First, go here to read Part I. This second part will make a whole lot more sense.
Go on. We'll wait.
No? Okay fine, the basic recap is that at the end of my two-year LDS mission in Venezuela in which I was chased often by scary dogs but never bitten, I went to the airport filled with anticipation, ready to go home. As we were about to board the plane a bunch of fastidious airport workers determined that the four missionaries with stickers on the passports could board the plane, while the four with stamps could not.
My passport had a stamp, not a sticker. Naturally.
So, they took us into a holding room, read us our Venezuelan "Miranda Rights" and then questioned us.
Then a guy came in, looked at us with disdain and said "And you guys dare to call yourselves Catholic" (in Spanish) which we would have found endlessly hilarious being Mormon missionaries if we weren't, at about that very moment, WATCHING THE PLANE THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO TAKE US HOME AFTER TWO YEARS OF LIVING IN SOUTH AMERICA WITHOUT SO MUCH AS A PHONE CALL HOME (except on Christmas and Mother's Day) SPEED DOWN THE RUNWAY WITHOUT US IN IT.
A small piece of my soul died right then.
But then things got worse.
First, my Mission President, who was a General in the Air Force, began calling senators and crap like that. He told them that four missionaries had been arrested on charges of who-knows-what and were detained in the airport as they tried to exit the country, and asked what could be done.The general consensus? "Shucks. I dunno. But that's awful."
We tried to keep things light. We told jokes. We talked about memories from the mission. We talked about what we'd do when we got home. The time passed quickly. Surely we would be ushered onto the next flight so we could go see our families who had been planning to meet us in the airports of our respective home-towns for weeks now and probably had the posterboard signs saying "Welcome home!" and "We missed you!" and "You don't get your room back!" ready and waiting by the front door. Surely this little mix up would be resolved soon, and we'd be eating airplane peanuts and watching the first movie we'd seen in two years on our flight home. (For those who don't know, mission rules are pretty intense. They even have a rule about sleeping arrangements: you are not allowed to sleep in the same bed as your companion. Other rules include: no movies, no TV, no girls, no phone calls home, bed at 10:30 up at 6:00 etc., etc. etc.)
It was during this type of lighthearted and hope-filled discussion that one of the Guys in Charge barged into the room and informed us that we would be imprisoned.
Like, in jail.
In a third world country.
This was actually happening.
FOR NO IDENTIFIABLE REASON OTHER THAN THAT WE HAD STAMPS ON OUR PASSPORTS!!!
That's when shiz (as they say in Mormonhood) got real.
We were handed our passports which had been stamped with FALSA repeatedly in red, and were escorted out of the airport and put in an actual, real life, paddywagon. They blared the sirens and lights like we were some regular criminals.
By this point, I was in a state of bemused amazement mixed with a bland acceptance of anything and everything that was taking place. I was hardened. (I think the clinical term for this is "in shock".) A circus of extra-terrestrial clowns riding seahorses and eating humans beings they lassoed out of cars could have paraded by the paddy wagon and I would have thought "Hm. Interesting choice of clothes, my martian friends..." The President of the United States (who at that time was George Bush) could have tapped my window and handed me a plate of scrambled eggs and I would have said, "Um, I prefer over-easy, Presidente Busho." Now that the most improbable thing that could EVER have happened on the day I was flying home from Venezuela HAPPENED, my mind automatically set itself into a mode where any contingency would be met with cool, calm collectedness.
And it's very good that I was in that state. Because, in case you were wondering, jails in third world countries are absolutely repulsive.
So we got to the facility and were taken in to be processed. We must have been quiiite the spectacle. Four gringo missionaries in missionary garb being escorted from police vehicle to the jail. People must've been like "Hey, there goes the Los Mormones.... into the prison.... to teach inmates? Uhh, no, they're restrained themselves and appear to be under arrest...wtf?" (wtf = what the freak in Mormonspeak. And also that rhymed.)
The subsequent events are kind of a blur to me.
I remember them making us take off anything we could hang ourselves with including our belts and shoelaces. Because I'd lost so much weight, what this meant for me was that my pants were now falling off.
But then, when we got to our cell, I was a little surprised to see a plastic bag fashioned into a noose hanging from the bars. Thanks for taking my belt and shoelaces, guys. Certainly wouldn't want me using those when there's a perfectly good jury-rigged noose available.
There was good reason for that jury-rigged noose. The cell we had just been corralled into was... well, words defy description of the nastiness. It was wet. Everywhere. Dark, damp, disgusting. Smelly. There was a big plastic tub filled with water in the corner, and a spigot above it dripping, drip, drip, drip. It soon dawned on us that that water was... all the water. Toilet. Bathing. Drinking. Baptizing. (Ha.)
The nastiness is hard to encapsulate.
Here. Let me try and paint the picture for you.
Mixed with this:
With a dash of this:
And a hint of this:
Only times the disgusting factor by about four trillion.
In fact, see that last picture there? That's a luxury hotel compared to the cell we were put into. Remove the bed, remove the toilet, remove the sink, add about 78% more dank nasty darkness and stench, throw in a complete lack of unnatural light, and you start to approximate the cell we were placed in.
Bottom line: it's more disgusting than I can really portray. And I've been trying pretty hard to give an accurate picture.
Anyway, so there we sat. On newspapers. Trying to remain calm even though we had NO IDEA how long this insanity would last.
Suddenly we heard a voice. "It is the voice of God chastising the wicked, here to release us from this injustice!" we thought triumphantly and incorrectly. Turns out it was the inmate in the cell next to us. He introduced himself (I think his came was Carlos). He was really nice. He explained all about about how he had been transporting a backpack from Venezuela to the US "for a friend" and when it was checked shockingly there was cocaine in it. So he was arrested.
Do you know long he had been there? Three months. *ominous music plays*
It was kind of cool to talk to him. We actually taught him some missionary discussions (remember this fact, it becomes important later), and he ended up being a really cool cat. An addict and a drug dealer. But cool all the same.
There was no food in this establishment. All food had to be brought in. So when the Mission President and his wife brought in some home-made goodness, we shared with Carlos and had a grand ol' time. You know, sitting back on newspapers we put all over the slimy floors having a picnic, sharing Oreos and muffins, shooting the breeze in our germ infested jail cells. What a life!
It was about this time that the guards changed, and something good actually happened. We finally met somebody sane. The new guards came in, took one look at us, and were like "what the crap is GOING ON? Why are you guys in here?"
We told them to story and they were like "Um, this is insanity."
Finally! Finally somebody was acting like a decent human being. They were rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and it was clear that they thought the whole thing was idiotic.
And do you know how lucky we were they thought that?
Very lucky. Because when night came and we were thinking we were going to have to figure out how to spoon each other in the least awkward manner possible in order to make room enough to sleep on the ground in that horrific cell, they came in, opened our the door and said "you guys aren't sleeping on the floor of this cell. You can sleep in the lobby."
It wasn't the lap of luxury. No bed or whatever. It was uncomfortable and the floor was hard. But by golly there was a graffiti riddled bathroom we could use, and there were lights on and we weren't about to get drenched by sewer water or molested through the bars by Carlos.
And we slept. Not very soundly. But we slept.
The next morning was... incredibly odd. Just what do you do with yourself when you are a convict who is in jail but isn't actually in the cell because the guards broke the law by letting you and your comrades sleep in the lobby and then you wake up, stretch a little, and think "I'm in jail right now. And I have a whole day ahead of me... here in the lobby? And also, I'm supposed to be in the United States of America with my family and my dog and my hot girlfriend who is probably devastated right now. But nope? *pinches self* Definitely in jail."
The guards still hadn't changed, and they continued to be really cool. Soon, the Mission President came with delicious muffins and a bag of razor blades so we could shave (mission rules!). The guards gave us free access to the stuff. I hope I'm not the only one that thinks it's funny that at that point I had no belt, making it so my pants were nearly falling off, and I had no laces in my shoes--all for the protection of myself and others--yet I was handed bag full of razors.
The Mission President spoke to the law enforcement in order to get us out of jail--the aim was to get us home immediately. We were told that we needed to see a judge in order to not have to remain in jail. So, we were transported through the city to see a judge.
Okay, this was 2002. The internet had been in full swing for many years. Computers were a given. Yet, when we got to the governmental building where we were to see the judge, we had to actually write our names into some big ledger book as if it was 1928. It was hilarious. I felt like I was on Perry Mason.
Then we got to see the judge.
So, do you wanna know when it's really not a good idea to go platinum blond as a woman? When your ample arm hair is the color of coal. This is a lesson our "judge" who looked as though she had recently had the honor of graduating from high school had not yet learned. She was nice enough, seemed somewhat sympathetic to our plight, yet the best she could give us is that we didn't have to stay in jail but, for no identifiable reason, we were required, by law, to stay in the country.
So, let me ask you a question. If you were a country, and you had people inside of you that weren't supposed to be there, what would you do with them? Would you keep them there? Like, let's say your body was a country, and its borders didn't tolerate copper pennies? What would you do if a copper penny sneaked inside of you illegally? Would you throw it in jail and then make it stay inside of you for no identifiable reason? NO! No you would not! You'd CRAP IT OUT. You'd jettison it. You'd get it out of you. You'd poop until you heard the sweet sound of copper hitting porcelain. That's what you'd do.
Venezuela didn't understand this scientific concept very well.
Instead of deporting us--alleged trespassers on their soil--they said "We really want to let you go. But you are United States Citizens, and arresting one of you for reasons of visa and passport has never happened in our country's history, therefore, let's have you hang around here for no reason. Indefinitely. Until we *mumble mumble mumble*"
Wait, until you WHAT, Venezuela?
"Until we.... uh, straighten things out legally."
Right. Okay Venezuela. Whatever. We will comply.
So, we lived with some other missionaries while we waited it out, and tried to work, but there was really nothing for us to legitimately do. After all, we were going to be going any minute. ANY MINUTE we would get that call saying "Pack up those bags, boys. You's goin' HOME." But then, a day or two turned into a few days. And a few days turned into a week. Our families were freaking out. We were freaking out. I know Wife was FREAKING OUT and was about ready to fly down to Venezuela on a plane and personally escort me out of the country. I had no idea what life meant at this point. I had finished my mission and was supposed to be home. Yet I wasn't home. And I wasn't really on a mission.
I was in no-man's land.
Then a really excruciating day happened. We got the call. "Pack those bags, boys! You's goin' home!" We were so freaking excited! We got those bags packed up, and we got taken to the airport again. And we sat on the multicolored, weird carpet and watched planes take off headed to the United States of America all day long and dreamed of our families and our girlfriends. And then it got to be night time, and we still hadn't been let on a plane. And there was no explanation, and no logic, and nobody taking responsibility for what was happening. But as the sun was setting, so too set our hopes of getting of this island. (IT WAS KIND OF LIKE WE WERE ON LOST!!! EXCEPT WITHOUT A SMOKE MONSTER!)
But yeah. That's right.
They didn't let us leave AGAIN.
Going back to the missionary apartment that night caused this pit the stomach. This gnawing comprehension that things had been so downright insane the possibility of having to go back to jail again because Venezuela is acting crazy was not out of the realm of possibility.
That night was rough.
It was after that day that the two buffoon Venezuelan lawyers that were "representing us" mentioned that they might be able to get things rolling for us in a few months.
Might be able to in months.
As you could imagine, there was a lot of praying that happened in our missionary apartment around this time.
Oh! And I have to tell you how we became an urban legend and a faith promoting rumor!
So, in LDS culture, there is sometimes this phenomenon. It's this thing where where totally false stories are perpetuated in meetings. And it happens because very well-intentioned people who want to inspire others have heard a rumor. And they get tears in their eyes and a twinkle, and earnestly share the rumor with a group of people. And then it turns out that, while based in truth, this rumor was complete and utter balderdash. And now thousands of people are believing a lie. That's what we call a faith promoting rumor. It's kind of like a really inaccurate email forward.
Anyway, we became a faith-promoting rumor.
During the time all of this happened, my dad was teaching a religion course at the Institute of Religion (based at Portland State University) and during one of his classes--probably about good things coming from adversity or something--a woman who was visiting from out of town raised her hand and with the sincerity of a nun said "I don't know if you all have heard, but there are some missionaries that have been thrown in jail down in Venezuela. They were locked up for no good reason and aren't being let go, but..." (dramatic pause) "amazing things are happening. They are sharing The Gospel, even in the prison! And hundreds, maybe thousands of people are being baptized!"
*record screeches to a stop*
My dad was like, "um, I actually know one of the missionaries you are talking about. He's my son, whom I've recently spoken to on the phone. It's true--he and several other missionaries were in jail. For one night. And it is true that while in jail they shared some of the missionary discussions. With one drug-addicted convict named Carlos who was probably much more interested in the Mission President's wife's homemade muffins than the chat they were having. And so, yeah, your numbers might be a teeeeeensy bit off."
I've never been more proud of a made up story about me that spread through hundreds and maybe thousands of people.
Anyway, guys, it's sooo late. I'm really tired. But I want to wrap this up well.
Here's the rest of the story.
After another week, we realized that the buffoon Venezuelan lawyers were completely and totally useless. So the LDS church ended up having to send one of its bigwig lawyers (the one over all of South America) to REGULATE. And by golly, that man was effective. He took us out to a fancy dinner, and gave us all ties, and he wreaked havoc on the legal system.
Days still continued to pass though. Each day, there was the hope that we'd get the call, and that it would be the day we'd go. And each day passed with nothing.
Plans were forged. At one point the idea of us hopping aboard a bus and and driving into Columbia to take a flight from Bogota, passing through dangerous guerrilla zones, was seriously considered. But all the plans were rejected. We just waited.
When nearly a month had passed, on March 7, 2002, we were told to pack our bags again. We were ensured that this time, we would not be left standing awkwardly in the airport. Because this time, a high up Venezuelan official, who I think might have been their Secretary of Defense but I'm not sure on that, thought we should be able to go home and was going to personally escort all of us onto the plane.
So, we went. We wore civilian clothes so as to not draw attention to ourselves. And we hoped for the best. We hoped and prayed we'd be able to get on the plane and go home.
And then, as simple as that, the nightmare ended. He did in fact escort us onto the plane. And we did in fact board the plane, sit in seats, and fly into the sky. And I did, in fact, enjoy the first TV show I'd seen in years. It was Everybody Loves Raymond.
When my feet touched US soil, I was genuinely tempted to kiss the ground. Then, I nearly missed my connection in Dallas. BUT I DID NOT.
And finally, I had my moment. After the 8 hour flight, I got off the plane, walked towards my family, and could see that look in their faces. That look that said "Where is my 300 pound child/brother? And why are you, skinny guy, looking at us with such an awkward I-haven't-seen-you-in-two-years expression?" And then, they realized that I was ME, and we all embraced wildly. And they took me home. And I told lots of stories and made them listen to Shakira and gave them gifts and ate real food again and sat in our house looking at a porcelain cup and thinking "Wow, our life is so abundant it's almost sickening."
And then the next day, I reunited with Pre-Wife.
|Was I worth the wait? Still to be determined, says Wife.|
And we were engaged to be married seven days later.
|Not sure if my smile could GET any wider.|
|I love this picture because it's totally candid and completely captures how we felt in that moment.|
But that's another story for another time....
Oh, and PS, it was not long after this (and some Chavez related riots and other things) that all North American missionaries were removed from Venezuela. They haven't returned to this day.
Oh, and PPS, a couple of weeks later, I got a call from the mission president saying "One of the other Elders that was imprisoned just found out he has tuberculosis, which probably happened in jail. Get tested."
I never got tested. And I'll gladly shake your hand.
Just kidding. I got tested. And I was disease free. But that's still early 20th century WILD that he contracted TB while in that jail cell.
It is late. Good night, friends.
Photo attribution here and here and here and here