Bathing in the Orinoco River

January 15, 2013 | Orchards
By Natalie Bullock

Bathing in the Orinoco River

Warao children checking each other for lice.

Natalie Bullock chaperones mission trips for ICS students and has detailed her most recent memorable experience beautifully. Her account follows:

Tea-colored water carries soapsuds, seedpods, and the occasional snack bag past me where I stand on the dock bathing in the Orinoco River. Bathing is a term I use loosely. Trying not to get washed away by the current while maintaining my balance on slippery dock steps that I am sharing with a handful of teenagers and attempting to not lose my shampoo to the river’s cunning is perhaps a better description – all while fully clothed for modesty’s sake. While there may not be so much cleanliness involved, river bathing is one of the most anticipated activities of ICS’ annual Delta Orinoco mission trip. There’s something liberating about back flipping into a river and scrubbing off mud, dried sweat, and exhaustion and letting them swirl down the river with the rest of the debris the water has obligingly collected over the course of the day.

So as I stand there enjoying the freedom of the water passing by me, I wonder at the privilege it is to (along with two fellow teachers) have taken nine teenagers on a 15-hour bus ride to a 5-hour boat ride to end up in the middle of the world’s second largest river delta. I take in yellow tree frogs like I’ve only seen when I studied rainforests in 3rd grade, machete-wielding men expertly making canoes by hand, palm leaf thatched roof huts with no walls, and clumps of skirted, barefoot, indigenous children unabashedly starring at me from warped docks that parallel the river.

I am not the only one affected by our surroundings. ICS offers this trip as a service-oriented mission trip to reach the Warao indians of the Orinoco River, but the delta trip does double duty.  During the week, students are both challenged and blessed by the simplicity of the remoteness of our location and the sheer “other worldness” of the living conditions. Here in the tiny village of Arature, they are allowed to let go of the junk they have accumulated and instead shift their focus to the needs of others around them.

Each day during a time called Kids Club, our students share games, crafts, and songs with 50 Warao children. At the end of the structured time, it’s hard to tell who is enjoying the free for all more: the children climbing on my students like they are monkey bars, or my students running around the room hysterically pulling children off one by one only to find that as soon as one child has been released, another is there to take his place. But Kids Club is the easy part.

After Kids Club, we set up to wash and brush the hair of the children in an effort to remove their lice. The Warao are not a hair brushing or hair washing people; brushing their hair happens three times a year when teams like ours come to visit. Incidentally the Warao love having their hair washed and brushed. Armed with lice shampoo and a sense of humor, we begin the arduous task of combing through mud and mats to find the gnat-sized lice nesting in the hair of the children. For three days in a row we wash and comb their hair, each time removing a little more. And for the next three weeks we live in paranoia of every itch on our heads.

When not hunting lice or teaching the kids “Jesus Me Ama,” our students serve the Warao by tending to basic medical needs. The children and adults alike come with wounds of varying degrees of severity. Their humility and trust in us is staggering. By virtue of having grown up in the industrialized world, we are experts in first aid. With exacting care, several of my students who are aspiring doctors or nurses painstakingly clean and bandage a variety of hurts – hardly realizing that they are simultaneously binding their own emotional and spiritual wounds.

Faced with the beauty of sacrifice and service to others, my students are visibly physically relieved of the pressures of their lives in Caracas. Facebook, ipods, and iphones pale in a place where the sun, not electricity governs our activities; where with the Warao children we flip canoes in the river; where we sleep in mosquito nets to keep tarantulas from tiptoeing across us at night; and where we wake up each morning to a freshly misted Orinoco River whose unbroken progress is comforting.

As I step out of this very river, I cannot help but join my voice with the current, the rocks and the trees so faithfully calling out praise to our Creator who, before time began, planned out this unsearchable jungle and this sweet time with my students. Strangely, I feel quite clean.

International Christian School--Caracas

International Christian School (ICS) in Caracas, Venezuela, was founded in 1990 as Academia Cristiana Internacional to serve the needs of missionary kids. The school slowly transformed from a small missionary school into a larger international school. However, due to political unrest, many internationals left the country in 2002, thus dramatically reducing ICS’s enrollment. ICS persevered though and in 2006 joined NICS. God continues to bless ICS despite the increasingly complicated socio-economic and political climates.

ICS Caracas has 32 teachers and 85 students in grades k-12. Activities at the heart of the school are our annual Fall Festival that is open to the community; our Week Without Walls in which students have a chance to get out of their comfort zone and serve in various locations around the country; our Venezuela Week where we spend the week learning about and celebrating Venezuela; our Christmas and Spring Concerts where students get to showcase their musical and dramatic talents; our school basketball team that travels to compete with other schools around the country; our secondary and elementary camps that serve as retreats for the students and a chance to connect with God in a new setting; and our Student Council’s community building activities such as pancake breakfasts, school potlucks, and Secret Santa game.

The Country of Venezuela

Venezuela is a country roughly twice the size of California and boasts a diverse geography and climate. The country holds nearly 2,000 miles of Caribbean coastline, the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Rainforest, hundreds of rivers, the world’s tallest waterfall: Angel Falls, and sweeping savannahs. Only 4% of Venezuela’s land is cultivated.

Caracas is a sprawling metropolis and Lonely Planet describes it as “a huge, vibrant, energetic South American city, bringing together the tremendously wealthy and the desperately poor. In Caracas, gravity is defied by the city's skyscrapers and the teetering shantytowns that cover the hills around it.” The city of Caracas lies at an altitude of 2,400 feet and has an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit that varies by only 8 degrees throughout the year.

The Venezuelan people are exceedingly friendly and generous and love to show off their country to foreigners. They enjoy having fun and are not in the least bit time oriented.  Dancing Meringue and Salsa are two of their favorite pastimes. Their food is “bland” to a North American palate because Venezuelans will not eat anything remotely spicy.  On Christmas Eve the Venezuelans shoot off fireworks to welcome baby Jesus (who incidentally brings their presents instead of Santa). 

Natalie Bullock is in her 4th year of teaching with NICS at the International Christian School--Caracas (ICS) where she is spoiled by the world’s most perfect weather. She is the English literature teacher for grades 7-12 as well as a co-teacher of E-journalism. A graduate of Liberty University, Natalie moved to Venezuela in 2009 and has fallen in love with Spanish, South America, and forced Visa renewal trips every 90 days. The best part of her experience has been getting to know the students of ICS. Natalie mentors three girls; leads small group Bible studies for the students; heads up Fusion, the school’s youth group; and is the teacher sponsor for the Student Council. Her passion is seeing high school students realize their value in Christ’s eyes and come to know Him personally.

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