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!