The past couple of weeks have been full and stretching, challenging yet rewarding, and absolutely unforgettable. Semana Santa (Spring Break) rolled in at the beginning of this month with a much-needed week off of school. The kids were ready. The teachers were ready. It was the perfect time to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and rest.
Brandon and I had the opportunity to visit some beautiful beaches Venezuela offers on the coast. Since coming here in July, we have not had the time nor the opportunity to visit a beach!
However, after the very first day at the beach, the sun reminded us of why we don’t “do” these beach trips very often. One word: SUNBURN.
I have been on sunny beaches before, but, nothing like the blinding light and absolute force of the Venezuelan sun.
It was a sweet and restful time together, and even with our burns and subsequent days of oddly-shaped red marks on our bodies, it was definitely worth it.
We got back into the city and less than a week later, we were preparing for another, very different kind of a trip.
Once a year, several students from the senior and junior class have the opportunity to go on a weeklong-trip to a remote, indigenous village along the river Orinoco that snakes through the western part of Venezuela. This small village has been reached by an incredible missionary and his family over 20 years ago. Peter, also known as Pedro, and sometimes referred to as “Peto” is the very first missionary within the Delta region, and chose many years ago to move to this village with his wife and live within the community, sharing the message of the Gospel. He and his wife raised their two daughters in that same community, all the while learning the local language, their culture, and making an impact through their commitment to relationships. Now that his daughters are attending university in the city, Peter and his wife live a 6 hour boat ride away from Arature (the name of the village), but are constantly making the trek back and forth, saying that their true home is with the Warao people.
This is the backdrop for the adventure that myself, Brandon, another teacher and 5 students went on a little over a week ago.
After 1 flight, a 3 hour bus ride, and a 6.5 hour boat ride later, we arrived in the Warao village. Knowing that there would be no food sources or refrigeration within the village, we brought our own food for the week, along with huge bags stuffed with clothing and medical donations.
***Photo credit for much of these photos goes to the lovely Laura Berkey***
We immediately got to work hanging up our hammocks that we’d be sleeping in, killing GIANT spiders, wasps, and other odd-yet-terrifying creatures and setting up our “home” for the week inside of Peter’s house. Since Peter is coming back and forth between the community and Tucupita (the city where he is currently living), his house had that “left alone for a couple of weeks” charm. I started unpacking the kitchen (where I would spend some really fun hours over the next couple of days) and felt incredibly like Snow White getting work done in the dwarves’ house.
We were excited, nervous, and looking forward to the next couple of days in the village! That is until when 6:00 p.m. rolled around, it was pitch black and time to make dinner. Hmm. Thank you, flashlights. Have you ever tried to make a dinner for 9 people using 1 baby flashlight? Sounds rather romantic, doesn’t it? Yes, until you stub your toe the third time and dropped the beans. We very quickly learned to value the light of day and that the sun is a formidable force that is on its own schedule and will not budge.
However, we also very quickly learned the absolute beauty of the night sky and the millions of stars we were able to see everywhere we looked. Pausing now to picture that complete tranquility and vastness of creation makes me miss it deeply.
The next couple of days looked a little like this:
One thing that I loved (granted, I am one of those crazy morning people) was waking up with the sun. From as early as 4:45 a.m., you could hear the sound of people in the village starting to rise along with the bustle of morning preparation. I’d rise (that makes it sound graceful…) from my hammock (more like wiggle out of the hammock and then fall to the ground) and come down to start the coffee (shocking that I put that job on myself?) and begin breakfast preparation with some of the awesome students.
We’d eat breakfast together on the back porch, watching the sun rise and the people traveling along the glassy-smooth river in their canoes.
After breakfast and cleaning up, we would get our gear ready for lice removal and first aid in the village. Once we were set, we walked up and down the dock yelling “ami” (lice) and “boci” (first aid) to let everyone know. Thinking about it now, if someone yelled “lice,” and “first aid” from the street, I would think they were crazy. Thankfully, they knew we weren’t crazy and had mercy on us non-Warao speakers (their language). From each hut, kids would emerge and start tagging along, holding our hands, helping us call out to other families. By the time we got back to the small church, we had quite a bundle of lovable and precious kids.
We definitely learned very important lessons in how to detangle hair. Seriously, put that on our resumes. While eradicating lice is somewhat impossible given the relatively short amount of time we would be there and the prevalence of it everywhere, showing love and affection by taking the time to work through each child’s (and even some young mothers) hair said so much more than the few phrases we knew in their language.
It’s incredible how when you break through that physical comfort bubble we love keeping around ourselves, the thoughts that pop into your mind are not the “ew,” rather, the “this is such a beautiful child,” “how in the world did we get so blessed to be here?” “what are their days actually like?” “how else can I show them that I care?”.
There is something incredibly beautiful and simple through these small acts.
Each afternoon we would do a small Vacation Bible School for the kids in the village (around 70 kids in total). We would play some games, sing songs, peform a skit, craft, and more games.
After, we would walk up and down the dock, just being available to talk and be with the people. One day while we were walking, a couple who just recently had a baby asked us to name their child. No joke. Talk about pressure!
After VBS, we would usually go outside and swim in the river to bathe. This always was a highlight of the day because usually within 5 minutes of us jumping in the water with our soap, a group of kids would swim over and join our fun. Even without being able to speak the language, you don’t need a translator to play!
Each “evening,” around 4:30 p.m., they would have a community prayer service at their Iglesiata (church). It was incredible to see everyone showing up, singing and clapping along to each song with such gusto. Seriously, everyone, down to the little ones, knew all the words and would be singing right along in Warao. While I had no clue what they were singing and saying, it truly didn’t matter when you know that God is being glorified in that moment. Together, we were a community. It was such a beautiful time. One night, Brandon was asked to share a little message at the church, and I was able to share the next night.
After the church service, it was a mad rush against the sun to prepare dinner! Guys. Making dinner and doing dishes without light is hard. Everywhere I go now, I will bring a flashlight. While the dinner was getting ready, the students walked around and spent time with people in the community.
Aside from the dinner prep and clean up (which was fun in its own challenging kind of way), the evenings were indescribable. Tired and sunburnt, but utterly full from the interactions from the day, in our time after dinner we would just sit along the river in the company of the stars and choir of frogs thinking and reflecting. When it seemed like it was 10:00 p.m. (in reality, more like 7:00 p.m.) and we were fighting falling asleep, we’d all retreat to our beds to get ready for the next day.
While we were there just for a short while, I know that it has left a life-changing impact on me and each one of the students in many different ways. For me, these are the little thoughts I’m still chewing on, one week later:
- Serving is not the extravagant. It’s the ordinary, the gross, the small and many times invisible task that simply states, “This needs to be done and I can be the one to do it”. While it is good to make intentional plans to be available and serve in an organized fashion, I am discovering more and more the importance of being open and willing to be useful in all situations. This attentiveness and desire is not natural. I know, you know, we all know and have experienced the struggle that happens between doing what we want to do and doing what needs to get done. But, I have seen the difference in the day when you look at those opportunities as life-giving and what we are actually here to fulfill.
- We are constantly distracted by and attached to technology. Yes. Understatement of the year. Being there with no electricity, water, convenient appliances, wifi, cell service reminds you that you actually do not needs those things to survive. What’s even more incredible is that you forget about all of those things the second you are there because, guess what? It doesn’t matter. Life is still full and good, and so much better when you are fully present and connected to exactly where you are and who you are with in that moment.
- God is universal. We are a part of something so beyond ourselves and it’s awesome.
- It’s so easy to forget, but we have to work hard to remember those thoughts, feelings, interactions and faces. Our stories and experiences teach us so many important things. However, in going back to “regular” life, the challenge is keeping the memories and lessons fresh and meaningful.
- Appreciate what we have. Even when we have little, we have so much. How can we be thankful for it and generous? Our pastor in California said something once that has stuck with both Brandon and myself, “live adequately, so that you can give extravagantly” .
We are so thankful for this opportunity and time with these great students, some of them graduating this year and going off to do amazing things. Now, it’s gearing up for the last 5 school weeks left of this school year!