Even without Isabela Quiroga to worry about, that day was every bit as discouraging as all the others I had struggled through in Bolivia. Like every other morning of my week-old mission, the heavy rain of a monsoon squall had quickly beat the dirt until it danced in muddy splashes, and just as quickly had rolled away over the flat horizon. By the time Elder Skye and I started our trudge through the muddy streets of Montero, the sun was milking the moisture out of the ground in a heavy vapor that rolled over our skin. As usual, Elder Skye led the way while I followed behind, wiping the sweat off my face and picking at the shirt plastered to my body.
“Why do we have to go back there?” I asked him. “After all, she said ‘Come by if you can.’ Let’s just go home for lunch and tell her we were busy.”
“You don’t understand,” Elder Skye told me. “We’ve gotta go back. You’ll see how it is after you’ve been here awhile.”
The only thing I understood right then was that I wouldn’t be able to eat anything at Isabela’s house. As I followed Elder Skye’s confidently squared shoulders through streets I didn’t ever expect to be able to tell apart, I longed for the assurance I had felt one short week before.
On the flight down from Miami, I had joked with the other missionaries about the stern warnings we received from our teachers in the Missionary Training Center. Our brash enthusiasm let us laugh at all their talk of strange foods, alien customs, and a way of life that was far less comfortable than the one we’d known. Nothing could intimidate brand-new missionaries with new suits, shiny shoes, and a spiritual high—at least that’s what I thought.
That confidence in my ability to cope began to fade almost as soon as I stepped off the jet into the thick, moist air of the Bolivian lowlands. The first day in mud-bound Montero, my cozy optimism was replaced by shock almost as fast as my shiny new shoes were replaced with knee-high rubber boots. Not one sight, sound, or sensation was familiar. The language everyone spoke bore little resemblance—in either speed or accent—to the Spanish I had been practicing. There was everything to learn from scratch. When I arrived in Montero from the mission home, I couldn’t even hail a taxi, and ended up dragging my suitcases across town to meet my companion.
Sights, sounds, smells. Learning to clap before entering a dooryard, making purchases in a bustling market without checkout stands. The hundreds of new images of that first week kept me awake at night, trying to sort them all out.
That particular morning, however, it was a stateside memory that preoccupied me. As we neared Isabela’s house, I was remembering with recently acquired fear that someone had told me, “Don’t eat in the homes of the poor people.”
For several days before Isabela’s lunch invitation, my maladjustment to Bolivia had reached the point where I couldn’t even eat in our own apartment. My appetite disappeared every time I found myself facing a plate of guiso or a strangely-spiced soup. Even the vaguely American dishes prepared by that kind sister couldn’t overcome the problems of a stomach—and a mind—that had never been south of the border before.
Just when I began to seriously worry that I might not be able to make it in Bolivia, Isabela invited us to come to lunch the next day and doubled my distress. The home where Isabela lived with her five children was the type I had been warned about. The adobe walls of the lot enclosed a mud courtyard, two rooms with only beds and chairs for furniture, and a ceilingless kitchen where the clay tiles showed above the rafters. The money Isabela made selling vegetables in the marketplace couldn’t pay for anything more.
On our previous visits, Elder Skye and I had sat on the only two chairs while Isabela and her children crowded the beds. In their rapt attention to the discussions, they didn’t notice how uncomfortable I was in those meager surroundings. That uneasiness, however, was nothing compared to the alarm I felt when Elder Skye accepted the invitation to actually eat in their home. Twenty-four anxious hours later, as we headed down her street, I was so afraid my stomach hurt.
As we approached the house, the little boy watching the street ran inside to let Isabela know we were coming. At the open gate, we paused and Elder Skye clapped his hands, bringing the boy flying out again to take us both by the hand and laugh, “Pasen, pasen no mas!” “Come in, just come in!” Elder Skye laughed with him as he tugged us across the flat stepping-stones dropped in the mud, and I looked around the courtyard and remembered that the elders in the mission home had said the water in Montero had amoebas.
At the door to the kitchen, we paused to kick the clods from our boots. In the middle of the room Isabela and her sons and daughters stood around a table set with only two places. With a guilty feeling, I realized she had never doubted we would come.
“Pasen, sientense.” “Come in, sit down.”
With simple grace, Isabela offered us her two chairs, her smile showing her pleasure that we had come to eat at her table. Isabela was a short, quiet woman with the harshness of Bolivian widowhood etched in her face, her sinewy arms, and her strong brown hands. Nevertheless, there was beauty in the dignity, strength, and kindness evident in the features inherited from her Inca ancestors.
Once we were seated, the children clustered around the table, their smiles flashing in their dark faces. They joked with Elder Skye and laughed when I didn’t understand the Quechua words they mingled with their Spanish. Coming back from the stove, Isabela shooed them away and set a steaming bowl of gray mush before each of us. With the poetic phrasing of her Kolla people, she told us, “He esperado su buenallegada con trigo.” “I have awaited your good arrival with wheat.” Then, while our sweat dripped onto her table, she asked us to forgive her for not having anything better to offer.
I almost trembled as I looked at that bowl of boiled wheat. But then a strange thing happened. As Elder Skye offered a blessing and I sat with my eyes closed, another voice replaced his in my mind. “I have awaited your good arrival with wheat.” Amidst all the jumbled images of the past seven days, those words were something I finally understood. I realized how much that gruel meant to the family, and that they would wait until we left to share what remained in the pot. When Elder Skye finished, I stared at my bowl for a long time, and then, with a look at Isabela’s smile, I ate the wheat.
In the months that followed that meal, I learned to love Bolivia and its food. I ate chicharrón and picante, and not only survived, but thrived. I also grew to love the people I met, and again and again during my stay there, I experienced through them the joy the gospel brings to those who embrace it. Isabela’s act of Christ-like love helped me to put aside my own cares and serve others, and I never forgot the words that were so sweet and delicious to a lonely and discouraged soul.