The other day, as I was sharing some stories from the time I served a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Mendoza, Argentina, my son, Seth, was asking a lot of questions about the story I shared. I said to him that I realized that these stories have never been recorded. My journals have a lot of experiences in them, but not a lot of the stories I shared over and over agains with my children as bedtime stories when they were younger. Thus, I felt that I should begin a journey to record these experiences. I’m not sure yet if I want to do it in such a public venue as this blog – I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, and how I want to record them. For now, I thought I would share a story that I don’t mind sharing on this blog:
When I first arrived in Argentina I had been studying Spanish in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah for four months (for those of you familiar with LDS missions, the usual time in the MTC for a foreign language mission was two months). I had been delayed because I had to have surgery to have a cyst removed before being shipped off to Argentina. I was anxious to get to the country to start preaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles (we had to go to the Argentinian Consulate in LA to officially obtain our visas to be able to remain in Argentina for two years) to Buenos Aires. My first shock was going from three feet of snow in Provo in January to the middle of a hot, muggy summer in Buenos Aires. I stepped off the plane with my big heave trenchcoat on and quickly realized that I needed to strip down to just my white shirt and roll up my sleeves. I had been told about the seasons in the southern hemisphere being opposite, but it never really sunk in until I experienced it.
The next shock to me was getting into the airport with the small group of missionaries I was with and realizing that everyone but us was speaking in Spanish, even the announcements over the loudspeaker. Despite having studied it intensively for four months, I could not understand any of what people were saying. It was one thing to hear an instructor speak it in the classroom, but it was entirely different to be thrown into a place where my native language was no longer being spoken by anyone but those in my tiny group. Everyone seemed to be speaking so fast – I couldn’t make out where one word ended and the next word began. Only here and there was I picking out words that I could understand. I was more than a little nervous and scared. I realized that I was going to be here for two years.
We had to disembark at the Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires and then catch a bus from there to the other airport closer to downtown Buenos Aires.
I don’t remember how that worked, but someone in our group knew where to go to catch the proper bus that would take us to the other airport (I think somewhere I still have the ticket from that bus ride). It was a ride that allowed us all to stare out the windows and get a good look at what Argentina was like. It took us on a freeway that went right past the LDS Buenos Aires Temple.
We also drove past residential areas and into the heart of downtown Buenos Aires, heading for the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, another airport very near the bay of the Rio de la Plata, the large river that separates Argentina from Uruguay on its other side. From this airport we would catch another flight to the province of Mendoza on the other side of the country. It was an awesome sight seeing huge docks and shipping yards along the river as we neared the airport. Everything was so new and so beautiful.
Upon arrival at Jorge Newbery, we had to find our way to the right terminal for our next flight. In struggling to find our way around in a new place without the language skills to understand anyone, we were all a bit overwhelmed and scared. To our surprise and great relief, a woman who spoke English came to our rescue. She lived in the United States but was flying to Mendoza to visit her family there. She guided us to the right terminal. We were very appreciative of her and thanked her profusely.
While waiting for the next flight I decided I would go to the restroom before we had to board. The facilities were right across from where we were waiting. I entered and had another shock. There were no enclosed bathroom stalls whatsoever. There was one big urinal wall that was open all the way across. Then there was another wall, also all open, with holes in the floor and feet marks in front where one would squat to poop into the hold in the floor. This was too much! I wasn’t about to relieve myself openly in front of complete strangers, with absolutely no privacy. I turned around and left, deciding I’d wait and relieve myself on the plane.
It was about an hour and a half flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza (about 700 miles). We boarded the old-fashioned way – walking out from the terminal across the tarmac to the plane, going up the staircase that was set up against the side of the plane. I was happy to get on board and finally be able to privately relieve myself in the restroom. I was very aware as the flight attendants served us Sprite from glass bottles, realizing that soft drink brands here were very much the same as at home, but in glass bottles instead.
As we came in for a landing in Mendoza, I remember looking out the window and thinking that it was weird to see a large airport surrounded by what looked like ghettos and dirt roads. Strange to have such modern forms of transportation and yet find such poor conditions right next door. The mission president met us at the airport – he was from the United States. We loaded up our luggage into his car, a fairly newer model Peugeot, a popular make of car in Argentina at that time. We rode with wide eyes, staring out the windows and taking in all the new sites, to the mission home in downtown Mendoza, leaving the ghettos region behind as the freeway drew closer to downtown. We got into areas of smaller skyscrapers, busy with traffic. The mission home was in a fairly nice area of the city, and it was nice to be there with our mission president and his wife (President Charles Eastwood and his wife), both of whom were from the U.S. Sister Eastwood served us a delicious dinner and we received instruction from the mission president.
Later on we were taken by the assistants to the president (the APs) in the mission van to a small hotel nearby for the night. This was a very old hotel, with a small office at the front for check-in, and narrow halls and steep staircases to the rooms. The APs got us checked in and showed us up to our room on the third or fourth floor – a shared room with several small single beds (4-5 of them) with hard matresses and no box springs. Then they showed us the bathroom, telling us all about the bidet attachment on the toilet. It was a lever that when moved, made a sprayer slide out into the middle of the toilet. It was for washing oneself off after doing “number 2 in the bathroom. The APs swore up and down how awesome the bidets were, and how they loved to use them instead of toilet paper. I was skeptical because I had never tried one before. Later on, I actually did try it, but I held the hot water lever too long and slightly scalded my rear-end – ouch!!! Looking out the back window of our room, I through the center of the block and saw the ruins of some very old brick buildings there. It made me wonder how long it had been that way.
This all made me think that all the modernity of Argentina was sort of tourist trappy – all show on the outside to make a good impression on the visitors, but then deep down on the inside of everything there were run-down neighborhoods, dirt roads, old adobe brick houses with cane walls plastered with mud and dirt floors, and widescale poverty. This is what I started prepping myself for as I lay in that hotel room and dozed off to sleep. I wondered how the Lord would help me learn the language well enough to be able to communicate with people. I was anxious and nervous, yet at the same time, ready to dive into the Lord’s word in harvesting souls for his cause.