I lay on the bed, staring at the cracked plaster on the ceiling. Beck said it was OK if we didn’t work that first day since everyone needed time to adjust to the altitude.
“No, I’m fine. Let’s get to work!” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic, though my head was already pounding.
So, we went out the door for my first official day of missionary work. Beck said we needed to pick up a filmstrip projector at the branch president’s house, so we headed over there. The town of Villa Adela, really more of a housing subdivision than anything, was built in a square, perhaps three-quarters of a mile across. The main street into the town was cobblestone, but the rest of the streets were narrow dirt roads. Apparently the town had been built as compensation for houses the government had destroyed to make way for the autopista, the four-lane highway from the airport down into the city.
The houses were small duplexes, a gate in front protecting a small front yard perhaps fifteen feet deep. The houses had been plumbed for running water, but there was no water line running to the town. So, although we had a real toilet, it didn’t flush without the help of a bucket of water, and we tossed the used toilet paper into a cardboard box in the bathroom to be burned later.
We walked to the Quispe’s home, where Hermana Quispe greeted us enthusiastically. A small, thin woman wearing a large, nearly toothless smile and a threadbare pale blue sweater, Hermana Quispe invited us into her sitting room. She a typical paceño accent: she dropped her vowels and emphasized the consonants: “Tomen asientito, p’s,” she smiled, her voice whistling through the gaps in her teeth, and then she went into the kitchen for a few minutes. I looked around the room. The couch we sat on was orange velour with a crocheted afghan. The latest Manaco shoe calendar, which showed a barely dressed girl on a tennis court, and a poster of Spanish pop star Miguel Bose were Scotch-taped to the turquoise walls. A tinted black-and-white photo showed the Quispe family: a portly, gray-haired husband, Hermana Quispe, and two thin, serious-looking teenaged sons. She brought in a couple of marraquetas with margarine and hot cocoa (made with water, not milk).
I took a few small bites of the bread and a sip of the cocoa, but all I could think of were the nausea and dizziness welling up inside of me. I excused myself and ran out into the street, where I leaned, wretching, against the wall.
“You should get him to bed,” said Hermana Quispe grimly. “He doesn’t look good at all.”
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. I was supposed to be out finding the lost sheep, not staggering home to sleep off a nasty case of altitude sickness. By the time we reached the house, I had nothing left in my stomach, and I collapsed on the bed. I slept for a couple of hours, and when I woke up, Beck was sitting on the bed, reading the blue Intermediate Spanish book we had all been issued in the MTC.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“A little,” I said. “I’d really like to try and get some work done today.” I couldn’t let a little thing like altitude sickness get in the way of what God had in store for me.
“Well, you’ll have to wait until siesta is over,” Beck said and went back to his book.
After siesta, we went back outside. The sun was shining in the brightest blue sky I’d ever seen. But it was cold, the wind blowing the dry altiplano dust into our faces. Even with a wool sweater under my overcoat, I couldn’t quite get warm. The first door we knocked was a rusty gate in an adobe wall. A woman answered the door, and mumbled something through a toothless mouth.
“What did she say?” I whispered to Beck.
“I don’t know,” he said. He’d only been here for two months, and his Spanish wasn’t much better than mine.
The next door, a woman took a look at us and said, “Janiwu entendiki” before closing the door. I would hear this phrase a lot: I don’t understand, meaning I don’t speak Spanish. Of course, most Bolivians are bilingual, but janiwu is a good all-purpose phrase for avoiding annoying American missionaries.
“You look really awful,” said Beck. “Maybe we should just go home and work on the discussions.” So, we went back to the apartment and spent the afternoon memorizing the missionary “discussions,” the pre-programmed lessons that all potential converts would hear. After two months of memorizing, I was really tired of the discussions, but we worked all afternoon.
For dinner, we walked over to the home of some church members, the Galarretas. The husband, a small, slight man, even by Bolivian standards, was a school teacher. His wife, a rather large woman with intense eyes and brown teeth, brought in something I would eat at almost every meal for the next two years. She would boil beef bones and then top the broth with french fries. I noticed that her thumbs were inside the soup as she carried the bowls, and I could see the black thumbprint on the inside of the bowl as I ate. But at least I was able to eat at this point. The main course was a grim-looking stew made of tough meat and potatoes. I didn’t eat much; I thought even if I was feeling well, I wouldn’t find it very appetizing. Beck ate as if he hadn’t eaten in a while, and suddenly, he winced and grabbed at his cheek. He pulled a rusty nail out of his mouth; how it got there no one knew (Hermana Galarreta blamed the carniceria). It wasn’t the last time we’d find something in our food there: rubber bands, paper clips, pieces of paper, and assorted pebbles showed up over the next couple of months.
After dinner we visited a young man who had recently returned from his mission but for some reason hadn’t been attending church. “We could really use your help in the branch,” said Beck.
“I need to get a job first,” said Edmundo, “And then maybe I’ll think about going to church.”
“I don’t get it,” said Beck as we walked home. “He’s been on a mission, gone through the temple, and now nothing. Weird.”
“Definitely,” I said.
By 8:30 we were back in our apartment studying Spanish from the thick red paperback Missionary Guide. Beck turned on the small space heater between the beds, but both of us huddled under the thick, gray, wool blankets on the beds. Beck put on a chullu and said he thought I’d want to get one too. “Otherwise you’re going to freeze every night.”
Finally we knelt in our garments at the side of Beck’s bed and prayed (in Spanish, of course), thanking Heavenly Father for the privilege of serving a mission here, and grateful that He had gotten me there safely. And I was grateful. I’d been dreaming of this all my life.