Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dear Family and Friends,

This week was really good. To format my email, I'm going to answer questions that Grandpa Steve sent me.

What do you think you will be doing over the next several months until a change of assignment and what will that likely be? Ha ha, the only way I can answer this question is with I really don't know! I'll probably be in the office for quite a while. They usually keep missionaries as Office Elder because it's hard to train new ones. It's really cool, however, to work in an area where the Church has been established for such a long time. Coming from Toamasina, where the Church is still in its infancy, this ward that has been around for about 15 years feels storied! Of course, I am loving all of the places that I get to work.

How's the food? So I've spoken about the food from time to time. The first thing I have to say, however, is that the food experience in this country is very different than how we think about food in the U.S. Food here fills the primary purpose of just filling stomachs. Frankly, a lot of food here is just really poor. I think that's the case with a lot of missions. Thankfully I can eat rice pretty much forever. The trick is just eating it with something. People here put everything over rice. That's just the way. Rice and then on top of that, what in the U.S. we think of as the main course - beans, meat, vegetables cooked in sauce, and poured over everything else. I can't wait to make it for everyone when I get back home! One of my favorites dishes here is tsara maso with hen ksao and vary (beans, pork, and rice). Also, they serve all the dishes with this Middle Eastern (esque) hot sauce and this little fresh vegetable thing (essentially pico de gallo). Food here usually starts out pretty mild because many Malagasy don't like hot stuff, but they always have things you can add to spice it up. Another thing that's really good is called compose, It's spaghetti noodles with little condiments on top. (I don't know exactly how to explain it.) Almost all composes have sort of a mashed potato thing covered in mayonnaise, vegetable lasary (that's the pico de gallo thing with carrots, cucumber, and tomato), macaroni noodles mixed together with sardine paste (sort of) and then the whole thing is covered in cow stomach broth. Yes, that was about my reaction too. It's very weird. Also, one really cool thing about Madagascar is that people are always taking food from the plants that just grow naturally around them. Leaves picked from a tree and then added to a broth are a really common side here. A lot of Malagasy food is starting with a simple base an then adding to it. There are things I have run into that I didn't like. I'm not much of a fan of any sort of mashed up root. Other than that, the food is good. Also there are really strong Asian, and especially Chinese, influences. (I've talked about them before.) These often present themselves in the food. We had Thai food last week, which was way cool! Madagascar has been heavily influenced by its visitors over the years.

Do you ever get a chance to cook something special? I've actually cooked quite a bit on my mission. The weird thing is that anything processed costs a ton, and fruits and vegetables are very cheap. You're probably thinking 'that's great', but it's hard when spaghetti sauce costs three times that of a normal meal. Usually it means when you want to cook you just have to do a lot of it on your own. I've made spaghetti sauce from scratch, chicken pot pie, lasagna. I think I'm going to try Mexican food, but that could be risky. I guess we'll have to see - ha ha. I'll let you know, but I do enjoy cooking. I just don't have a ton of time. Anything I can throw in the crockpot is great! I find that spaghetti sauce in the crockpot is pretty easy and cheaper, as I said.

Have you ever encountered anything you just didn't like or couldn't eat? (Grandpa, were you hungry when you wrote these questions?) Yes, Madagascar, though awesome, is not quite as gifted in the culinary arts as Mexico. I really miss Mexican food. There is some weird food, also some food that would make me sick if I ate it. For the most part though it's good. My favorite thing is just the home grown stuff, like deep fried banana bread, dipped bananas that are sold three feet away from the banana tree, or little meat dumpling like things. They're really good, you just have to know who to talk to or else you can get pretty sick.

What do you like most about Madagascar? Least? Do you think you have made some life-long friends? Well, these are big questions. I wouldn't know where to begin right now.

I hope you guys are doing well.  I love you all very much. I'm trying to send grandparents some letters when I get time, so hopefully they'll get there. Things are kind of busy here so I'll tap out. We had the Ambassador of Thailand and a General from the government stop in, so things have been pretty exciting,

Lots of love,
Elder Ahlstrom

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Elder McCrary's Birthday Party

This week has been a bit calmer. After the flood waters receded my stories did too. Transfers were this week, but I will be staying put in Tana.

(Note from Mom: Alex wrote specific letters to his parents and siblings this week. I have pulled out a few lines from each note. Alex also mentioned in passing that he has been serving as a District Leader.)

Things are going really well here in Madagascar. I actually really like working in Tana. It feels like a completely different mission from Toamasina. We have some really nice families that are excited to learn. I am so thankful people are friendly here. One of the most interesting things about serving in Madagascar is that you get to meet all sorts of very unique people. Right now we're teaching a young man who speaks French, English, and pot faratra (a tribal dialect that I don't know!) So we're teaching him a little bit in every language. Also a really nice family came to church for the first time on Sunday. I love my mission. It's way hard, harder than I ever thought it would be. I wish I could show you everything (and explain) all that I see everyday. Madagascar is a crazy country, but the people are amazing. We are also teaching a Muslim man and his Christian wife, who really want their children to learn about God. People here are more simple. And, yeah, a lot of times the way they look at faith resembles more closely a rain dance than it does Christianity, but I love it here.

I've seen so many strange ways in which the Lord has blessed my life since I've been here. I have learned so much spiritually and mentally about myself on this mission. I think the most important thing is that you can't look at life as a series of check boxes. You need to look every day to improve yourself, and improve the lives of those around you. That's what true obedience is. We have commandments to quantify and set a base standard, but like all things the commandments are merely a tool. Our end goal is not obedience if we think of obedience as checking off a box. It's conversion. By definition, conversion and obedience are the same thing - making our will the will of God.

Life is full of choices, ones that cannot be divided along good and bad. They're more complicated. It's being happy with your life and the decisions you've made, never dwelling (or already feeling fulfilled by) the past. The thing that separates Celestial and Terrestrial is that Celestial laws are followed out of love, not pure blind obedience,

Remember not to lose your heart and work hard. And when you make mistakes, Repent.

With great potential comes great responsibility, so don't squander your inheritance.

Thank you all so much for everything. I could not be successful without all of your support. Pass on my love to everyone!

Elder Ahlstrom

Monday, March 9, 2015

This is the cyclone that Alex referred to in his letter.
It is hovering over the Mozambique Channel headed for Tana
(NASA photo)

Let me start by saying that I will send pictures - hopefully next week. I've just been a little cautious about taking my camera out in all this rain. Speaking of the rain... well, obviously the cyclone hasn't hit us yet. It has been raining pretty hard off and on. The thing about cyclones is that you can't really dodge them. So I assume at some point this bad boy's going to hit us. It's just that I am not able to watch the weather channel, so I learn information by watching the sky. (I see now why the weather channel is a profitable enterprise.) Also, I saw on my blog that you've been telling everyone that I can't speak English anymore - ha ha. I check it every once in a while because I like to read the comments. If only my loss of English had been equally replaced by Malagasy! Actually, it is weird how English has not disappeared, but it has become a little weird to speak. For example, we have English class. I was speaking with the really mahay (skilled) English speakers. I mean they're fluent. They asked me how English became the national language of America. Well, that meant we had to start with trade routes to Africa around the year 1300 and work our way forward. But it was really peculiar. I felt really tired afterwards. I can't really explain it. At first I thought my jaw was tired from talking so much, but then I just realized it was weird to explain something in English. I can only explain it as the feeling one has after talking so much that one's jaw becomes tired. Maybe I'm the only one who ever struggles with this, except that maybe it was just my brain - ha ha. Also I keep dreaming in English and when I wake up I think in Malagasy. It seems like the only thing I can't do is speak Malagasy well, but we're working on that.

(note from mom: the rest of the letter addressed specific questions that I asked Alex about supplies or amenities that he needs. Apparently, his clothes are starting to look Mada worn. He asked for insoles for his shoes and more dress socks. He also mentioned that he fell into a hole and put a hole in his pants. He told me not to worry about it because he can stitch them. His answers made me laugh because they are a far cry from the requests for Milky Way bars and cookie mix that I received in August.)

Love to all,
Elder Ahlstrom

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

(Note from mom: Alex's English is getting noticeably off. I am trying to maintain the integrity of his letters by only editing the more personal sections. However, I have made a few changes to words, spelling, or punctuation to keep it intelligible. He is only going to have six weeks from the time he gets back from Mada until he starts school at American University. I hope that's enough time for him to regain his language and spelling skills!)

Quite a bit has happened this week. First, I was pick pocketed. I have tried to be so careful. We were in a taxi be late one night and it was super crowded. I couldn't sit down, so it was hard to put my bag in a protected spot. They got my cell phone and some easily replaceable things. To prevent it from happening again I purchased two strong cords and tied my important items inside my bag, so that they'll be harder to take. I know it sounds silly, but you have no idea how hard it is to keep an eye on everyone. Everyone tries to steal from us. I don't want to say much more about it. I felt violated. It was kind of scary.

Today we are going down to Anala Kely, which is the really big market here. I have a bunch of pictures to upload and I'll snap more at the market. Just imagine Andrew Zimmern (note from mom: host of Bizarre Foods - he does a great episode from Mada), and then imagine that you are actually there. Speaking of Andrew Zimmern, I have an exciting food to add to the list of things I've tried here (this is for you dad), I had brain! Not a lot, but I did try it. Just for the record, cow brain tastes about like a barnyard. It does not come highly recommended - ha ha! Also, I saw someone selling chicken heads on the side of the street. I really want to try them, but courage and timing weren't in my favor last time I saw him. So I'm preparing myself mentally to return. Last time it was too late at night, which meant they would have gone cold. That is a very good way to take your life into your own hands, so next time I need to catch him right after they're cooked. They looked good though, with a little spicy sauce.

Okay, now the thing you've been waiting for... the terrible awfulness of the rain the last two days. Pretty much I can't describe to you hoooowwww bad it is, but I can tell you that things have just been collapsing everywhere. The roads are just a mess and collapsing everywhere. Thankfully, we don't go down into the interior of the city. Where we are the water never rises above about mid calf. But that does mean that we are walking through so much sewer water. Yes, I try not to think about it. But the reality is that when everyone essentially has port a potties, and everything floods, only one thing can really come out from it. The rice paddies are absolutely flooded and we're expecting more rain today.

A bunch of people that I was teaching in Toamasina just got baptized, which is super awesome. I'm so happy for them. I felt a little emotional this week because we had stake conference, and it looked real. I mean the building was weird and the sound system was awful, but 640 people walked through the rain and terrible roads so that they could come hear. I was so happy. This country is going to be such a center of strength for the church in Africa. Malagasies are amazing. I love my new companion, but my Malagasy trainee has such a special place in my heart. He's such a stud. Anyway, yesterday the choir was singing in French and Malagasy and it was so touching. I can't wait to see these people get a temple. It's still a ways away, but they deserve it big time! They're not ready, but soon. I love Madagascar and my mission. It's hard, way hard. But to quote Elder Gaul's last email, once it's over you're gonna want it back. I love the language and people. Someday I hope to go to the temple in Mada. Go to the temple - it's such a great blessing and I can't wait to go again. Also, try to help the missionaries. It's tough and we're certainly not perfect, but try and go out with them. Or, even better, invite them over to our house with someone.

Lover to All,
Elder Ahlstrom
February 23rd
Too Many Weeks to Count...

This has been a good week. Please tell everyone I love them. Please say hello to my St. A's family. I think about them a lot. Hello to Volney. I appreciate his emails and support. Hello to the Loceys. Love to grandmas and grandpas.

Nothing earth shattering has happened this week. Mostly I want to tell you about how crazy the rain storms are here. This week has been a little crazy. It has rained like nuts. Specifically, on Friday it was just insane. I don't really have a story, but more of a description of just what it was like. On Friday as we were walking home it started pouring. My new area is not flat. When it rains, it looks markedly like a water fall coming down the hill. (I mean essentially it was one) By the time we got to the bottom of the hill where we live, the rain was rising really fast. At intersections especially, it was like two rivers coming together. To give you an idea the water was well above my knees. It was scary for me, and I'm 6'4"! As we were walking, these old Malagasy ladies grabbed on to me for dear life. Usually that might be a little inappropriate, but given the circumstances I tried to help them along. Also the uncovered man holes, and just plain holes, that dot the city suddenly became more than just a nuisance. There was one hole that I almost stepped in that went down about 3 1/2 feet. On top of that there was about 2 feet of water rushing down the road. Thankfully a guy was standing there and told me about the hole. I was very grateful for that. All in all it has just been crazy. The saddest thing is that houses in the area collapsed. They're all built on the side of a hill. When it rains they just aren't stable. But the people are rebuilding and life goes on.

One of the coolest things about working in the office is that we get to associate with the senior couples and President and Sister Adams. They're really fun, and it's cool to see a new side of the office. Sister Adams is from Switzerland. She has determined that I am part Swiss because I look like Roger Federer (apparently-ha ha), and because I organized the Office Elder's desk when I got here. Apparently organization is a uniquely Swiss trait. I though it was very funny. She's similar to you, mom. It always makes me laugh. She is super duper clean. Anyway, I have a short thought for all of you. This one actually comes from Sister Adams. She used a story to illustrate a point. What is the difference between eagles and swine? They both take care of their young, they do their work, and do what is required of them. We see the difference when the work is done and the opportunity for free time arrives.Eagles soar high when all of their work is done. They climb to the reaches of heaven and warm their feathers in the gleaming streams of sunlight. When a swine's work is done, he rolls around in the mud and filth because that is where his heart is. I thought this was interesting when we think of the Book of Mormon, which says that we will be judged by our decisions. Outward actions are not the sole basis upon which we are to gain eternal life. This is the reason that no amount of church, temple attendance, family history. service to the poor, or serving a mission will ever save us. It doesn't really matter. It is the true expression of our desires upon which we conduct our lives that matters. At the end of the day when the work is done and all accounts are settled, the eagles soar because it is what their hearts desire. The swine will roll in the mud because it is where their desires lie.

I hope you are all doing well. Thank you for your continued love and support. That goes for everyone who keeps me in their heart and prayers while I'm soooo far away.

Shout out to St. Augustine.

Elder Ahlstrom
February 16, 2015
Notes from Mom’s email chat with Alex

Tell me about your new companion. My new companion is doing well. He is from Detroit and his name is Elder McCrarry. He has been here for three months. It’s hard because his understanding of Malagasy isn’t that great. I try to include him in conversations, but it is hard. I also miss having a companion that can tell me when my Malagasy is unintelligible. But so it goes – ha ha. I have a call to arms. Please teach Emma, Will, and Tom to drive a stick shift before their missions. Yes, I know that making the church pay for a burned out clutch may sound tempting, but learning how to drive stick in a third world country without traffic laws is the probably most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. I mean absolutely ever. Okay, well, at least the scariest, by far.

I have a driving story. To preface my story, remember that we are in Madagascar, and it’s less alarming than if this had happened in America. The car I have is this little French thing. Is automatic transmission just an American thing? I don’t know. Anyway, my story. So essentially, the first day I got to Tana I hadn’t had very much sleep. When I arrived at the office I was told I had to go pick up some Elders from the bus stop. My companion isn’t allowed to drive, but the old office Elder was still here, so he drove us out there. When we arrived he handed me the keys and told me to take us home. I can’t really explain the setting around what happened, but when they said they would teach me how to drive a stick and drive in Tana, what they really meant is that they just expected me to learn on the job. (That’s how most Elders learn). Everything was going along fine. It was raining and the “road” was essentially six inches of mud and sludge. All was well until (to make a long story short), I took the bumper off a taxi be that was backing out on the other side. Yeah, it was no fun, but apparently most missionaries are involved in minor accidents...  We didn’t argue with them. The office has a former driver for the mission president who is an all around expert on making things run in a country that is intent on not. He showed up and helped us. It almost got hairy though because some gendarmes showed up. At that point we just took off because sometimes they’ll arrest foreigners and try to extract a bribe. So that part was a little scary, but it all turned out well… The prisons are pretty horrifying here. In the prisons if your family doesn’t feed you, you starve to death. It’s absolutely horrible and so corrupt. (Note from mom: Alex and I proceeded to carry on a conversation about bribery in Mada. It feels inappropriate, and possibly incriminating, to post the whole thing. It sounds as if bribes serve a broad function - permit fees, filing fees, tickets, etc.)

How is your health? My stomach has been doing much better since I got to Tana. And I’ve been gaining weight again. I lost a lot in Toamasina. Here it’s easier to get nicer food – thankfully!

What are you eating? I’m eating all sorts of stuff. I have one really gross story about food. I found a cockroach crawling in some rice I was eating the other day. I kind of always assume that there is probably a little extra protein in my diet because of the lack of health regulations here, but every once in a while it presents itself very obviously! The worst thing is I’m used to it enough now that I just flipped it out and kept eating – yuck – ha ha. I eat a lot of French food and Chinese food in addition to the Malagasy food. There are a lot of ex pats here from China. Super interesting. In Toamasina there was a really nice ice cream parlor that was owned by a Chinese woman who fled communism. I get to meet the most random and interesting people. We ran into a Buddhist Chinese businessman the other day who spoke perfect English, but not a word of Malagasy. We spoke for a bit.

Tell me about your work in the office. As far as what we do in the office, it’s all sorts of the most boring stuff imaginable. All church financial records are kept on paper here because electronics are not reliable. So we pretty much do work that hasn’t been done in America since like the 1960’s. It’s definitely a skill that will never come in handy – ha ha.

I have also been doing some translating in the office. The other day President Adams brought me an email from a missionary written in Malagasy text speak. That was really hard to translate. I’m getting better, but my language isn’t where I want it to be yet. When I get home I want to relearn French. Here I have to translate in my head – English to French or Malagasy to French. I’m just not around French enough to get good at it. But I can understand it - everyone in the office speaks French. President Adams speaks French but not Malagasy.

Who are you teaching? The work is going well. We actually have a group of really smart people that we are teaching right now. One of them is studying to be a priest. We have really complicated discussions about the root and purpose of faith. We’re also doing a lot of tracting.  Our area is hard because it’s build on a huge mountain face and the roads that we travel don’t have switch backs. It is a lot of walking up and down super steep hills. This city make San Francisco look very tame!