Luke and I have returned from a boat trip upriver (south) to a village buried in Indian reservation territory, called Mari Bel. We began the trip in a torrential downpour after the block ice for our Styrofoam cooler was delivered to the boat in a wheelbarrow. The boat was 13 meters x 2 meters with a very loud, vibrating diesel motor (all conversations were at yell volume). Twelve people made the trip, including three, ten year old boys, and an 81 year old woman who was going home after visiting Altamira. The water is at peak flood stage and moving quite fast. The 300 km trip took us 25 hr out and 18 hr to return. We went through many stretches of very rough, swirling white water. The boat got tossed around pretty good a few times but we never felt unsafe. The trip can only be made in flood season because in the summer the very rocky river is fast and shallow. We left the Xingu after about twelve hours and traveled on the Iriri (“eedeedee”) River to our destination. After about three hours of travel there were no more houses along the river. We were truly traveling to an area that is minimally populated. With the fast water, we didn’t think we’d see much wildlife but we did see two large crocodiles swimming away from the boat. The jungle is blanketed on the river side by a thick, lush, viney covering so we couldn’t see much in the trees. Luke saw a large sloth and we saw only one monkey.
We weaved together a fishing net the whole way out. We did this on the back of the boat and we took breaks under roof in the center part of the boat, which was about 5m x 2m. We frequently walked back and forth on a 2×6 ledge on the side of the boat while holding the roof molding with our hands. About six hrs into the trip, while going thru some white water, Luke was coming back to join us in the back and his holding hand slipped and he fell in. Clinildo (local pastor leading the trip) and I had our heads down in the net and Clinildo “happened” to look up as Luke went over. With the sound of the engine, Luke could’ve yelled and we would have never heard him. Clinildo grabbed my arm and we looked back and saw Luke’s head bobbing among the waves. Before I could even think, Clinildo was in the water. We soon had the boat turned around and had a rope tossed to them. Luke was as calm as could be and, as he climbed onto the boat, said, “Well, I guess now I’ll have a story to tell!” It took me a few minutes to unwrap my stomach from my ankles, but I was left quite grateful for the outcome. With the waves and the swirls and the rocks and the propeller …
We slept in the boat, tied to a tree, for the first two nights (I don’t know how or where everyone slept) and arrived the third day. One night was clear and the heavenly show was spectacular. All the houses we visited had a thatched roof, mud or thatched walls, and dirt floors. It poured one night while we slept in a house with a thatched roof and we were completely dry. We sat on simple benches and I know now why these people have such great postures. After a while, the only way one can continue to sit on these backless benches is to sit up very straight. It’s amazing to me that I could not be in shape for sitting! Sitting on these benches all day wore me out. The people were quite hospitable and seemed to enjoy having visitors. We had several impromptu conversations with people at their homes where Clinildo was able to boldly and gently share about Jesus and our purpose for coming. We had three services in two days, each with someone sharing how Jesus has changed their lives and Clinildo sharing a teaching from the bible. I shared my story in Portuguese at one of the services and these folks graciously listened to me despite my struggle with the language. About 25 – 40 people were at each service and there were always a few especially interested in meeting Jesus.
In this village, it seemed the women were the most interested in Jesus but two things of interest seemed to soften the men’s hearts to us and to God. We installed a water filter and this grabbed their attention. The process of carrying this 250 lb cement box along with an equal weight of sand and gravel about a mile through the woods from the boat required many men and they all participated. They loved the idea of pure water and were fascinated at how the filter worked. Serving them in a practical way had an impact on their ears. Isn’t it the same in any culture? Words gain impact as love is demonstrated. Serving and need-meeting breaks down barriers between people. We saw the men’s interest in our words increase after they were served. Another example was the bar owner in this village. Yes, there was a bar. Nicest bldg in town. Cement floor, pool table, boom box, and plastic chairs WITH backs, stocked pretty well with hard liquor. The owner (about 45 y/o) appeared pretty uninterested on day one. On day two, we saw him at the end of the day, doubled over with abdominal pain. This tough river man said he had never had anything like it before and had been in pain all day. We spent about ½ hr asking questions (no translator so it took a while!) and examining him. I was able to determine that it was likely a gastritis-like syndrome and we prayed for him and gave him some simple medicine that might help. I could see his attitude toward us change during the interview. As we showed interest in his well being and demonstrated care for him, he softened toward us. It was beautiful to see. The next day he was pain free and it was like we were best friends. He was quite attentive during the teaching where he was removed previously. It was such a cool demonstration of love’s power and how meeting a practical, felt need, can soften a heart. God used this to remind me that we are here, first and foremost, to love and serve these people, as they are. It’s how God loves us. He meets us where we are, shows us His care for us, we respond and we’re never the same. Love first, then talk.
The reason these places are not more populated are numerous. But right up there on the list is INSECTS. They rule. There were so many pium, so many mosquitoes, so many biting ants. We slept with repellent AND mosquito nets. Almost without exception, if I stopped walking anywhere, within a few seconds I was getting stung by ants. Its like a bee sting and quite uncomfortable. At one point we bumped into a tree with the boat and hundreds of these ants dropped on board. We washed most off with water but many escaped onto the boat. Over the next several days, we all got stung in some curious places. If we went without repellent, we were attacked by pium in the day, and mosquitoes in the night. One morning we stopped at a village at about seven and we forgot repellent and Luke counted >100 mosquito bites on my back shoulders in less than an hour! As you converse with these folks, there is constant swatting. I think i noticed that there is even a cool way to swat! Scratching and swatting is just normal here. It appears that one reacts less to the bites with time but everyone gets bit. I saw the legs of one local man and there were literally thousands of pium bites below his knees. We picked up an Indian woman for the ride home and her torso was covered in mosquito bites. That they live in this environment is truly admirable.
We did fish for about an hour each evening of travel at dark when we couldn’t navigate the waters further. We caught several beautiful large fish > 15 lbs. One was a strikingly colorful catfish. Luke caught two 2 lb catfish. Luke and I were not very enthusiastic fishermen because of the bugs. Rods and reels are rare here but it’s impressive what these guys can do with only a line and hook.
I hope the pictures help. There are several river houses pictured. Please forgive me but I’m simply amazed every time I visit one. I wish the pictures could completely capture each setting, and that you could share my awe regarding the conditions in which these folks live. Otherwise, the scenery was beautiful. God did some of His best creative work in this region. We’re blessed to be able to experience a bit of it. There were no other English-speakers so the language barrier was exhausting and good for us. We arrived home pretty whipped and we’ve both been sick the past two days (nothing major). We are simply foreigners in so many regards. In a microbiology sense, in a physical strength sense, in a mental sense… But we’ll get there. The need is great… for need-meeting, for loving, and for communicating God’s kingdom to these lovely, admirable people. And more people are needed. Would you go to God and see if you might be one to join us in this kingdom adventure?