The Kindness Of Strangers
“Rapido, rapido, rapido!!! You are coming with me to my house!” This is how it all started, a familiar face appearing in the rainy dark yelling at me. I recognized that this was Juan, the elderly Tico who keeps the jungle from consuming my yard. He ran to my door in the pouring rain, a man on a mission. He had come to rescue me from the pending flood.
I had heard rumors that the banks of the river behind my house had crested and gone to shore. I heard too that the bridge crossing that river was gone. But, I decided that the river would not be a threat to me just yet. I would hunker down and listen to the sound that she made and let that be my guide whether to stay or to leave. It was already loud; huge boulders were being tossed down the river at a rapid pace. The percussion of them crashing into each other was a bit jarring, but bearable to my ears. When it got deafening, I thought I would take that as the final warning to go to safer ground. That would mean that the water was coming too close. But, where was safer ground exactly? That would be higher, of course, but could I get to an elevated area in time?
Juan had other ideas. He was insistent that I come with him. “You are not a Tico. You do not know this river. To you she is nice and beautiful. You don’t know how ugly she can be. You do not know where to go if the water comes. The river could decide to live right here in your house. She has the power to decide, not you. I am old and I am nervous for you. Come with me so I won’t be nervous.” I could see genuine fear in his ancient eyes.
How could I say no? I couldn’t let him worry about me. I asked myself what to take with me, what to do before I left. From the look on Juan’s face I knew that I had to go without another thought. I grabbed my dog, Piper, and my backpack. I glanced at my house as Juan backed out of my driveway. What if the house and all of its contents were destroyed by the flood? I felt a sense of calm. What if it did? I put on my best Scarlett O’Hara face and said to myself, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
We arrived at Juan’s house at 1 a.m., after driving through water that was as high as the tires on his old truck. On the way, we forded several streams. Each crossing was a breath taker. If these small bodies of water were this high and this violent, what must my river be like?
Juan’s house was a small, humble home sitting in a crude space carved out from a high hill. The rain poured as we came in, both of us soaking wet. He introduced his wife to me. “This is my husband”, he said, confusing the English word for his wife of fifty-eight years. Elvida smiled at me with a toothless grin and invited me into her living room. She pointed to a small love seat, the only piece of furniture in the entire room. It sat looking lonely in the dead center of the room, no sofa, no chair, no table to keep it company. Elvida brought a pillow and a blanket leaving me to get comfortable. I lay down as she left, wondering where I was and how long I would have to stay.
Sleep wasn’t an option. I was in a strange house with complete strangers and not in a familiar area. I laid there snuggled under a blanket, with Piper wedged between my legs and the back of the love seat. We were cramped and my legs had nowhere to be except to hang from the knees down into the air. I was miserable and uncomfortable, but dry and safe. Piper was not amused and would not stay still. She crawled up to my shoulder and whimpered. I whimpered back. That seemed to soothe her and she went and took her place. I smiled, telling myself, “Misery loves company. She knows this is not my choice.”
I looked around me, pondering Juan’s barely furnished house. There were three tiny bedrooms jutting off from the living room with their doors open. Each of them contained lots of people, two to three each lying on ancient twin beds, and many on bare foam pads covering the floor. There was snoring all around me. I saw the outline of a toddler lying on a blanket on the floor playing with his fingers in the dark. There were no cars except Juan’s truck in the driveway. I realized that Juan had been a knight in shining armor for many, rescuing them and bringing them to the safety of his home. A man in his late seventies, he had ventured out in the fiercest of rains to offer his help and to provide safer shelter.
It dawned on me that the love seat had been saved for me. I was the lone Gringa, the Ex-Pat, and had been offered the most private space of all. Never mind that everyone could see me and that I could see them. This spot was the executive suite at the Ritz Carlton of Juan’s house. I was touched and grateful for his kindness. My makeshift bed suddenly seemed almost comfortable.
I continued to look around from my love seat view at Juan’s house. A bare light bulb hung from an electric wire in the center of the living room. A small TV sat on a stand, the cable running from the back of it straight up to the ceiling where a hole had been drilled. There was no masking, no trying to hide the cable. It served its purpose without the expense of more.
I smiled as a saw a picture of Mother Mary nailed high on the wall just at the edge of the place where the wall met the ceiling. If you didn’t look up you would never have noticed her. Maybe that was the point, to look up.
The simple kitchen held a small stove and a tiny refrigerator pocked with dents. There was a well-loved and much-used skillet on the stove along with a tea kettle with a rusty exterior. Sitting on the floor were huge pots, one stacked into another. One board served as a shelf. This was the house’s pantry. On it rested a ten-pound bag of rice, a large bag of dried beans and the always present Lizano hot sauce. That was all there was for the family larder.
A sink was set into a homemade cabinet with warped boards. An outdoor water spigot hung over it jutting through a jagged hole in the concrete wall that looked as if it had been sledgehammered to make the opening. This was a cold water only kitchen existing on an outdoor pipe. Another rough board was hung on the wall to hold the dishes as they were washed. The kitchen was spotless, despite its shabbiness. The simplicity of it spoke to me. The man of the house who owned this humble kitchen was rich in his compassion, if not in his wallet. He had nearly nothing but had offered all that he had as a safe shelter. I asked myself, “Why is it that the people who have nothing are almost always the kindest?” Tears formed in both exhaustion and gratitude as I pondered this question and I finally slept.
At some point in the night, I heard rustling near me. I opened my eyes to see Elvida standing over me. The blanket that she had provided me must have fallen on the floor with my restlessness. There she was, placing the blanket on top of me and tucking it around me. She whispered comforting words in Spanish and stroked my hair. She patted Piper on the head. In the darkest hour of the night, I was soothed like a child. Elvida was my Mother Mary, come down from on high to tend to one of her flock of displaced children. As she walked away, I marveled at her tenderness for a complete stranger.
Morning broke and I was anxious to leave. The rain still poured just as hard as it had the night before. I waited as others woke up too. But, not Juan, who must have been exhausted from his rescue missions the night before. I fretted, admonished myself for fretting, and sat quietly. People spoke to me in rapid Spanish. I strained trying to understand them. I longed to go home, to find myself centered in the familiar. Was there a home anymore? The crazy monkey in my brain ran through lots and lots of “What ifs?” Finally, finally, Juan appeared in the living room.
“Can I go home now please, Juan?” I asked. He smiled. “Maybe so”, he said. “But, we must check the river first.” I grabbed Piper and could not get out the door fast enough.