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Does anyone want a ride to Tahua?

by Capt. John Irving

In Steven Covey's wonderful book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he says that we develop private power so that as adults we can effectively join into community and exercise public power to serve those around us. One daily way to prepare ourselves for service, he says, is to visualize in the morning that we put on a "cloak of service to humanity" so that we go through the day searching for opportunities to be of assistance and benefit to those around us. To be effective, this search must be penetrating because many of the greatest opportunities to serve are hidden or invisible.

In the mid-70s I was a young helicopter pilot looking for oil in Bolivia.

By mid-1975, we were about sixty percent finished with the seismic survey of our ten thousand square mile oil concession just east of the Andes Mountains in Bolivia. We had been based at the airport about three miles from beautiful Reyes, a cattle ranching town of about five thousand people. Reyes was the major town in a region holding around thirty thousand people. With Bolivia's explosive birth rate, that was less than a quarter of the current population. It had a huge Catholic church and was quite cosmopolitan for rural Bolivia. By that I mean there was public water and electricity and an outdoor movie theater. It reminded me of what I think Texas towns were like in 1900; there were hitching posts to tie up your horses and watering troughs for them. There were a few jeeps, but no paved roads. It was a lively town, very friendly to us. We knew we were lucky to live nearby.

As our exploration proceeded to the north, we were sad to move to the next airport closer to the Peruvian border. It was nearer the Andes, near the little village of Ixiamas. Is was a cattle village of about four hundred people, sitting next to a small no-name stream that came flowing out of the mountains. Ixiamas was the most decrepit village I've visited in a lifetime of travel. It had no roads, no cars, just a scattering of mud and thatch huts with no civic services of any kind. There was no public water, no sewage and no electricity.

Ixiamas existed to supply beef to the military. There was a small army camp of the most bedraggled soldiers I had ever seen (until I got to Egypt some years later). Once a month or so a military plane would come in with supplies and took away the hastily slaughtered beef that was raised in the nearby grasslands.

Depressed by the decrepitude of the village, every three weeks when I came to work, I would distribute a bar of soap per household. While giving out soap one day, I met one of the most fascinating men I have ever known, the village priest. He was Swiss and had been in Ixiamas for forty-eight years. He was a circuit priest, like the old circuit judges of the American southwest. When he was journeying, he would return to Ixiamas on Saturday. On Sunday he would perform mass and then during the week do his normal clerical duties and weddings and the funeral rites for those who had died during the last two weeks. He would stay in Ixiamas for the week and on Sunday again hold his normal church services. First thing Monday morning he would head off on a five-day walk to a neighboring village, arriving on Saturday. On Sunday, he would perform mass and catch up on a month's worth of priestly duties including communions and burial prayers for the faithful who had died since his last visit.

The next day, Monday, he would leave on another five-day walk to the next village on his circuit. He would usually walk alone through the jungle, sleeping in a hammock or rough on the ground at night.

He had originally come to Bolivia on a seven-year assignment. Forty-eight years ago in Ixiamas he had built a church with a bell high in the front wall. This stately church had been the pride of the community. Being built of sticks and mud, as was everything in the area, the building had deteriorated over the decades, finally falling down, leaving only a portion of the front wall with its old brass bell.

After his seven years in Ixiamas were over and he was back home in Switzerland, instead of taking the reward of a posh assignment in one of the lovely cities of Europe, he asked to return to his life of service to the poor people of Bolivia. When we met, he worked a schedule of six-and-a-half years in the Ixiamas region, followed by a six months sabbatical in Switzerland. By 1975, this faithful man had been caring for his flock for almost half a century. He had no luxuries what so ever. His salary was the princely sum of twelve dollars a month.

He was a tough man, thin and wiry, in his late seventies. He was tall and strong and incredibly fit for a man of his age. Of course he would be, spending fifteen days out of every month, walking through the jungle.

Walking close to and especially parallel to the Andes is particularly grueling because of the innumerable streams flowing eastward from the mountains. Between each stream is a ridgeline one to four hundred feet high, steep, hard to climb, hard to get down. Each ridgeline is followed by another steam and another ridgeline, in mind-numbing repetition. This is in Bolivia, where piranhas populate almost every stream. With the piranha are crocodiles that grow so large that they are not considered adults until they are twelve feet long. The jungle holds tigres, large jungle jaguars, which would love to eat a man sleeping on the ground. There are trees that are deadly poisonous to touch. Huge anacondas swim the streams. Venomous two-inch-long ants can sting a child to death and there are more biting and stinging insects than I have experienced anywhere else in the world. Poisonous snakes abound and some species are both poisonous and bone-crushing constrictors. As beautiful as this region is, it seemed to me that Mother Nature wants men to stay away.

I was fascinated by this Padre and often invited him to our camp for dinner. Our camp cook had previously been La Paz's finest and most famous chef. Some evenings he would prepare delicious sandwiches that I would take into Ixiamas with a bottle of wine to share with the priest. We'd sit up late into the night talking of our experiences, the lessons we had learned, the things we had seen and share our hopes and aspirations.

The flying now had us closer to the mountains than when we had been while in the southern part of the concession. The mountains seemed, if that can be possible, even more imposing than before. While flying, to the east of me, all of Amazonia spreads out though gigantic Brazil. But towering in the west arose the seemingly impassable Andes Mountains. A three-mile high mountain barely reached up to the Altiplano, the high plain between the eastern and western flanks of the Andes. The bigger mountains towered more than four miles above my little helicopter. This was a spectacular place to fly.

While flying I became fascinated with an alpine-like village named Tumupasa clinging to the east side of the Andes Mountains just outside the concession. Once, quite illegally (due to company and insurance regulations), I left the concession and flew around Tumupasa. Everyone came out to wave and to look at my sleek yellow Bell-206 helicopter. This village was a week's walk from San Buena Ventura, on the north side of the Beni River. Tumupasa was a village with no airport and no connecting roads to anywhere. It had no roads at all in fact. It was isolated from the world in ways that we in the developed world can no longer imagine. It is now connected to Ixiamas in the north and San Buena Ventura, across the Beni from Rurrenabaque, in the south by a dirt trail that is navigable in the dry season by 4-wheel-drive. In the 1970s however, there was just a jungle footpath connecting it to the outside world. It took seven days for a very able-bodied person to walk from the nearest airport. This is a walk parallel with the mountains, a walk crossing innumerable streams and ridgelines.

Pastures surround Tumupasa, maybe two square miles of them. They had some llama, alpaca, horses and some cattle. They grew grain and potatoes and seemed to be self-sufficient. The village was nestled in an alpine scene like you would expect to see in the priest's native Switzerland. It was beautiful. A one hundred and eighty degree view of the Amazonian rainforest lay out below Tumupasa. It sits in one of the most spectacular settings in the world. Since they were more than half a mile above the jungle, the vista stretched to the horizon.

Glorious nights and evenings that I had spent on the escarpment of the Andes had blessed me with spectacles of giant thunderstorms marching across the Amazon. I'd seen shows of lightening and torrential rain and tornadoes that had thrilled me with the beauty of nature. I knew these same thrilling sights were a regular part of life in Tumupasa. This village seemed idyllic.

Weeks went by and I became more and more fascinated with this village until it filled my thoughts and dreams. Finally and very illegally, I flew out of the concession and landed there. Landing anywhere people are not used to helicopters is quite dangerous, since a chopper is as fascinating to a child as anything can be. Even a small child is tall enough to run into the rapidly spinning, invisible tail-rotor. Immediately after landing, I went through the often-practiced sequence of rapidly frictioning the controls then quickly jumping out of the helicopter to keep the crowd away from the deadly rotor blades.

Many of these people were in families that have been here for generations. Others have made long treks from neighboring rural villages. They came to play soccer, enjoy fiestas and get married. Most people however had spent their entire lives here, in a world completely of their own creation.

One of the most interesting insights gained in my years of flying as a bush pilot, is that people not used to modern technology find the clear plastic windshield of the helicopter more interesting than the helicopter itself. Plastic is something they can see, but see through. Windows, plastic, glasses, transparencies of every sort are so much a part of daily life for us that we seldom think of them. In the remotest parts of the earth there is nothing solid that a person can see through. These are people who live without plastic or glass, so a transparency is as much a miracle as a flying machine. Once the rotor blades stopped turning, my most important job was to keep the work-hardened hands of the people off the fragile plastic of the windshield and windows.

As always, the headman came out, gravely introduced himself and gave me a tour of the village. There were straight lanes between the neat huts, no smell of sewage and flowering bushes everywhere. A great source of pride was the school they had made. It had mud walls and a mud floor with a thatched roof. He introduced me to the teacher and I asked her how she came to be there. She told me, that for students in Bolivia, university education is free in any academic field that is deemed essential to the nation. While in school, students get a salary if they are making good grades. The catch is, after graduation, you are assigned as per the needs of the country and almost certainly you will be sent to a remote area to build and then run a rural school. So, after graduation, she and two trunks of supplies had been flown to Rurrenabaque where a guide and porters took her across the Beni River and then led her on an arduous ten-day walk that began her four-year assignment here.

While in university she had been taught the construction and leadership techniques she would need to build the schoolhouse. The backside of it had two rooms was for her to live in. In the front was one large room, the school for her eighty students. Grades one through eight in one room. The porter had carried her chalkboard. She had carefully carried two cases of chalk, a supply to last her for four years. These basically were her supplies. In the school, there were no books, no screens on the windows, no writing tablets, no pencils, no pens, no pads, just her. Students practiced their writing by making mud outside, which they put into wooden forms, to create earthen tablets like those used in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. They wrote on these with a sharpened stick, to practice their letters. Tests were done by individually writing on the blackboard with the precious chalk.

When I asked her what supplies she needed, she surprised me by saying she would love to have shoes for the children to protect their feet from the parasites that bored into the souls of their feet. If she could have anything she wanted, she would like screens for the windows to keep out the mosquitoes and other insects. I thought, "My God!" I left the village, saddened but determined. When my work shift was over I went back to Cochabamba and told my wife this beautiful but heartrending story about the dedicated teacher and her school without supplies.

She contacted the six American women in town and they bought, begged, cajoled, and with the help of the American Consulate, collected everything that this teacher had asked for, or we thought she and the children could use. They got hammers, nails, wooden slats, rolls of screen and scissors to cut the screen. My wife and our friends and I packed more than six hundred spiral notebooks, crayons, cartons of pens and pencils and a hundred and twenty watercolor sets into cardboard boxes.

I put on my pilot's uniform and went to the Bata Shoe Factory on the edge of town, hoping to buy shoes at a discount. Speaking to the factory manager, I told him my story and he said, "What do you need?" After I told him, he gave me eight hundred pairs of sandals and a hundred and twenty pairs of shoes and cases of socks. He said these shoes would be popular with the children because they looked like the shoes worn by the soccer heroes, every child's idol, even children in isolated mountain villages. He told me to come back as often as I needed to and that he would give me anything and everything that I asked for. He then discreetly turned away as I burst into tears.

I commuted to my work in Ixiamas in World War-2 cargo planes and bombers that had been converted into freighters. These planes would bring out the food, fuel and explosives used in seismic exploration and take back beef for the hungry cities in the mountains. The cargo company staff was accustomed to seeing me with cartons of supplies because of my cases of soap. This day they were a bit surprised to see me with a truckload of school supplies and shoes. They were not too heavy though and soon everything was safely tied down in the old C-46 cargo plane.

While I flew out to Ixiamas, I came up with a plan of how I could get a helicopter to transport it all to Tumupasa. I needed official approval because it was both illegal to fly outside the concession and to make any sort of private flights. My ace in the hole was the Union Oil representative, Charlie Applegate. He was a very pragmatic engineer. I explained to him I thought it would be very good public relations and look great in the Annual Report to support the Catholic Church, in the form of our local priest.

We could easily do this because and two helicopters could do so all the work. This would leave one to carry the priest to each of the villages, giving them weekly instead on monthly church services.

The men had to be fed of course but on Sundays the men only worked half a day. The lull was used to preposition staple food, fuel and explosives but two helicopters could do this. On Sundays the surveyor and the seismic computer operator did not work, so we did have a helicopter available to take the priest to the two remote villages he served. This could easily be done in the afternoon after he had completed Sunday morning mass in Ixiamas.

Charlie agreed that it would be a great idea and readily agreed to my plan, knowing I was up to something, but also knowing that he was now covered.

Sunday morning, I went to the old fallen down church in Ixiamas and reverted to my old role of acolyte. I helped the priest prepare the new silver challis donated by the church in Cochabamba and the silver platter, communion wafers and blessed wine that had been entrusted to me.

I filled the back of the chopper with school supplies and prepared a sling-load that was almost as big as the helicopter itself. I told the warehouse man to hook it to the helicopter using a cable long enough to enable me to land behind the load, so that I could leave it connected when I dropped off the priest.

At eleven o'clock, the priest and I took off for the first village and I again helped the priest prepare for mass. After a brief wedding, we flew the next village, Tahua, where I dropped him off and headed for the beautiful, alpine-like mountain village of Tumupasa.

When I landed, there was amazement and an enormous commotion as the children and teacher saw the huge load of supplies I was bringing for them and their school.

I had great fun showing the teacher, the students and the villagers how to make a screen window. I was so pleased with the wooden slats and little saw and new pinking shears. It was even more fun to watch the older students quickly make and install three additional screens.

The headman gathered all the students and we stood around watching the teacher hand out the eighty chalkboard slates the American women in Cochabamba had collected. There was one for each student and twenty spares. The students then got their first ever notebooks and pens. They were amazed and the delighted as they used the hand-cranked pencil sharpener I'd attached to the wall beside the teacher's desk.

The happy teacher and children were thrilled with the cartons of schoolbooks, readers and basics for a school library.

What blew me away was when they opened the cartons of watercolor kits, crayons and drawing tablets, the teacher started crying. So did I.

Time was getting late, so I packed up the cargo net, said my good-byes and got into my helicopter.

I was immediately overcome with the knowledge that I had to ask a completely illegal question, "Does anyone want to go to Tahua?"

This was astonishing to me. I felt compelled, I was compelled, as if by some outside power, to stop what I was doing and ask. The question was passed to the people in the village and soon a woman in her fifties came up and asked me, "Can you take my Mother with you?" I said, "Yes, but I have to leave immediately." She said, "It will only take ten minutes to get her ready." So, I waited, increasingly annoyed at the delay, worrying about the rapidly approaching sunset. I still had to pick up the priest and get back to base camp at least thirty minutes before sundown, or I would never get the use of the helicopter again.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to wait for this woman. How I knew, I'll never know, but I knew and I'd long since learned to honor, listen to and follow my intuition.

Rather quickly, a young woman came, the daughter of the woman who had asked me to take her mother. She was carrying a tattered cardboard suitcase and a small bag. Then an old woman, her grandmother, came walking with great difficulty to the helicopter, using hand-made canes.

I put her into the helicopter, knowing this is what I had to do and that I would get fired if I got caught. My feelings were so strong that I suspected this was the real reason I had come to Tumupasa in the first place. I started the engine and took off, quite concerned that she would be frightened, certain that she had never been in any kind of aircraft before. She sat there as tranquil as a Buddhist monk looking much like the Dalai Lama when he at prayer. She seemed pleased, but was quiet and motionless.

Eighteen minutes later we landed. I expected to just drop her off, pick up the priest and head immediately back to Ixiamas. But as I came into a hover before landing, someone recognized her and like wildfire a commotion spread through all the people waiting for the helicopter. There was great excitement and I did not understand what was going on. Then an old man, on handmade crutches, worked his way towards the helicopter and the woman I had just helped deplane. He was older than she was, badly crippled and frail and had tears running down his face.

She burst into tears and hugged him, in the sweetest embrace I have ever seen. Then, both sobbing hysterically, they collapsed to the ground. I was baffled. The priest ran up to me and asked, "Do you know what you have done?" "I have no idea," I said, "but I know I've done something. What's going on?"

"Twenty-five years ago a message came from Tumupasa, saying this woman's daughter (who had married a man from Tumupasa) was having trouble with a pregnancy and wanted her mother to come. The mother of course, agreed. Her husband was unable to accompany her, having being crippled in a work accident two years before. So this woman, then in her early fifties, walked up into the mountains, a five-day trip. In due course, her daughter gave birth to a healthy child, who grew up into the woman you met. When it was time for the new grandmother to return home to her husband and other children, she began the journey and descending one of the steep ridgelines, fell breaking her hip.

She was traveling with a group of four other people. They had no doctor, no nurse and no medical supplies. The people made a crude stretcher and spent seven days carrying her back Tumupasa.

Without professional medical attention her hip healed, but improperly. After a few years, she learned to walk with canes and attempted to return home to her husband. The pain in her hip and the steep ridges made the journey impossible. Some years later, she tried to make the journey by riding an ox that had been trained to carry loads in the mountains. Again, her damaged hip made returning home unachievable. After recuperation for another year, a third attempt was made to move her using a travois (a stretcher on two poles, pulled by an ox), similar to that used by the Native Americans when they moved camps. This too, proved impossible due to her ruined hip.

Her husband was unable to travel to her and she was unable to journey across the rugged terrain back to him. Less than thirty straight-line miles apart, they were separated, seemingly forever.

Messages were passed back and forth, as people went from village to village. With their love intact and determined to stay married forever, they remained in love, resigned to living out their lives, never seeing each other again. Then literally, out of the blue, because of some instinct that commanded me to find her and take her with me, they were reunited.

You can imagine the great joy and celebration that began.

I desperately wanted to stay, but the sun was setting, so I gathered the priest and all the gifts from the village, live chickens, bananas and pineapples and made a hasty flight back to our camp in Ixiamas.

I learned a great lesson that day. Opportunities abound to do good deeds and to be of service to the people and community around me. Much of the time, chances to serve surround all of us, but they are usually hidden, fleeting or invisible. I realized it was my life's job to yearn for and find these opportunities hidden among the mundane. I realized this was my answer to the age-old questions, "Why are we here? What is our purpose?" My job is to love and be loved, and each day to put on the cloak of service to mankind.

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Copyright © 2004 by Capt. John Irving. All rights reserved.