I grip the side of the bouncing truck bed with one hand and slide my sorority lavalier back and forth on it’s sterling chain with the other. The excuse for a road that we travel down is full of potholes and each bump reminds me of my need for a bathroom. Before we boarded the truck I had the opportunity to use the local facilities, but retreated in horror at the filth. I now regret my decision.
I smile weakly at my best friend and roommate, Lindsey. Her eyes are hidden behind big sunglasses that probably cost more than the vehicle that bounces us around. “Hey,” I call to her over the roar of the engine. “You okay?”
“Just car sick. It’ll pass.”
I’m comforted to know she is also miserable. As we pass through a village, I gaze at the locals in their rags and am embarrassed by my carefully selected Banana Republic outfit.
Our driver pounds on the horn as he pulls up to a long, unpainted wooden building. Smiling men surround our vehicle and quickly unload our bags and help us down. Children grin shyly in my direction and I wave. That’s the only encouragement needed. I unconsciously stiffen as they circle and stroke my hair.
After an unappetizing dinner which I politely consume, an interpreter explains our group’s agenda for the week. He is difficult to understand, but it is perfectly clear that I am not prepared. Reality shatters my romanticized vision of a mission trip to an exotic land. As the sun sets, the single lightbulb that hangs from the cracked ceiling casts shadows across the room and my eyes become heavy. I am thankful when we are told to get our bedrolls. We follow a woman who carries a fat cat under her arm. When we get to our sleeping hut she opens the door and sets the cat inside, gesturing that he should remain in the room.
“I wonder why she wants the cat to stay in here?” I ask when she leaves.
“He kills the rats,” Kathy, the experienced member of our groups says.
I politely laugh at Kathy’s joke. She’s usually serious, so I want to encourage her attempt at humor. Kathy shakes her head at me and I am terrified to understand she is not kidding. She has done this before and has little patience for a squeamish sorority girl.
I lie on the hard ground and, despite the sweltering heat, cover my entire body with the sleeping bag. My fears keep sleep away. “You awake?” I whisper to Lindsey.
“Duh. Don’t think I’ll sleep tonight. Being dinner for a rat wasn’t in my plan.”
“Don’t worry. I heard these rats want to Tri Delts, not Kappas.”
I am relieved Lindsey giggles. I shift on the hard floor. “I will never take my soft bed for granted again.”
“Amen,” Lindsey responds.
There is a scratching noise and I jump when the cat pounces across my sleeping bag. After a brief skirmish the cat holds the intruder between his paws, repeatedly participating in a catch and release ritual. Lindsey and I are no longer giggling.
The next day I travel by foot to the adjoining village where we invite children to join us for a Bible club. We are again welcomed by smiling faces, all eager to hear our message of grace and salvation. We are treated like celebrities, but these people are the impressive ones.
As Kathy tells the story of Jesus, I am distracted by my sore back. I notice an elderly lady who is hunched over a crude walking stick. Our eyes meet and she smiles. The interpreter sees our exchange. “She walked for four hours to be here,” he tells me. I forget about my sore back.
We meet a joyful family who lost their few possessions in a fire and I shamefully recall how upset I get over a broken acrylic nail. Lindsey and I lead the children in recreation. My nephews never had as much fun on their Wii as these children do playing tag in a grassless field. My heart aches as I say goodbye to my new friends at the week’s end.
I return home exhausted, eager for sleep on my Tempur-Pedic mattress. The next morning Lindsey asks, “How was it to be back in your own bed?”
“My bed is great, but I am no longer comfortable,” I say as I slide my sorority lavalier back and forth on it’s sterling chain.
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