39 Days with Pepe

Jose stood over me looking as if he either wanted to kill me, or kiss me... I couldn't tell. Either way, I was terrified, and I shot up like a boot-camp soldier in the presence of a Colonel.

In broken English, Jose sputtered: "There are two very important things you must remember while in Honduras. Number one: do not try to fit in. You are here because you are different. Do not try to be like me. Do not try to make friends with the villagers. Be yourself. As an American, you will be respected. As someone who wants to be Honduran, you will surely die."

"What's the second thing?" I asked.

"Numero dos: If you are bitten by what you think is a Brown Honduran Pit Viper, go ahead and lay down... because you will die.

"How exciting." I said. "Maybe you can point one of those bad boys out to me, so I'll know which snakes I can keep as pets, and which ones might make me dead." I sounded like a character from a very bad “B movie”. I think I wanted to.

Jose’s lips closed around the cigar, and blue-gray smoke shot from his nostrils. "How long will you be our guest a la Rancho Paraiso?" he asked.

"I'm not sure. As long as it takes, I guess."

"Como? As long as whattakes?"

"Dunno yet, but you'll be the first to know, I’m sure."

My sarcasm fell on frustrated ears, but my words meant nothing to Jose Mondragon. He quickly mumbled a very rude-sounding Spanish phrase, and then said, "Get in the truck, Gringo."

And so I did.


We pulled into a village called San Miguel just before sundown. Jose “The Dragon” Mondragon, three others... and me. My mouth was dry and the inside of my throat felt like flypaper. The saliva I could muster with every other swallow just seemed to stick to the lining of my esophagus, and I was beginning to pray for a quick and easy death: “Mis Dios, por favor... morte mio... andele, andele.” Or something like that.

We stayed in San Miguel for 51 days. I ate tortillas and eggs, and drank brown water from the river that had been boiled over a campfire. We built 11 latrines—holes, 9 to 12 feet deep, covered with a concrete slab. Erected 3 “houses.” Those, too, had a dense consistency of pig feces. And we gave fluoride treatments and Malaria medication to most of the children.

For 51 days.

After the 39th day, I decided to bathe. My hair was beginning to dred-lock, and my beard was becoming matted with all sorts of interesting things. I once found a lady bug buried in there.

I had an ingrown hair on the left side of my chin that desperately needed tending to.

The 20-something-minute walk to the river was as peaceful a journey as I’ve ever taken. The trees in Honduras are just like those in Georgia or Alabama. The pastures are reminiscent of those from my hometown in Tennessee. The rocks are the same. The breeze is just breeze. And the birds all sing the same songs. But that day, there was something distinctly different. Something... Providential.

I remember thinking to myself that maybe I should “stop and smell the roses.” There were no roses for 100-miles around, but I knew what I meant.

I stripped nude. The water was cold, but perfect. I was completely comfortable. I was completely alone. I was… uninhibited. I started to laugh as the current of the river carried my filth to unsuspecting fishes and crawdads and little old women washing their family’s clothes far, far away.

Starting with my hair, I scrubbed and scrubbed. My face. My ears. The back and front of my neck. Blood and puss oozed from my chin. I washed the clumps of dirt and dried deodorant from under my arms. I must have spent a half hour scrubbing my navel. I marveled as my stomach turned from dark brown to tan.

It’s amazing, really. I never knew how much pubic hair I had before that day. I began washing and scrubbing and trying to remove all of the dirt, when suddenly...

“Oh, great! Another ingrown hair.” I had about a nickel-sized “bump” at the base of my... my, you know... “thing.” Upon further inspection, I realized that the bump seemed to have legs. It was a tick.

Just a tick.

Ticks are harmless, right? But, there was a tick at the base of my “thing”!

“Great Christ! There’s a tick burrowing into my thing!” I yelled as if someone were there. As if they would understand me if they actually were.

Never before has anyone run faster. My boxer shorts just barely made the now 8-minute trip back to the village. My shoes and shirt and soap and hat and my dignity did not.

The makeshift clinic was a bright-blue tarp suspended above a tiny wooden table. The nurse was a Honduran who had studied Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Help! Help me!” I screamed as I ran up the hill to the clinic. Louisa rushed to meet me. I must have sounded as if I’d just seen someone knifed to death, or worse. Perhaps I had just uncovered an inch-long parasite on my manhood.

There was sincere concern in her voice as she inquired: “Como? Como? Que es? Por favor... que es la problema?”

“Louisa, for once, please try to understand me when I tell you that there is a mutant tick on my penis...”

“Que?” she asked.

“Louisa... please... I think I have a problem.”

“Una problema? A donde?”

“Aqui!” I screamed, as I pointed to my crotch.

“Ahhhh... Dios, mi!”

Finally, I yanked down my boxers to show her my new friend. She immediately began to laugh. Mortified, I tried to explain how very, very cold the water in the river had been, but I couldn’t seem to get through. Louisa’s roar could be heard throughout that great valley and perhaps it reached the shores of America. I still do not know what, exactly, sweet Louisa found so funny; the tick, or his companion, “Pepe”. To this day, I’m quite sure the children of san Miguel continue to tell the story of “Pepe y su amigo.”

Bygones. I think.