12 people - 3 islands - 8 days - 1,045 patients - 1 unit of Panamanian Special Forces...this is the story of Panama Missions Trip 2010.
Our Abridged Version:
Monday - There are a lot of well-armed guys here, kinda creepy. They seem a bit suspicious of us. Hey, there's one in the bushes near our shower - What Is Up?! We are here to help the Kuna not hurt them...kinda in my space.
Tuesday - OK, now we understand a bit more. There is an increase in guard because of Colombian guerilla that have pillaged the villages in this area. These guys are for the protection of the Indians - but so many, and they do this crazy flashlight talk at night; is that really necessary? Kinda weird.
Wednesday - Well now, these well-armed, very serious soldiers or 'policia' are escorting us to the next village to ensure our safe passage...ok this is fine. This would make us feel safe if we thought our safety was threatened but nothing 'seems' dangerous. Nice touch but maybe a bit overkill.
Thursday or what we now call CID (Critical Information Day): We now decide we cannot do without our protective force. It turns out the Panamanian government issued the guard for OUR small group to cover us 24/7 because the Colombian guerilla know we are here.....ok..... Another nugget: The guerilla in this area are also responsible for the supply lines for their counterpart in Colombia. Supplies such as medications which, hello, we could treat every guerilla's foot fungus for years-type supplies!! So now we realize the equation:
Americans (especially women) + doctors + supplies = hook-up for guerilla!!!
Ok, these soldiers guys better hang close - please sir, my space is your space; keep your hand on that gun!!
Friday - Panamanian soldiers are injured nearby when guerilla set trap on Panamanian territory. Two men lose limbs and are flown to hospital on the mainland. This is serious folks. These soldiers' lives are at risk and they are protecting Us. This is officially a level three mission trip (to be explained later). Everyone is on high alert (and when I say everyone, I only mean the guys in camouflage because we are clueless for the most part). Our guys now get to escort us again to the third village via their boat instead of traipsing six hours through the jungle as originally planned. They now get to ride in the very large and very fast boat to village #3. Did I mention we also witnessed these guys commandeer another, most likely up to no good, probably drug-running, most likely arms-trading speed boat while we were in transit to the last village. We weren't sure if we were about to witness simply an arrest or an actual 'taking out the enemy' kind of encounter. No shots were fired but since the village was not secured for our team because of the slight distraction, we were able to witness a different degree of protection: sharpshooters. As we were relaxing with the family in the village just off the shore, again clueless, we wandered back to the beach area to see multiple men lying on the ground with their guns pointed north. The tactic of skillful shooting is now temporarily replacing the volume of men for our guard. That was one of the most awakening moments of this adventure.
Saturday - Did I already say we are in village #3, Armilla, because it is when we are here that we find out that the guerilla were encamped about us in the jungles of village #2, Anachukuna! No wonder God gave us Psalms 23:5. We also realize that there were Kuna spies in that village communicating with the guerilla and most likely were their source for the one week heads-up that we were visiting the area. (side note: We must have seemed quite bold to those villagers holding clinic and services with those silly targets covering us.)
Sunday - At this point, things are becoming about as clear as our Panamanian bathwater, before we used it. Now it makes sense as to why the soldiers remained no more than five feet from the pharmacy and why they knew all our names and where were are at all times. It also makes sense, in a very surreal kind of way, why they said to us, 'Call us if you return to the area because you will need us.' We now have a platoon of Navy Seal and Army special forces-trained guys who have said, 'Give us a call'. Who else can say this??? Did I mention they are also men in God's army now? Yes, they all surrendered their hearts to Christ and recognize His authority and His protection. We watched as they all read Psalms 91 holding the Word with one hand and their weapons with the other under the dim light of one of the most amazing nights I've ever spent in Panama.
And now for the Full Scoop:
We (and I mean we - this is the story of the Panama Mission Trip as relayed by Becky, Allison, Jen, and Angela) have decided that the trip sound bites, as captured in our journals, best sum up our experience. Here we go...
"This is fun. It's like a ride." - Jeff
Jeff spoke approximately 50 words on this trip - 49 of them were sarcastic, all of them were hysterical. At 6:30am on Sunday, June 20th (Father's Day), 2010, the 9 International Church of God (ICOG) members of our 12 member team met at the church to load our 18 suitcases for transport to the airport. At 7:00am we began checking in. Medicine is critical when going on a medical mission trip - LOTS of medicine. We had spent well over 100 man hours organizing, packing, unpacking, reorganizing, and repacking medicine into our 18 suitcases. Please note: clothes were not included in these 18 suitcases. One had hammocks, one had toiletries, one had tarps and supplies, and the remaining 15 had medicine - LOTS of medicine. (We did take clothes, they just had to fit in our carry-ons...didn't want you to worry)
Trip Hurdle #1 - Get all bags onto the plane without repacking, leaving anything behind, or paying the $50-$450 overweight baggage fee. We pre-weighed the bags at the church to get as close as possible to the 50 pound limit on each (did you know a gallon plastic bag of toothbrushes weighs approximately 5 pounds, or a gallon plastic bag of vitamins weighs a hefty 10 pounds?...we did)
God's Solution #1 - Chad's check-in scale was broken - 2 bags. The agent weighing Craig's bags (which we know were the heaviest) didn't even look at the scale (we did...it wasn't 50). Jen's bags originally weighed in a 51 and 53 pounds, but without anything changing the scale dropped to 45 and 49 pounds. Angela's bag weighed 52 pounds, we removed a stack of plastic bags used to hand out meds and added it to a carry-on and the beautiful number 50 popped up on the scale. By the way - shout out to Publix for donating plastic grocery bags, which are light-weight, do not take up much room, and as you find out on the Kuna Islands are both multi-functional and worth 10 times their weight in gold (granted, gold isn't worth much when there is no real use of money).
With that, we had breakfast, enjoyed Sunday morning service, grabbed lunch, and headed back to the airport where in no time at all we found ourselves in Atlanta...
A brief layover, some more time spent in the last aisle (we don't want to talk about it), and we were waiting in line at customs in Panama City...
The only hitch in customs was the lady not believing Jen was a missionary...stay tuned for her thoughts on that. Lots of verbs come to mind when talking about Panama. - waiting is VERY HIGH ON THE LIST.
After hotel check in and dinner we headed to bed at 12:30am and woke up at 4:45am to head to the plane that would take us to the islands. More waiting, more bag drama, and half of us were off to Puerto Obaldia.
Our pilot was not nearly as interested in what was outside the window as we were...
...yes, he has a sunshade and he is reading. Allison was reading with him in fact, that's how close we were to them. Never fear, the other pilot seemed far more interested in his job. From our little windows we got to see the boats lined up to go through the Panama Canal (they look tiny on the picture)...
Upon landing we took up residence on someone's front porch (we still aren't sure if anyone we knew actually knew who they were or if we were totally confusing and so they didn't say anything to us) and waited for the second half of our group to arrive.
The rest of our team was dealing with Trip Hurdle #2: getting the medicine out of Panama City and to the Kuna Islands. This required bilingual, on your toes problem solving, with multiple government officials, even after Angela spent hours collecting (and making triplicate copies) all the documents said government officials had requested. God Solution #2: After 2 hours of being sent all over town, take a firm stand outside the Minister of Health office, and get the signatures as he happened to pass by. Finally, they too were on the way to the Islands...WITH the medicine.
Once everyone arrived we checked in with the board guard to register our arrival and...waited...again...in the heat...with our mini fans...looking like total Americans.
Side Note: this sign was on the lawn of the soldiers' compound. Pisar means 'to step'...hence this means 'do not step on the grass'. Pastor was very sure it could be translated to mean 'don't pee on the grass'. Right.
Puerto Obaldia was not even our first island. However, at this point transportation took a new state of matter - WATER. It was fun...it was like a ride.
"I'm about to have my first albino encounter!" - Jeff
There is a higher concentration of albino people in the Kuna Island than anywhere in the world. Albinos make up 1% (1 in 100) of the population, as compared to 0.0059% (1 in 17,000) for the world overall. And so, as a first time Kuna Island missionary, Jeff was very excited to meet Blanco on our arrival at Carreto. As it turns out Blanco was very excited to meet Jeff and Craig. Jeff was one of the first white people she had ever seen, and Craig was her polar opposite - she actually touched his skin in wonder. We are so sad we didn't get a picture of Blanco, she is to this day one of our favorite Kunas. Side note about Blanco: really, did you need to name your albino child 'white'?
Upon reaching Carreto we found out a number of important facts:
1. We would not be visiting islands, as much as villages on the edge of Panama...bordered by jungle.
2. The military were awaiting our arrival. (look closely)
3. We would be required to stay within a perimeter predetermined by the military (refer back to 'Monday' of the abridged version to know what we thought of this)
"It's going to be a tough night." - Lenny
Prayer Watch. Those two words, in the end, turned out to be the main reason we were brought to this corner of the world. Each night 4 people got out of their hammocks, ignored their brain telling them to climb back in, and took their position as night watchmen. Isaiah 21:6-7 - For thus has the Lord said to me, go set a watchman, let him declare what he sees...and he listened earnestly with great care. Two at a time, we listened to praise music, watched, and prayed. Two from midnight until 3am, and two from 3am until 6am. Some nights were tougher than others, and it was better to be prepared for a tough night ahead of you.
It took us a while to realize that we were the spiritual counterpart to the soldiers' physical watch. Once we realized why exactly they were with us, we recognized the mutual exchange of protection - they protect us in the natural and we cover them in the spiritual. We also honestly believe, based on how they interacted with us after seeing multiple nights of prayer watches, that they too understood this awesome parallel. God Solution #3 when we didn't even know Trip Hurdle #3 was the guerrillas.
"Hook him up. He's got a gun." - Allison
Every day we set up a medical clinic and pharmacy. We began seeing patients at 9am, took a lunch break around noon, started back up at 1pm, and closed up shop usually around 4pm. Each island had a different location, but the schedule of events was the same. The Kuna Indians started by taking a number (very American, and very difficult to explain in Kuna why this should be done) and having a seat. Craig or Allison would meet them in triage, which involved taking names, ages, symptoms, and a lot of translation. From Kuna to Spanish to English and back from English to Spanish to Kuna.
From there, they met Lenny or Angela for examination, diagnosis and prescription. Some times this took only moments, others involved more detailed interaction...and translation.
The primary conditions were fever, cough, diarrhea, lice, scabies, fungus, and pain. In the U.S., these are the things we walk to our well stocked drug store to address whenever we have a concern. In the Kuna Islands, these things can go from minor to major pretty quick, because the drug store doesn't exist. Many of the kids had infections from simple bug bites because of the lack of sanitation.
After receiving their prescription, they moved to the pharmacy. The pharmacy was intense. Before leaving Charleston, we separated medicine into suitcases so that each village would have access to the different types - cough, cold, pain, fever, stomach, antibiotics, antifungals...you get the picture. The suitcases looked nice and organized.
Then clinic started. At the discretion of the 'pharmacist' (I use this term loosely as it was Becky and Jen, neither of which have any sort of pharmacy degree) and the instruction of the doctors (who actually really are doctors), pre-bagged medicines were dispensed. All the instructions had been translated into Spanish, but most of the people only spoke Kuna so there was an additional layer of translation needed when explaining how to take the medicine. Add to this that there were generally 4-6 kids in addition to adults on the prescription, we had two sharpies and plastic bags with which to make it clear who got what meds and in what quantity, each family got toothbrushes and vitamins in addition to their prescriptions, all the sheets you are filling out are in Spanish so you have to make sure you are marking the right area, it's HOT with no ventilation (Jen's description was feeling like someone had started up a space heater and positioned it in front of your face), and you have yourself a wild ride. There were two of us in there for a reason and it was not just to make it easier to do the work, it was to keep each other sane.
The first day, after noting that Jen and Becky could possibly at any moment have a breakdown, Lenny suggested Allison join them in the pharmacy until they got themselves in a groove. This, being the first day, was the first time we provided medicine to the soldiers in addition to the Kuna Indians. The soldiers didn't have much access to even as simple as an ACE bandage, so don't think we were skimping out on the villagers. When Allison read off our first soldier's prescription she followed up the note Angela had written 'extra pain meds' with 'Hook him up. He's got a gun.'
Each afternoon, when clinic ended, we handed out reading glasses. The Kuna people would line up (after coaxing) and come one by one to the table to try on the different prescriptions to see which was the best. The women practiced on their molas to determine if the prescription was strong enough to see when threading their needles. Molas are the tapestry like needlework that the Kuna Indians are known for. They are amazingly beautiful and extremely difficult to make - reverse embroidery for anyone who knows what that means (my grandmother is the only one I know that does).
"Comida?" - Pastor, pointing the monkey after Jeff insisted that it was not for food
During clinic time each day, Pastor, Chad and Jeff walked the island, praying and going hut to hut to invite everyone to both the clinic and our nightly services. Through translators, they enjoyed the Kuna's unique brand of hospitality at each home and offered to pray for anyone who was willing. During their visits old women would get up and insist that their guests have a seat, and were offered many unusual drinks. The evangelism team truly walked away with a better understanding of how the Kuna people live. Among the strange things they encountered was a monkey. Jeff was certain that this was a pet. Pastor was certain it was not. Upon asking the monkey's owner if it was 'for food', Pastor's hunch was validated by her saying 'si, por supuesto' - yes, of course.
On our first village of Carreto, hours after our team had finished walking and visiting the huts, we received reports that two people previously unable to walk were healed and now walking around. The one woman's husband had been carrying her to the bathroom because she could not use her legs at all. Gloria Dios.
"I know what the devil is doing. He's making fried chicken on my fasting night to tempt me. Mogi said he couldn't get chicken. I'll knock his eyes out." - Pastor...AKA "What is it? Does it taste good?...What is it? Does it taste good?" [repeat 10-15 times per meal] -Chad
Eating was a happy time on the Kuna Islands (although you couldn't tell by Jeff's face here)
Most meals consisted of rice, a protein and plantains. Lots and lots and lots of plantains.
The protein usually involved seafood, whether it was fish, conch, or crab or occasionally something like chicken (or monkey). Most of the time, we didn't ask, they didn't tell.
Every once and a while there was something exotic on the table that only Craig and/or Lenny had ever eaten (in Jamaica or Nigeria, respectively). This year, we had the distinct pleasure of eating soursap. I HIGHLY recommend it.
While eating is a highlight of the day, not everyone made it to the table each meal. We had been instructed before leaving for Panama to have a schedule of fasting times, in addition to our prayer schedule. Fasting, for those who are unfamiliar, is giving up food for a specific amount of time, for a spiritual purpose. From the time we landed on the Kuna Islands until the time we departed, someone from our team was fasting at all times.
The one night we had fried chicken happened to be Pastor's night to fast. But we all knew that regardless of the food we missed, the fasting was necessary to our ministry. In addition to possibly eating a monkey, we most likely ate this specific chicken...Pastor didn't miss anything...
The one night we had fried chicken happened to be Pastor's night to fast. But we all knew that regardless of the food we missed, the fasting was necessary to our ministry. In addition to possibly eating a monkey, we most likely ate this specific chicken...Pastor didn't miss anything...
"She ain't gonna make it, mon. She over their praying for Angela and she need prayer herself." - Craig ...AKA "I don't even know what we're praying for!" - Becky
Our third day involved a trip to our second village of Anachacuna, a half day of clinic at that village, and then service at night. Before we could move onto Anachacuna, the captain of the soldiers told us they would go ahead of us and "secure the village". Right - we never thought we would be in a position that someone would be "securing" anything. If you refer back to our abridged version, we were still pretty unsure of this whole soldier thing. But, some of us after talking with the soldiers realized that they seemed to be most concerned about this specific village, and apparently there was guerrilla activity most frequently there.
As a result of our prayer watches, our team had specific things to pray about for each village. For instance, on Anachacuna, we prayed about deception and death. We also prayed over anyone's dreams or visions. Lenny had a vision on Tuesday in which two guards were shot across a brackish area. There was much blood and violence because they were unprepared, not on guard. He felt he should share it with the captain, and once arriving on Anachacuna, the captain asked Lenny to go with him to an area behind the village. When arriving at the spot, Lenny confirmed it was the place he had seen in his vision. The captain increased the guard to four men and put booby traps around the area.
Each night when clinic closed, we would eat dinner and then conduct a service for the village. This usually took place in the courtyard outside the school. This was the location in Anachacuna, as the ladies from the village swept away the dirt...
The service was comprised of singing songs in Spanish, a sermon spoken THREE languages (Pastor spoke, Jerry translated to Spanish, and then Navas translated to Kuna), and prayer for people who needed salvation, healing, deliverance, and being filled with the Holy Spirit. The services did not start until after the Silas (leaders of each village) finished 'congress', which was usually around 7pm. Wednesday night we were told service could begin at 7pm as usual, but at 7:15 received a message that it would be 8:30 before we could start. At 8:30 we were told that a visiting Sila from Columbia would speak at congress and service would be delayed. Service actually started at 10:00pm. Angela and I were on the opposite end of the court from where the updates on service start times were arriving...hence, we were a bit confused about the whole thing.
Here is a quote from my journal: 'We were in the hot, I was exhaused, had a headache, my ankles were swollen, I had bug bites all over my legs, I was fasting dinner, but it was far more than all of these things combined. I can only guess that the spiritual aspect was intensifying the physical aspect. In Angela's words 'it was torture'. Little did the 4 girls know, but we were all experiencing the same overwhelming sense of exhaustion or stupor. At one point Angela asked me to pray because she had just fallen asleep sitting up. Craig, who was sitting next to Angela and I looked over at us and saw this. The next morning at breakfast we were recapping the evening, and Craig busted out with the quote above...apparently I wasn't looking very good either. Shortly after I had prayed for Angela, Jen came over to tell us to keep praying...unfortunately as you can see above, I was at a loss for what in world was going on, let alone what I was to pray about.
Needless to say, our first night on Anachacuna was rough...little did we know what was ahead of us...
"Then we were thrown in a room, told to put our heads down and waited for the guerrillas to kidnap us." - ...AKA "Let that woman at the airport ask me if I'm a missionary!" - Jen
When we arrived on Anachacuna we were instructed that if anything 'happened' while we were there, that we were to go directly into one of the rooms in the school - the safest building in the village. This is Angela and Allison enjoying the close confines of "the room" as it soon became known...
Thursday night - Critical Information Day (see abridged version). Before the service, the captain came to Pastor and Lenny and said that his men had asked to receive prayer. We found out the service would be delayed again, so they decided to pray with the soldiers while we waited. We watched, and listened to 17 soldiers praying for salvation in Spanish in unison. It was pretty awe-inspiring. Immediately upon concluding there was a sound that put the men on high alert. The next things we heard was this "Do they have to go? Yes they have to go now." The soldiers immediately dispersed to their assigned stations and we were ushered into "the room". It was awesome to see and hear how quickly these men moved to protect us. We were very literally told to sit along the wall and keep our head down.
Each of the four ladies had their own specific experience while we waited in "the room". Jen had an encounter with God as her Father like she never experienced before. Angela was looking for protection - specifically a knife, which I just so happened to have in my purse, and she just so happened to make sure of. Becky had a time of soul searching as God asked me whether it would be worth my life, if even one person we had already seen be saved went to heaven. Allison was contemplating God's faithfulness to his Word - specifically the three verses he had given us before we left Charleston. Joshua 1:9; Psalm 46:10; and Philippians 4:6-7. We don't know what the men and the Panamanians were thinking, but it was a pretty intense "20 minutes" (the standard Panamanian measurement of time).
Though it felt like hours, it really was only a short period of time before the soldiers returned with an 'all clear' and we were released from the room. It turns out the noise we had heard was one of the booby traps being set off. They believed after searching the village and the perimeter jungle that it was a palm branch. God had warned us to pray against a sneak attack, and we believe that had the soldiers had not been alert and obedient that the vision Lenny saw would have come to pass.
After returning from their stations, the soldiers lined up to be prayed for by Pastor, Lenny and Chad. Watching them pray protection over each of them individually was beautiful. It made me think about all that had to be put in place for that moment to occur. God, in His wisdom, made each thing happen for His purpose for each one of those men. We were blessed to be part of that plan.
"I'm telling you, Navy SEALS are MY size." - Chad
The soldiers were planning on walking from Anachacuna through the jungle to our third village, of Armila. Their standard job was patrolling the jungle, and as we had found out the night before, the jungle around Anachacuna was the base of operations for the Colombian guerrilla supply chain. As noted in our abridged version, when we awoke, we found out that they would instead be accompanying us by boat to Armila. This was due to the fact that two Panamanian soldiers had been injured by land mines set by guerrillas.
Their boat, as you can see, was rather intense, much larger than ours, and could go a WHOLE LOT FASTER. We found out just how fast when en route to Armilla our soldiers had to chase down drug runners in the open ocean. Does Craig look as though it's perhaps his secret mission to protect us...and perhaps specifically our Pastor?
Yes? Because that's what our soldier thought! We had found out the night before that in scoping our team out through conversation the soldiers had picked up on the fact that Chad had been in the Navy and Craig is in the Navy. Their obvious conclusion was that they were Navy SEALS, protecting the Pastor. Chad assured us that this was not illogical thinking. No really, SEALS are their size. :)
"Here we go again" - Jerry (said into the microphone in ENGLISH when no one speaks English)
On Armila, we followed the same pattern - clinic, evangelism, service, prayer watch - but everything seemed more heightened. At a specifically intense moment in the last service Jerry, generally only translating what Pastor said into Spanish, said into the microphone in English 'Here we go again". I'm pretty certain no one but us understands how completely hysterical that was and yet it totally summed up the moment.
"You can probably take two, you're bigger than the Kunas" - Angela
One very different aspect of Armila was the presence of a military base in the village. It was here that "our soldiers", as we liked to call them by that point in the trip, turned us over to protection by these police. After closing down clinic and pharmacy the last day, we organized the undistributed medicine into a couple of suitcases to leave with people in Panama. We left extra supplies with the school superintendent, as we had done in each village. Additionally we left supplies with both, the chief Sila, and Pastor Navas (our go-to-guy for all things Kuna). We also put together a suitcase together for the medic at the police station on Armila.
We took the meds over to their compound before dinner that night and in explaining how to administer each type, Angela let the medic know he could give two Tylenol instead of one...since they were bigger than the Kunas and all.
Allison and one of the Kuna translators, Lilly. Note: Allison is only 5'3".
Angela's head towering over the 'high' walls of the bathroom on Anacachuna
Our last suitcase was handed to the head guy over our captain and soldiers. Once we realized just how much danger we had been in over the past week, we were very grateful for the presence of 'our soldiers'. These men had been carrying out orders handed down from the President of Panama to protect us. No wonder God told us before we left 'Go in peace, I've gone before you.'
"Friend, Friend. Where are you from?" - Random Kuna man...in English..not joking
Before we left Armila, Pastor Navas's family presented us with gifts the ladies had made.
Pastor Navas and Tina
The next morning, Sunday, we waved goodbye to our soldiers and returned by boat to where it all began - Puerto Obaldia. As WikiTravel describes Puerto Obaldia, it is "a ramshackle collection of decrepit houses, mostly with damage or missing roofs, a beach littered with rubbish...a little known and dirt cheap alternative to travel from Columbia to Panama and vice versa."
(check out how amazingly camouflaged he is!)
As we waited, and waited, and waited for our plane, Jen commented 'I feel like I'm on the set of a music video of a really weird song'. In other words, we concur with WikiTravel.
Despite our surroundings, Lenny, Craig and Chad did find a way to watch the World Cup...yes, they are sitting on someone's porch and watching the TV through the window
I remember waiting last year in Panama, but there is something about the passage of a year that dulls the experience...after a week of being reminded it was all we could do to get through the last leg of waiting...waiting on the plane that was supposed to pick us up at 8am, and yet come noon it still hadn't left Panama City...oh, the world of waiting. There were other travelers waiting here as well. One of them, after chatting about what he was doing, asked us how our vacation was. We sat there staring at him unsure of how to answer that question - Jeff's response summed it up 'That was the worst vacation I've ever taken'...not that it wasn't an amazing experience, it was just definitely not a vacation!
Needless to say we were happy to be back in Panama City, have a hot shower that didn't involve buckets or praying that your Hepatitis B shots are working, and glorious, glorious coffee...as an FYI macchiatos are not the same when you aren't at Starbucks, notice you can't even see the cup Jen is holding it was that small (and strong).
Some lice and scabes creme, a nights sleep on a flat bed, another hot shower, some jeans, lip gloss and mascara and you have yourself some happy campers (well ok, only the girls were excited about the lip gloss and mascara).
We hope you enjoyed it - we are blessed to have experienced it, but glad to be home!