A day or two after arriving in Cochabamba, I went to get a Bolivian driver’s license. The driving test consisted of filling out a form and paying $20, for which my companion dutifully reimbursed me. I look sober and sunburned in the license photo, and you really can’t see how excited I was to be driving.
We had five vehicles in our mission. The zone leaders in La Paz and Santa Cruz had Toyota Land Cruisers. The president and the office staff had white Land Cruisers, the only difference being the massive steel and teakwood luggage rack on top of ours. The mission president’s wife had a battered red Toyota station wagon, but she never drove it. It had no headlights or taillights, and the tailgate was smashed in so that it wouldn’t open; apparently, the previous mission president’s wife was not a good driver.
Driving in Bolivia was always an adventure. They had traffic lights and stop signs and designated lanes, but no one paid much attention to them. And no one used their headlights at night; headlights were expensive to replace, so it was better not to use them than to wear them out. People would honk and flash their brights at us at night because we used our headlights.
It goes without saying that possibly the worst car you could give a 19-year-old is a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser. I’ve heard horror stories of how people in other missions abused their Sentras and Corollas, but we had a genuine off-road vehicle. And we figured it was meant to be driven off-road.
Each Sunday evening we would drive up on some pretty treacherous roads into the foothills above the city and watch the sunset while listening to approved music. Sometimes we put a mattress on the luggage rack and sat on top of the truck, talking until late into the night. It was so dark that high up that you could see shooting stars and satellites as they passed overhead.
One the APs was a nervous guy who was always beating a rhythm on his desk at the office, and when he was driving, he would tap his class ring on the stick shift knob, simultaneously driving us all crazy and putting nicks and gouges in the shifter. “Quit beating on the truck, dude,” we’d all say, and he would stop, embarrassed.
The other AP had discovered that the horn was just the right key to honk out the introduction to “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand,” and we would sing and laugh as we drove through the streets of Cochabamba, while people stared at the crazy gringos.
Some of us were better drivers than others. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had learned to be a pretty defensive driver. The president’s executive secretary, a rather large guy from Ohio, had thick glasses and couldn’t see very well. Once he was driving us down a dirt road at about 35 miles per hour, and we all screamed when we saw a large pile of dirt and rocks in the middle of the road.
“What?” he said just before we went flying over the pile, landing with a bone-rattling crunch. Another time he drove right over the top of a traffic circle because he hadn’t notice it. I hated riding in the car when he was driving.
Having the truck meant that a lot of people asked us for rides. Two missionaries in Quillacollo, a town 11 kilometers outside of Cochabamba, would show up every Monday night after p-day, sometimes after we went to bed, saying that they had missed their bus and needed a ride home.
One p-day we received permission to take a road trip to El Chapare, the jungle region about a three-hour drive from Cochabamba. We got up early in the morning, loaded the truck with food and water, and headed off down the highway. Just as we reached the top of the pass leading to El Chapare, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. We knew, but we had neglected to tell the mission president, that El Chapare was the country’s major coca-growing region and had been made a “sealed military zone” as part of the government’s coca-eradication agreement with the United States. In practical terms, this meant that we had to bribe the soldiers to get them to let us pass. $5 was enough. We ended up buying some gas from them, which they siphoned from their large military truck.
From the top of the pass, we dropped down into a humid, tropical jungle, and we stopped at a few places that we had been told of: a deep gorge over which spanned a rope bridge (I have a picture of a terrified-looking me standing in the middle of the bridge), and a cave that had an underground waterfall. The houses in the region were all built on stilts and had roofs made of banana leaves; we bought some pineapples and mangoes, and had a great lunch. By the time we stopped at a large waterfall in the afternoon, we were all covered with large, red mosquito bites. But it was a great day, one of the best of my mission. I was with friends, and we were having fun, and the stresses of everyday life seemed far away.
We left El Chapare in the late afternoon, and we sped home along the highway in the dark, most of us dozing. As we reached the pass back into the Cochabamba Valley, we could see that a metal gate had been closed across our lane. The AP who was driving swerved into the oncoming lane and then back. None of us slept again the rest of the way home.
As we pulled into our neighborhood close to midnight, someone said, “Well, at least those guys from Quillacollo won’t be here. The house is locked, and no one’s been home.”
We put the truck in the garage and went into the house. There in the living room were the two missionaries from Quillacollo. They told us that they had jumped our fence, climbed up to the balcony and gotten in through the unlocked balcony door. I was chosen to go with the executive secretary to take them home.
I told him I would drive, but he insisted, and he had the keys. We dropped them off and headed home.
“Let’s see how fast we can get this thing going,” said Roberts.
I told him it wasn’t a good idea; it was late, we were tired, and you never knew what you might run into on the highway. The highway from Quillacollo to Cochabamba was perfectly straight, except for two traffic circles. A narrow grass median divided the highway, and once a cholita had stepped off the median in front of a mission Land Cruiser, earning the truck the nickname “Chol Crusher.”
“I’m going to see how fast this thing will go,” he said.
He kept accelerating until we were going 130 kilometers per hour, which is about 81 miles per hour. Just then I saw a traffic circle ahead. He didn’t see it until I screamed, “Look out!”
He slammed on the brakes and swerved so that we were now sliding sideways toward the traffic circle. The wheels hit the concrete barrier, we tipped up on two wheels momentarily, and bounced backward and into the road again. We sat in the middle of the dark highway, the truck stalled, hoping we hadn’t done too much damage. We looked at the wheels, and they looked OK, though you could see where the metal had scraped on the concrete.
“I’m driving home,” I said, taking the keys.
At Carnaval, we spent all morning filling water balloons at the house and then loaded up the truck. Carnaval in Bolivia is not like the one in Brazil; it’s more of a national water fight. If you dared to step outside during Carnaval, you risked getting hit with a bucket of water or a water balloon (some people filled balloons with urine). We drove up and down the Prado throwing water balloons at everyone we could see. They were mostly students, and they had their own water balloons. By the end of the day, we and the truck were drenched, inside and out. we couldn’t use it for a few days until it dried out. We left it in the garage, windows rolled down, so that the seats and carpet would dry.
A couple of times we drove the truck up into the Tunari national park in the mountains above the city. The landscape there was beautiful and yet desolate. Because it was above the tree line, there was not much but patchy grasses amid glacial lakes. It was as quiet and peaceful a place as I’ve ever been.
After I left the mission office, the travel secretary and his companion drove up into the mountains on a Wednesday afternoon and knocked the oil pan off the bottom of the truck. Shortly thereafter, the church took the truck away and replaced it with a miserable little Toyota van. No one else would know how great it was to have the truck for six months.