Over a period of almost 50 years from the 1950s and into the 2000s any missionary kid who had either lived at the school or boarded there spent a significant amount of time down at the river. For some, staff included, going for a dip in the river at the end of the day took the place of a traditional shower, especially during the early days of missionary presence there. In the dry season you could actually swim, in the rainy season when the river was running full you ran the risk of being swept away if you got in over your knees. This spot where the shore met the river was known as ‘the rock’. It was a place where all sorts of important things happened, swimming and bathing being just one, albeit very important activity.
It was called ‘the rock’ because it was a big flat rock that sloped down into the river. In high water season it was mostly covered with water and in dry season much of its surface was out of the water. The river does a 90% bend right there and ‘the rock’ sits right on the outside bank of the turn. In high water season the full brunt force of the current slams directly into that rock and goes careening off downstream. It goes without saying that in high water the current is very swift, very powerful and potentially dangerous. In extreme low water it became a totally different looking place. As other rocks out in the river were exposed and the current became much more docile you could actually swim without being swept downstream.
The ‘4 footer’ was a big, kind of rectangular shaped rock that sat on the ‘the rock’. It was completely covered during high water and when It began to show everybody knew the dry season and good times were coming down at the river. It was a very special rock to the dozens and dozens of missionary kids who over many years, dove off it, played water tag around it and played king of the rock off it till at the height of the dry season it was left high and dry sitting there on ‘the rock’. Once a well meaning missionary suggested it could be moved and gotten out of the way in order to enhance the swimming experience. From the kid’s reaction you might have thought the suggestion was being made to remove an ancient Biblical landmark. They wanted none of it! For the kids, the ‘4 footer’ made ‘the rock’ and they wanted it to stay right where it was and it did.
If ‘the rock’ would have been a talking rock what stories it could have told. It would have spoken to the the cruelty and oppression of a dictator who ruled that jungle area from 1913 till into the 1920s. Then there was the rubber baron who practically enslaved the Indians forcing them to work jungle products. That man had actually lived there. In fact the first missionaries purchased his by then run down house on the river bank from his widow. Flora (Granny) Troxel a single missionary lady in her 60s with a prosthetic leg lived in that dilapidated house for a time around 1950 give or take a year or two. At the time there were no other humans within miles and miles of that lonely place or so it seemed. She told of the Capybaras running around the outside of the house. She had been looking to make contact with an ethnic group on the Ventuari river but had been unsuccessful. Eventually she was did succeed in locating another group upriver from ‘the rock’ and went to live with and minister among them till illness forced her to return to her country of origin where she died of cancer a short time later.
A few years later when more missionaries began arriving to work among the peoples of that vast expanse of green jungle it was decided that ‘the rock’ would serve as a good location from which to work. Several very rustic, jungle style houses were built. A few years later a school for missionaries was started there. For years classes were held in those very rustic houses till better facilities could be built. Unknown to the missionaries scouts from a band of 20 or so Indians had been secretly watching them for some time. These Indians had fled from the cruelty of the rubber baron 20 years before. The scouts reported that the baron was gone and other very different people had arrived and built houses. The group took the chance and came out of the jungle. The missionaries of course welcomed and helped them.
The well known German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt would have passed ‘the rock’ on his way upstream during high water season in 1799. In fact he may well have overnighted there because it was one of the only places where there was dry land at that time of year. He had been making his way up the Orinoco, Atabapo and Casiquiare rivers exploring, taking measurements and gathering samples. His scientific reports confirmed the existence of the Casiquiare river which connected the Amazon and Orinoco. His Indians helpers told of of Portuguese slave traders who frequented the area. They also told of eating human flesh.
Undoubtedly, settlements had come and gone on the hill directly behind ‘the rock’ for hundreds of years. It was an ideal place with the flat, smooth, clean surface connecting directly to the hill, which is why the missionaries chose to build their jungle houses there after Granny Troxel’s place fell down. You could reach the water without getting your feet muddy, you could dip up water to carry to your house, you could wash your clothes at the river’s edge, you could dock your dugout and load or unload it on the down river side. You could bath or swim, stepping in or out of the water on a clean, solid surface.
Anyone, Indian or missionary who lived along the banks of the labyrinth of jungle rivers owned a dugout canoe. Your dugout was literally indispensable for life out there. One day I want to write a post about the many, many uses of the dugout. In addition If you weren’t fortunate enough to have a flat rock at your port you had to wash your clothes sitting in your canoe and chances are you would have had to bathe by slipping over the side of your dugout or sitting in it and bucketing water out of the river and pouring it over your head. If there was no rock slopping down to the river’s edge you had to cut steps into the river bank so you could get down to the river. River banks tended to be straight up and of course straight down. Every rainy season as the water level rose the current ate away at your steps and then as the water went back down you had to remake them.It was so, so much better to have a nice rock for your port.
I personally was introduced to ‘the rock’ almost 60 years ago. From 1958 when I was an MK 16 years years old I either lived there with my parents, worked out from there as a single missionary or ministered at the school with my own family, for 45 years. At times our family ministered in other areas, but going and coming we almost always stopped by because of ‘the rock’s’ strategic location as a transportation hub.
When school was on, one of the day’s ‘must do’ events for the kids was the after school, after chores daily swim time down at ‘the rock’. All the kids looked forward to their swim time, but to some it was the highlight of their day. We must remember the climate there is very hot and very humid. And the biting insects were almost always out in full force. The kids enthusiasm wasn’t even dampened by the bites of the green horseflies. These unwelcome creatures were attracted by the much splashing of water and their painful and irritating bite produced a huge and lasting welt. One of the kid’s favorite swim time supervisors had a unique way of knowing when swim time was over at 4:30pm. He loved to be right there in the water with the kids and he could tell by the wrinkles on his fingers when time was up. Probably every kid who ever swam there slipped and fell at least once as they played and swam over the course of the years. Several were injured but nobody ever gave up playing and swimming. Several generations of kids learned to swim there and myriads more became strong swimmers as a result of their daily battle fighting with the current during high water season.
The Indian ladies came down to ‘the rock’ to wash their family’s clothes. It was made to order, flat and relatively smooth. The family wash could be dunked in the river, soaped up with the famous ‘blue soap’, then whacked with a stout stick to loosen up the dirt. If desired the items could be stretched out right there to dry.
‘the rock’ was also the place to clean your fish, huge catfish, peacock bass, piranha or what ever the days catch might have been. And who could know how much wild game, both animals and birds have been processed there? The Indian folk depended on the fish from the river, the animals and birds from the jungle for their protein. The list of animals would have included howler monkeys, spider monkeys, wild pigs, paca, capybara, tapir and the list could go on. There were four variations of what we called wild turkeys, all good eating. The non edible parts of the innards were just pitched into the river. You might be wondering about polluting the river with all that stuff. Well, the piranha took care of keeping the river clean, thank you very much. At this point you might question the sanity of allowing the kids to swim with piranha. In all those years of kids swimming there I don’t remember of hearing of even one piranha bite, although I could have missed one. I personally was bitten only once and that while taking one off a hook. You could hardly blame the little guy for being grumpy that day.
“The rock’ faced East and the sun came up right over the river. Easter Sunday sunrise services were held there and many MK’s will remember the day they were baptized in the river they loved so much. I was baptized in the same spot as were our three kids. Today no expat missionaries live there and the school for MK’s was closed down a long time ago. The school for Indian kids is staffed by local teachers trained out in town. Some and maybe all of these teachers are Christians. When it was mandated the missionaries leave the area the houses and buildings were turned over to the Indian folk. Many of them are Christians.
Well today, if ‘the rock’ were a talking rock, the story it told of its recent history would be much different from the history before the missionaries came. The last part of the story would be one filled with spiritual light and hope and deliverance. A main topic would surely be the availability of God’s word in the language of all three ethnic groups there. The tales of physical abuse would have been replaced with the story of the love and care the missionaries brought.
Any MK who’s ever experienced being DOWN AT THE ROCK, no matter how many, many years ago it may have been, if she or he listens with the ear of nostalgia, the happy sounds of the shouts and laughter of those faded memories will once again grace their souls and take them back in to a time and place that can never be forgotten. Amen!