Monday, June 26, 2017

Week 44 - La Collectiva

Dearest friends and family,

I’m going to tell you all about something really special this week…la collectiva. We all know what a taxi is, right? Little yellow car where you get in, go to the desired place, and then pay? It doesn’t matter if it’s a 5-year old kid alone or a family of 4, the price is the same based on the total distance traveled? Well, la collectiva is a little different. In la collectiva, it’s not a little yellow car but rather a little white bus of about 10 seats. The passengers don’t tell the driver of the collectiva where they want to go or make route change requests because the collectiva goes to a predesignated location of high interest and anyone that wants to go there, climbs in. The hitch? The collectiva doesn’t leave until all of the seats are filled.

So why would someone want this service? Well, it’s infinitely cheaper and very handy when you are broke. A taxi from our house to Rumichaka (Ecuadorian border) costs about 10,000 pesos ($3.40). The collectiva from the terminal which is about a 10-minute walk from our house to Rumichaka costs 1,800 pesos ($0.60) per person. So, like I said: cheaper. What I haven’t yet mentioned is the most marvelous part of the collectiva – how destiny decides who will climb aboard to fill the other 8 seats of the little bus.

Today we boarded up again, handing our 1,800 over to the not-very-friendly driver and started to wait. We were the first 3 to arrive (Elder Welch, Bermejo and me) going to pick up Elder Soto who is coming back to the area. Of the 7 remaining seats, 1 was taken by a very dirty, weary-looking, bearded traveler almost immediately. We were now 4. I was surprised when this man greeted me in broken English and introduced himself as Osvaldo from France. All of a sudden a million questions came to mind as I flustered a bit in my intrigue. Why was he traveling in Colombia? What was he going to do in Ecuador? Why did he speak English? What had he seen and what stories could he tell? Did he have a family? Friends? When was the last time he had been “home”? When was the last time he had a shower? I went with the first question that came to my mind: how do you know English? This simple question blossomed into a 10-minute conversation that eventually touched on all of my other questions. Osvaldo had lived in England for 5-years after realizing at a very young age that the life he had been born into in Paris would not sustain him. So he struck out on his own and has been traveling ever since. He’s learned 6-7 languages and expressed deep respect and admiration for our work as missionaries and the devotion we have to our faith. Osvaldo had lived briefly as a monk years earlier before deciding to travel and pursue “universal understanding.” I could fill the rest of this letter with the impressions from my discussion with him – perhaps I will at a later time.

Next to board was a family of 5, an older male, 2 younger parents, a child of about 6 and a crying baby. Again a million questions flooded my mind. They spoke in a Bogota accent and were carrying a TON of luggage like they were on more than just on vacation. I wondered about their troubles and their concerns. A moment more and, in the distance, we see 2 Venezuelans, a mother and her son, running to the bus – the mother pausing to buy a water, angering and prompting a racial slur from the older man from Bogota. In a gesture of acceptance, the younger woman from Bogota picked up her crying baby to make room on the seat for the Venezuelan mom. The driver started the engine. We were off.

Maybe it helped that we arrived first and I was able to watch this scene slowly unfold but the whole experience really took me back. I got to thinking how incredibly different and diverse the backgrounds, experiences, concerns, pursuits and frames of mind of each of the 11 of us on this little bus. What was each person thinking as we made our way to the Ecuadorian border? What things worried them? What hopes did they have? What would they consider to be their greatest need? And what would they think if they could experience first-hand how we live in the United States? What would their opinion of that experience be? And, what would they want me to be more thankful for as a result of it? I could share the answers I imagined they would give but feel it would be better to just leave them there as questions for you – as something for you to answer for yourself.

Truth is, la collectiva is just a tiny microscopic slide taken from the gigantic image that is the world we live in. It’s incredible that we humans can live so completely, distinctly different lives on this same, one planet and that the quality of life can vary so drastically. It’s more than just interesting – I believe it’s critical that each one of us appreciates and recognizes this. I am so incredibly grateful and GLAD that I am here, that I get to recognize and live this realization and that I am in a position to hopefully help brighten and make any one of these lives just a little bit better.

Have an amazing week my loved ones. Stay positive. Stay smiling. And always, always look forward in faith. I love you all.

- EE

Monday, June 19, 2017

Week 43 - Spanish is Cool

Dearest friends and family,

What a week it has been. I’ve passed back and forth between houses and companions due to what I believe are immigration-related delays in the arrival of my new companion. I ended up spending the week in a trio with Elders Welch and Bermejo, two really amazing missionaries. We worked really hard, had some fun along the way, and accomplished a lot this week (including a baptism for 9).

Being with both a latino and a gringo has had me thinking a lot about my Spanish and the influence that learning a second language has already had on my life. It really has changed my way of thinking and opened my eyes to new pathways and thought processes I didn’t know existed. For example, have you ever noticed how we barely ever listen? I mean we listen but we don’t do it very closely or actively. Heck, I bet right now, as you read this, your brain is probably working at like 10% - it’s receiving my words but it’s probably not interacting with them. I suspect doing this helps us see the big picture but it also misses out on the small, important and sometimes significant details. So if big picture is important, why don’t we just talk in a big picture kind of way all the time? Why do we include seemingly minute details in stories? I think it because the little details help mold the concepts we want to convey. I’m off course but what I’m trying to say is that Spanish forces me to listen more closely because if I listen in the “forming a big picture” way I quickly get confused. Learning a new language requires active listening. And active listening is also critical in our work as missionaries in that we are trying to teach, help and console the people we meet here. It’s really not hard to do, you just have to put in a little more effort and thought into every conversation.

I’m also realizing we barely scratch the surface in terms of fully using our language. English must have a million words and yet we mostly use the same little pool of select words and phrases: so that, we/you are/I am going to, can you, are you ok, etc. Learning and thinking in Spanish had helped me realize that there are a variety of ways to say the same thing. In Spanish the interaction between nouns and adjectives is a lot more personal because of word ordering and emphasis and I think it’s helped me become more descriptive when speaking in English. There’s also an interesting connection between possession and guilt in Spanish – it’s all really interesting to me and affecting how I think.
Elder Welch is a sincere friend of mine. We have similar personalities which helps us make good out of just about any circumstance. It’s funny because we’re two very American gringos living as latinos, talking Spanish to one another, both of us stuck between English and Spanish in our brains. Sometimes Spanish flies out when speaking English and sometimes English flies out when speaking Spanish. I’m reaching the point where my English and Spanish are equally balanced. Soon I expect it’ll be Spanish leaning. And when that happens I don’t know what I’ll do: order burritos from Sombrero’s in a new native tongue?

Spanish really is a remarkable language. Although learning a new language has been different than I imagined, I’ve been satisfied lately that all of my study and practice has come into full effect. My mind truthfully has opened to a whole new world. And it is awesome. We’ll be talking soon friends. Perhaps in Spanish? I love you and appreciate your support from so many miles away.

Con carino,

Elder Ericksen

Other tidbits:
  • Adam had difficulties with the cyber café this week and was only able to get a photo of his general letter and a single picture of a wedding labeled Potosi (Colombia) this week. We believe the wedding picture is of the daughter of the Lopez family from Tulcan which must have been an incredible joy for Adam to witness. He loves that family dearly.
  • We had a huge baptism in the district of 9 this past weekend, including the family Goyes (Elder Welch) and Brian (mine). I got to visit a lot to the families of Elder Welch and they are amazing. One of the little girls even asked me to baptize her, but I had to loan my clothes to someone and couldn’t do it. I did get to help with the confirmations. Brian was baptized by his cousin which was really sweet. One of the little kids dove into the font after his baptism…it was a little crazy for a moment. 
  • Nathan, I found a really funny name of a city for you: "Empoobando". (Nathan loves that Adam’s area covers a region known as “Poopiales”).
  • Nick that is so awesome about your braces!!! You look great, dude. I bet your teeth felt slimy after.
  • I miss you all. I’m working really hard and were having lots of success, which has been awesome.
  • Something that made me laugh... in Spanish there really isn’t a word to describe "wild" like "wildflowers.” The closest translation is salvaje which means savage hahaha. I had to laugh because in the grocery store there is some imported frutos salvajes tea meaning savage fruit. I imagine before the translation it was wild fruit tea but now it just sounds dangerous.
  • People are very, very friendly here and flirt. Yesterday someone stopped me and said "Que lindo eres tu. Vives aquí?" She kept asking me like four times if I lived in Ipiales. I think she wanted me to invite her somewhere hahaha – Elder Welch won’t stop laughing and teasing me about it.
  • We played soccer today in the big cancha with a lot of members. The next three Mondays are national holidays. Oh ya, Happy Fathers Day, dad…I love you.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Week 42 - 10 Things You Don't Know About Ipiales

Dearest friends and family,

Hello loved people in my life that happen to be thousands of miles away at the moment. I hope you are well and enjoying this life we have been given. Elder Soto and I are doing very well and are happy to be finishing up a great week.

This week I wanted to do something a little different so I’ve structured this letter around “10 Things You Don’t Know About Ipiales.” Here goes.
  1. LDS - so let’s start off with a good one. One of the street gangs here in Ipiales is named “Los Del Sur” basically calling out that these are the hard guys of South Colombia here in our border town. What makes it awesome is that LDS is a short nickname for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – the Church website for example is (check it out). Anyway, the graffiti here in Ipiales is very creative and well done compared to the graffiti back home and I always laugh when I see “LDS” – a some profane phrase signed LDS, Die LDS, We’re the Best LDS or You’re Either With or Against LDS – tagged all over the city. My people have been really busy with the paint here.
  2. We’re on strike. The school teachers here are currently on strike protesting for better wages and the kids have been out of school for the last 3 weeks. Last week the teachers marched in the streets with candles in the dark. Every time we hear the strike is supposed to end, the date gets moved back. The latest we’ve heard is that classes will start again on June 24th.
  3. Vecies – The word vecie is short for vecino (neighbor) and is a commonly used word referring to anyone you don’t know but want to be friendly with. The owners of the store closest to our house love to say it to us and it always makes me laugh. At least we kind of are neighbors but the word is heard all around the city. In front of our vecies store the road narrows and when cars are parked there, a traffic jam / pride battle ensues between 2 cars try to pass at the same time typically in opposite directions. Sometimes the police have to come and help resolve it.
  4. La Libreta – in Colombia military service is obligatory. All males have to serve unless they can pay for, or find some other way to get ahold of, a little card exempting them from service called a libreta. Most everyone seems to find a way to get the card.
  5. Rotten shoes – in my Mother’s Day call home I made a comment about how the daily rain, cold temps and damp house we live in contributed to my shoes rotting. I didn’t mean to startle anyone but I got a lot of advice about how to cure it. Thanks very much to all who sent me helpful suggestions. We don’t have natural sunlight in our apartment but I’ve started removing the insole and sticking newspaper in them every night this week and while they still smell rotten they have improved a ton!
  6. “Oh ya – esa vaina pasa corriente” – we have an electric stove in our house because buying gas in the border city is a problem. This particular electric stove passes electricity through to our metal pans. It only took one accidental touch for me to learn my lesson, prompting Elder Soto to firmly teach me that the word “vaina” is a Colombian word that means “thing” with a negative connotation…basically “watch out, that piece of junk passes current.” It made for a great laugh.
  7. Dos copas – in our house we only have 2 cups. They’re orange. We’re too lazy to buy more and truthfully don’t need any more. It’s been a great lesson for me about washing dishes. If you want a drink: wash!
  8. Street jerseys – Whenever the Colombian National soccer team plays, lots of men come out to sell Colombian soccer jerseys in the streets. The same is true in Ecuador but there are many more sellers here in Colombia. Well, today Colombia played Spain (I’m not sure why it must be a tournament or something) but all of the vendors were out with their knock offs. We ended up buying some for 25,000 pesos each which is cheap ($9) and it’s real fun because almost everyone in the city is wearing one.
  9. Electricity – is more expensive in Colombia than Ecuador. This is one of the reasons we wash our clothes by hand – it costs too much to run a washing machine. Sometimes the government plans brown-outs and shuts power off for a day and it’s a little rougher when that happens. We do have an electric shower that more or less heats water. It’s real cold in the mornings so I’ve been showering at night. I lost my flip flops in the burglary a while back and am currently using a too small pair from the last missionary who was here who went home. I can’t find my shoe size anywhere in the city.
  10. Colombian Prep day – being so far away from the rest of the mission keeps us 12 Ipiales missionaries pretty close together, especially on p-day. Last week we enjoyed a picnic in a nearby “forest” that included a game of Monopoly using some now-worthless Venezuelan money. I really enjoy getting together with my companions even if we just sit at the church or spend the day playing soccer. We have grown close in the last many weeks and I’m not looking forward to upcoming transfers. I love my companion – Elder Soto and I have a finely tuned companionship, a great vibe and are keeping each other safe. The other night some dudes knocked on our door asking for blankets, deodorant and razors with some story they were passing through and didn’t have money for bus tickets. We both felt really odd about the situation and did not open the door. We sent them away noticing one of them appeared to be wearing a helmet, suggesting they weren’t in need of a bus anyway.
I’m happy, healthy and positive. I miss and love you all. Talk soon.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Week 41 - Taking the Next Step

Dearest friends and family,

I think the reason we sometimes don’t push ourselves to take an important “next step” is because we are already subconsciously telling ourselves “it can’t be done”, or “person so-and-so won’t like it”, or we are indecisive or afraid of failure and resulting unhappiness. I’m realizing this is something that I do quite often, usually without even noticing that I’m doing it. And I am realizing that there is a lot of value in taking a moment every now and then to work on myself and to really think about what I want and need in life.

Truthfully, in the mission, there aren’t many options around what I “want”. A lot of the big decisions have already been carved out for me. Sure I choose when to wash my clothes vs. writing my family on p-day, what to eat for breakfast, who to visit on a given day, where to look for service, and what service we end up giving. But I’ve been working on having a meaningful opinion about these things and, more importantly, expressing that opinion. And it’s been great for me. After knowing what we want, it’s all about putting on a game face, going out, and getting after it using the tools we’ve been blessed with.

I’ve come to respect people that don’t sit and wait to be blown wherever the wind will take them. I appreciate people who get up and act. On Wednesday, I met an awesome person. He doesn’t have much, but he has a small place to stay the night and he has a motorcycle that he uses to stay afloat. When we met, he passed us a small, hand-made business card that explained his “to-your-door” delivery service. He basically goes out and brings to people anything they want. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his idea, which is very revolutionary here, had long been mastered by Pizza Hut back home. But I was seriously taken aback by his ingenuity and work ethic. He calls himself the Genie of Ipiales. Latin America has the ultimate culture of do it yourself and ingenuity. Anything that can be used to make a living is used to make a living. I love the jugglers and fire-breathers at the stoplights. I love the small candy stores operated through iron-bar covered, living room windows. I love the people who sing, rap and tell jokes on the busses. I love the homemade business cards and constant offers for services. The pick-yourself up and make it happen culture has really taken root in me and I love the work ethic of this people. They are people of action and I love that!

On Thursday I went on splits with my zone leader who I really respect and appreciate. (Splits is a missionary word for when we switch companions for a day to share ideas, learn from one another and catch up on how things are going.) Being with him really helped me to think about my own next steps. For dinner, we called “The Genie” and requested hamburgers from the most authentic burger place that we know in Ipiales. Since we can’t have random people knowing where we live, we met him by the nearby statue to the Virgin Mary. (The people here are generally Roman Catholic with a deep respect for the Virgin Mary. One way they show it is to build throughout the neighborhoods, little shrines with rocks and jewels and a small fence to protect a small statue of Mary. They’re great for giving and following directions like when you need to meet someone delivering food.) In the zone leaders house I slept on a small, very dirty mattress that I was allergic to. The springs in the middle of it were broken so I could feel the slats coming through, holding me up. Elder Chavarraga told me a funny story about secretly removing the slats from the bunk bed one night and when his companion returned to climb into bed, the mattress gave out and he hit the ground.

Prayer has become so important to me. I’m not going to lie, it was something that was kind of new for me coming out here but now I know I can’t live without it. I’ve come to see that those who pray every day are the ones who progress. And I’ve seen over and over again that the people who don’t pray are the ones who struggle to leave the world behind and slowly slip away. I’ve had many experiences where my prayers have been answered directly and I’ve been guided in my efforts.

Friends, I encourage us all to take a moment, sit down, and think about our needed next step. Everyone has a dream. Everyone has a wish. Everyone has something they’d like to learn more about or something about themselves they’d like to improve. Think about it. Pray about it. And then plan a step in that direction. Take life on and go out and get it. Forget about failing. Don’t worry about the opinions of others. Make it happen. I love you all.

With love - EE