Monday, December 29, 2014

Note from Mom: We were able to Skype with Alex from midnight to 3am (our time) on December 23rd. It was wonderful to see his face and hear his voice. Thanks to Alex's dad, the entire call was recorded. It is available under a passcode on You Tube. Please post a note on this blog or send me a Facebook message if you would like access to see the call. I will happily send you the passcode.

Dear Friends and Family,

It was awesome to talk to all of you on Christmas. As far as my Christmas, what can I say, it was a Madagascar Christmas. In this context that means that we reenacted the Christmas story a little bit. Since non of us wanted to cook we went out to eat at the one restaurant that was open on Christmas. It's a little Muslim place down the street. It was funny because they were playing Christmas music - ha ha. After that we went around and shared Christmas spiritual thoughts with people on the road. Everyone here gets dressed up and goes to church on Christmas. The dress actually resembles our Easter.

It was a little weird to work on Christmas, but it was also really fun and rewarding. We tried to visit our older investigators and those without family nearby. We sang hymns with them and tried to make things feel Christmasy and fun. Mostly we just worked really hard. Also, thankfully my companion got to talk to his family. It's expensive to place phone calls. His family doesn't have access to a computer, so he couldn't Skype them. Thankfully they were able to save up some funds to call him. Overall, it was a great way to spend the day, and it was neat to bring glad tidings in a very literal way.

I went on a split this week with two Elders in my District. Unfortunately I got way stinking sick! It was my fault. I drank sketchy water. I had been riding my bike all day and I was really thirsty. That's what I get for doing things that I know are dumb - ha ha!

Have a Happy New Year,

Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hmmm... What to say, what to say. Well, first off, it's super exciting how close things are to Christmas. I'm anxiously awaiting our talk on Christmas!

As far as how things are going in Madagascar, we're doing great as always. Things are going really well with the work here, and it's super exciting to be a part of it. We have been having a lot of success getting people to church. This Sunday we had 12, which was a pretty good amount.

I'm glad to hear you are all doing well. It was funny to see pictures of you guys wearing long sleeves. I can't even imagine that because it is always so hot here. This week was particularly bad because the power was out almost constantly. That meant washing clothes by hand and taking cold showers to stave off overheating. Summer is in full swing here and Toamasina is one of the hotter places. It's also one of the most humid places because the eastern half of Mada is more humid then the western half. The humidity has just been kind of sitting. It doesn't rain that often it just is hot and sticky. I think I'm getting used to it though. At first I couldn't sleep at all if the power was out. Now I just don't like it. Before when the power came on I would sprint to shut the doors and turn on the AC. Now I don't really care... as much... hahaha!

This p-day did have a sad tinge to it. Almost all the Elders that I've been with since I got here moved to a new area. Our house went from a six man to a four man house. I actually prefer that because it's much calmer. Last p-day, our house had a Christmas meal, which was pretty fun. I made a roast. I decided that it was my Christmas present to myself.

Elder Razandetsetra and I are also doing well. My Malagasy has become much more communicative, which makes it easier to talk to him. It's also fun because in companion study I get to teach him a lot about the gospel. He's only been a member for three years, and there are some holes in his knowledge. We have a good time. He's helping me with my pronunciation, which is the thing that I think I struggle with most right now. He says our investigators have to get used to how I talk before they can understand me. But the goal is to get over that so that I can just talk. Also, I'm still working on comprehension, but as you know with languages, you learn little by little.

Elder Gaul got home this week and killed me with stories of his adventures - mostly centered on food! Thankfully, I got to call him right before he left. That was really awesome. I already miss him a lot. He was a super studly missionary!

Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, December 15, 2014

Alex driving a pous pous

Yesterday was transfers. That didn't mean a whole lot for me because I am training, which is a twelve week program. However, it does mean a whole bunch of new stuff is happening in Toamasina! All but one of the Elders in my house (excluding my companion) are moving. It will be exciting to have new people in the zone down here. It's also funny because I am the longest resident of Tomatov now. It's weird to think that I'm the oldest in any regards, but I've almost been on my mission six months!

I can't wait to talk to you in a week and a half. We'll get everything figured out then. I don't think there will be any issue. Once the cyber we usually go to is open again it will be easy to figure all this business out. 

In other news we had a really good week of work. We have a group of really cool investigators. We are teaching one young guy in particular named David. He's really excited about the gospel. His mom said that he and I look alike except that he is dark, which I thought was really funny. 

This week we also went to a birthday party of a less active member that we have been working with. He didn't tell us, however, that he was inviting a bunch of work friends (he works on board the Mercy Ship). We actually got to spend about an hour with a group of Americans. It was really fun to speak English with native speakers, but it was hard because people were speaking both Malagasy and English. My mind couldn't switch back and forth fast enough. My words would come out alright, but my English grammar was pretty funny. I don't know if they believed I was from America. That is not to say my Malagasy is that good, but I like to joke that before you can learn Malagasy you have to forget everything and start from the bottom up! Right now I'm still in the forgetting stage. It was cool though because all of the Malagasies at the party were translators, and they couldn't believe a white person could speak Malagasy at a communicative, conversational level. Plus, I had popcorn for the first time in like six months at the party! Other than that things are really about the same. I'll let you know about all of the new Elders next week. 

Talk (I mean really talk) to you soon!

Elder Ahlstrom 

Note from Mom: The following pictures range in time from Alex's arrival in Mada to late November. I was just finally able to get them this week, so I am posting them out of chronological order. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

I'll start with the thing that you're most interested in - the Christmas Skype. First, the cyber that we usually go to is closed for two weeks. Regrettably, it's pretty much the only cyber that has Skype installed. I'll try to see if this computer does, but it's in French so no promises. Otherwise, the p-day before Christmas I'll do all of the stuff that I was going to do today. That will give just a few days before actual Christmas for us to figure it out. Also, internet is weird here. So, if worst comes to worst I'll give you my cell number. Then I'll email you when I'm available and you can call. The problem with that is it may not work well and it's expensive. It'll be fine though and we'll figure it out. I'll be on about 6pm our time. We'll probably have 45 minutes to talk.

This week has been awesome. My companion baptized his first person on Saturday. He was very excited. The font was full of bright green water, which was a little off putting, but other than that it was all very good. Then a recent convert in our branch baptized his grandson. He was also very excited. It was kind of hard organizing a baptism in a language that is still hard for me to understand, especially because I had to use weird new vocabulary like towels, and where's the ladder so they could get into the font, and no you can't swim there! what's the full name of your biological father, and what county do you live in? We got it all figured out though and it went really well. It was definitely a learning experience. The hard thing is that everyone expects you to know what's going on  - ha ha.

We also had really great work in regard to the people we're teaching. We had 12 people come to church who either weren't members or hadn't been members for more than a few hours. Also, we had the former missionary who we're trying to reactivate come back to church. It was so exciting, but also a little scary because now we need to help all those people continue to progress. It's easy when the ball is not in your court, but they showed faith, came to church, and now we need to help them. I'm nervous but super excited. We have such awesome investigators.

This week has felt a lot like Christmas, even though we're so far away. I hope you liked our house's Christmas card picture. Right now we're in a new cyber that is all decked out with Christmas decorations. The funny thing is that they put up little snow flakes, but the fans are on full blast because it's so hot. They're playing Beyonce's Christmas album, which is a little weird to hear someone rapping Silent Night with a full gospel choir in the background.

Next p-day is the p-day after transfers, so a bunch of people will be leaving the next day. Accordingly, we decided to have our Christmas meal a week early. It should be fun. We're going to try to make a roast, so we may end up eating Ramen, especially if the power doesn't come on. I'll keep you posted -ha ha! Send us good thoughts regarding all of that.

So that's about how things are here. I love Madagascar, the work, the people. I am really enjoying myself. It especially feels nice now that I'm getting somewhat functional with the language. Talk to y'all next week.

Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, December 1, 2014

Alex's companion Elder Razafindretsetra


Indian Ocean

Relaxing on the beach

Christmas photo!

(Note from mom: The following email from Alex requires a bit of back story. I learned from the mom of another missionary that a Malagasy pesticide had been used in the home of some other missionaries in Alex's area. The missionaries later learned that it was a nerve agent that has been banned in the US for decades. The missionaries aired out their house and cleaned it thoroughly. I expressed my concern to Alex and urged him to avoid spending time in that home. Additionally, the World Health Organization has again determined that Madagascar has the highest rate of Bubonic plague in the world. It is currently plague season in Madagascar and almost two hundred cases have been recorded this year.)

I'm doing really well. I really miss all of you and I cannot wait to talk to you on Christmas. First let me answer some of your concerns. Don't worry. The other missionaries' house is fine. Sometimes I have to go there on splits so I will be spending the night. However, it was a nerve agent - it can't kill you or mutate cells in your body. Also, the plague isn't really an issue in Tomatov. It's very safe here. The worst thing that has happened is that a drunk guy attacked my companion and me, but we were perfectly safe. So don't worry. Things here are different, but not dangerous. Most of the injuries come from people doing things that would break rules in the US but are considered acceptable here. If you use common sense you will be in almost no danger.

Thank you for the video reference on I really appreciated it. It's funny to look at the Christmas that it portrays (one that I'm used to), and think about the Christmas I'm experiencing here in Madagascar. The comparison actually draws less on the poverty I'm surrounded by and more by the fact that it's the middle of summer here. It's really funny because it's at Christmas, not Easter, that all the women break out their big huge hats! Also the normal consumer culture doesn't surround Christmas here as much. The other missionaries in my house and I are working very hard to try and foster more of a Christmas atmosphere. Friday we set up a tree and took our Christmas picture around it! With the air conditioning on full blast we quickly put on sweaters and took a picture!

This week has been good. We had zone conference, which was really excellent and  a great experience. It was good to see President Adams again. We talked a lot about the growth of the Church in Madagascar. In many ways the Church here is what the church was like in Mexico in the 60's. It was good to hear, because one of the most difficult parts about working in Madagascar is the feeling that we're not gaining a lot of ground. I feel in a unique position from many other missionaries in that we not only do missionary work, we also help run the Branch and do a lot of the day to day work that helps the Church here.

Also, don't worry about making me homesick. I'll let you know if you do. I'm doing very well and I don't really feel homesick. I like hearing from all of you, and I would rather know what's up than be in the dark. It's not like you're doing anything that I'm not aware of, so I'd rather hear about it and enjoy it in a small way with you.

Right now it's raining soooo hard again And it's so hot. It definitely feels like we're in a jungle. I love it, but I won't be sad when I go to a new area (probably in 3 months). We joke that it's so hot that you sweat when you eat. The only way not to sweat is to stay completely motionless.

That's about all I have for  this week. I can't wait to talk to you on Christmas.

Elder Ahlstrom

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hi Family,

How are you? I'm doing really well, as always. Please pass my love on to everyone!

This week I've been thinking a lot about the true value of the gospel. I want to take a little bit of time to share my thoughts. Recently we've had a few families that we've been working with who have run into some really serious struggles. Struggles, that frankly, it seems we can't do a whole lot for. Sometimes we forget the challenges that people face in Madagascar that they don't face anywhere else (at least certainly not in the U.S.) Although I haven't lost faith in the work, I sometimes feel that what we are doing could be misconstrued as unhelpful. Because of that I want to declare that I cannot believe that the gospel is merely a poor substitute for the things in life that bring people real happiness. That what we're doing is merely a patch when what people really need is things that only money or western living can afford. I simply cannot accept that we're peddling a cheap excuse for happiness to cover up the want that separates people. God loves all of us. That's what I have learned from my mission. I have found that the gospel answers all questions, both big and small. Frankly, living in Madagascar has shown me in so many ways, that the little things we think bring happiness really don't matter. I look around at members of the Church here, who really have nothing, and see a happiness in their eyes. That not only enlivens me, but reminds me why I am here. They know that no matter what occurs in this life, they will live together as a family in the next. They know that while they may not have much, someday they will inherit the glory of God. Not a glory of gold or silver, because to God those things have little more value than tin foil. We are co-heirs with Christ, and as such, destined to such a greater glory. In that context, when I consider what the gospel really means to me, it becomes clear that happiness is not something that can be sough after. It is not a collection of affects that once something has lost value in our eyes, is replaced with another "object". True happiness comes from within and has nothing to do with objects. It's the joy the gospel brings. The knowledge that this life is a time of struggles to prepare us for an infinite glory to come. I'm reminded of one of my favorite scriptures in Romans:

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Father.

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

And if children, then heirs: heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

So, that is my spiritual thought, I've just been thinking why I'm on a mission. Not because I don't understand the reason, but because through better understanding I feel I can do much better work. That's my conclusion. When we understand God, the gospel, and Christ - more importantly when we make sacred covenants with God so that we can become an eternal family - then we receive the blessings that no happiness on earth can bring EXCEPT through making those covenants. Because yes! Even on earth we can receive that paradisaical glory!

(Note from Mom: Alex typically sends his emails at about 2:30am Central time. This Thursday will be the first Thanksgiving that I have spent without the company of one of my children. Admittedly, I am missing Alex more than usual. I set my alarm for 2:30 and hopped online with the hope of email chatting with Alex. I was able to catch him online. He only had a few minutes, but it was great to communicate with him. Following are a few things that he mentioned during our chat.)

It's hard not to miss you during the holidays. Don't worry, I'm not missing you too much. The fact that it's like 20,000 degrees right now makes it hard to convince myself that it's almost December. It has rained sooo hard today. It's ridiculous.

We are not doing anything special for Thanksgiving, No, I did not make an apple pie. We're getting ready to set up a tree on Friday.

Lychees are awesome! The best thing is that they're so cheap. This week I bought a whole basket of lychees for the equivalent of two dollars. When I say basket I mean about 10 gallons plus of lychees.It was ridiculous! We had to carry it for like a kilometer and it was heavy, ha ha.
 (I asked a few follow up questions, and then Alex continued) Most of them are picked in peoples backyards. There aren't really lychee farms, mostly just wild lychee trees. (More questions from me, then Alex's reply) Mom! Property isn't really a concept here! (I just wanted to make sure Alex wasn't trespassing or taking food that belonged to people in need!)

Hugs to all, eat extra Thanksgiving dinner for me. Only one more Thanksgiving after this and then I'll be home with y'all again. Ha ha.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tell us all of the details about your new companion. Where is he from? What's his name? What's it like to be a trainer?
My new companion's name is Razafindretsetra. It's funny because his name is so long that the Malagasies can't even say it. Needless to say, he's from Madagascar. Specifically he's from Fenardon Soi (spelled phonetically). It's a little inland mountain town with two branches that are exploding with new members right now. He's really nice, really smart, and really fun to talk to. Although right now he knows exactly zero English. We're working on that though. It's good practice to speak Malagasy all day everyday. I also find that it's helped my language skills because I have to talk about more mundane things, which opens up a new area of vocabulary. It's hard, however, because honestly we share very little in common as far as experiences go. We've been getting to know each other, and we're doing well. I'll send pictures of us. Right now I'm uploading a bunch of pictures but they won't send. 

Did you get any packages?
I did get a package. The candy and muffins are already gone, of course. Thanks for the socks. (Note from mom: the package Alex finally received is the one I sent on September 11th. It took two months to arrive)

What did Sister Adams cook for you?
Sister Adams made oatmeal and muffins for breakfast. Sloppy Joes for lunch. 

Oh, on the picture front, I'm uploading them but it is going SO SLOW, so I hope you actually get the pictures. 

Now, regarding the week... it started on a sad note, saying goodbye to my trainer Elder Gaul. He was transferred to Tana and is now working in Amboimangakely. I got to drive up with him though because I needed to get my trainee. The bus ride was long. I think I've racked up quite a few frequent rider miles since I've now driven 40 hours on long distance taxi be's. They are, as always, not very comfortable. I have not been able to fall asleep on one yet. I guess that's one of my long term mission goals. Tomatov has been ridiculously humid, but it still hasn't had a whole lot of rain. Our power has been out a lot too, which means a lot of sweating and washing clothes by hand. We got a new stove! This may not sound particularly interesting, but its one of the most exciting things that has happened recently. Especially because the old one would take all of the hair off your hands when you tried to start it. Also, on the exciting new things front, the lychee harvest is in full swing. Today I'm going to try lychees for the first time. Await pictures (if Dropbox ever loads, which I wouldn't count on). Today we're going to the bizarre to buy some stuff. At some point, when I get closer to the end of my mission, I think I'm going to buy a ton of jerseys. It's way funny and you see them everywhere. A Lebron James jersey costs about $5 here as opposed to $50-100 at home. 

We're also preparing for some new baptisms coming up on the 29th, so please keep them in your thoughts and prayers. We are baptizing the grandchildren of our recent convert ward mission leader. Actually, I think he's going to do the baptism. He's really funny. His name is Jean de Dieu. He's smart and kind of looks like an old Malagasy version of Smokey the Bear. He's also really funny because he loves to ask deep doctrine questions from the Doctrine and Covenants, that must then be explained in Malagasy. He also loves to talk about the history of polygamy!''

So that's about all for this week. It was a fun week, very exciting. But I also spent a lot of time on a taxi be. Have a great Thanksgiving. I'm trying not to think about it. Thankfully the blazing temperatures make it feel like it isn't the holidays. Regrettably the vahza supermarket put up Christmas decorations and is playing Christmas music. I think I might make an apple pie this week, but I'm not sure because apples are expensive. Okay, y'all have a good week and I'll talk to you soon!

Monday, November 10, 2014


This week I can honestly say that I miss all of you. I miss spending the holidays with you, but I'm so excited about all that's going on here. It's the kind of "missing you" that makes me want to work harder, not less.

This week has been a little bit of a whirlwind.I'll start with the most exciting news! It's a boy! Okay, pardon the mission lingo, but I'm training. On that front there's so much to say. We found out last night. The AP's wait for all the zone leaders to call in their stats. Then in the order that the stats were received they respond to each zone. We found out around 10:10pm, which was good because I was super tired. Although I had no intentions of going to bed util I had heard the news. I leave Wednesday morning to pick up my trainee. I don't know yet if I'm going to be training an American or a Malagasy. Those decisions will be made by President Adams when he has all the trainers and trainees together. One of the best parts is that means I will get to have Sister Adams' cooking, which I'm very excited for. Hopefully you'll get lots of pictures next week when I meet this new Elder.

Oh, here's a funny story. I actually can't take credit for this one. It comes from Elder Wooten and Elder Christiansen in my zone. A few days ago they were working together when they tracted into someone rather strange. At first he seemed like just a nice old man, but then they got talking. It turns out that he has some interesting... beliefs... More specifically he told them that Malagasies are extra terrestrials, but the vahzas (white people) cut off the Malagasies communication with the aliens, and that our church was a tool of white enslavement and separation from their alien forefathers. I love Madagascar! I don't think many people have the opportunity to work with such exciting people. On the other hand we have some really great investigators coming along right now. Don't get the impression that everything is so crazy, but it's certainly not a "normal" experience!

Speaking of Madagascar as not being a normal experience, most of the sheer craziness has worn off. Today a man ran through the busiest road in Tomatov because his hat had blown off. He nearly caused a pile up, causing pusses, tuc tucs, and semis to swerve everywhere. I didn't think anything of it. When I saw someone with an entire butchered cow on the back of his bicycle (you'll have to trust me on this; it was a whole cow!), I thought nothing of it. I will say, however, that I was taken back on Sunday. I was on the third floor of our church, zoning out in our Gospel Principles class (don't judge me - ha ha), when lo and behold the palm tree out the window started shaking. All of the sudden a Malagasy ran up it. He was harvesting coconuts. He just walked right up it paying not mind to the fact that he was 40 feet in the air. Regrettably, my camera was out of batteries because the power has been out almost all week. Needless to say it was a very funny and surprising sight.

I'm doing really well, though. I'm happy and loving the work. I'm also excited because in no time at all it will be Christmas, and you know what that means... (phone calls!) I'm really focused and can honestly say that I'm happy with the work that I have put in thus far. Things are just starting to get hard now. I need to be the senior companion now and step it up!

Elder Ahlstrom

Thursday, November 6, 2014

(Note from mom: On Monday Alex had difficulty trying to upload photos to his Dropbox account. Today these photos appeared in the account. Odd but I'm not complaining!)

P-day lunch at Foulpointe

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

(Note from mom: Frustration on the picture front! Alex is having difficulty uploading pictures to Dropbox. It is unclear if there is an issue with his Dropbox account or if this is a result of antiquated Mada computers. Hopefully there will be many pictures to post next week!)

I think I am FINALLY not sick! I haven't been sick all week. I'm trying really hard to take care of myself because missions are hard when you feel like death! I would like more NyQuil if you could send some. I've been out since just after I arrived in Mada because I've been sick so much.

Answers to the Potter family's questions:
First, please send my love! In my branch there are between 60-80 members. Yeah, it fluctuates a lot. In all of Tomatov there are about 700 members. The church is, needless to say, very young here. Our mission President focuses on what he call centers of strength. We focus on helping districts become stakes and helping build the Priesthood. Before President Adams there were more baptisms, but not the infrastructure necessary to support them. We're working very hard to put forth the necessary effort to hopefully get a temple in Madagascar one day. I can say that working here has taught me the power of the Priesthood, families, and the temple. The blessings received from each not only build the church but ultimately (and most importantly) build the people of Madagascar. That is the real goal.

I have seen some African animals. First off, there are geckos everywhere! They're really great though because they kill the flies and cockroaches, which are also everywhere. I have seen some lemurs. They are pretty rare in the city. I actually saw one as a pet. They're really smart and friendly, although I didn't touch that one because I wasn't sure if it was safe. In Tana you can go to lemur parks and they'll eat honey out of your hand. They're very friendly! I have also seen huge bugs! The rhinoceros beetle, which is huge, and some giant moths (although not the foot long moths - yes, they exist here.) Again, those are pretty rare in the city. Madagascar doesn't quite have "African animals" like lions and elephants because it's an island, but it does have amazing plant life. I essentially live in an African jungle. The humidity is always 100%, and I sweat. A lot - ha ha. But it's super fun and I love Madagascar.

As far as the people go, they are SUPER short! The average height is about 5 feet. I have a picture of me with a bunch of members, but I'm having trouble sending it. Hopefully you will be able to see it next week. I tower over everyone. It's kind of funny. My height combined with being white means that pretty much everywhere I go people stare at me. Most people really haven't seen that many white people and certainly not ones that speak Malagasy. When I start speaking peoples mouths drop. Also, they usually try to speak to me in broken, very broken, French.

So as I said, this week was good. Finally we were able to get back to work. One of the positive and unexpected side effects of being sick was that my Malagasy feels like it has magically gotten better. It's really just that for the first time in weeks my body is functional. The work is going well. We have transfers next week. The coolest thing that happened this week, although not mission related, is that we went to Fulpointe as a zone today. It's a really nice beach just north of Tomatov. The other Elders go a lot, but it was my first time. It was a very relaxing way to spend preparation day. We had lobster and shrimp caught just feet away. I have lots of cool pictures from it that I'll send when I can get the card reader to work. Also, the water is really shallow. I can walk into it really far without the water being above my knees, which is the deepest we are allowed to go in the water. It's really refreshing to feel the water, although if I had to work on the beach everyday it would be a lot of temptation - ha ha.. I still like being so close to the water. It's so relaxing to sit on a lounge chair and write letters! Speaking of that, I have a letter for everyone. I'm sending it today. So yeah, things have been good lately.

Oh, one thing that dad can feel common missionary sympathy for... a "miracle healer" from the U.S. is coming to Tomatov. Her front team has been everywhere putting up posters all over the place, including (and this will tell you a lot about Mada), over the speed limit signs in the middle of town. She's throwing a faith and miracle party where she will "heal" people. Really it's probably just going to start a bunch of riots. As you can see, I'm not very happy about it. Frankly, she's really coming to take people's money. I kept one of her posters as a souvenir because it captures a lot of the religious chaos present in Mada. There are lots of healings, magic, miracles, witchcraft, etc here. We don't really associate with it (obviously), but we see a lot of it. I've been proselyted by a lot of churches.

Okay, well now I'm really done. Can't wait to hear from you soon. People will be coming down from Tana so I should receive any packages or letters that have made it here. I'll let you know.

Elder Ahlstrom

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This week has been a whirlwind. It has gone by really fast. It has also probably been the toughest week of my mission. I got really sick this week. It got really hot this week, that coupled with our power being out meant that I was coughing and sweating uncontrollably with a fever in bed. I finally took some time off and now I think that I'm finally done being sick. Since I've been more or less sick for almost my whole mission, it feels good to be coming out of it. Sadly that meant that we didn't work as much this week. I really like working, but I determined it would be better if I just got totally healthy!

We also finally got to watch General Conference this week. It was great. I also watched the temple video from the Women's Conference. I thought the whole thing was very powerful. I loved all the talks. I really appreciated the counsel about not making excuses and just working hard. I feel like if my mission had a slogan or over arching goal it would be that. I'm trying to really learn what it means to work hard. I was also really touched by Elder Holland's talk about serving the poor and needy because I see what he's talking about all around me. For Conference our whole zone got together and had pancakes and hamburgers.

I've been taking photos. I'm just really bad about remembering to upload them. This week my camera is charging. Next week I will upload as many pictures as I can. Hold me to it! It just depends on the speed of the internet connection. This week I took less pictures just because I wasn't out as much, but there's so much cool stuff that I want to share with all of you.

Also, I did get your package, but I don't think it was the first one you sent. It had sour patch kids, soap, t-shirt, tissues, and toothpaste in it. I really appreciated it. Honestly, all the sour patch kids are already gone-ha ha. The soap and toothpaste were nice to get. It's hard to find nice versions of them here. There are lots of tissues though, so don't worry about sending those again, but I appreciated the thought. I also got your Thanksgiving Day card. I did not, however, get the monster mash video. (Note from mom: our family used Jib Jab to create a Halloween video for Alex set to the song monster mash. Apparently, it didn't make it to his email. The package that Alex received was sent on October 6th. I sent one on September 11th that still hasn't reached him - of course that was the one containing tons of treats and deodorant.)

I don't have much more to say. I sent you a letter that has more in it. I don't know when it will get there. (Note from mom: we have found that it takes four to eight weeks for mail to get from the US to Madagascar. We'll see how long it takes to get from Mada to here.) As I said, it was kind of a bum week. But it definitely had some positive notes, like Conference. Can you believe that it's almost Halloween! Talk to you soon,

Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, October 20, 2014

Note from Alex's mom... I haven't received pictures from Alex for a couple of weeks. I don't know if this is a result of technical difficulties or just an oversight on his end. I will be insistent about getting updated pictures when I email him next week.

What's up?! This week was a good week. President Adams came down from Antananarivo to do interviews, and he brought a member of the quorum of the seventy with him. I love President Adams and the seventy was really cool too. He is from South Africa. My interview went well. Then I followed him around for the rest of the day because my companion is the zone leader. That was really cool because I think it's the job of the seventies to just give great words of wisdom to whoever is around them. He'd just turn to me, ask a question, and them proceed to expand my mind - ha ha. Sister Adams also made us all cookies, which was a little piece of home. She also brought me three dear elder letters and a Halloween card. Packages are coming next week, so if any of mine have arrived I'll know then. It was great to hear from everyone. One of the Malagasy missionaries took the Halloween card because he had never seen sparkles or Halloween before. I tried to explain that it was like jour de morte. It was very funny.

I'm almost done training, so my companion and I have been talking about what we think will happen at the transfer. Missionaries are some of the most intrigue deprived people. It's still three week until transfers and that's the hot topic right now - ha ha. I will probably be leaving Tomatov though, which makes me sad. I love the people here.

We ate at a member's house this week. We're actually discouraged from doing it very often because it isn't really safe. But this person is our district president and we eat there each week. We had tsaramaso. It means good eye. It's delicious and you eat it pretty much all the time here. We also had henakiso, which is just pork. We had mango and strawberry juice which is amazing.It's one of my favorite sides items about Madagascar. They have the best drinks here. Although I've yet to find Mountain Dew. Apparently they sell it at gas stations, so I'll let you know if my quest is fruitful! I really like the other Elders in my house. Especially Elder Wootan from Boston. He will be studying to become an electrical engineer at BYU and he's crazy smart. Also very funny. I love hanging out with him.

Answers to mom's questions
1. Yes, we have a microwave in our apartment
2. I've been generally healthy. I ate something weird so I've been off a bit and I have another head cold. My body is trying to catch up on all these new pathogens. I haven't lost weight. I think I may have gained a bit because of  all the rice I'm eating.
3. We have not been given any special instructions about the plague or ebola. I'm probably as far away from ebola as possible. Ohatra (for example), it's definitely easier to fly from the U.S. to Western Africa than from Mada to Western Africa.
4. Fleas haven't been a problem for me. Some of the other Elders have been bitten, but fleas aren't as bad here as in other parts of Mada.

I love the work here. It's hard and I wish I truly spoke Malagasy, but I love it.

Elder Ahlstrom

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hi. I hope everyone is well. Things are about as normal as they ever are here in Madagascar. A bunch of missionaries had stomach flu this week, myself included. Now we are all better. One of the hard things about living in Mada is that you pretty much always feel a little sick. I find that if you eat through it you will feel better. I made a stew this week, which was good and tasted like home. I was so excited because I found a crock pot in our house. It's nice to have something different from rice. In response to your question about our house, it's nothing too special. It's hard to keep clean because sand blows into it all the time. It's all tile because nothing is carpeted in Mada. We have a little kitchen, three bedrooms, and two couches. As missionaries, I don't know what more we could ask for.

We're teaching a lot of great families. It's interesting to consider the problems that come up with teaching in Mada. I assume they're very different from other missions. We have some really unique issues that we get to address. The four main groups that we run into here - Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and some unusual churches. There are also a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses here. One thing that is interesting about Mada is the over abundance of prophets. People here readily accept prophets, but the idea that there would only be one seems weird to them. The prophets here do "miracles", which essentially means magic shows. I assume this is very unique. New churches start up randomly all the time. Every once in a while you run into some really sketchy stuff, not dangerous, just unusual. Right now we have a bunch of people getting ready for baptism. The hard thing is that most don't have their vita soratra (legal marriage). They just do the cultural fomba marriage and stop at that. It's expensive to get married here and issues often come up. We're working with one family of members that have two kids living with them that aren't members. They just got baptized and they're super cool. They have some kids that are members that are really nice. They have a son named Rico who is my age. It's cool because he speaks about as much English as I speak Malagasy, so not a lot, but we're usually able to have functional conversations.

You asked about the weather. The weather is starting to get really hot and humid. It's pretty ridiculous. Pretty much any movement will cause you to sweat. It's also been raining on and off. The rain is weird here because the drops are small. The rain drops are tiny and there are tons of them. Thankfully my rain jacket is awesome and keeps me very nice and dry.

In English class I got to explain what political asylum means. I'm not always sure where they get their questions! And we went to a soiree yesterday, which was a new experience and very fun. Malagasies like to tell riddles, so now I know a bunch of new riddles:

A family had three sons. The parents asked, "which one of you will bury us when we die?" One said that he would be buried with them. Another said that he would go with them to the graveside. And the last said that he would stay home because he was afraid of graves. What are the three sons? A bowl of rice! The rice goes with you, the spoon goes to the graveside, and the bowl just sits there and does nothing! Funny right? Okay, maybe not, but Malagasies love riddles and I thought that one was pretty clever.

Well, I have to run. Have a wonderful week!
Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, October 6, 2014

A note from Alex's mom:
Today's post is a bit different than the norm. I woke up in the middle of the night with our lab puppy and remembered that I had forgotten to email Alex the baking temperature for a recipe I had sent him. I got online to email the information. As soon as I sent the email Alex responded. He was preparing to email our family. Instead, he and I spent the next hour "chatting" over email. Below is a sort of compilation of part of our exchange.

Did you get to watch Genreal Conference this weekend? No, we will read the Conference talks in the Liahona. The connections out here are too sketchy to see it. Plus, it would prevent us from doing a lot of work.

Tell me something funny, scary, crazy, or touching that happened this week. Funny - someone appreciated our lessons so much that they tried pay us. It was also actually really touching because, of course, they are so impoverished. Scary - someone stole something in front of our house and a bunch of people beat him to death and lit him on fire. Crazy - I tried jack fruit. It's super duper weird! It just tastes like banana except the texture is funny. I'm glad I tried it but definitely have no desire to try it again. Touching - hmmm, we shared a message about the temple with a family. Temples may be one of my favorite lessons. We showed them some pictures and it was really amazing to see them so excited to know that they can be together forever. They are already members and they are preparing to go to the temple. It will take a while because they have to make a sacrifice and then the church helps cover the rest of the cost. They're really excited and a super awesome family.

There were several Conference talks on helping the poor. There were also several talks that stressed the importance of being self sufficient. Do you know if the church provides a lot of individual aid in Madagascar? Yes because most people are living in such extreme poverty. Although it's not as much as you might expect. The standard of living is already low. But the members appreciate the community and help each other. Aid is given for things like going to the temple or going on a mission. I think it's really helpful.

Are you losing weight? I think I'm ok. We still eat out quite a bit because it's simply the cheapest and best way to eat the right amount of food. But I'm trying to eat more at home. I make German pancakes, pancakes, spaghetti. This week I have to figure out what I'm gonna try. I miss having food in the pantry. It's not that they don't have food here, but it's just not the same. I super miss home cooking.

What are the best, strangest, most annoying things about Madagascar? I'll have to answer that in a letter. Mada's great! I was just laughing about it. I love Mada. Some of the missionaries struggle with the culture. I find that you just have to adjust to it, and then it's awesome. It's very different. But if you fight against it your whole mission you'll just be miserable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Well, first of all I should say that I think I'm finally over my cold. I can't really complain because some of the other Elders in my group got really sick. I've just had a cough, but I think I'm better now. Also, I have finally gotten bored of instant noodles, so I have to start being more thoughtful about my food choices. Today is my day to go to the store. Usually we eat out because it's cheaper, but I like to mix things up by cooking at home. Also breakfast can get pretty boring if you eat the same things over and over. Don't get the impression that there's no food in Madagascar. We can buy all of  the basic things at the local store. Actually, the market has an incredibly diverse cheese counter. It's definitely better than any chain grocery store in America. (Thank you French nationals.) I can buy anything that is 1) European or 2) basic - like butter, milk, flour... but nothing processed. It actually makes me laugh because I can buy tons of nice cheeses, gnocchi from Italy, but not Ritz crackers! It reminds me that we're definitely in a different sphere here in Madagascar.

Language is still coming. It's hard because I'll feel really mahay (good at, competent), at something and then I'll make a bunch of mistakes. Or I'll finally get down one concept and then forget a bunch of others. Also, everything sounds very similar. For example, manzangana means to stand up, manzangazangana is to go for a stroll, and manzangazanga is to commit adultery. Not really something you want to mess up. (All of these Malagasy words are spelled phonetically and drawn from memory, so I'm not even 100% that's correct.) Hopefully that gives you an idea. I think my brain is rewiring itself to learning languages. In one of our classes on Sunday they were teaching out of a French book. and I totally understood everything. But yeah, it's weird learning a language that in almost every way is totally different from English.

So here's something fun to look forward to. Each preparation day from now on, my companion and I are going to try a new fruit! Today is jackfruit. I haven't had it yet, but it looks super weird. It should be good. I'm really getting a taste for Malagasy food. I can eat rice unceasingly. I just enjoy the way food is here. It's super simple, but really good. This sounds silly, but it didn't occur to me that in most everywhere else in the world people only eat one kind of food for every meal every day. I miss being able to buy a burrito, then go buy a Mountain Dew, then drive by the Chinese restaurant. On p-day we eat food for tourists, but it's expensive so the rest of the week it's pretty much just rice. My mission today is to find ketchup and syrup. Wish me luck! Ha ha. Actually ketchup isn't that hard to find, but it's always in really small portions. In the U.S. I would never have thought of ketchup as costing money, but here it's clear that everything counts. I eat a lot of french fires. because they're easy to find and are a little homey. Also for like the first week all I ate was min-sao. Apparently everyone goes through a phase. It's the most American thing you can buy at most restaurants here in Tomatov. It's essentially chow mein. Once you make the transition from that to real Malagasy food you are starting to get adjusted. I think that today we're going to eat at IFC - Ice cream Fried Chicken. (Yes like KFC. Lots of things here are clearly stolen from American companies. Mickey Mouse sells everything here!) It's good but the servings are kind of small. Chicken, for whatever reason, is the most expensive meat here even though there are chickens running around everywhere. I think it's because the chickens that are actually safe to eat are very few.

I really like the other Elders in my house. Yesterday we stayed up a little later than we should have because we didn't keep track of the time. But I'm glad to enjoy the people I'm with. I've already learned so much on mission, including applications outside of the work. I've been working a lot on goal setting and being completely obedient. One thing that they hammer into you at the MTC is that obedience brings blessings. Complete obedience brings miracles. Also, I don't really feel comfortable challenging others to live differently unless I am first holding myself to that standard. Thankfully the other missionaries I work with are very mazoto (diligent). I've also learned a lot about putting forth full effort. Out here the only limitations are those that you set for yourself. You can really work in whatever way you want. A lot of missionaries just do the same thing that every other missionary has done forever, but if you really work at it, think about it, you can break out and truly help people. I can't wait to learn Malagasy at a high enough level that I can speak it easily. I work a lot on my language, but it comes in stops and starts. Well, sorry there weren't a lot of stories this week. Always wishing everyone well!

Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, September 15, 2014

I was like, what are all these amenities...

This was another good week. I'm still sick, but I feel a lot better than before. But enough about that because I know the thing you really want to hear about is my last week in Antananarivo. First of all, the bus rides were pretty awful. We take nicer buses than many of the locals. They cost more, but it is impossible to take an 8 hour bus ride with people sitting on you and animals running around. The bus we took was better than that but not good!I guess any length of time spent on a bus would be pretty difficult. These buses have no leg room. I don't think they were designed with American missionaries in mind. When we got to Tana it was crazy as always, but the pleasant change was that it didn't feel as dirty, as stinky, or as crazy as it did before. It was nice to be in the mission office, though. They had toilet paper and air conditioning. I was like what are all these amenities doing here. The water was safe to drink. It's probably the nicest building in Madagascar.

After I dropped off my companion I got work in Paraky with someone who had been in my group at the MTC. Paraky in Malagasy means tobacco, and Paraky is on ... POOP RIVER! Yes, I can now officially say that I have seen and worked on poop river. It's not as bad as soixante sept, but it's pretty bad. It's just a little community on the shore of poop river. Some parts are pretty dirty though. I saw organ sellers for the first time. We got to teach a really great lesson to a recent convert. I also got to eat some French food in Tana because it has "nicer" restaurants. Mainly they cater to vahzas (white foreigners). Tana is definitely not as beautiful as Tomatov. It also felt really dry and cold. There were rice patties everywhere. We don't really have rice patties in Tomatov. Food in Tomatov is mostly foraged from the jungle and the ocean. In Tana it's rice, rice, and more rice.

The other really exciting thing that happened this week was our baptism. I can proudly say that it only took me one time. I had to memorize the prayer. We baptized in a portable font filled with green water. I was so nervous, and I forgot to memorize the name of the investigator beforehand. Our investigators name wasn't too hard, but it was still Malagasy. I was really nervous, so I made them write it out on a piece of paper and hold it so that I could see it. I also think I may have held the woman under the water a little too long, but I had intention of doing it again. But they're super awesome and so excited to be baptized. They were a little scared, but afterwards they just had huge smiles.

Our lessons have gone really well this week. I taught almost a full first lesson and almost a full second lesson in Malagasy. My language is getting  a lot better. It's hard because I can do a lot, but having a full conversation is difficult. I'm working on it.

Love to all,
Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, September 8, 2014

Another week has passed and brought many new experiences. This week has been more difficult. It's been raining. It isn't the rainy season so when it rains it's not constant, but it still comes down quite hard. The rain is cool, though, as long as you don't get stuck in it. It cleans everything off. And it is cool to see the palm trees whipping in the wind.

My companion is a zone leader and this week is leadership training in Antananarivo, so I'll be on splits in Tana for two days. I'm excited to see another part of the mission.

This week one of our investigator families is getting married so that they can be baptized. Another couple is being baptized on Saturday. In Mada it's not easy to get baptized. The leadership is so young that President Adams has added extra questions to the baptism interview to help ensure that anyone we baptize won't become inactive. It's because the branches and wards can't give new members the support they typically receive. The church is growing, though. We have 28 baptismal dates set. If they all work out it will really strengthen the branch.

I was able to go to a Mada beach for the first time this week. Obviously, I didn't go in the water, and I was in a shirt and tie, but it was still really fun to see the Indian Ocean for the first time. While we were at the beach I noticed a man walk over to me and get really close. Then he started looking at his friend. I realized that he was trying to get a picture with the 6'4" white guy wearing a tie and button down shirt at the beach. Of course I obliged to being in the picture. I can happily say that I'm on someone's Facebook page out there. I also went to the big street bazaar. It's so crazy. It's called Bazaar Kely, which means the little bazaar. But it is actually much larger than the Bazaar Be, which means the great bazaar. I've heard the one in Tana is even better. There are many exotic fruits and vegetables, meat and animals. It's very unusual. Every week we go to the District President's house for dinner. He makes the best Malagasy food. One of the best parts is that he always has these exotic juices. They're really unusual and hard to describe, but they taste great. I already know that I'm going to crave them for the rest of my life. Also, it's almost lychee season in Mada. Apparently they're really good and really cheap. It's also the beginning of mango season. It's weird to think that spring is just starting here, especially because it's already been so hot.

I went on a split with the other Elder Ahlstrom this week. People were very surprised to hear that we weren't related. We were teaching a family and it was raining incredibly hard, the way it can only rain in really tropical places. And we were in a house with a tin roof, which you can imagine amplifies the whole affect. We were teaching a lesson by lamp light trying to read the Book of Mormon. I looked around and there were people, chickens, and a dog all crammed into this little tiny hut that wasn't much larger than my bathroom back home. I thought to myself, man this is so weird! It was wonderful to teach them. They were very sincere, and even though I can't speak well, they seemed to understand the message. It was amazing to think that God cares enough that His spirit was present in a tiny shack just outside Tomatov, Madagascar, just as it can be present anywhere else in the world. Also there's something deeply moving about reading scriptures by lamp or candle light. Our power was off last night and I was reading the Book of Mormon by candlelight. It was a very strange, intimate experience.

Elder Ahlstrom
A surprise email...
A member of the church from Utah was visiting Madagascar for work when he saw Alex and his companion on the street. He emailed these pictures and a note to me at the end of last week.
Outside Alex's Apartment

Alex and his companion Elder Gaul

Alex and Elder Gaul