Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Week 14 - Working Those Climbing Muscles

Esmeraldas from a nearby mountain
Dearest friends and family,

Welcome everyone to December and welcome to the 15th week of my mission! I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving offered you all some time of gratitude and reflection on the passing 2016. So that I don’t risk filling another letter with my tangent-ridden emotions, I’ll just share the sentiment that it was a great year for me and that I have boundless reasons to be thankful during this season. I’m thankful for my family, friends across borders, my ever-changing life, and all of the experiences that I’ve ever had that make me, me.

In this letter I’d like to take a break from the narratives and share a little bit of an update and mental check up. There is so much going on here in Ecuador and events constantly revolving around me. In fact, I am writing you all after just finishing an afternoon meeting with President Murphy about our Christmas initiatives. The meeting forced us to miss our lunch appointment so we went to the nearby panaderia, the only food we oculd find. So basically I’m running on 2 pieces of cheese bread, Polaca (oatmeal) and a slice of coconut cake (not a complaint) so my stomach is basically just dough (a complaint). In the meeting we talked about the lots of upcoming activities that await us in the coming weeks. One of them is that we get to travel to Quito again on Wednesday to listen to a training from a leader of the church. (I’ll write more about that next week.) We also talked a little bit about the upcoming Christmas holiday. The highlight will undoubtedly be the Skype call that I will have with my family on either the 24th or the 26th.

In other news I have been staying much happier and even though I couldn’t have a reason as to why I’m finding solace in that fact. It could just be that I know I’ve got lots to look forward to. Also I think that it’s because I have been doing better in my learning of the Spanish language and podria escribirles en espanol si quieren. But I’m not sure how much you all would understand and writing in English is much faster. There is definite power in feeling accustomed to things that at once made me really miserable. I’ve gained a certain new confidence in myself and in my personal mental strength. Trust me, I’m not saying that it’s all daisies and lollipops out here. The challenges definitely are still present, I’m just getting a little better at coping. It’s like a great big staircase of emotions that I am on. When I departed home and realized how much I was truly leaving I got knocked down a few steps. Eventually I got my strength and started climbing back up the staircase. Right about this time the giant hand of life reappeared and smacked me down again a little further with a different challenge, say the isolation of not speaking the language of my companion. But, like before, I got up and went to work climbing toward the place I once stood. This cycle has continued for the past little while, taking me progressively deeper and further along. However, I never gave up and I’m stronger now in my climbing muscles because of it. And I really feel like I’ve stopped taking on so much red and I’m into the black at this point. Soon I hope to be able to say that I’m just as happy as I was before I left and this is only the beginning. With all those new climbing muscles, I’ll be able to reach higher than ever before and venture into new joy that I didn’t even know existed. I really can’t wait.

Overall it was a pretty good week. They’re building a new bakery in my area, I had more divisions with another missionary (Elder Canete) and there’s a new gringo from Seattle that’s fitting right into my group. Divisions are where two companionships switch for a day and try and learn from one another. Elder Canete is a very experienced missionary from Argentina and we got to work a really cool part of the Tolita area called La Lucha de Los Pobres. It was 100% Nat Geo with banana trees, dirt roads, and two boys in white shirts and ties. Where was my camera?

In Aire Libre (my area) the Christmas decorations are in full swing and even though we don’t have any lights hanging outside of our apartment there were some inside this week…in the microwave. Elder Fernandez found out why you can’t nuke metal objects. Don’t worry, no fires. We have these composite metal type cups and silverware that usually doesn’t have any effect with the microwaves (much to my surprise the first week I was here) but I guess one of the spoons is real metal and he found that out real quick.

Anyway, sorry this is so scatters. I don’t have any time to rewrite. I was busy in the mornigns and nights this week. To leave you all with something positive, don’t be discouraged if you too are stuck on an emotional escalator. Keep getting up, keep climbing, and never ever forget the new muscles and strengths you are gaining. I am becoming a person that firmly believes that everything happens for a reason. Find your reasons. Have a great week. I miss you all dearly.

Much affection,
Elder Ericksen

As usual, additional tidbits from other letters home:
  • KFC is a little different here. The chicken is the same but they don’t have mashed potatoes or bisquits. They offer French fries, rice, lentils and cole slaw.
  • The plumbing is terrible so you can’t flush toilet paper. So there’s a little trash can next to all the toilets and the toilet paper is scented. (Please pass this info along to Nathan – he can probably use it for a “Would You Rather…”)
  • He didn't explain why but simply wrote: Pony Malta
  • Lisa asked Adam what things he misses and what he thinks the missionaries in our area would appreciate as a “treat”. Adam replied “compile them a list of lesser-known fun things they can do in their area on P-day”. I kind of liked that suggestion and we’re working on it.
  • They showed a video to a family and their DVD player remote was broken so they had to watch the video in English. Adam acted as translator and his confidence with the language was really boosted by the experience.
  • Adam requested recipes this week for condensed milk chocolate sauce, kettle corn, and a recommendation of a meal to cook on Christmas…they have to be back to their apartment early Christmas night and he’d like to make a traditional US Christmas dinner for his Bolivian-born companion.
  • He complained about his severe and still developing farmer’s tan.
  • He joked that the music played everywhere in Esmeraldas sounds like the soundtrack to the movie “Nacho Libre.” He then asked someone to keep a list of the better movies and new music that comes out so he can catch up when he gets home. (He’s still my kid :))
Check out the receipt - $3.98 for meal PLUS additional sandwich.

The local mall - I assume the Centro Commercial Multiplaza

The local (abandoned?) lighthouse (El Faro de Sua)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Week 13 - Taking a Ride in "Angelito"

Dearest friends and family,

I learned a new Spanish word this week: colchon. In English it means "mattress." Let me tell you how this word went from being one unfamiliar to me to one that I now know very well.

One of my missionary friends that I have mentioned before, Elder George, was assigned to a new companion this past transfer that was supposed to be flying in from Provo, along with a fresh shipment of 25 other new missionaries. Mr. Unknown Companion, to our disappointment, had an issue with his visa so his travels were delayed 2 full days, leaving Elder George without anyone to be with in the meantime. Also, because my companion has been called to serve as the district leader over Elder George, myself, and 3 other missionaries, the responsibility fell to us to take him in until everything could be squared away in the office. This is all great and I was stoked with the prospect of a sleepover combined with a full day following of work in a trio. There was only one catch to all of this: the colchon for Elder George to sleep on was a good 20-minute drive away in the area of Propicia in the apartment of two other elders.

When we were thinking all of this through, the task at hand didn’t seem too challenging. Simply find a reliable source with a truck, pay them a couple bucks to pick up the colchon, and run off to our day of service, mystery soups and avoid getting attacked by stray dogs or stray people. Simple, right? Well we quickly found out how limited the resources are of 2 gringos and a Bolivian in the society of Ecuador. The series of events that unfolded in the next 3 hours involved a lot of settling for the best we could do. We settled for a burly, tattooed, semi-reliable friend of a source, in place of our reliable source. We settled for a 4-cylinder, 3 seat, tricked-out mini truck in place of a regular truck. And we even settled for a dirty, very stained, very stinky, very gross mattress in place of our preconceived colchon that we were venturing to obtain.

I think for me the moment I knew I would never forget this experience came when I was sandwiched between burly tattoos’ gold tooth and Elder Fernandez with Elder George legitimately sitting on my lap, the both of us ducking our heads because the roof was so shallow, as we bounced along an unpaved road. I’d say I wish I had a camera to photograph the scene but I honest to goodness don’t think we could have fit it in the cab of the truck. I wish I knew the make and model but the only tag I could find said “Angelito”. I’m pretty sure it was a Mazda, the 5600 or something like that. The really small one. You should have seen our driver trying to reach the shifter. Did I forget to mention that it was a manual transmission? Well, it was.

Question: why didn’t one of us just ride in the bed of the truck? While this may appear to be one of those times in life where a rule actually only complicates and compromises its designed purpose, I know that we were protected because of our obedience. I can’t tell you what would have happened if one of us had ridden in the back of the truck. But I can tell you that we ended up getting the mattress to our house safely, none of us were hurt or murdered by burly tattoos, it only cost 7 bucks, and we taught 3 really powerful and inspiring lessons later that night. Friends and family, don’t look for special circumstances to break rules. Look for special circumstances to obey rules and I know you’ll be blessed for it. Have an amazing week!

Until next time with affection,
Elder Ericksen

Other tidbits this week:
  • Packages still haven’t arrived and everyone, including Lisa, is getting very anxious in the continued delay. Especially the ones mailed around the time Adam left for Mexico.
  • A church member showed Adam how to make a basic banana bread by mashing a bunch of bananas up with a loaf of bread with a little milk and butter then baking the mash. Very simple and “pretty good tasting.”
  • It was a huge blessing having Elder George around for a couple days. Adam loves his companion but being able to speak to someone in English and talk about things from home was therapeutic.
  • A new group of missionaries arrived this week and several were sent to Esmeraldas. It’s been a huge boost to Adam to be able to offer support and advice to the new guys. He realizes his Spanish has improved a ton and that he really has learned a lot. And it’s a relief to no longer be the new guy.
  • They took the new missionaries to Playa Las Palmas today - it must be a tradition because that's were Adam went his first P-day as well.
  • Adam confessed today that his area is a bit sketchy and that he’s been holding back in his letters home. He said he plans to tell us those stories once he's left the area. (What's worse than hearing the actual story? Being told there are stories but he'll tell you later. Great kid, thanks. You opened a can of worms with this one.)
  • "I've had some delicious shrimp and fish – and I’m a shrimp addict now"
  • Adam was introduced to a guava machete this week, It’s a sweet, hairy fruit - the hairs are so fine they dissolve in your mouth and there's a seed you spit out. It has a really sweet, earthy flavor. Tastes great but I despise the hairs and the seed is super slimy.
The guava machete - nature's cotton candy

Santa Fernandez
Look mom - Adam is baking!

The sister missionaries picked up these pizzas to welcome the newbies - $8 a pizza

Playa Las Palmas - very near to here

Monday, November 14, 2016

Week 12 - Living in the In-Betweens

Dearest friends and family,

Missionary work is a work of meeting people. Therefore it is a work with lots of handshakes. That being said, Esmeraldas is a very sweaty, dirty place with lots of dirty hands. What do you think people do here when their hands are dirty and I reach out mine in a friendly handshake? Yes! Exactly! They curl their fingers and hand into a little ball and offer you a nub-wrist to shake! It threw me off at first but now I can add it to the list of things I’m used to. It happens 3-4 times per day. My only question is what happens when two people both have dirty hands but are feeling polite and friendly. Do they clash nubs up and down a few times? I don’t know if I want to see that!

Anyway, this week was really up and down. I had a couple of good days and a couple of less than good days. I got to eat a hearty serving of cow stomach on Wednesday. The texture was chewy and hairy but the flavor wasn’t that bad. Thinking about having a stomach in my stomach prompted one of those moments where I had to take a step back and remind myself that life is sometimes weird. But I’m hanging in there and staying faithful because, what else is there to do? I know I’ve got this and I am happy to be here.

Christmas decorations are out in the stores and have been for a couple weeks now. I thought we did Christmas early in the states but I guess when you don’t have Thanksgiving, why not? I’m realizing quickly that this is a hard time of year to be away from home and our culture. To be completely honest, I’ve been here over a month and I haven’t heard much about other celebrations / holidays that Ecuador has. We do have Carnival coming up in February where people dress down, go dancing in the streets and throw water on each other and anyone passing by, especially anyone wearing slacks and a white button down shirt. In the roughly translated words of my companion “there’s no reason for this holiday, it’s just to have fun.” I’ve also heard that New Year’s celebration here on the coast is pretty crazy. I’ll keep you updated on that one.

However, for the most part, people here do the same thing day after day. They love to lounge, listen to really loud music, some work, some play soccer, all of them eat great fruit all the time, drive mopeds, avoid cleaning, cook really unhealthy food (google search “salchipapa”), bet dollar coins on bingo in the streets and, most of the all, they love to pretend to be busy. A lot of the people I teach and interact with have little jobs here and there but, to be frank, it is hard to tell exactly what anyone does. Hermano Trejo sells salchipapas in a little store that also has “hamburgers” and other things. Presidente Tello works for the government. Hermano Alberto is studying English at the University. But everyone gets by and everyone is happy.

The people here do a very good job living in the “in-betweens.” Sometimes we tend to always be looking for the next big thing in our lives; the next Christmas, the next vacation, the next promotion, the next weekend, the next meal, the next big break. However the depressing, unseen side of effect of this is that we ignore and rush through all of the in-between, ordinary days. It’s not like that here. And I’m really trying hard to adapt that thinking into my personality. Someone recently wrote to me: “don’t rob today dreaming about a better tomorrow or feeding regrets from the past.” So that’s what I’m doing. Living in the now, enjoying one day at a time. I’ll share more thoughts on this in some later letter. Have a great week my friends and family.

Much affection,
Elder Ericksen

Adam included a personal experience in his letter to Lisa and me tonight that I thought worth sharing…an extremely timely reminder that none of us really have much reason to complain…J

Tonight we had a lesson with a lady named Alexandra. She is probably around 23 years old but it’s been a hard 23 years. She has two boys, Angel and Juninsky, who are about 4 and 1, respectively. She also has an “esposo” but they aren’t married. She lives in a tiny – and I mean tiny – house with 3 pieces of furniture that barely fit in her living room. All the padding is completely gone on the chairs and she puts folded up blankets on top as cushions for us, blankets that sometimes unravel and trail through her dirt floor courtesy of her boys. She has worked hard every single day of her life and you can FEEL the tired in her eyes. Her esposo is loving but works 10-12 hours a day and doesn’t want to get married for a couple of reasons including being “surrounded by many failed and broken promises.” So our lesson was basically floundering because the kids were being rowdy and Esposo kept getting up and leaving the room, ultimately to go buy some eggs and bread. It was getting late and we knew we had to leave soon. We really wanted to leave on a positive note in the hopes it might soft the heart of Mr. Esposo. Anyway, as we were heading out the door, stepping over a coffee table and ducking under a miscellaneous wire, we heard Alexandra call us back. Esposo wanted to share a drink before we left. We graciously accepted. While sitting back down, Esposo brought out a small platter containing 3 glasses of masato (bananas blended in milk, served warm) along with 3 pieces of freshly purchased bread. I crumbled inside because I had just watched Alexandra scrounge 3 different places (her pocket, the coffee table drawer and another room) to scrape together enough change to buy the bread. We prayed and I ate as if this was the most expensive meal money could buy, because in their eyes, it was. It was delicious and I made it clear how truly thankful I was for their generosity. We set an appointment to return next Thursday and left. When I got back to the apartment, I sat down in deep thought and just started bawling. I felt so lonely, so far away from our family, and so terrible for every moment I ever complained about anything in my life. I had the most blessed childhood of any kid anywhere and I’ve been so blind to it. I am so thankful for every effort you guys made to help me be a better person…I only wish I could be there to tell you this in person.

Additional tidbits from other letters home this week:
  • Sometimes my companion talks really quiet during prayers and this week I accidentally said “Amen” halfway through.
  • People burn lots of trash and there’s always burning tires in the streets that cars swerve around
  • My companion is feeling the pressure of only having 3 months left in his mission and having barely learned any English thus far – I’m pretty much a human dictionary right now.
  • I’ve eaten cow stomach, hoof soup, and finally found out the mystery ingredient in most soups is yucca!
  • Someone asked me what type of fruit the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” was…I went with apple.
  • There are guards with shotguns at the ATMs.
  • People love Che Guevara here. There are tons of stickers everywhere
  • I found a dentist. You can get a new ceramic tooth put in your mouth for $10 and “free extraction of old tooth.”
  • The best banana is called platano de seda (regular bananas)
  • You can’t buy anything normal here. Notebooks, pens, deodorant…they’re all super expensive and terrible quality. Example: $12 nutella.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Week 11 - The Children and The Soccer

On the road to San Mateo - about 15 minutes east of Aire Libre
Dearest Family and Friends

Happy November! I hope this letter finds you all in good spirits from a successful and relaxing weekend. My past week was pretty good. If I had to describe it, perhaps 2 notches beyond great and 1 behind fantastic. My Spanish is coming along and I am feeling much happier being able to be utilized as a person. I am also making better friends with my companion and with some of the jovenes out here in Aire Libre. In other news, I don’t know if I’ll ever grow fond of them, but I am getting used to bucket baths! That being said…mom, dad, if I come home and starting filling up pitchers of water for my showers please do remind me how the shower handle works. How are you all? How is the U.S. of A.?

What I really wanted to do with this letter was revert back to my system of describing life here in categories and I have 2 good ones picked out for you this week: the children and the soccer.

The Children: For a little bit of context concerning me, I’ve been around children my whole life as the oldest of 5 siblings. Often, with the raising of Nathan, I would lend a hand to my mom and, to be honest, I didn’t mind. I like children and I really, really love being an older brother. One of the things that I struggled with most while leaving for my mission is that I felt like I was leaving behind my role in my family and I was going to be expected to take up some other kind of responsibility in a different, more mature setting when I return 2 years older. But I’m realizing that I don’t have to stop being an older brother just because I’m not in my family’s immediate presence. I’ve found much solace through letters, supportive advice and humble prayers. I’ve also realized that my role as a big brother can continue in different facets down here in Ecuador. I’ve become this for some kids and I love it. Most of the kids go to school until about 11:30 in the day, which is pretty early compared to the States. The effect of this is that they all roam and gather in the streets with poletas and chupetes and nothing really to do. They love to chatter (and sometimes pester) with anyone passing by, especially me, “hermanito”, el gringo. But it’s all fun and really good for Spanish practice. The kids in church are also so kind and friendly to me and it helps me feel more at home. There’s this one little girl that loves to follow me around, tries to hold my hand always, and even comes to knock on doors with us at times. She’s about 7-years old. All the children are great.

The Soccer: Soccer is so much fun! Whenever there’s a big game on TV, everyone stops what they are doing, wheels out huge speakers and congregates in the street to watch. Every single front door is open, and every single person is present. As missionaries we are supposed to forego the things of the world to focus on the nature of our calling, including TV but its physically impossible to not follow the scores of the games here because whenever there is a goal there always follows a great deafening roar, rumble and cheer emanating throughout the city. Even all the passing taxis (the only people still working) honk their horns! The vibe and excitement of it all is so different and delightful, I love it! There’s two main teams here: Emelec and Barcelona (not Spain). The coast swings more Barcelona so, for the moment, so do I. I wish you all the best and hope you all enjoy a great week.

Elder Ericksen

Other tidbits this week:
  • Emelec and Barcelona are football clubs out of Guayaquil…Barcelona has the higher win percentage.
  • Packages seem to be taking a bit longer than expected to arrive. Lisa, grandma and others sent packages weeks before Adam arrived in country and they still haven’t made it. Adam is dying to receive a package.
  • The lady who washes Adam’s shirts uses a lot of bleach - the smell it reminds him of Marriott bedsheets and overnight trips with his grandparents.
  •  Letters from home are keeping Adam grounded. He expressed concern in a couple of letters this week about losing himself in the work so much that he “loses” his personality. Special thanks to Mitch, Mikayla and all his friends for writing.
  •  During a particularly spiritual prayer this week, Adam heard/felt a huge rush of moving air behind him followed by an enormous cockroach that landed on his arm. He “silently flipped out” and swatted it off mid-prayer, trying hard not to detract from the moment. It was super gross, more than 3 inches long. He and his companion had quite the laugh once they got out into the street.
  • If you thought the US was bad about early Christmas, the stores in Esmeraldas have had decorations up and sales going on for the past 2 weeks.
  • No one can pronounce Ericksen so they call him “Hermanito”
  • Today the guys hired a guide (complete with machete) and went to a place called “Tropical Jardin de Libertad (est. 1985)” in San Mateo about 15 minutes drive from our area. The jardin place was supposed to be a zoo but it turns out the zoo part was shut down a little while ago so it was really just jungle. There were lots of empty cages, “it was a little weird, I’m not going to lie. They had like plants in beakers and fish in the containers, lots of snakes in jars and other things I couldn’t tell what they were. I’m happy to be alive haha. PS – did you see machete guide person?”
  • Adam has really fallen in love with the coastal cuisine. He gave Nick a homework assignment this week to research and send him details on the following foods so he knows what’s liking so much. The one bad food in the area: cheese. The good:
    • Avena polaca - Polish oats – oatmeal, water, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, milk to taste
    • Patacones – fried green plantains
    • Marisco – shellfish in general, shrimp, crabs, mussels, squid, octopus, etc prepared many different ways but basically seafood stew
    • Tomate de arbol – real name is tamarillo, a fruit that grows on trees usually blended with chilis and spices in sauces; bigger and more seeds than regular tomatoes
    • Encocado de pescado – fish cooked in a coconut sauce; unique to the Ecuador coast
    • Pan de chocolate – chocolate Danish (I’m surprised he doesn’t recognize this from here, he must have had before)
    • Leche aguacate – avocado smoothie
    • Pan de manjar – bread with caramel; looks to be Nicaragua’s version of dulce de leech
    • Jugo de maracuya – passion fruit juice
  • This week I ate some soup with half a hoof in it.
Crossing the Rio Esmeraldas

Hacking their way through the zoo/jungle with local guide
Empty zoo enclosure - has a "Walking Dead" kind of vibe, no?
The Jardin de Libertad - San Mateo 
Church dog - cleaner / healthier looking than I expected

Click HERE to see this spot in Google Maps. Hit escape to pull out and see exactly where he's standing