A Jungle River in Darkness by Delores Topliff
My wristwatch read 3 A.M. as my 14-year-old son and I joined those in the large dugout canoe to head upriver. We’d been in Colombia three months helping communities along this Amazon tributary where I taught classes and did teacher training, and my son swung a machete to help men clear fields.
When our ninety-day visa expired, our expected renewal was refused because of increased guerrilla activity. In fact, Colombia’s Army closed the Caquetá River to travel and imposed military curfew. Occasional daytime traffic was allowed by permit, but none at night.
Aaron and I came before conditions got so bad. To leave, we must reach the small river town of Curillo where a narrow-rutted road headed north to civilization.
There, a daily open-air jeep carried passengers and livestock to a larger town for the twelve-hour bus ride across the Andes to Bogotá.
Soldiers patrolled relentlessly. We asked the Army’s Commandant for special travel permission. He refused until he understood our situation. “Perhaps if you shine flashlights on your faces to show you are not guerillas.” He laughed and promised to send word to his sentries. We hoped for reliable batteries.
At 3 A.M. we loaded and our laboring outboard pushed us upstream. But this sixteen-week trip actually began years earlier when my son and I lived with a family moving to Colombia. Once they got settled, we stayed in touch by letters and ham radio. Their daughters, Shannon and April, now 17 and 18, became teachers creating a school where there had been none.
Over ham radio, they asked if I could send textbooks for math, history, and English. When I did, my students wrote accompanying letters, the first the Colombian pupils had ever received. We described our farms with log homes in a land of ice and snow and woods full of moose and bear. Carmen, age nineteen, had just learned to read and write. At ninety, Serafino could write but had never received a letter. They drew colorful pictures and wrote letters my friends translated from Spanish. They described bamboo homes and their jungle river birthed in the towering Andes. They were sad we couldn’t grow sugar cane or bananas so plentiful they fed them to their pigs. They hungered for the potatoes we grew by the ton.
In more radio conversations, April and Shannon said it would be even better if I could come and train teachers. I said I would love to, but as a volunteer myself, I had little income.
My school followed these messages, and over the next six months, I received enough donations for my younger son and I to make the trip. We rode Greyhound from the Pacific Northwest to Miami, and then two planes, one bus, and the large open jeep to reach the remote jungle where Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador meet. For three full months we helped communities along this river running east to Brazil. All transportation was by foot or motorized canoe.
We came to help these people, but they blessed us more. Children climbed trees to bring clusters of magnificent orchids, bright butterflies the size of dinner plates, the polished ear bones of a giant fish, and a twenty-two-foot Anaconda skin. One pregnant woman walked six miles on muddy trails carrying her two-year-old to hear me speak. I prayed for inspiring words for people making such effort.
With our visa renewal denied but the river closed, how could we leave?
We knew a guerrilla base operated two miles away. Some people walking along a riverbank daily or through our camp were guerrillas. Clothing disappeared from clotheslines and food from our kitchens.
That’s why Colombia’s Army now held and controlled the river. They praised our early morning routine when we gathered to start the day drinking homegrown coffee and singing hymns before we worked in gardens or taught school in the cool part of the day. Once the sun became a furnace, we ate a large meal and performed less demanding chores. Army officials concluded it was our singing that gave unity to our communities of blended nationalities.
“We know your secret,” their captain confided. He made his troops stand in formation each morning to sing songs. Their practice was shown on national T.V., but didn’t achieve the desired results. We decided it mattered what they sang.
One man visited our community for a week and left a note warning that he was a spy planning an upcoming guerrilla attack. We were vulnerable. The simple bamboo homes had open windows with no glass. Many walls were only waist high. Most doors had no locks. We were politically neutral, helping all who came. But as tensions between the Army and the guerrillas worsened, we needed to leave.
One loving grandmother had often asked my help for her severely burned grandson who had fallen into a fire. She sang to him daily, stretching his limbs and applying salve to lessen his pain. I had promised to visit again but had been busy with students and now time had run out.
On this last day, when I entered her gate, she wept and spoke blessings. “God bless you with strength and love and peace always for you, your children and their children forever.” She threw her apron over her head as sobs overtook her.
Sobs overtook me, too, as we hugged.
And then came darkness and fitful sleep before Aaron and the rest of us boarded the canoe. It is eerie to travel jungle rivers at night and hear animal and other noises on shore but see nothing. Time moves very slowly. We were thankful forty minutes later to reach the river town of Curillo.
As we docked, we thanked the Commandant for giving us travel permission so we could connect with the once-a-day jeep. He told us that he had forgotten to pass on our travel permit, but when his sentries saw us shining lights on our faces, they decided that we were harmless and held their fire.