This story ends in the back of a box truck traveling down a bumpy dirt road in the middle of a Bolivian jungle, but it starts on the train to Uyuni.
When we started planning this great adventure around the world, we often worried that it would become too self-centered, too much about Nate and Danielle. We wanted it to be about learning about cultures and people from around the world. We wanted to learn about the cultures and the people where we traveled. We wanted to be able to hear their stories and share them. We wanted to find ways to serve alongside them. But two months into our trip, we found that more often than not we have been focused on ourselves: new adventures in new places, spending time with new friends, learning about our limits and how to stretch them, discovering how to love each other better, seeing so many things that awe and inspire us, and definitely feeling like God is preparing us for the future. We’ve tried to share some of these with you to inspire you, but I think we both recognize that this isn’t exactly how we pictured things. We’ve struggled to find a place to serve and struggled to define exactly how we are loving others each day. In the midst of this, there is a brief prayer that I pray most mornings at breakfast, “God, help us to love each other well and help us to love the people around us well.”
I’ve been immensely blessed my entire life. I grew up in an wonderful family, with amazing parents who always provided for me and prepared me well to grow up and be an adult. I have never had reason to doubt God, that he loves me, and that he has a plan for me. That’s not to say that I’ve always followed the plan or made it the priority, but I’ve never had that moment of crisis where it was the only thing I’ve had to turn to. I’ve always had enough money to get what I need and want. I’ve always had the resources or medical care to turn to when Danielle or I get sick. I’ve always had the good job and good life that provide me with the money, friends, and intellectual stimulation that make for a comfortable and rewarding life. In the midst of this, I would like to think, I’ve also been faithful to God in some small way with my money, time, skills, and wisdom.
So how does this all relate to story of the train and the box truck? Over the last two weeks, a lot of those things that I have never had to go without, I’ve gone without.
With about two hours left in our train ride from Villazon, a border town in Bolivia, to Uyuni, Danielle started to get sick. Sick like you do, when you’re traveling and drink some bad water. That slow, bumpy train ride is not the best place to end up like this. While sitting next to her and feeling completely helpless, I realized that if this got bad, we were arriving in the Uyuni, a very small town, at midnight and I had no clue where to find medical help or how to be very effective at asking for it. This was the first time over the last two weeks that I gave it all up to God and said, “I can’t do anything, this is on your shoulders.” I only could try my best to comfort Danielle and hope we didn’t need a trip to the hospital.
The next day I tried to use the ATM to get some more money for our stay in Uyuni. I had just enough to pay for the hotel, a tour on the Salar de Uyuni (the salt flats), the bus ride to La Paz, and a little bit extra for food. I tried all 5 of the ATMs in Uyuni, but none would work. Checking out of our hostel on our last day to head for our one day tour of the Salar, I had 160 bolivianos (about $23) and $11 crumpled US dollars that no one would accept and no way to get any more. After buying a ticket on Isla Incahuasi, so we could use the bathroom on the tour, dinner, and some water, we would leave for La Paz with only 45 bolivianos. We had a bank account full of all the money we could need, but it did no good in a place where we couldn’t access it.
To compound our stress, our tour was scheduled to end at 5:30pm, though we knew that it was very possible it could be as much as an hour later, and we had a bus to catch to La Paz at 7:00pm. Normally, it would be an annoyance if we missed the bus, had to pay an extra $30 for another night in a hostel and another $50 for a bus, but when we had no way to pay for it, it was frightening. Danielle had even mentally steeled herself that we might have to spend the night in the train station and see if there was a seat on the one bus the next day that accepted credit cards (it was full when we tried to book it for the day we were leaving).
Throughout the tour of the Salar de Uyuni, we kept reassuring each other that we would be ok, that God was watching over us. Even when Danielle was sick, we had spent a miserable first night in the hostel and she spent most of the next day in bed, she was healed so that on the morning of the tour she was strong enough to enjoy the, at times, bumpy ride to the Salar and the time we spent on it. But, I think, there was still worry as we often checked our watches to see if the tour was progressing fast enough and argued about if we should spend 30 bolivianos, so we could use the bathroom once during the six hour tour.
As it turned out, we arrived back in Uyuni from the tour at 5:15. We had enough time to get some food and arrive at the bus station early. After the overnight ride, we arrived in La Paz Sunday morning and walked the hour to our Airbnb apartment where we were greeted by our gracious host and an 10th floor apartment with amazing view of the city of La Paz. After asking about places that accepted credit cards for food and explaining our current lack of cash, our host gave us 100 bolivianos to help us until we could call the bank the next morning. A call to the bank did the trick and we could once again get cash from the ATMs.
At this point, we were pretty happy. We had survived health, financial, and temporal stresses. We had made it to a city where we could have good food and relax. We had mostly turned over our fears to God, only keeping a little bit of worry on our shoulders. Life was good. But we’re still not to the box truck.
After three days in La Paz, we headed towards Coroico for five days at a rural hostel just outside of Yolosa (the end of the famed Death Road), which we expected to be relaxing and enjoyable. We had plenty of money and we were looking forward to time reading and hiking. After a harrowing taxi ride full of beautiful views of mountains, fog, and cliffs that were much too close for comfort at the speed we were traveling, we arrived at the hostel. Except it wasn’t what we were expecting.
The place was serene enough, but the town where we were told had “everything you could need”, didn’t really have anything we could cook and the kitchen at the hostel was not something we really wanted to cook in thanks to the bugs and worms. To make matters worse, the language barrier with our host seemed to be much greater than it had been, possibly because of the rural dialects or just our frustration. And to top it all of, the bugs and lack of maintenance were terrible – in the bathroom, in the kitchen and all over. We’d been on the road for two months and our expectations of comfort were much lower than they used to be, but whether it was the high hopes of relaxation or the less than stellar conditions, we were frustrated. And we had five days here. After a walk and a bottle of wine, we made ourselves some very plain pasta and things didn’t seem quite so bad. Until I locked us out of our room.
It was dark, we’re alone in the middle of the rainforest, the housekeeper had gone in to town, we had the shirts on our backs and that was about it. This was when I finally lost it. I had suffered enough over the last week. I had brought us to this place. I had broken Danielle’s trust that I could take care of us. I had locked us out of the one room that wasn’t full of bugs and darkness and frustration. I sat down and I cried. It felt utterly hopeless and I was ready to give up and go home – as soon as someone came by to help us out.
As I was sitting on the ground feeling sorry for myself, we heard a car approach and stop that we expected was the housekeeper. Danielle looked to see who it was and I heard, “Oh, you speak English!” It turned out to be Moises and Roberto. Roberto was staying at the hostel as well and Moises was from the area and knew the housekeeper personally so he gave him a call. They were close by, so we could get in our room soon, and Roberto invited us in to his room. As we accepted his hospitality we sat down to chat and found out they were working on building a medical clinic for the rural communities. Moises is a doctor and Roberto is an Columbian engineer who has been living in Spain for the last 15 years. They told us about their project and that progress has been slow because it’s so hard to find people to work – harvesting coca, used to make cocaine, is a more profitable way to earn wages for the locals. Danielle immediately asked if there was anything we could do to help. They looked at each other and immediately accepted.
So that’s how we found ourselves in the back of a box truck on the way up the mountain to spend the day moving bricks and digging a ditch for a drainage pipe at this future medical clinic for a rural Christian doctor who accepts payment in “goods” since the area is so poor. God had put us right where we needed to be to offer our help to someone who really needed it. It’s not an easy lesson by any means, but it was one I am grateful to have. That day, working in the mountains with the sun on our skin, serving this community in our small way, was the most joyful I think we’ve been this whole trip.
Mathew 8 tells us of the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the sea, when a storms comes upon them. Jesus is sleeping and when the disciples wake him, he asks them “Why are you fearful, you of little faith?” He them rebukes the storm and all is calm. This was part my devotional I read the morning after we were locked out of room. It’s a strong reminder for me, and one I vividly understand right now, that God is in control and he wants us to give up all my worries and fears to him. When we do, he can really use us to do great things in this world.