We arrived early in the morning, after a bumpy and chilly overnight ride from La Paz in Uyuni. This is the farthest I've ever been from home. 5,373 miles from Redwood City. The sun hadn't risen yet, and it was absolutely freezing outside. Bundled up and shivering, my team and I hobbled around like penguins trying to find our hostels. The twelve of us were spit into three groups of four for backpacker ministry. All of them were closed! Nothing was else was open either; no cafes or stores had even their lights on. There were literally no people awake at 6am.
All of the sudden, an angel bearing good news rounded the corner. A local man named Geronimo appeared to us on the street, greeted us in English and invited us to his restaurant for breakfast. Apparently, he was the only business owner who opened early. He enticed us with pancakes and hot chocolate, and won us over with his alleged heating system. So we all followed him around the corner to his restaurant La Vicuña where we had an awesome, warm breakfast. The restaurant was actually a part of Geronimo's house, so it had this really cozy atmosphere
I was still feeling sick. The cold weather discouraged me to drink, so I hadn't been. I was dehydrated. Walking around was so surreal; I felt like nothing was real and like I didn't have a body. So weird. I went back to the hostel to sleep it off, but not before my German friend Robin prayed over me.
I woke up later that day to find God's plan for us hear had already began to unfold. I went back to Geronimo's restaurant where everyone was still hanging out and learned that Geronimo was a Christian. After I left La Vicuña, he asked my friends what a motley crew of Europeans, North Americans, a Latino and an Aussie were doing together in Uyuni. They told him how we were on mission and specifically wanted to love on the backpackers, and he delightfully shared that he had the same desire. For many years, he felt a strong calling on his life to love the travelers who came through his town. He offered up his restaurant for whatever we needed, so it became our "headquarters" for the week.
I don't remember who came up with it, but the next day we decided to host these hang outs for the wandering travelers to escape the cold and enjoy a thrifty hot drink and snack. Geronimo provided tea, coffee, bread and fruit for us to give out for free to anyone who wanted it. We did some awkward and bashful promoting first, passing out flyers for the restaurant, and waited for people to show up. Pretty soon, we had people from all over the world coming in and out of La Vicuña at the curious prospect of hospitality. Some of us served drinks, some of us just hung with the backpackers. They all would ask us why this was going on, and we told them it was because Jesus loved them and wanted them to be warm and fed and safe. That was good enough for them!
We had so many good conversations, heard so many exciting stories and made a few friends, too. Chris and I met this Irish couple who had been traveling around the world for the last year. The four of us spent like 3 hours hanging out, and eventually went out to dinner with them. Chris and I tried to pay for their dinner, but they wouldn't let us. Instead, we just prayed for their journey and said good bye.
Another ministry option we had planned before we met Geronimo was to minister to backpackers on the Salar tours. This is why people come to this random little town; there is a gigantic salt flat outside the town that stretches as far as the eye can see. It's so alien and bizarre compared to anything I've seen, so I'm not surprised by its popularity. Tourists go in jeeps and drive through the expansive salt flat, making stops at an old train yard, an island covered in cactus, a hostel made purely out of salt, an ancient Incan cemetery, animal-looking rock formations, a frozen lagoon and herds of llamas. It's pretty incredible.
Dave and Scott went in one jeep, while Robin, Chris and I went in another. Dave and Scott had some troubles with their driver, who was drinking rum and coke while driving. Thankfully nothing bad happened; they actually got to minister to a French-Canadian couple through the situation. We, however, enjoyed a smooth ride with the company of an elderly french couple and a prospective medical school student from the states. It was wonderful to meet them, and to swap stories of our travels. The French couple was just on vacation; the American girl had been studying Spanish in Argentina, and was finishing her time abroad with a bang by sightseeing up the west coast of South America. Her next stop after this was Machu Picchu.
I had the honor of sharing my story with her, and hers with me. It was sweet. I don't ever realize how much I love Jesus until I verbalize the journey He's taken me on. When I told her my testimony in the jeep, I was getting so excited to walk with the Lord. Hopefully my story could encourage her.
When we came back from the two-day tour, we had a goodbye dinner with Geronimo and his family. He also invited the pastor of his church, as well as a Brazilian tour guide to join us. The three men all shared the same vision; to make the Salt Flat the "salt of the Earth." Our presence in Uyuni inspired them to be intentional with the visitors to their town. For Geronimo, he decided to continue to welcome the tourists the way he'd done this week with his business. The pastor wanted to encourage his congregation to do the same. The Brazilian wanted to be a light in the tourism field, after hearing about our drunk driver story.