the pain resolved in about 6-8 hrs. We sure shuffled religiously after that! Apparently these things all over in these rivers.
We got to experience evening services with several large bats flying about our heads. It was distracting the first night but, like so many things that cause discomfort, each exposure was less uncomfortable.
The whole experience indeed was a nice family time and another small step forward into this unfamiliar culture and environment. And it was nice to return home!