We walked home from downtown La Paz along the uneven sidewalk past the zoo and the botanical gardens, the large “super” slide quiet in the dark, the amber streetlights reflecting from the sagging wrought-iron fence. We hadn’t said much that day, as usual. Davidson, the missionary companion I had been assigned, wasn’t exactly a talker. I pointed out that this was the place where a couple of sister missionaries had been flashed the week before, an unknown pervert having stuck his genitals between the iron bars as the sisters walked to an appointment. At lunch they had told us all about it, Hermana Stevenson relishing every minute while her companion squirmed uncomfortably.
“What was weird was that he was circumcised,” Hermana Stevenson had said, clearly unfazed.
“How could you tell?” her companion had asked.
“Don’t worry, I’ll draw you a picture.” We had laughed as her companion’s face turned a bright red.
Davidson said nothing but jammed his hands farther down into his dusty overcoat. Tall with rugged features, he might have been handsome had parasites not spent five months attacking his digestive system. Now, his tall frame was hunched under a billowing overcoat, his cheek bones protruding at sharp angles, setting off the saddest eyes I have ever seen. I think they were brown, but you couldn’t tell because there wasn’t much light left in them. Five months in Bolivia, and not a single letter from home. Three months with a sadistic “trainer” who thought a naïve Texan was nothing more than a practical joke waiting to happen. And two months with me, both of us trading bouts with salmonella and strep throat. But we were both finally well and ready to get some missionary work done.
We crossed the gray, cut-stone pavement in the plaza bordering the football stadium, the transplanted Incan statues casting long shadows on the gravel of the garden at the center of the plaza. The wind picked up again with its familiar cold, dry, dusty sting, like nothing I had experienced anywhere else. The cold went through you as if you weren’t there, and I could almost see the salesman back in Utah snickering to himself as I paid for the worthless Czechoslovakian overcoat at the “missionary” store. Another half-mile, and we would be home. It wouldn’t be much warmer inside, but at least we had some wool blankets to huddle under.
We came up over the last rise before the river. Even though I’d been in La Paz for three months, the altitude still made me breathless climbing even the gentlest slopes. As we descended toward the bridge, we joined a long line of tired workers quietly making their way home. No one talked, and all you could hear was the dragging of worn sandals on the cold stone sidewalk. It was always like that.
The Pasos Kanki bridge wasn’t particularly impressive. Perhaps thirty meters across, it straddled what the locals charitably called Río Orko Jahuira, a muddy wash full of trash and excrement with a gray-beige stream passing through it. By day people washed their clothes in the river, except on the days when the textile mill upstream emptied its dyes from a pipe into the ravine. On those days the river would run in brilliant purple or green or blood red, and the disappointed cholitas would turn sadly and take their unwashed laundry home.
The still-quiet stream of paceños continued perhaps three abreast as we neared the bridge, and I found myself unconsciously staring at the ground as I walked, shutting out the cold and the crowd around me. I nearly ran into the elderly man in front of me when the crowd stopped suddenly. I could hear some muttering up ahead as the line of people made a wide turn out into the middle of the bridge to avoid whatever was obstructing the sidewalk.
The bridge was well-lighted, and I could see what looked like a pile of rags shoved up against the small concrete railing. As we approached, I could see it wasn’t rags at all. It was a person, though I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Whoever it was had clearly died on the bridge. Unthinking, we both turned and followed the traffic into the street, around the body, and back onto the sidewalk. Still no one said a word.
We walked up the unpaved street on the other side of the river toward our apartment, the smell of pig entrails frying in lard over a kerosene burner joining the dust in our noses as we passed the Cruce de Copacabana, the main bus stop in Villa Copacabana. We climbed the steep hill to our apartment building, opened the red metal gate, and crossed the courtyard into our tiny room. Neither one of us spoke as we changed into our night-time clothes: long johns and sweats to keep out the Andean cold.
Davidson sat on his bed, staring at his feet.
“Maybe we should go back and do something,” I said, helpfully. “We shouldn’t have left him like that.”
“Look, you’re the one who kept on walking, so don’t blame me,” he said, his eyes showing anger I hadn’t seen before.
“All right, let’s go,” I said, pulling on my overcoat. He dressed quickly, and we headed back down the hill.
Nothing had changed since we left. The line of pedestrians continued steadily maneuvering around the body.
“What are we supposed to do?” Davidson asked, knowing neither of us had a clue.
“I don’t know, but we can do something.” I wasn’t sure we could.
As we approached the body, I’m not sure what I expected. I’d never felt such sadness and yet such terror at the same time. But I made myself squat down beside what was now obviously a woman. She was dressed in traditional cholita clothes: wide pollera skirt, stiff woolen shawl, and battered bowler-type hat. She was absolutely still, almost in a fetal position, leaning against the railing, as if she had just decided to stop walking once and for all.
I touched her shoulder, and she stirred slightly. Not dead. Thank you, Heavenly Father. I asked if she needed help, and she turned a grimy face flecked with bits of coca leaf to me. “What the hell do you want, gringo?” she slurred at me angrily, clearly drunk.
“We just want to help,” I said softly.
“Go to hell!” she shrieked.
A man behind me said, “Stupid gringos, just let the bitch die. She’s not worth the time.” I turned and saw that the crowd had stopped, and they were watching to see what these two American boys were going to do. “En serio, just leave her alone. Let her die,” he repeated. They were right: I knew she would freeze to death if she stayed on the bridge.
“Please, señora, you need to go home,” I tried again. This time she spat at me.
I turned to ask if anyone could help me get her home. At that moment, I saw an ancient green taxi heading toward the bridge, the driver’s eyes staring at the crowd gathered around us. Another car approached from the other side, its driver also trying to figure out what was going on. The cars collided perhaps fifteen feet from where we were.
Half the crowd, including Davidson, rushed to the crumpled cars to see if they could help. I stayed with the woman, trying hopelessly to get her to go home. Presently the police arrived in a rickety Land Cruiser. One of the officers rushed to where I was still squatting and asked, “Which car was she in?”
As the police worked on the accident, I noticed a small girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, standing a few feet off. “Do you know this woman? Do you know where she lives?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s my mother,” the little girl said. She looked as if she had been crying, but now her face looked stiff and cold.
“Let’s take her home,” I said, trying to smile. I reached my arms under the mother’s shoulders and lifted her to her feet, as a stream of profanity flowed from her mouth. Her daughter smiled at me and said, “We live only a couple of blocks away. I’ll get her home.” I watched them stagger slowly up the hill toward the stadium, the mother now screaming what were likely obscenities in Aymará.
I turned and saw Davidson holding the hand of a woman who sat on the opposite sidewalk, her head against the railing, blood trickling from her temple. We stayed a few more minutes until a policeman told us to go home. Davidson told the woman one last time that it was going to be OK, and then we started up the hill towards home.
As we passed the bus stop, a woman was packing up her kerosene burner and pot for the night, and a few men stood warming their hands near a fire burning in the gutter.
At the gate, I fumbled for my key.
“So what did we end up doing?” Davidson asked, his eyes again dark and empty.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
If you like this, there’s more: Heaven Up Here