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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wow! A lot has happened this week. It's hard to summarize a whole week of craziness into one email, but I’ll try. I've really been enjoying myself so far. Again, I love Madagascar, the people, and the culture. That being said it's not the easiest thing to get used to. I had doughnuts the other day; that was pretty awesome. But what happened this week, well I just finished hand washing my clothes, and scrubbing the bathroom. Our washer is out so that's been fun. I've also had a really good time so far in Tomatov. We're going to the beach today. I'm going to get myself a Malagasy bible.
This week we finally really got in to teaching. I'm not very good yet, because I'm only just starting to be able to understand what people are saying. I find that if I listen to my companion and the investigator I can get about 75 percent of what they're talking about, but if I try and have a conversation I get really confused because there are less contextual clues. As always I apologize if this doesn't make any sense it's hard to write quickly and be coherent. I'm trying to send letters to some people, but it's kind of expensive, so today I took some time to write other people. I have had so many experiences this week, but they're hard to put in to words. This mission, I can honestly say, is very hard, but I have a lot of support, both here and at home. The thing that I keep thinking is how strange this country is (although that's really a poor choice of words, I should say how strange I am). Thankfully I love the work.
I have a great story that I want to share with you about one of our investigators:
We were teaching a family about Jesus Christ and prayer. They were especially poor, even by Madagascar standards. We were teaching on a dirt floor with chickens and children running around everywhere. As we finished up our lesson we asked them if they would pray with us, and pray to know that what we teach is true. Looking slightly embarrassed they admitted that they had never prayed before and didn't know how to. We explained that prayers are very simple. We're simply addressing our Father in Heaven, and that there was nothing to worry about. Still looking nervous we asked if there was anything else we could help with. Again looking a little shy and afraid, the mother said she was worried God would be angry with her for everything she had done wrong, and wouldn't want to talk to her. With power we promised that God loved her. That her sins through repentance could be forgiven, but most importantly that God always wants to hear from us. That his love for us extends even to helping us overcome our mistakes. After her very simple, very heartfelt prayer, she looked up with a huge smile, and said that she felt so much better. She said that it was as if a veil had been lifted off of her eyes. God does live. He loves us and wants us to be with him. He sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to die for us in our sins, so that we can become even like him. I love this gospel, and I'm so excited to see how it helps people. There really is no greater gift in this world that we can give. I'm so thankful for the experiences I've had so far, and the things that I have learned. I can honestly say that I am humbled every day. Whether it's washing my clothes by hand, or teaching people how to pray. I know that God lives.

Plane from Johannesburg to Antananarivo

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

August 25, 2014
I have so much to say, so I’ll get right to it. I’m in Madagascar and it’s crazy. I’ll try to relate to you everything that has happened to me in the last four days or so. It has been absolutely wild.

First off, our trip was absolutely awful. It was so long. It wasn’t so much that anything bad happened but when we got off the plane I thought I was about to die. London was cool, but I didn’t really get to see anything. All we could see was from the plane. The airport was cool though. I was amazed at how many different cultures were there. I met someone going to Kazakhstan. I talked to him about the church and gave him a Book of Mormon. Johannesburg was absolutely insane. We had to go through customs there, and I thought I was going to get arrested. Johannesburg, to summarize, is a cross between New York City and a demilitarized zone. Our bags almost got lost there, but thankfully we got it all figure out. But I know you don’t want to hear about the airport.

This story pretty much summarizes my first week in Madagascar (Mada). We see the plane we’re going take and it’s just a little puddle jumper. It’s probably the smallest plane with a jet engine in the world. Once we entered the plane we entered the lawless world of Mada. There were tons of crazy people (because who would go to Mada unless they were crazy). I slept almost the whole way to Mada. I woke up as we flew over the island, which was also crazy. If I could describe Antananarivo (Tana), it would be that it’s crazy, crazy. When you fly over it looks like a mass of huts, animals, and people, with the occasional garbage fire. When we arrived in Tana one of the Elders was having trouble getting through customs. As travel leader, I went over to help him. The first thing that happened to me in Mada was the customs official asked for candy or coffee to let the Elder through. Yes, I had to bribe a public official to get into the country. Thankfully you sent me a package of Milky Ways. It was hilarious, but a little scary, because he didn’t speak English. After that we drove across town to the compound (mission home) where we stayed the first night. Other than my international crime (which I should say was sanctioned by our AP’s because bribery is a fact of life around here) that was the second craziest part of possibly the craziest day of my life.

There are no traffic laws in Mada. Tana is essentially two million people, taxis, and scooters, all trying to get around a city that has more hill than San Fran, animals absolutely everywhere, and infrastructure that barely qualifies as infrastructure. People drive as fast as they can, weaving around everything. It is really an art. It was so cool. I felt like I was in a movie. We drove by a field of kids playing soccer barefoot in the dirt. We saw tons of rice paddies, and women carrying baskets on their heads. The street markets are also really cool. There are sausages and full sections of cow and goat hanging in the windows. There are also amazing fruits everywhere.

When we arrived at the compound an armed guard let us in.(Everywhere has guards, not because it’s dangerous, but because people will steal everything.)We had a great dinner with our mission Pres. and his wife. It was the only American food we’ve had here. The Pres. and his wife are super cool. They’re really supportive and very helpful. That night we stayed at the AP’s house in the heart of Tana. It’s weird because our homes are almost nice. We’re really taken good care of. But right outside the apartment there are kids running around naked and a whole slum tucked in between two building. I call it a slum, but pretty much everything in Mada looks like that. There were wild dogs and chickens running around everywhere. I also forgot to mention the smell. It’s so strong, especially in Tana. It really started to affect me because the air was so dirty. All the cars are from the 50’s, so they don’t run very clean. And everyone burns their trash. I am now intimately familiar with the smell of burning trash.

The next day we were assigned to our locations. I’m in Tomatov (Toamasina). It’s awesome! It’s right on the coast. We had to take a nine hour bus ride to get here. That was also scary.  The bus would weave through traffic along the mountains. I was really surprised that our bus didn’t run off the road. It’s just so wild. We would go super fast. And because there are no road markers it didn’t matter which side of the road we were traveling. We’d just hope that the oncoming traffic would move.

On the way we stopped at a little place to get dinner. I’ll try and upload it. That was my first Malagasy meal. I had beef (or something close) over rice (what a shock). I had my first cup of burnt rice water. I can’t remember what it’s called in Malagasy, but it’s the left over stuff in the bottom of a pan of rice, burnt black, with water added. It doesn’t taste as bad as you would expect. It actually really settles your stomach.

Back to Tomatov. It’s definitely the best place to start your mission. It’s the largest port in Mada. The part we work is in the city. The city is in the middle of the jungle. It looks much more like the cartoon than Tana. We have coconut and banana trees growing really close to us, great seafood, and awesome people. The people mostly live in tiny little wooden shacks. Their homes are so small that most people are out in the street. The people are the best. I can’t really explain over email how much I love them. They’re awesome, and funny, and nice. The little kids chant vazah as we walk by, which means white foreigner. It’s a little weird, but you get used to it. Also everyone here shakes hands. The little kids “dumah” or pound it. The kids are really funny.

Our investigators are great. We have already invited one to be baptized and he said yes. And we’ve set another baptism date. It’s amazing. We’ve taught a ton of lessons. My Malagasy is much better than I thought it would be. I can’t understand much of what people say, but I can usually get the idea, and I can speak fairly well. I can’t wait until I’m fluent. My trainer says I’m learning quickly.

Another story, on my first day in Tomatov we went to a little Muslim place to eat. There are tons of Muslims in Tomatov. I had mutton with hair still on it. I ate most it, hair included, but then I thought about it too much and almost threw up. That’s the trick with a lot of the food we eat. You just can’t think about what you’re eating. All the food we eat is safe, but not all of it is palatable. Also, I’ve had this great stuff called something like seedap. Mom, you’re not allowed to look it up online. I’m pretty sure it’s the most unhealthy stuff ever conceived. It’s not legal in the U.S. because of all the msg. It’s like Top Ramen’s creepy cousin who is in prison. It’s awesome. We eat seedap often because it’s sooooo cheap and filling. I’ve been eating really well. We go to this little place called The Panda for dinner almost every night. You can get a huge meal for less than a buck. They also sell sugar cane and wild types of sodas that I’ve never seen before for ten cents.

We also have huge banana spiders here. I almost picked one up, but I chickened out. Stay tuned, I will pick one up before I leave. They’re crazy; you should Google them. I’ve seen a lot of weird animals. You’ll see a huge tortoise or chameleon randomly. It’s cool. Okay, I’m almost out of time and I want to send pictures so goodbye. I love you very much.

Here are the answers to your questions that I haven’t already addressed:
My bags arrived. Everything was intact and I can’t see that anything is missing. But I could only bring one bag with me to Tomatov, so I crammed as much as I could into one suitcase and my linen bag and left the rest. Don’t worry, it’s safe in Tana and I got everything I needed.

My companion is from Orem

The primary language in Tomatov is Malagasy. French is spoken by many people as a second language. All of the signs are written in French. I have used French a few times. My language is good for a beginner, which probably means it’s bad. I have a long way to go, but the AP’s said I’m really good for starting out and I’ll probably be one of the best speakers when I leave. My companion is awesome at Malagasy so he helps me a lot.

I’m pretty sure my weight has stayed the same. We have tons of food and tons of money.

I’m in a big house. It’s good. It’s actually nicer than some homes in America. Mada is like that. People either live in shacks or fortresses. We live with two other companionships.

I rode in a cart attached to a bike. It was pretty awesome.

Lastly, I should say that I’m so thankful to be here and so happy. Mada is the best mission and I’m in one of the best places. The people want to learn. We’ve already had 10 new investigators since I’ve been here and taught a ton of lessons.