Bolivia: Part 2 – We’re Going to the Jungle, You Say?

I couldn’t breathe.

At least, not very well. And then I was staggering everywhere as I walked. What was happening?

We were in La Paz, and as I came to find out, it’s anywhere from 10,650 to 13,250 feet above sea level, the world’s highest capital city. It was a little difficult to get oxygen, to say the least. I was happy to board the next plane to Cuchabamba, our final destination in Bolivia. While the altitude was still high there, it wasn’t quite as bad.

As we flew in, I had the feeling we were in a desert. It had a dry look to it, but I kind of liked it because it reminded me of my trips to the Western United States. Missionary Kevin White met us at the airport, threw all our luggage inside and on top of his vehicle, and we were off! This was the first of various fun adventures jammed in there together, and we got many good laughs out of those times.

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Just one of many hilarious and slightly painful times with ten people jammed into a seven-passenger vehicle.

That night Chile was playing against Bolivia in a World Cup qualifier, so some of the pastors from the churches and other friends came over and we all watched the game together. Soccer is my favorite sport and it was nice to finally watch a game with people who care.

Wednesday Kevin took us around the city and showed us different things, including a statue of Jesus. While this one didn’t seem as idolatrous as the Virgin Mary statue in Santiago (there weren’t relics and trinkets everywhere), it still struck me as being indicative of a false worldview, one that feels it must add to the blood of Jesus for salvation.

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“El Cristo” Statue

That night we went to one of the churches and had a great service where I met some new brothers and sisters in Christ. One thing I love is the witness of the Spirit within us, regardless of where we’re from. John said if we are born again, we will love the brethren, and it really is an exciting thing to meet brethren in other parts of the world.

Thursday was the big day, the day we left for the retreat. It was a pastor’s retreat, but there were seminary students and others there as well who at least had an interest in ministry or where learning more. The whole time leading up to this retreat I’d been hearing about how we were going to “The Jungle” and we were going to go down a mountain and it was going to be blazing hot, etc. Now, in my mind, “The Jungle” was a place out in the middle of nowhere with insects man had yet to discover and wild beasts just waiting to maul us if we stepped outside our tents. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I really did think we were going to be staying in tents miles away from civilization.

I came downstairs that morning with a giant bottle of water. “I’ve got my freshwater for when I have to put in my contacts,” I announced. They looked at me like I was crazy.

“There’ll be water in the hotel,” I was told. Wait, what? A hotel? I thought we were staying in the jungle. It turns out they meant it was a jungle climate, but we were staying in a hotel in a small city. I’d been mentally preparing myself for some Man vs. Wild experience this whole time. However, it was very humid there and mosquitos were abundant, so perhaps that yellow fever shot came in handy after all!

We took off over the mountain, which was where the real thrill came in. It was a two-lane road but giant truckers were carrying cargo the whole way, so when a small opening presented itself, we would dart around the truck into oncoming traffic and swerve back over before getting hit. At first it was mildly terrifying, but then I finally decided to just enjoy the thrill of it all. And we didn’t really almost get hit except like once or twice. Not bad for a three-hour or so drive like this.

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Defying Death

We arrived at the hotel and I got to meet several different Bolivian pastors and brothers in Christ. There were fourteen of us total and over the next couple of days I got to talk to them and get to know them a little better. God gave me the opportunity to speak to a couple of them a little more in-depth, and I hope that in some way I was able to encourage them. They certainly encouraged me by their faithfulness to our Lord. To go into full-time ministry in Bolivia and in many other countries is somewhat disappointing to the family since it’s seen as choosing a life of poverty and economic instability, and parents feel like they won’t be taken care of in old age.

Jason Holt taught many sessions about different things, and to those with doubts about what their family would think if they gave their lives full-time to the ministry, he quoted the verse where Jesus said those who loved father or mother more than Him were not worthy of Him.

During our free time, we did some fun things together, such as hiking, swimming, and, of course, eating. On our hike we went into a bat cave with hundreds of bats that would suddenly start flying around at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, we were in there way longer than I wanted to be! Another time as I was walking to my hotel room, I heard a loud buzzing noise behind me and turned around. On the ceiling was a gecko, and while I’d never heard of a gecko buzzing before, I figured that must have been the noise I heard. So I stopped to take a picture, and as I was trying to get the perfect angle, this…thing, and I can only describe it as a Frankenstein bee…flew out at me from a nearby door.

Let me tell you, I didn’t finish trying to get that picture of the gecko. I’ve never run so fast in all my life!

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With Ismael Jaita, one of the men seeking God’s will for His life

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This was a special treat on Saturday before we left

Saturday we came back and went to a youth meeting at one of the churches, which was fun. Then Sunday we visited all the different churches. Jason preached and Daniel Sparks and I gave testimonies. I met so many wonderful families, including this one below:

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Sunday night after church a group of us got together to play soccer, another fun time that unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy as much as I should’ve since I’m in such bad shape. That, and the altitude is very high. But mostly because I’m out of shape.

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Afterward, we said our goodbyes and then the next day, very early in the morning, we were off, headed back to Chile.

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There were many things that stuck with me about this trip: The joy of being with other brothers in Christ who desire to serve the Lord, learning from Kevin White and his wife Beth, and experiencing different aspects of Bolivia.

But I think one thing that impacted me the most was the young couple who kept up the hotel where we were staying Thursday through Saturday. You would often see them running around cleaning. One night we came in from eating late at night and the man was in the pool scrubbing the tile. I honestly don’t know when they slept. I’ll recount here exactly what is in my journal:

“Saturday morning we ate and had our sessions. There was a young couple cleaning and keeping up the hotel, and they always seemed to be working. We took up a collection for them and wrote a card for them, which I think touched their hearts. The night before I had asked the man when he took a break. He said he didn’t. He worked every day. Imagine living like that. That’s not a life-it’s an existence. And then to live like that, die in your sins, and go to hell. How sad and terrible!”

I still think of that sweet couple and where their souls will be in eternity . I hope we at least shined a light into the darkness and that one day we’ll see them again in heaven.

It was a struggle to get there, but I would say Bolivia was well worth it. As Proverbs says, “The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul…”

Yes, it really is.

Bolivia: Part 1 – “I Can’t Let You on the Plane…”

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. -Ephesians 6:12

As I think back on my recent trip to Bolivia, I truly believe I was in a spiritual battle against one who tried to keep me from going. I don’t say this mystically or frivolously; there were too many obstacles for what should’ve been a simple task that I can only wonder, Why was he trying to stop me?

First, I had to get a visa in a very limited time, and as I was sure I had to get a yellow fever shot (At least, I think the US government said so), I couldn’t send in a visa application until I got it. The health department couldn’t fit me in until August 10 and I was told the visa process itself takes about a week. I was supposed to leave for Chile on August 31, so it should have been simple to send for a visa and get it back in time, I thought. It was a little frustrating spending forever on the phone trying to make sure I had everything right and that they really did need my original passport (they did), but I knew it’d be worth it in the end. The process is simple, actually, but it just wasn’t working out that way for me.

And it turned out the yellow fever shot wasn’t necessary, so while I’m glad I got it, I could’ve had the application sent long before.

And then, after having waited forever to get a yellow fever shot, I organized my packet…and sent it to the wrong address. My passport and all my personal information was floating around in the mail somewhere, and I was wondering if I’d get it back in time to even go to Chile, much less Bolivia. Thankfully, it did come back, but by that time it was too late to get a visa, so I would have to get one when I got into the country.

August 31 arrived, my day to go to Chile! I was so excited as I stepped up to the desk and handed the lady my passport and information. She took them and started typing things into the computer.

“It says here there’s a visa requirement.” Her words shocked me. What? A visa to go to Chile? Since when? All I had was a passport.

“Did they just recently change that?” I asked.

“Sometimes they do. Let me check.” So she called her supervisor, hung up, and said, “Yeah, I’m sorry. I can’t let you get on the plane without a visa.” This sick feeling of more than $2,000 being flushed down a drain came over me. I felt horrible for all those churches and individuals who had given me their hard-earned money so I could spend it on plane tickets I’d never use. Too late to get a refund for the flight I was supposed to be on and my now-worthless tickets to Bolivia already purchased, I walked outside and sat down, stunned, with about forty minutes left before the plane started boarding. I had gone through all this trouble only to be turned away at the last moment. I couldn’t believe it.

How could this happen? Two thousand dollars wasted! I’m not going to Chile anytime soon and probably never to Bolivia. And how long would it take to get a visa and reschedule a flight? Two weeks, three weeks, a month? I looked up the requirements and, sure enough, there it was: A visa required for anybody staying in Chile over 90 days. My return trip wasn’t scheduled for another six months, long beyond that time frame.

I suddenly remembered why I hadn’t gotten the visa. I knew I wouldn’t be in the country for more than 90 days, at least at first, and I could always step outside the border and re-enter if I had to. I had seen the visa requirement while preparing and put it completely out of my mind, and now it had come back to haunt me.

Ms. Julia Garst had come to see me off, but she had to leave early and as she stepped outside, she said, “Stephen, it’s all going to work out.” And she said it like she really believed it. And in my own heart, I knew it had to. There had to be a way.

I’m going back in there to tell them the reason I didn’t get a visa is because I’m traveling within South America, and if that doesn’t work I don’t know what I’ll do. I think my next option was to argue and refuse to leave until they let me on the plane. I was really hoping it wouldn’t come to that.

I stepped up to the counter and this time was able to speak with a man who looked like he was in charge. I told him the situation and he called somebody else, and before he hung up he said, “Okay, wonderful.” I was approved to go! It wasn’t long before I was on a plane to Atlanta, and from there to Chile.

My pastor had recently said that when you surrender to serve the Lord, Satan will attack you and try to throw you off course. I knew it was coming.

I thought I’d at least get out of the Tri-Cities first, though.