A week or so after our zone conference, Howard and Thomas left for a welfare conference in Cochabamba. Some higher-ups were coming from Salt Lake City to train them in a new program. They would be gone a few days. But they didn’t come back. When they were three days late, we started to worry, so we called the mission office in Cochabamba.
“Oh, they left a few days ago,” said the president’s secretary. “The airline was on strike, so they were going to Oruro to catch a train.”
The only problem was that there were no trains that went to Tarija. No one knew what had happened to them; they hadn’t been seen since they left Cochabamba. We were pretty worried, but they eventually showed up, looking tired and dirty. They told quite a tale.
They had taken a bus from Cochabamba to Oruro, a mining city high up in the mountains. There, they hoped to catch a train to Villazon on the Argentine border, where they figured they could get a bus to Tarija. In Oruro, they stayed in a miserable little hotel with only one bathroom. Hermana Thomas said that every time she went to use the bathroom, several men would stand outside the door and look at her through the window, while she tried to block their view with newspaper.
They said it was so cold there they had gone to a movie theater to get warm. After two days, they finally got on a train for Villazon. Once there, they discovered that there were no buses to Tarija. In desperation, they had ended up paying a taxi driver $50 to drive them to Tarija, a distance of a few hundred miles.
The roads were horrible, and in the middle of the night, the front axel on the ancient taxi broke. For a while, the two hermanas and the taxi driver huddled in the back seat of the taxi. Finally, Hermana Howard got out and lit some brush on fire at the side of the road. The three of them stayed there for quite some time until a truck full of pigs arrived. They left the taxi driver there in the middle of nowhere and climbed in back with the pigs to ride the rest of the way home.
A few days later, Carolina came up to our room to tell us there was a phone call for Elder Lewis. He came back after a few minutes in tears.
“She’s been transferred” was all he said. He and Hermana Howard had been together their whole mission, and now with just a few months to go, she was leaving. Everyone knew they liked each other, but I don’t think I had realized just how much until that moment.
We put our shoes on and walked over to their apartment. Hermana Howard was angry. “They’re putting me with Jackson! Can you believe it? I hate her. I swear I’m going to scratch her eyes out if I have to live another day with her.”
They had been companions before and had not gotten along, I gathered.
“And you know who they’re sending here? Ruzicka.”
“You mean the pathological liar?” Lewis asked.
“Yeah, her. I’m so sorry,” she said, looking at Hermana Thomas. “The zone leaders told me that she’s gotten too cozy with a Bolivian missionary, so they had to make an emergency transfer. “I hate her, too!” she said.
“You can’t leave. What am I supposed to do?” Lewis said, looking kind of desperate.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby. You’ll be fine. It’s just a few more months, and we’ll be home.”
A couple of days later we were seeing Hermana Howard off at the airport and welcoming Hermana Ruzicka. Lewis had told me that she really was a habitual liar. You couldn’t trust anything she said because she would make things up to cover up her mistakes.
Ruzicka was a short, stocky blonde with a broad face that reminded me of a German hausfrau’s. I didn’t like her right off the bat; she seemed really fake with her overwrought compliments and professions of piety.
At our apartment, Lewis was pretty upset. “I can’t believe she’s gone,” he kept saying.
“I’ll bet you dinner that you can’t go 24 hours without calling her,” I said.
“Sure I can,” he said, acting a little hurt.
The next day we worked in the garden in the morning, though it was pretty different without Howard. After lunch, I lay in bed reading my scriptures, and at some point I nodded off. When I awoke, Lewis was gone. I knew where he was and went downstairs to where the phone was. He was saying, “I miss you so much already.”
He bought me dinner that night.
A couple of days later, Hermana Thomas called and asked us for a priesthood blessing. “I’m really sick,” she said, and she sounded it. Feeling sorry for her, we stopped at the ice cream parlor and bought her a pint of strawberry ice cream. When we got to the house, she was in bed, looking miserable. She looked at the ice cream and said, “Are you kidding me? I’m sick. I have brown pee and bubbly poop, and the last thing I want is food!”
We gave her the blessing and stayed for a while. Ruzicka kept saying, “Hermana, we need to write our weekly letters to the mission president.”
“I don’t feel like it,” said Hermana Thomas. “Leave me alone.” Ruzicka kept on insisting, and finally Hermana Thomas said, “Fine! Give me a pen!” She wrote, “Dear President, I’m sick. I have brown pee and bubbly poop. Love, Hermana Thomas.”
“Are you happy now?” she asked, and then rolled over in her bed. Ruzicka put the letters in an envelope for the zone leaders.
Two weeks later, we were surprised to learn that we were both being transferred. Lewis was going to Oruro to be the zone leader, and I was going to work in the mission office in Cochabamba. Hermana Thomas was going to Sucre, a small city that housed the Bolivian Supreme Court. We went to the airlines and bought our tickets, and then we went around to the church members and friends we had made to say goodbye.
The next day Lewis was gone. I took him to the airport and then went home alone. My flight wasn’t leaving until the next day; Hermana Thomas was going to be on the same flight, which stopped once in Sucre before arriving in Cochabamba. In the afternon she called and told me that the airline had gone on strike. Our flight had been canceled. She said they told her that we should just come to the airport in the morning to find out if the flight would be leaving.
After discovering that the flight wouldn’t be leaving, we went to Thomas’s house and had lunch. We really had nothing to do; we had said our goodbyes, and it didn’t make sense to do any missionary work. We played cards and then went out for ice cream.
Ruzicka was starting to get on my nerves, as all she wanted to talk about was her “Jose,” the missionary she had left in Santa Cruz. “He says he’s going to marry me when we get home,” she gushed.
The next day we went back to the airport: no flights today, either. Ruzicka said she wanted to stay home and put together a care package for Jose. I suggested that we go on a hike along the river. A lot of people had told us how beautiful a hike it was, and it sounded like a good way to spend the day. But Ruzicka said she wasn’t going.
So we left without her.
Missionaries have a lot of rules, from the clothes they wear to the hours they keep, but they were never to be alone with someone of the opposite sex. We were breaking the ultimate mission taboo.
We packed some sandwiches and cookies and water and headed off down to the river. The weather was spectacular and the river was beautiful. It was shallow enough to wade across and maybe thirty feet across. We walked along, talking about our missions, our families, and our friendship. We had been through a lot together, and we had become close. Maybe not as close as Howard and Lewis, but we were friends.
At one point, we had to cross the river, so we took off our shoes and waded across. I took a picture of her in the middle of the river, carrying her shoes. “This is blackmail in case I need it,” I said, laughing.
Soon we ran out of water and decided to head back to town. Despite all the warnings against what we had done, neither of us was tempted to do anything we shouldn’t have, and we just enjoyed each other’s company.
As we walked into town, I suddenly remembered something. “Tomorrow is my birthday.” I was going to be 20 years old.
“Then we’ll need to celebrate,” said Hermana Thomas, smiling. When we got to her apartment, Ruzicka was glueing the last construction-paper heart to a cracker box she had stuffed with candy and other expressions of love for Jose. It was election night in the United States, so when I got back to the apartment, I sat by the shortwave radio in the landlady’s living room and listened to Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election.
In the morning, we again went to the airport, and we learned that our flight was finally leaving. I went home to pack and then returned to the airport to wait. The hermanas showed up a while later. Hermana Thomas had made a chocolate cake, and we had a little birthday party there in the small Tarija airport.
Soon, we boarded the plane and headed for Sucre. When we landed there, we hugged as she got off the plane. I wasn’t sure when or if I would ever see her again.
The plane landed in Cochabamba, and I walked outside from the terminal to wait. No one was there. I called the phone number I had, and the office missionaries’ housekeeper told me that they were out, but she would tell them to pick me up when they got back.
Late that evening, Elder Beck and another missionary showed up in a white Land Cruiser and took me to my new house. Beck introduced the other missionary as Elder Dannelly from Oklahoma, who would be my companion for the next six months.