I was on a mission in Costa Rica for my church in 1995 when I experienced what would turn out to be one of the longest days of my life. But I was only a bystander in that day. By all accounts, it was a much, much longer day for my work companion and friend, Sister Shepherd, when all was said and done, than it could have possibly been for me. It was a day we had a lot of company.
Before I tell you about that epoch day, however, I need to explain a few things about the life of a missionary. Missionaries are up at 6 AM and it's lights out at ten. There are a lot of rules, mostly designed to keep missionaries safe, and focused on their work. Rules like staying with your companion so you don't find yourself in a compromising situation, or wearing shoes at all times to prevent creepy little worms from burrowing into the bottoms of your feet and getting into your blood stream, are pretty obvious. Less obvious are things like speaking Spanish all day so that you can hone the language, or keeping arms distance from members of the opposite sex to keep those ol' hormones in check. We were called by the names "Hermana" (Sister, in Spanish) or Elder, out of respect. The life of a missionary is structured to help them to feel the spirit and be about the Lord's work. We tried to stay focused, and I was known as a "reglista", one who followed the rules. Most days, it all went just fine. Most days.
It all started some time in the wee morning hours, well before sunrise. We lived in a small, antique village called Nicoya, where we rented a tiny room that opened to a courtyard, from an inn keeper named Ezekiel (sounds very made up, doesn't it?). He was a sweet old Tico (a name the Costa Ricans affectionately call themselves by), and he adored us like a bowlegged, dotting grandfather. Our place was two blocks away from a 450 year old Colonial church and about half a block away from a bar. It was the rainy season, which means it was pretty much like every day had been for the past six months. Wet. Our leaky roof had soaked the composite ceiling panels above our beds (rare luxuries in a country where ceilings were considered a waste of building materials), leaving them tie-dyed with coffee-brown stains. It was through one of these weakened tiles that our first visitor of the day would arrive.
I don't know if it was the scream or the crashing explosion near my head that woke me, but by the time my eyes were open the room was in motion. My companion was standing on her headboard screaming, "There's an animal in here!" She was nearest the light switch, but refused to budge from her perch on the corner of her bed. Stepping off into the unknown, I bolted, flipped the switch and was back on my bed in a flash. There on the floor lay fragments of the broken composite tile, and on the small nightstand, the largest piece of tile leaned against my oscillating table fan. Hermana Shepherd spoke quickly, squirming and trying to rub off the feel of the thing from the side of her leg and arm. "It landed on my head, and ran down my body! I kicked it and it flew under your bed! I think it was a cat!"
I slowly lowered my head over the side of my bed, but could only see my large suitcase beneath. Perhaps the beastie had crawled behind it. I climbed off my bed and slid it away from the wall before hopping back on to it like a life raft. Once safely upon my perch, I scoped out the area next to the wall that was now exposed. There, sitting on my suitcase was a large, shaggy rump about the size of a human head, with what appeared to be an enormous rat tail. I asked Hermana Shepherd to open the outside door providing an escape route for our guest, and then as fast as I could, I slapped the suitcase. The beastie did not budge. I screwed up my courage and slapped it again, but much harder this time. Not even a flinch. A third, forth and fifth slap yielded the same results, and with each strike my def con-fear-meter dropped a bit.
I concluded that I wasn't dealing with the rocket scientist of the animal kingdom here, and took one final and well aimed shot, right to the furry rump. My hand made contact with a very solid mass covered with wet, wiry fur, which certainly did not move due to my force, but out of pure surprise. Like a child who throws a stick over a bridge and runs to the other side to watch it float by, I spun to the other side of my bed in time to see the beastie. Actually, there would be plenty of time to see him. He lumbered, waddled, across the floor in what for him must have been a dead sprint. He was about the size of a large raccoon, wore the face of a rat that matched the tail, and made me forever a believer in the mythical creatures of The Princess Bride, the ROUS's, or Rodents of Unusual Size. Hermana Shepherd slammed the door.
After beastie's less than speedy departure, we pieced together the details of the last few minutes. Apparently, luck had been on my side in the moment our nocturnal friend had strolled across the soaked tile that was only a foot over from being directly above my head. At that moment, my oscillating fan turned perfectly to allow beastie, as he surfed down on his board, to be launched onto Hermana Shepherd's head, 3 feet away. ( I think he is still talking about it to his other beastie friends.). What a way to start the day. Sleep was abandoned and Hermana Shepherd heebie-jeebied into the shower to wash off the creepies.
By late morning, the creepies were mostly gone, replaced by tropical heat and the day's work underway. Just before lunch, we headed for the public phones in the park to call into the office, a place that we seldom visited due to the six hour bus ride through the jungle to get there.
The young missionary who picked up on the other end greeted Hermana Shepherd with a condolence."Sorry to hear about your grandpa, Hermana.
""What about my grandpa?" she tensed.
"Uh, um, hold on, let me get President Hendricks." he stammered and put her on hold.
I stood beside my companion and watched the tears pour down her cheeks as she was apologized to, and informed that the mission office had received a call a few days before that her Grandfather had passed away unexpectedly. The busy President, in charge of 136 young missionaries, traveling the entire country from week to week holding conferences and interviews, and lovingly shepherding us all like a father, was devastated at having forgotten to call. We stood in this most public place, while Hermana Shepherd lived through the first moments of a very private pain. She learned that the funeral was today, beginning in just a half an hour, thousands of miles from this place. Several attempts at an international phone call later, she tracked down her family and sobbed with them over the miles.
At that moment, a bristly, sweaty, shirtless man who had drifted near and stood long enough to know this was not going to be a short call, began to bark at us. "Get off the phone! Other people need to use it!" I turned, and believing in the decency of human kind, explained that this young lady had just learned that her grandfather had died and she was talking to her family in the States. "So what? Is that my problem? People die all the time!" His tirade continued, and the only thing that held me back from experimenting with some new Spanish words I had heard used in the streets was the name tag I wore identifying me as a good Christian girl.
God sends angels in many disguises, and on that day one arrived in the form of a tiny granny in a flowered skirt and plaid top who had been listening near by. She bustled her 4 foot 11 inch body right up to the big heartless thug and chattered at him like a squirrel, telling him his mother would be ashamed of him. He shrank at her words, wind all out of his sails, and grumbled as he skulked away to another phone across the park. She patted my arm and told me to let the muchacha talk to her family as long as she liked. She would be nearby if anyone gave us any more trouble. I leaned down and kissed the cheek of my tiny defender, and watched her waddle on stumpy, veiny little legs to a cement bench close by and settle herself down, nodding at me knowingly.
I don't know how we spent the rest of that afternoon, drifting from task to task, trying to lose ourselves in the work. My next conscious memory of that day was at day's end, as we arrived back to our little piece of home, which now seemed millions of miles away from home. My companion slumped exhaustedly, and proclaimed, "I'm just going to take a shower and go to bed." I plopped on my bed awaiting my turn for a cold shower that would wash away the sweat and difficulty of the day.
As I leaned against the wall, my head resting against the curtain, a cool breeze drifted out from behind it, and with it came a strange metallic tapping sound. In the evening in Costa Rica, one might expect to hear a million little sounds; tree frogs and strange bird calls, bull frogs and the hissing rustle of wind through the coconut palms, and certainly the steady rhythmic click of a ten-speed, the official Tico transport, passing by, but this new sound was not on the list. I pulled the curtain aside and glanced toward the sound, and seeing nothing was just about to drop the curtain when something very close to the wall moved. I stared into the darkness, and made out the edge of a white shirt sleeve just a few feet away, so close to the wall that it was clear to me that it's owner was standing with his back pressed against the wall. Judging by the height of the sleeve I figured it was one of our oh-so-mature male counterparts, the other local missionaries, probably gearing up to pull a prank on us.
"Cut it out, Elder, I see you. Not tonight. We've had a crappy day." I said to the sleeve a few feet away. It pulled closer to the wall.
"Elder, I see you. Come on, cut it out." I said relaxing into a tone of annoyance. There was no response.
In the silence of that moment I suddenly realized this might not be one of the missionaries at all. I caught my breath and felt a jolt of cold fear move through me. In a low, warning tone, I spoke. "Whoever that is, if you don't get away from there by the time I count to three I am going to scream. One..., two..."
In a flash a man launched himself away from the wall, jumping down from something high, revealing not a 6 foot tall American boy, but a 5 foot tall Latino man. The picture suddenly came clear to me... he had been watching my companion showering! "Get away from the window Hermana, there's a man..." I bellowed at Hermana Shepherd as I ran for the front door. I could hear her screaming by the time I hit the street outside.
The voyeur had flung himself over a fence that I could not scale in a skirt, and I lost precious time having to race for the gate and double back in the direction he had bolted. I ran, chasing the little man down the dark road for several blocks, screaming my head off at him in my mother tongue, biblical expletives included. He disappeared into the shadows of the meandering side streets and in that moment, my senses suddenly caught up with me. I stopped in the middle of the dirt road and took a sudden inventory of all of the rules I was breaking. I was alone. I had left my companion. I was out after curfew. I was speaking in English. I was barefoot. Oh, yeah, and I was swearin' like a sailor. Good, good little missionary. I turned around and ran back home through the dark, quiet streets, my bare feet thudding on the firm, damp road, feeling suddenly so alone and so angry. I don't know what I would have done with the little man if I had caught him, but I am pretty sure it would have involved my fist and his face.
When I returned to our room, Hermana Shepherd stood with dripping hair, her arms hugged around the now wet dress she had yanked back over her head. She was shaking and sobbing so hard I could barely understand her. In a few moments, the inn keeper, Ezekiel, and some of the guests gathered outside, called out by the sound of screams. A survey of our window revealed a stack of cinder blocks piled up under our bathroom window. Ironically, I had just noticed them there a few days before and assumed that Ezekiel had placed them there. We figured that some guys from the bar had been watching for us to come home each night. We didn't know how long it had been going on, but I was pretty sure that our peeping Tom had been taking in a nightly show for quite some time.
Ezekiel apologised, moved the blocks, and explained that there was no point in calling the police, they wouldn't come and the man was long gone. Excitement over, everyone headed off to their rooms. We went inside.
Hermana Shepherd was crying, so frustrated with the day, feeling so violated. As the curtains blew, she barked, "That stupid window is still open!" She whisked to the window and yanked back the curtains.
He was standing right in front of the window.
Hermana Shepherd screamed. I wanted to punch him. I flew to the window and jumped up on the bed, fists on my hips. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!?" I roared. "I just came back to tell the muchacha I am sorry, I didn't mean to upset her." He squeaked in a trembling voice. I wanted to kill him. OK, hurt him really bad. He was smaller than me, and was crouching timidly. I was pretty sure I could take him.
"WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!?" I demanded. And silly little man, he told me! I started telling him off. I told him he was a pervert, and that his mother would be ashamed of him (it packs a punch to a Tico). Then I realized that in my fury I had already forgotten his name, so I asked for it again. He told me, again! "I'm calling the police! You stay right there, I'm coming out!"I headed for the door, feeling all the righteous anger of a girl who had already fought a giant rat and a sweaty bully in a park.
"Hermana, STOP! He's going for the door!"my companion screached.
A flicker of what I learned years later in my life was something called "self preservation", flitted through me, and I pondered for just a moment the possibility that this man might be drunk or have a knife. I stopped.
The little, possibly-drunk, possibly-armed repentant pervert disappeared, and the crowd came back out of the cabins. This time we took matters into our own hands, borrowing Ezekiel's phone and calling the Elders. They came quickly, but not fast enough. Poor Hermana Shepherd was nearly hysterical, ranting that she couldn't stay in this place and talking about wanting to go home.When the Elder's got to our room I broke yet another rule, and let them in. What the heck, I was on a roll. It was decided that Hermana Shepherd would have the Elders give her a blessing, a special prayer of comfort. Hermana Shepherd sat on her tico bed, a frame with boards that held up a pancake thick mattress, her backside only about 7 inches off the floor. Elder Anderson, a Big blond from Idaho stood to her left, and Elder Tenney, a thin, lanky newbee, perched on one knee in front of her. Hermana Shepherd spoke weakly, and she looked ashen. As the Elders placed their hands on her head to administer the blessing, I kept an eye on Hermana Shepherd. She didn't look right.
About half way through the prayer, Hermana Shepherd passed out cold. Sweet, rule-obliging Elder Tenney hesitated for a moment, his arms almost reaching out to catch her, before he instinctively yanked them back into his chest. She went down like a tree, head first, right onto the tile floor. Arm's length. At least someone keeps the rules around here.
We scraped her off the floor and put her on the bed. Accept for a bump on her head, a peeping tom, a bully in the park, a dead grandfather and a freakishly large rodent in her bed, she was fine. It took some praying, hymn singing, and eventually some joking around to settle us all down after that. An hour or so later, the Elders bid us goodnight. They promised they would be outside, trolling the neighborhood on their bikes trolling for any would be creeps or beasties.
I finally lay in bed at the end of that long day, a large hole in the ceiling over my head, the cool sweep of the fan on my face, and the comforting, rhythmic clicks of two ten speed bikes out side. I fell soundly asleep.