It all happened in a Colombian village named Guatapuri, high in the Andes Mountains.
You will have to read to the end to discover who Jane Heck is, and how she saved my bacon.
I once helped lead a camp of over 200 young people, ages 15 to 25, in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, South America. My wife and I were missionaries in Santa Marta, Colombia, from 1981 to 1985.While we were there, we were involved in planting a new church in Santa Marta, a city of 250,000, on the northern coast of Colombia along the edge of the Caribbean Sea. When we had collected 20 or 30 youth, we arranged a youth trip to a mountain retreat about 200 miles inland. We would be joining about 180 other youth. This Christian youth retreat was named Camp Guatapuri. Guatapuri was the name of a mountain stream, and also the name of a small village on the banks of the stream, which the Colombians considered a river – El Rio Guatapuri. Missionaries of the past had gone to great expense and trouble to build this camp.
The altitude was around 5,000 feet, a little under a mile; about like Denver, Colorado. However, they didn’t mind, and neither did we missionaries. People age 15 to 25 don’t exactly fit what we call “youth” in our North American thinking. South Americans call this age group jovenes, a word that describes those 15 to 25 who aren’t married yet, or who are just married without children. Our jovenes from about 14 churches all over north Colombia came together once a year to Camp Guatapuri for fun, games, and lots of Bible study and worship.
The road to the camp was barely a road. It was more like a wide path through a jumble of rocks, ever going upward. We had left our bus behind and were now traveling in the back of a big truck, which rocked from side to side so much that everyone had to grab hold of everyone else constantly. Once we had to get out and push the truck across a small stream.
We searched the skies for condors. Condors have huge wing spans, up to a little more than ten feet; they can travel up to 160 miles a day looking for food; and the people from that area told us tales of condors striking mountain sheep from behind to make them fall, and then eating them. Normally they just eat carrion, but sometimes they make their own.
The air was rarified. When the sun went behind the nearby mountain peaks, the air got cold and the girls put on sweaters. Otherwise the temperature was perfect. In the afternoon it was in the 60’s, which was about 55° cooler than the temperature back in Santa Marta, which got up to 115° every afternoon. It got cold at night, resulting in the jovenes sleeping huddled against each other and wrapped in their thin blankets or even newspapers to keep warm.
The boys were in Cabin “Antonio Redondo,” named after a Colombian pastor who was murdered. Antonio stopped the white slave traffic from Venezuela to Bogotá, and the Colombian mafia had him killed. The 14 churches all contributed to care for Trinidad, Antonio’s widow, and their children, in the nearby village of Atanquez. The bunks in the cabin were made of rough wood with no mattresses, pillows, or blankets. Both the boys’ and girls’ cabins were full of these bunks, which slept three each. Often the jovenes would double up so as not to freeze at night. Most brought a blanket and a pillow, and the rest shared. In the morning, the brave ones would go soap up and swim till clean in the nearby Guatapurí River, which consisted of a fast running stream of ice melt from the snow-covered peaks to our north, another 7,000 feet higher up. After about 30 seconds, the water was so cold it numbed one’s body completely. Jane Heck had the girls’ cabin; which is a mystery to me because I never went there, being a guy.
The Bible studies took up every morning. After devotions, prayer, and lively Christian songs, a Spanish seminary professor taught the lessons. The afternoons were for sports and games. That was where I came in: I was the creator of new games.
Shootout at the Guatapuri Corral: One joven would stand facing another, about 5 feet apart. Each had one square of toilet paper safety pinned to their chest. Each was armed with a tiny plastic water pistol. At the signal, first one to wet the other’s toilet paper square completely won.
David and Goliath: Armed with a rubber band and five smooth spitwads, the goal for each joven was to knock down a cardboard figure of Goliath perched on a limb of a tree.
Giant Water Cannon: Each team of about 20 kids had a big rope tied around them so that they looked like a giant amoeba standing on the ground. About 50 feet away was the other team, armed with a big coffee can containing within it a balloon filled with water. The can with the water balloon was attached to two huge long strips of inner tube, making a giant slingshot. The slingshot team had so many seconds to hit the other team, the amoeba, while the amoeba tried to dodge. A lot of people got wet in this one!
Camptown Chariot Races: Two boys and a girl constituted a team. The two boys made a fireman’s carry with their hands and the girl sat between them. At the signal, we had about ten teams racing to a pole and back. People flying everywhere!
Volleyball: They would have played this all night long if we had let them. They loved volleyball.
Soccer: Ditto. The national sport. They are fantastic athletes.
Scripture memorization: I have never seen anyone with as many verses memorized, or with the ability to find a passage, as these guys and gals.
Original Poetry: Colombians of all ages are absolutely fascinated by poetry, and many of them can make it up almost as fast as they can talk, complete with rhymes, rhythm, and real meaning. We gave a prize for each of the games, but one of the highly coveted trophies was for poetry.
Most Entertaining Song: They made up their own words, sang loudly and well including with guitars and makeshift drums (the coffee cans again), and from supper to bedtime it was truly impressive and amazing. I would travel back to Colombia just to hear them do it again.
Jumping off the Guatapuri Bridge into the Blue Hole in the Guatapuri River (the “pozo azul”: Below, in the shallow waters of the cold Guatapuri River, were the gorgeous girls in their one-piece swim suits. Above, the boys stood on the ledge of the bridge. Then they all jumped at once, falling about 15 feet into 20 feet of melted ice water! Next, everybody soaped each other up and came out shivering instead of sweating.
After two weeks of every kind of game, competition, and daredevil act, and two weeks of Bible study and prayer meeting, all these kids knew each other extremely well. All the churches were knit together because of these youth gatherings. It made the missionaries very happy to say the least, and bonded everyone together in all directions.
One day I learned an unforgettable lesson. Jamiles, a pretty young lady of 15 from a poor neighborhood in Santa Marta, was mountain climbing with a group of young people, and was being escorted by a handsome young man from another town. He asked if he could wear her very nice sunglasses. Sure! Then tragedy struck – Jamiles’ young man lost the sunglasses down a steep ravine far below, where no one could possibly go to rescue them. They came to me that evening. Jamiles was crying, because the gafas (sunglasses) were loaned to her from her mother and cost $5.00 U.S. (500 pesos). Her boyfriend had no money and couldn’t repay her for the gafas. He said it was just an accident and he wasn’t responsible. She said he owed her for the glasses. These two kids were getting more and more hysterical and I didn’t know what to do. If I sided with Jamiles, I would upset the boy and his whole church. If I sided with the boy, Jamiles and the entire Bible study group in her neighborhood would blame me for being unfair.
Along came fellow missionary Jane Heck and saved the day. Jane heard the pleas of each, and simply said, “Yo compro las gafas” – “I am buying the sunglasses.” And she handed Jamiles a 500 peso note. Both kids went away happy, and I thanked her for teaching me a lesson. So much was at stake that $5 was a pittance to pay to solve the problem. Jane never would let me give her any money! I am still in awe at her simple wisdom. Sometimes money really is no object when the stakes are very high.