Friday, March 22, 2013


November 5, 2007

Our day of traveling to the mission field was our first real chance to meet the other missionaries headed to Mexico. Several of them were going to Veracruz with Elder Stojic and me. We had found them in their MTC classroom in another building and stopped by once, but it was brief, and I don’t think everyone was there. We were all pretty tired on the bus ride up to Salt Lake, though, so we were less social than we might have been. I still considered myself bound to our promise not to speak English, so I kept speaking Spanish, even when people were speaking to me in English. Looking back, I probably should have relaxed a bit and just been friendly, but, as usual, I just thought I was taking learning the language seriously. In my defense, my dedication had paid off; I spoke pretty capable Spanish by that time.

Our flights took us from Salt Lake to Dallas, from Dallas to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Veracruz. We had long layovers in Dallas and Mexico City, so our MTC branch presidency had told us to use this downtime to call home. When I called home, I still spoke in Spanish since both my parents spoke it, too. I’m sure it seemed silly to them. This was one of only five days during my entire mission that I got to talk on the phone with my family. Aside from these layover calls, missionaries are only allowed to call home on Mothers’ Day and Christmas. It wasn’t that weird for me; I was used to not talking to my family regularly; I could count on one hand the number of times I called home my freshman year of college (though I’ve since tried to be better about keeping in touch). For some of the other missionaries, though, calling home for the first time was a pretty emotional experience.

After a very long day of traveling, Elder Stojic and I arrived with the other Veracruz missionaries at the small Veracruz airport. We got off the plane through a rear door and walked out onto the tarmac. I will never forget the sudden rush of sweltering, humid air as I stepped down the staircase from the plane. It was like walking into a hot shower while wearing a wool suit. And this was at 8:00 at night, in November. They weren’t kidding when they said it’d be hot.

After walking into the terminal and collecting our bags, we passed through a set of glass doors into the ticketing area and lobby (I said it was a small airport) where the mission president and his assistants met us. President Johnson was a short but sturdy man who greeted us with a smile and a hug, but a very specific type of hug. It was like a high-five mixed with a hug mixed with a handshake. Most new missionaries don’t manage to navigate this little dance correctly the first time, especially the Americans. I felt slightly smug, though, since Bro. Toledo had taught our district how to do it back in the MTC.

Sister Johnson (Pres. Johnson’s wife) and the assistants, Elder Olín and Elder Haymond, were also there to pick us up. They split us up and loaded us into two vans to go to dinner. I got in the van with the Johnsons. I don’t remember very much from the conversation, but I do remember driving past the Veracruz Temple and the Gulf of Mexico.

Across the street from the temple in Veracruz.

Normally, that first dinner is at the mission home (the house where the mission president and his wife live), but it was being renovated when we arrived, so we went to some other home in the area. At this point we first met the new Mexican missionaries that had arrived earlier that day from another MTC in Mexico City. After dinner, we got back into the vans to head to the mission offices, and this time I was with the assistants. The assistants’ van was called either la Pumba (as in The Lion King) or la Bestia (the Beast, (as in Beauty and the Beast? Ha, I never noticed that before)). As I understand it, they bought a new one (thus the two different names) during or around the time I arrived, and some missionaries, particularly those that worked in the mission offices, got into heated arguments as to what the proper name of the assistants’ van was at any given time. Again, I think this must be the product of not having access to any normal type of entertainment.

While in la Bestia or la Pumba, or whatever it was, the assistants decided to give us a short tour of the city before going to the offices. The tour was short, not because we didn’t see very much, but because of how fast Elder Haymond was driving. I remember us racing down the malecón (the road along the water’s edge), swerving the big van between cars and flying through intersections without stopping. I was certain I was going to die an ignominious death only hours into my mission. None of the other missionaries seemed bothered by it, though; they were all whooping and laughing and loving it.

Any smugness I’d felt earlier navigating the unusual Mexican hug was long gone. I was really shaken up by the time we finally got to the offices. In retrospect, I bet the assistants did that kind of drive exactly to help missionaries fresh from the MTC relax and live a little. They wanted us to be happy before we get to work, and they didn’t want stick-in-the-muds like me thinking mission life was all work and no fun. As usual, this kind of message was lost on me. Oh well.

We got to the offices where they put us up in a large dormitory with 30 or so beds. The beds they had were pretty old; a lot of them had shapes more like a hammock than a mattress. The assistants told us that it gets pretty cold at night, so we’d want blankets handy even if we weren’t cold then. Yeah, right. It was still probably 80 degrees when we finally got to bed around 11:00.

Once again, though, I was wrong. By 5:00 AM I was freezing and had to climb out of bed to grab a blanket I’d been sure I wouldn’t need from off of one of the vacant beds. When we got up in the morning, I discovered that the only showers there were all in a row, without any separator for privacy. They also lacked actual shower heads, so they just shot a single stream of water out like a faucet. Oh, and they had no hot water, of course. Well, whatever, I thought. Better to get used to it now than later. Thankfully, that ended up being the first and last time I’d ever have to use those showers.

Then they fed us breakfast at the offices. I don’t remember what we had; it might have been “ot-CAYES,” which is how Mexicans pronounce the word “hotcakes” (one American missionary later told me he was very confused when members kept saying how much they loved eating “hot gays”). I do remember that we also drank agua de jamaica (think hibiscus-flavored Kool-Aid. You didn’t know that hibiscus had a flavor, did you?). I saw the bright red color and expected something sweeter than the mouthful of bitter I found in my mouth. I later came to love it, though it is better with a bit more sugar than it had that day.

Once we were done eating hot gays and drinking Jamaica, we filed into the conference room in the offices for orientation.

1 comment:

  1. Haha. I love the severe culture shock experiences you so openly share. What a crazy temperature change!