Chapter 20: Jungle Training Camp

Since we didn’t know where we would end up going, I thought we should have some experience in getting along in a primitive area. While in North Dakota at the SIL Translators’ School, I had heard a lot of people talking about a camp in Mexico that provided the experience I thought we needed. So I wanted to go to Jungle Training Camp which Wycliffe Bible Translators maintained in Chiapas, Mexico for their missionaries- in-training. Reluctantly, Chuck agreed to this.

We decided we would check the Lord’s will about going there by contacting Wycliffe Bible Translators to see if they would allow us in. They told us it was not their policy to allow non-Wycliffe people to go to their Jungle Training Camp (JTC). We would need a request from one of their field directors asking to let us go to the camp. In foreign countries, Wycliffe was known as Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Since we had been in the Philippines in 1965-66, and had gotten acquainted with Morrie Cottle, the director of the Philippines SIL, we wrote to him for that request. It wasn’t long before we got a letter from Wycliffe acknowledging Morrie Cottle’s letter and allowing us to go to their JTC. This was the answer we were hoping for.

We started preparing in earnest for the Camp, getting the necessary equipment together and ready to go. I got boots from Mary Cronkwright, since I’d learned on our honeymoon that tennis shoes were no good for the hiking we would be doing at jungle camp. Our wonderful children gave us a perfect set of pots and pans that fitted inside each other nicely, and we still have those pots and pans to this day. Everything we needed to take had to fit into our JTC duffel bags, as that was all we could take to Mexico with us. While all this was happening, we were between places to stay. We’d sold our house and were staying with Carrol and Lorraine Miller from University Church in the interim. They said we could stay as long as we needed to.

We had been hoping to get in on an early session of the JTC. But in the school-year setup adhered to by the Camp, there were only 4 sessions a year and all but the last one were full, so the earliest available Camp wasn’t until late February 1973. According to our schedule, this was too late, but we decided to wait upon the Lord for His perfect timing.

When it was coming down to the end of the second camp in Mexico, we got a call from the camp manager saying two people had dropped out of the third session which started in January of 1973. No one from the fourth session was able to make the switch to the third session, so they had two spaces available for that session. Would we want to be included? “Of course, we would!” Chuck answered him, “We have been waiting for your call.”

We had planned on going to that session, and the Lord made everything work out that way, so we were all ready to go when the time came. On January first, 1973, we were at Dallas, Texas, at a brand new building which served as the orientation place and dormitory for new students going to Mexico to JTC. It was at Wycliffe’s facility at University of Texas in Arlington. It was a beautiful place to start out our training. For two weeks we stayed there getting orientation for the program. Then we took a bus to go down to Mexico City to the compound Wycliffe had for its members, though while there, we stayed in a hotel downtown with the other members of our jungle camp session, about forty people.

We stayed two weeks getting oriented to Mexico, taking trips to various places of interest in and around Mexico City. Then we took our two duffle bags and got into a bus that took us down to Chiapas, Mexico, our final destination. When we got there, we were taken to a small airport where we were flown to our camp by a small Courier plane. A Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot was flying this plane to our destination, a place called Yachoquintala. (Yah-show-kin-ta-la) There were three different bases at jungle camp—the first was Main Base, the second was Advanced Base, and the third was Village Living. At Main Base, we lived in little mud huts with screens on the windows, and we went to classes in larger buildings made of native materials. We had a large building for the dining room and kitchen where we ate our meals and took turns doing the cooking and cleaning up afterward. We had a list of different foods that we needed to learn how to prepare while we were there. On an adjacent list were tasks we needed to do in the kitchen so we could learn how to do everything we would need to know when working in a primitive area by ourselves. For example, we had to help kill a chicken. We also had to participate in killing a cow and removing the innards, removing the skin and cutting up the meat into different kinds of cuts.

We worked in teams of 6 or 8, doing things together as a team. We even prepared the menus for the meals as a team and cooked and served those meals as a team.

Every day we had classes, one of them being a class to teach us the Tzeltal language. Every day we also went on a hike to the homes around us where Tzeltal Indians lived. Each day we would go a bit further so our muscles got stronger and we got around better. Eventually, we went on a two day hike, and later, a three day hike. Everywhere we went, we used the Tzeltal language to talk to people we met along the way. We wore backpacks that had several things in them, and packed up other things like our sleeping equipment and pots and pans for cooking, and put them on mules.

There were a couple of mules available to use for riding, and on the longer trips, different ones of us took turns riding them. However, this was quite a feat, too. Not being used to sitting on a mule, I soon got a very sore seat. I tried to stand up in the stirrups to take my weight off of my buttocks, but my feet became sore, too, and when I got off of the mule, I hurt all over and could hardly walk. Towards the end of our trip, I had been riding on the mule for several hours. When I got down, it was all I could do to finish the walk back to main base, which was not very far at all.

We had jungle hammocks to use when we stayed overnight on these trips. These consisted of hammocks that had mosquito screens on them that had to be unzipped in order to get inside and zipped back up after we were in. We had to learn how to put them up, and pack them away afterward.

On an overnight trip one time, we stayed in the home of a family in a village we visited. We had dinner with the Tzeltals that lived there. We brought some of our own food to be added to our meal with them. With those ingredients, we made a cake using their pan over their fire, and it turned out well. After singing songs and talking with the people, we were shown our sleeping quarters. Behind the house was a wooden building of ill-fitting boards, and it was there we slept.

Our bed was a set of wooden boards set up on saw horses. We wore our clothes to bed that night, the same clothes we had worn during the day. We had brought our own blankets to put over us, but nothing to put under us, and it was extremely uncomfortable trying to get to sleep. Also, we could hear their hogs outside the building making grunting noises most of the night. Fleas were rampant, and they got inside of our pants and made us miserable. We had mosquito repellent to ward off mosquitoes, but we didn’t have anything for the fleas.

The next day, after visiting some of the other people in the village, we started our trek home. We had brought food along for the trip coming and going, among which was a large can of salmon which was just delicious. What a treat that was, to be able to sit down and have our lunch on the way home. It tasted so good. This overnight trip completed the main base portion of the camp. It had been five weeks.

Advanced Base was on a fairly good-sized lake. Another lady, Iris Piepgrass, and I were sick that day, so the camp manager told us we could fly to Advanced Base with the ladies who had small children. (Did I forget to mention there were small children at the camp?) The others had to hike overnight to Advanced Base, and they arrived the next day. At Advanced Base, each team had its own area in which to build a house to live. The house was called a “champa.” The materials were all there, and we were shown how to put them together to build the house and put a big plastic tarp over it to give us the privacy we needed. We built our own bed, chairs, tables, stove, and places to put our kitchen equipment, food, clothing, and whatever else we needed to store. We even built a toilet facility that was several feet from the house itself. It was just a hole in the ground with a seat made of branches of trees cut to just the right size. We put a piece of plastic around it for privacy. We had air mattresses to put on our bed so we didn’t have to get used to hard wood beds like the one we had stayed on overnight on our previous trip.

We had brought small cloth bags in which to put food and kitchen utensils, so we could hang them from pegs or branches. These held them up and out of the way of critters that might otherwise get into them. Occasionally, we were able to buy food from Tzeltals who brought food in to a small temporary market near the main meeting place. If we wanted a chicken, we could buy one there, and we were given a certain amount of meat out of the stores of the camp which we were to put into our pressure cooker to keep preserved for the time we were there, which would be about five weeks. We had already purchased certain other canned items that we wanted from Main Base before coming to this base.

At this Base, we had more classes. Perhaps most important were those that taught us safe and useful methods of survival in the jungle. One of the main things we were to learn was how to get along on a survival hike. The timing of the survival hike was to be a surprise, thus replicating a possible emergency situation we might someday have to face in real life. Everywhere we went, we wore our backpacks because we never knew when we would have to go on the survival hike. The men ended up going first, and it was interesting to hear their stories about it afterward, like the guy who was eating slugs. Later we ladies had ours.

Actually, it was quite a lot of fun and a good experience. I didn’t worry about not having much to eat because I had already learned how to fast for several days in a row when we were still ministering at University Christian Church. We took fish hooks and line, etc. with us, carrying it in our backpack, plus rope to tie around trees and branches that we would use in making our beds at night. We knew how to make our fires, cutting down small trees to use for that and how to put them together to stay on fire all night by the side of our beds. When we got to the place where we were to stay overnight, we had to go off by ourselves to put up our own beds, each to make her own for her own use.

We were not to talk to anyone during this time, and if we wanted something to eat, we had to get it the best way we knew, eating things that were in the area that were edible and steering away from poisonous plants, etc. When I was lying in my bed after having prepared it and having my fire going nicely at my side, I began to sing songs. Of course, other girls around me could hear, and this was my way of letting them know they weren’t really alone. The Lord was with us and would help us whatever happened that night. (I was the oldest one at Jungle Training Camp, even the camp managers and workers were younger than I was.) Everyone seemed to look up to me, because they knew that if I could do it, they could do it, too, whatever it was we had to do. The third part of camp was called Village Living. In this part, which lasted five weeks, each family group went to a Tzeltal village and lived there with no other white Americans. We had to plan ahead on what we would eat, and buy and take our canned goods and staples from the Main Base camp. We purchased other food like eggs, corn and chickens or whatever else we could get at the village where we lived.

Chuck and I went to a village called Abeyanal, (Ah-bay-un-all), a fairly large community. They had a little Catholic church which was just across a basketball court from the teacher’s house and the community hall. Since we went there to be teachers for the children, teaching them how to read and write in their own language, the teacher’s house was our house, and we used the community hall as our school. We also taught them arithmetic and other things.

We had a small house as our sleeping house and a place we had visitors. It was built of dried tree branches covered with mud, and after the mud dried hard, it was painted white. It had two small rooms, one as the bedroom, and the other as the visitor’s room. Then right next door was another small house which was the kitchen. There was a small place for a stove plus a table, and I think there was a space for dishes and storage of pots and pans. There was a fireplace, too, and over the fireplace was a place to lay food one would want to dry. For instance, we got meat one day and cut it into small pieces, then strung it up over that fireplace so it could dry out. The only problem was that instead of drying out, it got bugs in it and we had to throw it away. Like any other teaching job, we had school five days a week.

When our teaching was over for the day, we could go and visit people in the community. We also had projects to do while there. My project was to investigate what the children did for fun and what they did for work. This kept me busy in my spare time, and I took pictures of the children in their various activities so I could document my findings when I gave my report to the camp manager.

I was also getting information to take home and use in presenting to Vacation Bible Schools when telling about our time in JTC. We made reports on other things the people did, like how they planted corn and how they prepared it. Also, they raised sugar cane, so we recorded how they processed it from cane to molasses to solid brown sugar. Everything we did was done so we could teach about it later and tell how the Tzeltals lived their lives. We also kept records of some of their religious beliefs, traditions, and ceremonies, most of which were displays of Catholicism mixed with indigenous rites and customs.

Every week we took a day off for a holiday. We hiked down to the river that was quite far away. A tributary stream emerged from a medium sized cave and flowed into the river. It had clean cold water that was drinkable and delicious. This was a good place to have prayer and Bible study. Since the village people did not come to this area, we had it all to ourselves. This was a very special day for us. We went swimming at the mouth of the cave. The water came out quite cold from the cave, but it warmed up as it got into the larger part of the river. I wore a special dress that would dry out quickly. At jungle camp, we missionary ladies always wore pants. We wore dresses, too, but we always had to have long pants on under our dresses. When I went swimming, I removed my long pants and just wore my dress. I almost felt naked in that getup. If any of the natives had seen me go swimming, I’m sure they would have loved to see the white skin of my legs, and probably they would have talked about it for a long time to come.

We were taken to Abeyanal by the same small plane that took us into Main Base when we went there, and when it was time to go out again, the same plane returned to pick us up. When we went in in the first place, the couple that was supposed to have been there before us for the previous session was to have been flown out because we were there to replace them. But for some reason, the wife of the couple had already been taken out, so we only got to meet the husband and talk to him for a short while before we went to our village. It happened that he was the one who told us about the cave and good swimming place, and he told us that the reason the people didn’t go to that cave was because they thought there was a mountain lion or wild animal that lived in the cave, and it was bad luck to go there. Of course, all we ever saw there were bats, and they were afraid of us.

Later on, when we went to the Philippines, we were to have many workshops and fine days working with this same couple. Several of the people who were in our jungle training camp, in fact, were geared to go to the Philippines, so we were able to have some wonderful experiences with them early on in our missionary days.

After we were out of Jungle Training Camp in June of 1973, we spent time visiting churches and telling about our experiences at jungle camp and what we planned to do in the Philippines when we went there as missionaries. We rented an apartment in Inglewood near Centinela Avenue. This was near to the Miller’s house where we had stayed before going to jungle camp, and in the vicinity of University Christian Church. In fact, when Nancy was planning to get married to Tom Boutwell, we had her stay at our apartment, and Tom stayed with us, too. It was good to have three bedrooms so we could accommodate them. Also, it was nice to be there when they got married so we could participate in that. They got married in University Christian Church and Chuck officiated at their wedding.

Time went so fast those last few months before we left for the Philippines that we do not remember much about it. We were still preparing, though, for our trip and trying to make sure we didn’t forget anything important. People were just wonderful to us all along the way, and we loved it. How exciting to look forward to going to the mission field in a few short months. This was something I had looked forward to doing for such a long time, and now it was becoming a reality.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 20: Jungle Training Camp

  1. I attended jungle camp with my parents in 1974. Your memoir takes me back to this special time in my life. I will read this chapter to my grandson because it so accurately describes my own journey. Thank you!

    Ruth Anne Tozier Kennedy

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