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Howling Monkeys: Adventures in Central America

September 2, 2019

Another Way for week of August 23, 2019

Howling Monkeys: Adventures in Central America

Guest Columnist Merle Headings

Editor’s Note: Second of two parts by Merle Headings, a pilot who made flying mission trips to Central America for Christian organizations in the late 70s and early 80s. Read Part 1 here.

The village of Sayaxche Petén on the Pasion River was our destination for this mission. Sayaxche had a small 3,000 foot jungle grass runway, a little hard to find in the middle of the jungle. There were no signs of an air strip, no control tower or pavement, not even a windsock or runway lights.

Since I had landed there a number of times, I knew what to look for. I lined up with the south end of the air strip and made a pass at about 50 feet above the ground (this is what we called sweeping the runway, to let the residents know to get animals off the air strip so we could land). It was after four p.m., and time, daylight, and energy were running out. People came to the grassy runway to see who had come to their town.

We had certainly landed in another world. To keep the plane safe, Brother Melvin High arranged for two boys to sleep under the plane wing at night for the next 12 days for a few dollars. Then he hired a truck taxi to take us to the river, and a canoe for the four hour river trip to the missionary clinic. By 5 p.m., we loaded every precious item into a large, wooden canoe. They gave us instructions in Spanish to hold still and not move around—which we had no problem understanding. The pitifully humming boat motor was steered by our native canoe captain. Would this worn canoe and motor make the trip?

Carmen and Anita took in all the sights, noises and strange scents as the canoe smoothly moved along. Soon darkness fell. We could no longer see the muddy river. Here and there lights twinkled on the banks of the river. Sometimes our canoe met other boats with a flashlight or song to warn their presence.

What a glorious sight to finally see a few shining lights from the clinic. The missionary doctor, Elam Stoltzfus and his family were eagerly waiting our arrival. They helped us carry everything from the boat to the clinic grounds, where a generator provided light in the home The hospitality of our hosts was warm and welcoming, making us feel like honored guests. Carmen and Anita made friends with June, the teenage daughter. After talking for a few hours, the girls, Brother High and I were in need of a good night’s sleep. The girls slept on pallets in one of the rooms in the clinic and the rest of us had beds in another building. No electricity or indoor bathrooms at this resort. Not even the strange jungle noises did not keep us up.

The early morning sun soon called us out of bed. Outside, two beautiful pet Macaw parrots were gossiping back and forth. The jungle tree tops were home for many wild Macaws. We had seen parrots perched in the tops of the trees along the river bank.

The damp morning jungle air carried the smell of coffee. The girls were not too sure about this adventure of eating strange food in a strange place with strangers. They thought about skipping breakfast and eating somewhere else. I told them this was their only choice and they should at least make an appearance. At the make shift pavilion, shy and petite native women greeted us as they cooked over a fire. There was sweet coffee in a big black kettle and some jungle bread frying on a large piece of tin. The jungle bread was rationed out and with thankful hearts, we ate. Jungle dining etiquette was our next lesson of the day. While the setting was easy and relaxed, deep respect and gratitude for our cooks was evident. We felt honored to take a seat at the table, be served, and eat the prepared meal. Every guest was expected to be very mannerly. We greeted each other and carried on polite conversation as we ate. It didn’t take long to finish the coffee and bread. My girls and I followed the example of others and said “gracias” as we left.

The forenoon was spent taking a tour of the clinic grounds with Guatemalans visiting the clinic in need of medical aid. We enjoyed a lunch of black beans and jungle coffee. Too soon the sounds of the jungle night life started up again: amid camp fires and fragrant flowers, a piercing scream echoed through the jungle and seemed to land right at the clinic grounds. My girls were quite frightened. They learned this screaming was just the howling monkeys talking to each other. With flashlights, we found our beds, said good night, and listened to the eerie sounds.

Eleven days later when we returned to the U.S. from this mission trip, we thanked the Lord for his many blessings and safekeeping. The plane on this trip logged a total of 15 hours. Considering it was a newly rebuilt engine with only 14 hours logged, we were truly blessed.


Much more of this experience is written in a small booklet, “Adventures to Central America,” by Merle Headings and two of his daughters, Carmen and Anita. For the entire book by email, write to me at Or send comments or questions to Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.


What did you learn or experience in a new or different culture? What would you tell others?


One agency offering a variety of helpful and well planned short and long term mission work is Mennonite Mission Network, an organization I was connected to in various ways over many years. See their work and opportunities in Christian service.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.  

  1. Robert Davila permalink

    I too spent some time in that very village with the Stoltzfus family back in last half of 1986,early 1987 when I was about 26 years old. It was an experience I will never forget.

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