The Big Bolivian Group

April 30, 2008

A couple of months after the big group left for the USA, we had a large group of Bolivians who were going to be coming in from the CEM in Chile (the local MTC for that part of South America). One morning a young man showed up at the mission office looking bewildered.

“I just got off the bus from Potosi. I’m supposed to be going to the CEM in Chile the day after tomorrow, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

He had no passport and no visa, but he was expecting to pick up his plane tickets and head out. Dannelly and I drove all over town, from the immigration offices to the Chilean consulate to the airlines. Somehow, we got all the paperwork done, and we took him home to stay at our house for the night. He told us he had been a member of the church for a few years and was really excited to be going on his mission. He looked so young and innocent, but at the same time very sober and serious. We made sure we behaved ourselves (no blue darts) and set a good example for our guest. In the morning, we took him to the airport and sent him on his way to his mission.

A week or so later, he came back with his group, about 15 Bolivians and two Chileans. They were all quite enthusiastic, and we enjoyed visiting with them. Common practice in Bolivia had been to send missionaries from the West to the Eastern parts of the country. Two of the sisters in the group were from Huacuyo, a small community high in the altiplano near Lake Titicaca. We noticed right off that they couldn’t speak Spanish; they had grown up speaking Aymara and had never learned Spanish. They were heading to Santa Cruz in the eastern tropical lowlands, where no one spoke Aymara. What’s worse was that many Bolivians in the east were hostile to the Kollas (their name for the mountain people) whom they considered uneducated, timid, and beneath contempt. Conversely, many Kollas disliked the Cambas (the easterners), whom they saw as arrogant and obnoxious. Sending those two sisters there was not a great idea, I thought.

It was hard to keep track of some of them, as they had similar names: there were Roca, Oca, Coca, and Rocha in the group, and I could never remember which was which. We were kind of excited to see such a large group of Bolivian missionaries. This was a sign that the church was growing and that the mission wouldn’t always been predominantly American.

We had a pleasant visit while they were in town and then shipped them off to their areas. At some point, however, the shine must have worn off the mission for these eager Bolivians. The next time I saw our young man from Potosi, he was wearing a leather jacket, with his feet up, listening to contraband music through his headphones. One of the sisters later asked me if I would consider marrying her when I got home to America, and I heard that she asked this of a lot of missionaries. And it was one of the sister missionaries from that group who raised a small insurrection at a zone meeting in Cochabamba to complain about the poor treatment of the Bolivian missionaries by their American counterparts. I heard that it almost came to blows.

One of the big Bolivian group went to Oruro, high in the Andes, where his companion was a football player for BYU, which of course had just won the national collegiate championship. Some coaches from other schools were complaining that, because BYU had a lot of former missionaries on their team, it gave them an unfair advantage. In response, Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to interview three members of the football team who were currently on missions: one in South Africa (the son of a famous motivational speaker/writer), one in Brazil, and of course the guy in our mission, Elder Petersen. You can find the article at Sports Illustrated.

The first two gave pretty much textbook descriptions of missionary life. A couple of years later I asked the guy who had been in South Africa why his interview seemed so unrealistic, and he said, “What kind of answers are you supposed to give when you have an apostle sitting next to you the whole time?” He went on to say that apostle Neal Maxwell had been at his side throughout the interviews. I gathered that something similar had happened in Brazil.

But not in our mission. President Nichols met the reporter in Cochabamba and then simply arranged for him to spend a few days with Elder Petersen and his Bolivian companion. One thing about Petersen was that he was extremely blunt. A tall redheaded guy from California, he was quoted as saying “”This country basically hates me.” He went on to talk about the miserable living conditions, the anti-Americanism (he complained that people called him “monster”), and a few nasty illnesses he had suffered. He talked about being angry, and, as many of us who were missionaries can understand, “After the anger would come guilt for feeling the anger.” One of my favorite quotes: “Before, I had trouble tackling; that was my only real weakness. Now I’ll just go home and pretend every offensive player is a Bolivian calling me a huevo.”

Of course, the article caused an uproar in Bolivia. I remember seeing leaflets at the university in Cochabamba showing photos from the article with swastikas drawn on them. A brand-new missionary said to me, “I read that Petersen article. He must be a lousy missionary. What a terrible attitude!”

“No, he’s a good missionary,” I said. “And he’s honest.” It may not have been smart to let Bolivians know about the hurt and anger we sometimes felt, but it was the truth. It did hurt. Every time someone yelled at us or told us, “CIA go home!” I wanted to ask them how they could hate me if they didn’t even know me. I was there, I thought, to bring something of worth to these people, and what I got was hatred in return.

Three years after my mission, I sat in a restaurant in Utah and heard over the radio that two missionaries, Todd wilson and Jeff Ball, had been murdered in La Paz. All the feelings I had pushed deep down inside came welling up, and for a few days, I walked around on the edge of tears, all the anger and hurt and guilt welling up within. And I couldn’t do anything about it. I pushed it back inside and tried to forget about it.


April 30, 2008

No one can really understand “hyperinflation” if they haven’t lived through it. Bolivia’s nascent democratic government had, by 1984, fallen into a severe economic crisis, with inflation at one point registering 24,000%. By the end of that year, printed money was Bolivia’s largest import (bills were stamped “Thomas De La Rue & Co., London”). When I arrived, the exchange rate was 1,500 pesos to the dollar (with a 1,000-peso note being the largest bill); by the time I went home 22 months later, a dollar was worth 1,900,000 pesos, with the largest bill representing 5,000,000 pesos.

Naturally, this caused tremendous problems for Bolivians, whose wages could not possibly keep up with that kind of inflation. People were hungry, and everywhere you went, they were lining up for rationed bread. Sometimes you couldn’t buy anything in the markets because prices went up so quickly that the merchants didn’t want to sell anything until they had figured out how to make a profit. Once I was in desperate need of some toilet paper, and the only corner tienda around would not sell it to me. I opened my wallet and said I would pay a US dollar for a single roll, but the storekeeper said no. She couldn’t be sure what was going to happen, so she was going to wait.

We missionaries felt a little guilty because, as long as we had dollars, we weren’t subject to the same problems. Given favorable exchange rates, it was pretty inexpensive for us to live in Bolivia. When I was in Tarija, for example, we could eat a steak dinner for just about 75 cents each. I was trying to put on weight, but I often thought of the Bolivians who could barely afford bread or eggs and for whom a steak dinner was an unattainable dream.

Travel was also very inexpensive. You could fly on the national airlines for $8-$15, so almost everyone flew when they were transferred to a new area. When we lived in the house in Cochabamba, we would go to pay our utility bills, which were miniscule because they had been calculated on an earlier exchange rate. We would end up paying less than a dollar sometimes for a month’s worth of utilities.

What was expensive was foreign luxury items, like cosmetics and American food. One missionary I knew paid $20 for a bottle of Revlon shampoo, only to find out that the bottle was full of cheap Bolivian shampoo. You could buy Snickers bars that were five years past their expiration date in the market in El Alto if you were willing to shell out a couple of bucks apiece. As I mentioned, a room at the Hotel Gloria in La Paz cost a whopping $5. We stayed there a few times on “p-day eve.”

Back then, missionaries were responsible for our own funds. Most of us had checkbooks, and we would cash checks at a hotel or a bank for dollars in cash, and then we would exchange our dollars for pesos. Exchanging in the hotels was the safest, but you could get a better rate if you exchanged with someone on the street. But you never knew if the guy exchanging money was really just a thief attempting to separate you from your dollars. And since exchanging money in the streets was illegal, you risked arrest, though that almost never happened. One time Elder Beck and I were in downtown La Paz, and we went to a particular block where we knew there were a lot of moneychangers. Beck told me to wait for him and then disappeared around the corner. He was gone for quite a while, and eventually he showed up, saying that a policeman had caught him exchanging money. Only after $20 bribe and a promise not to do it again did the policeman let him go.

Because the exchange rates changed so often, it was never wise to get all your money in pesos at one time. Rather, you would get just enough pesos for a few days and then exchange more dollars as you needed them. Otherwise, if you had all your money in pesos and the currency devalued, which it did quite often, you would suddenly not have enough money for food or rent.

Frequently we would hear rumors that a peso devaluation was in the work, and we would hurriedly buy dollars. Lewis, my companion, liked to mess with people’s heads by starting false rumors of a devaluation; but he had a knack for fairly accurately predicting the devaluations, and he would end up the only missionary who still had pesos.

Beggars were everywhere in Bolivia, at every intersection, outside of every bank and post office. Our Argentine mission president told us not to give money to the beggars, but I always felt guilty at walking past them, leaving them emptyhanded. We started filling our backpacks with bread (the marraquetas so well-loved in La Paz), and we would give the beggars a piece of bread. Knowing how expensive bread was for them, we figured that this was a better way of helping the poor than giving them cash.

The Bolivian missionaries received an allowance from the church, which varied between $50 and $90 a month, depending on the exchange rate. One month Dannelly and I went to the bank to withdraw 92 million pesos, which represented the allowance for the Bolivian missionaries in Cochabamba. The largest bills the bank had were 50 pesos, so they handed over the money; the bills were stacked in tens, folded in half, and then stacked into a “brick” that was perhaps ten inches long and bound tightly with string. A paper bank stamp on the outside of the brick told you how many pesos you had in the bundle. We had close to two million bills to take home with us, so the bank manager gave us a large flour sack, and we filled both our backpacks. I backed the Land Cruiser up to the front door of the bank, and we heaved the sack of money in the back. Back at the office, Dannelly stacked the bills on his desk; the bills covered the entire desk and stood about three feet high.

But the Bolivian allowance was never enough. The rest of us, mostly Americans and Canadians, had been told to plan on spending $220 a month for our missions, and most of us had about that amount. So, most of the time there was a huge disparity between what we could afford and what our Bolivian counterparts could. Some enterprising missionaries solved the problem by doing “splits” on p-days, meaning that two Americans would go off together for lunch and shopping, while their Bolivian companions would spend the day together with no money for anything.

Within a short time, a great deal of resentment had built up between the two groups: the haves and the have-nots. I always thought there was also a racial component to the discord, as some missionaries had a rather condescending and arrogant attitude toward Bolivians, who they thought were not as intelligent or sophisticated. I heard some missionaries refer to Bolivians as “brown units,” and the hostility between some Bolivians and some Americans was palpable. Most missionaries were good to each other, but the few who weren’t bred resentment wherever they went.

Toward the end of my mission, things got pretty bad, and eventually, Elder Howard, our area president, made it mandatory for all mission funds to go through the mission office, where they would be pooled and distributed evenly. Missionaries were to cut expenses by eating at least one meal a day with church members. I’m not sure if the idea originated in our mission, but within a few years all missionaries in the church would be following this program: giving a set amount each month to the church, which would then distribute the money according to need. From what I hear, that simple change significantly reduced the hostility in the mission. What I don’t understand is how they got members to cook for the missionaries. Most of them had trouble feeding themselves, and having to feed two grown men would be a tremendous burden for any Bolivian family.

The Leiningers

April 30, 2008

It should come as no surprise that a lot of us were sick, many of us seriously ill. President Nichols did a survey of all 200 or so missionaries and found that at any given time, at least 60 were too ill to get out of bed and do missionary work. Given that their being ill kept their companions home, that meant that around half of the missionaries were not doing any missionary work at any one time, and all because of illness.

Everyone lost weight, except a few people who must have had metabolism issues. One welfare missionary, Hermana Price, who was probably 6′ 3″ and weighed at least 250 pounds, mentioned one day that she had lost 50 pounds since arriving in Bolivia.

The elder sitting next to me said, “Whoa, you must have been huge!”

She turned and said, “You’d better walk out of here while you still can.”

We got talking, and I found out that her name was Edna. I said, “Hmmmm. I used to play with an Edna Price when I was little, but that can’t be you because you’re from Georgia.”

“Where did you grow up?” she asked.

“Southern California,” I said.

“I lived in Inglewood until I was seven,” she said.

“I lived there until I was six,” I said. I’ve decided that if you talk to another Mormon long enough, you’ll find a connection. A couple of days later, I got a letter from home telling me that Mom had discovered that Edna Price was in Bolivia with me.

Edna kept getting sicker, and things didn’t improve for the health of the missionaries. One day, President Nichols told us in our morning meeting that he had decided to ask Salt Lake to send us a doctor. He asked everyone in the mission to fast and pray that we would get a doctor to come and take care of our medical needs.

Up to that point, we had to rely on Bolivian doctors, some of whom were excellent, but the quality of the care depended on where you were. Each companionship had also been issued a copy of a book, “Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook,” which had saved me on more than one occasion. This book explained how to diagnose and treat common Third World illnesses; you could check your symptoms, go to a lab and read the results, and then get medication at a pharmacy, all without seeing a doctor. But a book was no substitute for proper medical care.

Not long after, we found out that an older couple would be coming. Ray Leininger was a successful pediatrician from Marin County, California, and he and his wife LoDonna had decided to serve a church mission after his retirement. They had heard that there was an opening in the church’s “information center” in Jerusalem, and they had hoped to go there. But the Lord had other plans for them, and they ended up in Bolivia.

Before leaving for the Missionary Training Center, Dr. Leininger had packed a large medical bag with all the supplies and equipment he thought he would need. But the authorities at the MTC had told him he was not to bring anything like that with him and that he was not to practice medicine of any kind, lest he offend the local medical community. Of course, we were all more than a little disappointed that we now had a doctor who was not going to practice, but when the Leiningers arrived in Bolivia, President Nichols told him that he expected him to take care of the missionaries.

I had become a little wary of older couple missionaries, as the two couples we had I can only describe as “needy.” Neither couple had learned much Spanish, and they called the mission office constantly, asking for help. When one of the couples came to Cochabamba, they insisted that Dannelly and I drive them around for two days while they shopped.

But the Leiningers were different. After settling in for a few days, they asked me to take them to the driver’s license office so they could drive; they had inherited the beat-up red station wagon that they mission president’s wife didn’t drive. On the way to the license office, Dr. Leininger told his wife, “Now, pay attention, because you’re driving us back to the office.” We got the licenses, and true to form, she drove us back to the office. That kind of fearlessness really impressed me.

Without any medical equipment, Dr. Leininger did the best he could to help us. One morning Dannelly called him and said he had a badly ingrown toenail, and he needed help. The doctor told us to meet him at the office, and when we got there, he was sitting at the conference table, upon which was a plastic cup full of alcohol. Soaking in it were a nail file, a Swiss Army knife, and a pair of needle-nosed pliers.

Dr. Leininger injected the toe with novocaine using one of the gamma needles, jabbed the nail file under the nail and scraped at the nail bed, cut the base of the toe with the Swiss Army knife, and carefully rolled the toenail off with the pliers. It was perhaps the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen, but it was fascinating to watch this man improvise. When it was time for me to get my next gamma shot, Dr. Leininger said he would do it, and before I could say anything, he had injected it into my upper arm. After a year in Bolivia, I had very little muscle mass in my upper body, and that shot was quite painful.

While he was at it, he noticed a small red lump on the side of my nose. “That a pimple?” he asked.

“No, I don’t know what it is,” I said.

“I think it needs to be lanced,” so he sterilized his Swiss Army knife and cut into the lump. He squeezed at it for quite some time and then shrugged, “I guess it’s a cyst.” I had it removed a couple of weeks after I got home to California.

Soon Dr. Leininger had a space in the mission newsletter: “El Rincon del Doctor Leininger” (Dr. Leininger’s Corner). He came up with a slogan that every missionary was to memorize: Lechuga? No hay en Bolivia (Lettuce? There isn’t any in Bolivia). He explained that eating uncooked leafy vegetables like lettuce was a sure way to get parasites. So, lettuce was not only off-limits, but we had to act as if it didn’t even exist.

Dr. Leininger began traveling with President Nichols, and there would always be a long line of missionaries waiting to see him. If he had a fault, it was that he wasn’t good at keeping patient information confidential. At one zone conference, I was sitting next to Edna Price when he announced, “And yesterday we did a barium enema on Hermana Price.” She went beet red. But it was wonderful feeling like we finally had someone who cared about our health and could do something about it.

Both of the Leiningers tried hard to learn the language, but they were notoriously bad Spanish speakers. In one talk in our ward, Dr. Leininger meant to say that he had gotten to know one of the sister missionaries well, but it came across as if he had had sex with her. Realizing what he had said, he turned red and said, “Estoy muy embarazado” (I’m really pregnant).

President Nichols made Dr. Leininger one of his counselors in the mission presidency, and he sent the two of them out to the most remote villages where there were branches of the church, at least on paper. Many of these small branches had been the punishment areas of the previous mission president, and very few of them had survived as functioning churches. Dr. Leininger told us of one branch up in the altiplano that had not had visitors from the outside for more than seven years. He was surprised to see women blessing the sacrament, which even today is not allowed in the church. Eventually, the mission president gave them his Land Cruiser (he got a fire-engine red one with air conditioning), and then drove around the country going from branch to branch trying to rebuild the church and take care of the missionaries and the people.

When President Nichols went to Utah for a mission presidents’ conference, Dr. Leininger called his son and had him fill a large suitcase with medical supplies and equipment, and after that he was much better able to help us.

The Leiningers have both passed away, and they are both missed. I’ve used their real names because they remind me of the potential of humans to do great things for each other, even in small everyday things. I am honored that I knew them.

Office Staff

April 29, 2008

Six missionaries living together are bound to have some disagreements and disputes, but we generally got along pretty well. That’s not to say we didn’t get on each other’s nerves. The president’s assistants could not have been more different from each other.

Elder Peet was what in high school people called a “band geek.” Music was his life, and as I said, he was always beating out a rhythm with his hands or fingers, wherever he was. Tall and thin, he had those glasses that looked kind of gray inside and then darkened into sunglasses outside. He was eternally enthusiastic, and he used phrases like “Dude, I’m stoked! I’m jazzed! I’m way fired up!” even when he was talking about something ordinary.

He had a thing for sister missionaries, and he was always talking to them; we thought it looked like he was hitting on them. He would say, “I have sort of informally become the AP for the hermanas.” Right, we thought. It didn’t seem to register with him that no one had given him that calling. He was always seeking out sister missionaries to sing for him. He would tell them what a beautiful voice they had and then get them to sing a song into his cassette recorder. One sister in particular had his complete attention, so much so that he referred to her as “Linda Sue,” instead of calling her by her last name. But he was a decent guy with a good heart, and we got along with him most of the time.

At BYU a few years later, I taught a British Literature class with one of the sisters from my mission. She told me of being invited to Peet’s house for a weekend. She said it ended up with him reading aloud to her from his mission journal while she struggled to stay awake. When he finished reading, he said to her, “Thanks for letting me be a man!” She said she had to run into the bathroom to avoid laughing in his face.

His companion, Elder Follows, always reminded me of one of those cupids you see around Valentine’s Day: Short and stocky, with dark curly hair and a rather cherubic face, he was the life of our house. In the mornings, we would take turns getting in the shower, and Peet was always determined to be the first in, so either Dannelly or I would stand by our door, which was next to the bathroom, and wait until we heard Peet’s door open, and then we would rush in and lock the door before he got there. I know, we were kind of evil. Some days when we were lying in bed, reading or waiting for the shower, Follows would go back and forth across the doorway doing various poses and leaps wrapped in a towel (though sometimes sans towel).

Follows told me that he had grown up in a very active LDS family in Salt Lake. His brothers had all served missions, but he was the “black sheep” of the family. He had been molested by a neighbor at age 8, just after his baptism, and he had never felt “clean” after that for a long time. In high school, he and his best friend had experimented in drugs and alcohol, and after graduation, they had gotten jobs working graveyard shifts at the train yards in Salt Lake. They had spent a couple of years working hard and shooting heroin in their spare time. One weekend they had gone to Vegas, where Follows had gotten a large blue winged unicorn tattooed on his chest. He was always embarrassed when it showed through the wet shirt when he would do a baptism. At some point, he and his best friend had decided to “shape up,” and they had gone to the temple together, his friend to get married and Follows to go on a mission. He was and still is one of my favorite people. I’ve never met anyone who was as supremely kind and caring to everyone, no matter who they were. I thought that he was, at 22, older and wiser than I was, and I look back and think that he was just a kid, like I was, though perhaps with more experience than I had.

Roberts was the executive secretary. Tall and broad, he had thick glasses and was one of the clumsiest people I have ever met. He was so prone to spilling food on his clothes at meal times that he started changing into a t-shirt before lunch and dinner. One night we had received a huge box of Cap’n Crunch cereal, and, not wanting to wait until the morning milk, we went to a restaurant that we knew had milk; however they didn’t have bowls, so we put the cereal in the Coca-Cola glasses they had. Just as we were about to eat, Roberts scooted his chair in and bumped hard into the table, knocking all the milk and cereal onto the floor. He told me that his father, a colonel in the Air Force, had proposed to his mother on their first date. He had just known she was the “right one.” Roberts was sure he would find someone just like that.

I’ve told you about Beck, who had been my first companion. A year in Bolivia hadn’t destroyed his endless patience and relaxed attitude.

My companion was Dannelly, a reddish-haired kid from Payson, Utah. When I met him, I thought he was possibly the most fanatical Mormon I had ever met. After his mother had passed away when he was 16, he lived alone until his mission. Instead of watching TV, he listened to church tapes, particularly recordings of leaders’ talks. At one point, he began correcting my English pronunciation. “It’s not ‘where,'” he would say, “it’s ‘hwere,'” with heavy emphasis on the “h.” Similarly, I said “which, what, and while” incorrectly. When I asked him where he was getting this pronunciation, he said, “That’s the way the church leaders say it, so it must be correct.” I told him they said it that way because they were all from Utah.

we became very close in a short time. I realized that, having lived alone, he really had never had many friends, and we became fast friends. President Nichols said we seemed like brothers more than companions. At the time, I was pretty naive and didn’t really see some of what was going on. We would stay up late talking, and I felt really connected, just like we were brothers, as I said. Soon Dannelly was coming over and lying on my bed as we talked, and then at some point he began getting under the blankets with me.

I had been told a lot about the possibility of homosexuality among missionaries. One apostle had gone so far as advocating physical violence if your companion ever tried anything with you. And we had a couple of companionships who did just that. But with Dannelly it never crossed my mind. We were kindred spirits, or something like that.

When I returned home and went to BYU, we roomed together. Not long before my marriage, I woke up in the middle of the night to find Dannelly with his hands in my garment bottoms, fondling me. I’m not sure which surprises me more: how long it took for me to figure it out or how long it took for him to actually do something. I was so shocked that I simply got out of bed and moved to the other bed. I never said anything to him about it for years.

After I got married, I had lunch with Follows, and he asked me if I still saw much of Dannelly. “No, we don’t talk much anymore.”

“He tried something with you, didn’t he?” Follows had seen it, even in those naive office days. I wish I had.

At the entrance to the Tunari National Park is a mud hut with the word “Oficina” scrawled on a plaque above the door. Just before Beck left the office, we drove up there and had our picture taken in front of it. I look at that photo and see six very different people trying to make the best of some trying times. I think we all survived.

The Truck

April 29, 2008

A day or two after arriving in Cochabamba, I went to get a Bolivian driver’s license. The driving test consisted of filling out a form and paying $20, for which my companion dutifully reimbursed me. I look sober and sunburned in the license photo, and you really can’t see how excited I was to be driving.

We had five vehicles in our mission. The zone leaders in La Paz and Santa Cruz had Toyota Land Cruisers. The president and the office staff had white Land Cruisers, the only difference being the massive steel and teakwood luggage rack on top of ours. The mission president’s wife had a battered red Toyota station wagon, but she never drove it. It had no headlights or taillights, and the tailgate was smashed in so that it wouldn’t open; apparently, the previous mission president’s wife was not a good driver.

Driving in Bolivia was always an adventure. They had traffic lights and stop signs and designated lanes, but no one paid much attention to them. And no one used their headlights at night; headlights were expensive to replace, so it was better not to use them than to wear them out. People would honk and flash their brights at us at night because we used our headlights.

It goes without saying that possibly the worst car you could give a 19-year-old is a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser. I’ve heard horror stories of how people in other missions abused their Sentras and Corollas, but we had a genuine off-road vehicle. And we figured it was meant to be driven off-road.

Each Sunday evening we would drive up on some pretty treacherous roads into the foothills above the city and watch the sunset while listening to approved music. Sometimes we put a mattress on the luggage rack and sat on top of the truck, talking until late into the night. It was so dark that high up that you could see shooting stars and satellites as they passed overhead.

One the APs was a nervous guy who was always beating a rhythm on his desk at the office, and when he was driving, he would tap his class ring on the stick shift knob, simultaneously driving us all crazy and putting nicks and gouges in the shifter. “Quit beating on the truck, dude,” we’d all say, and he would stop, embarrassed.

The other AP had discovered that the horn was just the right key to honk out the introduction to “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand,” and we would sing and laugh as we drove through the streets of Cochabamba, while people stared at the crazy gringos.

Some of us were better drivers than others. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had learned to be a pretty defensive driver. The president’s executive secretary, a rather large guy from Ohio, had thick glasses and couldn’t see very well. Once he was driving us down a dirt road at about 35 miles per hour, and we all screamed when we saw a large pile of dirt and rocks in the middle of the road.

“What?” he said just before we went flying over the pile, landing with a bone-rattling crunch. Another time he drove right over the top of a traffic circle because he hadn’t notice it. I hated riding in the car when he was driving.

Having the truck meant that a lot of people asked us for rides. Two missionaries in Quillacollo, a town 11 kilometers outside of Cochabamba, would show up every Monday night after p-day, sometimes after we went to bed, saying that they had missed their bus and needed a ride home.

One p-day we received permission to take a road trip to El Chapare, the jungle region about a three-hour drive from Cochabamba. We got up early in the morning, loaded the truck with food and water, and headed off down the highway. Just as we reached the top of the pass leading to El Chapare, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. We knew, but we had neglected to tell the mission president, that El Chapare was the country’s major coca-growing region and had been made a “sealed military zone” as part of the government’s coca-eradication agreement with the United States. In practical terms, this meant that we had to bribe the soldiers to get them to let us pass. $5 was enough. We ended up buying some gas from them, which they siphoned from their large military truck.

From the top of the pass, we dropped down into a humid, tropical jungle, and we stopped at a few places that we had been told of: a deep gorge over which spanned a rope bridge (I have a picture of a terrified-looking me standing in the middle of the bridge), and a cave that had an underground waterfall. The houses in the region were all built on stilts and had roofs made of banana leaves; we bought some pineapples and mangoes, and had a great lunch. By the time we stopped at a large waterfall in the afternoon, we were all covered with large, red mosquito bites. But it was a great day, one of the best of my mission. I was with friends, and we were having fun, and the stresses of everyday life seemed far away.

We left El Chapare in the late afternoon, and we sped home along the highway in the dark, most of us dozing. As we reached the pass back into the Cochabamba Valley, we could see that a metal gate had been closed across our lane. The AP who was driving swerved into the oncoming lane and then back. None of us slept again the rest of the way home.

As we pulled into our neighborhood close to midnight, someone said, “Well, at least those guys from Quillacollo won’t be here. The house is locked, and no one’s been home.”

We put the truck in the garage and went into the house. There in the living room were the two missionaries from Quillacollo. They told us that they had jumped our fence, climbed up to the balcony and gotten in through the unlocked balcony door. I was chosen to go with the executive secretary to take them home.

I told him I would drive, but he insisted, and he had the keys. We dropped them off and headed home.

“Let’s see how fast we can get this thing going,” said Roberts.

I told him it wasn’t a good idea; it was late, we were tired, and you never knew what you might run into on the highway. The highway from Quillacollo to Cochabamba was perfectly straight, except for two traffic circles. A narrow grass median divided the highway, and once a cholita had stepped off the median in front of a mission Land Cruiser, earning the truck the nickname “Chol Crusher.”

“I’m going to see how fast this thing will go,” he said.

He kept accelerating until we were going 130 kilometers per hour, which is about 81 miles per hour. Just then I saw a traffic circle ahead. He didn’t see it until I screamed, “Look out!”

He slammed on the brakes and swerved so that we were now sliding sideways toward the traffic circle. The wheels hit the concrete barrier, we tipped up on two wheels momentarily, and bounced backward and into the road again. We sat in the middle of the dark highway, the truck stalled, hoping we hadn’t done too much damage. We looked at the wheels, and they looked OK, though you could see where the metal had scraped on the concrete.

“I’m driving home,” I said, taking the keys.

At Carnaval, we spent all morning filling water balloons at the house and then loaded up the truck. Carnaval in Bolivia is not like the one in Brazil; it’s more of a national water fight. If you dared to step outside during Carnaval, you risked getting hit with a bucket of water or a water balloon (some people filled balloons with urine). We drove up and down the Prado throwing water balloons at everyone we could see. They were mostly students, and they had their own water balloons. By the end of the day, we and the truck were drenched, inside and out. we couldn’t use it for a few days until it dried out. We left it in the garage, windows rolled down, so that the seats and carpet would dry.

A couple of times we drove the truck up into the Tunari national park in the mountains above the city. The landscape there was beautiful and yet desolate. Because it was above the tree line, there was not much but patchy grasses amid glacial lakes. It was as quiet and peaceful a place as I’ve ever been.

After I left the mission office, the travel secretary and his companion drove up into the mountains on a Wednesday afternoon and knocked the oil pan off the bottom of the truck. Shortly thereafter, the church took the truck away and replaced it with a miserable little Toyota van. No one else would know how great it was to have the truck for six months.

In Which Runtu Nearly Gets Killed

April 29, 2008

A few days after the big group went home, a second big group was to arrive from Salt Lake to replace them. A day or two before they were to arrive, a massive general strike started. Everything shut down, from taxis to the phone company to the airlines. It looked like the group would be stuck in the MTC until the strike was over.

With nothing but local phone service, we had no idea how bad things were in La Paz, which was always the center of unrest in the country since it was the seat of government. There were scattered demonstrations and road blocks, but nothing terribly serious. We just got word out around Cochabamba to suspend door-knocking until it was over.

No flights were coming in, but we figured we had better head to the airport just in case. We were already running low on gasoline, but we drove both Land Cruisers to the airport, and to our amazement, a plane landed. 16 dazed missionaries walked off the plane and across the tarmac. There were no baggage handlers, no ticket agents; the airport was empty. We loaded them and their baggage into the trucks and took them to the hostel, not really sure what we were going to do with them. We had already made the assignments and called the various zone leaders before the strike had begun, but we had no way of getting them to their areas.

After dropping them off, we went back to the office, where the president told us we could spread them around Cochabamba until the strike was over. Our bishop, who worked at the airport, told us that a flight was leaving for Santa Cruz in two hours, and if we could get the missionaries on the plane, they could get to their areas. We called the hotel and told two of the missionaries to pack, and we would be there in 15 minutes.

Dannelly and I got into the truck and drove down to the hostel. As we pulled up, I could see down the block that a demonstration was passing along the Prado in front of us. Remember not to go that way, I said to myself. We went upstairs, got the missionaries and their luggage, and got back in the truck.

I turned the truck around and started heading the other way. Now I could see demonstrators filing by a couple of blocks down, so I turned and headed for the Plaza Colon. It was full of thousands of angry people, so I turned again. I drove slowly and came up on the demonstration. I waited until I saw a small gap in the demonstration and pulled forward.

Just then, the crowd saw what we were trying to do and surrounded the truck. Screaming and beating on the windows, they rocked the truck back and forth, clearly trying to turn it over. Dannelly reached under the passenger’s seat and pulled out a baseball bat we kept for emergencies, which this definitely was.

I was thinking that this was it. I was going to die, beaten to death by an angry mob. Somehow it didn’t feel good to be a martyr. I realized that we had two choices: leave or die. So, I let out the clutch and began inching through the crowd. When they saw I wasn’t going to stop, the crowd parted, and I accelerated out of there in a hurry.

We were both shaking as we drove to the airport.

“That was so cool!” said one of the guys in the back seat.

“Are you kidding? We almost got killed, you idiot!” Dannelly said, still holding the bat.

The strike went on for another three weeks. There was no gasoline, food was getting scarce, and one by one basic services had begun to shut down. One evening Dannelly was in his office, struggling to balance the books, when the phone rang for the first time in over a week. It was so unexpected I jumped in my chair.

It was a woman from New Hampshire whose son was in our mission.

“I have been so worried,” she said. “On the news they showed tanks in the streets of La Paz.” Really? I had no idea it was that bad.

“They say ten thousand miners have surrounded the city with dynamite and are threatening to blow up buildings if their demands aren’t met.” Wow, it really was bad.

“My son is in La Paz, and I’m scared that something has happened to him,” she said, by this time clearly in tears.

I knew he was in Villa Adela, which was far from the center of action. “Don’t worry,” I said. “He’s outside of La Paz in a place where it’s unlikely he’ll see any problems.” That much was true.

“How can you be sure?” she asked.

“Oh, well, all the missionaries are well and accounted for,” I lied. We hadn’t heard from La Paz in three weeks. “Besides, they all know to stay in the house when things like this happen.” Another lie. It had happened so quickly we hadn’t been able to give anyone instructions, and we found out later that most of the missionaries, clueless as they were, had worked as usual during the crisis.

“I’m so glad I talked to you,” she said. “I won’t worry anymore.” I really hoped he was OK because if something had happened to him, I was in trouble.

In the end, both he and I survived the crisis, and things went back to normal.

The Big Group

April 29, 2008

The second week of January, a large group of missionaries–18 in all, I think–was scheduled to go home. I had all the paperwork done, but it was a nightmare tracking them all done. One missionary, whom I’ve referred to as “Elder Dark Meat,” had decided to stay in Bolivia, but he had had a last-minute change of heart and was going home. Lewis and Sister Howard were going home, as was my old zone leader, Elder Barrett.

A couple of weeks before the big day, we got a phone call from one of the zone leadersin Potosi, who said that his companion, Barrett, had left for Sucre, where Barrett had planned to pick up his MTC companion, also a zone leader, for a road trip. The zone leader in Sucre said that they had already left, but he had overheard them talking about going to La Paz to visit some girls. The president had the assistants start making phone calls to find out where they were.

Eventually, they found them at the Hotel Gloria. They had been spending their days in El Alto with a couple of girls they knew.

“You have 24 hours to get to Cochabamba, or I’ll be holding a church court,” the mission president said, clearly livid.

“Mellow out, prez,” Barrett had said. “We didn’t do anything.”

“Look, I can hold a court just on suspicion. You have 24 hours,” he said, hanging up the phone.

The next morning, Sister Nichols said she had never seen him so upset. All night he had tossed and turned in bed, grinding his teeth. Barrett and his companion showed up in the afternoon, looking a little embarrassed. When they went into the president’s office, we could hear President Nichols yelling through the cinder-block wall. Sister Nichols cringed and said, “Oh, dear, I feel so bad for those boys. But he wouldn’t do that if they didn’t deserve it.”

Another elder in the big group, a farm boy from Idaho named Harley Earl, had been travel secretary long before I occupied that desk. One day I found a packet of letters hidden far at the back of the bottom drawer. They were postmarked from Tarija and expressed undying love for “querido Harley.” They were signed “Pochy,” and in one of the letters, I found a picture of our cook, Pochy, from Tarija, posing with her daughter, Carolina. Earl had also gone missing a few weeks before his scheduled departure, but we couldn’t find him. I suggested the APs try Tarija. We never did figure out where he had gone or what he had done; he showed up the day before his departure and went home, never saying anything to anyone.

Downtown as I was coming out of the immigration office, I ran into Elder Lewis and Hermana Howard, who were walking together through the Plaza Central.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“Oh, just doing some last-minute shopping,” said Lewis, smiling. He told me they were staying at the Hotel Ambassador with several other missionaries from the big group.

“It’s a little crazy over there.” He told me that one sister missionary had browned out and didn’t have a change of garments, so she borrowed some bottoms from an elder. At one point, he and Sister Howard had been caught in a downpour, and they had run back to the hotel to get warm and had ended up huddled under a blanket together on the bed. Another hermana had entered the room and gasped in horror. “What’s the matter?” Lewis had said, laughing. “Haven’t you ever seen a man and a woman in bed together?”

Finally, the day arrived, and everyone had shown up to go home. After the traditional dinner with the mission president, we loaded all three of our mission vehicles and headed toward the airport. I have never seen so much luggage in my life. One sister missionary had two large wicker baskets full of alpaca sweaters and llama-skin rugs tied tightly with string.

It took some doing, but we got them all checked in, their boarding passes stamped and their luggage checked, though some of them had to pay a lot of money for overweight baggage.

“I can’t wait to get the hell out of this place,” said Elder Dark Meat. Noticing me, he turned and said in a snotty voice, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sure you don’t approve of such terrible language, do you?”

“Get the hell out of our mission,” I said, glaring at him. He laughed.

All around us were tearful farewells, and then the call came for boarding. The gate opened, and a stream of missionaries walked across the tarmac toward the Lloyd 727. One missionary turned to me and said, “A lady gave me this package to take to Miami, but I don’t feel right about it.” He handed me a package about the size of a coffee can wrapped in brown paper. We took it back to the office and opened it. Inside was a large powdered-milk can full of white powder. But it wasn’t powdered milk. We flushed it down the toilet at the mission office.

A few days later we received a letter from Pentecostal missionary headquarters in Cochabamba. They wrote that they had been extremely unimpressed with the bad behavior displayed by the big group that day at the airport. Surely, if we were truly representatives of God, they wrote, we should set a better example.