Saturday, July 10, 2010

Missionaries and Narcs

Few, if any, of the many experiences I have had in Iquitos over the past eight years compare to last week's accosting on the high seas - or the high river (well, low river right now). Anyway, we're cruising down the Amazon, headed back to Iquitos after a hard day's work in the jungle village of Gallito. A few people on the boat are conversing over the scream of the outboard motor, some are catching a few zzzz's, while others are quietly contemplating a week well-spent and marveling over God's exquisite landscaping. Out of nowhere, a boat intersects us in the middle of the river. Our driver eases off the gas, then kills the engine, and, as we float closer to the mystery boat, the outlines of automatic and semi-automatic weapons take shape as extensions of the muscular arms holding them, pointing them skyward, followed by the menacing stare of a very large, very black, very serious Shepherd breed dog.

The large yellow letters on the black vests worn over black shirts and atop black pants and black combat boots (can you feel the sense of foreboding I felt at the moment?) by the handful of stern-faced, albeit handsome, Latino men on board indicated that they were with the Peruvian National Police - narcotics agents patrolling the Amazon for drug traffic. Most people would be thinking, no problem - we aren't drug mules, so we're in the clear. But panic struck me immediately as I tried to maintain a worry-free expression for the benefit of the mission team on my boat. First, we were carrying what can only be referred to as a 'butt-load of contraband.' As several of the mission team members were medical professionals, they had been conducting a basic medical clinic in Gallito, and on our boat were two large military green duffle bags loaded down with bags of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, cold/flu/allergy meds, antiparasitics, vitamins, antibiotics just to name a few. Granted nothing was illegal, but when you have pale skin in a foreign land, legality doesn't necessarily mean much at times. I was deathly afraid the narcs were going to ask to see the contents of the bags, at which time I was going to have to step up and try to explain.

The other fear that plagued me in the moment was that we would be petitioned for a 'propina' in order to be released and sent on our way. 'Propina' literally means tip or gratuity, but also doubles as a polite way of saying bribe money. It is not uncommon for police officers (or anyone for that matter) in Peru to solicit propinas to do the job for which they are already being paid (but I will refrain from climbing onto my soap-box and preaching a laborious sermon on the injustice of that brand of crime). I knew that, if such talks began, there was only one way for the negotiations to go - south. If they were so inclined to demand bribes, the amounts would not be small; after all, these police officers were looking at a boat full of middle-class, white North Americans who, by Peruvian standards, would be classified as very wealthy on the socio-economic scale. I all but held my breath and prayed mightily that whatever the boat driver was saying to the head-honcho on the police boat would be an adequate explanation of who we were and what we were doing, would appeal to his sense of moral integrity, and would not result in me having to talk (because stress-laden, pressure filled situations like that guarantee a total loss of my ability to communicate effectively in Spanish).

Thankfully, within a few minutes we resumed our trek to Iquitos. After the collective sigh of relief, the trepidation turned to excitement over what had just taken place. Events like this, after they are over and everything turned out ok, make the best mission team stories. And the frighteningly exhilarating thrill of it all just might be what encourages a few hesitant bystanders to take the plunge and join next year's team on their Amazon Adventure!

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint