It was Christmas Eve day in Copan Ruinas. I had just gotten up and was having my morning coffee when I heard somebody knocking at the front gate. I slid open the latch and stepped from the house to where I could see the gate. There I saw an old man holding a dirty white sack. He had a white beard but that was where his resemblance to Santa ended. He was clearly too skinny to be Santa. I recognized the man. His name was Don Jose. Earlier in the week he had brought his granddaughter by the house with a high fever and flu-like symptoms. Luckily we had donated medicines on hand and the little girl quickly responded to the treatment and was doing fine, so I wondered what was old Jose doing back at my front gate with that sack.
We greeted each other, and both of us asked the usual questions about family, and I inquired of his granddaughter’s health. Mucho, blah, blah, blah. You see, here in Honduras conversations take time. Although I was dying of curiosity to know what was in the sack I held my questions. The culture here dictates it is always best to start with small talk first before getting down to business. As we talked I watched the sack out of the corner of my eye. It moved and swayed in the old man’s hands.
At last, enough time had passed allowing for me to inquire about the bag. When I asked him what he had in his hand, his face lit up in a toothless grin, and he proudly held out the sack announcing to me it was a Christmas gift from his family to ours. I took the sack from him and noticed it was quite heavy. Suddenly it started to buck and shake so hard that I almost dropped it. Something was in the sack and it was definitely alive!
I asked; What kind of critter was in the sack?
Old Jose smacked his lips clearly indicating that whatever it was, it was delicious, and then he smiled again, and said the word “Cusuco” (pronounced Coo-su-co) followed by the words “Christmas dinner.”
A cusuco? What the heck is a cusuco? I had no idea what he word meant, but whatever was in the sack was alive, meaning that if it was going to be Christmas dinner I would have to kill it, and of course I knew that this was never going to happen. On the other hand it would be a great offense to refuse the gift so I just kept repeating the word “cusuco” nodding like I knew what it was, thanked Jose, and took the sack. I waited for Jose to leave, then opened the bag to look at my Christmas gift inside.
Yep! It was an armadillo!
He was a cute little fellow and immediately the name Arnie sprang to mind. I did not know a lot about armadillos but was pretty sure that they did not bite. Arnie was a very lucky armadillo, because even though they are a great delicacy in Honduras there was no way that I was going to be dining on any “possum on the half shell” for Christmas. No sir! Arnold was going to have to settle for the title of new family pet, or honored guest, for the short time he would be with us before I could take him back into the mountains and set him free.
As I considered what life would be like with a pet armadillo in the house. I got to thinking of a great practical great joke to play on our maid.
Taking care not to be seen by any members of the household I sneaked into the kitchen, took the sack and tied a knot in the end of it, and placed it in the center of the kitchen floor in plain view knowing that that the first person to see it would most likely pick it up and get the scare of a lifetime when the bag came to life. With any luck the maid would be the first person to come in through door where she would see the sack and hopefully try to pick it up. When the bag started jumping it would scare her silly. What a wonderful practical joke. After all, what could one little armadillo do? Arnie was safely tied up in the sack, so what could go wrong?
I sneaked into the kitchen making sure nobody was in sight, and placed the sack down on the kitchen floor. I then retreated into the next room where I could listen to the outcome when some unlucky worker or volunteer came back into the kitchen and found the bag sitting in the center of the floor. Oh yeah, this was going to be really funny. Like any other kid at Christmas I waited.
Within minutes I heard the screen door open and could hear somebody enter the kitchen. As the seconds passed I waited for the discovery of the sack, but only silence followed. That was odd, I thought. Surely whoever came into the kitchen had seen the sack by now? Still silence.
Suddenly I heard the maid calling to our another worker; “Hey! Who left this empty bag in the middle of the kitchen floor?”
EMPTY BAG? Where is the damn armadillo? I skidded into the kitchen just in time to find our maid standing there holding the empty bag and looking puzzled. The expression on my face spoke volumes and she immediately became suspicious. What was in this bag? she demanded, clearly indicating that my reputation for practical jokes, had preceded me. Slowly while mouthing the words, “I don’t know” I silently did a full 360 degree scan of the kitchen, but there was no sign of our Christmas visitor.
Before I could gather my thoughts to speak again, there was a big clang followed by a booming crash and an incredible clatter of pots and pans careening off of each other in all directions across the kitchen floor like pools balls exploding on the break, announcing to us all that Arnie the armadillo was making his escape. It seems he had hidden himself under the sink, and when Arnie broke from cover he took half the kitchen pans with him.
In a blur of speed Arnie raced from under the sink between our legs, through the kitchen and out into the living room. The maid screamed and jumped into the air as she launched herself in the general direction of the top of the kitchen counter, screaming, what that!
As I gave chase I shouted back over my shoulder and said, “Christmas dinner, help me catch it!” and I took off after Arnie, who now was in route towards the bedroom at room at full speed.
What followed for the next 10 minutes was a wild goose—or armadillo—chase all through our home. I had no idea these little guys could run so fast. Everyone including the dogs joined in the merry chase to capture Arnie. Amidst all the yelling, cursing, slipping, sliding, and barking Arnie ran from room to room.
Not only are they fast, armadillos are also very strong. Like a small battle tank, everywhere that Arnie went he rearranged the furniture as well. When cornered, Arnie would whirl around and head to the other side of the room knocking over all types of treasured things, such as lamps, plates, shelf items, and anything else that was not nailed down. Finally, thanks to the slick tile floors I was finally able to catch Arnie by his tail and lift him off the ground.
I quickly got the sack out and was able to drop Arnie into it, and this time get it securely tied.
Two days later we let Arnie the armadillo go free in the mountains of Honduras far from anybody who would try to eat him. However, every Christmas since then, we love to laugh about the story of Arnie the Armadillo and tell the story to our friends.
Arnie, if you are still out there in the mountains I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas.