Monday, October 31, 2016

Week 10 - (I've) Had a Birthday, Shout Hooray!

Adam with the Aire Libre Primary
Dearest friends and family,

This week I learned something quite remarkable. I am no longer an 18 year old kid from California, brushing away ants and wiping sweat off my brow, as I write you all from a dirty table and lawn chair in the middle of Esmeraldas. Now I am a 19-year old kid from California, brushing away ants and wiping sweat off my brow, as I write you all from a dirty table and lawn chair in the middle of Esmeraldas! I had a birthday and it was possibly the best one I’ve ever had. Let me explain why.

To be quite honest, I thought it was going to be like any other day out here, and truthfully, that is how the day started. We woke up and got ready early and quickly went to work gathering up and helping people get to church. This morning there was a drunk fellow that really wanted to come to church and we let him in, because c’mon, it’s church. He sat in the back quietly making odd noises and crying to himself. The second hour of church followed suit with the “normalities” when our church dog decided to sit at my feet. I’ve decided that he’s a real follower of Christ because he doesn’t belong to anyone, yet every Sunday he comes in and sits down for a nap under the fan. He’s more punctual than most of the church goers here! After hour 2 finished I shuffled along and quietly took my seat for priesthood meeting (a meeting where all the men gather). To be honest my mind was on my family, the events of home, and all of them getting ready for church 4,000 miles away. I wondered if they would have cake and ice cream even though I wouldn’t be with them that night.

It was in the middle of this thought when I felt a finger of a small hand tap my left shoulder 3 times. I turned to see a small boy that beckoned in hushed Spanish for my companion and I to “venga, venga” which we did. He led us to the room where the primary meets (classes for the kids aged 3-12). When he opened to door I saw about 20 children, giggling and covering their mouths, who all were excited to see me. They immediately started singing happy birthday after putting a Minnie Mouse party hat on my head. Their song was horribly out of tune and they replaced my name with “hermano” out of difficulty pronouncing Ericksen, but it was beautiful! Even though I’ve only been in this area for about a month and I barely know anyone, they were so incredibly excited for me and my happiness perked up because of theirs. I was so happy I immediately started shaking their hands to thank them each personally. While I was doing this, one of the teachers brought out a huge Tres Leches cake with a single candle. After I blew out the candle (and made a really good wish), I indulged in this delicious symbol of celebration.

This birthday didn’t have presents. I didn’t have a big dinner. I didn’t have my friends. I didn’t even have my parents with me. But in that moment, choking back tears, surrounded by those kids, with that cake in front of me, offered by a woman that doesn’t have much, I had every single thing I needed to be truly happy. I don’t know how the primary found out that it was my birthday, I seriously don’t know where they got the party hat, and I don’t know how much it cost to make the cake. But what I do know is that those feelings that quickly overcame me taught me a powerful lesson. In that moment, I felt true philanthropy, I’m going to choose to call it true Christ-like love in this context, and I learned that this is true happiness. Things of the world are lovely and bring much joy, don’t get me wrong. However, now I know without a shadow of a doubt, that what really matters are relationships, kindness, charity, and selfless goodwill in this shaky world. These things radiated through these kids and their leaders and even though they all may never know how much I appreciated and truly needed what they did for me, their acts of Christ-like love made my day unforgettable in every sense of the word. 

(Videos of the song and handshaking - provided by hermano Tello)
Cheesy moral of the story? Make the world tomorrow a little better than it was today. Smile at a stranger. Tell your parents you love them. Hug the people that matter to you and make sure they know it. Give to those that have not, and forgive all their offences. Be a friend to someone that could possibly be lonely. Tell someone happy birthday. But most of all, enjoy the time you have, and indulge in the things that bring true happiness – relationships, kindness, charity, and selfless goodwill. 

Have an amazing week and Happy Halloween.

Elder Ericksen

Other tidbits relevant to this week:
  • On Thursday and Friday Adam travelled to Quito for verifications. He was able to reunite with his group from the missionary training center and catch up with them on their first month in the mission field. Adam enjoyed hearing about the other areas of the mission and commiserating about frustration with the language.
  • Adam really enjoyed the much cooler weather in Quito. While there, his mission president took all the new missionaries to a place called El Panecillo.
  • Hearing about the other areas of the mission makes it tough not to feel a little jealous given the heat, dirt and bugs of Esmeraldas. “But I’m thankful and excited because it can only go up from here.”
  • While taking the bus between Quito and Esmeraldas a gentleman was making the rounds collecting money for “los ninos”. Adam and Elder Palmer, carrying only pamphlets and their scriptures, offered a pamphlet about the restoration. The man made a “huge ordeal of this saying that ‘our brothers of God’ wanted to help out” before inviting them to read and share their thoughts – which they did, teaching the entire bus.
  • Adam seems to be in very good spirits and (it’s hard to say “finally” but I will) adjusting to life in the field.
  • This Sunday was the annual primary sacrament meeting where the kids 3-12 give talks and sing songs. The chapel was decorated with ballons, streamers and drawings the kids made in preparation for the meeting – a bit more festive than the equivalent meetings in the US.
  • The primary-sponsored birthday celebration for Adam was the result of me whispering via Facebook to a member in the branch there that Adam’s birthday was on Sunday and to please tell him happy birthday from his family back home when he saw him at church. In conversation I hinted that in the US its customary for the kids to sing to other kids who’ve had a birthday (you know, “you’ve had a birthday shout hooray, HEY!). Well, the members really grabbed hold of the “whisper” and the big production, song and cake (they made a CAKE!) was a complete surprise. Lisa and I both shed a few tears yesterday when Hermano Tello sent pics and video of the song. GRACIAS AL HERMANO TELLO, LA PRIMARIA Y LOS NINOS DE LA RAMA AIRE LIBRE POR HACER QUE EL NINO MIO SE SINTIO RECORDADO EN SU DIA DE CUMPLE! Thanks brother Tello, the primary and the kids of Aire Libre branch for helping my kid to feel remembered on his birthday.
Sunday lunch with the Ruiz family
Adam's "start" group including members of his district from the Mexico City MTC
Quito from the Panecillo

Monday, October 24, 2016

Week 9 - The Wheels On The Bus Go...

Dear friends and family,

I would like to declare that blessings can come in all shapes, sizes, smells and flavors. This week the biggest blessing that I had graciously bestowed upon me by the esposa of Presidente Tello was broccoli. BROCCOLI! Wow, what an interesting way to start a letter – hah! (What do you think when you read these?) Anyway, the message that I would like to convey, similarly to last week, is that life is improving here day by day. I had my first serving of vegetables since entering the country and they were delicious. A lot of vegetables are hard to clean here because of the poor water quality (tomatoes, letter, broccoli) but yes, I got to eat some and my taste buds were craving it. However, don’t let me waste any more time jumping into my discussion of the categories of life in Ecuador. This week I’d like to start with…the busses.

The Busses: The busses here function kind of like a trolley or railway service. People are always jumping on and off and often you can find people loudly selling things up and down the aisle. The busses are always noisy, always packed, and always drive incredibly fast. If you were to ride in one, you’d think that the driver had buttons instead of pedals – one for “lightspeed ahead” and one for “stop right here, right now.” I get to ride in one of these unique transportation systems every couple of days and I have gone some interesting places. Natolita is one and I travel there whenever I have a reason to meet with my zone (24 other missionaries also assigned to Esmeraldas). I do this once a month or so and it did not take any time at all to learn to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the river-swept, Amazonian landscape and countryside. I have noticed some earthquake damage where state-sponsored construction crews are digging super deep (9-12 feet) holes in the ground and are replacing piping. This past week I also go to go on a little viaje to a nice-ish beach town called Atacames. Bring raised near the beach all of my life it was really interesting to explore a beach with a more tropical flavor to it. On a different note, it was while traveling to Atacames this week, in a rickety, sloppily-painted bus branded “Las Palmas”, that had a real ability to toss its passengers to and fro that I had a realization that with the passing of October 23rd, I can officially declare that I have been on my mission for 2 months. This lends quite nicely into the next topic: timing.

Timing: One thing that I have completely reevaluated on my mission is my perception of time. During my life before I left, things were very routine. Everyday I had everything all planned out – me in control of all the things that pertained to me. But here so many events in my schedule revolve around others – my companion, my leaders, my investigators (people who are learning more about the church) that I can’t really control all that much. The end result is that some days pass rather quickly and others go by impossibly slow.

This is coupled with the concept that time itself drives so much of what I do and think about. The time of two years that I have committed to this service, the time I spend studying, the time in between appointments, never having enough time to write home, the fact that my time in high school and youth has expired, it all matters and its always in my head. I could write an essay on this, but I won’t make you read that! The reality of the timing of my mission is that the larger 2-year chunk is divided into 17 smaller, 6-week chunks called Cambios (changes). For now I am going to be in Aire Libre for a minimum of 2 cambios for my 12-week period of training. After that, potentially, I could get moved around elsewhere in the country but I doubt it! Most people that get assigned to the coast put in 6+ months. We’ll have to see!

I hope you all find nothing but memories and happiness in the coming days of Halloween. Please remember that you’re always in my thoughts and prayers. Also, please remember to always enjoy your broccoli!

Until next Monday,

Elder Ericksen

Other anecdotes shared outside of the normal weekly email:
  • Today we went to a nicer beach called Las Palmas with the whole zone. It was really fun.
  • It’s always soupy at the beach and so hot, gross. We got to play soccer on the sand. It’s a mission rule not to go on the sand but we called President Murphy and he said it was ok. Last time I’ll stand on sand for the next 22 months, I was very happy. A sister from Mexico in my zone made guacamole to share and it was so good and reminded me of home.
  •  I tried using my ATM card for the first time I went to the store to buy some stuff like a pillow, deodorant, and toothpaste. When I got to the register the lady asked for my ID which I had left back in the apartment. So I used my last $10 of cash to buy some basic food items. Long story short – I will be slumming it this week.
  •  On Friday this week I travel to Quito for something called verifications – I’ll get my visa and meet with President Murphy. I’ll spend the night there and get to reconnect with all my friends from the MTC.
  •  Thanks for the letters via email. I print them out and bring them home to read during the week. Each Monday night I can’t wait to see what you’ve all mailed me.

Las Palmas (of course)

Soccer on the beach

Reminds me of Newport (sort of...)
Avena Polaca aka Polish Oatmeal

Monday, October 17, 2016

Week - 8 More Pics

Week 8 - Comida, Calles, Playas y Mas

Adam visited the seaside resort of Atacames with his district today

Dear friends and family,

I am happy to say that I am writing you from a much more stable and settled frame of mind this happy Monday. I apologize for the scrambled thoughts last week and the abstract nature of my sentiments. This week I would like to share a little more detail about life here in San Esmeraldas, Ecuador. I’m going to try and organize my thoughts into categories if that is alright? Also, if anyone has a category they would like to hear more about, just send me a note.
  • Food: The food here at the coast is good. There is a weird societal expectation that when someone dishes you a plate of food, you eat it all. This expectation is coupled with the social norm of preparing mounds and mounds of rice for your guests, and sometimes, it’s a challenge! However it’s a pretty good challenge to have because I get pretty hungry navigating tough terrain and tough work. Here in Ecuador we have “mamitas” that cook us big lunches. Sometimes they’re members of my church, sometimes they’re just people that like missionaries, but they’re all friendly, and make great food. I’ve had a lot of fried whole fishes, different types of chicken, some beef, lentils and lots of verdes (really, really green, unripe bananas that they bake like potatoes). They also like soup. It seems like whenever I couldn’t be any more hot and sweaty, someone will bring out a steaming bowl of soup. But they are all really, really good soups despite the fact that I can never decipher what is floating in them. My companion and I do our own breakfast, lots of eggs, yogurt and cereal. There is a panaderia about a 5-minute walk from my house that will sell me a week’s-worth of little bread rolls for a dollar. So I take those and put an over-easy egg in them for an Ecuadorian McMuffin. I have no complaints about the food. It’s all good.
  • Street: The street is where I am from 10am to 8pm. Things are a little different here. First off, not many people have cars. There are only 3 parking spots at the church building and really only 1 of them (sometimes) gets used. That being said, there is still a decent amount of traffic on the main roads from taxis, buses and motorcycles. It’s perfectly normal to see a dad load up 2 or 3 kids on a little dirt bike and ride off, all of them wearing flip flops. The people in the street are generally pretty friendly – at the least willing to talk. Like I mentioned in my last letter, no one has physical glass windows so it’s pretty easy to just poke your head in and strike up a conversation about religion. I have learned so much about other religions and about other methods of thinking and it has been really good for me. I’m always pleasantly surprised how much Christian religions have in common as my testimony and faith has grown these past weeks.
  • Traveling: Traveling is really interesting. To get to Quito we rode in a really sketchy bus up the steepest, windiest road I have ever seen. The bus almost didn’t make it. Traveling to Esmeraldas was another 6.5 hour bus ride. But this one was different. We were in a little bit nicer of a bus but the road was way sketchy…at the same time the view was absolutely stunning. I had my eyes glued to the real life Andes-Amazonian jungle that the roads wrapped around. It was unlike anything else I have ever seen – out of a movie. It was like the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, except way better and real life.
  • People: I love contacting people and am confident in walking up and talking to anyone but sometimes I have to turn to my companion when they respond with fast, slurred questions. The dialect is hard but I am getting used to it. Last week we contacted 80 people in 5 days and today we spoke to 31. People listen but don’t follow up. I am in a branch with about 80 people and I am giving a talk this Sunday! Tell Nick/Natty this week right as sacrament meeting was starting a dog came in, laid down under the fan, and slept the whole meeting.
  • Spanish: Mi espanol esta llegando a ser major. Hola Javier y Rocio! Estoy muy emocionado a hablar con uds. en su propio lenguaje. La gente de Esmeraldas hablan muy rapido y flojo. A veces estoy confundido pero esta bien. Puedo leer y entender casi todas las cosas y tambien puedo escribir en Espanol. Pero ahora ingles es mas rapido. My goal is fluency by Christmas.
Overall it’s been a pretty good week. I love the service aspect of this and there have been lots of opportunities to serve. I’ll write on some more categories next week and, like I said, drop me a note if you have a suggestion. Everyone have a great week and remember to always have an open mind.

Much sincerity,

Elder Ericksen

Adam lives on this street in Esmeraldas - it's possible the internet cafe on the right side of this picture is the same he uses to write his emails. His apartment may likewise be in this shot.
Some other tidbits Adam shared in letters to the family and in brief email exchanges this afternoon:
  • I am in a small, extremely poor area called Aire Libre. The type of place where $500 bucks could buy you anything.
  • Today was a big day! We went to this touristy beach area called Atacames. It was fun.
  • The water barely works and we take showers with scoops from a pitcher from buckets we fill. I am getting used to it. I have a quality filter bottle for drinking water and 90% of the time I fill it with purchased bottled water.
  • I am in a dangerous area but have yet to feel threatened. We go back to the house by 8pm and I don’t bring my camera out.
  • It’s a little hard having a latin companion but I can tell already it is going to turn out to be a great blessing. My rate of learning is through the roof right now.
  • There’s a place call the Multiplaza that I can take a 25 min bus ride and buy normal items – Chips-Ahoy, Frosted Flakes and milk pouches. It’s undoubtedly an adventure.
  • We hike up and down the hills and I’ve sat in many very dirty chairs. I am sweaty 95% of the time and I’m breaking out like the 8th grade. What do I do?
  • Laundry is a pain – we bring some of it to a member a little more than a mile away – and do some of it ourselves. In buckets. Nothing really gets clean but it’s okay. Being humbled is a difficult but needed and worthwhile process.
  • Sorry if I worried you last week – I lost it a bit. Tell the kids the prayers and fasting are working – this week was a lot better.
  • I love teaching and I love being out on the town. It’s incredible here, dad, I will show you one day. I am safe. I am good. I love you.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Week 7 - Hot and Sweaty in Esmeraldas

Friends and family,

So much has happened the past 10 days that I couldn’t possibly hope to share it all with you in an effective manner. So I am going to try to focus on the highlights. Traveling was exhausting and when I arrived in Quito, I had a full day awaiting me still. I pushed through the orientations, interviews, and multiple car rides where there were definitely more passengers than seat belts. After all this, my district of 14 people from Mexico and I arrived at our first night’s extremely beaten down apartment. It had beds and blankets for everyone but that is where the amenities abruptly halted. It was really small and I was happy to pack up and get out the next morning.

The next day was an exciting one, not doubt about it. They gave us some flavored-milk-type beverage (I got blackberry) for breakfast and immediately started back up with the rules and mission formalities. I was antsy to receive my first companion and first assignment, which only made sitting on those hard plastic chairs even harder. I was assigned to a companion by the name of Elder Fernandez who is from Bolivia. More specifically, Yacuiba, Bolivia if you know the area. I got assigned to a decently sized and very humble zone that is called Aire Libre in the coastal region of Esmeraldas. Try to see if you can find that on Google Maps, Nick.

First impressions…things are so extremely different than the United States, and from my home, that it’s going to take 2 or 3 weeks, or 35, to start feeling like a normal person again. I don’t know what I was expecting though. I am happy to be here, I love what I am doing, and I am finding joy in the service and the experience. But oh man, I am so far away from home.

When I walked into the apartment that will be staying in for at least the next 12 weeks, I was taken aback by the smell of iron / metal and the bathroom. We didn’t have water that day apparently and when there’s no water, there’s no flushing toilets. I’ve come to learn that water will show up eventually, the key is just guessing what 3 hour window it will come. And when it comes we fill up buckets for showers and dish washing. We also buy big jugs at the store – don’t worry I am safe and alive. I am just transitioning. Another thing that has set me back is the humidity. Most of the sleeping arrangements through the church thus far have included a blanket. But not here; it was just a dirty mattress with an even dirtier pillow. But you don’t need a blanket here because it is very hot. You also don’t need a glass window here. In most of the houses, including mine, there is just a hole with a metal frame to keep out intruders and most of the mangy stray dogs. Therefore I have a mosquito net around my bed that has been working pretty well. I’m extremely thankful for that. You know, I’m also extremely thankful for my apartment; don’t allow my words to misconstrue your perception of my feelings. Out of the other casas in Esmeraldas, ours is definitely one of the nicest. We have tile floors instead of concrete which means I can flop around in my flip flops instead of close-toed shoes.

Another thing that has been setting me back is the language. In Bolivia they must speak the same type of Spanish as they do in Esmeraldas. They speak bien rapido, and truncate all of their words in random ways. What I am trying to say is that my “superior” (sarcasm) Spanish skills have been rendered completely useless here with my companion and all of the other people that live by the coast. It’s been frustrating not being able to talk with anyone in this country but I am staying faithful. And I do get better every day. My first lesson – I’ve taught maybe 12-13 in 5 days – my first was at the top of this steep, dirt hill. We were knocking on doors of really run down apartments and for this one door, a super buff, tattooed man opened and greeted us coldly. But he invited us to sit at his make-shift table and we began teaching, asking some questions to get to know him better. After saying my best attempt at an introduction, I reached out my hand to shake his. Something caught the sunlight and glistened…his brass knuckles! And, in that moment, I forgot every Spanish word I had ever learned. The following lessons were much better and only keep getting better. I love teaching, it’s the one thing that gets my mind off of negative moods.

Every once in a while I catch a reflection of myself in some glass or a car window. And I see a really sweaty, 18-year-old kid from California, with a black shoulder bag and a black name tag, surrounded by dirt, rocks, cinderblock houses, trying to speak Spanish. It’s in those moments that I feel like it’s all a dream and soon I’ll wake up and jump out of bed and go hug my parents. But this isn’t a dream. This is real, this is my reality, and now it’s time to go to work. Only 97 weeks left. I hope that anyone who will have the opportunity to read this letter will have an amazing week, and know that they mean a lot to me - when I feel lonely and when I feel happy.

Much affection,
Elder Ericksen

In addition to the letter, we were able to trade a few brief emails on more specific questions:

  • Esmeraldas is extremely poor and extremely hot and I’ve been having a pretty rough time. All dirt floors and cinderblock houses. They speak extremely fast, extremely lazy Spanish that I really can’t pick out any words. It is so frustrating and isolating not being able to talk to anyone.
  • Three missionaries from my MTC district were sent to the area but aren’t in my district so I don’t know how they are doing. Esmeraldas is the hardest area and not very many missionaries get to see this part of the mission - they usually only send Latinos. I consider it a compliment to be sent here.
  • We have a Zone Conference on Thursday and I am so, so excited. I did meet this one guy named Elder George from a different district and we got to talk for like 15 minutes. First conversation I’ve had since I got here.
  • The apartment is really dirty. We have tile floor and a small bathroom. All I want to do is clean the whole thing but my companion doesn’t really care too much. It’s good though.
  • We do laundry in a bucket. It is the hardest work. My face is always greasy and I bought some baby wipes today. There are dogs everywhere…strays.
  • Yeah, I am in a very, very dirty internet cafe. There are bugs everywhere and there are bugs all over everything in my room.
  • The food is really good. Coast food is the best food. It’s a lot of soups and rice and fish. The weirdest thing so far…they serve up this delicious fish thing called Marisco and I love it. But you eat the scales and the head. I don’t know if fishes have brains or not but, if they do, I definitely ate it. I’m too scared to eat the eyeball though. They also take green, hard plantains and use them like potatoes in soup and French fries. It’s weird.
  •  I am getting hit pretty hard with the negative emotions – mostly from the isolation and not being able to talk to anyone. I just have so much time on my own and can’t understand anything. I am doing well and I don’t want you to worry in the least, I just need to vent a little bit.
  • I love you so much, family. Thank you for your support, truly. I miss you and love you. Goodbye.

    We didn't get any photos this week but here are some screen shots of Adam's neighborhood - thanks google street view.

    With just a little time on Youtube, I found this panorama of the area where Adam is currently serving.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Week 6 - I Arrived!

I am happy to tell you all that I am safe in Ecuador. I am extremely exhausted and have been awake for like 36 hours. Right now I am emailing you from the computer of President Murphy. The mission home is incredibly nice and I cannot wait to show you all these photos. Way nicer than I think you could imagine. I have learned so much today. I am already worrying about the emailing situation because I only get an hour of computer time here just like the ccm but now I also have an obligation to write a weekly letter to President Murphy. I have no idea how I am going fit in all my computer wants. That being said, things are good. I am finding that Ecuador has completely different kinds of stresses and challenges than I had in the CCM. Essentially I am back to day one. But it is good. I am happy and in a very good place. I love you all so much and I cant express how much I miss you. I find out my companion tomorrow along with my first area. Wish me luck!!!! Again I love you guys. Make this week a great week okay, for me! Its time for dinner and it smells absolutely amazing. I really like the murphys! I have to go.

Elder Ericksen
Missionaries arriving

Adam with President and Sister Murphy

Dinner at the Mission Home

Adam and his new companion
Ready to serve!