Bolivia has two capitals. La Paz is the executive and legislative capital and the largest city in the country and is huge. Sucre is the judicial capital where the Supreme Court is located and is lower in the Andes and much smaller and laid back. I would wind up spending most of my mission in these two cities and all of it in the Andes mountains. The country is bordered on the west by the Andes mountains which separate it from Chile and Peru. It used to have a band of land that ran to the Pacific coast but it lost this state during a war with Chile and has been landlocked and without its own port ever since. In the northwest part of the country, starting at La Paz and extending across the border to Peru is the high plain or altiplano. This huge, arid plane is over 13,000 feet in elevation and is also the location of the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. Most of its major cities and population live in the high and rugged Andes mountains, but in the east the country falls away rapidly into the Amazon basin in the north and east where it borders Brazil and the plains of the Argentine plains or pampas and chaco in the south and south east where it borders Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina.
Know today as a source of coca leaves and cocaine, historically Bolivia was known for its mines and as you travel across the altiplano and past the mining cities of Oruro and Potosi you see a landscape colorfully marked by enormous tailings from the mines that have hollowed out the surrounding mountains. Some of the mountains have had so much silver, copper, and lead removed that they were rumored to be dangerously unstable and in danger of collapse.
In La Paz we were met at the airport by the APs (assistants to the president or apes) and loaded in the mission's Toyota Land Cruisers. The airport was on the altiplano above the city and we got onto a modern looking cement freeway or autopista and headed to the city. We were told that the autopista was constructed with the help of the U.S. Navy's Seabees and it showed. It was smooth and well constructed, unlike most of the rest of the roads I saw in the country. Apparently the road, which was the only way into the city from the altiplano, used to get washed out nearly every year during the rainy season.
We abruptly reached the rim of a huge valley and saw the city spread out below us in steep, deep, brown bowl carved by erosion from the plain. Rows and rows of poor, brown adobe houses with corrugated steel roofs clung to the steep sides of the bowl and surrounded downtown like a grand stadium watching the bustling streets, markets, hotels, high rise office buildings, governmental building, cathedrals, and stadiums of the bustling capital. Unlike many cities, where the rich live in the heights overlooking the city, La Paz's wealthy lived at the bottom of the city where all of the infrastructure was located and the poor dug into the rocky hillsides with limited resources like water, sanitary sewers, and electricity. The poorest of the poor live near the rim of the valley called the ceja or eyebrow. We descended through neighborhoods of adobe houses clustered on the hillsides and into downtown where large, modern buildings rose from the valley floor. We checked into the 5 star Sheraton Hotel where we would be spending our first night in Bolivia.
The heart of the city is a bustling metropolis with modern high rise office buildings and hotels along with modern hotels, government buildings, a covered Olympic style swimming stadium, and a magnificent soccer stadium with a pitch of luscious grass that is blindingly green compared to the bland browns and grays of the rest of the city. Like much of latin america, there is a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor and a very small, almost non-existent middle class. As missionaries, we rarely were invited into the homes of the wealthy and did nearly all of our work with the large number of poor people.
Because of the altitude and aridity of the climate not much grows in La Paz. Grass was rare and sparse. The only trees in the city were eucalyptus trees near the ceja. I don't think they are native to Bolivia, but they seemed to thrive where they were planted and provided welcome greenery.
My mission president was a short, rotund, gruff Argentine. We had dinner with him at the hotel and interviews with him. I don't remember much about him because I only met him twice during my mission. He warned us about what we should and should not eat so we could avoid sickness. He then somewhat ominously told us to make sure to get medical care as soon as we got sick and to not let things get bad hoping that the Lord would heal us and allow us to continue to work. Specifically, I remember him telling us to not wait until we were pooping blood to get medical care. That stuck with me and I was always worried about crapping blood. This turned out to be very good advice that I took to heart. It wasn't very long before, despite being careful of my diet and hygiene, I was sick with worms. I had parasites and other intestinal infections nearly continuously during my stay in Bolivia, but at the first signs of illness I always got tested and immediately started taking appropriate medicines. In the end I left the country with a ravaged intestinal tract but without having lost very much weight.
We were met the next day by the apes and given our assignments. Some of the greenies would be flying out to other cities but I was staying in La Paz to work in the Obrajes area. The ape said, “It's a very nice area. Enjoy it because it will be all downhill from there.” My companion came to pick me up, but at the last minute he was diverted by the apes where there was some animated discussion. They came over and informed me that there had been a last minute change of plans and that I would have a different companion. I later learned that my original companion had been caught kissing a girl that lived in the house where he stayed and that when his companion found out he was getting a greenie he had ratted him out. So, instead of getting Elder Amore, I got Elder Brinks. But until they figured out what hell hole Amore should be sent to I had both Amore and Brinks as companions.
I gathered my luggage and headed to the lobby. The porters kept us from leaving until the tab was settled at the front desk and while I was there I was greeted by some of the missionaries. Many were sunburned, scruffy and dirty. They were working up in El Alto on the altiplano above the city. Apparently the living conditions were primitive there and the missionaries would come down each week to the El Gloria Hotel to take showers. “If I were you I'd slit my wrists now,” said one with a wry smile. Then they found out I was going to Obrajes. With jealous looks they told me to enjoy, but it would only make the rest of my mission worse by raising my expectations.
With such pleasantries we walked out to the street to go to my first area. Normally the missionaries road on the micros, or buses, but with my luggage we hailed a taxi, a dirty, beat up Nissan compact car. We wound down the main street along a dirty river lower and lower into the city. We turned off the main road at what appeared to be a large supermarket onto a road paved with stones and stopped at the base of a large hill with a steep dirt path running up it. Apparently this was it. I could see nice, stucco houses at the top of the hill and we climbed the hill to one of them.
Our house was owned by a divorced woman who belonged to the church and lived there with her two teenage sons, parents, and maid. It was a nice two story house made with a steel reinforced concrete frame and the hollow red clay bricks used to build nicer houses. The walls were covered with white stucco and the house was surrounded by a high wall topped with glass from broken beer and soda bottles. Inside the house was as nice, maybe nicer, than my home. It had wood parquet floors, nice furnishings, a living room, dining room, family room, bathroom, kitchen, and separate servants quarters in the corner of the small backyard. We lived in an airy, second story, corner room with large windows and a closet with two nice beds. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.