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The old bus was in bedlam as thirty-two young men and women tried to outshout everyone else. On one side of the road was a vertical wall of rock. On the other side, a sheer drop-off. Excitement and adventure were in the air as we careened around hair-pin turns. The road was little more than a notch cut out of the mountainside as we wound our way out of the Andes Mountains to the jungles below.
But mingled with the excitement was also a little fear. Visions of snakes and monster spiders played just beneath the surface as each person sought reassurance from the others. I was the tour leader for this musical group and the only one with any jungle experience. It was up to me to either ease everyone's fears or fuel the fires of apprehension.
"What kinds of animals will we see?" someone yelled from the back. "Are there any camels?"
This was too good to pass up. "Sure," I yelled back. "Amazonian camels, with webbed feet for swimming in jungle rivers and green spots for camouflage." The bus roared with laughter, and soon everyone began to ride the joke. Every question of "What's that?" was metwith a chorus of "It's a camel!"
Our destination was Puyo, a little one-street frontier town on the edge of the jungle. Once there, we had just enough time to unpack the equipment and walk to the auditorium before the group was scheduled to perform a musical concert.
As we made our way down the dirt "main street," someone tried the gag one more time: "Hey, look, a camel!" Without thinking, I glanced over at the pasture where he was pointing. Evening shadows were playing tricks on us, and an old horse on the far end of the pasture did look almost like a camel.
Just as I was about to make a joke about being duped by an old nag standing in front of a giant anthill, the animal stood up. I had never seen a camel outside of a zoo, but I knew one when I saw it, and I was sure enough seeing one now.
"No camels, huh? What do you call that?" Everyone was kid- ding me now! I didn't know how that desert buggy ended up in the Amazon rain forest, but I knew I was going to take a lot of ribbing on this one-especially, I hoped, from Virginia, one of the older girls in the group whose beautiful eyes, dimples, and contagious enthusiasm had caught my attention.
When the concert was over, that crazy camel was lying down right in the middle of the plaza. I had never seen a camel up close, though I didn't admit it, so I was as eager as anyone for a closer look.
"Can we ride him?" Virginia asked. She was so pretty she made my knees weak.
"Sure," I replied. "Why not?" Without a second's hesitation, MiracleWife this Scandinavian siren was shinnying up the camel's back, for- mal dress and all.
I didn't know much about dromedarian character, but I knew those weren't happy sounds coming from the camel. I could just picture him biting one of those cute little feet hanging enticingly down his back, and I knew I would be responsible!
I can't remember how I got her down, but I do remember how erratically my heart beat when I did. Any girl this beautiful and adventuresome was sure to have a line of young men waiting back home in Minnesota. But even so, I began to wonder if maybe my resignation to bachelorhood at twenty-two had been a little premature.
I had resigned myself to being single when I graduated from Wheaton College and headed home to Ecuador. I had just broken my engagement with a young schoolteacher from Wisconsin. Our relationship had been somewhat stormy. She was a nice girl from a wonderful Christian home, so I figured the storm was mostly my doing. Who would ever want to marry an adventuresome but contemplative "jungle boy"? Girls wanted security and stability. Nice girls wanted to live in a small town within driving distance of a good hospital for delivering babies and a nice dinner theater for contemplating their children.
I loved mountain climbing and felt as comfortable living in the jungles as I did in suburbia. I was tricultural, bilingual, well traveled, and restless. I desperately wanted to get married, but I didn't think I'd make much of a husband unless I could design the bride. My order was pretty unrealistic, even for God. I wanted a girl who shared my desire to live life by "the Book." She would love to sit at home and read on a rainy day, but she wouldn't care where the rain was falling. She would make our home a castle whether it had four bedrooms under barrel tile or one room under thatch. She would feel comfortable mingling at a political rally or dishing out gruel in a disaster-relief kitchen. And she would look stunningly beautiful at either. It also wouldn't hurt if she liked to fly, scuba dive, mountain climb, and travel, all while raising a big family.
I was idealistic, but I was also realistic enough to know my chances of finding such a wife were about as good as finding a camel in the Amazon. The clincher was that I wanted to know that Miss Impossibly Wonderful would mean it if she said, "For better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part." And I wanted to mean it too! With the national divorce rate reaching the 50 percent mark, I knew I was asking for another miracle there. And oh, by the way, God, would You mind bringing her to Ecuador? I'll be working in an orphanage as a volunteer and starting a construction and land development business while I try to figure out what You want me to do with my life, I had prayed.
After a brief trek into the jungles, we headed back up the winding road to the mountains, where I planned to leave the tour and return to my responsibilities at my construction business and at the orphanage where I volunteered. I knew I had to figure out some way to get to know Virginia before we were separated forever. I was desperate to figure out some excuse to get her away from the group so we could talk. That would have been difficult enough, but every time I was around her, I was unusually shy and unsure of myself.
It was a class B miracle that Virginia, a full-time nurse, had been able to join her old singing group for the tour. It was probably a class C divine intervention that I had been chosen as tour leader for their jungle trip. Now I needed-and received-a class A miracle.
We stopped in the city of Ambato to spend the night before continuing on to the capital city of Quito. I knew this would be my last chance to talk to Virginia, but I just couldn't figure out how to approach her. I was not only low on courage, but I also sorely lacked a good strategy. My desperate mind pulsated between trying to remember some boy-meets-beautiful-girl-and-wittily-impresses-her phrase, and begging God to intervene.
I got my miracle so fast that I later kicked myself for not asking for something more substantial than just the opportunity to talk. I heard my name, and there was Virginia-or "Ginny," as her friends called her-asking if I had a few minutes to talk to her after dinner.
It is a good thing my heart almost stopped and my knees and tongue froze momentarily. It would have been embarrassing and might even have scared Ginny if I had fallen to my knees to lavish God with praises for such an immediate answer to my prayer. Instead, my temporary paralysis gave an air of appropriate contemplation before answering that yes, I'd be glad to take a few minutes (not to exceed a week or so) if she wanted to talk.
It has never taken so long or given me less pleasure to eat a filet mignon. Hope is a wonderful inspiration, but when it causes a rush of adrenaline it dulls the sense of taste and makes chitchatting and sitting still difficult.
Finally it was just Virginia Lynn Olson and Stephen Saint in the hotel rose garden sharing tidbits of our pasts and discussing the challenges of life. Ginny was impressed, she said, that a young man would graduate from college to work in an orphanage and build houses for missionaries rather than taking a corporate job and buying an expensive car, especially since everyone else our age seemed to be doing just that. She was not flirting or being aggressive; she was simply looking for hope that there were still young men around who wanted God to have first priority in life, men who wanted the significance of their lives to be measured in more than the accumulation of toys or social status.
I told Ginny how forlorn I had felt returning to Ecuador, where I would be almost totally out of social circulation. I didn't feel that I was as great a specimen of principle, virtue, and spirituality as she seemed to perceive. But I did want God to be first in my life, and I did want my life to have eternal significance. I was also desperately lonely, and I wanted to get to know this lovely, beautiful, and sensitive young woman before she flew out of my life forever. As we talked, I realized that Ginny was naturally quite shy and unsure of herself around strangers. It really had been a miracle that she had found the courage to approach me. I figured that it was now up to me to initiate further contact.
I couldn't finagle an invitation to accompany the tour on their next outing to the coast of Ecuador because there wasn't room on the bus. I also couldn't leave my construction crews without supervision, so I resorted to writing. I wrote Ginny a letter, thirteen pages if I remember, telling her how wonderful it was to talk to her in Ambato. The knowledge that our time was running out made me bold, so I told her how alive I had felt just being around her for three days and how I missed her even though I didn't know her. I even hinted that maybe God had made our paths cross and that I would like the opportunity to take her out when her group returned from the coast.
What I didn't tell Ginny was the reason I was beginning to see more than coincidence in our meeting. The night before I had joined them for their tour of the jungles, the "Bright Expectations" had performed a Sunday evening program in our English Fellowship Church in Quito.
At that concert, Mrs. Kelly, the woman who had organized the tour and asked me to accompany them to the jungles, sat down beside me. She began to tease me about what wonderful wives Scandinavian women made. Mrs. Kelly and her husband were missionaries of the Swedish Covenant Church, and it was obvious that the group had a large contingent with Scandinavian descent.
I would have just ignored Mrs. Kelly's remarks if it hadn't been for two things. The first was that Mrs. Kelly was usually reserved and quiet. It seemed terribly out of character for her to even sit by me, much less tease me. Second, she continued the teasing even after the program began. I knew our whispering was beginning to bother those around us, and I knew nobody would believe that it was Mrs. Kelly initiating it, so when she insisted that I choose one of the girls to marry, I did it just to put an end to the conversation. A girl with a sweet, soft voice was singing a solo right at that moment. I couldn't see who it was, but I told Mrs. Kelly I would marry the soloist.
The next morning when I showed up to join the group, Mrs. Kelly was waiting for me. She grabbed my arm and marched me up to one of the buses that was already loaded. "That's your girl," she said, pointing right at Virginia, "so you ride her bus." I thought she had just picked out the prettiest girl in the group and was teasing me again.
"How do you know she's the one I chose last night? We couldn't see her," I challenged.
"Oh, that's easy," she replied. "All the soloists are listed in the bulletin." With that she ushered me to the bus, where thankfully, Virginia was unaware that her nuptial arrangements with a total stranger had just been finalized. Mrs. Kelly never teased me again-about anything.
Ginny received my thirteen-page epistle when the group got back from the coast. She says now that she was excited to get it but felt it would be too forward to write back. Her initiative in Ambato had apparently been a wide deviation from her normally shy character. Fortunately, or providentially, Mrs. Kelly insisted that Ginny reply. She also insisted that Ginny do so immediately so that Mrs. Kelly could hand deliver it to my house on her way home.
I followed up Ginny's note with a telephone call and asked if I could take her to dinner and show her the lights of our beautiful city of Quito, nestled like a sparkling gem in a setting of snowcapped mountains.
Only after setting a time-and we had precious little time left-did I remember that I already had an inviolable engagement for the same evening: my stepbrother Joel's groom's dinner. I couldn't let my brother down; I was his best man. But I also couldn't pass up this only chance to be with Ginny. So, with several apologies and a suspiciously detailed assurance that I hadn't planned to introduce her to my whole family on our first date, I did just that.
My embarrassment quickly faded once we arrived at the party. Everyone seemed to accept Ginny and really like her from the start. I did too, so we said our good-byes and made a hasty exit.
I had long wondered what real romantic love felt like. I had looked for definitions and descriptions, but they were always a bit vague or imprecise, like receiving directions from people who have been to your destination many times. They can picture every turn and landmark, and they usually end with "you can't miss it!" But what they really mean is that they can't miss it. An older man had once told me that love comes in different packages for different people. "But," he said, "when you really find it, you'll know it." I wasn't so sure I would know. I wanted a checklist. I knew that it is possible to think you're in love but not be. But it wasn't until I met Ginny that I realized you can't be in love and think you're not.
I had it and I knew it. The world could have burned down around me and I would have been oblivious. You could have pulled my fingernails out and I would have merely overlooked it. What I couldn't overlook was that Ginny was leaving and I couldn't follow. I had sixty men working for me. I had commitments to fulfill that forced my body and mind to stay in Ecuador. But my heart flew back to Minnesota with Virginia Lynn Olson.
After a month or so of being apart, I knew I had to find a solution to the problem. It took about two seconds to figure out that the answer to my problem was living in the north-central part of the United States. It took somewhat longer to figure out how to keep sixty men busy for two weeks while I was away. I finally decided that this was the opportune time to build everyone in our little development a septic system or two if necessary. With that problem solved, I found out that I had another one. All flights out of Quito bound for Miami were sold out for the foreseeable future. Besides that, I had recently received Ecuadorean and U.S. dual citizenship, which meant that I needed military permission and a U.S. visa to leave the country. I got the military permission, but the U.S. Embassy refused to give me a U.S. visa because I held a U.S. passport.
Finally I bought a standby ticket, called Ginny by international telephone, and headed to the airport. The airport officials made a stink about my papers but eventually accepted them with the warning that the U.S. authorities would not accept my dual citizenship. But there was a bigger problem. The plane was sold out. In South America, who you know is very important. I happened to know someone who knew the man at the exit gate, and he let me board the plane to look for a seat. I found one and quickly settled in, trying to look inconspicuous. Just then, two women boarded the plane. I had taken the very last seat, which had unfortunately been sold to them. Fortunately it had been sold to both of them! They started fighting over that seat and put up such a ruckus that the pilot called security and had them both thrown off the plane. That left me as the happy occupier of that last seat.
Excerpted from WALKING HIS TRAIL by STEVE SAINT GINNY SAINT Copyright © 2007 by Steve Saint. Excerpted by permission.
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