Dear wonderful family,
As always, I love hearing from you. I'm glad Chico and Lori have pulled through their surgeries and are doing well. And it sounds like finding a place for Lori to live has been quite an adventure... (If it makes you feel any better, lots of people here bath in buckets in the middle of the street, so I understand.)
To answer your questions, Dad: time in the MTC seems to go by quickly and slowly at the same time. It doesn't seem like I've been here for over 5 weeks, but at the same time I am eager to get out into the field and start working. We leave early Tuesday morning! Can you believe it? I'm not sure what my first area will be like, they range from very urban to very campo.
And Jessica! I bet you're super excited to go to London! Any news on your t-shirt and beach towel designs yet? And thanks so much for getting a package together for the kids - they are going to be so excited, you can't even imagine :) Also, do you think people here would be okay if I baptized them like Ignacio did for Steven?
Mom: You asked about the stores here, and I don't really have a good answer for you. It all depends on the area that I am assigned to. If I go somewhere in Santo Domingo, the stores seem to have most of what I'll need (more or less). However, if I go somewhere out in the country, I've heard that I won't really have access too much of anything except rice, beans, and soap. It'll be an adventure.
Okay... so this week, without a doubt, the most exciting thing that I did was intercambios (splits), which is when we get to leave the CCM and drive to our respective missions and spend about 6 hours paired up with a missionary out in the field! We get to do it again tomorrow, as well! This is one of the reasons I am so blessed to be able to come straight to the DR CCM.
After lunch on Friday, the West mission APs came to pick up all the West missionaries, and it was about a 20 minute drive to a chapel where we were paired up with our new companions for the day. I was paired up with a sister named Hermana Beesley, who has been out for only about 4 months. Our area was one of the more urban areas in the mission, called Independencia, and was in more or less the center of Santo Domingo (not the Independencia on the map over by Haiti).
First, we went back to an apartment where 4 of the sisters lived. The APs were nice enough to give us all a ride, so - including me and the 2 other West sisters - we crammed 9 people into a car meant for five (which I've found is pretty much the norm here). Coupled with a liberal dose of Dominican driving, it made for a rather bumpy and sweaty ride, weaving in and out of traffic on the tumultuous, sun-baked streets. When we stopped at lights, people came up to our windows to sell us wilted produce or wash our windshield with a bucket of murky water.
The sisters' apartment was on a smaller side street up a winding cement staircase. The cracked wooden door didn't shut all the way and opened into a kind of outdoor hallway, minimally shielded from the sun by spaced wooden planks overhead. The windows were just holes in the plaster walls with several iron bars. The inside was small, but cozy (really just 3 rooms). The bathroom was about half the size of my closet at home and there was a large bucket in the corner for showering. There was no AC or fans, and the small light bulbs poking out of the ceiling didn't work. We stayed there a few minutes to go over our plan for the day, and then each companionship went their separate ways.
The first appointment on our list was a women named Benita, who already has a baptismal date. It was about a 25-minute walk down some larger streets and then we turned off into a barren concrete alleyway, that I thought was a shortcut, but turned out to be the entrance to a maze of narrow alleyways that comprised a Haitian neighborhood. They weren't houses so much as darkened rooms that opened directly into the shaded alley. Hermana Beesley led us expertly through the maze, saying hello to everyone we saw, most of whom gave us intrigued and slightly amused looks as we passed.
We splashed out way through a river of someone's recently dumped bath water and then Hermana Beesley stopped in front of a curtain that covered one of the many doorways, and then began calling Benita's name. After several tries, she turned to the group of people sitting a few feet away and asked if they knew where she was. One barefoot women rose from where she was seated and began speaking to us in French (or Creole - I couldn't tell) and motioned for us to follow her. She led us around several corners, and I was completely turned around by the time she pointed vigorously up at a set of precarious concrete steps, and then disappeared back around the corner.
It turned out to be a member's house where Benita had been staying for a few days while she was sick. The member, Shelly, emerged at the top of the steps when we called Benita's name and invited us up with a warm smile. The steps stuck out of the wall only about two feet and were partially eclipsed by the corrugated tin roof of the houses below, so we clung to the rough metal edge as we carefully made our way upward.
We all sat together on plastic chairs in the half of the home that didn't have a roof, and Hermana Beesley and I taught Benita the Plan of Salvation. Even though she wasn't feeling that well, she was very attentive and I could feel the Spirit there. The thing that stuck out the most during that visit, however, was that I understood virtually everything that was being taught and said. I was able to add my thoughts to the teachings of Hermana Beesley and bare testimony of the principles being taught. In fact, especially as the day progressed, I realized that I knew just as much (and in some cases, more) Spanish than Hna Beesley. She even began turning to me to ask about specific words or conjugations. It helped me to realize that, even though my Spanish is far from perfect, I can still be an effective and loving missionary with the skills that I already possess and continued trust in the Lord.
At the next stop of the day, our investigator wasn't home, so we were able to teach his mother, Carmen, for a few minutes before he showed up. She has been reading the Book of Mormon and has a strong desire to draw closer to her Heavenly Father, but when we brought up the possibility of baptism, she was insistent that she just wasn't ready - despite our assurances that baptism is a beginning, not an end, and an expression of our faith and desire to follow Jesus Christ. At the end of the lesson, Carmen chose me to offer the closing prayer (as had Benita). Hermana Beesley laughed, saying, "Siempre el nuevo" (meaning, always the new one). When Carmen's son walked through the door a few minutes later, he was carrying a bag of groceries and his little niece, whom Hna Beesley had never met. When we asked about her, he proudly informed us that she was born on the very floor on which we were now sitting, and then laughed at our reactions. After setting up another time to come back and speak with them, we left for another appointment, which unfortunately fell through.
The rest of our time together, Hna Beesley did some contacting in the streets, inviting people to church and sharing brief messages. In less than 2 hours, we were able to talk to nearly 30 people because the streets are always teeming with people: gossiping women holding babies, men playing cards or dominoes, and children chasing one another through the crowds and puddles. And then there's us: obviously a long way from home, saying hello to everyone, and followed by groups of interested eyes as we make our way through the lively chaos, amidst the hum of voices, laughter, and pulsing music.
The whole day was a lot to take in. By the time we got back to the MTC that night, we were all drained, hungry, and sweaty virtually head to toe. But, despite our exhaustion, we were all still smiling - and I think that pretty much sums up what a mission is: hard work that brings true joy.
Hugs & kisses,
Hermana Kaitlin Olsen
P.S. We were walking around the Temple a few nights ago and we saw a centipede that was over a foot long and as thick as my thumb. Our teacher who was with us, Hno Rodriguez, screamed and ran away. It was comforting to know that even Dominicans can get scared of all the giant bugs here.
P.P.S. I was talking with some of the missionaries out in the field, and they said that when you send packages, you should put religious stickers on them (especially Mary and Jesus, because there are so many Catholics here). Some also suggested that you write Elder instead of Hermana, but I'm not sure if that really matters as much.