A few weeks later we were invited back to the Morenos for dinner. To begin, she brought out the familiar french-fry soup, and I was starting to get worried. But the main course was a marvelous sajta de pollo, the Bolivian national dish. This was a spicy stewed chicken served with potatoes and chuño. For dessert, she made some kind of whipped jell-o and then afterwards, we finished off with a nice cup of carrot tea. I had not eaten such a large and satisfying meal since I had arrived in Bolivia.
“Where did you find the chicken?” I asked.
“In the market, pues,” said Hermana Moreno, looking puzzled.
“But I thought it was hard to get chicken,” I protested.
“Who told you that?” she asked.
“Would you be interested in cooking for us?” asked Beck.
“I used to cook for the elders a long time ago, but I had to quit when I had a baby,” she said.
Within a few minutes, we had a new cook. At $40 a month per missionary, she charged us less than Hermana Galarreta did. But considering that per capita income in Bolivia hovered at about $700 a year, this additional income would seem like a king’s ransom.
Hermana Galarreta was pissed when we told her. She began yelling at us in Spanish to go to hell, and then she quickly switched to Aymara. I suspected it was worse than “Go to hell!” I felt pretty bad about it, as I knew this was a blow to her family’s income. But we couldn’t stay there. It wasn’t healthy. I never saw Hermana Galarreta again. When we would go to their house to invite them to church, she would send one of the children out to tell us that she wasn’t home.
We ate much better at Hermana Moreno’s, the only additional cost being a nightly round of English lessons with her husband. She and Hermana Lopez were best of friends, and we began calling them our Bolivian Moms. They took good care of us. But the damage had been done; we had noticed that we were both losing weight, and we were plagued with diarrhea and stomach pain. Finally, we decided it was time for a trip to the doctor. For the missionaries there was only one doctor: Doctor Donoso, whose office was adjacent to the Plaza San Francisco, right where the autopista turned into the Prado, the main street through La Paz.
We walked across the plaza and up the ancient stairs into the doctor’s office. His assistant had us get on the scale. Beck, who was about 5’11” weighed in at 59 kilos, or 130 lbs. I weighed 52 kilos, a whopping 114 lbs. I had lost 28 lbs. in just a couple of months. Doctor Donoso was a friendly man who was clearly not one of the majority Indians. He looked very Spanish and spoke with a more refined accent than what we heard every day. He took blood samples and stool samples and told us to come back in a few days.
We walked across the plaza to the bus stop, both of us feeling pretty miserable and tired. A well-dressed woman walked up to us and said that she had lost her purse; she just needed bus fare to get home in El Alto. So, we gave her the fare and then watched as she approached someone else with the same story. We had seen a lot of beggars, but hers was the most creative begging we’d seen yet.
We caught the bus home and collapsed on the bed. The next morning I woke up with sore throat, runny nose, and a fever. Today was laundry day, so we carried our laundry bags over to Hermana Lopez’s house.
“Are you all right?” she asked when she saw me.
“No, I think I have a cold,” I said.
“Well, don’t stand out there in the cold,” she ordered. “Get in here, and lie down on the couch. I have a really good remedy for a cold.”
I lay down on the couch, and she covered me up with a blanket and took my temperature. She sent Tony, her oldest, to the tienda to get something and then disappeared into the kitchen. Beck opened a Condorito comic book and read in a chair while I lay there, as miserable as I had ever felt in my life.
A few minutes later, Hermana Lopez brought in a tray with a steaming mug. “Here, take this,” she said. “Pobrecito.”
“What is it?” I asked, a little wary of Bolivian home remedies.
“Don’t worry, it’s hot lemonade and a couple of Dristan tablets.” I took the pills and sipped the hot lemonade, which somehow was more soothing than anything I had ever remembered drinking. I still make a hot lemonade every time I get a cold. It reminds me of my Bolivian mom and how she took care of me when I was sick and far from home.
I slept most of the day on Hermana Lopez’s couch. She made us a nice dinner and then sent us home with another lemonade and some more pills.
A few days later I was up and around, and it was time to go back to the doctor. He wrote out the names of the parasites I had (I still have that piece of paper): Ascarid (roundworm), Trichuris trichura (whipworm), oxiuris, and tapeworm eggs (they hadn’t hatched, thankfully), as well as amoebic dysentery. I started on a regimen of pills, charcoal tablets, and vials of red oily stuff called “vermifugo,” which in case you didn’t know means “worm flush.” We just called it “the red crap.”
Sick as we were, we still gave missionary work our all. We knocked doors all day long and taught as many people as would listen. One morning we emerged from the apartment to find empty streets and an eerie quiet. As we passed Hermana Lopez’s house, she ran out into the yard, yelling, “What are you doing out there? Get inside, quick, before someone sees you!”
A little bewildered, we marched into the house, and she quickly closed all the blinds. “It’s not safe for you to be on the streets,” she said.
She turned on the TV, and we could see images of tanks in the streets of La Paz. “They’ve kidnapped the president!” she said.
During the night, some military conspirators had abducted President Siles from the presidential palace, apparently hoping to spark a golpe de estado (coup d’etat). We saw a couple of ancient helicopters full of troops pass over the house and wondered if the rest of the missionaries were OK.
Hermana Lopez would not let us leave the house that day until the president had been released and the troops had gone back to their barracks. We sat eating cake and sipping cocoa as we watched the president’s triumphant return to his office. He was unharmed, except for a broken rib sustained by the crush of the crowd as he got out of the jeep and walked to his residence. We learned at zone meeting that more than a few clueless missionaries had gone out tracting as usual during the crisis. We also learned that Beck was going to Sucre. I would be getting a new companion.