Thank you so much for the DearElder letters from everyone - it made my whole day! I love all so much!
It's been a busy first week, and I don't even know if I'll be able to fit it all into one email, but I'll just start from the beginning and see how far I get:
When I arrived at my gate in the Salt Lake Airport, I was surprised to see that there were already almost 10 missionaries waiting there. They weren't wearing tags, but it was only all too easy to recognize the row of clean-cut young people with bright eyes and wide smiles. The group was about half elders and half sisters. The sisters ages ranged from 19 to 21, but only one elder was over the age of 20, and it turned out that they were all headed to the Dominican Republic. The only real question seemed to be: East or West?
As we accumulated missionaries at each layover, that was always the second question asked after their name: which mission are you going to, East or West? Through sharing the little information that we had, the general consensus seemed to be that the East contained more urban and tourist places, and that the West is generally the poorer part of the island, and contains many smaller rural villages. It might make some people apprehensive to be sent to the poorest part of an already poor country, but for some reason this new information didn't really phase me. I have no illusions - I know that it isn't going to be easy, but I feel a peace in my heart because I know that that is the area where I am supposed to serve my mission, and through all the challenges that lay ahead of me, the Lord will be there.
I will also admit that that this new didn't surprise me much because - in a way - I was almost expecting it. When I was praying to the Lord after I put in my mission papers, I asked to sent to a place that I would do well, but would also challenge me, so that I could grow by learning to put my trust in the Lord. So here I am.
Our plane descended on Santo Domingo in the midst of a storm, and my first glimpses of the growing city below were during brief flashes of lightning, and I couldn't see much at all through the rain-streaked windows as we taxied, except for the darkened silhouettes of palm trees against the deep purple sky.
When we all filed off the plane, the first that everyone commented about was the humidity. As we waited for all 17 of us to regroup outside the jet way, all the sisters were fanning their faces and the elders were tugging agitatedly at their ties.
Before we could all get in line at Border Control, I - being one of the only missionaries to have travelled extensively outside the U.S. - had to help the sisters fill out all their entrance and Customs forms. (Needless to say, it took a few minutes.) It took even longer for everyone to find their bags and clear Customs. At the Baggage Claim, there were several men who would rush over and try to help you with your bags and several missionaries got swindled out of $20, but fortunately no one bothered me. I think it was because I didn't look confused - if you've been to one international airport, you've been to them all.
I stayed behind for a minute to help one sister who was having trouble clearing Customs, and once we walked outside, we couldn't see where the rest of the group went. Eventually, we found a many holding a sign for '"La Iglesia de Jesucrist de Los Santos de Los Ultimos Dias.’” We followed him and found the rest of our group piling into a large van. As the van drove through the darkened city, some of us were talking excitedly and others were peering intently out the windows. On the highway, newer cars passed us, some rustier vehicles stacked high with plastic crates, and lots of motorcycles - even in the rain.
It was a warm rain, though. Warm and humid, like stepping out of a shower and into a steam-filled bathroom. My clothes were sticking to me and windows were fogging up, making it hard to see much of Santo Domingo.
As we pulled off the highway, it became easier to see the buildings around us. Most f them were made of colored concrete and stucco. Their geometric forms looked like weatherworn boxes stacked on top of one another, with the occasional telephone wire strong in between them on the smaller streets. The larger streets were lined with bold, colorful billboards advertising products I didn't recognize. Many of the buildings were worn, with paint chipping off their stucco and most of the sidewalks were crumbling along the edges.
We turned down a smaller street and as the city buildings came to an end, the glowing spire of the Temple lit up the night sky above us, surrounded by a field of swaying palm trees, the golden angel Moroni lifting his trumpet to the tumultuous sky from the top of the tower.
The gates around the temple parted and we drove inside the compound, past the temple, and parked in front of a white stucco building that was a perfect rectangle. As we all filed out of the van, we were greeted by President and Sister Freestone, standing at the top of a set of pink granite steps, framed on either side by a row of gleaming granite columns. They welcomed us to the MTC and led us inside to the cafeteria. As we ate our late dinner, we were assigned to companionships and districts. I am in the Enos district, which has 6 missionaries (4 sisters, 2 elders), and my companion is named Sister Nodal.
After we finished eating, we were told to go up to our rooms and get some rest. My room has 4 sisters in it. For the next hour and a half or so, we picked beds, unpacked our things, and got to know one another. Sister Nodal is from New Mexico and is studying Nursing at BYU. As this week had progressed, I have really gained a testimony that we are put with certain companions for a reason, because Hermana Nodal and I compliment one another very well. We get along easily; have similar personalities, and the same sense of humor (we laugh a lot). We are even at similar levels in our Spanish. And on a more practical note, I can help her reach the high things because I'm 5'10" and she's 4'11".
We didn't have any trouble falling asleep that night because we were all so exhausted from getting up at 3am, but this week, I've come to learn that a day at the MTC can be just as tiring as travelling thousands of miles.
Each morning, we get up at 6:30am. Breakfast at 7am. Personal study at 7:30, followed by Companion study at 8:30am. Language study (classroom and computer) until Lunch at 12:30pm, followed by more language study. Gym time at 3:30. Dinner at 5:15pm. And more studying after dinner until we meet for nightly prayer at 9:30pm.
The first few days it was extremely difficult to stay awake and alert all day - especially in the morning. But you just have to push through it and keep moving forward, even if it is difficult to keep your eyes open. Every night I prayed for the energy to stay focused and the ability to sleep soundly. Sure enough, by the morning of the fourth day, it began to be less painful to peel my eyes open at 6:30am. And it continues to get easier each and every day. I know that I have the wonderful people here and the much needed blessings of the Lord to thank for that.
Another adjustment was the food - it took a while to get used to 3 square meals a day. Our typical breakfast consists of eggs, some kind of meat (usually sausage, or sometimes Spam), and always a large pot of brown porridge. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, and always features rice with some kind of beans poured over it. They also put out a lot of fresh avocadoes, and the juiciest pineapple and the sweetest mango I've ever tasted. Dinner is usually some form of potato (or plantain mash) accompanied by 1 or 2 types of mystery meat (we can only usually identify it about half the time). And every meal is always accompanied by several jugs of a thick, sweet, bright red fruit punch. I can only usually drink about half a glass.
In between meals, we are constantly study. We have one teacher in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. Essentially, everything is in Spanish, which is fine for me because I can understand most of they're saying, but there are 2 people in my district that don't have any experience with the language at all and I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for them. All the teachers are native Dominicans in their twenties, and the lessons usually include a fair bit of laughter. Sometimes it doesn't even seem like a lesson because we all have so much fun with each other in our district. We've already grown close in the short time that we've been here. We're together in class all day, and usually even sit together in the cafeteria. We all compliment one another very well and frequently laugh to the point of crying. It's the kind of unity in a small group that you can only get at one of the smaller MTCs, and I am so thankful for that. But despite all our goofing off, we are all very dedicated in our studies and work effectively together to help one another better learn the language.
In only the first week, I've already learned dozens of gospel words (an area of the Spanish language that I was wholly unfamiliar with). I am now relatively confident with bearing my testimony and praying in Spanish, which we all have plenty of opportunity to practice. Hermana Nodal and I even have our first progressing investigator (which is really just one of our teachers acting - very commitedly, I might add). We've taught her 3 lessons, and we improve and feel more confident each time, although we both still have a long way to go.
Well... there is so much more I have to tell you all, but I don't have much time left on the computer. So I'll just have to stop here for the week. I love and miss you all so much! You are always in my prayers and never far from my thoughts.
Give everyone my love! <3 I miss you all, but know that I am off to a great start :)
Todo mi amor,