I recently blogged about my first day as a missionary and how it felt to return to that place after 27 years. Because we were on a cruise last month, stopping at 5 of the Canary Islands, I had a chance to revisit the island of Lanzarote where I started my mission, a place I hadn’t been in the 28 years since then. I surprised myself by being able to pick out my apartment by sight even though the city of Arrecife has changed quite a bit, and the apartment has been renovated. The exterior balconies have now been enclosed, probably to keep out the sands from Calima, an annual dust storm that happens in the Canary Islands, bringing sand from the Sahara, across the ocean, obscuring the sun. Calima can last for several days when it comes. While I was there, our balcony would sometimes fill with sand overnight. Lanzarote is a very windy island, the most eastward of the archipelago, the closest to the coast of Morocco.
The biggest obstacle to memory was that I only served there for 5 weeks, and then never returned to that island, and most of the time I was there I felt like I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I was the only missionary being sent to Lanzarote, and I had just arrived in the islands after a long flight. When I arrived in Arrecife, I was alarmed by the 18 year old men in military garb casually holding machine guns, standing around the airport looking bored. I remembered thinking “I could easily take away that gun, and I’m not that big or strong,” envisioning the possibilities for violence and mayhem if any random person were so inclined. That’s a sight I saw in all the airports in Spain, one that I never quite got comfortable with.
When we got back to the apartment, my trainer Hermana R. told me I could take an extra half hour to unpack and rest up before we went out to work if I wanted to. By this point I was dead on my feet, not having really had any rest since arriving in the islands and being sent out on splits with a Spanish sister (see previous post). I was jet-lagged and exhausted. I fell asleep mid-unpacking, and when I woke up I found her staring at me, eager to get out the door. She kindly explained she didn’t want to wake me so she let me sleep an extra hour, and was I ready to go? She excitedly said that we had a goal that we would not speak any English, only Spanish, partly to practice and partly because one of the sisters in the other companionship in our piso was a Spaniard who didn’t speak any English. She also said we were going to get up early every day at 5 A.M. and go running. She had big plans. When she paused for a moment I held up a hand and I said, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that stuff.” My lack of sleep was bolstering my feistiness. I said I would speak Spanish whenever we were with Hermana D because that’s only polite, but that I wasn’t committed to 100% Spanish all the time, and that I wasn’t waking up even 30 seconds before the mandatory time for any reason, and that I was not a runner. While I could tell she was disappointed that I was not working out the way she had hoped she gamely pasted on a smile and said she was glad I was there. Later, when I was a trainer, I recognized within myself that same desire to treat one’s trainee like a Pygmalion or a little doll, someone to shape and mold; I remembered this experience, and steadfastly resisted that desire.
Those first few weeks were a bit of a blur. I had an almost palpable craving for mail, for contact with the people who knew me as a real person: a letter, a tape, a care package from my roommates or home. I didn’t receive any mail from my boyfriend while I was there, although I did receive a couple encouraging letters from my crush who was serving in the Netherlands. For some reason, our mail was delivered to the Elders’ apartment, and one day they finally mentioned I had received a box from home. I was very excited, wondering what it might be, although I doubted it was going to cookies or other treats as my parents are pretty practical people. “Tampons,” the Elders told me. “It’s tampons.” I asked how they knew that, and he explained that’s what was written on the contents label on the outside of the box. When I opened it, that is what it actually contained. And deodorant. At this time, neither of these “American” items were readily available consistently throughout the islands. Deodorant there was usually an alcohol-based roll with the brand name Fa. There was no anti-perspirant for sale. While I was glad to have these items, it was a little underwhelming as my first care package.
I was beginning to notice that the packing list I received with my mission call was pretty useless given the tropical climate. Nobody wore pantyhose. There was absolutely no need for sweaters, long sleeves, dress shoes, or a rain jacket. Much later I was in another area that was at a higher elevation and I did wear my cardigan; we also created fashionable nightcaps from our pantyhose. But at this time, I was noticing that I needed some clothes that were better for summer. I also found that my calf-length “swingy” skirt from J. Crew was a big mistake on this windy island when a breeze blew it right over my head. Rather than looking like Marilyn Monroe in the Seven Year Itch, I looked more like an inverted umbrella wearing see through white bicycle shorts. It wasn’t my finest moment. When I finally wrestled my way out of my skirt, I noticed lots of pedestrians having a good laugh at my expense.
I quickly discovered that understanding an MTC teacher speaking Spanish with a California surfer accent is very different from understanding an eighty-year old woman with 3 teeth and a lot of colloquial expressions. I spent a lot of time asking my companion what people were saying. Having Hermana D. living in our piso (apartment) was a real help. Aside from her being a native Spaniard, she had a great sense of humor and found my mistakes adorable. We created our own vocabulary to amuse ourselves, poking fun at my lack of words. She still lives in the Canary Islands, and I always go visit her whenever we go there, and she reminds me of that every time I see her. We re-wrote the mission song to amuse ourselves by changing the words to be about a great meal we were going to prepare after we got back to the piso at night.
I don’t remember many of the people we taught, probably because I really struggled to understand them, but I do remember one teaching appointment with a young mother. My trainer suggested I teach the discussion, and I gave it a good effort. When I was bearing testimony of the principles, I suddenly started to bawl–not just a sniffle, but a full-on ugly cry. I tried to pass it off as spiritual, but the investigator was a bit frightened by my outburst, and my companion explained that being a new missionary is really hard, and sometimes it just creeps up on you. At least that’s what I think she said–it’s what she said to me afterward. One thing I concluded quickly was that “ugly bawling” is really only assumed to be spiritual within the context of the church culture, not necessarily at large.
The local branch was probably the best one of my mission, very close knit with a wonderful bishop’s family and fantastic members. The bishop had a teenage daughter that we sometimes would bring along when we taught. Not too long after, that family moved to another island, and the branch changed dramatically, but in the 5 short weeks I was there, we had two branch events for missionary work: a pageant on the beach, and an airplane crash reenactment in the chapel to teach about the Plan of Salvation. We also had a fun zone conference with the president’s family where we went on camel rides and to see some of the volcanoes in Timanfaya National Park.
Although my Spanish was pretty bad at this point, I was also disappointed that my French was starting to get jumbled up with it. Every once in a while, I’d say something I thought was Spanish that turned out to be French and not linguistically close enough to make sense. Sometimes it worked, though, so I kept trying it. I had studied French for 6 years prior to my mission call and was somewhat proficient. About two weeks after I arrived, two of the Elders, Elder W and Elder P, asked me to conduct a baptismal interview in French for them because their African investigator spoke some English but was really most comfortable in French, and he was afraid he wouldn’t understand everything if the interview were in English. I had a copy of the interview form in French to be sure I got the right words, and it went pretty well. It was my first and only time conducting a baptismal interview. I wasn’t actually aware until later that only the Elders did baptismal interviews. I thought they were asking me because you had to have someone else do the interview if you taught them (also not correct). The man was baptized, and he attended church that Sunday.  The branch was very welcoming and wonderful, and we took lots of photos.
The other companionship in the apartment was going through some unspecified personal trials that required a lot of extra time spent in the piso. Elders W and P who were assigned to check on us at night (none of us had a phone) would often get roped into hour-long evening sessions, listening to Hermana C who was upset. I didn’t figure it was any of my business what was going on with her, and I was ill-equipped to know how to help anyway. Despite my own atypical first-month crying outburst, I have always shied away from emotional people. There was a lot of talk about temptations and Satan trying to stop the work. My trainer offered to do splits with them to change the scenery, and so I got to spend some time practicing my Spanish with Hermana D. Elder W was the senior companion to Elder P, and I would often get stuck in our living room talking with Elder P and Hermana D while Elder W tried to be supportive to Hermana C and my companion would stick around as chaperone (or that was how I interpreted it). As I told my trainer, I just felt like everything would be fine if we all just left the apartment and got to work. As I said, I wasn’t very well equipped to handle this sort of thing. Lo and behold, when transfers came, Hermana C and I were sent to Gran Canaria to become companions. I asked Elder P what was going on once, and he said that sometimes as a missionary you get extra temptations. He was talking about Satan tempting people directly, and since I didn’t normally get very wrapped up in this kind of thinking I was curious what he meant. He said, “Like you’re teaching a charla (discussion) and suddenly Satan puts this thought in your head to pick your nose.” I laughed because it was such a stupid thing to imagine Satan tempting you to do. I thought he was either making fun of the idea that Satan was personally tempting people, or he was just trying to deflect the conversation from whatever they were discussing in the other room, or just as likely he didn’t think it was that big a deal either. He didn’t say that directly, so I was probably just attributing my own thoughts to him.
Both Elder P and Elder W became good friends of mine throughout the rest of the mission, although that was unusual. Most of the elders assigned to “check on” the sisters didn’t go to these lengths to make friends, although I did notice that districts on less populous islands (8 missionaries or fewer) were always closer knit. One evening after working in the hot sun, my legs had swollen so much that they were coming out over the sides of my shoes. I think it was some sort of sunburn related swelling. I had my feet propped up with ice bags on my ankles, and I was complaining that my legs looked like elephant trunks. I’ve never had that happen before or since, but Elder W began calling me “my little elephant ankles” as a joke, said the way W.C. Fields would say “My little Chickadee.” Of all my assignments, Lanzarote was probably the most optimal in terms of collegial relationships with other missionaries and branch members, and although we didn’t baptize anyone, I felt involved in the work.
I discovered during my first month that being embarrassed was an inevitable part of missionary work, whether it was a bluntly labelled box from home, showing my knickers off to a street of strangers, scaring people by crying in their kitchen, or having a temporary hideous deformity. I decided that the best way to deal with personal mortification was to point it out and retell the stories to my fellow missionaries so they could enjoy the joke at my expense, too. It’s a strategy that hasn’t failed me yet.
- How long did it take you to understand what was going on as a missionary?
- How was your relationship with your trainer and the other missionaries when you started? Did you make lasting friends in your first area with other missionaries or members?
- What moments of mortification did you experience in your first month?
 when she kindly suggested I not lose my marbles during teaching appointments in future, or that’s at least what I think she meant to say. It was good advice.
 Our mission was operating under the advice of Alvin Dyer’s Challenging & Testifying Missionary, so church attendance before baptism was not required. If someone felt the spirit, you challenged them to be baptized, and away you went. Somewhere in my subconscious I remembered that my parents had been on the year-long 52 lessons plan when they joined the church, and while that seemed really too long, I had a few misgivings about the speed to the font in the Dyer program. Still, missionaries are good at compartmentalizing, and I figured that everything beyond baptism just wasn’t our job. Once I had baptized, I didn’t see it that way.