Monday, May 27, 2013

Arrive in Teleman

Well, Mom, as my one reader, I hope you are pleased to see the latest installment of a blog that is somehow taking me nearly a year to complete. :)

So after our Fireside in Tucuru, we were back on the buses to make it to Teleman. We passed more fantastic views on the road there and arrived in Teleman in the late afternoon--too late to really get out and do anything (which was sort of okay, because there really isn't anything to see or do in Teleman anyway) and too early to go straight to bed. We had a nice, relaxed night, eating dinner, listening to the tropical rainstorm, and relaxing.

I guess it's worth mentioning here that I had stayed in Teleman a few times before, as a missionary. The first time was in preparation for a trip to Coban for zone conference. The zone leaders were in charge of getting us sisters a place to stay for the night. Unfortunately for us, it was near the end of the month, and the ZLs had run a little short on their pouch money, the monthly allowance they received to spend on the zone. They put us up in the cheapest hotel in Teleman, and calling it a dive would be insulting to genuine dives. This place was horrifying. I wish to the bottom of my heart that I had taken pictures of this place, but I was too afraid my camera would get stolen. The door had at least five locks, and the only one that worked was held in place with duct tape. The beds had a single blanket but no sheets, and the blanket smelled very, VERY strongly of body odor, alcohol, and various other stenches too heinous to mention. The bathrooms only had water for an hour a day. It was not a good experience. To say the least, there was no sleeping going on that night.

The other time I stayed in Teleman, the elders got smart and did not put us in that hotel. Instead, they lent us their mattresses and put us up in the church. This was infinitely better in the sense of cleanliness, though four sisters sharing a twin mattress could have been worked out better. Also, the elders had neglected to mention that the church had a little, teeny infestation of living things. Spiders, mosquitos, and who knows what else. Also, churches do not come equipped with showers, so that could have been better.

My point is: I was not expecting great things from Teleman.

Since I know you're wondering, the hotel we stayed in was actually pretty nice. There was one minor hiccup when we got home one evening and found this little guy waiting for us:

but other than that it was pretty good! The hotel had a restaurant upstairs with a roof but no walls, so it stayed pretty cool. 

The next morning was Sunday, and we were given the choice between going to the Teleman branch, just down the road, or the Sacsuha branch. I chose the Teleman branch, mostly because it was close and I wanted an extra few minutes to sleep. I'm not super great with the getting up early thing. Attending church in Teleman was an experience. My branch in El Estor definitely had problems with attendance, but we still usually had 80-100 people in attendance each week. The Teleman branch was tiny. The chapel didn't even have pews; the deacons had to come early to set out chairs. I actually knew this, since I had slept in that very room. The services were done in a mixture of Qeqchi and Spanish. One of the speakers gave his talk bilingually, repeating everything he said in Spanish, while another speaker had one of the elders serving in the branch translate for him. I don't know if they always did this or if it was mostly for our benefit, but there was a lot of translating going on, because a lot of people in our group didn't speak Spanish, either, so those of us who spoke Spanish were translating that as well. It may sound strange to think of it this way, but I have found that I actually prefer attending church in a Spanish (or Qeqchi). I don't understand everything that's said when Qeqchi is the spoken language, but if I pay really close attention, I can get the gist of it. Even though I speak fluent Spanish, I still sometimes find myself translating into English in my head, which also forces me to pay close attention.  I think I get too complacent in the listening department when I hear things spoken in English, so attending church this way was a nice experience, forcing me to really pay attention and appreciate the simple, heartfelt message the members shared.

After Sacrament Meeting, we American split up. Some stayed behind to attend Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society or Priesthood, but several of us wound up in the Primary room. There was only one Primary teacher, and she had no manuals or children's songbooks, so she was having the kids draw and color. Hoping to help her out a little bit, we threw together a very simple lesson about obedience and helped the kids to memorize part of 1 Nephi 3:7. Okay, we mainly got them to memorize just the beginning: Ire y hare! I will go and do! We explained the rest of the verse as well, but they really got pumped about that part. Then we had them teach us how to do Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes in Spanish, and reciprocated in English. Maybe it wasn't the most spiritual lesson in the history of Primary, but the kids enjoyed it. We especially enjoyed talking to an investigator who had come but felt a little reluctant just leaving her children in primary by themselves. By the end of the lesson, she was chanting ire y hare right along with the other kids. We got lots of hugs as we left, especially because a few of the women in our group had purchased traditional Qeqchi clothing and worn it to church.

After church, we got on the bus and headed for Sacsuha, where we were going to have our fireside for the day. The local couple missionaries had packed us a paper bag lunch of chips, juice, raisins, and other snacks, and so we sat around and chatted and ate. We got a good laugh out of a few tiny Qeqchi kids who kept coming up and asking us for treats. They were so adorable, and we had so much food, that we all wound up giving them a lot of what we had.

We had a great turn out for the fireside, including several missionaries who wouldn't have gotten to see the fireside otherwise, and the whole event went pretty well. Somehow I don't have any pictures from this particular fireside, besides this one taken outside the building when we were preparing to head out. 

Since it had been so little time since I had been in the mission, I knew all of the elders in the field. This elder, Elder Tambriz, was a hilarious guy who stood about five feet tall. Next to him is Andy, one of the talented members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who was with us. Andy has a way of making friends with everyone and somehow made friends with Elder Tambriz even though he doesn't speak any Spanish. Andy thought it was pretty funny how much shorter Elder Tambriz was, so he had him stand up on top of a spigot that is located just outside of the church building. Since so many of the members walk to church, and since so few have shoes, this spigot is placed outside the doors so that they can rinse off their feet before entering the church. 

After the fireside and chatting with many of the members, we got on the bus to head back to Teleman. It was a long day of lots of travel, and I honestly don't remember too many of the specific details of this particular day, but it was great fun, as always. 

Monday, January 28, 2013


I don't know how I did this, but I forgot to tell a very important story from our touristy walkabout in Coban. In the afternoon, we went to a market that sold fruits, clothing, purses, and stuff like that. There were four or five of us walking around, looking very not-Guatemalan, and we had to have stuck out majorly. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, this little boy jumped out at us. He must have been four or five and was just adorable. We were eating some fruit we'd bought at the market and he held out a grubby little hand, asking for one. We gave him one, and he was delighted when he realized that some of us spoke Spanish. He started showing off, dancing around, and jumping out at us when we thought we'd lost him. But my favorite moment was when he started crawling toward us on the ground on his fingertips and the tips of his toes. He shouted, "Yo soy el Hombrearaña!" "I am Spiderman!" I was so surprised and thrilled that I couldn't help but laugh and give him some more fruit, so he followed us around as long as we were there. It turned out that his grandmother ran one of the stalls, but he was allowed to basically run free in the market, so everyone knew him and thought he was super cute. I think he was too:

After our amazing concert in Coban, we got a good night's sleep and then got up early the next morning to have breakfast before hitting the road. Although I loved the opportunity to spend some time in Coban, I was really excited to head out. I hadn't really ever known Coban as a missionary, and had no particular sentimental attachement to the place (although I certainly do now!). But today we'd make our first stop in the Polochik Valley. We'd be leaving the cool, foggy hills of Coban and dropping down into the hot, dirty, dusty, humid towns along the road.

When I entered the mission field in August of 2010, I was assigned to El Estor. If I had to describe El Estor, I would use one word: HOT. And I would spell it out in capital letters, too. I'm going to belabor this point, because if you haven't been there, you have no idea what this kind of tropical heat is like. I've lived in Texas and Arizona, and I have never felt such debilitating heat as I endured the first few months of my mission. The air is so thick and muggy that you can feel it tangibly if you wave your hand around. It's so hot that when it rains and hits the ground, it steams and you always feel like you're breathing out of a humidifier. You go to sleep sweating and you wake up sweating, and even if there were a heater on the running water, you wouldn't want to use it because the only time you're not sweating is when you're in a cold shower. It's so hot that one time, when I burned my hand as a missionary, we couldn't find any running water that ran cool enough to do me any good.

That's how hot it is. I just wanted to make that clear.

So when I think of Qeqchi people, I think of HOT. I think of being sunburned and sweating, and little kids with dark, dark skin but sun-bleached hair. The heat had everything to do with our missionary work. We had to plan to be in lessons during the hottest part of the day, and we had to recognize that if it was too hot people would be sleeping in hammocks or bathing to try to cool off.

I guess that's why Coban didn't really connect with me. There was no heat. But now we'd be leaving Coban and heading toward Tucuru. And I knew what would happen, and I have to admit I was eager to see how all the non-return-missionaries would react. We'd head out, and as we left Coban behind, we'd start to feel the temperature go up, and then the dust from the road would kick up. The further down the road we got, we'd start to feel the closeness of the buses. We'd all be shocked at how rapidly things would go from temperate to horrifying.

It happened pretty much like that. Except that right as we left the nice paved road and hit the crazy dirt roads, it started to sprinkle. Tender mercies, because we had perfect driving conditions. When it's not raining, the road gets so dusty you can't see much in front of you, and you arrive at your destination covered in grime. When it rains, the dirt roads become potholed, slippery, and sticky, so that you're constantly smashing up and down in your seat. But with a gentle sprinkle, the road was clear and the dust was down, leaving everyone free to admire the spectacular scenery. Here's an example:

And here's another:

And one more. I guess at some point, sweeping green views all start to look the same, but still. :)

It was actually pretty cool to get to watch everyone freak out over how amazing everything looked. I'd seen it so many times before that I had kind of lost my ability to be impressed by it all. Plus, most of the times that I had made that trip, I hadn't been in a nice air conditioned bus. I'd been plastered into a tiny microbus with a 10 person capacity carrying at least 25 people. I had been almost always carsick and just dying to get out. Four hours of that kinda takes away the awe at the spectacular views. But seeing it through fresh eyes was so fun! People from the group were going crazy, taking tons of pictures, hanging out the windows, asking the drivers to stop so they could get a better look. It made me smile.

When we got to Tucuru, we found that we would be performing in a half-finished community center made up of basically scaffolding and bare cinderblock. It had been raining off and on all day, but when we arrived the sun was out for a few minutes. You can see the building in the background:

Right after we got there, it started to pour down rain like you wouldn't believe. The locals had built us a stage out of cinderblock bricks, and we moved them around a little bit to make a little stand for our director to put her music on. When one of the guys dropped one of the cinderblocks, about a thousand cockroaches skittered out of it. In another, someone found a very large tarantula. Fortunately, the guys didn't tell us this before we got settled on the stage. They reserved these facts for after the concert. 

The concert went off pretty well, though we were disappointed that the attendance was so low. We figured the rain had probably slowed people down, since most members would have to walk. We were even more disappointed to learn that two branches had tried to come down the mountain to see us, but had gotten stuck in the mud. Even though attendance was minimal, we did have a few people who braved the rain and mud to come see us, including a few investigators that the missionaries had brought, and the shoe shine kids.

In virtually every town in Guatemala, you can find little boys who will shine your shoes for a few Quetzales. They're usually between about 8 and 14 years old, and these kids are amazing experts. They can whip a pair of shoes into shape in just a few minutes, and they do a great job. Since missionaries area always in need of a good shoe shine, the kids have some sort of missionary super power. They see white shirts and ties from a distance and they will track those elders down. So I imagine that when they saw our buses pull up they must have been ecstatic! Here were all these guys in shirts and ties, and what's more, they were clearly American and probably wouldn't know that a shoe shine was only a couple of Quetz. The RMs didn't get fooled, but some of the other guys wound up paying an inflated price (although I think some of them paid extra just to be charitable), and the shoe shine boys followed us around all day, shouting, "Lustre! Lustre!" even though virtually every member of the group had had their shoes shined. Some more than once.

It was kind of okay though, since they followed us right to the concert. They stayed all the way through it and even cheered a few times. :) We sent them home with pass along cards and introduced them to the elders in Tucuru.

While it wasn't our most successful fireside, we were grateful to have reached those who were there.

Monday, November 26, 2012

On to Coban

The day after the fireside in Carcha, we took a short bus ride to Coban, about a half hour away. We were able to make it early enough that we had some free time to get out and explore the city. This was something I had been looking forward to. As a missionary, I had passed through Coban a few times for zone conferences, but missionaries by definition are not tourists. Though I had been able to spend a few hours here and there on preparation days, I had never been able to just wander around and look at things.

Under the suggestion of a local, a group of us went for a short walk up the street to the base of a hill, at the top of which was a very old Catholic cathedral. Some of the missionaries who had served in Coban knew that there was a great view at the top, so we decided to go and take a look. Carved into the hill were white stone steps, with whitewashed adobe walls alongside them. About every ten feet or so there was a niche in the wall about two feet square. Scattered on the floor of these little cubes we'd find pine branches and other bits of plant and herb, and stuck to the walls and ceiling with bits of melted wax we'd find feathers and locks of hair. The locals explained to us that this was a leftover Mayan tradition--the people do this to protect their children and animals from danger and disease.

I mention this because it's a good example of a really interesting cultural clash that goes on in Guatemala (and, I'd assume, many other Central and South American countries). When the Spanish arrived, towing Christianity with them, they tried to force the indigenous populations to accept Christianity, and they were partly successful--the Mayas had to change their culture and traditions, but it's not easy to change such a long history of deep-seated beliefs. What the Spanish wound up with was a people who practiced both Christianity and their native Maya religions, at the same time. After a few centuries, the majority of people sincerely converted to various Christian denominations, but even so, there are still many Mayan superstitions and traditions that the people practice, including members of the Church. However, I don't think these traditions are generally any more harmful than throwing salt over your shoulder or knocking on wood. They really only become a problem when the people put more stock in them than in their Christian faith.

And that view? It was pretty good. This pic doesn't show all of Coban, which has more "city" to it than this photo makes it seem, but it's still a nice view.

Besides our walk up to the Cathedral, I also had fun wandering around the market with a few other members of the choir and see these things through their eyes. To me, the market was commonplace--they sold fruits, vegetables, chickens, chunks of butchered cows, shoes, that sort of thing. But the members of the choir who hadn't been there before were pretty shocked at what they saw. I should have taken some pictures, but like I said, it was commonplace to me.

Around late afternoon we met up at our hotels to get rides over to the church where we would have our first fireside in Coban. The local missionaries were there, setting up chairs and preparing the building. Some of the elders from Carcha had gotten permission to come back to watch the performance tonight, and even an hour before we were going to start, people had already started to arrive and stake out chairs. I was especially excited to see three sets of sister missionaries walk in not long before we were to begin. As excited as I was to see the elders I had worked with as a missionary, it in no way compared to seeing my fellow sister missionaries. 

We rehearsed and then waited around for the fireside to start, and it was somewhere during that time that I realized that there were more microphones than usual being set up--and more cameras. Two local news networks had sent cameramen to record our performance, with plans to air it a few days later. This news made me triply nervous but also really excited. The whole purpose of our trip was basically to do missionary work: to share our testimonies through music, to invite people to hear the doctrine of Christ in their own tongue, to get the word out. And Coban had sent a news crew to cover us? Fine by me!

We had a great concert. By now, we'd done the program several times, and I think it was about as solid as could be. I felt like the Spirit was really strong. I don't know what set me off this time, but I do remember that I was crying again by the time the concert was over. A bunch of people I don't know came up to me and gave me hugs and said thank you, and one of the local reporters chose that particular moment to shove a microphone in my face and ask me how I was feeling. Ha! All I could think was that I probably had mascara running down my face. :) So I just said that it felt great, that the emotion of it had made me cry.

I just hope he had a better interview than mine to use. :)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Off to Kekchiland!

Okay, first? I should clarify. Kekchiland is not a real word. However, it is a word that I used frequently with my companions to loosely define the region where Qeqchi people live. I don't even know if other missionaries used it, but I did.

In my mind, Kekchiland basically covers three general areas: the hot, humid, dusty Polochik Valley, the cooler, cloudier mountains above the Polochik, and the Coban area at the western base of the Valley. Coban lies almost due north of Guatemala City and is, as far as I know, the largest Qeqchi speaking city. Compared to the rest of Kekchiland, it's very modern. It has a shopping mall, fast food places, hotels, and traffic lights, and it's big enough to be divided into zones, like the capital city. As a missionary, I had sort of a love-hate relationship with Coban. On the one hand, Coban had McDonalds, Subway, and Pizza Hut. On the other hand, Coban seemed HUGE to me, with too many cars and people. After spending months and months in a small town with dirt roads and jungles, it was a little overwhelming. Now, I was coming back to it after spending nine months in Salt Lake City, and my perceptions were quite different: Coban seemed small and a little unimpressive. Funny how our perceptions change.

Coban was the first stop on our choir tour. We all loaded into our two rented buses and started the trip north. We weaved through the city for a while; those of us who were returned missionaries enjoyed pointing out areas we had served in or recognized. Okay, the other RMs enjoyed doing that. I had served in only one area, right in the heart of the city, so everything I was seeing was just as new to me as it was to most of the choir. But it was fun to put an image to some words and names I had heard before. After making it out of the city, we drove for about six hours through Guatemalan country, passing a few small towns, but mostly enjoying sweeping views of unmarred green.

On the road to Coban.

Toward the end of the trip, we started to climb into the mountains. The temperature dropped (a little--it's never exactly cold in Guatemala) and the tropical-looking vegetation was replaced with pine trees. The greens deepened and it got a little foggy.

Entering Carcha.
We stopped about a half hour before reaching Coban in a little town called San Pedro Carcha. We would do one fireside there that evening before moving on to Coban the next day. We got checked in to our hotel and then headed over to the community center, where we would be performing. The Church does have a small chapel in Carcha, but we were hoping that it would be too small for the kind of attendance we were hoping to receive.

The members had really gone the extra mile to deck out the Carcha Community Center. They had decorated the stage with pine needles and palm fronds, and placed a large painting of Christ on the back wall. One man had climbed up into the rafters to place curtains or something up there, and had fallen out. He was in the hospital with a broken arm and leg, and had had some of his teeth knocked out. We were so sad to hear that he had been injured, but his family told us that he was more sad to miss the concert. I was amazed at how excited everyone was for us to be there.

If I remember the story right, Carcha was the first place that missionaries were sent to learn Qeqchi and preach the gospel in that language, sometime in the seventies. We were able to meet the very first Qeqchi-speaking converts; they were now a very elderly couple who were there early to greet us and show us around.

Before the concert began, I decided to try to brush up a little on my limited Q’eqchi’ by going around and striking up conversations with the members who had come early and were waiting for the fireside to begin. I got into a conversation with an elderly brother who, after watching me struggle to conjugate Q’eqchi’ verbs for a few minutes, admitted that he spoke Spanish. He asked where I had learned Q’eqchi’, and I told him I had learned as a missionary. At this, his face lit up.

“I have a grandson on a mission, in Peru!” he told me. “He’s been gone three months. He baptized a man last week!”

I smiled and told him I thought that was great, and he went on to tell me all about his grandson and how great he was, who his companion was, the names of the people he had been teaching, and all about his mission. His enthusiasm and pride for his grandson was infectious, and I grinned to listen.

I talked to a few more members and then saw a group of women standing near the doorway, tending children. I went to talk to them, again in halting Q’eqchi’, and an elderly sister answered me in Spanish.

“Where did you learn Q’eqchi’?” she asked. When I replied that I had learned as a missionary, she took my hand and grinned. “Thank you for serving!” she said. “We love missionaries! We have a grandson serving a mission in Peru! He’s been gone three months!”

And before I knew it, I was hearing the same story all over again about this wonderful missionary serving in Peru. I pointed out the man I had talked to first and said to the sister, “Is that man your husband?”

“Yes!” she said, smiling big.

“He told me all about your grandson, too,” I said.

She grinned…and jumped right back into telling me all about her missionary. :)

The fireside itself was wonderful. It was the first time we had done the whole program, the narration as well as hymns, in pure Qeqchi, and it was invigorating. The last song of any of our firesides was “God Be With You Til We Meet Again.” Though the lovely melody of this song always brought the Spirit thick around me, singing it to native Q’eqchi’ speakers for the first time triggered something even deeper inside me. I worried I would start to cry right there on the stage, and I wouldn’t be able to go on singing, so I tried not to think about what it was we were doing—about what this song meant, about the music or the melody, tried not to imagine how much it would mean to me to hear these words in my own tongue for the first time. I especially tried not to look at the members in the congregation, many of them with tears streaming down their faces. But I couldn’t not think about these things. The love I had nurtured for the Q’eqchi’ as a missionary came flooding right back to me, and I couldn’t not think about it. And though the tears flowed freely down my face, my voice didn’t hitch. 

After the fireside, as we came down the stairs, many of the members came up to us to greet us. I had never served in Carcha, so I didn’t expect anyone to come talk to me. I stood off to the side and watched the members approach other return missionaries who had served there. I grinned as I saw them embrace each other, take pictures, talk together. I was surprised when I felt a touch at my elbow, and turned to see a sister in a purple corte (traditional Qeqchi dress) standing next to me. I recognized her as being one of the many women I had chatted with before the fireside, but I couldn’t remember her name. She reached up and wrapped her arms around me and sobbed into my shoulder. My own emotions were just barely below the surface, and I started crying too. “Bantiox awe,” she whispered in my ear. Then she added in Q’eqchi’, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for bringing these hymns. May the Lord bless you.” I couldn’t speak, so I just hugged her tighter. Finally she let me go and walked away. 

I was so grateful I had been able to understand her with my limited Q’eqchi’. The phrase “may the Lord bless you” was especially meaningful to me, since just before the performance, I had asked Mike how to say it so that I could say it to the members. He had reminded me that I already knew the phrase—“Li Qaawa’ chiosobtesinq awe”—since it had been used in the old Q’eqchi’ hymns pamphlet to translate a familiar song: “God Be With You Til We Meet Again.”

Me with another member of the choir and some of the Qeqchi members who came to hear us sing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

First Performance

Our second day in Guatemala, Rachel and I spent the morning shopping and visiting. We were able to spend a few more hours with members of the ward in Ermita before we finally had to meet up with the rest of the choir at our hotel, El Barcelo. 

We were so touched by the kindness of the ward members. We had planned to call a taxi to come and pick us up in Ermita and take us to the hotel, some thirty or so minutes away. Like here, gas is very expensive in Guatemala, especially when you take into account the much lower average income in Guatemala, so we wouldn't have dreamed of asking someone to give us a lift, though if we had asked I'm sure we would have had a line of people willing to do us the favor. Plus, most people in Guatemala don't even have cars. As far as I know, only five or six members of the ward in Ermita have family cars, and most of these definitely would not pass inspection in the US. But when Byron Colindrez, the father of the family who was recently sealed, found out that we were headed into the city he insisted that we let him drive us. It was a wonderful gesture and a great sacrifice on his part. 

When we arrived at El Barcelo, Rachel and I both had to laugh a little bit. Our group was gathered in the lobby, spread out all over the chairs, couches, and even the floor. Their red eye flight had been much longer than ours and they had only recently arrived at the hotel. Everyone was looking a little bleary-eyed and not talking much, but they were still enthusiastic and excited to have finally arrived after all these months of preparation.

We gathered our things and left for the stake center at which we would be performing. This was the first time I realized how jaded I had become to everything that had been so shocking to me when I had first arrived in Guatemala, two years ago. Many of the members of our tour group had visited foreign countries, though few had seen such impoverished third world countries as this, and a couple had never left the country at all. The lethargy I had noticed when we first met up with our group evaporated; suddenly everyone was jabbering, pointing things out to other people, noticing things that I took for commonplace, like the police in full body armor, the game of street soccer we interrupted when we parked our tour buses outside the stake center, the barbed wire and heavy chain-link fence surrounding the chapel, and the outdoor courtyards rather than indoor hallways of the meetinghouse.

The choir at our first performance in Guatemala City.

This first performance was at the behest of the area presidency, who requested we perform at least once in the capital city for those Q’eqchi’ who had relocated from the areas we would visit later on.  The turn out was not large, but it was quality: a few Q’eqchi’ families were there, as well as a number of Guatemalans who did not speak Q’eqchi’ but had heard a choir was coming and were interested to hear us sing. In addition, the mission president, President Watts, had given permission to attend to any Q’eqchi’ speaking missionaries who had been transferred to the Capital. Especially exciting was the presence of President Watts and his wonderful wife, as well as the president of one of the other missions (the south or central mission, I believe, though I no longer remember which), and Elder Amado of the area presidency and his wife.

We rehearsed for about an hour, and then stopped about fifteen minutes before the fireside was to begin, though the start time was pushed back another half hour or so to allow for latecomers. In that time, with nothing else to do, I went around with a few other members of the choir and greeted those people who had arrived and were waiting patiently for the fireside to begin. They were mostly members interested to know more about the choir, how we had gotten involved, and what all we would be singing. They were warm, polite, and very happy to see us. 

All of the returned missionaries in the choir, along with the current mission president and his wife.
Of special excitement for me was the opportunity to greet President and Sister Watts, who had served during the last six months of my mission. They were both happy to see me and asked lots of questions about how I was doing. Weirdly, seeing them and giving Sister Watts a big hug was not dissimilar to the feeling I got the day I got off the airplane and hugged my own mom, at the end of my mission.

Finally, the fireside got started, and people continued to trickle in as we sang. I think we sounded pretty good, though I must admit I was terribly nervous! I don’t like being on stage, and I especially didn’t like being front and center in the choir, where I knew everyone could see me. But we did our best and sang well. Most importantly, I think the Spirit was definitely present.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Day 1!

Finally, it was time to head out! Though most of the choir was planning to leave July 24th, my former companion, Rachel, and I had made plans to arrive the day before so that we could spend the day in the capital city, where we had served together. The choir had plans to spend only one day in the Capital, and we knew that if we went with them we wouldn't have time to visit the members and converts we had grown to love, so it was well worth it to arrive a day early.

The flight to Guatemala seemed super fast. We had a layover of an hour or so in the Los Angeles airport, and wound up sitting next to a man who looked distinctly Latino. When he nearly tripped over my bag in the aisle, I instinctively said, "Perdon, hermano!" rather than "Sorry!" He sort of cocked his head and asked me in broken English if I spoke Spanish. Rachel and I said that we did, and explained where we had learned it and why we were going back. We had a really nice chat in Spanish, and it was the first time since I had been home that I had spoken with a native Guatemalan in Spanish. It felt like coming home.

We arrived at the airport and took a crazy taxi ride to Ermita, the neighborhood where I had spent eight months of my mission. A member, Zusi, had graciously offered us a place to spend the night, so we brought all our stuff and dropped it there, and she prepared us a traditional Guatemalan breakfast (our flight was a red eye, so we were arriving about 8 AM). Then, we spent the rest of the day making house calls. 

As a missionary, I spent most of my time either walking to teaching appointments or knocking on doors hoping to get a teaching appointment. Ermita is a tiny little neighborhood, and by the time I was transferred to another area, I knew just about everyone there at least by face if not by name, members and non-members alike. I could have drawn a map of the area and explained who lived in which apartment. But despite my familiarity with the place, I found myself feeling faintly nervous. Guatemala City is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. While serving in Ermita, I witnessed some of that danger, but as a missionary I never once felt nervous for my safety. Now, a few moments after arriving there, I was watching my back and checking my pockets. 

"Things are different now, huh?" I asked Rachel, looking around and noticing the stares we were getting from people.

"Yeah," she said. "No more gafete."

She was referring to the nametags we wore on the mission, proclaiming our names and that we were representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was partially right in a literal sense: our nametags were an easy way for people to quickly identify us. They didn't have to ask themselves why two blonde girls were wandering around inner city Guatemala City, so they saw us, noticed us, and then forgot about us. Now, we were just two tourists with no apparent purpose for being there. We stuck out really, really bad. 

But the other fact was, we weren't missionaries any more. We were no longer set apart to do that particular work, and we no longer had the protection afforded the Lord's called servants. 

We took some extra precautions, avoiding some streets we knew to be more dangerous, keeping cameras and cell phones out of sight, and making sure we always had a member with us to off set our obvious strangeness. Despite the constant nerves I felt, nothing happened to us while we were there, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time visiting with the members. 

Our most memorable visit had to be with a family we had found and taught as missionaries, the Colindrez family. A series of miracles led us to them, and over a few months we witnessed another miracle: their conversion. Now, more than a year after their baptisms, we had come to see them just a few months after they were sealed together in the Guatemala City Temple. This visit was one of my personal miracles of the whole trip, because most missionaries get to be a part of just a small part of an investigator's progress. I had been privileged to see all of it. I was there when we knocked on their door. Together with Rachel, we had visited them, prayed for them, fasted for them, and watched them grow to love the gospel. We saw them make changes in their lives, sacrifice to come to church, and come closer as a family. We saw them, one after another, enter the waters of baptism. After Rachel went home, my new companion and I were blessed to watch them learn more about the church, assume responsibilities and callings, and become an integral part of the ward. And now, months later, I was able to come back and see how they had progressed, how they had kept their covenants and made additional ones, how their lives had changed. I truly have felt no greater joy in my entire life, than to spend an hour with that family and witness their joy. 

To top off a wonderful day, we got word that night that one of the families in the ward wanted us to come visit them. We arrived at their home and found not just them, but half of the ward there! We had told the Bishop we were coming, and he had thrown together a "Family Home Evening" style activity. We sat in a circle. The ward had fun trying to guess our first names; they never did figure out mine, and I had to tell them. Then the Bishop, who was apparently unsatisfied with an activity that didn’t include some kind of gospel teaching, asked Rachel and I to share a few words and bear our testimonies. I felt sort of strange, standing there in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, using words I had used as a missionary. All I could think of to say to them was, “Thank you.” I thanked them for their examples, for teaching me, for working so hard, for taking care of those people we taught. And I told them that I knew that what I had preached as a missionary was true, that it wasn’t just words I had said: the Book of Mormon is true. There is a living prophet on the earth. This, and no other, is Christ’s true church.

I thought I would get teary-eyed, being back in my mission and sharing my testimony in Spanish, but I found that quite the opposite was true. I found my heartbeat speeding and my chest filling with that indescribable joy I had experienced as a missionary—that I had only ever experienced as a missionary! It was exhilarating and wonderful.

I sat down, and Rachel shared her thoughts, and then I was surprised to see each of the members stand, one by one, to bear a testimony, or to share a memory of when they had gone to teach with us, or to tell us of a recent missionary experience, or to thank us for our service. And that was when I got teary-eyed. J

We finished off the evening by eating Chapin Hot Dogs—miniature hot dogs roasted over a fire and wrapped in a tortilla, and the Bishopric teasingly brought out a 2-liter bottle of Coke, the drink we were not allowed in the mission.

Yeah, it was a great night.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

All The Preparation Stuff

This will be a short post, I promise, and then I'll actually start writing about the trip. But I thought it was worth it to point out a few things about how we prepared for this.

I became part of the choir in February, at which point they had already been rehearsing for about a month. We held rehearsals about every two weeks for about three hours. The first month or so we really focused on pronunciation, and then after that focused on the musicality (is that a word?) of our performance. Frankly, it was miraculous to me how quickly everyone picked up the pronunciation. It's not easy stuff, especially when you're not just speaking; you're singing. So not only did we really have to nail all those tricky consonants and glottal stops and all of that, but we also had to work in breaths, timing, and a bunch of music stuff I don't know the names to. 

It was also miraculous to me how quickly I picked up the music. I've done high school choir, but I'm no expert, and most of the people I was singing with were pros. Like, literally, professional singers and performers. They'd look at a piece of music and just...sing it. I usually have to hear it about ninety times before I can pick out my harmony (I was singing alto). Or sometimes, we'd be singing and someone would stop and say, "There's a typo in the music. It says it's a C but it should be a D." How they could hear the difference between two notes, I don't know, and it was kind of overwhelming to me to be a part of this group. I sometimes felt like I was the only one just not getting it. But then one day I realized...I was getting it. Somehow, I was learning music that I was certain was beyond me. 

About a month before we left we started collecting donations so that we could purchase hymnbooks and triple combinations in Q'eqchi' to donate to the members in the Polochik. We also had a fundraising dinner just a few days before we left. I was amazed at how many of my friends and family made donations to help us purchase these books. 

My parents, sister, and brother-in-law all came to the fundraising dinner. Mike had hired a Guatemalan chef to make real Guatemalan food, and we came early and decorated the walls and tables with Guatemalan flags, dolls, pictures, fabrics, toys, and all kinds of stuff. My family and I had fun with the Guatemalan food--we've never been especially adventurous eaters, and I'm sure the food was much different than what they had expected (I'm not sure what, exactly, they expected, but my guess would be something a little more...Mexican :)). My poor sister couldn't eat anything at all; she has potentially deadly food allergies, and with the food all prepared together, there was no guarantee that she'd be safe eating. She settled for a few corn tortillas.

Thanks to my awesome sister for snapping
this photo of us singing at the dinner!
After the food, we performed. It was the first time we had sung in front of an audience, and I was pretty nervous. I especially wanted my family to feel the Spirit of what I was doing. They had supported me, given encouragement, made donations both for the hymnbooks and to me personally to help me get to Guatemala, and it was important to me that they understand how I felt about what we were doing. Mike introduced each song before we sang, and some of the performances were a little rocky, but I felt like we still did pretty well. Then Mike announced that we would be singing a hymn that would make the audience jealous; a hymn that was well-known and well-loved in English but was not part of the official hymnbook. He asked if anyone had any guesses. My family was sitting pretty close to the front, and I heard my dad from the audience say, quietly, as if almost to himself, "Come Thou Fount." Mike explained that  though this song is not found in English, it is part of the official Q'eqchi' hymnbook. I saw my parents whip out their cell phones to take video of us singing, and after that, they filmed each song. As we finished the last song, God Be With You Til We Meet Again, I made the mistake of finding my parents' faces in the crowd. Their faces were wet, and I could tell they felt the same Spirit that I did. In that moment, I felt like my family was closer to understanding how I felt during the mission than I had at any other time.

After the performance, we had a brief meeting to discuss last-minute stuff before we left for Guatemala in just two days. Mike surprised us by presenting us each with our own copy of the Q'eqchi' hymnbook. I held it in my hands and turned it over and opened it and flipped through the pages, and I was just giddy with excitement. I couldn't wait to see the native Q'eqchi' speakers see those books and hear those hymns.