I had heard this place was bad, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it. We arrived at the house, and I noticed a large puddle in the mud street that was frozen solid. “It’s been like that for months,” said Brock. We walked into the courtyard past a room that was literally filled with guinea pigs. The door was open, and the guinea pigs milled about behind some chicken wire. Through the next door we could see a large standing mixer grinding cacao beans into chocolate. Apparently the dueños owned a candy shop and raised guinea pigs (not for pets, mind you), as well as renting rooms to boarders like us. We climbed two flights of stairs to a third-floor apartment.
The room was pretty large for a missionary apartment, probably twice the size of the place in Villa Adela. On one end, facing the street, were two large windows made of small panes, most of which were cracked, some patched with pieces of cardboard. Two beds sat opposite each other on one side of the room, a large propane heater between them. A good-sized table stood at the other end of the room, a kerosene burner with a large stock pot standing next to it. But what you noticed was the trash. Discarded milk bags, empty yogurt containers, empty cans–all of it was piled in or around old cardboard boxes. The wood floor hadn’t been swept in ages. Brock’s dirty clothes lay in a heap near the bed. The only clean things in the room, it seemed, were a shiny new charango, a couple of quenas, and a small zamponia.
“I’m going to play them in the Cala Coto ward’s talent show at the end of the month,” he said, proudly.
“But that’s not even in our zone,” I said.
He shrugged. “Dr. Donoso invited me.” With that, he picked up his charango and started to practice.
“Maybe we should clean this place up,” I said.
“I would, but there’s no way to get rid of the trash,” he said, shrugging again.
“I think we can find someone to take it to the dump or burn it,” I said hopefully.
In the afternoon we took a taxi into the city to see the doctor. I wrote in my journal, “Well, he didn’t feel a worm, but he says I have amoebas. I also have tonsilitis. So, he gave me some pills to take, and I should be OK.” He gave me a shot of penicillin and prescribed three more vials of the red crap.
Outside the doctor’s office, the Plaza San Francisco was jammed with students demonstrating for something or another; I was too sick and too tired to really care until a young man with a megaphone started screaming about yanqui asesinos as we passed. We ducked into a side street quickly and caught a cab home.
We ate at a pension, where a young woman in her twenties cooked for us. We would go to a second-floor room overlooking the street, and she would bring our meals up to us. The first night we had a pretty decent pique a lo macho with a massive pile of mote (yellow hominy) on the side. The meat was good, but the mote was not. Brock took a couple of bites of the mote and then stood up, opened the window, and dumped the mote out into the street.
That night Brock lit the propane heater just as I was getting into bed.
“Are you crazy?” I said. Everyone knew how dangerous these things were. Without good ventilation, the heaters would burn up all the oxygen in the room, and if you fell asleep, you would never wake up. Not quite two years earlier, Elders Bons and Drennan had died in their sleep, asphyxiated by one of these heaters. After that, it was against the rules to use the heaters, and the mission had supposedly gotten rid of all of them. Not ours, apparently.
“Aw, don’t be so paranoid,” Brock said. “This place is so drafty we’d never suffocate.”
I lay in my bed, terrified, while Brock nodded off, and as soon as I was sure he was asleep, I crept out of bed and turned off the heater. In the morning, it was freezing in the room, and Brock was angry. “Why the hell did you turn the heater off?”
“We could have died,” I said.
I lay there reading my scriptures while Brock lit the heater. “Have you ever made doughnuts?” he asked. That was probably the last thing I was expecting him to ask that morning. But, no, I hadn’t ever made doughnuts before.
“That’s what we’re doing this morning.” He explained that we were going to have some baptisms at the end of the month, and we needed money to bribe the fire department to come and fill up the baptismal font. So, we were going to sell doughnuts.
“I don’t think that’s what missionaries are supposed to do,” I said.
“I’m the senior companion, so that’s what we’re doing.”
Fine, I thought. He can do whatever he wants, but I’m not selling doughnuts. Besides, I was sick, and I was supposed to stay in bed. Soon he was preparing yeast and starting the kerosene burner to heat up a big pot of lard. By lunchtime he had made several dozen doughnuts, and I had to admit they weren’t bad.
The next day was to be zone conference, so we took a cab down to the Hotel Gloria and got a hot bath and watched a movie on TV. In the morning, we met the new mission president and his wife. A religion professor from Ricks College, President Nichols was everything Barrientos had not been: tall, energetic, and outgoing. His wife, a woman with hair dyed nearly purple and wearing heavy makeup, spoke first, though it wasn’t really speaking. She held her hands over her heart and said, in tears, “Mucho amor. Missionaries. Todos. Amor.” Her husband then got up to speak in halting Spanish about how his first priority was for us to be converted; once we had caught the spirit of the work, then things would go well for us. This was quite a change from the numbers-obsessed previous administration.
In mid-talk, President Nichols stopped and motioned for his wife to sit at the piano. He started singing, “If Christ should come tomorrow, what would He do? What would He say?” and then he translated it to broken Spanish, speaking as his wife continued playing. This was definitely not President Barrientos. He had also brought with him his two youngest daughters: Karen, 17, with fashionably ratted dark hair and, like her mother, way too much makeup; and Amber, a happy eleven-year-old.
After the conference, President Nichols interviewed the missionaries from all three zones. Since we were the farthest out geographically, he interviewed us first. As we sat out in the hotel hallway waiting for our interviews, we talked with the president’s two assistants. The tall, redheaded guy, it turned out, was a surfer from San Diego, so we had something in common. We talked about boards and surf spots, and he told me that he’d had an accident where the skag from his board had torn the area around his rectum, and now he was paying for it because he had constant brown-outs, so much so that everyone called him “The Brown-Out King.”
He said I didn’t look good, and I told him I wasn’t. I was sick and discouraged, living in a dump, and my companion didn’t want to work at all. “Well, that’s what you need to tell the president. Just be honest with him,” he said.
In the room, the president asked the obvious: “Are you all right? You look like you’re sick.”
I was in tears as I told him everything: how I’d lost nearly thirty pounds, how I lived in a freezing garbage dump, and how sometimes I wanted to go home. “I just need to get out of La Paz,” I said. “If I could just get better, I know everything would be OK.”
He said he would make sure things got better, and he encouraged me to hold on and have more faith. Before I left, he laid his hands on my head and blessed me that I would be comforted in my trials. I sobbed all the way through the blessing.
When I got outside, Brock saw the tears and said, “What’s wrong with you?”
I broke out into sobs again, so he shrugged his usual shrug and walked into the room. I really hoped the president was right; I really wanted to believe I was going to be OK.