Tales from the missions — part one

by Todd Habiger
todd.habiger@theleaven.org

Way back in 1995, when I was still a fresh-faced journalist in my first year at The Leaven, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru and Brazil to report on Catholic missionary activities in those two countries.

It was an incredible experience — one that I documented in a special issue later that year that won an Archbishop O’Meara Award for coverage of missions. I, along with freelance photographer Doug Hesse, spent 10 days in Peru and Brazil. We told many stories in that special issue, but I’d like to use this space to tell you a few behind-the- scenes stories that never made it into print.

I was 26 at the time, and this was my first time outside the United States. To say I was naïve would be an understatement. I got my first dose of reality when Doug and I landed in Talara, Peru, for the first leg of our journey. As we walked off the plane, the cameras and lenses Doug had around his neck attracted the attention of the military officers stationed at the airport.

As the nice officer with the automatic weapon stopped Doug for questioning, I did what came naturally. I kept walking like I didn’t know the guy. In my defense, I had just met Doug about 24 hours before so it’s not like we were close.

Thankfully, Sister Regina Deitchman, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth doing missionary work in Peru, was at the airport to pick us up. She ran interference and, I’m sure, saved Doug from a life of hard labor in a Peruvian prison.

To say that Doug and I hit the ground running would be an understatement. By the time we landed in Talara, we had been up for about 18 hours. Because we were scheduled for only a short time with the Sisters, we got to work right away. At one point I was conducting an interview and Doug took the opportunity to sit down. In less than a minute, he fell asleep where he sat. Needless to say he was a little embarrassed over that one.

That night we slept at a Franciscan monastery. The monks showed us to our rooms where we fell asleep immediately. When morning came, I thought I’d take a stroll outside before I took a shower. To my surprise, I was locked in my room.

Figuring someone would eventually unlock my door, I decided to take a shower. I was really looking forward to a nice warm shower. I turned on the water and waited for it to warm up. A minute passed. No warm water. Several minutes passed. No warm water. The monks didn’t have hot water. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I took the coldest, most miserable shower of my life. But hey, I was clean. And cold.

After the world’s coldest shower, the monks decided to unlock my door. The Sisters wanted to drive us to one of their missions high in the Andes Mountains. When I started to put on my seatbelt, Sister Regina stopped me saying, “If we go over the side it’s better that we fly out of the car rather than roll with it all the way to the bottom.” Doug and I exchanged nervous glances and hoped that we wouldn’t have to put that to the test. So up we went — without seatbelts.

When we finally made it to the top of the mountain — eight hours of gut-wrenching climbing on a one-lane dirt road with two-way traffic — Sister Regina got out of the car and let out a huge sigh.

“I haven’t made that drive in 15 years,” she said. Suddenly, heading down in two days just got a whole lot scarier.

Thankfully, we made it down safely, bid the Sisters farewell, and caught a flight to Lima, Peru. Doug didn’t have his visa to enter Brazil so we had to go to the American embassy to get one. We were assured this would be no problem.

We arrived at the embassy as it opened that morning, but our lack of Spanish-speaking skills caused problems right away. We tried to convey that we needed the visa that afternoon. The man in charge, with his limited English skills, kept saying that the visa would be ready in two days. Unable to communicate that this was unacceptable, we left the embassy trying to figure out what we were going to do. We hadn’t got more than a block away when Doug realized that he left his coat at the embassy. When we returned, the man that had just told us “two days” ran up to us and said, “this afternoon.” Whew. We dodged that bullet.

By this time, whether because of stress or something else, Doug was feeling sick. He wanted to do nothing more than to go back to our hotel and sleep. Me, I wanted pizza. I saw a Pizza Hut on our cab ride to the hotel and I had to have me some.

So I left Doug and began my quest for pizza.

I found the Pizza Hut with ease and spent several hours afterwards exploring the city. I noticed that most stores had armed guards stationed outside. Just a couple of months after I returned to the United States, Lima was in the news as kidnappers were snatching unsuspecting Americans off the streets. I’m sure the kidnappers got the idea from watching one clueless American scour the city for a Pizza Hut.

Thankfully, Doug and I made it out of Peru and into Brazil. Getting into Brazil was easy. Getting out was the hard part. But I’ll save that story for my next contribution to this blog.

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