Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Last Day as a Missionary

I woke up early that Monday. Well let's be honest, we always got up early, but if I'm not mistaken, that day it was earlier than usual. It was the last day I was going to be a missionary and I wanted to catch the first bus out of town. I was serving in Gutierrez Zamora, Veracruz in Mexico. The Mission Office was located in the city of Veracruz. That was about two and half maybe three hours south, straight down the coast. I was hoping to catch the earliest bus so I would have the whole day in the city.

My mission took place at a time when missions were 18 months long. That would have been great except for the fact that right as I hit the halfway point, the church said, "My bad!" and decided to make them two years again. The good thing about it was we were given a choice on how long we wanted to serve. I could keep my original call or extend one to six more months if I wanted. Some missionaries didn't seem to think about it at all. They just immediately extended. More is always better right?

It wasn't that easy for me. Personally, I wanted to do what was "right" but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what that was. I prayed and prayed and prayed for an answer as to what God wanted me to do, but I got nothing for the longest time. After about a month of agony, I finally got my answer: stick with your original calling. This was great for me because I figured that if I changed my mind, I could always extend. However, I was pretty sure that if I extended then and decided I wanted to shorten it, I might get some grief. Would it surprise you to know that a lot of missionaries didn't believe me when I told them I had prayed to know what to do and was told to stick to 18 months? Yeah, I didn't think so.

But it was all over now and I was looking for a bus to take to the mission HQ. If I had really planned it, I would have taken the good bus line called ADO. When I say 'good' what I mean is you got an assigned seat. The other buses were more like school buses. We called them 'guajoloteros' which referred to the fact that they often included turkeys, chickens and other animals along with the people. A guajolote is the word most Mexicans use for Turkey. The Spanish word is 'pavo' but guajolote is Náhautl in origin. Its literal translation is big monster. I don't know how it evolved to mean turkey.

Besides the livestock, they liked to cram as many people as humanly possible onto these kind of buses. That meant you could end up standing for part or all of the journey. This was not a big deal if it was a short distance, but if you were traveling for a few hours, it was a major pain.

By the time I tried to get an ADO ticket, they were already sold out for that day. There was only one that went to Veracruz, so I knew I'd end up on a guajolotero. That was o.k. I had ridden on them before and it was going to be the last time. We lived about a mile from the bus station. I had two suitcases, plus a carry on so our landlord offered to drive us there. He was a good guy. He wasn't Mormon and we never once tried to teach him about the church. They had rented to the missionaries for years and I always assumed that if he wanted to hear anything, he would ask. I probably wasn't the world's greatest missionary.

As we got to the station, our landlord ejected the tape playing in the truck's stereo and gave it to me. A couple of months before, he had driven us to a zone conference in Poza Rica so we didn't have to spend money on the bus. On that trip, he had played the same tape during the drive. It was a Mexican band called El Grupo Audaz and I had mentioned how much I liked the music. He handed me the cassette and said, "So you don't forget your family here in Mexico." I was touched. He then hugged me goodbye and wished me a good journey.

My companion, my replacement and I all hopped out of the truck and took my stuff into the station waiting area. A couple of minutes later, two ward members came by to see me off. I was surprised because it was pretty early in the morning and they were both home on a break from school. I figured they would want to sleep. The church owned a private high school in Mexico City called Benemérito de las Américas. At one time, the church owned a lot of private schools down there, but they were beginning to divest themselves of those and this was one of the last. It was definitely the biggest.

The bus finally came and to my horror, I couldn't get on. It was so packed full of people that I had to wait for the next one. I was pissed. I really wanted to get to Veracruz. My main mission was to purchase something for my grandmother. What I wanted to get her was a doll from Mexico. She was a collector and I happened to know that there was a store that specialized in dolls clothed in traditional Mexican dress right in the town of Veracruz. I knew because the mission president's wife, who was also a collector, told me about it.

So I waited. The next bus came about 30 minutes later. When I went to get on, the conductor informed us all that this bus would be traveling the long way to Veracruz: through the sierra region. This was going to take eight hours instead of three. Combine that with the fact that I was probably going to have to stand the whole way, I passed again. I had already loaded my bags on so I had to get them back off the bus.

Now I was very upset and totally stressed. I was looking at another hour to wait for the next bus. I was worried. What if I couldn't get to Veracruz today? Would I still be able to go home or would I have wait another month?

The bus finally came and the crowd to get on seemed just as big as last time. Someone decided to open the back door of the bus so I climbed in that way. My companion and friends handed me my bags which I had to place in the cargo area in the back. It made me nervous to be so far away from them. I wanted them in the luggage rack next to where I was, but there was simply no room. Of course I had to stand, but at least I was on the bus. I was only about two hours behind schedule. I looked down at my feet and there were two chickens in a little cage right up against my legs. I finally lightened up enough to laugh. This wasn't the first time I had a chicken with me on a bus, but it would probably be the last.

Riding on a bus standing up in Mexico is a very intimate experience but not in a good way. As we traveled down the coast, more people were getting off than on which meant that I might get to sit after all. As the crowd thinned, I noticed two cute 20-something women smiling at me. I nodded hello to them and they grinned even wider.

"Would you like to sit down?" one of them cooed.

"Thanks, but then you'd have to stand" I said.

"You could sit on our laps."

I knew then that Satan was making a last ditch effort to make me crash and burn before I was honorably released. The wily devil!

"No thanks" I said, smiling, but inwardly I was terrified. Luckily, it didn't take much longer before another seat opened up. Unluckily, it was in the aisle across from the ladies. Satan was having his way today! They started talking to me again. As it turned out, they were in fact just being nice and weren't trying to take my chastity. They just felt sorry for me having to stand all the way there. I must have looked pathetic. I was about 30 or so pounds underweight. Between all the walking and pretty much constant diarrhea, my 5'11" frame had gone from 165 pounds to probably around 130 pounds over the course of the mission. When I realized they weren't Jezebels sent
by the dark lord himself to seduce me, I relaxed. I even gave them a mini lesson about the church right there on the bus.

Soon we arrived in Veracruz and I was able to get a cab to the mission office. The mission president had chosen this week to host a special conference so all the zone leaders from the entire mission were present for meetings. In those days, our mission encompassed four states: Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla and Tlaxcala. There were quite a few of my good friends already in Veracruz. The mission president allowed me and Elder Goar - one of my closest missionary buddies - 
to spend the whole day together as the meetings hadn't officially started yet. We had been in the MTC together and served most of our missions in the same zones. It was Monday, our P-day, and that was a travel day for the visiting zone leaders.

My mission president was a really good guy. Very down to earth and not at all like some of the horror stories I have heard about other MPs. He had a very friendly smile and looked almost exactly like the British comedian, Benny Hill. It was sometimes hard not to imagine Benny Hill when he was standing in front of us all and talking. He was great, but that didn't mean he was a pushover either. He just trusted us to behave like adults.

He called me into his office and handed me the address of the store with the collectible dolls. Even though he was a busy guy, he remembered my request for a local shop that sold such things from about two months before. He gave me exact directions on how to get there and which bus would be the best to take.

Elder Goar and I went out and made the purchase and then had a leisurely lunch at an outdoor cafe across from the Gulf of Mexico. He was also near the end of his mission, but he had another month to go. We made plans to go out to BYU together, but mostly we just reminisced about the times we had spent together in the mission field. It was a great day.

That night, we were all assigned to the different companionships who regularly worked in Veracruz. Most of them were office elders who worked in the headquarters during the day, but still did missionary work in the evening. I don't remember much except that I was more than done with it all. I tried to rally my missionary spirit and just get into it, but I'm not sure I did very well. Finally, we went back to the mission home and called it a night.

The mission office was located in what used to be one of the private schools I mentioned before. The church still owned the building so they converted it over. They even had dorms attached which was were I and the other visiting missionaries stayed for the night. It was a lot like the MTC again, but in a good way. I spent most of my mission in small towns away from other missionaries so I rarely got to have the camaraderie that missionaries in larger areas have. I was usually at least an hour away from any other missionaries. So it was fun for me to hang with other guys and joke around. There were five of us heading home the next day and we were all invited to eat dinner with the mission president and his wife.

I had my final interview with the mission president that night. I don't remember much about it except that he didn't pressure me to get married. He did mention that marriage was my next 'mission' but he urged me to get some education and take my time to make a good choice. I wasn't particularly close to him, but I did like him. I've only seen him a couple of times since my return home. I always sort of hoped he would be made a general authority, but I think he's too normal for that. It's too bad. The church could use more normal.

I was up and out really early the very next morning. I jokingly said there would probably be chickens on the airplane. Of course there weren't.


Home Base Heroes said...

That story REALLY brings back memories.

Joseph's Left One said...

Well done. Amazing that we were out at just about exactly the same time. I rode on a lot of buses full of chickens and pigs. I love the part where you share a message with the girls. Such dedication.