Mission Trip Wanderlust

Pearl Watley Mitchell

© Copyright 2009 by Pearl Watley Mitchell

Photo of Pearl's mission group traveling by canoe.

My first trip to Venezuela sparked my wanderlust for foreign missions. In the summer of 1995, I went to Venezuela with a mission team from St. Mark United Methodist in Columbus, GA with a SIFAT group (Servants in Faith and Technology). SIFAT is an organization that teaches and uses “appropriate technology”. It is housed on a 150 acre campus in Lineville, AL, and has the support of Auburn University Agricultural School and the Wesley Foundation. They experiment with and develop many unique survival tools, including ways to purify water, compost and garden, build tanks and raise fish, cook, and instruments to use under specific conditions. Appropriate technology means taking the resources a person/group has and teaching them to use those available resources to full effectiveness - usually, in a third world country.

The host Aranus family father had ministered to his people for over 50 years, up and down Amazon tributaries. The three boys were grown now with wives and children. After doing the missionary work for fifty years, Papa Aranus and his sons had created a training center on their family farm, cooperating with SIFAT to train local leaders of tribes and small towns to be self-sufficient with whatever resources they had naturally been given.

We flew into Caracas, and continued to the Aranas farm by bus. On the way to El Renuevo, there was an unfinished bridge over a small river about one hundred feet wide and maybe two feet deep during the dry season. It had a really nice-looking frame with a fancy top, but the bridge was started on both sides and no middle had been built. The bridge had been started by a politician who did not get re-elected, so it didn’t get finished. No one wanted to finish it because it had been the other gentleman’s project. A heavy bed of rocks lay in the bottom of the river, so that when the river was less than two feet deep - cars, trucks, and buses went right on out into the water and drove to the other side of the road on the rocks. Many people were there washing clothes in the river on washboards. Our group almost fainted the first time the bus came off the bank and went right into the water without any warning.

When the bus was bringing us back from a road trip one evening, the river had risen too high for the bus to cross the river on the bottom. The bus stopped at the edge of the river, the driver opened the door, and said “Adios”. He couldn’t take us across the river, so we got off. We waded through the river, most of us with shoes in hand, and then walked the two miles to the camp. It was a trip – literally!

We all slept in hammocks wherever we went. This area of Venezuela was called the llanos, or plains. It was only a few miles from the Columbia border and sometimes we would hear gunshots since there was war going on there at the time. Most of the people who lived in this area slept in hammocks .The houses, wooden or block, were built with huge hooks on the walls where hammocks would be hung. Sometimes the hammocks were hung over a beam under the roof. The first time I went, I had never slept in a hammock. After that first week, I was beginning to love it. We had purchased our own hammocks after we got there. Hammocks are plentiful and cheaper in South America than in the US. If we moved from place to place during the time we were there, we just rolled up our hammocks and took them with us, so we didn’t have to worry about a place to sleep.

Venezuela has only two seasons, rainy and dry. Our teams were there during the rainy season, which is summer in America. During the dry season, it doesn’t rain at all. But, during the rainy season, it rains every day, mostly in the evening. Sometimes it rains twice a day, or all day long! All the wetness breeds mosquitoes and insects. We slept with a mosquito net. We would have been eaten alive if we had tried to sleep without them. Yes, even the native people sleep with the nets. They never get used to the mosquitoes.

We ladies slept in the worship area, with hammocks tied up everywhere. The building was just a tin roof and poles at the corners. It did have a concrete floor. So, at least we were not on the dirt. Many of the native people had dirt floors with just a roof. That’s where the idiom came from, “dirt poor”. In America’s early years, families who still had houses with dirt floors were considered “dirt poor”.

A really peaceful feeling came from sleeping in that hammock under that mosquito net, with the rain beating down on the roof and falling all around the building where there were no walls. It brought a special feeling of being close to God and nature. The biggest worry was whether a tarantula would try to share our bed or not.

I was especially impressed with one Venezuelan man who cleaned off a lot where we were building a dormitory which would house small town leaders, native tribe leaders, volunteer mission teams, and anyone else who needed it. The man I speak of had a machetti , one regular-size machetti , and he cleaned off a two-acre piece of land with it. I’m not speaking of grass, or weeds. I’m speaking of trees, bamboo, bushes, thorns, intertwined vines all twisted and grown around and through the trees and bushes. This man moved like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil, hacking that machetti through the maze of green and clearing it to the dirt. He cleared a jungle from almost 2 acres in less than five hours. It was amazing!!

On the trip, each member of the mission team were assigned a duty for different days of the week and times of the day. One common duty was kitchen duty: fry plantains, cut up fruit/vegetables, or fry cornbread. In Venezuela, we fried a lot of plantains. Plantains look exactly like a banana with a yellow peel and fruit like bananas. I discovered that a person does not eat plantains uncooked. The pulp is rougher and stringier than banana pulp. They’re good, but they must be prepared correctly to be eaten. They can be fried or baked, and I supposed boiled. I’ve never eaten any boiled.

One of my fondest memories is a softball game that the mission team and Aranus family played with a team of guys from a little town close to El Reneuvo. We played a slow pitch softball game, about three hours total, with a lot of innings and high scores. This was before I got my double knee replacement and I couldn’t run. So, I pitched for both teams, and of course, I did my best for both teams. I got named “traitor” when I struck out several of our own mission team players. The guys from Venezuela beat “us” by one run, and my pitching and fielding helped “us” to get beat. The nickname lasted for many weeks and some folks even avoided me at church later, but the stigma finally wore off.

Needless to say, this excursion served a purpose because as we swung bats and ran bases, a few team members who weren’t playing passed out Bibles and ministered to the whole rest of the town, maybe two hundred folks, who had gathered to watch.

The softball game was almost as interesting as the trip down the river, but not quite. We took a six-hour trip down a tributary of the Amazon, deep into the rain forest. The river was narrow and winding, and had a medical clinic and church being built there. On the way down the river, the sight on the banks - tarantulas, birds, parrots, monkeys, flowers – were some of the most awesome sights I had ever seen. The monkeys playing in the trees, mothers with babies under an arm, tarantulas eight feet long slung out across the branches high in the trees sleeping away, multi-colored parrots and birds sitting and flying and squawking – it was a vision straight from the pages of Heaven, a peace that could only be obtained as a generous gift from the Father. This area looked untouched by mankind, just a paradise of raw creation, and in my mind I imagined that’s what the Garden of Eden must have been like. Many trees were hung with fruit – bananas, papaya, coconuts, and other fruit with which I was unfamiliar.

One lady with us was a science teacher whose interest was birds. Her binoculars and trusty “bird book” kept us posted on all the unusual birds that we saw.

We continued our trip down the river, donning our panchos when a sudden rain shower would appear. We ate our sandwiches and snacks, and drank our bottled water. In two huge canoes, one behind the other, about 22 people marveled at God’s unspoiled creation. A small electric motor was attached to each canoe, but there were oars to compensate for the sporadic stopping of the motors. There was nothing to do except accept it.

We finally got to a place in the river that looked no different from any other part except for a small clearing on the left side of the river. This was the clinic and church. The clinic, a simple covered building with outside walls, offered security for the patients and the very crude stock of medicines stored there. Attached to the end of the clinic, a covered pavilion area, roof with poles at the corners, served as the church, with crude benches and a podium for the speaker to lay a Bible on.

A single room was walled off that housed the hammock and few possessions of the male Venezuelan nurse who lived there. He had gone to nursing school, and got an advanced degree with a couple of add-ons, such as public health and social counseling. This person was an all-around doctor, teacher, preacher, counselor, friend, and missionary to the native river people in that area.

We were told that only 5% of the people owned 95% of the land. Venezuela is a country strung with rivers like a zebra’s stripes. The land next to the rivers was owned by someone, but it was not arable, useable land due to rising and falling of the water. Thus, the river people did not own the land, but were allowed to inhabit it because the land was not profitable for anything.

During the dry season, the land would be fine, but during the rainy season, the land would be several feet deep in water. The river people all slept in hammocks, usually with dirt floors, so they just pulled their hammocks up a little higher when the water rose and wrapped that mosquito net a little tighter. Most of the dwellings were composed of a tin or thatched roof, with poles at the corners. Usually they had some kind of walls around the bedroom or the area where the hammocks hang, just for privacy and protection from wild animals. All the cooking was done outside.

       The river people reportedly make up about 45% of Venezuela’s population. They live from day to day, sometimes not eating for 2-3 days until a man kills a big animal or catches a lot of fish. Then the whole tribe eats. They depend on each other for survival and they do share their food. There were a handful of dwellings that could be seen from the clinic on the other side of the river, even though there was not much interaction with them. The river was full of piranha, and had no boats or bridges to cross the river. On the side of the river where the clinic stood, we pulled up to the bank, tied up the canoes, and climbed the water-saturated bank to the clinic. When we ascended the bank, a mass of people appeared. They came out of the forest from all directions, a few people riding horses, mothers and fathers with lots of children, and several anorexic dogs. We were told that for most of these people, we were the first Americans they had ever seen.

The welcome they gave us makes me think of the way we will be greeted in Heaven, not only by loved ones and friends who’ve gone on, but also by ones we’ve never seen before. We’ll be greeted by those who would be strangers on earth, but who will then be part of our family there with our Father. These people greeted us in that manner and extended the love of God to us in Spanish, shaking hands and hugging tenderly with Christian love. In broken Spanish and with interpretors, we spoke to the people about our trip, acknowledged that we were “cansada” (tired), and was thanked them for having us. They thanked us excitedly.

We didn’t do any construction on the clinic itself, but we carried medical supplies for the clinic, shovels and cement to finish up a few jobs, and whatever food we could pack with the limited room we had.

I just can’t leave without describing the outhouse. It was enclosed by a circular, wooden frame made of tree limbs stuck down into the ground. There was a hole dug inside about 7-8 feet deep and maybe 2 feet wide. A person squatted over the hole and did their business. Through the trees, a person could look and see several places where the “potty” had been located. I was told that when the other places had gotten filled, they were covered up and another hole was dug, kind of a man-made septic tank. No wonder it’s fertile ground. Maybe that was all part of God’s plan to rejuvenate the earth and we foiled it by inventing inside bathrooms.

On the trip, each member of the mission team would be assigned a duty for different days of the week and times of the day. One of the most common duties was kitchen duty: fry plantains, cut up fruit, fry cornbread, wash dishes, or prepare tables. In Venezuela, we fried a lot of plantains. Plantains look exactly like a banana with a yellow peel and banana-like fruit. I discovered that a person does not eat plantains uncooked. The pulp is rougher and stringier than banana pulp. They’re good, but they must be prepared correctly to be eaten. They can be fried or baked, and I supposed boiled.

One last thing that comes to mind in Venezuela was that we made concrete on the ground. We would gather the sand into a pile, some there naturally, some from buckets. We would add concrete from bags, and then add small rocks that had been gathered from the landscape. A lead guy would be telling us how much of what to add and when to shovel the mixture together, and all the time he would be running water through a rigged-up hose that brought water from 30-gallon buckets which had caught the rain. People would be standing around the pile in a circle shoveling and moving the mixture, reminding me of making biscuits in my kitchen. When we got through, on the ground would be a pile of cement that would immediately be shoveled into a wheelbarrow and taken across the way to a cement floor we were pouring. The cement had to be used immediately or it would dry and set up within thirty minutes. We made and poured the cement onto the floor for the dorm at El Renuevo for the dormitory building with a floor that measured 45 feet by 30 feet. That’s a lot of concrete to make on the ground.

As I said, Venezuela started it all. I just returned from Honduras on a medical mission trip three days ago, and it was my 23rd foreign mission trip in the last sixteen years, not counting several done inside the United States. But, it all started on that first trip when I felt as if I were on the “other side of the world”. Mission trips are rewarding experiences, when we know we have shared the gospel, material possessions, and our own labor with brothers less fortunate than us.

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