The Missionary Training Center (MTC) was exhausting for me. You started the day at 6:00 and kept going until 10:00 at night. You were studying Spanish and learning the missionary discussions all day long, with breaks only for meals. It didn’t help that I couldn’t stand my companion, who was as smug and self-righteous as his Spanish was bad. Finally, the day came that we were to leave for Bolivia.
We stayed up the night before cleaning our room out for inspection, which would be at 3:00 in the morning. At 5:30 we boarded a bus for the Salt Lake airport, tickets in hand and a mixture of excitement and terror in our stomachs. My family was waiting for me at the airport. My brother had dyed his hair black, but that was about all that I noticed. Truthfully, I was happy to see them, but I was more excited to start my mission. As we walked down the jetway, my companion, who for some reason was put in charge of our group (consisting of him, me, and a sister missionary), reminded me to share the gospel with the people I sat next to.
My seatmate was a man who took one look at me and promptly put on his headphones. Not an auspicious beginning. I read my scriptures until we landed in Denver. Sister Rockwell, in our group, was from Colorado, and she left with her parents to sign some insurance papers. The entire time she was gone, my companion was banging his head against the glass window in the terminal, muttering, “I shouldn’t have let her go. I shouldn’t have let her go.” She made it back in plenty of time, and we headed off to Miami, where we sat with some British tourists for 4 hours; they looked a little wary of us, but Elder Grolsch tried his best to get them interested in the gospel until one of them said, “We’re just going to read for a while now.” Shot down again.
Finally, the Lloyd Aereo Boliviano 727 boarded for La Paz. This was it. I sat next to a woman who told her children not to talk to me; I was a stranger. As the plane took off, half the people on board crossed themselves, and we headed off into the night. A couple of hours later, we landed in Caracas to refuel, so Sister Rockwell and I got off the plane. Grolsch was in a panic. “Don’t you dare get off! What if you can’t get back on?” We left anyway. For an hour or so, we walked around the empty terminal. It occurred to me that I could just walk out the door unimpeded, and no one would stop me. No one would ever know what had happened to me. But I got back on the plane and tried to get some sleep.
As daylight was breaking, we landed in Santa Cruz, in the eastern lowlands. As soon as the door opened, we felt the heat and humidity. As I walked down the portable stairs, I realized that a wool suit and sweater were not a good combination here. A policeman directed us to a small shack where a bored woman stamped our passports. Then it was back onto the plane. An hour or so later we were descending over barren flatlands bordered on both sides by towering, snow-covered mountains until we landed in La Paz around 8:00 in the morning. As we approached the runway, I looked out and saw miles of adobe houses and dirt roads. I hoped to myself that this would not be where I would be working. This time they opened the back door of the plane, and a cold wind rushed through the cabin.
The APs were waiting for us in the terminal: a short guy who reminded me of the Bob’s Big Boy mascot and a tall, freckle-faced redhead. We got our luggage and walked out to their Jeep Cherokee. As the car started, the radio blasted out AC/DC at full volume. “Dude, who did that?” chuckled the redhead. I was, of course, completely appalled.
We descended the autopista from the airport into the city. It looked just like it had in the pictures: ramshackle houses climbing the sides of a canyon from the skyscrapers at the bottom, the majestic Mt. Illimani dominating the view to the north. They took us to the La Paz Sheraton, a relatively new building of dark, smoked glass. “Try to get some sleep before lunch,” they said.
I showered and then stood at the window looking out while my companion dozed off. This was it. I couldn’t wait to get started. Shortly before noon, the APs knocked at the door and took us down to the main floor restaurant, where the mission president and his wife sat at a table with 4 or 5 missionaries who were heading home.
One of the missionaries, who I learned had been an AP, turned to me and said, “If I were you, I’d slit my wrists right now.” The whole table laughed, except the mission president’s wife, who gave the elder a very dirty look.
We had a nice pepper steak with green beans for lunch, and the mission president, an exhausted-looking little man from Argentina, asked us about ourselves as he sipped mate de coca. After lunch, he took us into a lounge area for our first interviews. He sat me down, said, “Do you have any questions?” I couldn’t think of any, so he called for my companion.
After lunch, I decided to take a nap, as I was really tired. Just as I was nodding off, a knock came at the door. Outside stood a blond-haired Utahn who was sunburned and filthy dirty. “Are you Williams?” he asked. “I’m Beck, your new companion. Can I use your shower? The movilidad is on strike, and I haven’t had a shower since last Tuesday.” So he showered while we tried again to sleep. Another knock, and the APs took us down to the immigration office to get our identity cards. We walked about a mile to get there, and the altitude was really getting to me.
At dinnertime, I went downstairs to the restaurant with Beck and a few other missionaries. A tall missionary sat and told us the “unofficial” mission rules:
“Don’t trust the mission president. He only promotes people he likes, and he makes everyone else miserable. Don’t knock doors, because that doesn’t work. Make sure you make friends with the APs and the zone leaders, or nothing good will happen.”
After dinner, we settled into our beds for a long night’s sleep. Around 9:00, another knock came. This time it was two zone leaders whose car had conveniently run out of gas in the hotel parking lot. They asked if they could sleep in our room. So, I doubled up with my MTC companion in a full-size bed and got very little sleep that night.
In the morning, Beck returned, and we hailed a cab for Villa Adela. We ascended the autopista until we were in El Alto. The road went from paved to cobblestone, and the buildings went from multistory brick to adobe with corrugated steel roofs. We turned and drove alongside the airport runway until we reached the end. This was our area: a small group of government-built houses surrounding a cobblestone and gravel plaza.
I staggered out of the taxi and into our home: a small room with a concrete floor behind a slightly larger house. I collapsed onto the stiff bed and wondered what I had gotten myself into.