When I was in Bolivia, about 270 missionaries were working in the country, mostly in and around the cities, but in a few small towns also. Probably 80% of the missionaries were non-Bolivians, mostly from the US and Canada, but a few from such far-flung places as Germany, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe. Missionaries were organized into zones: three zones in La Paz, two each in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. There were about 20-25 missionaries in each zone, and then the zones were further divided into districts of 8-10 missionaries. Because the zones were geographically small, we usually had zone meetings every week after preparation day (P-day), where the zone leaders would give us any mission news or instructions and then usually try to get us to work harder. After we reported our goals and accomplishments, we separated ourselves into district meetings, where the district leader would ask how things were with each companionship.
When I got to Bolivia, Beck was our district leader, so district meetings were usually pretty laid-back and informal, just like his personality. The zone leaders were another story; they were polar opposites from each other. Elder Ford was what missionaries called a “red hot,” meaning he went by the rules always and worked harder than most; he may even have been a “white hot,” a term reserved for only the most extremely dedicated missionaries. His companion, Barrett, was a “fry,” meaning he was burned out on missionary work and wasn’t interested in doing much of anything but “tuning,” or listening to prohibited music. Barrett, one of those awful Californians I’d heard of, enjoyed telling people that, shortly before his missionary farewell, his entire bishopric had been excommunicated for “wife swapping.” No, that couldn’t possibly have happened, could it? It was clear that Barrett had made zone leader because of his friendship with one of the president’s assistants. Ford told me that at this point, President Barrientos wasn’t involved in daily missionary work at all; he was leaving things to his assistants. It was obvious the two zone leaders didn’t get along.
Barrett abruptly got a transfer, so our new zone leader was a Bolivian, Elder Velazquez. He was kind of a red hot, I thought, but he was mostly a schmoozer. He wanted to be everyone’s friend and leader, and he just oozed self-confidence. One zone meeting he announced that we were going to take a trip to Tiwanaku, the famous pre-Incan ruins not far from Lake Titicaca. If everyone paid $10, we’d have enough to rent a micro to take us up there and hire a tour guide from one of the tourist agencies in La Paz.
We would need to be in the city early on P-day, so several missionaries decided to do the traditional “P-day Eve”: we left for the city on Sunday afternoon (P-day was Monday) and checked in to the Hotel Gloria, which was a relatively new hotel. At $5 a night, it was quite a bargain. We carried our bags to the elevator, noticing a few hookers in the Incan-themed lobby, which was done in bright oranges, yellows, and browns. Upstairs in our room, I took my shoes off and walked around, enjoying the feeling of carpet on my feet. Things had changed a lot for me in three months if carpet was now an exotic luxury. Beck called the bathroom first, and he was probably in there an hour, enjoying the first hot bath either of us had taken in a long time.
Ever the dedicated missionary, I cracked open my scriptures and began reading the Book of Mormon in Spanish. I was in Mosiah at that point. I kept a small spiral notebook in my shirt pocket, and I would write down unfamiliar words and then look up the definition in the dictionary. By this time I had three or four pages of words, all of which I had memorized. Usually, I’d just see words on signs or in the newspaper, and I’d write them down for later. But the scriptures were full of the unfamiliar; I suspected that the intentionally archaic language of the Book of Mormon might even be foreign to most Bolivians.
Finally Beck came out of the bathroom. A layer of fine sand lined the bottom of the tub. We were that dirty. I rinsed the tub out as well as I could and then got in, savoring the hot, steamy water. I had parasites and had been pretty sick, but this felt like heaven. I don’t know how long I soaked in the tub, but I kept adding hot water until there was no more. I felt clean, and when I put on some clean garments, I felt like I was going to survive, after all.
When I got out of the bathroom, Beck was watching Rocky III on the room’s TV. This wasn’t too out of character for him; we often watched dubbed American sitcoms (Los Beverly Ricos and Aqui Esta Lucy were on every night) or the Mexican skit show El Chavo del Ocho while we ate our dinner. But that was pretty much as far as our rule-breaking extended. I slept well in that comfortable bed, and we got up early for the excursion.
At 7:00 we met the rest of the zone in the lobby. You could tell which ones had stayed in the hotel: they were clean and awake. The others looked dirty and still a little drowsy. We piled into the bus and headed up the autopista. Past the airport and well beyond anyone’s work area we rode, until there wasn’t much but a wide expanse of altiplano and a few isolated adobe homes. We saw very little vegetation, just some yellowed patches of grass here and there and a few cactuses. There was something unsettling about being in a desert that was so cold. The same dry dusty feeling of La Paz prevailed here, but it lacked the smell of burning trash so common in the city.
On the bus, most people chatted, but a lot were listening to music on headphones. I looked back and noted how tired and sunburned everyone looked. A couple of the missionaries had been called originally to Brazil, but because of visa trouble had ended up for a month or so in Houston until they were unceremoniously dumped in Bolivia, a country they knew nothing about and whose language they didn’t speak. I sat next to Elder Charlton, who was from the stake next to mine in California. He had been one of these Brazilian missionaries, but he was pretty philosophical about it. His body was emaciated from the harsh conditions in Bolivia, but he still had a spark of humor in his eyes. He told me he’d visit my parents when he got home and tell them how I was doing. I told him to lie and tell them I was healthy.
At length we arrived at Tiwanaku. This was going to be cool, I just knew it. Dating to a time around 600 BC (not coincidentally the same time the Book of Mormon account begins), Tiwanaku was solid evidence that the great Nephite civilization of the Book of Mormon really did exist. The tour guide began by showing us the “semisubterranean temple,” a dug-out plaza about 30 meters square, with carved faces protruding from the walls. The tour guide said that the faces represented two races, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned. That I couldn’t see it didn’t mean that it wasn’t true. We walked through the massive Kalasasya Temple, where someone pointed out holes carved through some of the walls. Soon people were whispering that this might be the place where the Nephites whispered their key words to enter the temple, Finally, we saw the Puerta del Sol (Gateway of the Sun), which depicted the Incan god Wiraqocha . What looked like hundreds of warriors bowed to Wiraqocha. Obviously, this was a reference to the appearance of the Savior in the Americas.
After the tour, I asked the guide if she gave the same information to other tourists and wondered how non-Mormons responded. She laughed and said that she had taken many groups of Mormon missionaries to the site, so she had altered her presentation to “make it more meaningful to them.” We had our lunches (packed sandwiches and bananas), and then got back on the bus and headed toward Copacabana, a town on Lake Titicaca that housed the Virgen de Copacabana, perhaps the holiest Catholic shrine in all of Bolivia. The virgin was housed in a massive cathedral constructed with stones from Tiwanaku ruins. A friar dressed in traditional brown robes gave us a tour of the cathedral, which culminated in the ornate chapel where the virgin stood against a backdrop of gold and jewels. A couple of the missionaries made some derogatory jokes about the virgin until the friar informed us that he spoke fluent English.
We walked up the hill overlooking the town and the lake, noting the stations of the cross as we passed them. Each year, Bolivian pilgrims would walk from La Paz to Copacabana, a distance of perhaps 75 miles, to recreate the stations of the cross on this hill. As we descended, I had a bathroom emergency, and not having my campo kit, we ran back to the town to find a toilet. We found a public pay toilet in an allew off the main market. We paid our 500 pesos, the attendant gave us some toilet paper, and we entered the dirtiest bathroom I have ever seen. Not much more than an outhouse, the walls, floor, and toilet (such as it was) were covered with human filth. I squatted, trying not to touch anything, and then when I was done got out of there as quickly as I could.
On the bus ride home, the driver pulled into a small store out on the altiplano, as some of the missionaries wanted to stop and get sodas. As we slowed to maybe 30 miles an hour, Elder Velazquez suddenly stepped out of the open bus door and rolled over and over on the dirt road. Bloodied and a little dazed, he spent the rest of the trip watching a couple of the welfare missionaries pick gravel out of his hand and forehead with tweezers.
We skipped zone meeting but turned in our weekly reports when we got to Ciudad Satelite. We hadn’t done anything remotely like missionary work all day, and it felt pretty good.