Tuesday, November 25, 2014

El Calafate Branch

It has been a long time since my last post.  In that one, I commented on how wonderful it was to spend almost all of our time ministering and not having to administer anything.  Well, that has all changed.  Our assignment was changed and we moved from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate.  El Calafate is a city of about 30,00 people set on the banks of Lago Argentino. It is about an hour from the Glaciers National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier.  The summer months, October to February, are the high tourist season and many of the locals are working two jobs. I have been called as the branch president (the local lay leader of a small congregation).  We have between 35 and 60 people show up to church every Sunday.  I have responsibility for everything from the physical facilities to the welfare needs of the people.

The Argentinian economy has some interesting (as a foreigner) and difficult (as an Argentinean) quirks.  Even people with full-time jobs in reputable companies sometimes don't get paid.   It is just part of the system.  Many of these people live on the very edge of poverty.  Saving makes almost no sense because money will be worth less tomorrow than it is today.  We have seen the dramatic effects of inflation in our time here.  We knew one moderately well-to-do family in Rio Gallegos that told us that when they have extra cash they buy staples, like rice and noodles, or building supplies, like bricks and cement.  The food you can always eat and the bricks you can always sell or use to add on to your own home.  Those things retain value.  Money does not! This leads to situations where people living on the edge easily fall off.  I try to keep on top of some of the more precarious situations and make sure that people have food in the house so that children aren't going hungry.

We are also organizing activities in the branch to try to help people improve their economic situations.  One of the members is teaching an introductory computer class.  This is just a simple "how do you" class so that someone could work in a job that requires basic computer skills.  Hermana Merkley and I are teaching an English class.   El Calafate is a tourist town, being able to speak even a little bit of English is a skill that can help people improve their income.  We had one young woman who came to the class and wanted to learn some terms for cutting hair.  If she could give an English speaking tourist a decent cut, she would likely earn more money! We are also learning about teaching English as a second language.  It is fascinating to understand that some Spanish speakers can't even hear the difference between "ship" and "sheep" or "bit" or "beat."  The short "i" sound doesn't exist in Spanish and their ears are not accustomed to that sound.  It makes me wonder how badly I mangle the Spanish language.
El Chaltén juts abruptly out of the Patagonian plain.
Hermana Merkley and I had a great day when we visited El Chaltén.  The views were spectacular!

We are trying to organize youth activities.   On Saturday November 15, we took  8 youth to El Chaltén and did a hike.  Unfortunately, the weather the day we took the youth was not as nice as when Hermana Merkley and I first made the trip. (Actually, President Rogers would tell me that for a youth activity, the challenging weather was bonus, not a problem!)  El Chaltén is a small village situated at the base of Mount Fitz-Roy (also known as El Chaltén).  It is truly a breath-taking site.  Many of the youth here have never made the three hour drive, and had no idea what the tourists here are actually doing.   The youth were excited about going and that turns into excitement from the parents. My second councilor told me that this was the first youth activity in the eight years that the branch has been in existence. President Rogers told me that if we want to help the parents, do things to help the kids.

El Chaltén from Laguna Capri the day of our hike with the youth from El Calafate. I understand that this is a pretty common view for many tourists!
My primary duty here is to train someone else to be the branch president after I leave.  There are some good people who could serve, but they either lack the experience or the vision.  One of the things that has struck me serving here is that trying to change people just wears you out.  If your goal is to change someone, you will just grind yourself away.  However, if your goal is to love someone, it is not wearing.  You open yourself up for lots of pain and rejection, but the love can deal with that.  The  healing spirit of Jesus Christ is what leads to real change.  We just try to model His love for everyone and try to help them seek His love in their own lives.  I'm attempting to get a branch council, and a future branch president to understand importance of loving even those that don't seem to want to change, and leaving the changing part to the Atonement of Christ.  It is a big task, but if we can accomplish that goal, our time in El Calafate will have been very well spent.

I've been trying to come up with something to post on my LinkedIn account to show how I'm spending these 18 months.   I think our job description would be something like the following.
Position: Volunteer for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 
Duties: Feed the poor. Visit the sick. Care for widows and single mothers.  Strive to strengthen marriages and family relationships.  Listen to sorrows and grieve with those that mourn. Comfort those in need of comfort and search for those in need of help. Our motto is "Do Good!"

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Benefits and Blessings

First, just a note on the weather.  People keep commenting on how cold we must be down here because all the pictures show us all bundled up.  Many of those pictures are in front of a very big glacier, and a chunk of ice that big does tend to make things cold, even during the summer.  It is winter here, and it is cold, but we find it interesting that it is not that cold.   All the locals keep telling us how unusually cold it is this winter.  The humidity is high, and when the wind blows it feels cold, but it gets colder in Utah.  Montana winters were way colder than it gets here.  The average daytime temperature is above freezing and today it was over 40 with blue skies and no wind.  Gorgeous!  The locals are telling us that the worst of winter is over already.

If any of you look at our experiences (and us being all bundled up), and wonder if you should serve a mission, especially as member and leader support, there are some great unanticipated benefits.

We are walking a lot more since it helps us be visible in the area, and we bought yoga mats and try to exercise for 30 minutes most mornings.  There is time built into the schedule for exercise and we can take the time we want or need.  We actually eat together all the time and we are good about reminding each other that we probably don't really need seconds.  As a result, each of us has lost about 2 inches around the waist.  My doctor will be very pleased if I can keep up or improve those results until I get home!

We don't have to keep the same schedule as the younger missionaries.  Our schedule can still be rigorous, but it is also more flexible.  I have really enjoyed taking an afternoon siesta when I need it!  I'm going to really miss that when I get home.

We spend almost all of our time together.  We do have the freedom to occasionally go off by ourselves with the understanding that the other one has to know where you are.  For example, we do home teaching and visiting teaching with members of the branch.  But, if you really need time away, you can get it.  We don't need it very often.   We can still get frustrated with each other, but we are learning to repent and forgive faster!  It is amazing what spending time with your spouse does for your relationship.  It also helps that we have a set of common goals, and that we are more concerned about other people than we are about ourselves.  We had a good relationship before our mission, but we have found that our marital relationship is sweeter and more tender now.

The opportunity to spend all our time ministering and not have to worry about administering is incredibly unique.  We visit people in all circumstances and have the opportunity to testify of the power of the gospel.  Multiple times in a day we have the Spirit testify to us and them of the existence of God and of the Divinity of His Son.  The Holy Ghost has a special calling to witness of God the Father and His Son and every time we bear that witness the Spirit comes with incredible strength.  That is a blessing that is indescribable.

I really don't know what we will be doing when we get back home but this experience certainly doesn't feel like a sacrifice right now.  

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Note to Self . . .

 . . . the next time the young, single missionaries offer to find housing for us on a road trip, inform them that it is OK but we will make our own arrangements. And it is probably worth it to pay for the upgrade.  I'm not a big fan of the Dick Van Dyke-Mary/Tyler Moore sleeping arrangements they found for us in our hostel in El Calafate!

  The Argentina Comodoro Rivadavia Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established a year ago, and President Rogers gave the missionaries a day to go do something to help them understand more about the place where we are all serving.  The missionaries here in Rio Gallegos chose to go to Los Glaciares National Park.  Since we had already been to the park just a few months ago, we thought about skipping out on the trip, but then we decided that as part of our cultural experience, we were going to take this trip like the young missionaries do.

  We were scheduled to take the "colectivo," which is the Argentinian word for bus, from Rio Gallegos to Calafate.  The inter-city colectivos are large double-decker buses with seats that recline more comfortably than your standard airplane seat.  The missionary in charge of organizing the trip apologized that we only had the half-bed and not the full-bed seats.  So apparently, they have first class seating on the busses as well.  Things started getting interesting as the schedule started bouncing around.  First we were leaving at 8:00 p.m., then at 4:00 p.m., then at 8:00 p.m. again and finally we found out that the bus would leave at 8:30 p.m.   We didn't want to leave our car in the bus terminal overnight, so again in the spirit of doing things like the young missionaries do, we packed up our overnight bag and took the 25 minute walk to the terminal.  Fortunately, the wind wasn't blowing so even though the temperature was just above freezing it didn't really feel very cold.

  The bus ride was pretty uneventful except for a little slipping on icy roads.  I was glad that I wasn't driving in those conditions.  The drive that took about 3 1/2 hours by auto during the summer took closer to 5 hours by bus in the winter.  We got into El Calafate at about 1:15 a.m. and waited for a taxi to take us to the hostel.  The missionaries had gushed over how nice the hostel was, and I will admit that it was clean and at least had a private bath, which is better than some places I have stayed at in my life.  However, the quality of the mattress left a little to be desired.  Even though the mattress was hard, it didn't matter that much since it was such a short night.  Lights out by 2:30 a.m.

  Our alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. so that we could be up, showered, and dressed in time.  We walked to the chapel and met rest of the missionaries and made our way back to the bus terminal to catch a bus to the national park at 8:00 a.m.  I did find it interesting that the round trip bus fare from El Calafate into the park, about an hour drive, cost more than the 5 hour fare on the big colectivo.  Tourist towns!

  The time in the park was cool and rainy.  We were amazed that there wasn't much snow on the ground.  The brochure says that the mean temperature during the winter is 0.6 C, just above freezing.  When we first got into the park, the pathways were icy, but as the day progressed the ice melted.
Missionaries climbing the paths around the glaciers

 The park was not nearly as busy as it had been in the summer so we were able to enjoy some parts of it in peace and quiet.  The walk through the woods around the glacier was particularly captivating.  The deciduous trees were all bare but there were still many signs of life and growth even in winter.

The path and woods surrounding the glacier.

Winter-time in the woods around the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Even though the park was quieter in winter than in summer, we still met people from Italy, Belgium, Japan and the United States and we got to tell several of them why were here living in Argentina. 

Members of the Church in Rio Gallegos have told us that they enjoy coming to the park more in the winter than in the summer because they think it is more beautiful.  I don't know if it is more beautiful, but it is certainly a different experience.  The glacier is constantly growing, moving and changing so it appears different than the first time we came.

The Perito Moreno Glacier on a cool, wet day.
We really are here, even though sometimes we can't believe it ourselves!
Don't they have something like this in Park City, UT?
After spending several hours wandering around the park we jumped on the bus and went back to El Calafate.  We had pizza for a rather late lunch.  The normal pizza here has ham, cheese, strips of pepper and whole green olives.  It is pretty good pizza, Hermana Merkley's crust is better though!  This time we actually got a little more variety and I think we all enjoyed it!  We then got a chance to wander around the town of El Calafate.  It is interesting how similar tourist towns are all around the world.  We did look at a number of interesting crafts but we really weren't tempted to buy anything, except for chocolate.

Our new shirts from President and Sister Rogers!

  We also got a gift from President and Sister Rogers in honor of the World Cup and the mission anniversary.  They are selling a lot of Argentina shirts worn by the Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi with a #10.  I had considered buying one of those because they are admittedly pretty cool,  However, I have to concede that the shirts with the mission logo are way cooler and much more unique!  Considering that we were running on four hours of sleep and suffering from "hat hair" we don't look too hammered!

  We left El Calafate on the colectivo at about 8:00 p.m. and made it back to Rio Gallegos at about 12:30 a.m.  This time we decided that it was worth it to pay for a taxi to take us home.  It was an interesting experience, but the one thing I know is that I'm not 20 any more! 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Winter in Rio Gallegos

San Benito Muñeca de Nieve.  This is kind of dark because we are only getting 8 hours of sunlight right now.

Here is another of Hermana Merkley's emails.  I'll make some editorial comments afterwards.
Winter has struck with a vengeance. Last Wednesday we were out making visits in the mud wearing or jackets, enjoying the balmy temperatures in the high 30's or low 40's. On Thursday morning a winter storm moved in. Elder Merkley and I bundled up in our winter coats, gloves, and scarves and walked to Centro to do our errands. While Elder Merkley got a haircut, I headed off to buy a few things and pay a bill. The snow was falling and sticking to the roads and sidewalks. I was fascinated at the number of people who came outside just to take pictures of the snow.  They haven't really had snow on the ground in Rio Gallegos since 2006, (though all the people here don't agree on that date.) By the time I finished my errands, I was slipping and sliding my way down the sidewalk. A thin layer of ice had formed under the layer of snow. Cars were sliding all over the roads. By the time we walked home, Elder Merkley and I were very happy that we had decided not to drive.

That evening we started seeing snowmen, muñecas de nieve, all over the city. We watched our neighbors make one with their children at 10:30 at night.  The next couple of days we watched the children running and playing in the snow, having snowball fights and loving the novelty. Many of these children have never really seen snow on the ground.

Now the snow is all crusty and icy. The roads and sidewalks are treacherous. We've tried to limit our driving to give everyone here the opportunity to first practice being on hazardous roads. Yesterday while walking back from Zone Conference we watched a car rear-end another that was stopped at a light. All day and night we hear tires spinning on ice. On the plus side, the potholes in the dirt roads of San Benito are all filled with ice, which makes for a much smoother ride. And the mud is frozen so our boots stay clean!

At church today we only had about 50 people show up.  Many didn't want to make their way to church in these conditions. The missionaries asked us to give a ride to one of their investigators and her three girls, ages 10, 11, and 12. The investigator is pregnant and she didn't want to hazard walking in the icy conditions.
 When we arrived at the chapel, the power was out. While the heating in the building is gas, the blowers are electric, thus no heat in the chapel. (Thank goodness the gas heaters in our apartment work even without electricity.) Outside the temperature was -5º C or about 21º F.  During sacrament meeting, the building was growing colder and colder. The speakers were at the podium wearing their coats and talking in the dark while the congregation was trying to stay as warm as possible. Shortly before the end of the meeting, the power came back on. Still the branch presidency decided to dispense with the other meetings because it would take awhile for the building to warm back up and everyone was cold. Just another adventurous day here in Rio Gallegos.

So now for my editorial comments.  Most missionaries have one day a week, typically Monday, as their preparation day or P-Day.  It's not really the whole day; it just lasts until 6:00 pm and they are out working again.  We have found that our schedule can't be quite that regular.  We have some people who have one day off a week which may just happen to be Monday, and the only time they have available is before 6:00 pm.  We go visit them when they are available.  Our personal time gets jostled around into odd times during the week.

Most missionaries are also supposed to never leave their companion to go do something like run errands.   Our mission president told us that as an experienced married couple we could split up as long as we each know where the other is at.  In general, that is how we have worked our married life as well so this is not a big change.  The advantage is that here in Rio Gallegos as a missionary I get to spend a whole lot more time with my wife than I have in the last 29 years, and that is something truly beautiful.

The other thing Hermana Merkley left out is how much courage it actually took her to go off and run errands by herself.  She still struggles with the language and we constantly run into people with odd accents that even I can barely comprehend.  She acted like Paul counseled Timothy, "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love" (2 Tim 1:7).    In the end, missionary work requires a great deal of courage.  We meet people that we have never met before and just assume that they will open their doors to us, let us in, and share the deepest thoughts of their hearts.  That takes a lot of courage.  I'm grateful that I have a companion that exemplifies that for me.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


This morning my father would be proud of me!  When my mother first met him on the University of Utah campus, he was known as "the man with the shiny shoes."  Growing up, one of our regular Saturday chores was shining our shoes so that that we would be ready for Sunday.  It was not a chore that I relished.  It was messy and smelly and kind of hard.

Last night as Hermana Merkley and I were out doing visits, it was raining.  Our boots were pretty trashed by the end of the night between a couple of inches of rain and the dirt roads and mud.  So while Hermana Merkley was resting, I decided to polish our boots. 

As I was polishing Hermana Merkley's boots, I remembered a comment from one of the other sister missionaries here.  She mentioned how nice the boots were and asked if Hermana Merkley had bought them in Argentina.  Hermana Merkley told her that she had brought them with her from the U.S.  The sister then went on to explain that similar boots here cost about $5200 pesos.  When we did the math we found out that is more than $640.00 USD!  Hermana Merkley said she felt that paying $80.00 USD was a lot, and she couldn't even imagine spending eight times that!

I felt that polishing and taking care of these boots was a worthwhile effort because we certainly weren't going to be able to replace them here.  As my father taught me, when you regularly clean and polish your leather shoes, they will last a very long time.  Then suddenly, my thoughts turned to a scripture that Hermana Merkley and I frequently use as we visit people here.  "Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God."  (D&C 18:10)

If a little bit of elbow grease and polish is worth it to make our boots last a while longer, how much more important is to put a little bit of effort into saving our own souls, the souls of our families, and the souls of those around us?

I am often humbled by the grace that God bestows on me as we serve here in Rio Gallegos.  The tender mercies He shows and the inspiring thoughts that He grants me are overwhelming.   We sometimes wonder if we are doing enough but then He shows me that even a little bit of boot polish and little bit of shine will keep the leather from cracking.  What each of us can do is all He asks, and it will be sufficient.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Our New Kitchen

Some of you have asked what happened about our new kitchen . . . well here it is.  Our "new" kitchen is very space efficient.  You don't have to move very far at all to go from the sink to the stove, and the top of the washing machine provides a great work space.  The refrigerator is in the living room, but it is still only a few paces away.  One of the greatest features is that the garbage disposal is right to the left of the sink (aka the toilet)!

Just as a side note, when we got here Sister Rogers told us that we needed to get a dryer for the apartment as well.  We have searched and asked, but everyone looks at us as though we are crazy.  Heated driers just don't exist here.  "You have a washing machine that spins at a 1000 rpm, that is already dry."  We have determined that washing here also includes ironing.   By the time you iron a damp shirt it probably really is dry enough to wear.  Our drier is a very nice clothes rack donated by our landlord.

It is amazing how easy it is to adapt.  We don't really need all the conveniences that we have in our house in Utah, but it does make us grateful for the opportunities that we have been blessed with throughout our lives.

Monday, May 12, 2014

How We Got Here

This should have been one of my very first posts because it is the beginning of our experience in Rio Gallegos.   It is a story that we have shared with many people here.  Some of you may not have heard it, so I have decided to share it here as well.

For those of you who may not know (or remember) my wife and I are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I am Mormon.  It is one the of the things that defines me; just like being a husband, a father, and an engineer.  Being Mormon is a critical portion of this story.

At the start of the 2012 school year my wife Gwen and I started looking at our lives.  Matthew, our youngest child, was starting his senior year and we felt like it was time to make some changes.   One of the things we have always wanted to do was to remodel our kitchen.  Gwen enjoys cooking and our kitchen is just not very efficient.  Gwen has managed our budget to the penny and she had saved up enough that she felt that even with Matthew going to school and his upcoming LDS church mission we could afford to finally do the remodel.

She talked to one of our friends, and he agreed to do the contracting and after Christmas we started to try to pick out counters, tile, cabinets, appliances and to take care of all the other things that need to happen in a remodel.  This process was not going well.  The choices were overwhelming, and at times information that we obtained seemed contradictory.   We just weren't making much progress with the decisions required so that the work could start.  Gwen finally told the contractor that we would make the necessary decisions so that work could start mid February.

In the middle of February 2013, I was sitting in a church meeting on a Sunday morning when suddenly the thought came to me, "You know, the money that you are going to spend on that remodel would pay for a mission."   My first reaction was, "Where did that come from?"  My second thought was, "Really, Lord?  You're going to ask that from us?  You know, you really should talk to my wife because it's her kitchen!"  As a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I believe in a loving, personal God.  I believe that He can and does reveal His will to us.   I have had that experience a few times in my life but it is still a little unnerving when it occurs.

I will be honest and admit I was more than a little bit scared to mention this possibility to my wife.  It took me a while to figure out how I was going to break this to her, and finally I just asked her, "What would you think about serving a mission sooner, rather than later?"  Her off the cuff response was, "Sure," and she walked away thinking I meant maybe in 10 years instead of 15 when we could maybe actually retire.  However, she said that this "sooner, rather than later" comment kept haunting her all week long.   It was her turn to be a little bit frightened when she finally got around to asking me what I had meant by "sooner rather than later."   I looked at her and said, "I think we are supposed to serve a mission when Matthew leaves on his mission. "But don't worry," I continued,  "Matthew is planning on going to school for a year before his mission so we have a little bit of time to figure things out."  Gwen looked at me and replied, "You don't know this, but Matthew changed his mind this week.  He wants to leave this summer."

My immediate thought was, once again, "Really, Lord?  You're going to ask this too?"  But we knew without a doubt that He was asking us to drop everything else to serve him.

 I had a scheduled trip to Japan and I was gone for the next two weeks.  During that time Gwen scheduled doctors appointments, dentist appointments, and everything else that was required for us to prepare to serve as missionaries.   The day after my trip, we had an appointment with our bishop (our local lay ecclesiastical leader) and told him of our desire.  I think he was a little stunned.  He is approximately my age and he had an understanding of the sacrifice that this was going to require.  He was very supportive and set up the process so that we could begin to fill out the paperwork.

During this time, we did not tell anyone of our plans except for our children, and we told them that they were forbidden to tell anyone else!  We finished the paperwork and scheduled an appointment with our Stake President (the lay supervisor of a group of bishops).  He, too, was a little stunned but very pleased that we were in the position to make this decision. When he finally reviewed and submitted all the paperwork (which really is only a Send button on a computer screen), I looked at Gwen and told her that this was real now and that we needed to start telling people.  One of the people that I felt strongly that I needed to tell was Mark Rogers.  He had been our former stake president and had been called to preside over a new mission that was being formed in Patagonia in the southern tip of Argentina.

When we received our mission call it indicated that we had been called to serve in the Argentina, Comodoro Rivadavia Mission.  I tell people sometimes that I think President Rogers prayed us here.  Sometimes I also feel that my mother, who served four missions and passed away the summer of 2012, is on the other side of the veil pushing us on.  The one thing that I do know is that we are here because this is where the Lord wants us.  The Savior told his disciples, "and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." (Matthew 28:20)  We are in Rio Gallegos, in Patagonia, the place they call "The End of the World," and I testify that indeed, the Savior is with us here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fog and Regrets

A foggy morning looking out of our apartment window.
The first week in April we had a very unusual weather event for Rio Gallegos, fog. We couldn't quite figure out why people were so unnerved by clouds hugging the ground. It wasn't even that thick a blanket.  This is a coastal area, and in my experience, fog should be a fairly normal occurrence, but the people of Rio Gallegos found it unsettling.  Then it dawned on us; the air was completely still.  We hadn't had hardly any wind and that allowed fog to settle over the city. 

Sometimes I need to realize that opposing winds are there to keep the fog clear from my life, not just to make it difficult.   My wife states this much more eloquently than I can.  Here are Hermana Merkley's thoughts about a foggy night . . .

Last night we had an interesting experience. As we were out walking to do errands and visits, we watched the sky darken and thicken as fog rolled into the city when the sun set. It created an eerie, haunting atmosphere as the sounds of barking dogs, moving cars, and people talking bounced around in all directions. This fog was a first for us here in Rio Gallegos.

We had an appointment to visit a family from a different branch. When we got there, only the father was home. His wife and daughters were out shopping. We learned that this brother has been a member for 26 years. He served a mission in Córdoba, Argentina and at one time served in the district presidency here in Rio Gallegos. But he allowed some personal frustrations with a few of the members to cloud his thinking and stopped going to church, though he still has a testimony.

He has been married for ten years and his wife is a more recent convert of nine years. When he stopped going to church, his wife's testimony slowly died. With tears in his eyes, he explained how new converts need to be nourished and cared for and that he had allowed his own frustrations to damage the tender testimony of his wife. She is currently working in a Catholic school and doesn't really want anything to do with the church.

He has a strong desire to come back to church. He told us that he knows the things he needs to repent of, but the thought of going to church by himself is really hard. He has a daughter that will be turning eight soon, and he would really like to be able to baptize her. Hopefully he can find the strength to make those changes necessary to return to full activity in the Church.

As we left his house and stepped into the thickening fog, I thought of my own regrets in life. But regrets can only cloud the mind and confuse our purpose. When we turn our regrets over to the Savior, He can heal us and give us clear direction. How grateful I am for my Savior.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Trip to El Calafate

The road to El Calafate
We don't get the chance to do a lot of touristy things here.  We are so busy with the work that it just doesn't happen.  However, on March 20 and 21, 2014 we had zone conference in the city of El Calafate.  It is three and half hours from Rio Gallegos by car.   We had to drive ourselves in our little Ford Ka because we had to be back here in Rio Gallegos early for choir practice for the district conference.   The trip was an opportunity to see some of the country and see some of what Patagonia is all about!  

Most of Patagonia is a flat dry plateau.  As you can see in the photo above, it looks a lot like parts of Wyoming or Idaho: dry, windy, with low grass and shrubs.  Much of the scenery in this area is in the clouds.  They are frequently very interesting.  We did see some interesting wildlife along the way.  We saw three Andean Condors hovering over the road.  They were really cool! Unfortunately, at that point there was quite a bit of traffic on the road (at least 3 other cars) and we couldn't pull over in time to get a picture.  
Guanaco on the road to El Calafate

We saw a lot of guanaco.  They are related to llamas and alpacas but apparently can't be domesticated so they are just wild grazing beasts that you have to watch out for when they decide they want to cross the road! The speed limit on the road to El Calafate is about 70 mph but people apply the same rules that apply driving through much of the western US.  You don't really want to hit one of these things going fast.   Our little car did hit 70 mph going down hill so we generally had a little more time to be prepared for the guanaco!

The city of El Calafate is next to Lake Argentino . It is a very large glacial lake.  There is a bird refuge on part of the lake but there were a lot of birds even right on the lake by our hotel.  There are two species of swan here that we have seen.  Black-necked swan and Coscoroba  (Thanks to Daniel and Wendy for the bird book!)  The Coscoroba look pure white when they are sitting on the water but when they take off you can see the black wing-tips in flight and it is pretty stunning.
Black-necked swan on Lago Argentino
There is also a species of flamingo in Patagonia.  I tend to think of flamingo as being more tropical birds, but Chilean Flamingo seem to flourish in all their pinkness even here close to the Antarctic and yes those are part of the Andes off in the distance.

Chilean Flamingo on Lago Argentina

The day after the conference we went to Los Glaciares National Park and visited a huge glacier called Perito Moreno.  The set of glaciers in Los Glaciares are some of the few in the world that are still actively growing.  Perito Moreno was very impressive.  The coloring of the glacier is an intense sapphire blue and the immensity of it difficult to describe and hard to comprehend from photos.
The Perito Moreno glacier in Parque Nacional de los Glaciares

We saw some people making a trek over the top of glacier and they looked like ants. The front of the glacier is about 70 meters high. We got to take a boat tour to see the glacier closer.  While we were on the boat, a huge section of ice calved off and created a rolling wave.  The boat had to move quickly away from the area and position itself to be hit by the wave. 
Looking towards the opening into Lago Argentino.

They have done a great job with the national park.  There are raised walkways that allow you see the glacier from many different perspectives and still protect the vegetation and wildlife.
The Perito Moreno Glacier and one of the overlooks.

 As you might have noticed we did get a good look at the Andes at last.  Most of the day was kind of overcast but we did get a few glimpses of spectacular peaks.  This picture turned out kind of cool.  It turned out looking like black and white just because of the lighting and the coloration of the rock and snow.  It was a pretty spectacular day.   

We did leave Los Glaciares in time to make it back to the choir practice in Rio Gallegos.  I was directing the choir and Hermana Merkley played the piano.  We sang Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd and it turned out really well.  The third verse states

Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the "ninety and nine";
Dear are the sheep that have wandered
Out in the desert to pine.
Hark! He is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today:
"Will you seek for my lost ones,
Off from my shelter astray?"

The song fits well with the work that we do.  There are times when we have all wandered and  need someone to come looking for us.  There are some that we meet that truly just need an invitation to come to Christ.  There are some that it will take much more, and some that may never return but they still tell us that their door is open because they love the Spirit that we bring.  It is fun to go see the tourist things that are here at the end of the world, but it is more fulfilling to see lives changed as they allow the atonement of Jesus Christ to take effect in their lives.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Utilities (Part 2)

Here is part 2 of Hermana Merkley's account of our exploits with Argentine bureaucracies!   Enjoy!

Dear family and friends,

I promised you the rest of the story in getting our utilities changed into our name so here it is!

Day 1
After finally getting the gas changed into our name, we felt confident as we walked down to the public services which bills for electric/water/garbage. With copies of our rental contract and passport in hand and an approximate address on Kirchner, the main road downtown, we were ready to tackle this next errand. After wandering around and asking at least two people for directions, we finally realized we had passed the building twice, not knowing what we were really looking for. Feeling somewhat humbled, we walked inside and took a number. Most businesses here run on this system. If you want service, you take a number and wait for it to be called. There were at least twenty numbers ahead of ours with four boxes, or attendants, so we knew it would be a long wait.

The room was filled with people, with more people entering than leaving. It was just after 12:00 and many people were on their lunch break. Most of the businesses here actually close for lunch and the cultural siesta. The public services stay open until 1:30 p.m. but does not reopen later in the day. Soon I felt perspiration pooling on my forehead and running down my back. (That is the other thing we have noticed here; many people keep their homes or businesses very warm.) After feeling like we were starting to cook, we decided to step outside to cool off. We wandered down to a craft store and checked out the yarn prices. (Yes, Elder Merkley is very supportive of my wishes.) After a few minutes we headed back to the public services, hoping they would get to our number before they closed. There were still about seven numbers to go so we waited, anxiously watching the clock. Finally, our number was called. We went up to the attendant and presented our documents. She took one look at the copy of our rental agreement and told us that it wasn't sufficient. She needed the original certified copy. We left feeling discouraged because our certified copy was at the mission office in Comodoro Rivadavia, around 500 miles away.

Days 2-5
After talking with Elder Carter in the mission office and explaining our dilemma, he decided to send us the original document by certified mail. Three days later we received a notice in our mailbox that we had a certified letter waiting for us at the post office. The mail system within the country seems to be very efficient. Since the post office closes early, we had to wait until the next day to retrieve our letter.

Day 6
The next day we walked down to the post office and waited in line, thankfully a very short line, and showed the postal worker our notice. She politely told us that we were at the wrong place. We needed to go downstairs to a different room to request a certified letter. After finding the room, we were relieved to see that only one person was ahead of us in line. We proudly presented the new postal worker our notice, and he went to find our letter. We waited, and waited, and waited. I was starting to wonder if he had taken a lunch break when he finally returned with our letter. We left clutching the document, knowing that we would have to return to the public services another day since they were now closed.

Success at day 7!
Our second time at the public services the line was shorter and the room wasn't quite as hot. (We are learning to be thankful for small miracles.)  When our number was called, we showed the attendant our original certified copy of our rental agreement. She quickly looked it over and then told us we needed to give her a copy of the certified copy that she could keep on file. We handed her the copy we had made days earlier, puzzled by why she had to see the orginal copy in the first place. She then told us that she couldn't transfer the utilities into our name until the final bill was paid by the previous tenant, a bill that hadn't even been sent out yet. Not wanting to go through this process all over again, we agreed to pay the previous bill which was about $6.50 USD. The government heavily subsidizes the public utilities which is a blessing to those who are really struggling financially. The attendant gave as a hand written copy of the bill and showed as the window where we could pay it. And yes, you guessed it, we had to wait in another line. We paid the bill and went back to the first attendant. She verified our receipt and quickly and efficiently made the changes. She then told us we were good to go, but reminded us that when the next bill came in the mail in a week or two for the $6.50, we should ignore it since we had already paid it.

Love Hermana Gwen Merkley

Thursday, March 6, 2014

His Grace is Sufficient

Here is another of Hermana Merkley's emails.   She writes much better than I do.  Maybe someday I'll get the comma thing down right so she doesn't have to correct it all the time . . .

Dear family and friends,
Lest you think we spend all our time doing mundane things, I thought I would share some of the other kinds of experiences that we are having.

We have spent a lot of time with people who are in a great deal of emotional and spiritual pain. It is often hard to know how to help or give any comfort. We often leave these homes feeling frustrated with ourselves, wondering if we made any difference in the lives of these people. Other times we definitely feel the hand of the Lord. The other day we were visiting with an inactive sister who was recently separated from her husband. During our visit she had an emotional breakdown. It was hard to know how to give her any comfort since I knew that I didn't have any answers for her. The only thing I could tell her was that God knew her and loved her, and that Christ's atoning sacrifice covered her pain and anguish. (Alma 7:11) Elder Merkley offered to give her a blessing for comfort and strength. It was amazing to feel the power of the Spirit come into the room and fill it with peace where just moments before it had been filled with pain.

We had a much harder experience with an inactive brother our first week here in Rio Gallegos. While still living in a hotel and spending a great deal of time apartment hunting, we tried to spend a little time each day contacting members. We had a branch list so we started knocking on doors of members in the area closest to the church. The second house we tried, a man opened his door and came outside to talk to us. At first he would not admit to being the member that we were looking for. After a short conversation where we thought at any moment he would tell us to get lost, he finally admitted to being a member of the church. Elder Merkley asked him if he remembered his baptism and the missionaries who taught him. He replied that it was a long time ago. His body language was still very antagonistic. We were getting ready to walk away, when suddenly something changed inside this man, and he invited us into his house. We sat around his table where he proceeded to tell of all his struggles and some of the reasons why he hadn't been to church for many years. His pain was so great that it hurt to be in the same room. It was one of the few times I was very grateful that I didn't understand a word he was saying. But I felt his emotional distress. Elder Merkley promised him that God still loved him and again asked him if he remembered his baptism. This time he responded by telling us the names of the missionaries that baptized him almost 20 years ago. He spoke of them with great love. He then told us he had been a former branch president. Then he walked over by his TV and picked up a magazine there. It was the last Liahona he had received in 2006. He showed us a picture of President Hinkley and we felt of his great love for this prophet of God.

We still don't really understand all the reasons why this man hasn't been to church for years, but we do know that God wants him to come back. We've tried stopping by several other times, but he has never invited us back inside. He seems almost embarrassed about having let us in that first time. But we keep running into him in the grocery store. The last time we ran into him, Elder Merkley mentioned an article found in the Liahona that we thought he might be interested in reading.  Last week we dropped off a copy of "Su gracia es suficiente" and he agreed to read it. We haven't managed to catch him at home to see if he has read the article, but we don't think it's a coincidence that we keep running into him.

Our days are filled with many small miracles like the examples above. We haven't really seen anything that most people would recognize as truly miraculous, yet we have felt God's hand in our lives time after time. We know he is there, and we know that he cares about the people here in Rio Gallegos.

Sister Gwen Merkley

Friday, February 28, 2014

Utilities (Part 1)

Some of you may not have gotten Hermana Merkley's email.  I thought it was to good to pass up so I'm going to post it here as well!

Dear family and friends,
I can think of so many things I would like to tell you, but I never seem to have enough time. Everything thing here seems to take at least twice as long, often three or four times as long. Nothing happens quickly in Argentina. For example, the other day we were trying to get the utilities changed into our name. We went to Camuzzi first, the company for the natural gas. We had looked up the information online and knew that they needed our passport or DNI (Argentine national identity card)  and a copy of our apartment contact. We had sent the original apartment contract back to Comodoro since Pres. Rogers had signed that one, but we did have a copy. We walked the mile plus and found the place, that in and of itself was amazing. So far so good. We got in line (it was amazingly short) and waited our turn.  When we got up to the desk and told the employee what we needed to do, he asked to see our documents. Feeling prepared, we proudly pulled out our documents only to be told that we needed to have copies made that they could keep on file. They couldn't make copies, we had to bring them ourselves. We asked where we could get copies made and went off to find the copy center. Luckily it was only a couple of blocks away. We had two copies made of each document since we knew we had to change the electric/water/garbage bill into our name as well. We went back to Camuzzi, waited in line again, turned in our documents, and the changes were made. All in all a simple process that only took about three hours out of our day.

Changing the other bill is a much longer story so I'll save it for another day.

Finding a copy center had been one of our goals since Elder Merkley wanted to make copies of a Liahona article from Brad Wilcox, "Su gracia es suficiente" ("My Grace is Sufficient"), to give to people. On another day, Elder Merkley downloaded this article onto a thumb drive, and we set off to find the copy center again. We showed the employee our thumb drive and were told that he couldn't use that. We left to find an Internet café where we could print off the article first, then bring the one copy back to the copy center to have copies made. (Copies are much cheaper at the copy center.)
When we arrived at the Internet café and plugged in the thumb drive, Elder Merkley couldn't locate the article. (He later realized that he had two thumb drives in his pocket and had plugged in the wrong one.) He got online, found the article again, and printed it off.  We got in line, paid for the computer time and the four page copy, and headed back to the copy center. At the copy center, we asked for 10 copies. The employee printed out the 10 copies, forty pages, and then proceeded to collate them by hand. Once they were collated, he stapled each copy. Then he went back and manually tightened each staple since the staples only loosely held the pages together. Watching him work, I felt like I was in a time warp of about thirty or forty years. We left the copy center proudly holding our ten copies, feeling like we had successfully navigated another mystery in Argentina!

This email seems long enough so I will close for now,  leaving the reason for the copies for another day. Please know that we feel of your prayers. 

Love Sister Gwen Merkley

San Benito

The outskirts of San Benito by evening.
So I need to tell you a little bit about one of the areas here in our branch.  San Benito was originally agricultural land outside of Rio Gallegos, but around 5000 acres of it got gathered up through allegedly nefarious means and purchased by an individual who wanted to subdivide it and create a new part of the city.   The city denied the permits because parts of it are boggy, it is too far away to provide any services, it is outside the city limits . . .  Well, this guy subdivided it and started selling lots anyway.  I think he probably made his money and took off leaving a pretty big mess.   The government "expropriated" (is that an English word?) the land and tried at first to drive away the people that had built there.  In the end, the government has had to accept that San Benito is going to exist.   Through the efforts of a Catholic priest, they have started to obtain water, power, gas, and maybe someday even a sewer system.  There is a beautiful school that has been built in the center of the area, but it can't open because there is no sewer. 

A San Benito house with the requisite DishTV satellite disk.

The place is an odd conglomeration of shanty town and really nice but compact homes.  Most of the construction is a work in progress done by the homeowners as they have time and money for materials.  The surrounding area  is all dirt roads, ruts and mud.  (We have to be very careful where we drive with our little car!)  The exterior of most of the houses is very unfinished.   The first clue that something may be different is the 1.5 meter DirectTV dish outside the home. (They may not have running water but they have to have their DirectTV!)  Inside the house things can be very nice.  Tile floors, granite counter-tops, 42 inch or bigger flat-screen TVs.  On the other end of the spectrum you have people who hold the land essentially as homesteaders.  As long as you can build and keep a permanent structure on land assigned to you by lottery it is yours.  Keeping the permanent structure is a little more difficult than you might think.   Remember the wind that we've talked about?  The structure has to be strong enough to withstand the elements.  Then there are the robbers who will try to steal the land or the materials used to build a house while it is still under construction.  Many of these homes end up being one room corrugated tin shacks that can be built quickly and have a lock on the door to protect the few meager possessions that they have.

We visited one of the families in a corrugated tin shack.  They have a three year old daughter that is absolutely precious.  She snuggled up to Hermana Merkley almost immediately.  The mother had surgery several months ago and is still recovering, but her biggest concern was that as part of the surgery they had removed a mass, and the results of the tests were yet unknown.  We went with her and her daughter to the doctors last week, and she found out that the tumor was not malignant.   They were in church for the first time in months on Sunday.  The branch president told us that he had never seen her glow like that before.

It is fascinating to visit the people in this area.  They live a long ways from the church, and the buses, especially on Sunday morning, are not very reliable.  It is a huge financial burden on some of them to make it to church.  As we talk to some of these less active members, we find that they have testimonies.  We asked to read a scripture with one of these families and all the kids went and grabbed their own scriptures to follow along.  They remember with great fondness the missionaries that baptized them, and they remember the day of their baptism as one of the best events of their lives.  We hope we can strengthen the people in this area so that we can have a chapel closer to them.

BTW, to all you returned missionaries, we have met people who were baptized 20 or 30 years ago that want to know what  happened to the missionaries that taught or baptized them.  If you put up a Facebook page and indicate that you served in a given area, they can probably find you now!  If you have their names try to find them.  It will bless your life and theirs.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Catching up

Yea! We have internet in our apartment.  OK so for right now it is only 512KB/s so don't expect me to be uploading any pictures anytime soon!  But at least it will allow me to post some text and let people know what is going on with us.

So first a little catching up . . . our trip here was, well shall we say, exciting?  Frankly, the last thing you would wish for anyone having an intercontinental flight is exciting.   We flew out on January 6 and the weather on the east coast was awful so our plane showed up in SLC about 3 hours late.  We landed in Atlanta with about 45 minutes to make the flight.  Tight but doable except that there were no gates available to let us off the plane!  By the time we finally got off the plane, our flight to Buenos Aires had already left.  They rerouted us through Santiago, Chile but there were mechanical problems with that flight so we missed the connection from Santiago to Buenos Aires.   We finally made it to BA at about 5:00 in the afternoon and met the good brother that had been waiting for us in the airport since before 8:00 a.m.  Unfortunately, while we made it, none of our luggage did.   We spent the night in BA and were advised to just fly on to Comodoro Rivadavia and our luggage would catch up to us.  Three days later it finally mostly made it.  There were a number of items missing out of our luggage and I am still working through that with the airlines. 

We retrieved the last piece of luggage from airport on our way out of town on Friday, January 10 to drive to Rio Gallegos.  Rio Gallegos is about 500 miles from Comodoro.   Stop and think about that for a minute.  That's like driving from the center of Utah, say Fillmore, to Disneyland.  This is all one mission and we aren't even close to the end of it.  Ushuaia is at the end of Tierra del Fuego and is another 350 plus miles from Rio Gallegos over dirt roads and including customs for both Chile and Argentina plus a ferry ride.   Comodoro is more in the center part of the mission.  If you haven't gotten the picture yet, this mission is geographically huge!

Wikipedia lists the 2010 census population of Rio Gallegos as about 100,000 people.  From walking and driving around it, I have to say that it doesn't feel that big.  The downtown area is fairly compact and very walkable.  The city feels to me more like Missoula, MT when I was growing up and that was more like 50,000 people.  President Rogers told us that as a couple we should plan a weekly date.  However, when we ask people what they do for entertainment here, they just kind of shrug their shoulders and say they go visit friends or go to Punta Arenas, Chile (we asked but that is outside of the mission and we don't get to go there).   Since we go visiting people all the time our dating is going to have to be a little creative!

As we meet people here they are always asking us how we like the weather here.  My response is that the people are really kind and friendly.  They say that Rio Gallegos has four seasons in every day.  This morning early it was calm, sunny and a little warm.  This afternoon the wind blew relatively hard only about 30 mph with a few stronger gusts.  Tonight it is cold and rainy.  That is a typical summer day here.  (Remember that this is the southern hemisphere so while you are having winter we are having our summer.) Very seldom do you see people walking around without a jacket or sweater on.  I think we hit 70 on one day but that has been the high and most of the time it is quite a bit cooler.  Winter could be interesting.

We got here in the month of January which is equivalent to August in Europe.  Everyone was on vacation and not much was happening.   We bought some furniture from a store that had free delivery except all the delivery people were on vacation until the beginning of February.  So we got one of the members with a truck and the Elders to do the delivery.  Our first Sunday here, all the of the branch presidency was out of town, as well as the Relief Society Pres. and the Elder's Quorum Pres.  We now have all of the branch leadership back in town and it feels like things are moving forward.   We have been called to teach the Temple Prep class and we are contacting people that the branch council has singled out for that class.   President Rogers said he was going to call the branch president and let him know that we should have 3 or 4 callings in the branch, one is just not enough!  It reminds me of my parents in our small ward in Montana.  I'm sure there were times when my Mom normally held down at least 4 callings just to keep things working!

We have met a number of people in the branch and we hope to get into all the homes eventually.  I am amazed by the faithfulness of many of the people here.  There are many who are classified as less active but I am astounded by the level of sacrifice it takes just to get to church for many of them.   We walk into a home of someone who has not been to church for sometime and we read a scripture with them and the whole family runs to get their personal scriptures to read along.  I feel a little embarrassed about the complaints that I sometimes made about having to run over to the church for something.  It is incredibly humbling being here and working with these people.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Here we are!

OK, so internet time is hard to come by in Argentina.  It turns out many things can be hard to come by sometimes.   We are in the city of Rio Gallegos.  It is the furthest south city on the continent.  There are cities further south but they are on islands.  We are about 50 miles north of the Strait of Magellan.  There have been other couples here in the distant past but it has been at least 20 years since there was a senior couple here.   We know that because one of the members started piano lessons with a couple.   He is now a full time music teacher.   I hope we can have that kind of impact and I hope that couple knows that what they did blessed someone's life immensely.

Moving as a senior missionary couple into a new area is a lot like opening a new area.  Even though we have missionaries and members here, there was no place for us to live and no furniture for it once we found it.   We have finally found a place and have at least the necessary things to get by.   We are supposed to acquire a few more things but we will probably take our time and try to get the best deals that we can.  Shopping for things for the apartment does give us lots of opportunities to talk to the shop keepers and explain to them why we are moving here.   We are also figuring out how we can do the Lord's work here.  We are kind of feeling our way along on that one.   We are here to support the members and leaders and they are not yet sure what we can do to support them.   We are doing visits to both active and less active members and helping the missionaries with some of their lessons as well.  

Just a little bit about Patagonia.   Most of Patagonia is a flat, dry, plain area.   There are regions that are close to the mountains and those are the areas that you see in the pictures.   Most of the rest is covered in low growth that doesn't get blown away in the wind.   I wish we would have understood a little more about the wind before we came.   Yes, we were told that the wind blows but I don't think anyone really emphasized the word BLOWS.   We have an Elder here from Florida and he says that if it were blowing this hard in Florida they would call it a hurricane!   We determined that our walking range in that kind of wind is somewhat less than 3 blocks.   It is summer right now and the winds are relatively calm right now.  I don't think we have seen anything over 50 mph but some days it can just be constant at that speed.   They do have windmills here but they don't function because the wind blows too hard!
I found this link that shows a graph of the winds in Rio Gallegos.  It is kind of fun.

We just wanted everyone to know that we are alive and well at very close to the end of the world!