Never Swap Seats On
A Venezuela Mission Trip

Pearl Watley Mitchell

© Copyright 2005 by Pearl Watley Mitchell

Photo of a Venezuelan soldier.

        A group from my church had gone on a mission trip to Venezuela several years ago.  We stayed on a farm (homeplace)with a family where the father had been a missionary to his people for over fifty years. He had traveled up and down the tributaries of the Amazon, with his wife and children, ministering to the people up and down the riverbanks.

        The family name was Aranus, which means “sand, dirt, earth”. They were truly a part of the earth itself, trying to minister for God, the Father. There were three grown sons, several grandchildren, three wives, and the father and mother. The oldest son Zabdiel told us that he had never owned a pair of shoes until he was twelve years old. Then it was a pair of shoes that someone gave him.

        Papa Aranus had a sister who was a missionary to a native indigenous tribe who live down in the rainforest. This group raised and harvested earthworms as a major part of its food. Most of the children are naked and don’t wear any clothes. One year a well-meaning American carried a whole bunch of hats to the people. When he was allowed to visit a short time later, he saw that the kids were all running around with hats on, but no clothes. He made a resolution that they would work on the clothes the next time instead of the hats.

When I went to Venezuela, I had never traveled out of the country except for a short trip to Canada with my four-year old granddaughter and my son-in-law. I felt that Venezuela was on the other side of the world. It was so far away and I knew that I couldn’t possibly know anyone there. How surprised I would be! There in Venezuela at the Aranus place, El Renuevo (renewal, revival), I met five (5) FIVE Auburn University students from Alabama, USA, who were doing internships for their agricultural programs and working in conjunction with the Wesley Foundation. Boy, was I shocked! Here on the other side of the world were five Auburn University students. I figured they must have used War Eagles to get there.

Well, the activist of the trip was a guy named Steve who went with us both years. He was a nice guy, but did not think through some ideas, and often he made poor decisions. Other than carrying souvenir knives in his carry-on luggage and losing passports, he wasn’t too bad. As I said, he was very nice, and he swapped seats with me on the Venezuela to Miami leg of our flight because I was in the smoking section and allergic to cigarette smoke.

OK, here I am, in Steve’s seat, (he’s in mine), seatbelt fastened, settling back to take a nap as we hit the air. I hear the motor of the plane start up and begin to revolve. With my eyes closed, I feel a presence near me, sit up suddenly, and see three guys with machine guns strapped on their waist. They are standing over me, and the stewardess is asking me to come with them. I have no idea what’s happening, but I reluctantly decide that this is not a request, so I get up and join them. They escort me to the plane door, and ask me to descend the 20-25 steps down to the runway.

My heart is beginning to race, and I can’t imagine what is happening. They are speaking a little Spanish here and there, but nothing that I can catch. Mostly, it’s just deafening silence. I take the first 2-3 steps and I see that at the bottom of the steps on the runway is a flatbed truck with a suitcase sitting there that I’ve never seen before. It is at this point that I realize that there is something questionable in that suitcase, and I don't recognize it.

 As I step down onto the pavement, I can hear the plane motor running, as if it’s getting impatient. In my mind, I can see the door close and the plane pull away. I understand a few Spanish words they’re saying to me, and I see that they want me to open the suitcase. I think to myself,  "How can I open the suitcase when it’s not mine, and should I even tell them it’s not mine? Will they put me in jail for changing seats?" (You can tell that I hadn’t flown much.)

Suddenly I panic! I turn and run back up what seems like 300 steps into the plane, yelling. “My interpreter, I have to get my interpreter”. The stewardess is blocking the plane door as I hit the top, and she is saying, “Su esposo, su esposo??” “Si’, I yell, “mi esposo, mi esposo”. (“Yes, my husband”, I was yelling.) Now there is a guy named David that I’m looking for, supposedly “mi esposo”. He is from our church, and was and is, fluent in Spanish. He is the one who did all the talking for our group. He got Steve out of the knives situation and found his passport. He had given up his seat twice - once to our assistant pastor and once to a 16-year old girl - both of whom had been bumped from their flight. He was the “saviour” that I was screaming for.

David see me and meets me halfway up the aisle, with me still yelling, “,mi esposo, mi esposo”. The guys with the guns are behind me, hanging back a little up the aisle. David finally walks me to the door, past the guys with the machine guns, begging pardons for us, down the steps, and calmly in Spanish he  communicates with the other guys there on the runway.

The situation was that when airport security x-rayed the luggage, which actually belonged to Steve and was assigned to his seat, they saw lots of string and ropes running through it, tied up in knots, and they assumed it was a bomb. It was actually Steve’s hammock that he was carrying home in his checked luggage. David steps up to the suitcase on the back of the truck, opens it since it’s not locked, and pulls the hammock out. The men laugh among themselves, David exchanges a few comments, and they wave us up the steps. Needless to say, David is my hero forever. Thank you, “mi esposo” substitute.

While I return to the plane, I think to myself that I will stay off airplanes, but you and I both know it was just a momentary lapse because I still love to fly, I love my mission trips, and I can’t do them without flying.

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