Ah, the lure of exotic locations. We all have that curiosity, don’t we? Over 20 years ago I took a trip to one of those faraway places. But this trip turned out very differently from anything I could have imagined.
Liberia was in the middle of its second civil war. Over 200,000 people had been slaughtered, most of them civilians. I had been invited to go there to teach a one-week training program for local pastors. I accepted without doing much research. I knew that there was unrest in the country. But I also knew the reputable organization, that had arranged for me to go to the west coast of Africa, assured me that I would be safe. They provided all the tickets, and even all the boarding passes for my flights within Africa.
It was my first time to travel alone in Africa, but two people would be at the airport to meet me when I arrived in Monrovia. It was a very long and tiring trip that had many connections. My first African stop was Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where I was to catch my final connecting flight to Monrovia. Everything had gone fairly well, up to then. I roamed around the French-speaking airport for a long time trying to find my flight, but nobody had any idea where it was. I finally found an English-speaking person who seemed to have some authority, and after looking at my papers and my boarding passes, he gave me the bad news. There was no such airline, didn’t exist at all. “Wait, I have boarding passes.” Nope, no such airline, it was a scam. He didn’t even seem surprised and then he walked away, leaving me standing there in shock. I didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, had very little money since all was to be taken care of by the group meeting me, and at this point in my life, I was a fairly inexperienced traveler. You probably guessed that when I said I didn’t have much money with me. I had been to Nigeria once a few years before but the team I was with took care of these kinds of things. But this time, I was really alone and confused. There were no cell phones or internet in those years.
It would take too long to tell what happened in the following 24 hours but it included a poor attempt at French sign language to a cab driver, a white-knuckle express ride to an unknown location in the city where I found something that resembled lodging. Then I returned to the airport the next morning the same way where I found a Russian transport plane leaving on its one-flight-per-week trip to Monrovia.
So, 24 hours after arriving in the Ivory Coast, I was sitting on a converted World War II cargo plane heading for Monrovia. I had no idea what was in store. I had no return ticket and I hoped those two guys would be there to meet me. I was already a day late. Definitely the start of an interesting trip.
There are times when it would have been nice to stay in five-star hotels, eat familiar foods and work with people that actually spoke my language, but that was not to be my lot. I was usually assigned to the “armpit of the earth” type of places. But as I look back I can honestly agree with the poet that it was the “path less traveled by that made all the difference,” This trip was one I would never forget.
Liberia had been at war for five years when I arrived to lead a 5-day seminar with 180 Liberian Christian leaders. These men knew what sacrifice was. Most had not seen their families during the entire five years that the country had been embroiled in war. Over 20,000 citizens had died in Monrovia alone. I learned this shortly after getting off the plane (Surprise, the two men were there waiting for me!), and during our taxi ride to our hotel, I asked my guide why all the houses and churches had bullet holes in them. They began to tell me just now bad it was.
We arrived at our hotel. Stop reading for a moment. What image came to your mind when I said the word, “Hotel?” Sorry, you got it wrong. I use that word very generously. Like all of the rest of the terrorized city, they had not seen running water or electricity for five years. What would life be like for you if the country you live in had no water or electricity for the past five years? The hotel was a dive, a dump. The room they took me to was beyond filthy. I am used to dirt and bugs having been a missionary in third world countries but this was really bad. There were no windows in my tiny concrete room and the mid-summer room temperature had to be 120 degrees, and with no electricity, there were no fans. Outside, on the streets, UN security vehicles mounted with large machine guns, raced around.
I was tired from the excruciating 40 plus hours of travel that had elapsed since I left my comfortable bed and familiar surroundings. I barely noticed the almost one-foot high lump in the middle of the bed. I had slept on manure-filled mattresses before in Romania, so I ignored it. Totally exhausted, I fell deep asleep as soon as I hit the bed. I also barely noticed the wailing outside the walls from families who had children dying of Cholera. I began to hear it more the following nights. But this night, nothing was going to wake me up. That is what I thought.
The Night Was Alive
Some of you understand the depth of sleep that comes from jet lag and a long, hard journey. It is very sound. There were cockroaches climbing through my hair but I have had to deal with that for many years of living in the Philippines, no problem. I also ignored the cloud of mosquitoes. But that night, something else woke me up.
Something very large was crawling up my leg. Can I somehow emphasize the words, VERY LARGE? I was still groggy when the thought began to sink in. “Hey, there is something VERY LARGE crawling up my leg.” It was sweltering hot and pitch black. The room was stinky, steamy and still. Sweat was pouring off my body. I was slimy. But that was not a problem. The problem was something VERY LARGE was crawling up my leg.
I was now awake and swiped at my leg and I hit something. I felt like I had slapped a cat. Maybe it was a large rat. I had a rat on my chest once in Manila. It jumped up on my chest with its cold gooey nose pressing against my throat. When I tried to grab it, the thing jumped off me and landed on my wife. But that is another story. “Yes, maybe it is a rat,” I said to myself as I bounded out of bed and fumbled for the flashlight. But when the light came on and illuminated the bed I saw the largest spider in my life.
You need to understand something. Missionaries are people, not super humans. We have phobias like you do. We get scared of creepy crawly things like you do. I hate spiders. I am convinced that they were not part of the original creation but are part of the curse. I have trouble imagining God looking at a tarantula and saying it was “Good.” Well, I have arachnophobia (fear of anything that resembles a spider and is crawling on my leg). I stood there paralyzed in my room staring at the immense thing. It had just been dragging its massive body along my leg and was planning on eating something. What was it going to eat? I shuddered over and over, also known as a panic attack. It probably took me five minutes before I got the courage to splat it all over my bed with my tennis shoe. And after I had killed it, I splatted it again, and then again, splat, splat, splat. I never slept the rest of the night. The walls in the room seemed to move. There were insects of all kinds in the room. This was not a happy place. Not a good night when you have to teach eight hours the next day.
What kind of spider was it? Big, that’s what kind. Apparently, Liberia is known to have huge spiders with names like “king baboon tarantula” the size of an adult man’s hand span. OK, go ahead and do it. Place your hand on your thigh. I mean right now, put your stretched-out hand on your thigh. Now imagine a big hairy tarantula that size looking at you and making screeching sounds. Never mind that last part since that would be me making that noise. Someone said they also have camel spiders even though uncommon. Both of these spiders make squealing sounds like a young child screaming. I have no idea since my squeals drowned out any sound the spider may have made. Here is something interesting about Camel spiders. They get their name because they climb onto the bellies of camels and eat their stomachs from the outside, numbing the flesh by secreting a natural anesthetic. The camels don’t even notice until their intestines fall out. What a delightful thought.
Spiders and Arachnids are different we are told. Spiders have eight legs and that other big word has six. Who gives a rip? I have no idea what was crawling on my leg that night. It was the size of a small pig and even when I smashed it into the sheets and panted for five minutes trying to catch my breath I still never bothered to count legs. It may have had ten, each about the size of a good chicken leg. Spiders are also put into two major categories, trappers, and hunters. Some sit and wait and other less patient ones go on a vicious hunt and look for legs to crawl on. Guess which one this was? The following description exactly describes what that spider was intending for me:
“A spider is a remarkably efficient killing machine. The two fangs mounted below its head are connected internally to venomous glands, enabling it to sedate and paralyze its prey immediately upon capture. Some spiders inject a digestive enzyme (which liquefies body tissues so that they can be easily ingested) directly into a victim’s body cavity, while others first crush their quarry and then cover its carcass with the substance.” (Mother Earth News)
The next morning when the pastors came to get me the first thing they said was, “How was your sleep?” I told them about the spider the size of a large dog that was gnawing on my leg and injecting paralyzing toxins into my body cavities. They casually commented, “Oh, that spider.” No big deal to them. They have those things crawling on them all the time. It is like a fly on the table, just shoo it away and keep eating. I am calling it the Big Squealing Liberia Leg Eater. I don’t think that is the official name, however.
People must wonder about me. When I get back from trips like this and folks ask how my trip was I tend to stare a lot. They have no idea. They go to malls and sleep in clean places and buy bug spray to kill ants. No idea at all what it is like to be hunted all night by a giant leg eating predator and shaken from side to side like a rag doll in the mouth of an angry pit bull. Not quite the same as dipping French fries in ketchup at McDonald’s. Yes, I am sure they wonder about me. The next time I go to Africa I am not taking bug spray with me, I am taking grenades.