The Tropics

I think my favorite part about our trip to the jungle was the kids complaining about bug bites, heat and humidity from time to time.  “You SEE why I don’t like the jungle?” I would laugh at them.  “Suck it up, son.”

Epic waterfall hidden in the rain forest. Great start to the trip!

Epic waterfall hidden in the rain forest. Great start to the trip!

But really, the bugs were at a minimum and it didn’t even rain that much during our 5 day stay.  We were completely blessed by relatively low temperatures and only one night and morning of heavy rain; we didn’t end up even needing our pack covers as it didn’t rain during any of our hikes.  Apart from this blessing, we thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, with different highlights for each of us.  Mine was discovering an epic waterfall on the drive down from the mountains into the Amazon basin.  The gushing torrent was AT LEAST 150 feet high and no joke.  The cold spray rushing up from where the water crashed into solid rock at the bottom drenched you instantly, blown into your face by the sheer power of water with nowhere else to go.

Fun fact: Much of Cochabamba’s electricity comes from a series of hydroelectric turbines positioned along huge pipelines that descend from the high pass (10,700ft) into the jungle (at about 4,000ft), harnessing the power of essentially falling water in the existing 54MW Corani Plant and 94MW Santa Isabel Plant.  A new project was approved in 2014 to expand capacity by another 123.5MW at the San Jose Power Stations 1 and 2.  Upon completion of the project, this interconnected power system will generate 20% of Bolivia’s entire power generating capacity.  This will replace 7.8billion cubic feet of natural gas thermal generation with hydroelectric production.

The boys pulled this thing out of the river with a stick.

The boys pulled this thing out of the river with a stick while we were rappelling off the bridge

On day 1 we arrived at about midday, and after lunch we scouted for a level place to make camp and then went on an afternoon hike.  The trek took us along the river, through different plantations and through the jungle, and we discovered tons of wildlife and wild fruit – armadillos, squirrels, monkeys, mangos, papaya, pacay, cucumber, bananas, pumarosa (wax or rose apple), sweet limes, 3 snakes, huge spiders, parrots, and bats (at an abandoned building being overtaken by the jungle that looked very reminiscent of Jurassic Park).  In camp, we discovered ants the size of your thumb that will give you a fever for a week if they bite you.  Many frantic dances ensued throughout the evening as kids would realize one was on them and would try to brush it off.  Probably the best part of the afternoon hike was bushwacking our way from the river up to the road about a mile away, through thick undergrowth and up a steep ravine.  This tested some guys’ comfort with being “lost” (our guys are used to being able to see for miles in any direction, thanks to the low thorny/grassy vegetation and sweeping views throughout Cochabamba’s mountains), and tested other boys’ comfort with heights as they grasped at rotting tree trunks and roots that would pull out of the soggy ground.

Boat 2 comes in for a landing after a great run through the rapids. This boat took them head on and lost 3 crew in the process.

Boat 2 comes in for a landing after a great run through the rapids. This boat took them head on and temporarily lost 3 crew in the process.

Rafting was the highlight for everyone.  We had an epic start in the rain on a swollen river, after a couple of hours spent rappeling off a bridge and ziplining across the river.  We were divided into 3 boats each with a certified guide, and despite their abilities, the sheer size of the waves got 3 boys tossed from their boats.  During our impromptu debrief on the bus on the way back, Jhas, Josue and Eduardo shared that riding through the rapids IN the water was their personal highlight.  Jose Armando shared the front of another raft with me, and from the look of total adrenaline-filled ecstacy in his face, the bigger the wave, the better.  The three man-overboard incidents also served to underscore the importance of teamwork in stress-filled situations, as the rafts worked together to pull in the boys and everyone rowed hard as a team, coordinating strokes and learning to be attentive to the guides’ instructions.  A couple of boys also had to overcome a fear of deep water to go through with the activity.  Everyone came away with a sense of strength and invincibility, and we discussed the need to row straight at your obstacles with full force in order to surmount them.

Almost to the last tree on the low ropes course

Almost to the last tree on the low ropes course

After clearing a small patch of jungle and rigging a low ropes course, we split the boys into two teams and they competed to complete it, but with a good amount of complaining and stubbornness at the start (such is the nature of working with teenagers).  The main takeaways from the activity came in the debrief as we focussed on the need to control emotions and attitudes, and how these in turn affect our perspectives on reality.  The boys noted that once they made the decision to engage in the activity, they had a ton of fun, but needed to overcome a sense of boredom and an attitude of obstinance to experience it.

Undoubtedly the best part of the trip for William was fishing.  While everyone else was playing in the river and fighting to swim against the current (and learning how to escape it should they be swept in beyond their abilities), William waded along the shore and within minutes bagged a trout and a catfish.  This of course brought the rest of the boys running and instigated a fury of hook-tying and line-baiting, but it came to naught.  We also bought a mosquito net (much cheaper than an actual fishing net) and with this were able to capture a number of fingerlings, which the boys fried up for lunch.

William dives into the pool beneath the falls after a hot hike through the jungle

William dives into the pool beneath the falls after a hot hike through the jungle

On day 4 we embarked on a long hike to a pair of waterfalls deep in the jungle, and even had to swim with packs above our heads to get there.  Along the way we came across a mango tree and brought in an ample harvest, and in the pools below the falls the boys caught a crawdad, and were thoroughly intrigued by the strange creature.  Nobody knew what to call it, and suggestions such as “squid”, “lobster” and “shrimp” were eventually thrown out.  Most of the boys accepted the challenge of jumping off the falls into the pools below, even though it took some convincing that they had already jumped from a much higher point in Toro Toro in July.

On our last morning, the clouds provided a pleasant protection from the sun without threatening rain, and we spent the morning studying the topo map and using compasses to chart our way upriver from camp.  They got pretty adept at finding an accurate heading and were able to calculate the direction of camp even after many twists and turns of the river.  After a couple of hours, I collected the compasses and loosed the boys to enjoy the river.  It was a beautiful wide stream with a sandy bottom and clear water, with a depth ranging between 6 inches to a couple feet with some swimming holes in places.  The boys took to army-crawling their way upriver and letting the current carry them downstream.   Josue (our budding track and field star) delighted in sprinting through the expanses of shallow water and ending his mad dashes by collapsing into the water, and the shallows were used by many for impromptu mud wrestling competitions.  It was a great way to end the camp and was able to eliminate most of the teenage boy funk before the long drive back up the hill to Cochabamba.


William and Josue set up their tent on the beach on day 4

Apart from all the fun, some of the most meaningful moments came during the evening devotionals in the pool (yes we found a pool in the middle of the jungle and I was bribed to let them in) and at the campfire.   We focused on taking the initiative and planning for the future by taking steps now to set them up for success later on, and at the start of camp talked about how to glorify God in everything we do, including enjoying his creation and caring for it.  Jans was able to jump in and give a rousing message on accepting challenges and taking responsability and the initiative, and I spotted him on many occasions in one on one conversations with the boys throughout the camp.  In all it was a great week and I am very pleased with the outcome.  As always the struggle is helping the boys to make the bridge between what they learn in camp and applying it in their daily life at the orphanage and at school, but with every camp they experience more activities and generate more memories that we can draw from and harness during chats and pep talks throughout the year.  Please keep all of them in your prayers!

The whole group posing at a waterfall after rafting through the pouring rain on a swollen river

The whole group posing at a waterfall after rafting through the pouring rain on a swollen river

One of my favorite parts of working with the same groups of boys over multiple years is seeing them grow and building on their past experiences to accept new challenges.  Not 14 hours after returning from the tropics, we set out with a couple of guys from the Lifehouse to go fishing in the lakes just below the summit of Mt. Tunari (16,000ft).  Snow was falling at the summit, but David got it in his head that he wanted to jump off the cliff into the lake.  So after some careful consideration and preparations to pull him out of the lake if he seized up and couldn’t swim, he jumped a good 30 feet into the freezing lake and made it safely to shore.  His explanation: “I like to feel alive.  And when I see a challenge, I don’t like to let it get away from me.”  Who knew I was raising adrenaline junkies?  What’s great is that as soon as he got back to town, he was asked by the pastors at church to join the leadership team for one of the youth groups, and I was able to reference his exploits the previous day to encourage him to accept the challenge of leadership, despite his fears.

Next week we set out once again for the tropics, this time with the boys from the Lifehouse, so please pray again for safety and for God to give us teachable moments and activities that will cause the boys to grow.  Also, please pray for our upcoming hikes and camps with the young men and women from Casa de Amistad, as their living situation (on the streets and in jails) makes it extremely hard to communicate with them and make sure they know when to show up, and with what.


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