Missionary experiences in Potosi, Bolivia

Margaret Blair Young offers a great article on missionaries in Africa and some of the foods they eat at Meridian Magazine: http://www.ldsmag.com/church/article/8427?ac=1
It reminded me of experiences 31 years ago on my own mission in Bolivia.  I landed in February 1979 in the Santa Cruz airport with one other elder. The mission president and assistants were an hour late arriving to the airport, so we kind looked stupid looking around wondering what to do next.

My first assignment was Potosi, a city of 90,000 people in south-western Bolivia, about 13,000 feet above sea level.  Getting there by bus took several days, with a decent bus taking us to the traditional capitol of Sucre. From there, we 4 missionaries found a small little 15 seater bus to Potosi. I sat on a seat that swung down in the middle of the aisle. Along the way, an elder in front of me chuckled and told me that the kid next to him just got sick.  Around midnight, a major bridge was out.  Most of it was washed away. We picked up our luggage and walked across the remainder of the bridge to another bus and reloaded.  Then onto some of the most dangerous roadways in the world, where a one lane road with a drop off of a thousand feet could mean death if one ran into another vehicle coming the other way.

Potosi’s cuisine was interesting.  One of my first meals was chicken soup, with the chicken head inside.  Sucking out the eyeballs was not a fun event. The potatoes, called chuño, was a small freeze-dried potato that tasted like sand.  When the people invited us to eat, we were obliged to not offend them. Often we would bless the food twice. Once aloud to thank the Lord for it, and a second time pleading silently that we would not pick up any deadly diseases from it.  Pork always seem to do me in, as it would only be half cooked. The people would drink a little wine with it, so the alcohol would kill any toxins, but we had to deal with the problems ourselves.

Water had to be boiled for 10-15 minutes, as being so high up in the atmosphere, the boiling point was lower and so germs did not die so easily. One day as my senior companion and I were drinking a bag of milk, he said perhaps we shouldn’t be drinking it, as that is where he got his bout with Typhoid Fever a month before I arrived.

Tripe was one of the more common meats fed us in Potosi.  It was a staple along with rice and chuño.  Very little fruits and vegetables.

The city itself was interesting. Potosi sits at the base of a bald mountain called, Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), which has been mined for 5 centuries for tin and silver.  The river flowing down from Cerro Rico into Potosi was a gray color, filled with metal contaminants.  Poor people in the upper portions of the city that lived along this filthy river used it to wash clothing. Some tried to strain the gray out of the water for cooking and drinking, only to slowly poison themselves.  Entering into the city, the river went under the streets.

Water was obtained at centuries old fountains in the public squares, where people would go daily and fill bottles and vases for the day’s use.

There were perhaps 4 trees in the entire city, as it was far above the tree line.  Homes lined the steep cobble stone streets, all made of adobe brick, each seamlessly connected to the adobe brick homes adjacent to it.

We had two branches of the Church in Potosi in 1979. With 750 members in Potosi, but only 80 in attendance, the “district” was always struggling.

Down the road from Potosi was the small village of Betanzos. We visited it occasionally to see two elders in our district stationed there. They spoke Quechua most of the time.  On top of their clothing armoire, the elders had a couple sticks of dynamite someone had obtained from a local miner.  One day, we felt it was getting too old and sweaty, and so assisted them in lighting and blowing it up over the nearby river.

The miners in the area believed that Satan’s power held sway in the mines. The miners and their families would sacrifice llamas to “Tio” (Uncle), praying he would keep them safe.  It wasn’t easy to convince them that Christ had more power than Satan.

Many were also convinced that American capitalism was destroying Bolivia, while Russian socialism was a good thing. I remember when my companion and I were invited by some young members to go to the university and protest against the Gringos in the country.  We reminded them that we also were Gringos, and didn’t want to be involved in an incident that could turn quickly against us.

Shopping often consisted of going to the corner house, where miners’ wives would sell items out of their front door. You could purchase rice, chuño, bread, and blasting caps  all in one place.

What was your first missionary area like?  And has it changed since then?

8 thoughts on “Missionary experiences in Potosi, Bolivia

  1. Rame, I never went on a mission, but I have been to Bolivia. I will never forget taking a bus and seeing Indians with big garbage bags filled with coca leaves. They would chomp on the coca leaves the entire ride. Of course they mostly spoke Quechua. Trying to run in La Paz (elevation 12000 feet) when I was coming from sea level was interesting. The saddest thing was seeing the towns you describe, where the people lived off of gray, dirty water flowing from the mines. I think average life expectancy in those areas is still about 40 years.

  2. It really is amazing the poverty. There are tons of natural resources there, but it doesn’t benefit the poor. And under the current socialist president, it still isn’t benefiting the poor.

    While in Potosi, our missionary district played the main high school basketball team twice. The first time they crushed us by running our legs off. Born with barrel chests and huge lungs, their capacity to breathe and absorb rare oxygen was greater than ours. But our strategy changed on the second game: we went to a passing game with one elder always waiting by the basket for a cherry pick. We won that game!

    Back then, we baptized in a place called Tarapaya about 25km away: an extinct volcano filled with warm waters. People would swim there, though it could be dangerous due to the occasional whirlpools that would suck people down into the heat below, leaving their bodies crispy when they floated back up. I saw posters full of photos of such unidentified people at the Interpol office once.

    I’d love to return someday and see what once had 70 active members and is now a stake of Zion….

  3. Economically, Bolivia has never had anything close to a free market. It has either had socialists or crony capitalists (corporatists) who make their money by being friends of a powerful person in government who is on the take. I actually met Gonzalez de Lozada in the early 1990s before he was elected, and he has a brief run as president that helped Bolivia move forward, but recent regimes have been horrible. It is interesting to compare countries like El Salvador and Panama to Bolivia and Ecuador — two consistent winners and two consistent losers in Latin America. The common theme for the winners is: respect private property, have a consistent rule of law, low taxes and friendly policies toward the business community.

  4. And makes me even more grateful I went Stateside with member dinners five or six nights a week. English-speaking, though, and I do regret not having the chance to learn a language. I ended up majoring in Spanish and was pretty much the only one in my high-level classes who did not speak it in the family or study abroad; missionary experience would’ve made the experience much, much easier.

    Speaking of member meals, I once had dinner with a family where the father had served in Bolivia in the 1980s. He taked about being assigned to areas in the remote mountains like like Rameumptom, where the only contact they had with the mission office and the outside world was once a month, when they traveled to town and check their mail. Certainly very different from the suburban Las Vegas Chili’s where his family took us to.

    He mentioned an incident that occurred after he returned home which I’d vaguely heard of on the news in the US, of two American missionaries–one, a West Point cadet, had been his companion–who were killed by terrorists while serving in the mountains. Rameumptom, do you know more about this?

  5. I’ve found a Deseret News article (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/print/48103/2-LDS-MISSIONARIES-ASSASSINATED-IN-BOLIVIA-TERRORISTS-CLAIM-RESPONSIBILITY-FOR-POLITICALLY-MOTIVATED.html) on the incident. I misremembered the details; I’d thought the murders occurred in the remote mountains the member told my companion and me about, but the elders were killed in a La Paz suburb. (Admittedly, La Paz is more than two miles above sea level, but that’s not quite what I’d meant to communicate.) I also don’t see any mention of West Point, so that companion of the member wasn’t killed, unless there was another such incident. The killers were indeed Marxists, a detail I omitted from the earlier comment.

  6. Yes, there were a couple murdered in La Paz a few years after my mission. During my two years, there were 6 presidents of the country, 2 coup d’etats, and lots of unrest.

    Just a year or two before my mission, General JJ Torres came to power and gave the American Mormon missionaries 72 hours to leave the country. All the members in the nation fasted. With only 24 hours to go, Torres was overthrown by another general, Hugo Banzer, whose daughter is LDS. The missionaries stayed. However, with the current Marxist leader, American missionaries are no longer allowed. It was very unstable 30 years ago, and still is today.

  7. My first missionary area was in the early 80’s, in Bucay, Ecuador. Home of Lorena (née Gallo) Bobbitt. We probably knew her. If not, she knew us, as all the people in the village/town did. She would have been 13 then.

    Ram: We ought to have lunch or dinner some time at Macchu Picchu restaurant on W 38th.

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