Sunday, July 5, 2015

Fast Offerings

This is a bittersweet experience.  In just a few hours, we will be released from our calling as full-time missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is wonderful to see our children and be among family, but it is hard to leave other friends behind in Argentina and to leave the joy we have found serving. Before I am released from this special calling, I feel prompted to leave one last message on this blog.  It is a little different than most of the others. There are no interesting pictures, no funny stories, and it may end up being a little bit preachy.  So be warned!

In 1993, Gwen and I felt very impressed that I was supposed to leave a job that I loved in Southern California and return to BYU to work on a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering.  This was a hard decision in many ways. It did not make a lot of sense.  My employer had indicated that I was on a fast track for management, and if I was interested, they would sponsor a doctoral program at USC in another year or two and pay for everything. Instead, we packed up our four little children and moved back to Utah. I had a small stipend for my research there. I had occasional contract jobs. Gwen did child care and managed every penny that we earned so that we could survive. It was our decision to go back to school, and we felt that would manage it as best as we could.

We felt poor. And some of our neighbors recognized that we were poor.  One Christmas, a stranger came to our door and delivered a huge Christmas ham. We carefully cut the meat off the bone and froze it into small packages.  We boiled the bone and made a large pot of soup that we ate for several days. It got to the point that one evening, my six year-old son sat down at the dinner table and hungrily asked, "What's for dinner?" When the answer was, "Ham," he burst into tears crying, "Not ham again," and he refused to eat! It broke our hearts not to be able to provide our children with the things that they wanted.

However, although we felt poor, we had never seen true poverty until we served as missionaries in Argentina. We always had enough flour, oil, yeast and salt so that my wife could make bread for the family. We had a roof over our head that didn't leak. We had parts of the house that were heated so that we could have refuge from the cold Utah winters. We somehow always had enough cash to pay for gas and electricity. We have friends and acquaintances in the Patagonia who don't always have all those same blessings.

As I write this on the morning of July 5, 2015, my stomach is growling and my mouth is dry.  It is the first Sunday of the month. During the first Sunday of every month, members of the LDS Church participate in a fast for two meals, or approximately 24 hours. Those that are healthy enough abstain from food and water during that period. It is a spiritual exercise, this act of subjugating the body to the will of the spirit, but it is also physically crucial. We donate the money that we would have spent on meals during that time and use it to aid the poor. Those of us that can, donate much more than just the cost of those meals to help out those that are struggling. This money constitutes the fast-offering funds of the Church.

Prior to this missionary experience, I had never experienced the affects of real poverty. I had never really known people that did not know where their next meal would come from. Parents that practically starved themselves so that their children could eat. People for whom their most important possession was a lock and a chain so that they could secure their meager belongings, for whom the loss of a broken shovel would be a devastating blow. We saw people frequently take advantage of the poor. They would be offered an odd job at one salary and find that offer reneged for a lower amount when the job was completed. Any money was better than no money so they didn't have any recourse but to accept the payment offered. Sometimes, they were paid nothing for their efforts. Their are few that will listen to the complaints of the poor, and fewer still that will do anything about it.

Part of my missionary service in El Calafate was presiding over the small group of members there in a branch of the Church. I had fast-offering funds at my disposal to help members that were struggling with physical needs. I would sit down and council with them about their situations and try to provide a bridge out of poverty or a hand up to keep them from falling more deeply into that pit of despair. I taught people about budgeting and using the resources that they did have at their disposal. But in the end, I often took them to the store and bought food and medication. I could tell the single mother, "You have enough worries. What your children are going to eat tomorrow shouldn't be one of them!" I could buy the medication that the doctor said was required. I could help someone have heat in a house.

We live in a time where many bemoan the income inequality that exists in this world. I am grateful to belong to a worldwide organization that provides a method of getting specific help to those with specific needs: an organization that lessens the impact of this income inequality, an organization where someone can get to know the people, understand their needs, and alleviate their suffering. The money that I spent providing help to people vastly exceeded the fast offering donations of that tiny branch. People living in more wealthy situations in other parts of the world donated the funds needed to provide help that I was able to give. I am grateful for all those who fast and donate their offerings.

One final note, I have sometimes heard people complain about abstaining from water during the fast. Recent science has shown that there are health benefits from abstaining from food periodically, but why water? The next time you are fasting and your mouth is dry, think of the person who doesn't have access to clean water. Think of the person that carries water great distances up and down steep hills to get water to their house. There are so many things that we take for granted. I am grateful for a Church that helps me think about the important things in life and helps alleviate suffering where it can. I am grateful for all the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their small sacrifices to help all of God's children!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Our calling as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is specifically to find ways to support the members and leaders of the church in the local area where we are assigned.  This boils down to providing service in whatever way that we can.  Many times this has not been just service that we can provide ourselves, but finding ways to support the local members in providing service to one another and the community.

The LDS Church is known for its welfare system and its ability to take care of people.  In areas where the church is strong there are storehouses where people who are in need can go and receive food and necessary supplies.  Here in southern Argentina we don't have that luxury, but we still have families that struggle and are in need.  

One Sunday in Rio Gallegos, the branch president stood up and explained that he was calling for an Almacen del Obispo or Bishop's storehouse.  He explained that since we don't have a physical place for a storehouse, each person's home becomes the storehouse.  In addition, each individual's abilities should be available to aid those in need.  He went on to explain that we have families in our branch that are really in need.  In order to provide for these families, he asked each family to donate what they could. Tonight we, along with some other people, stopped by those families who said that they had things to donate. Others simply dropped off their donations at the church. Then the Relief Society President divided the donations between the two families, and we delivered the items.  People donated flour, sugar, lentils, rice,  pasta, milk, oil, tomato sauce, canned meat, potatoes, onions, salt, toilet paper, infant formula, paper towels, and laundry detergent. When we delivered the items, the recipients were very grateful for all the help. It was a humbling experience. But most humbling of all was the realization that two of the families who donated the most probably could afford it the least. Yet out of their want, they found an abundance and shared with those who had less.

We attended a fireside on "Autosuficiencia"or self-reliance.  The brother presenting the fireside explained that while we all know that missionary work is being accelerated, so are the welfare efforts of the Church.  He taught that part of being self-reliant is also knowing how and when to appropriately ask for help.  He also taught that receiving help requires that we demonstrate that we are willing to do our part and not just assume that it is something that we "deserve."

Here in El Calafate we have had numerous opportunities to serve people that had real need.  We have one recent convert who set up a shack on a friend's land, only to find out later that the friend had been squatting there for 15 years.  The city came with equipment to evict them and move them to land that the member had been able to start to buy.  The land is not that expensive but at about $320 USD per month for a year, it will extract a significant portion of his meager income.  The city came to evict him and the missionaries were there to help.  We had to help tear down the shack he had built, move the materials, and then rebuild it.  The materials are whatever he could scrounge up, old pallets, pieces of scrap wood, cardboard, pieces of scrap tin . . . literally whatever.  We were there until after nightfall, because we couldn't leave until he had a roof over his head.

I did feel it was important for him to have a good roof, so the branch bought 5 pieces of new corrugated tin for his roof and some new nails to hold it down.  As you look at some of the materials, think about the winds in the Patagonia (sustained winds over 60 mph with higher gusts) and below freezing temperatures in the winter.  This is a man that wants to be self-sufficient, and he is doing what he can to reach that goal.  He has changed his old habits, and he now has money to buy land and over time improve it. He now has a wood stove that he built out of an old water heater. We helped him with some of the parts for that, and the hut stays quite a bit warmer and drier than the outside air, but Hermana Merkley and I still worry about how he stays warm. We checked up on him frequently.

It was also a great missionary activity.  One of his neighbors was very curious about who all those people were that were helping him. The police and the city workers that were there to evict he and his friend knew who we were and that he had support in a difficult time. I told the missionaries that this was some of the most important work that they would do in their two years of missionary service.

This is what we started with.
The demolition process.
Loading the truck.

Cleaning up the old property.

On the move!

Somehow things don't fit back together like they did at first!  Do you think the demolition process might been part of the problem?

Aren't the holes in the walls a problem? They are for me but not so much for him!

Getting things firm and more or less square.

We were blessed with a beautiful, calm day, and a clear evening. I can't even imagine trying to do this on a normal, windy day!
We also organized activities with the youth.  In one of them, we went to a playground and adjoining plaza and started picking up trash. We finished that area and then along the pathway that people use to walk to school.  It was a cool, wet morning, but we worked until we ran out of trash bags!  We figure we easily pulled up 200 kg of trash in about an hour and a half. We had a number of people stop and ask us who we were, and why normal people, even teenagers, were out cleaning up the community. The city does a pretty good job in the tourist areas.  They don't do very much in the areas where the people actually live!
There's just a little bit of trash in this area . . .

Our cleaning crew!
We also had a number of opportunities to help people around their homes. Everyone's goal is to own a piece of ground and stop paying rent.  The official government inflation rate was over 20% for last year.  (We won't even talk about the unofficial figures!) Rent prices increase much faster than salaries, so it makes sense to own and live on your own property, even if the house is a work in progress!

We are grateful for the opportunities that we have had to serve! We are grateful for a church that teaches us that we should be self-sufficient, but at the same time acknowledges the need for help. We are also grateful for the blessings that come from serving one another. We love all those that we have had the opportunity to serve!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Happy Anniversary!

This last week Hermana Merkley and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.  I had no idea when I married her that we would be spending our 30th anniversary near the end of the world.  OK,  so the picture above is not on our anniversary, but that is Tierra del Fuego in the background, the place that they call the "End of the World."  So how did we really spend our anniversary?

We got up and went to meet a single sister with two children that didn't have any food in the house.  She was so grateful to have someone care about her and help her out. With all her other concerns, it was nice for her not to have to worry about where the next meal was going to come from.  For those of you who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe me, your fast offerings make a huge difference! She is trying to get on her feet and she has had some jobs, but the last one didn't pay her for the work that she had done.  We see that a lot here.  People feel like they can take advantage of poor people because they don't have the resources to seek help.

After that, we went to the airport to find almost half of the active youth from our branch.  The family had thought about moving from Calafate to Buenos Aires and two sisters and a brother had flown there to live with the Dad.  Unfortunately, the father is an alcoholic (He won't admit that he has a drinking problem, and says that he can quit any time. He has quit at least 100 times!) He was not fixing up the apartment where they were living, and he was not taking care of the kids. The mom finally decided that she would be better off staying here where she is building a lovely home than moving back to Buenos Aires with the school issues, crime, and the problems with her husband. She fed us pizza to thank us for picking up her kids from the airport.

Then we had to deal with physical facilities in the chapel.  The heating went out on Thursday and by a miracle (especially if you understood how things work in the Patagonia) it was fixed by 5 pm Saturday.  We had to get the workers paid and get all the necessary people together to make that happen.  Once again, we were able to do that.  Money matters are way more complex here than at home!  Miracle!

We then went to an appointment with an older couple in the branch.  They really wanted to talk.  They fed us an apple tort and ham and cheese croissants.

We finished up with one more appointment where we were able share a message about the importance of marriage and family.  We left that humble little house with a feeling of peace and tranquility.  We finally got home at about 9:30 pm.

What a way to spend our anniversary!  We were exhausted, but it was great!

On Saturday, we got around to actually celebrating our anniversary.  We held a "quiet little event" where we fed 60 of our closest friends an asado, or Argentine barbecue.  We grilled 20 kilos of chicken and another 20 kilos of good Argentine beef.  The church here is in a rented building that used to be a restaurant.  There is a parilla, or grill built into the back of the church.  The technique here is to grill at a very low temperature for a very long time.  We grilled the chickens for about 3 hours and the beef for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.  It turned out spectacularly.   People brought salads, sodas, bread, and desserts to share.  We had lots of food and enjoyed visiting with everyone.
Preparing the asado on the parilla! This is a great asador!
This is just part of our chapel!

This isn't everyone, but it is about all we could get in the photo!
After the party, we cleaned everything up rapidly and set up for a baptism of an 8 year old girl.  She was so excited.  She wanted one of the missionaries to perform the baptism.  It was great to end the day with a spiritual feast.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Some Days Are Like That!

Like I've said before, Hermana Merkley writes much better than I do.  I thought that this note from her deserved a wider audience!

Sunday morning we had ward council at 8:30 so I was hurrying to get ready. Since we've had several very late nights this last week, my brain was in a fog. Just before I walked out the door of our apartment, I realized that I had forgotten to put my contacts in. Now you have to realize my eyesight isn't really that bad.  I am a little nearsighted and have a slight astigmatism. In my small apartment, I hardly notice the difference. It only makes a difference when I am driving or shopping in a large building. Without my contacts, all the signs are just a touch fuzzy and I can't pull them into focus.
Back to Sunday morning. I hurried into the bathroom and put in my left contact. (I always put my left one in first.) Then I put in my right contact. As soon as it was in, it felt wrong so I tried to take it out. I loosened it on my eye, and then it popped back into place and felt just fine. I sighed in relief. Being in a hurry I went to wash my hands only to find a contact in the sink. Thinking that my right contact had actually popped out when I tried to adjust it, I quickly rinsed it off and popped it back into my right eye.
We arrived at the church only a couple of minutes late due to my struggle with my contacts. After ward council I went to practice the the hymns for sacrament meeting before our three hour block started at ten. With my sleep deprived brain slowly waking up, that was the first time I realized something was wrong with my eyesight. I couldn't get the music to come into focus. I tried moving closer or further away but to no avail. I tried putting on my reading glasses since sometimes I need them with my contacts. (Yes, I have finally reached that age where I can't always get my eyes to adjust from near to far easily.) They made my vision even worse. I started to wonder if my vision was changing. I was relieved to find that the hymns for sacrament meeting were well known, and I practically had them memorized. I quickly stumbled through them and figured I could convincingly fake my way during the meeting.
For the next three hours, I struggled with my eyesight. I developed a slight headache constantly trying to pull my world into focus. With effort I could still read the scriptures and follow along with the lessons, but everything was slightly blurry. I survived playing the hymns without anyone really noticing that I could hardly read the music.  After we arrived home, I hurried into the bathroom to take out my contacts. To my amazement I didn't have a contact in my left eye. Instead I had two contacts in my right eye, one on top of the other. When I had found a contact in the sink, it really was my left contact. Somehow in my daze I hadn't realized I never got it in my eye correctly.
The next time I put my contacts in correctly I was amazed at the clarity of my world. Compared to earlier, my vision was crisp and clear. Everything seemed brighter and purer. I started thinking how the Gospel does the same thing for our vision. Without it we see a good deal. We can even make sense of most of it at times, but everything is a touch fuzzy. But with the clear lens of the Gospel, our purpose here on earth comes into focus. We understand why we have struggles and trials in this life, and we have a perfect brightness of hope in the life to come.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What We Eat!

Eggplant Parmesean with pasta and a green salad.

My children have asked us, "What do you eat?" So, I thought I would take some time to actually document some of that for you.  We don't eat what would be classified as a "normal American" diet, but you have to understand that we didn't eat that way even when we lived in the States!  We tend to cook from scratch, using the freshest ingredients that we can find.

 Finding fresh fruits and vegetables is somewhat of an issue in the Patagonia.  Here in El Calafate we are a long ways away from any of the agricultural areas.  All groceries are shipped in from hundreds of miles aways.  Our normal staple of vegetables includes carrots, bell peppers (both red and green), potatoes, onions, butternut squash, and a little round zucchini type squash.  At times we have also found fresh chard, cauliflower and eggplant.  Apples, oranges, and lemons are staple fruits.  We can also get pears almost all year around, which has really surprised us.  They have to ripen a while, but they are great for cooking.  During the summer we have peaches, nectarines, and plums.  When we get the fruit it is typically pretty green, so we have to let it sit in a paper sack for a few days to ripen.

Argentina is known for its beef, but for the normal person, beef is pretty expensive here. The locals claim that the best cuts of beef are sold for export and that drives up the cost of beef in Argentina. A higher quality grade of hamburger costs about $3.50 US per pound.  It's still not great but at least it doesn't contain a lot of gristle like the cheapest hamburger.  A good cut of roast runs about $6.25/lbs.  A whole chicken costs about $3.25.  We have eaten a whole lot more chicken here than beef.  This does put a crimp on one of traditional Argentinian forms of cooking.  Cooking on the "parilla" or grill is something that people do to celebrate.   We have had grilled chicken many times.  We have had grilled beef as the main course twice because it is just so expensive.  The restaurants here serve local lamb, and we still haven't made it to eat out at restaurant.  We can not get pork here.  We have been told that you can get in Buenos Aires, but we have never seen it here.

There are some other things that are different about cooking in Argentina.  The sugar is a little coarser and works a little differently in baked items like brownies or lemon bars.  We cannot get brown sugar or molasses so we work around, that for chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chips are hard to come by.  More than once, I've just chipped up a bar of chocolate. I don't know what they do to the salt.  The first time we saw Sister Rogers heavily salt a salad we thought she was crazy!  No, the salt just seems weaker somehow.  We are not the only ones that have noticed that. Even the other Latin American missionaries have said that they use more salt here.  

Milanesa with Cauliflower/Potato/Carrot Mash and a green salad.
Argentina has a strong Italian influence in its cooking.  One sister in Rio Gallegos taught Hermana Merkley how to make gnocchi from scratch.  One of the more common meals here is milanesa.  A milanesa is typically a breaded and fried piece of thin meat.  It can be either beef or pounded chicken breast.  Milanesa a la Napolitana can include tomato sauce, cheese and a fried egg. Although, the an eggplant milanesa, pictured above is not unheard of or that uncommon.  When we make milanesa we typically do a much smaller piece of meat and add more to it.  In the meal below, we added a green salad (finding good lettuce is a summer luxury!) and we made Jacob's suggested potato/cauliflower/carrot mash (Dutch stamppot?) to go with it.  We eat way more vegetables than the Argentinians!

Empanadas with roasted butternut squash and potatoes.
Empanadas are are an Argentinan staple.  The most common kinds are beef, chicken or ham and cheese, but there are many variations to that theme.  In Salta, a province in northern Argentina, they add potatoes to make the empanadas heartier.  Eggs are also a frequent addition.  We have even tried apple empanadas.  With a flaky crust, those are almost as good as apple pie! Our empanadas have a different take than the Argentinian variety because we add carrots, zuchini, tomato, and whatever other vegetables we have on hand.  We also do a roast of diced potatoes and butternut squash with olive oil.  This wasn't really my whole dinner.  I just forgot to take the picture until I had eaten half of it!

One thing that we eat that they don't eat much of in Argentina are beans.  You can buy dried beans in the store but, other than lentils, most people don't eat them.  We use garbonzo beans, black beans, and navy beans.  We made a white chicken chile for the missionaries that they mostly enjoyed.  I think the elder from Buenos Aires just thought it was weird.  The elder from Panama couldn't get enough!  The Argentinans don't do spicy, but here in the Patagonia there are more Chileans and Bolivians so there is a market for spicy.  We can't get chiles here but we can get red pepper flakes.  The white chicken chile still wasn't very spicy so we will have to work on that.

Chicken Pot Pie

One common dish here is a torte of chard, ham, and cheese.  You can buy pre-made crusts for the torte.  We decided to try to make a chicken pot pie using the crust.  It turned out really well.  We tried serving it to company and we were told, "Hmm, very flavorful."  Diplomatic, yes.  I real complement, I'm not sure!

Butternut Squash Soup
One of our favorite dishes has become this butternut squash soup.  We buy chorizo, a type of sausage somewhat like a keilbasa, and cook it on low our crockpot for about 8 to 10 hours.  This renders out the gristle and makes for a really nice flavorful sausage that we use to many dishes.  Here we combine red pepper, onion, garlic, corn, cream or homemade yogurt, and butternut squash with the chorizo to make a really nice soup!

Dulce de Leche

No discussion of food in Argentina would be complete without talking about dulce de leche.  For those of you who do not know, dulce de leche is similar to a thick carmel sauce, but the chemical reactions are different so that dulce de leche is smoother and maybe a litter sweeter.  When you walk into the store there is half an aisle dedicated to dulce de leche.  They use dulce de leche on almost everything sweet.  A birthday cake will have a dulce de leche as the layer between two cakes.  The bakeries have cones of dulce de leche dipped in chocolate.  The pièce de résistance of dulce de leche in our experience had to be a flan.  An older couple invited us for lunch, and for dessert she had prepared a flan.  I have to admit that I have eaten flan before, it was popular in Spain, and I'm not a big fan.  When she brought out the dessert, each serving had a huge scoop of whipped cream and another huge scoop of dulce de leche. Best flan I have ever eaten.  I decided that anything covered in enough dulce de leche is wonderful!

Just as a side note on the dulce de leche.  This is the cheap store brand.  The most common grocery store (nearly a monopoly) in the Patagonia is called La Anónima.  The name comes from the term Sociedad Anónima or S.A. which is equivalent to Inc. in English.  The best translation for the name of the store would probably be "The Corporation."   I try not to think about it too hard, but buying your food from a monopoly called "The Corporation" seems like something out of a creepy science fiction story.

Oatmeal with peaches, homemade yogurt and cinnamon.
The meal that we are the most un-Argentinan is breakfast.  We eat a pretty boring breakfast.  Pretty much every day we eat oatmeal, with some kind of fruit cut into it (we can get peaches right now, yum!) a scoop of yogurt and cinnamon.  We have finally found a brand of cinammon that tastes like cinnamon and not bark.  We buy Quaker oats because it is the cleanest.  We still pick out hulls everyday.  I'm not sure what the difference is in the processing between the US and Argentina but we still get oat hulls with every breakfast.

Making yogurt.  Scalded milk in jam jars in a warm water bath in our warmed crock pot.
Yogurt is another staple of Argentinean society.  When you walk into the grocery store there is a cooler 20 ft long full of yogurt.  There is only one problem.  There are basically two flavors, vanilla and strawberry, and it is all sweetened!  It is not just a little sweet, it is really sweet.  We are really grateful to Sister Rogers for giving us a crockpot.  We use it for many things, but it really helps with the yogurt.  I scald whole milk, and put it into cleaned out jam jars.  The jars go into a warm water bath in the warmed, but not too hot, crockpot crock.

That gets put into a box with our towels and the whole thing gets wrapped and covered over night.  The cardboard box just helps with the insulation so it doesn't cool down too fast.  I have found that it takes some experience to get the temperatures just right so we don't get super tart yogurt.  At the same time there seems to be more leeway than the 100 F that the internet suggests!

By morning, we have three jars of creamy, unsweetened yogurt! As you can see, fresh out of the jar it isn't supper thick, but after curing in the fridge they seem to thicken a little more.  We don't wait for the first jar to cure.  It just gets eaten that morning!  The three jars typically last us about a week.

As you may be able to tell, we do spend quite a bit of time shopping, cooking and eating.  We feed the young missionaries, and we invite branch members to our house to try "American" cooking. At least we eat well!