- Kyle Blackmer
- Photography by Alyssa Smith and Claire Flynn
On Sunday I overheard our group leaders discussing our itinerary for Monday. I was incredibly excited to hear that we would be hiking to a remote village called Tres Hermanos (Three Brothers). This kind of work was what I had been waiting for! We were going to trek into the jungle, cross rivers, encounter some physical hardship, and bring Christ to a small village - this was what I thought missionary work was all about. Though I came to Ecuador without many expectations, in an attempt to be ready for anything, Monday's mission was beyond anything I could have anticipated.
Through my years adventuring in Upstate New York as a Boy Scout, I had done much hiking, climbing, and almost every other wilderness activity you can think of, and several of my teammates are avid outdoorsmen as well. Nothing in the U.S., however, could have prepared us for our journey to Tres Hermanos. It was an adventure like none other.
We set out bright and early, rising at 6:30 to eat breakfast and pile into a couple of trucks at the Church with the nuns and Mercy - the sister of one of the nuns who amazed us all by giving so much of her time and energy to the people of Napo. During a 45 minute truck ride, we passed through Pununo and Palmeiras until we were greeted by a small boy on horseback at the head of a sloppy trail. We should have taken the filth covered horse as a sign of things to come, but nothing was going to dampen our spirits this early. We got off the trucks, passed out lunches and gifts to be carried up to the village, and started on our way up the muddy path. We had rented boots from a shop in Misahualli before leaving - some of us doing so reluctantly believing that our own boots would suffice - and I can remember thanking God over and over again on the trail for those tall, tight, rubber galoshes.
The hike started out very pleasantly; we were laughing when Will fell, making jokes about Madre riding on the horse way ahead of us, and generally ignoring the mud as much as possible while still being attentive as to where we stepped. But soon those laughs would turn into gasps, the jokes into envy, and the ignorance into a preoccupation. There didn't seem to be a place to step where we weren't deterred by a sinkhole of mud, impenetrably thick jungle brush, or a rancher's barbed wire; yes, there are cows in the jungle. Our hike was as mentally fatiguing as it was physically exhausting because as our bodies tired, it became increasingly important to watch our every step, lest we create more work for ourselves by losing a boot in the muck.
We stopped at a spring maybe ninety minutes into our trek, though I can't be sure of the time as I didn't checked my watch. There we rested, washing our hands and boots, posing for a few photos, singing a praise song, and taking in the beauty of God's creation. After about five minutes our break was over. Madre and Mercy headed up a shady path along a creek bed, but the little boy who met us earlier was urging us to take another way. I spoke with him, and trusted his judgment - he being from Tres Hermanos - but we had to follow our leaders because Mercy and Madre had been to the village before as well.
We went up the shady path, walking in the passage of the spring which previously refreshed us, and I quickly acknowledged that this was the most amazing trail I had ever hiked. The landscape was like something out of Indiana Jones or Conrad's Heart of Darkness. We were surrounded by 360 degrees of dense green, walking along slippery, mossy, creek-eroded bedrock, and serenaded by hundreds of phantom birds whose appearances we could only imagine. For maybe fifty yards along the path, we walked through a corridor of rock rising fifteen feet from the creek on each side. Deep, thin crevices had been cut into these walls where we imagined many animals might live. I was literally speechless. Regardless of whether anyone captured an image of this place, and I am unsure if anyone did, I will never forget it for as long as I live.
When we reached a small clearing, we realized that half of our group had followed the young boy. James and Kevin were not particularly happy with this, but when we approached a small house and the inhabitant informed us of our error, we knew that the others were in better shape than ourselves. We headed back down through the picturesque jungle, and while I thanked God for sending us the wrong way through such a beautiful place, I prayed that a flash flood wouldn't tear through the narrow passage and wipe us off the mountain!
We returned to the true path and followed in the bootprints of our teammates. Determined to reach the village and blessing the men who had lain the occasional log steps, we pressed on toward Tres Hermanos - for real this time. It was during this stretch that I received a tremendous blessing and challenge. God gave me two specific tasks before we left New York; I was to become more patient and less proud. Needless to say, the hike humbled all of us that day, but true humility includes not only being gracious for your own gifts and accepting your own limitations, but also acknowledging those of others. Throughout the course of our trip, each one of us was asked to use our individual gifts to serve the people of Ecuador, but also to help our teammates to overcome our weaknesses without expecting praise or recognition.
Though trudging uphill through mud did not come easy to any of us, some have been gifted with more experience in such situations and greater physical strength than others. We were called on during this trek to support and encourage our teammates who found more difficulty in reaching Tres Hermanos. A tremendous blessing was bestowed upon me when I was able to support and guide one of my teammates - who with the strength of the Holy Spirit would push herself well beyond her limit that day - up the mountain and onto the 'dry' ground of the village. Her perseverance and determination that day and throughout the week were, and continue to be, an example for each of us on mission. Her gifts of humility and patience to me were only very small parts of her tremendous contribution to the mission - and were dwarfed only by how much she gave of herself to the people of Ecuador - but to me these blessings made a world of difference.
The detour we took, though breathtakingly gorgeous, was rather disheartening and we were all ready to be at Tres Hermanos celebrating mass. That was often the rallying cry, for when we arrived in the remote village, we would be delivering Christ in the form of the Eucharist to those people for the first time ever! This encouraged us throughout our journey and made all of our discomforts and efforts worth while. As many of the missionaries said of the melodramatically named 'death march' - a term for which I must take responsibility - "I would hike that trail one thousand times over to be with those people and to bring Jesus to them." Everything about our journey to Tres Hermanos was beautiful; the environment, the struggle, the friendship and support, and especially the meaning of our mission that day.