On Sleeping in Unfinished Churches Out in the Jungle


I can’t forget the time I saw stars in the ocean.

When I was a kid, we lived in Papua, Indonesia. I’d homeschooled up in the Baliem Valley for a year, and my parents decided to send me to the coast, to Sentani, to take my SATs and go on the intense 2 week excursion that was to come. I was a round, fudgy teenager at the time, and I played too many games and stayed holed up in my room smelling the sweet spices that would drift in on the wind in Wamena. I was sheltered, even in this remote wonderful place, and I didn’t get out much. I was basically Bilbo Baggins.

The night the entire high school left for our Outdoor Education foray, we boarded a large passenger freight in Jayapura. I got very seasick. After an overnight voyage, we stayed in Nabire, my childhood home, nestled in the crook of the bird’s neck. I slept on the floor of my childhood beach house and saw the school where I’d gone in 4th grade much changed: a single school house, air conditioned, overflowing with books and toys. We flew up to Yapen Island the next morning, then took a 4 hour bus up winding roads to a remote point inland, then hiked two hours to the site of the village, Warironi.

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The villagers all greeted us with a celebratory dance, took our feet and had us smash a ritual plate with crossed machetes and palm branches. They were dark skinned with pearly teeth, and their voices were beautiful. Every one of the 40 kids in our group was carried over this ritual threshold and welcomed in.

We stayed in an unfinished cement church with mosquito nets strung up on tarps, and were divided into groups. We sang and talked by lamplight most nights, and dug and shat in a pit out back. The river ten minutes away was where we drew our water and did our laundry and bathed. The stars overhead were crystalline, and the jungle was on our doorstep.


The school engaged in different projects: building a cistern for a remote village, teaching VBS to the kids, learning how to make Papaeda and how to harvest cocoa. The villagers would pick bundles of cocoa fruit and leave them drying on long white and blue tarps in the sun, letting the fruit dessicate in the heat to leave just the cacao seeds we prize so much for making chocolate.


It was magical, and I was so uncomfortable. I hoped—secretly—I’d shed my baby fat and come back from the jungle looking markedly more badass, but of course that didn’t happen. On the way back, I did end up contracting measles, which kept me bedridden for two weeks while I watched pirated James Bond films back in Wamena, slowly gaining back any weight I might’ve lost. 

We took a boat out across the waves one night, hiked up a steep incline and looked down into a bottomless pit. There was a full underground kingdom down below, filled with shivering bats. The kids stepped up to the edge and looked down, afraid the rock would give. I stayed at the back. Our guide led us down a pathway through the winding jungle to a secret entrance and led us inside. Within the cave were mounds of grey guano, smelling of spoiled yogurt. Sightless white insects scuttled over the dunes of refuse, and overhead, the ceiling was covered in coiled wings, chittering. Some of our friends laid down in the guano and made guano angels, and complained of the stink all the way back to the boats later on.


As we came back to the docks in our outrigger boats, the sun set and I looked beneath us. The water was filled with shimmering bioluminescent algae, but the effect was constellations: living stars spread out in a panoply beneath us. I felt small and in awe in that moment.

When we reached the docks, the tide had gone out, and a good quarter mile of mudded salt flats stood between us and dry land. Everyone in the boats disembarked, and we sloshed and walked our way to shore. Every step sunk my legs in 3 feet deep and sucked the sandals off of my feet. Midway to shore, A sharp, biting pain tore through my right foot, and I knew I’d snagged my foot on a piece of glass or sharp coral. The salt in the mud invaded the wound, stinging and cauterizing it. I walked gingerly to shore and pulled myself up, limping, to examine my foot in the dark. Jim, a classmate, twin with large bottlecap glasses, shone his light on it. A long angry red cut ran laterally from the back of my foot to my big toe.

“Don’t walk on it if you can help it,” a teacher told me.

We walked an hour and a half back to the church, and I went the whole way with my right foot on the tip of the toe. I’d look around to the silent forest, loud with animals and sweet with decaying fruit, and then up to the stars overhead. I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming. This is really happening, I told myself over and over, and then prayed, and then looked up to the stars again. Despite the pain, it was really one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.