Saturday, October 12, 2013

Early Struggles

November 14, 2007 – November 21, 2007

Our electricity bill ending in November, and our previous month’s bill for comparison. Something obviously went wrong with our meter. We had to take time out of our week to find our landlady and ask her what to do about it. She was nice enough to take care of it for us.

Once the novelty of doing new things in a new place wore off, I started to notice that being a missionary wasn’t always the most fun. There were several times during my first month in Mexico when I felt like I wanted to go home. It was never enough to get me to think seriously about quitting; even back then I knew I would appreciate the experience of having completed a mission; I just wished I could have all the memories and character-building without doing the work necessary to make them happen. There were a few times when I didn't enjoy dealing with a lot of the things that come with throwing yourself into a totally new culture.

For example, our meal schedule took some getting used to. Members of the ward would sign up to give us lunch each day at 2:00, which is the largest meal of the day. We were on our own for the rest, which usually meant we didn’t eat much else at all. Occasionally we’d get a snack or something, but I don’t think Elder Guerra and I ever went grocery shopping, weird as that sounds. I remember feeling really hungry in the mornings and at night. But the people we met with offered us food all the time. My first day in the field, we ended up eating three separate lunches. I thought I was going to throw up. So my first month in the field, I was starving for about half of each day and overstuffed for the other half.

I didn’t like the food at first, either. Even though I’d liked “Mexican” food in the states, the flavors and spices they used in Mexico were unfamiliar and unappealing to me at the time. The members served us a lot of chicken, probably because it was cheaper than other meats. Sometimes it would be grilled, breaded, or served with a thick sauce over it. One example of the latter is mole, which is a dense, heavily-spiced sauce that’s often served over meat and rice. I had tried mole once before coming to Mexico, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t much like it when I got there, either. It was such a heavy bundle of flavors that I got full only halfway through my plate. And when I finally finished it all, they piled on a second serving! But I ate it. I had to eat everything they gave me; they were feeding us at their own expense, and doing so was probably a financial sacrifice for many of them. Plus I wanted the members and investigators to like me. I could tell they liked Elder Guerra, and I hoped that I could build rapport with them by not being one of those gringo missionaries that’s uncomfortable with everything that all the members joked about.

Even still, there were some foods I had some serious trouble with. I hate fresh bananas. I hate them now, I hated them before my mission, and I hated them during my mission, too. But bananas grow in Veracruz, and unlike other fruits, they’re harvested all year round, so there’s never any shortage of supply. Plátanos con crema (bananas with cream) was the most common dessert I was served in Xalapa. I’d finally make it through a meal, stuffed to the brim full of unfamiliar food, think I was at the end, and then get served with a bowl full of my nemesis, plátanos con crema. I still ate it, most of the time, but there were a couple of times that I would ask Elder Guerra to finish mine off for me if the family serving us stepped out of the room for a minute.

I also encountered a new nemesis during my first month: mojarra frita (fried tilapia), complete with scales, fins, and head, gazing dopily at me on my plate. I’d never eaten anything that so closely resembled what it looked like while it was alive, so it was pretty unnerving for me. To make matters worse, Elder Guerra leaned over to tell me to be careful not to accidentally swallow the spines inside the fish that easily get caught inside the meat. This was too much. As I watched Elder Guerra pull back the scales and start tearing little bits of fish flesh with his tortilla, I couldn’t imagine even getting any closer to the creature on my plate in front of me, let alone open it up and put its pieces in my mouth. I threw in the towel. I felt bad, but I couldn’t get myself to eat more than a couple of bites. The woman serving us seemed a little put off, too. Afterward I was angry with myself for being that gringo after all. The happy ending is that after more time in Mexico I learned to crave mole and mojarra and a million other dishes (still no love for raw bananas, however). But at the beginning of my mission the food was a burden for me.

My journal entry for a different day in November says, “Well, today was weird. The only good thing was the food.” It was breaded pork; it tasted familiar and had a nice flavor. Elder Guerra again leaned over to ask me if I was sure that I could eat pork, which he said was “heavy.” The family chimed in, saying I could eat something else if I couldn’t handle it. I told them of course I could; I liked it. So I enjoyed the meal and counted it as the high note to an otherwise not-great day.

Too bad I was wrong about the pork. My journal entry for the following day is only three lines long but makes very clear that I’d gotten food poisoning. Worst of all was how stupid I felt from having told everyone how I’d be fine and how it wouldn’t hurt me. Whoops. Welcome to Mexico.

Having no food at home made things even worse. Actually, there was a little bit, but it was all pretty old and probably not worth eating. Trying some old piece of food you find in a Mexican missionary’s fridge is a way bigger gamble than eating breaded pork. So mostly I’d been snacking on some mandarins that we had (at least with them you could tell whether they’d gone bad or not). But I wasn’t eating much else, and neither was Elder Guerra. We were pretty much on a one-meal-per-day schedule then, so when a member offered us a lunch that I didn’t like, it made life even harder. Of course, these were largely self-inflicted wounds resulting from my own culture shock.

My second Sunday in Mexico, Elder Guerra told me it was my turn to teach the Sunday school class since he did it the previous week. I didn’t have time to prepare anything, and having never done anything like it before, I stumbled badly enough that Elder Guerra decided to jump back in and help me after all. I was embarrassed but glad he did. I was also really tired that day because some of our neighbors had decided to sing and play mariachi music right outside our window from twelve to two in the morning. To this day, I still don’t know what they were celebrating (none of the holidays line up with the date), but I was really frustrated.

All these little problems added up for me. I can’t speak for Elder Guerra, but I can only assume I wasn’t too pleasant to work with during this time. I got easily frustrated with myself and my situation, and I probably took it out on Elder Guerra more often than not. If I had just learned to laugh at myself and not take things so life-and-death seriously, I probably would have been a lot happier and maybe even had more success as a missionary. Unfortunately, it took me much longer to learn those lessons.

The good news is that our Sunday-afternoon splits with the young men in the ward (or “divisions,” depending on how much I’m thinking in Spanish (“divisones”)) really helped me get my head on straight again. My journal reads: “Thankfully, that division let me regain my sanity, and the rest of the day went well. It’s interesting how God keeps me so close to my breaking point. I think He knew I was ready to snap today, so he had us do the divisions we did. It really set us up well to talk to people at church in the evening and plan for the week at night. This mission thing is really freaking hard, but God isn’t going to give me something impossible.”

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