During the years Diana and I served at the school for missionary children in the country of these posts I had the privilege of taking a good number of students on week-end outings. Some were one day fishing trips and others were overnighters at a favorite place like a big flat rock at the river’s edge or a sand bar out in the middle of the river.
If, as in the case of a one day fishing trip most of the kids happened to be younger I would spend almost every minute either baiting hooks or untangling lines. No matter, I enjoyed the experience as much as the kids did. An overnighter was something different altogether. It involved more planning, you had to take more food, more gear and all the rest.
All through the week the kids would eagerly be anticipating the week-end and the fun they’d be having somewhere out there on the river, they really didn’t care where. One favorite place was a big sand bar in the middle of the river several hours travel downstream in our trusty dugout and outboard motor. These camping trips happened only in the dry season because in the wet season the sand bars were under water as were the nice flat rocks.
We’d usually pull up to the sandbar late Friday afternoon and the kids would pile out of the canoe and start exploring. You might be wondering what there is to find on a sand bar in the middle of the river. Dry season is when the river turtles come out on the dry sand at night and lay their eggs. The first order of business then was to look for turtle tracks coming from the water’s edge and snaking across the sand hopefully ending up at a nest with eggs. A general rule we followed was to leave every other nest untouched. The eggs the kids dug up would be taken back home and smoked over an open wood fire by our Indian friends who would keep half the eggs for their families. To say smoked turtle are good eating is almost an unforgivable understatement. They are way beyond good. Some people ate them raw, as in digging up a nest, taking an egg, carefully tearing a small hoe in one end and slurping it down. You could also boil them but the whites didn’t get hard. You could also scramble them and they were good that way but most of us liked them best, smoked. There is much more to be written about turtle eggs but I’ll save that for another post.
Being as it was the dry season that is December through March, one could reasonably expect to see clear skies, a slight breeze and no rain for the night. It being the tropics however, we were rained on more than once over the course of the years. Once darkness fell the kids would walk around the edge of the sand bar looking for fish to chop with their machetes. They of course knew all about being careful not to step on a sting ray that might be lurking close to shore. How did they see one might ask. Well, out there in the jungle everybody had a flashlight and some even had a light on a headband which was preferable because your hands were free. Headlights or handheld lights were also useful in finding caiman’s (like an alligator) eyes. Depending on how bright your light was you could spot those bright red eyes a long way off. I’ve read stories of seeing alligator or caiman eyes shining red by the light of the moon but I’ve never seen that, ever.
One night the kids spotted the eyes of a small caiman about four feet long near the shore close to where we camped on the edge of the sandbar. When the lights would shine on him he’d disappear under the water but instead of moving off he would appear on the surface again in almost the same place. We affectionally began calling this little caiman ‘Charlie’. Over the course of one dry season in particular we did several overnighters to that same sand bar and ‘Charlie’ always seemed to waiting for us in the same spot. Whether or not it was the same ‘Charlie’ each time is anybodies guess but he always made the kids happy.
The person or persons responsible for the outing always had one eye on the kids making sure they were safe and the other eye on the sky hoping no clouds were forming on the horizon. Clouds always brought the unpleasant possibility of rain. If it did rain everybody huddled under a tarp and hoped it didn’t last long. You could wait out the rain scrunched up in the canoe or out on the sandbar. The sandbar gave you more room providing your tarp was big enough to cover everybody but sand ended up getting everywhere. No matter what, if it rained much, the boat because it was an open dugout would have to be bailed unless of course it didn’t matter if it sank. It always mattered!
Assuming it was a cloudless night and the moon wasn’t too bright, just to gaze at the stars and their unparalleled brightness was a favorite thing for me. Other than the little lights playing along the shore as the kids either either chopped or speared fish there were no artificial lights within hours of travel either upriver or down. I especially looked for the Pleiades or the Southern Cross. When the Pleiades was directly overhead at nightfall you knew it was close to the 1st of December and the dry season was upon you. And that was good for many reasons.
Out there in the jungle we were 3 or 4 degrees North of the Ecuador. That meant that if you could see the Southern Cross it would probably be reclining on it’s side very low on the Southern horizon. It was always sobering to ponder the real cross and what had happened so many centuries before. The constellation itself made up of those dazzling bright stars was so beautiful but thinking on the somber reality that He who had created those stars had died on a cruel wooden cross in our place often brought tears to our eyes.
Finally, usually well after midnight, everybody went to sleep on a tarp or under a tarp if it was raining. At that sandbar there were few mosquitos so you could sleep o.k. At fist crack of dawn in the morning however hungry hordes of blood drinking gnats and an even tinier version of gnat quickly found and descended on the exposed skin of any and all. So much for the dream of sleeping in on that sandbar. The kids rather than complaining were up and exploring again, scouring the entire sandbar for the tracks of turtles who might have laid their eggs after the kids had gone to sleep. Breakfast might be some of the fish speared the night before, cooked over the campfire. More likely however breakfast would be a big bowl of glop. Glop was an invention of missionary kids made of dry powdered whole milk, raw oatmeal, and a dry chocolate powder. These ingredients were mixed together in whatever proportion a person might prefer. You added water to your taste and Oh, it was so good.
Of course the kids insisted on exploring any and all sandbars on the way home and wanted to stop to fish at their favorite rocks. If it happened to be the beginning of the dry season the kids would already be talking about going camping again in a month or so. If was March the talk would be about next year when the dry season would come around again.
For the kids, boarding school was not the ideal situation, yet for many it was the best solution available for the kids schooling. Diana and I were well aware of that when we sent our kids for several years before we became dorm parents ourselves. Experiences like camping, swimming, sports such as water skiing and tubing as well as the traditional dry land based sports helped the kids make it through.
Soon I hope to get a post out on one of the absolute favorite places to be and the activity the kids so enjoyed right there at the school.