There are many ways to travel down the Jondachi River. The easiest is to just let yourself go, let the currents take you where they will. This might work if we weren't preparing to ride a river with class four rapids, a churning mass of white water making its way from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Basin in the shortest distance it can find. Standing at its edge, I can see huge rocks in front of me. And that isn't the worst of it. Beneath the surface of the water lie tree limbs and other obstacles you can't see.
"If you fall out of the raft, try to float feet first through the rapids," says our guide, Gabriel, "then climb back in as soon as we reach the next pool." Better yet, grab the rope he's tossed in your direction and hold on tight while the guide pulls you back to the boat.
This is my third time on the Jondachi River. As I listen to the safety talk that Gabriel is giving the group of Cofán youth we brought here with us today, I am wondering about the connections. Do his instructions make sense? The boys have never rafted before and even though I know each of them can swim and paddle a canoe, it's a new experience, a fast river, and the guides don't speak their native tongue. Like me, we are all trying to communicate in a second language, the one brought here by Spanish explorers searching for treasure five centuries ago.
But these are not the only connections I wonder about. Later that night one of the leaders, Pastor Ramón Umenda, compares our experience on the water to our life on dry land. And to the jungle, the place where land and rivers meet. To Pastor Ramón, being on the raft is like living close to God. It's the way to travel from here to there without getting too roughed up along the way. Riding the raft makes more sense than going it alone, letting the river use your body to help wear down the rocks that are in its way.
Life on the raft, of course, isn't always easy. We need to paddle, and paddle hard, to reach the one place with an opening in the rocks to avoid getting stuck or, worse, flipping over. Listening to the guide's instructions – paddle, stop, left back/right forward, inside the boat! – and following them as best we can will make the trip a lot smoother
It is a good thing we are not alone – only by working together can we paddle through rapids with names "washing machine" and "waffle maker." And I wonder if the youth get this connection too? Following Christ is made possible in community, supporting and encouraging each other as we encounter the obstacles that tower before us or lie just beneath the surface of the churning water.
Today's Cofán youth face challenges that their great grandparents would not recognize. Once a proud and self-sufficient community of hunters, fishers, gatherers and gardeners who lived entirely off the land, changes are ever present. So are the temptations and hard choices of modern life.
In life, will these young people choose a raft or will they try to go it alone? I know I got my own share of bumps and bruises when I fell out of my raft soon after college and spent ten lonely years floating feet first in fast water. Looking back, I am happy to be alive. And I am happy that Christ, my guide, tossed me a rope and a gracious friend helped me climb back in the boat before it was too late.
As I look at the expectant faces of the young people around me, eyes full of wonder and excitement at this new experience, I hope they'll choose the raft. I want to travel with them. And, if they fall out, I pray they will find a buddy to help them climb back in.