The Great Bolivian Poop-Off

“It’s 6:00. Get up.” I woke up that second day to an extremely cold room. The window panes were frosted with ice on the inside. “It’s our breath that does it,” said Beck as he came in the door carrying a bucket of water. He set the bucket down and picked up a strange object: a metal box a little larger than a brick, which had several holes punched in it. It looked like steel Swiss cheese with an electrical cord attached.

“This is our water heater,” said Beck. “It has some heating coils inside. You drop it in the bucket, and plug it in,” he said, doing just that. “As for breakfast …” He turned on the space heater and sliced a couple of marraquetas open, placing them on the heater’s grate. “Makes a great toaster.”

He filled a tea kettle with water and placed it on top of the heater, as well. “Two teaspoons of cocoa, two of powdered milk, and one of sugar,” he said, stirring the powder into an enamel mug.

Soon the water was boiling, and we were eating toast with butter and apricot jam and sipping cocoa. “This Bolivian milk tastes like baby formula,” he said, “but we’ll get some Nido next time we’re in the city.”

After breakfast, I could see steam rising from the bucket of water. “Looks like it’s about ready,” Beck said, unplugging the water heater. “Go get a bucket of cold water,” he said, pointing to another bucket by the door. I drew a bucket of water from the large rusy barrels by the gate and walked back to the courtyard outside our room. Beck was setting a pink plastic basin on top of some stacked bricks. He carefully poured some of the hot water into the basin, and then took my bucket and put some cold water in until the water temperature was just right. Standing in his bathrobe, he quickly used the water to shave. Then he stripped of his garments and stood there, naked, in the cold. He quickly washed his hair and then used a wash cloth to wash and rinse his body. “Your turn,” he said, putting his robe on and disappearing into the room.

I learned that you bathed quickly because it was far too cold to be standing wet out in the wind. As I was finishing up, the landlady came by and said, “You two are crazy. You’re both going to get pneumonia and die.” Maybe, but it was better than going without a bath.

Now relatively clean, we read our scriptures together until 9:30. Then we went back out to work. We had our first discussion, a second discussion with a couple, Morgan and Leticia. I was so nervous that I just rattled through what I had memorized. “Slow down,” laughed Beck. “Just so you know, I’ve decided we’re going to do everything by the book.

Lunchtime was another bowl of “french fry soup” followed by the same awful stew. After lunch, we studied Spanish for half an hour, and then Beck tossed me a film canister. “You need to get a stool sample.”

“What?”

“A stool sample,” he said. “Everyone in the mission has to give a stool sample to the welfare missionaries. They’re going to take them to a lab to see if we have parasites.”

“Um, I don’t think I have parasites since I’ve only been here two days,” I said.

“They said everyone,” said Beck. “Just do it. It’s not a big deal. I saved a film canister for you.”

I went into the bathroom to get the stool sample, and then we waited for a bus by the plaza. We rode for twenty minutes or so until we reached La Ceja, the main bus station in El Alto. I figured it was so named (La Ceja means “the eyebrow”) because it was right at the edge of the altiplano. Across the street from the bus stop was a sharp drop perhaps 200 feet to the houses below.

The welfare missionaries were standing on the curb when we got off the bus.

“Welcome to the Great Bolivian Poop-Off. I’m Hermana Bryan,” said a stocky woman with bleached hair, who wore a jumper that made her look pregnant. “I’m putting the samples in my backpack,” she said. “Who knows what we’ll find in there?”

“I already know I have worms,” said a tall skinny missionary, who introduced himself as Elder Lamont. “I could see them moving in there when I got the sample.”

“I didn’t need to hear that,” said Hermana Bryan. “Any blood?”

“Nope, just worms,” said Lamont.

“We’ll let you know what we find,” smiled Bryan. Looking at Beck, she said, “We didn’t see you this week. Don’t you guys need a shower?”

Beck explained that the hermanas had the only shower in the zone, so the rest of us took turns getting a weekly shower. Our day was Tuesday. Wonderful, I thought. “We showered at the Sheraton,” Beck said.

“That must have been nice,” said Thomas, the other welfare hermana, a quiet redhead bundled under a huge tan overcoat and scarf. “Hey, what’s that smell?”

“Oh, crap, one of the samples broke open,” said Bryan, looking into her backpack. “It’s all over everything.”

“I think it’s time for us to go,” said Beck.

“Wait, we have a letter for you,” said Thomas.

We got on the bus, and Beck tore open the letter, which was from his girlfriend in Utah. “Oh, no. No way,” he said, sounding mortified.

“What? Is she breaking up with you?”

“No, it’s much worse. She’s picked out the colors for our reception. She’s planned where, when, and how. What am I going to do?”

We spent the rest of the bus trip home composing a polite “please don’t write me again” letter. After another meal identical to the others, we headed home and to bed.

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