Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My First Jungle Experience

Our first stop overseas was the volcanic island nation of Papua New Guinea. The plane bounced down on the cracked runway like a reluctant child called home for supper. I stared at the line of dense vegetation curiously. The pilot's voice came on the overhead speakers, "Please remain seated while we fumigate the cabin." My mom twitched in her seat, and I was turning to ask the question forming on my tongue when I was arrested by the sight of a stewardess at the head of the aisle. She was holding an aerosol can in each hand and walked quickly down the row, spraying a stream of noxious, choking mist over our heads. "Cover your mouth!" my dad called, panicky, leaning across my siblings and yanking Matthew's t-shirt up over his face.

When the cabin door finally opened, we spilled gratefully out onto the tarmac, stumbling over our rolling suitcases and carry-on bags. The fumes cleared from my watering eyes and burning throat as I sucked in my first taste of tropical air.

I felt that if I bared my teeth and bit down, I could take a bite out of that air. I felt that if I had a piece of bread and knife, I could spread it like butter. I was sure that if I filled a balloon with that jungle air, the balloon would sink to the ground instead of floating. That was how thick the jungle air was. It was heavy with tastes and smells I couldn't identify - green, growing, rotting, pungent things, whose scent clung to the hairs on the insides of my nostrils and dripped from my fingers. The tropical air embraced me in a warm, moist cocoon of promise. I followed my family as we pushed our way through the thickness to the waiting terminal ahead.


Days later, we had passed through customs, met up with the rest of our fledgling missionary group, and boarded a truck that would take us up to Jungle Camp. There, we would receive a crash course on 'how to survive bush life', including making mats, fishing, sewing up flesh wounds, and fraternizing with the natives.

Nathan and I, at Jungle Camp.

The truck that took us to our new destiny must have been left over from WWII, abandoned by the GI's when the Allies won the war. We sat on wooden benches along the back, under a canopy tarp that was pulled up to let in the breeze and scenery. I sat between my father and older brother Nathan, watching in wonder as the new world flashed past me. Clap board and cinder block houses quickly faded as the coconut and banyan trees rose on either side of us and met over our heads. Little brown children ran from huts the size of my garage back home, waving their hands and smiling and shouting at us. I waved and smiled back.

I turned to look at my dad. He was sitting upwind from me, with his hand grasping the metal support post and his back turned towards me. I could see his profile as he was gazing out at the passing bush, and saw an inner something being set free. The part of himself that had been repressed by parents, teachers, and then society his whole life suddenly flashed out into freedom, and birthed a new expression in this primitive, unfettered land. I felt the elation radiating from his triumphant back, and together we let our free spirits soar on the laden wind.

Bright oranges, yellows and pinks flashed by - fruits and flowers that grew in a glorious riot along the roadside. The road steadily grew steeper, as we climbed the mountain to our hill-top camp. The truck bounced along, heedless of the crater-sized ruts in the dirt road. I braced my feet against the bed and rode each jolt like you would a bucking horse, or skiing moguls. Then, the sky suddenly became dark.

The sun is the only thing that hurries in the tropics. It slips quickly below the horizon at dusk, with a brief and painfully brilliant show, splashing color on the clouds and ocean in its haste to descend. It rises again each morning with equal haste, impatient to start its long, intense trek across the sky.

We foreigners were taken by surprise at the quickness with which it set. We suddenly found ourselves hurtling through a dense, alien blackness. The open sides of the truck offered no shelter and little separation from the bush. The jolts grew more precarious and the truck began to sway as it took tight curves up the side of the mountain. Thankfully, we couldn't see the steep drop down in the dark. I didn't think to be scared, because my father's strong back was in front of me. I leaned my cheek against it and watched the glistening darkness rush past.

It began to rain. Fat drops came like an army of invading paratroopers, rolling off the tarp overhead and blowing in through the open sides. In that moment, I heard a high-pitched, unearthly cry. It rose out of the darkness as if birthed from some dark, hidden thing lurking there. The sound sent an arrow of fear into my heart, which quickly spread into a sick panic. My mother reached over to pat my kneed. "It's OK, Danica," she said, low and soothing. "She's just scared. But you're alright." I suddenly realized that the sound had come from an adult woman, one of the mothers, pushed beyond rational thought and reacting with animal-like desperation.

I know that my parents were praying for me then, because the fear left. They sat on either side of us, my dad in front and my mom in back, with the four of us kids sandwiched between them. We were safe in their love and faith.

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