Hey hey, people!
I´m writing this from the field! PDay number one. Also, this keyboard´s punctuation keys do not put the punctuation marks printed on them, so this may get interesting. Also, this email is a mile long and I give props to anyone besides my mother who finishes it. Anyhow!
I´m loving my time out here. It´s pretty much the perfect training setting. The ward here is really good. They have strong leadership and a solid core of members who come every single week. I´m quickly learning that this is one of the biggest issues with the missionary work out here. Many of the Dominicans struggle keeping the commitment to come to church. But that´s okay! Part of our job is to help them. Another great boon in disguise is that the previous elders who had the area just before us were what they call tigres (disobedient young muchachos). This means that a lot of the people haven´t had much experience with the church and so we always have plenty of work to do. I´m also blessed to have a good trainer. My new companion is Elder Miller, a guy from Manti who served a year in the islands. He speaks fluent papiamento and spanish, making him trilingual. He´s been out seventeen months, and I like him a lot. He´s a hard worker and a good trainer.
My my, where to begin? Well, I reckon we´ll start at the beginning. After we said our goodbyes at the MTC, it was off to the mission home. Ónce there, we met our new companions and after waiting for nearly six hours for everyone in our house to get their turn being interviewed by President Corbitt, we headed off to the house. My area is smack in the middle of Santo Domingo, a region called Espaillat. I´m not sure whether or not it´s poor by Dominican standards, but it was a lot to take in at first.
The city is dirty. Trash is everywhere. Graffiti is on most surfaces, and there are bars covering every door and window. Chickens and dogs are everywhere, and the traffic is flat out insane. Cars whiz by within a couple of feet of pedestrians and motorcycles and bikes weave their way in and out of other vehicles. The main method of public transportation in my area are guaguas, a general term that can refer to either a bus or a vehicle resembling a van that got hauled out of a junkyard and had seats bolted in to fit as many people as possible. You´re packed in like sardines and it´s the kind of hot that makes you wish it was winter. Part of me thinks, ¨Huh. That´s kind of sketchy.¨ But another part thinks, ¨Huh. For 25 pesos I can go pretty much anywhere.¨ And so we ride guaguas.
I like Coke. That probably doesn´t mean much for most of you, but as some of you who know me well know, I don´t like Coke. But for whatever reason, I stinkin´ love the Coke here. In fact, buying a Coke at a colmado (a corner store always blaring brassy Dominican music) is pretty much my favorite thing ever.
I think I´ve mentioned before that people love dominoes here. They do. There are tables of old people playing dominoes eeeeverywhere in Espaillat. Yesterday, as me and Elder Miller were walking down the street on our way to a lesson with a gentleman named Wellington, we passed a table where a group of three old Dominican ladies were slinging ivory like champs. They stopped us and one of them invited us to stop and play dominoes with them. There was only room for one more player, so I let Miller have the honor. They slaughtered him. Several times. But afterward, one of the ladies actually sat in on the lesson with Wellington, who turned out to be her grandson. Unexpected, but cool!
I also got to have a language gaffe of the week this week! Yay for confused gringos! So a lot of words in Spanish are cognates with English. This means that if you have a decent understanding of Spanish suffixes, you can often guess on a word and be pretty much correct. As it happens, I´m pretty decent with such suffixes. I´ve been about ninety percent accurate with my guesses and felt pretty confident. But then there´s that ten percent. The other night, we had a birthday party for one of the members at the church. Me and Elder Miller went to it because it´s a good opportunity to build positive relationships with the members. About halfway through the party, they started playing music and dancing. Now, fun fact about me. I can´t dance very well. Coordination isn´t really my thing. A group of Dominicans asked if I was going to join in. I told them it was against the rules. They replied that it was against the rules to dance with other people, but not for me to dance by myself. Touché. They were right. But it was almost time to go home anyway, so I just told them that really, I´d love to, but I had to go, and anyway, it had been a long time since I´d felt really embarrassed, and if I did dance, I would end up getting super embarrassed. They laughed and I went on my way. However, that night, as I was studying my Spanish, reading the page on cognates, I came to a horrible realization. I hadn´t known the word for embarrassed, so I´d taken a guess. I´d used ¨embarazado,¨ because that fits the pattern. Unfortunately, rather than embarrassed, the word embarazado means... pregnant. I told them that it was a long time since I had been pregnant, and if I danced, I would end up getting super pregnant. As I came to this grotesque realization, I felt inexpressibly avergonzado. Avergonzado is the Spanish word for... Embarrassed. NYAGHwegklñawehahweñ. So that happened.
Anyway, I want to share something on a more serious note, and I bet it´s something that most of the missionaries who just hit the field are gonna be writing about, not just an isolated few. So, a couple of days ago, I remember thinking that I couldn´t remember the last time that I´d seen a building without bars over the door or windows. Well, on Saturday night, we found them. We went to a small community built under a bridge to try to motivate a couple of less active members to come to church the next day. We walked down a normal street, turned a normal corner, and then, down below me was sprawled the shabbiest collections of buildings I had seen in my entire life. It´s hard for me to describe the scene. Each one was a ramshackle hut pieced together with rotting pieces of plywood and bent slates of corrugated metal. They were packed into tight rows with only gaps of a few feet in front to serve as a road through.
We silently descended. My entire life, I´ve heard stories about world poverty. Seen pictures. Videos. Read speeches. The works. But let me tell you. Until you´ve actually seen it with your own eyes, it´s not the same. We talked with one family who had been living in their house for over forty years. This is a tiny structure lit by a single oil lamp. In the flickering shadows, I could see that it doubled as a chicken coop. Holes peppered the ceiling and walls, and in total, the building was probably about twenty feet by fifteen feet. Six people lived there. Now, this was a building that most Americans wouldn´t use as a backyard shed. The people living there didn´t have bars because they didn´t need them. A robber would find nothing there.
As me and Elder Miller left afterward, I found myself feeling rather reflective. Our house here doesn't have a metric ton of luxuries. We sleep behind two sets of bars and two locked doors. Our shower is a pipe sticking out of the wall that only runs cold. The power goes out almost every day, oftentimes more than once, and sometimes, the water stops running too. We have cockroaches. The water that comes out of the tap isn't safe to drink. But I´m grateful beyond anything that I can express for that place. Because there are people living in conditions umpteen times worse than that. And I know that there are places like that bridge village dotting this country and the world. Places that are even worse. And let me tell you. As I walked out of that little community, I thought about every time I complained about having a lukewarm shower, or that my soda ran flat, or that I didn´t really like the black bean soup we had for dinner, or any of the other first world problems we deal with in life. And I felt ashamed. I haven´t really had to live anything like that.
Our apartment is one of the nicest in our area, and if I really wanted to, all I would have to do is call my mission president and he would send me back to a warm bed, plenty of food, and more luxuries than I can even think of. I appreciate the countless blessings I´ve had in my life more than I ever have before, and I am still forced to acknowledge that I still can´t appreciate them as much as I should. Though I haven´t experienced it, I have seen true poverty, and although I am not a perfect person, if I have anything to say about it, I will never complain about my standard of living again as long as I live. For a much better and more proactive discourse on the same subject, see Elder Holland´s talk from general conference last month.
Anyway, I´m living the Caribbean life and loving it! Much love to you all. I hope to hear from all of y´all and hope things are going well!