The Ugly American And The Street Preacher

“Somebody ought to do something about this guy!”

I was walking home from downtown Iquitos when I heard the remark. The comment was made by one of three middle-aged American tourists sitting at a table near the street of a sidewalk café. It was obvious that the man who uttered the remark had already had plenty to drink. Though it was only eleven-thirty in the morning.

“Get out of the street, you jerk!” the tourist yelled.

The object of his scorn was fifty-six year old Raul Perez. Brother Raul is a deacon at a small Pentecostal church on the outskirts of town. Most Saturday mornings he walks from his home to this street to share his faith to anyone who will listen. A frayed black Bible in one hand and a tiny tin cup in the other. The coins in the tin cup jangled as he flayed his arms round and round—pleading with pedestrians to change their wicked ways and turn their lives over to God.

Locals respect street preachers.

Some will stop and listen for a minute or two. A few will drop a coin into his tin cup. Technically, Brother Raul was breaking the law by preaching in the street. But the lone traffic cop lounging on the corner under the shade of a canopy was ignoring him. The irritated tourist noticed my Atlanta Braves baseball cap on my head.

“Hey, Atlanta,” he shouted to me. “That guy in the street is annoying me. Somebody ought to run him off. Don’t you think so?”

I said nothing.

Instead I took a bill from my wallet and stepped out in the street. Shaking Brother Raul’s hand, I placed the bill in the cup. “God bless you, brother,” he said.

I thought about saying something to Brother Raul’s antagonist. But I didn’t. It would probably upset him more. As I headed to my house, I recalled a best-selling book decades ago—“The Ugly American.” The book is about some American tourists who are poor representatives of their country when they travel to other countries.

One thought occupied as I continued my walk home: Maybe it’s time for the book to be reprinted.

The Holy Rollers

 “Aya-huh-ma-ya-glo-ri-ah-apoyah!”

That’s the noise I heard coming from an abandoned garage located on a narrow dirt street a dozen blocks from downtown Iquitos. I’d been visiting an old friend and was heading home. The strange noise stopped me dead in my tracks. I was about to continue my walk home when I heard it again.

About ten feet behind me the garage door stood partially open.

I stepped back and peeped inside. About a dozen or so people were clapping their hands as they sang some good old fashioned Baptist hymns in Spanish. One of the worshipers—a thirtyish looking man with a deformed left leg—was rolling around on the cement floor. Yelling something unintelligible. About twenty or so other worshipers had formed a circle around him. Clapping their hands to the beat of a barefoot teenage boy pounnding on a hand-held drum.

The scene reminded me of when my father operated the Pryor Street Mission in a cotton mill neighborhood on the south side of Atlanta when I was a boy. In a grassless open space behind the mission stood a large tent patched in at least a dozen places. My two brothers and I used to watch the goings on in the tent from the second floor bedroom we shared. Usually, the service would start off slowly. After about an hour of singing hymns such as “Bringing In The Sheaves” (back then I thought the name of the hymn was “Bringing In The Sheep), “That Old Rugged Cross”, and many others, people in the tent started rolling around the sawdust covered ground— speaking in what was then called the “Unknown Tongue.”

Observing the celebration inside the garage brought a smile to my lips. Not a derisive smile. But a smile of respect for the Holy Rollers. Worshiping God can take many forms. Who knows, I thought as I headed for my house, maybe I’ll take the girls in my house to one of the meetings at this makeshift church one day. After giving the matter some thought, that it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

Still, I have a lot of respect for people like the Holy Rollers.

Living In A House Full of Females

“Give me my hairbrush, Juanita!” Erika yelled.

“I don’t have your hairbrush,” Juanita replied in an irritated voice.

“Liar,” Erika replied. “I’m going to tell Senor Leo when he wakes up.”

Truth was, I was already awake. I’d been resting peacefully during my afternoon siesta before the shouting began. I’d been dreaming. In the dream I was the All-Star second baseman for the Atlanta Braves. We were in the seventh game of the World Series with the hated New York Yankees. And we were losing three to two in the bottom of the ninth inning. There was a man on second and third with two outs. I stood at the plate. Three balls and two strikes. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the right fielder move ten or so feet toward the right field line I had a pretty good idea what the Yankees ace reliever was going to throw me. A slider on the right corner of the plate. If I timed it just right, I could drill the pitch into the right center field gap.

In my mind’s eye I could see my fellow Braves mobbing me. Television reporters begging me for an interview. Even sharing a Cadillac convertible with the Braves manager as we passed down Peachtree Street—confetti swirling in the air above us. Fans lining the street yelling my name. My bat was cocked as the pitcher released the ball … That’s when the argument in the living room began.

At first it annoyed me to be woken from the dream. I was about to drive in the winning runs for the World Series Champs—the Atlanta Braves. I almost yelled at them to hush. That’s when I remembered what had happened yesterday.

I was in the bathroom shaving when my razor became clogged with hair. Long black hairs that had fallen from the girl’s heads as they brushed their hair over the sink. The house we live in now has only one bathroom. “How many times do I have to tell you girls not to brush your hair over the sink?” I growled.

Senora Luci was washing dishes in the kitchen. She let out a loud sigh. Her sandals made a flop-flop-flopping sound as she came to the bathroom door. “I know the girls get on your nerves sometimes,” she said in a calm voice. Then she added, “Especially someone your age, Senor Leo.” ‘OUCH!” “But it won’t be long before these girls will be heading for college.”

She didn’t say it. But I could sense what she really wanted to say, “Then who are you going to complain about?”

“Just wait until Senor Leo wakes us,” Erika said, interrupting my reverie.

A smile creased my lips as I thought about the pleasure I receive from living in a house with all these females over the years. I made a mental note not to complain about long hairs in the sink; having to wait until the girls finish primping in the bath room; and the little inconveniences that living in a house with four females brings (five if you count fifteen month old Ja Di).

Closing my eyes, I mumbled “You’re a lucky man, Leo.” Even though you were about to knock in the winning runs in the World Series.

Bus Ride Home

 

I try to avoid using the local bus system here in Iquitos, Peru.

The last time I rode a bus here I was laid up for over a month. Two years ago the head of the transportation system decided to install speed bumps to reduce the speed of vehicles on the town’s main arteries. Last year I boarded a bus driven by a driver who obviously was impaired by alcohol or drugs.

I didn’t know that when I dropped down in a seat in the back.

Obviously, the bus was behind schedule. Usually, bus drivers compete for passengers—cutting in front of each other as the smaller motorcycles and motorcars try desperately to avoid being run off the road. This day, though, the driver, a lanky pock faced youth with a New York Yankees baseball cap on backwards, avoided taking on more passengers.

He flew down the street like he was on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500.

I guess he didn’t see the speed bump.

‘BAM!”

I flew out of my seat. My head cracked against the back of the seat to my right. Then darkness engulfed me. When I was able to open my eyes a teenage boy and a stout, middle-aged woman with varicose veins were peering down at me. Somehow either I’d staggered off the bus, or the driver had dumped me on a grassy spot on the side of the road.

I could see the rear of the bus as it sped away.

The two helped me to my feet. They stayed with me until I managed to hail down a motorcar. The teenager even volunteered to accompany me to make sure I got home okay. Thanking them both for their help, I crawled into the motorcar—excruciating pain shooting through my lower back with every move I made.

I told the driver I’d pay him double if he drove slowly.

It took me two weeks before I could walk again without pain. Almost five weeks before I completely recovered. Yesterday I got caught downtown during a frog-choking rainstorm. There wasn’t a motorcar in sight. Finally, a bus stopped in front of me. My shoes made squishing sounds as I boarded the bus. The only unoccupied seat was in the back.

So I stood up front. 

Halfway to my house a man and his wife sitting behind the driver got off the bus. I plopped down by the window. Two blocks later the bus stopped at one of the half dozen outside markets in town. A hunchback gray-haired woman with a squawking chicken in each hand dropped down beside me. “Buenas tardes, she said in a pleasant voice.

The chicken in her left hand looked over at me, as if to say, “Will you please save me from this woman.”

“Buenas tardes, Senora,”I said, ignoring the chicken.

Other than the chicken pecking my leg—I guess he’d concluded that I wasn’t going to interfere on his behalf—it turned out to be an uneventful ride home.

 

 

 

Latter Day Saints

They pass by my house just about every day.

They don’t have a strict schedule. Sometimes it’s shortly after daybreak. Other times it’s around noon. A few times it’s late afternoon. It’s not hard to spot a Mormon here in Iquitos. They’re always dressed in clean clothes. A clean but well used pair of black or gray slacks, a short-sleeve white shirt and a black tie.

They always travel in pairs. Usually a young American and a young Peruvian. California born Albert Johnson and native Enrique Ramirez (it seems that half the population in this town has the last name of Ramirez) patrol the neighborhood where I live.

Several times they have stopped and asked to speak to me about their faith. “Thanks, but not thanks,” is my usual reply.

I have a huge respect for Latter Day Saints. I know of no other religion that requires their young men to serve as missionaries in foreign countries. Also, Mormons insists that their believers donate ten percent of their earnings to their church. As a son of a Baptist preacher and once the husband of a Methodist minister’s daughter, I’m aware that just about all Christian denominations “ask” their congregations to give ten percent to their church. I’m also aware that those who do so are in the minority.

The last time Albert and Enrique asked to “chat” with me about my faith, I jokingly replied, “No, thanks, but I can offer you a cold soft drink.” It happened about eleven-thirty in the morning as the sun was scorching the street pavement. Enrique was at a loss for words. But Albert took the joke in stride.

“Thanks, Señor Leo,” he replied, a wide smile creasing his young face. “But we’ll pass on that.”

At least I didn’t ask him about Romney losing the election. As they left, Alberto called back over his shoulder, “Have a blessed day.”

“You, too,”I replied.

When it comes to the Mormons, you may not agree with their theology, but you have to admire their dedication to their faith.

Head On A Swivel

“What’s the most important thing I need to remember to be safe here in Iquitos, Peru?”

The question came from a college age tourist from Wisconsin. He had just arrived on the early morning flight from Lima. He sat across the table from me and my friend David at the Dawn On The Amazon Cafe in downtown Iquitos. David gave him a five minute lecture about how good the con artists are in this jungle town. Citing a half dozen times when he’d been conned.

“What about you, Leo?” The tourist asked. “What advice do you have for me?”

I gave the matter some thought. Finally I said, “Well, when you’re crossing the street in this town, you have to have your head on a swivel.”

The young tourist—a robust six footer wearing a gray tee shirt with the words WISCONSIN BADGERS FOOTBALL stenciled in black on the front—whipped off his cap. Scratching his head, he gave me a puzzled look. The answer I’d given him obviously wasn’t what he’d expected.

So I explained. “When I first came here in 1998 I almost got run over a half dozen times. In the first week. I went on to explain that just about nobody driving a vehicle gives a signal when making a turn. And the tradition is that if the driver—regardless of whether he’s driving a motorcar, motorcycle, or a car—he’ll wait until he’s about ten feet from you—then he’ll sit down on his horn.

“It’s the pedestrian’s responsibility to jump out of the way;”David explained.

“About a year ago,” I said, “an Englishman, a retired professor of philosophy at Oxford University, was terrified when a car almost hit him here in Iquitos. So when the car stopped at a red light, he took down the license plate number and reported the incident to the nearest police precinct.” I paused. “Do you know what the police chief said?”

“No,” the young tourist responded.

“The police chief asked the Englishman if the driver of the car blew his horn?

“Uh … yes,” the Englishman replied.

The officer said,  “Then you were the one at fault.”

The retired professor’s mouth flew open. “Why do you say that?”

“When he blew his horn, Senor,” the officer said. “Then you had plenty of time to jump out of the way.”

The young tourist said, “Okay, Leo, I get it. Like you said earlier, I should always keep my head on a swivel when I cross the street, right?”

“Always,” I said. I checked my watch. Twelve o’clock. Time for lunch. “See you later.” I stepped out in the street—where I was almost struck by a motorcycle.

I didn’t dare look back at David and the young tourist. But I heard David call out to me, “Don’t forget to keep your head on a swivel, Leo.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone throws your own words back at you.

Praying For Carolina

“Señor Leo!”

I was sitting with Juanita and Erika in our living room watching televisión when Iveli shouted my name. The program we were watching was an old Three Stoogies movie translated into Spanish. (The Three Stoogies are still popular in Peru). Moe had just punched Curly in the eye and Curly was about to clobber Moe with a broom.

Iveli was struggling to catch her breath. Evidently, she´d been running.“Guess … who … I …just …saw?”she stammered.

“Who?”Juanita answered, her eyes glued to the televisión.

“Carolina.” That got our attention.

“Where, Iveli?” I asked.

“In the plazita down the street.” The plazita is a tiny plaza where families bring their small children to play.

I went over and switched off the televisión. “Let´s go, girls.”

“Hurry,” Iveli said in an urgent voice.

Señora Luci stayed with two year old Ja Di as Juanita, Iveli, Erika and I headed for the plazita several blocks away. Once we arrived there was nobody in the plazita. Carolina was nowhere in sight. “Are you sure you saw Carolina here?” I asked Iveli.

“I´m sure, Señor Leo.”

“Äre you sure it wasn´t a girl who looks like Carolina?”Juanita asked.

Iveli nodded her head. “I talked with Carolina.”

There´s a huge vacant lot beind the tiny plaza that´s separated by waist-high vegetaton and a row of old mamey trees with knotty limbs almost touching the ground. So all of us went looking for Carolina there. After a fruitless search that took about ten minutes, we returned to the street and began knocking on doors, asking people if they had seen Carolina.

No luck.

We were about to give up the search when a fiftyish looking woman with a dark complexión emerged from a tiny shack wedged between two normal size houses. “Who are you all looking for?” she asked in a squeaky voice.

“A teenage girl, Señora,” I said.

“Can you be more specific?” she asked.

“Well, Señora,” Erika said, “ her skin was …”

A pregnant pause.

There are some Peruans here whose skin is white. Obvious descentants at one time or another from Europe. But most of the people have some Indian blood in them, and so their skin color range from a light brown to a darker shade. This woman´s skin color was dark chocolate. Ever the bold one, Iveli finished for Erika,”… as dark as your skin, Señora.”

“Her skin is almost black, right?” the woman said, giving us a snaggle-tooth smile to show that she wasn´t offended.

The girls nodded.

“Yes, I saw a girl who looks like that. But after we talked a minute or two, she left, heading toward town.”

The girls and I canvassed the neighborhood for twenty or so minutes looking for Carolina. But we came away empty-handed. So we went home. It was a Saturday, and the girls usually play volleyball in the street with some neighborhood girls in the late afternoon—when the jungle sun has lost some of it´s strength. Today, though, their minds on Carolina, they just moped around the house. After they had retired to their rooms, though, I could hear Iveli praying. “Please, God, take care of Carolina.”

“Amen,” Erika and Juanita said in unison.

Heading for my room, I said,”And bring her back to us.”

I don´t you about you, dear reader, but I believe in the power of prayer.Over the years the girls in my house and I have had our prayers answered too many times for me not to believe in prayer.

Robin Williams And I

I saw on CNN the other night that Robin Williams perished.

They said suicide was the cause of his demise. Evidently the sixty-three comedian/actor had been plagued by depression for some time. The unfortunate news brought tears to my eyes. Since Robin has been a celebrity for many years, Talking Heads were brought in to comment on his death. I leaned forward in my chair and listened intently.

For a while.

CNN’s Entertainment Reporter chronicled the eccentric comedian/actor’s rise from obscurity to his tragic death. Not realizing that we now live in an age of Political Correctness—where every word one says in public is scrutinized—she commented that Williams had been suffering from his “personal demons” for some time. I’m sure this woman meant no disrespect to the man.

But, terrified that someone might find the term “personal demons” offensive, CNN’s executives felt the need to correct the Entertainment Reporter. So they brought in a Doctor-Know-It-All to contradict her. The man went on and on about how Williams suffered from a form of mental disorder, and that we shouldn’t use words like “personal demons” to explain why people take their own lives.

That’s when I switched off the T.V.

“So what does that have to do with you, Leo?” you might ask.

Well … for one thing … plenty of people suffer from depression. I know I do from time to time. Fortunately,  God has always brought people into my life to show me that life is worth living. Both here in Iquitos, Peru and North Carolina. To be honest with you, I don’t know what I would do without them.

Unlike CNN’s Doctor-Know-It-All, I believe in demons. But I also believe in God. I don’t know where you stand on this matter, dear reader, but there is no doubt in my mind that God exists.

I turned eighty years old several months ago. I’m sure I never would have reached this age without help sent to me by a loving God. Please note that I didn’t just say God. But a “loving” God. I realize there are some of you who don’t share this belief. That’s okay. You see, I have proof. I’ve survived too many professional and personal disasters not to believe that a “loving” God exists. And He cares for me—and for you.

I wish that Robin Williams knew that God loved him. If he had, the demons would not have driven him to take his own life. Rest in peace, Robin Williams. You brought joy to millions through your genius.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Carolina

 

“Guess who I saw yesterday?”

We sat in the kitchen eating lunch when Iveli asked the question. The girls weren’t in school because the town’s school teachers were on strike. (Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that at least one day a month the teachers go on strike). Iveli continued, “During recess in the school yard I spotted her in the open doorway.”

“Who?” Erika asked.

“Carolina.”

Erika’s mouth flew open. “Our Carolina?”

Iveli nodded. “Uh, huh. She looked so sad.”

Carolina is a fifteen year old girl who used to live in our house. I had taken her in when her grand-mother abandoned her when she was seven years old. Shortly after Carolina’s tenth birthday her grandmother showed up at our house after supper one night.

“I’ve come for Carolina,” she said in a no-nonsense voice. But Carolina didn’t want to go with her. She had told us several times that her grandmother had beaten her viciously when she did something to displease her..

I tried to reason with the woman. But she was determined to take Carolina with her. Carolina did the only thing she knew to do. She threw herself on the ground and howled like a wounded animal.

Legally, our hands were tied. So we had to let her go.

Every night for weeks the girls prayed that Carolina would be allowed to live with us again.

“Can’t we go look for her, Papi,” Juanita asked.

“Right after lunch,” I replied.

I’ll keep you posted on our efforts to find Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erika’s Raincoat

 

“Where’s your raincoat, Erika?” I asked.

She had just come home from school. She was soaking wet. Though I’d asked the question, I had a pretty good idea what had happened to it—she had loaned it to a classmate who didn’t give it back to her. Every year when I travel to Atlanta I buy used raincoats for the girls from a Goodwill Store. The coats sold in Iquitos usually don’t have hoods and they don’t shed water well. So a raincoat from the States is a prized possession.

I repeated the question to Erika.

“I loaned it to a friend. And she …”

“… didn’t return it, right?” I finished for her.

She nodded.

I’ve always taught the girls in our house to share. The other girls in our house are good about using some common sense when sharing. Erika just can’t seem to say no to anybody when they ask her for a loan. One year I bought all the girls a new bicycle for Christmas. Erika’s bike didn’t last a year. She’d loaned it to a girl and the bike was never returned. What should I do to teach her to be more careful with her bicycle? I was still pondering the question when I recalled that when I was her age my mother used to get so frustrated with me about losing things.

“What am I going to do with you, son?” she would ask. “You’ve got to be more careful with what you have.”

Thinking of my deceased mother brought a smile to my lips. Sharing my smile with Erika, I said,“Come on, let’s go downtown to see if we can’t find a replacement for your raincoat.”