I went to Ecuador on a medical missions trip in November, and The Lord taught me a lot of things through the people we met and and the things we did. Today I want to talk about what the Lord taught me in the jungle, on the trails.
We visited four different villages during the trip. At each village we set up a mobile clinic complete with pharmacy, nurses, doctors and one very dedicated dentist. We drove into the first village and then hiked to the next three, through the jungle, with 20-30lbs of gear and medicine each. It was wild. This was no tourist hike, we were deep.
The first hike was about four hours long and kicked my ass. I joined this team knowing it would be physically demanding, but the first hike was a trial by fire. A good portion of that hike was straight up a hill. A steep hill. A steep, muddy hill that wanted us dead.
But we lived!
Don, the missionary leading our trip, said our second hike would be equally tough, but we were now well prepared for it. Don also said the next trail had never been hiked by a North American team before us, including himself. That’s right, he’d never done this hike before.
So, Wednesday morning, as we set out on our second hike, we were feeling wary but ready. It was supposed to take five hours to hike from the village of Kakataro to the village of Tapibara. Five long hours, but that’s part of the adventure, right?
The Second Hike
The first few hours weren’t too hard. We broke for lunch, laughed, ate MRE’s and then set out again to tackle the last two hours to Tapibara. We were told the rest of the hike was relatively flat, however the first 1000 yards after our lunch spot were straight up a hill. This should have been a sign to us that things weren’t as they seemed.
As we progressed into the jungle, our total hiking reached four hours and then five and then six. The trail was getting tougher, with hills, mud, rivers and logs. We were all starting to wonder, “Where is this village?”
Sidebar - Wao Time
Something you need to know about our guides is that they don’t understand time like we do. The Waodani don’t carry watches or follow a calendar. The villagers estimate how long the hike would take, but we didn’t know for sure until we hiked them. This didn’t always turn out well. By the end of the trip, it became a running (and not always funny) joke whether a predicted timeframe was in Wao time or Gringo time. Anyway…
The Second Hike Continues
At hour six, one hour past our ETA, we asked our guide, Gaba, how much further until the village. He said five hours. “Gaba, you’re going to have to go ahead and repeat that. Did you say there are five hours left?” To our relief, Don quickly dismissed that as an example of how the Waodani can’t estimate time, it was probably closer to 30 minutes. We started hiking again.
Hour six became hour seven.
Hour seven became hour eight.
We were in big trouble.
Sidebar - The Jungle
It’s a bit hard to describe hiking in the jungle. I told a teammate that my sliding scale of what is considered “the middle of nowhere” has drastically changed since that hike. Imagine hiking down a trail that is only a trail in the most vague sense. There are solid walls of green stretching over your head on either side. You could hike for days in any direction and see nothing but more jungle. It somehow manages to be alive and feral, yet eerily still at the same time.
Everything in the jungle is trying to kill you. Imagine descending a hill so steep you have to lean back to keep from falling forward. It’s covered in mud so you have to walk sideways to keep from slipping. Of course, you slip anyway and grab a tree to keep from going down the hill. Only after you grab the tree do you remember it could be covered with barbs that will break off in your hand and cause infection (we’re days from a hospital). Luckily the tree is safe… but the biting ants all over it are not and they’re now crawling down your arm. You let go to frantically brush the ants off which causes you to slide down the hill into the person in front of you. Do this for 10 hours in 100% humidity.
We waded through streams, crossed slimy log bridges, climbed hills, dodged poisonous snakes and got eaten by bugs. We were drenched, muddy and sore. This is what it was like in the jungle. A far cry from hiking through Patapsco Park, the Wednesday hike was the most physically demanding and dangerous thing I’ve ever done.
The Second Hike Concludes
By the end of the hike, it was getting dark and we were exhausted. I could barely think straight. During the last few hours, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other.
As we trudged on, our group started to spread out along the trail. Don stopped us and said that we needed to stay tight or the stragglers were in danger of getting picked off by jaguars. That’s right, he told us we might get eaten and he wasn’t kidding. We’d seen the paw prints. Big paw prints.
A few hours before hand, some of the villagers went ahead of our group because they move a lot faster without gringos trailing after them. I have a very distinct memory of stumbling along the trail, so delirious that I probably looked drunk, when the villagers that went ahead came back down the trail the other way. They had made it to the Tapibara, dropped their own gear and then come back to carry our packs for us. It was like seeing The Lord himself come down the trail surrounded by a flock of Cherubim.
Ten hours after leaving Kakataro, we stumbled into Tapibara delirious and exhausted. I collapsed into the grass and stripped my boots off my wrecked feet. Ben, our dentist, was collapsed by a hut calling for water like a wounded soldier. A few of us plunged ourselves into the Dayuno river and just soaked, piranhas be damned.
That hike had pushed me well beyond anything I was physically fit to do. I should have passed out or broken a leg. I should have gotten eaten or maimed or hopelessly lost. The weird part was, aside from being exhausted and sore, by the next day I felt pretty good. It made no sense. At least, it made no sense until I turned to scripture.
What The Lord Taught Me In The Jungle
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul recounts the Lord saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That was exactly how the hike went. The weaker I got, the more desperate I was, the more His power was the only thing keeping me going. I never had a burst of Superman-like strength, I only ever had enough strength to go one more step. God had work for us to do in that jungle, and the hike was a reminder that it is by his power alone that we were doing it.
That’s how it is every day. Paul says in Ephesians that God has prepared good works for us to do. We don’t do these works on our own volition, but because God made us to do them. It’s by God’s power and permission alone that we do anything for His Kingdom, big or small. Some amazing things happened in Ecuador because God gave us the money, time, desire and strength to get down there and be ready when it was time.
So would I do it again? Oh yes. It was an incredible experience being so lost in God’s creation, well past the threshold of what I could handle on my own. It reminds me of what James says in 1:2-3 — “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” No matter what trials I go through, I will always be able to look back and remember when the Lord got me out of the jungle.