“Nineteen?” Slack-jawed, I tried to imagine birthing that many children in one lifetime. The elderly matriarch gave a gap-toothed grin. As founding chief, she had a right to be smug.
“And 32 grandchildren,” she added, then arched a quizzical eyebrow. “You?”
Woefully deficient in fertility, I confessed, admiring the one big extended family that comprised her entire village.
As Jerassina and I continued our conversation, rife with gestures, broken Portuguese and many a belly laugh, the villagers prepared a feast to welcome our small team to this remote Amazon settlement. The feast was slabs of some two-meter-long pirarucu fish baked in banana leaves, exotic fruits, vegetables from their own garden and chunks of savory meat from the paca – inelegantly described as a large rodent but that is really way cuter. The real feast, of course, was found in the people themselves.
Our group of ICOMB delegates from Germany, India, Lithuania and Canada had flown from Curtiba to Manaus and then driven long hours along a sketchy, desolate road (“Why maintain them? The rivers are our highways.”) Then we travelled even longer hours by boat to this village. By then we were all very much feeling our smallness: insignificant specs of humanity on a vast and untamed river canvas. It’s so…big.
The Amazon is over 40 kilometers wide during the wet season, we were told, with villages that are days apart by boat. Winding through tributaries where the dense vegetation and trees were half-submerged, we gawked at monkeys, giant lily pads, pink dolphins, massive ant colonies and unfamiliar birdsong with only an occasional dugout canoe hinting at hidden civilization in an otherwise unbroken landscape.
Are there really people living here? Why are we not seeing any other boats? Was the captain lost? Rounding a bend—a bend that looked like every other bend—the village suddenly appeared. In the middle of, well, nowhere.
The Ribeirinhos – literally the “River People” of the Amazon – greeted us with friendly but reserved smiles.
“It’s okay,” we were assured by our translator, “they knew we were coming. We have built a friendship with them over the last couple of years, slowly finding ways to share the Gospel. So, we have the status of invited guests. If not,” he added, “they would have a legal right to kill us.”
Hospitality has strict parameters in the Amazon, it seems.
The villagers graciously tolerated our cameras, smiled at our awkwardness, laughed at our belly flops when we jumped from their canoes to go swimming and pointed casually into the jungle when asked about bathroom facilities.
We came as guests—a weighty honor—and left as friends. All too soon it was time to depart as our captain did not want to be on the river at night. The sun did set, however, well before we docked back at the town.
Along the way, Scott dug out his LED flashlight and a bold volunteer perched with it on the bow—less to see the route (the captain could find his way blindfolded, we were assured) than to keep from a head-on collision with logs, canoes and alligators.
Gazing up at stars that I swear I have never seen before, I marveled: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).
Jesus is in the Amazon. May you sense his presence, too, wherever you are.
In her role as a writer with the Multiply Media Team, Nikki White focuses on telling stories in such a way as to mobilize prayer for mission and Multiply’s global workers. In addition to overseeing the content for the Daily Prayer Guide (DPG), White teaches workshops on intercessory prayer and personal prayer ministry.