Tarija: More from My Mission

My first area in Bolivia was a small conglomeration of government-built houses on the Altiplano outside La Paz. The altiplano is a high plain (hence its name) about 13,000 feet above sea level that stretches between the two Andean ranges for about 200 miles. We had no running water, and living conditions were a bit sketchy.

After 6 months in El Alto, I finally got my transfer to Tarija, a small city of about 50,000 people in southern Bolivia, a couple of hours from the border with Argentina. Several people told me that Tarija was by far the best place to live in Bolivia, but the “numbers” were not good; that would be the opposite of El Alto.

My new companion was to be Lewis, a Southern Californian like me. Sitting in a hamburger shop downtown in La Paz on p-day, I saw Lewis and walked over to introduce myself. He smiled and said, “We’re finally getting out of Paz!” Lewis was kind of famous because he had been walking out of the La Paz post office when a large crowd of communists started calling him and his companion “huevos!” He had lost his temper, and the two of them ended up getting beaten pretty badly, until a sister missionary had waded into the crowd and dragged them to safety in the Panamanian embassy. Rumor had it that he had had a nervous breakdown early in his mission.

The next day I met him at the airport, along with the two welfare missionaries who would be opening up Tarija for their program of teaching “autosuficiencia” and improved hygiene. One of them was the one who had saved him from the crowd, and the other was a shy Idaho farm girl with strawberry blond hair, whom I had gotten to know in El Alto. Immediately, it was obvious that he and his saving sister liked each other. They sat next to each other on the plane, so I sat with Thomas, the other sister.

The first thing we noticed when we landed was that it was hot in Tarija. In the lower elevation, the weather was much milder than the freezing dry winds of El Alto. Tarija lies in a mountain valley about 6,300 feet above sea level. The Guadalquivir River runs along the edge of the town, and the valley surrounding the town is filled with vineyards and pastures. It was quite a change from the barren altiplano, and it felt good.

We lived in a small room on the second floor of a rear “apartment” building behind the main house where an elderly lady live with her daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter. We quickly learned that, with no windows, the room would heat up considerably during the day, so we would sit out on the balcony until bedtime, and then we would struggle to sleep in the heat. Lewis had a knack for getting out of his missionary clothes in a hurry. He would start unbuttoning his shirt as I unlocked the gate, and by the time we got upstairs to our room, he would be just about down to his temple garments. In the evenings, we would sit on the balcony in t-shirts and sweat pants and listen to Major-League Baseball over Armed Forces Radio on Lewis’s miniature shortwave radio. He was pretty angry that his beloved Padres were heading to the World Series for the first time, and he was stuck in Bolivia. I learned that he was the oldest child of an alcoholic father and a near-fanatical Mormon mother. He had a lot of baggage from both.

Church, such as it was, met in a rented house with three rooms and tiled floors. The first Sunday, we arrived before 2:00, the posted starting time, and no one was there. About 2:15, an elderly woman showed up, followed a few minutes later by an 18-year-old boy. A few minutes after 2:30, the branch president showed up and unlocked the gate. According to the church’s records, there were more than 200 members in this branch, but only two had bothered to show up (the branch president lived outside the branch boundaries). Needless to say, we divided the meetings between the two of us: we both gave impromptu talks, I taught Sunday School and Lewis taught a combined priesthood and Relief Society meeting.

One morning, Lewis went to take his shower, which consisted of an electric shower head hooked to a “Frankenstein switch” on the wall. You had to be extremely careful because the shower operated at 220 volts, so any false moves could result in electrocution. The wiring had obviously shorted out a few times, as there were holes punched into the walls where the wires protruded, twisted together in a makeshift splice. I was reading my scriptures when suddenly the lights flickered. A few minutes later, Lewis came in dripping wet and looking dazed. “I almost killed myself,” he said. “The wire shorted, so I walked over and twisted the wires back together. Not a good idea when you’re naked and wet. Threw me completely across the room.”

A couple of weeks in, Lewis announced that it was his birthday, and his mother was supposed to call him. We waited all day, and no call came. He was pretty upset because his mother had promised. So, the next afternoon, we trudged over to ENTEL, the national telephone company, and placed a long-distance call to his house in San Diego. The way it worked was that you paid in advance and got a little ticket, and then you waited until they called your ticket number. Then you would go to a small booth, and they would connect the call for you. We waited at least two hours, and finally Lewis went into the booth. He was in there about twenty minutes, and when he came out, he was crying. I asked him what was wrong, and he said nothing. We walked home in silence.

At the apartment, Martin got out of his missionary clothes, and suddenly slammed his fist into the pink plaster wall. “God damn it! It’s not supposed to happen this way!” he shouted, his face red with anger and hurt.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They’re divorced, God damn it. My parents are divorced. That’s why she didn’t want to talk to me. And it was my birthday.” He went on to explain that the reason he had lost his temper outside the post office that day was that he had received a letter from home saying that his parents had separated. Since then, every letter home, he had begged his parents to work things out. And they hadn’t. “A family is supposed to be forever, and divorce isn’t part of the plan.”

For the next couple of days, he said very little to me. We worked hard, but we always seemed to come home a little earlier each day. The third day, as we walked through the city on our way to our tracting area, he suddenly turned around and said, “Just leave me alone. Stay away from me, OK?” I tried to follow him, but he shoved me and said again, “I said, leave me alone!” With that he took off running through the crowded streets.

There’s nothing quite so terrifying as a missionary than to be alone. You’re told in the MTC that you are to stay with your companion at all times, no matter what. Leaving your companion is somewhere below fornication on the list of missionary sins, but not too far below. In a near panic, I walked home, where I realized that he had the key. I sat on the balcony for a while, wondering what to do, and then decided to go out looking for him.

I walked out the gate and passed the school across the street. A group of teenaged boys saw me and started shouting “huevo!” at me, along with assorted profanities. I looked over at them, jeering at me, and I couldn’t think to do anything but flip them off, so I did. Dumb move, I decided, so I took off running before they could catch me. I wandered alone through the streets, trying to figure out where he would have gone. The sister missionaries–that’s where he would have gone, I thought.

When I got to their house, he was sitting on the bed, sobbing, while Sister Howard held his head and comforted him. We made pancakes for dinner together, and then sat in the dim candlelight. I really didn’t know what to tell him, so I sat and watched as he sobbed into Sister Howard’s shoulder.

The next morning, Lewis woke up and told me he was feeling better. “We’re going to work really hard this week!” he said in a weird, cheerful voice I hadn’t heard before.

We did work hard that week. We visited the “less active” and encouraged them to come to church. We helped the sisters with their gardening project. On Sunday there were more than 20 people in sacrament meeting. Things were going well for once.

On P-day, the sisters invited us to play tennis with them. They were teaching a tennis instructor, who said he would let us in for free. The court was wet clay, so the red mud stuck to our shoes, but we played anyway. Every time the ball came to Lewis’s side, he would yell out some form of profanity and slam the ball into the net, his anger rising with swing of the racquet. With one particularly vicious swing, he screamed, “I hate this fucking country! I just want to go home!”

Sister Howard looked at him, her hands on her hips. “If you’re going to be such a big baby about everything, maybe you should go home.”

“Great idea!” he shouted, throwing his racquet at the net and storming off.

“You think we should go after him?” asked Thomas, a little shaken.

“Yeah, probably,” I said, and the three of us headed for the apartment.

We walked across town, and when we got there, the apartment was locked. The landlady said he had been there but had left. We walked everywhere we could think of: the lady in the branch who always made us cookies and cocoa, the ice cream parlor we usually went to on P-Days, the church, but nothing. He was nowhere. After looking for several hours, we went back to the apartment. The door was open, and he was lying on the bed, a packed suitcase in the middle of the room.

“I went to the airlines to get a ticket home,” he said, sobbing. “But the line was too long.”

The next few days, we stayed in the apartment, and he started to tell me about what had happened on his mission. Sometimes I still can’t believe he made it home alive.

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