"One hour,” said the Ecuadorian Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot in Spanish after introducing my brother and I to the local woman who would act as our tour guide in the remote Amazon village.
The equatorial sun beat down, turning the jungle air into a sweltering sauna as another passenger disembarked the 5-seater Cessna while the remaining passenger stayed on board to be taken to another village.
The crowd of villagers began to disperse from around the Cessna as the pilot readied for departure, and the old man who had gotten off the plane with us started walking up the muddy jungle path to the thatch-roofed dwellings beyond. While waiting on the runway in Shell, Ecuador, before takeoff, the old man had said a rapid prayer in his indigenous language, and I had assumed that he was nervous about flying and was saying a prayer for his own safety.
I didn't know at the time that he was instead saying a prayer for our safety and why.
Desiring to do some international travel, my brother and I had decided to visit a good friend of ours from Meridian who has been teaching in Ecuador. We split our 10-day trip between sightseeing in the Andes and Amazon and volunteering with Mission Aviation Fellowship and other missionary organizations in the town of Shell at the base of the Andes.
We discovered a country more beautiful than we had imagined, and the 6,000 photos we captured could have easily been 600,000 if we had had time to photograph every fascinating thing we saw in this land of contrasts, from smoking volcanoes and crystal-clear waterfalls to soaring cathedrals and swinging suspension bridges.
And did I mention that the temperature was always perfect? The daytime highs range in the 60s and 70s throughout the year. Everything was green and abundant with life. Even in capital city of Quito, well over 9,000 feet above sea level, pine, palm, cactus, and corn grow together with little regard for the climatological variances we are accustomed to here up north. Of course it rained — not surprising in a region that sees 200 inches of rain annually — but since the climate allowed me to run around in shorts and short sleeves in February, I didn't complain.
Even in the town of Shell, where stray dogs run down brick streets so rough that they look like the aftermath of a 7.0-magnitude quake, every Third World dwelling is back-dropped by a mountain range of 17,000-foot-plus volcanoes that appear to scrape the outer layers of the troposphere.
Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot Nate Saint once said of Ecuador, “This country is so beautiful that it is hard to get yourself accused of exaggeration.”
A quick word about MAF
Mission Aviation Fellowship (maf.org) is an aviation ministry conceived by pilots after World War II to use small planes to reach remote regions of the world. Their mission statement: “Sharing the love of Jesus Christ through aviation and technology so that isolated people may be physically and spiritually transformed.”
With 140 aircraft worldwide, MAF aids missionaries, provides medical flights, supplies growing communities, responds to disasters, and gives training to indigenous people groups. In 2006, MAF moved its headquarters from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the Nampa Airport. In Ecuador, MAF is now an Ecuadorian affiliate called Alas de Socorro, which employs Ecuadorian pilots and staff.
Getting a taste of what missionary life is really like
One of the many reasons I wanted to travel to Ecuador was to get a glimpse of what life is really like on a foreign mission field. Too often I get the image — as I believe many others do — of a missionary couple preaching and ministering to natives in grass skirts and needing nothing more than the importance of their work to sustain them.
While that is not an entirely inaccurate impression, it's also very limited. My brother and I got to spend some time with missionaries from MAF (Alas de Socorro) and other organizations as we volunteered around Shell, putting a tiny dent in a months-long project of scraping paint off the walls of the MAF hangar, photographing orphans and special needs kids at the Casa de Fe (House of Faith) orphanage for their support website, and helping out with activities at the Nate Saint Memorial School.
Here are a few things I learned:
- Everyone who serves on a mission field is a missionary. Whether they preach, teach, cook, clean, fix planes, give medical treatment, operate radios, or work at home with their kids, everyone is an integral part of the whole mission.
- Missionaries are normal yet crazy people. They're normal in that they have normal needs for food, shelter, health, and technology, and every so often, the need to come home from a hard day of work and crash on the couch in front of a TV. In fact, many missionaries have known the riches of America (and other First World nations) and have willingly moved themselves and their families to some of the most remote regions of the planet. And they're crazy to give up all of that comfort, freedom, and security. Yet they are driven by a purpose to help others. Because they have an overriding purpose in their lives, they are less likely to sweat the small stuff.
- Missionaries need our support. They do an incredible amount of work with very few supplies. If you want to help them, ask them what they need first. Perhaps it's tools, cash, or prayers. Or maybe you'll be surprised by their cravings for the kind of comfort food that we take for granted in the States: peanut butter, root beer, red vine liquorice, ranch dressing and goldfish crackers.
- Missionaries need skilled workers in the field. Technical abilities and practical skills are essential when you have to work with what you have and you don’t have a Home Depot, Best Buy, or Bed Bath & Beyond around the corner.
- The glamour of living in an exotic foreign land ends the moment you realize that you've just traded your air conditioned First World existence for a slimy mudhole.
- Missionaries have a sense of humor. They kind of have to.
I was also struck by the sense of community among the missionaries in Ecuador. Missionary families look out for each other's physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and different ministry organizations work together towards a common goal.
Getting to know Nate Saint
Just before I left for Ecuador, I snagged a copy of the book “Jungle Pilot” from the Nampa library and started reading it on the plane. The semi-autobiographical book details the life and missionary work of MAF bush pilot pioneer Nate Saint who founded the base in Shell (named after Shell Oil Company, which left an intact airstrip after abandoning its operation there). While making contact with the Waodani tribe, which was on the brink of self-extinction through a vicious cycle of inter-family killings, Saint and four other missionaries, including Jim Elliot, were ambushed in 1956 near a remote village by Waodani warriors. Oddly enough, the name of one of their attackers? Nampa.
Rather than letting the attack shut off the region to future missionary efforts, Saint's sister, along with Elliot's widow and young daughter, established a camp among the Waodani. They succeeded in resolving many inter-tribal conflicts, which reduced the homicide rate by 90 percent in just a few years.
Because I had not yet read to that part of the book, little did I know that the remote Amazon village of Tihueno (also spelled Tihuano and Tiwaneo) that my brother and I were being dropped off in was the same village that Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot had established, and that the tribe we were being left alone with was considered one of the most dangerous in the world only a half-century ago.
But that surprise was nothing compared to the surprise we got later.
Touring the village of Tiheuno
As the whine of the tiny MAF plane's engines dwindled into the distance to be replaced by the exotic sounds of the jungle and the soccer game that had recommenced on the machete-trimmed airstrip, we turned to the native woman who had been assigned as our tour guide and followed her to the main village.
Struggling with my meager grasp of Spanish to understand her, I translated for my brother as our tour guide showed us the village church and introduced us to the older members of the tribe who were dressed in traditional garb and put on a contrived song and dance ceremony for our benefit. Then we participated in a spear-throwing contest, ironically using the same type of spears that killed the five missionaries half a century ago.
But after the festivities, we got to the part of the tour that I really wanted to see: What does Amazon rain forest life really look like?
What I saw was straight out of National Geographic — with the exception that people were wearing more clothes. In fact, many of the younger people were wearing Nike and Adidas and were indistinguishable from average American teenagers, save for the absence of ear buds, cellphones, and car keys.
The village church was open air. Homes were simple arrangements of loosely-attached walls and thatched roofs with no window glass or doors to keep the jungle wildlife at bay. Water was piped in with a simple network of hoses, and the newest appliance I saw was a gas stove that may have seen service during World War II. The only sign of electricity I observed was a tiny solar panel used to power a radio. A house with a wood floor instead of dirt seemed to be a sign of prosperity in the village.
Yet in the midst of this primitive lifestyle, I was struck by the verdant beauty of a wilderness filled with life and the knowledge that the complexities of civilization were many miles away. This was a land largely without currency, law enforcement, taxes, roads, or technology. Truly a world apart.
“Do you hear the plane, too?” our guide asked us in Spanish with ears attuned to the sound of the village's only connection to the outer world.
Five minutes later, I finally did, and was a little disappointed to learn that our hour in the jungle was ending so soon.
The surprise back at base
When we landed at the MAF hangar back in Shell, across the street from our apartment that had been converted from a section of Nate Saint's hangar, the base director informed us, “I didn't get a chance to tell you before you left, but the two guys you flew out into the jungle with were two of the guys that killed Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, and the other three missionaries.”
I wasn't expecting that. My brother had sat right in between them and helped buckle one of them in.
“And they probably said a prayer for your safety before you took off,” he added.
Fortunately, I knew a little bit about their story at the time and researched more.
After Saint’s sister and Elliot’s widow went to live with the Waodani people, some of the tribal members became Christians, including the two men I flew with. One of those men, Mincaye, treated Nate Saint’s son Steve (who lived with the tribe for a number of years) as his own son and later became a preacher, traveling around the U.S. with Steve Saint and getting presented by spiritual leaders such as Billy Graham and Steve Curtis Chapman.
Mincaye often used jungle metaphors to reach his people.
In speaking about the peace that had been brought to his tribe, Mincaye once said, "We acted badly, badly, until (the missionaries) brought us God's carvings (the Bible). Then, seeing His carvings and following His good trail, now we live happily and in peace."
The story of Mincaye's conversion is one of incredible transformation and forgiveness, and of all the 6,000 photos we captured in Ecuador, I wish I had known who Mincaye was at the time and had gotten a photo with him that I could have treasured for life.
Part of me wishes I had known the full significance of everything I was seeing around the village of Tihueno. But the other part of me enjoys getting to know the Waodani people afterwards through my research and feels that if I had known who they were at the time, I would have seen them through the eyes of a tourist.
As writer G. K. Chesterton once said, “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
For the panoramas I captured in Ecuador, visit www.erality.com
For information about the missionaries' story, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0337868/