Saturday night I was up late doing some work on my laptop, and I noticed someone had tagged me in a few photos on Facebook. It was a friend from my missionary days whom I hadn’t talked to in at least a year, but I looked to see what he had posted. There were two photos of a group of us, maybe 15 missionaries or so, at a birthday party for a welfare missionary, who at the time was my wife’s companion. Before then, my wife and I had discovered only two photos that we had in which we both appeared, but now I have two more. Granted, we’re standing behind the opposite ends of a long sectional couch, but still, there she is, and there I am. The third photo shows a busload of missionaries heading up to the ski resort at Mount Chacaltaya, Bolivia, a few weeks before I arrived in Bolivia. (Global warming has, unfortunately, melted away the glacier, and the ski resort is no more.) On the right side of the photo, toward the front, sits my lovely wife dressed as I have never seen her: she’s wearing a fedora and some black Ray Ban sunglasses (it’s now one of my favorite photos of her).
My friend (I’ll call him “Rob”) was online, so we ended up chatting for quite a while. He’s from Southern California, about 10 miles east of where I grew up, though we didn’t know each other before our missions. I had remembered that he ended up in Bolivia sort of accidentally. He was part of a group of missionaries who had been called to serve in Brazil and had learned Portuguese in the Missionary Training Center. For some reason, they were unable to get visas to Brazil before leaving the MTC, so they were sent to Texas to work temporarily while they waited. After several weeks, it became obvious they weren’t going to get their visas, so for whatever reason, they were sent to Bolivia. Not only were they going to a country they didn’t know anything about, but they also had not been taught the language, so it was a huge shock and adjustment to end up there. Needless to say, Bolivia is much poorer than Brazil.
Rob reminded me that he had converted to the LDS church when he was a teenager, and his family had not been pleased or supportive with his decision. He also mentioned that his mother had cried when she saw how thin (emaciated, really) he was when he came home. When I arrived in Bolivia, I was assigned to Villa Adela, a government housing development on the south side of the El Alto airport. Rob was just finishing his mission, and his area, Rio Seco, was just across the runway on the north side. I liked him instantly, and it was great to have someone from the same place I had grown up to whom I could relate. We had been to the same places, gone to the same dances, and shared a lot that you would expect to share with someone who grew up so close.
By the time Rob went home, I had lost 31 pounds as a result of intestinal parasites. I weighed 114 pounds. My wife always says that I was a “skinny little boy” back when we first met, and she is right. The photo at the birthday party shows me at about my lowest weight, and I look genuinely awful. But Rob looks much worse, almost skeletal, in those photos. I don’t wonder that his mother wept at the sight of him.
Knowing Rob was going home, I asked him to take some things home for me (slides, photo prints, and a few small souvenirs). He said he would drop them by my parents’ house, for which I was truly grateful. He ended up driving to my parents’ house and spending a few hours talking with them, telling them about where I was and what I was doing, showing them photos and slides, and telling them what they could expect from my time in Bolivia. To this day I am extremely grateful that he took the time to do that for me, but that’s the kind of man he is. (I note in my book that he also told my parents I was very ill, even though in my letters I had been telling them I was fine. My father was not pleased that I had lied, to say the least.) I had not spoken to Rob again until we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago.
Some time ago Rob came out as a gay man and joined the ranks of the “less active” in the LDS church, and he is now happily married. He told me that the bishop and the missionaries occasionally come by, and he’s always cordial but is never sure what to say. He said he felt lucky that he hadn’t grown up in the church like I had because he didn’t have family pressure and disapproval when he walked away from Mormonism.
As we were talking about the photos, he said, “I look at those photos and see so much love.” He went on to say that, because we were so far from home, in such difficult living conditions, and among a people who really didn’t want us there, we supported each other and stuck together. We were family, and we loved each other. Like me, Rob has mixed emotions about his mission, but we both recognize that deep love and bond among those of us who served together in Bolivia. The photos on Facebook elicited comments from people I hadn’t heard from or seen in years, and yet the bond was still there, and it was easy to reconnect with those people I have loved since then.
As we chatted, we agreed that neither of us regrets our missions, as much of who we are now came out of that experience. I’ve said before that my mission taught me a great many things, not least of all that I am much stronger and more resilient than I ever imagined. But as Rob and I talked, I realized that much of the strength I discovered in Bolivia I borrowed from people who loved and supported me. Yes, I learned to stand on my own and find inner strength, but I also learned to lean on others when I wasn’t strong enough–which was most of the time.
I am convinced that, whatever we think we have accomplished in this life, it is the human connections, the love, that matters. Most people who meet someone like Rob or me will never know anything about the time we spent together in a windy, cold, and barren plain among the mountains of Bolivia. But I will never forget. And I will always remember the kindness of good people like him.