One Love - Panama!

My companion and I had an interesting week as we have been trying to work more with the members. The young men are really motivated to help us out which has been helpful. We are finding better methods to bring investigators to the church.  

As we were taking a bus to district meeting, which is a 45-minute ride without traffic, about 30 minutes into the trip a big dump truck blocked the road. The bus driver decided that he didn’t want to move and he just drop us off early. Luckily I knew where we got off, just at the borders of El Empalme, and so we just started to get walking. We felt like Pioneers as we walked and walked and walked and walked.  It took us around two hours, in which we passed around five different roadblocks, but we did make it to the District meeting. When the meeting was over, we headed back. 
After walking in the blazing sun for hours I heard a man call out to us, “Hey, what’s going on?” We explained everything, as I stared at the passenger in the side seat. Wow, he looks a lot like my 1st bishop, Obispo Bravo, I thought. Just then he calls out, “Elder Irizarry, how you doing?!” It was really cool to run into him and talk for a little bit. I am not sure how it was that we crossed paths, but I can tell you that I felt as though it was meant to be. After pondering it more, and recounted how many things had to fall in place so I could run into him that day, I could not help but know that it was divinely planned for me to run into him. The day he had to travel there, the time he had to leave, the day we had district meeting, the time we got out, and the day they planned to work on the roads. The list goes on and on.  During that moment I did not know exactly why I was out there, but I do know how I felt. At the end it was like, heck I'd walk in the sun for four hours every day just to feel like I'm accomplishing God's errands. It was super cool.

I believe they were working on the roads because of protests about road conditions. I am just glad it wasn’t anything as bad as the protest that had happened before I was ever here.  Apparently, since this town is the farthest town away from the Panama City it is often times forgotten about every now and then by the government. Years ago there were riots where they filled up balloons with gas and started throwing fire (literalmente #EchandoFuego). The streets were in terrible condition, broken up and ruined. This was a day in which they were protesting but it was a lot tamer this time. We just had to walk a little bit more than usual.

For Mother's Day, I was able to travel to the zone leaders (45-minute bus ride) and we were able to Skype (call) home and talk with family which was great.  I had my last companion Elder Lopez talk in English with a blonde wig on for the family saying, "Hello, my name is Elder Irizarry, I got turned into a Latino." We all had a riot with six missionaries crammed into a small computer closest to call our families.   The next day happened to be our P-day de Eldere and we ended up staying the night with the zone leaders and playing soccer today and eating at a Bob Marley restaurant which was super good. The owner had dreadlocks that went down to his knees.

All in all, I loved seeing my family this week and I truly enjoy serving here in Almirante.  I am so blessed!



Right, Left, Right

In Almirante (which means Admiral) where I live; Sir Yes Sir! I'm just waiting to find anyone military here, but the closest I've gotten is a drunk who thinks he's a pirate and who happens to be missing some teeth. We did recently find a box of Captain Crunch. If I remember correctly he never did earn his promotion as a Captain and he's actually still an Admiral. I don't know if that counts, but I'll keep my fingers crossed that I'll find someone.

Now not a whole lot going on here in this small town. It has one strip that looks kind of nice, but that’s right where they have a small hotel and Taxi 25. The water taxis that send you off to one of the 20-something islands. Supposedly they're beautiful, but as missionaries, we are prohibited to go there. From what I have seen tourists come in at all hours of the day to go out to who-knows-where. Apparently, there are some islands where you can rent a personal island for a week and others that have high scale resort hotels. One that I have recently heard of is called something like the high heels. It has two islands and they have big volcanos sticking out of each island and from what I've heard it looks like a pair of high heels. 

Additional information looked up by my family: Almirante is a crop of stilted homes on the water.  It is a village of unkempt homes that have seen better days, but it remains the springboard for the Archipelago de Bocas del Toro so it is always busy.  As they talked about the Bocas del Toro Province, they mentioned that it consists of six densely forested islands, scores of uninhabited islets and the Parque Nacional Marino Isa Bastimentos, Panama’s oldest marine park.  It is the base of Chiquita Banana, home to diverse wildlife such as the elusive jaguar, the traditional Ngobe-Bugle settlements and the Naso, one of the few remaining American tribes with its own monarchs. They say it may be one of Panamas most beautiful corners. 

Some of the history that I thought was cool was, that Christopher Columbus visited Bocas in 1502. They actually have maps of this area that he made. He actually entered with his two vessels into a wide bay that the indigenous people used to call Carabaro which is now days called Almirante Bay.  He was so affixed by its beauty that many landmarks are named after him, including the Isla of Colon which is just a 30 min boat ride from where I am. 

In the 17th century, it became a haven for pirates where they fed on sea turtles.  And despite the rumors, there has never been any lost treasure found there.  France settled there in the 17th century, mainly Huguenots (Protestants) who were fleeing religious war.  The Spanish were later sent there to dislodge them.  They ended up bringing disease which virtually wiped out most of the indigenous population.  

In the 19thcentury, wealthy aristocrats brought in many slaves from the US and Columbia.  In 1850 when slavery had been abolished, former slaves became fishers and farmers.  In the 1900’s the Jamaican joined them in work. Chiquita Banana exports 750,000 tons of bananas annually.  The largest workforce in the province is also the most diverse nationwide, with West Indians, Latinos, Chinese and indigenous people in its employ.

Name Bocas Del Toro's origin: It is being said that Christopher Columbus when he landed at one of the paradisiacal beaches, saw various waterfalls in the form of “Bocas del Toro” (mouths of the bull). It is also said that Columbus distinguished a large rock on Bastimentos Island (easily to recognize nowadays) that has the form of a bull that is lying down. It is also being said that the sound of the immense waves that hit the large rock that has a volcanic origin and that you can find on Bastimentos Island, makes a sound similar to the roaring of a bull. On the other hand, there are people that assure that the last “cacique” (= chief) of the region was known as “Boka Toro”. And that’s why they call it Bocas!

Genuinely Almirante it’s just a small town. They have a bus port that goes to David Panama and Changuinola and it is really just like Winnemucca.  A Town that just gets used to get gas and pass through. (Well a pass through to get to the islands.) Surprisingly it has a bank, a lot of bars, a hand full of chinos, and a lot of parking garages.  By parking garage, I mean like gravel park with a big metal fence. If you ever played the board game Rush Hour as a kid it’s just like that. You have your one red car that needs to escape but someone parked three buses on the lot and you're just sitting here like who invited these buses into the parking garage?! Next time I'm just walking! Yeah, but aside from the strip, the houses are really cool. 
You have the area split up into three big quadrants. Guaymi, where all the Ngobes live. Barriada Francais, where all the Afro-Panamanians who speak Wari Wari live and, Seglas where all the Latinos live.  My favorite part is Guaymi because the Ngobes all have their traditional houses. They are all houses on stilts and just fun. Now Changuinola, as you remember, has a problem with water. That’s how I got Parasites and why we can't drink water without a filter. Here more so than El Empalme you see the problems and the curses of Black Water. That sounds a lot scarier in English, but yeah, it’s really bad. Our shower here doesn’t work so we use a bucket for a shower here. About 50% of the time the water isn't running or doesn't have pressure so we leave the bucket filled with water and yes, the worms grow in about 12 hours and you can see them in the bucket. In case you wanted to know. (And No, I do not have Parasites again.)
I genuinely never thought this would be the mission I signed up for it, but it has just been so much more of an adventure than I could have ever hoped for! I am so grateful that I can get a Boy Scouts of Central America trip of a lifetime.  Yeah and now that I mention it, I am probably going to be called as a scout leader after the mission and this experience.

Anyways, in Guaymi they have a lot of problems with their water. So, they build their houses in the middle of the lagoon. We walk on cut off planks of wood that are aged and look like they're going to fall any moment. Basically, it’s just practice to be a gymnast or a pirate. I'm just waiting for any moment that Jack Sparrow jumps out into a sword fight.
Oh, by the way, they do have some big bugs here in Panama!
We walk from house to house on these elevated platforms. It is apparently normal. It is like if you were to walk to the end of a port to go fishing. We have had to be careful for, at any moment, you could break through one of the planks and fall straight in. Or find out that they ran out of nails and didn't nail them in.

This week I decided to be more dedicated to my exercises.  As I was getting really into it, I found some old weights in the house. I used an old blanket as a workout mat. I was sweating and feeling great. I swear I must have put on like five pounds of muscle because that same exact day we were walking back from an investigator and talking and excited as she was preparing to be baptized. While I was waddling along these planks I put my left foot out onto the plank my companion just crossed seconds before me and SNAP! Yup, I broke it. Dove foot first into the lagoon of the cursed black water. I did clean my foot off, then I fixed the bridge, and continued on my day. Apparently, it happens a lot there. I'm just glad I didn't fall in head first. Moral of the story, don’t put on too much weight while exercising.


Almirante


A lot has happened this week, it has been jampacked. Elder Cotonón has a real desire to work hard and so that is what we've been doing and I love it. Truly, it is really nice when you're both dispuestos (ready) to actually put in the effort. He is a convert and has such a strong testimony. I genuinely love when my companions are converts. Our different testimonies complement each other very well. He is so funny and we are literally just cracking jokes all day. On Friday we set a record of three hours of non-stop pineapple puns. Oh yes, at night we were just talking in the dark pulling just everything we could think of.  We have had a few times where we were just walking down the street busting up laughing but he is a spot-on missionary, and he knows how to teach people. This last Tuesday we worked one of the most intense days in a long time in my mission. It was refreshing!
Today, being P-day was the only day we actually got to sit down. However, we went and did some service which as a missionary you learn very quickly in Panama what service people need.  A lot of elderly people live here and they can't quite climb trees like they used too. Many have palm trees in which they need help with cutting down coconuts. We found someone who needed help with guava and coconut trees this morning.  In the middle of a storm, we were out in the mud with long bamboo reeds knocking down coconuts and guavas. Afterward, we were invited to help eat them with the family that lived there. We came back soaked, but it was worth it. 
During the week in a meeting, someone pointed out that as we teach sometimes we say small differences that normally they don't say. That is the Spirit working through us to reach our investigators. I tried putting more attention to that. This week as I was teaching, there was this woman in her mid-50s who doesn't want to pray, because she was embarrassed that God wouldn't like her prayers. We explain to her and encouraged her a little.  I explained how while I live here in Panamá away from my family that I do not get to talk to them much, but I know that if I just even send them one sentence that makes all the difference. With that I then told her that God is the same way, if your prayer is just one sentence, he's just going to be happy to hear from you." She then gained the courage to pray, and in her prayer, she prayed for her son that lives in the city thirteen hours away.

If you look closely at the wooden planks, one of them wasn't nailed in and I almost fell in the BLACKWATER.  We had a small photoshoot. Yeah, it looks like a plague here and some ponds look more like a picture of the night sky than water.
This week someone in the ward who has been sick was hospitalized. We were asked to go visit him with a group of members. It was such an experience. He was obviously in a lot of pain with doubts about his life. He then asked for a priesthood blessing and asked specifically for us to give one. Wow, I love these opportunities. They always make me feel so much more connected to God, to bless someone and tell them exactly what they need to hear. It was a very special experience. In the end, I strongly felt that he would recover fine, that he just needed to trust the nurse. We have heard he's done significantly better now.

This week we had to send my companions carnet(license) to Panama because he is going to have to get a new one for the next two years which is normal.  We actually had to send it in a package to the mission office, because we are so far away.  We looked for the smallest box we had in the house and we filled it with confetti that we had in the house and decorated it with banana stickers. Elder Zelada, I hope you enjoy this package that’s heading your way, besitos.
Here in Almirante, we found a restaurant that we've heard rumors that sells turtle. It's apparently low key. As I walked in, I said, "Hey you got turtle!" The man quickly said, "Shhh... Callate La Boca. It’s not something that we always have." He then went on and explained that it is actually illegal to sell turtle. Luckily nobody was in there and he recognized us as missionaries. He said "I know some of your companions came in a few times to eat it, but right now we don't have anything, but I'll let you know if I get anything later" Long story short. I'm now on the waiting list. That or I'm on his blacklist... either way.

Actually, I don't know.. It was just a joke from what I have heard. I suppose it is all rumors.  It is just illegal to sell them here, but apparently, you can sell them on the islands off the shore.  

I've Gone To A Town Far Away


I'm gone! I have left El Empalme in the hands of Elder Lopez and you'll never believe where I am. I'm in the same bat time same bat channel, Almirante. It's in the same district meaning still in the good old Changy. I'm now with Elder Cotonón, who is another crazy Chapin ó Guatemalteco. This time I'm close to the ocean and I hope that means I get to eat more seafood. Also, it means the Internet is a little bit faster.


The picture up above it the first picture I got when I got off the bus, Almirante is a tourist town and the missionaries were not having much success in this area.  They baptized about one person every six months. President was going to cut it off completely but felt an impression to keep it open. After sending in leaders from a lot of different areas, they have started baptizing again. (Elder Reina and Elder Cranney were two among them that came in about three months before I got here.) 


Yeah and guess what? It was the old area of Elder Cranney as well. I'm just following his trail, which means I'll have another three months of people thinking I'm him. He had been searching for a place to eat turtle his entire mission and in the very last week, a member finally took him to a place that serves turtle.  My companion knows where that restaurant is. We tried going today, but we will be there later this week. I'm going to eat a TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLE!!!
Church meetings held in El Empalme
Irizarry Cousins serving with Lopez's.

Our Apartment in El Empalme

Two Options Right Here


Let’s start off with some exciting news. We baptized the niece of Presidente Compa. WOO! That was really cool. And do you remember the Sound of Music family? Yeah, the family of like 11 kids. Well, this week three of the kids got baptized. The parents are working to get married so that they too can be baptized. It is just that it’s not custom here and it’s a pain in the neck to get all that paper process. There is even a blood compatibility test to see if your kids will turn out fine… Yeah, it’s kind of hilarious how difficult it all is. It’s like a six-month process. The oldest son also plans on getting baptized in a little bit, he just wants it to be his decision not because his brothers and sisters are being baptized. But yay! That was a grand miracle.
The father has such a great personality. He works extremely hard on the Banana plantation to support his family and he gets paid a lot less than he should. Right before payday, they ran out of money. And so, they were praying as a family and they found five dollars in one of the kid's textbooks but what he did with the money left a great impression on me. There were some nights where they went to bed without dinner and some days without breakfast. With the little money he had left over, he ended up making dinner for his family and us. When he made us dinner it was quite a bit which would have fed his five children breakfast that morning. He insisted because he said nothing is more important than serving the Lord and he felt that by serving us it was the closest he was going to get to serve the Lord. That was a very very humbling experience.
Also, this week we were teaching a Ngobe family. A grandmother and her two daughters. The grandmother speaks Spanish as a second language as do most her age.  It was a little bit tricky as she was also hard of hearing.  Halfway through the lesson, the grandmother bursts out, “Wait, are you married?” So I’m like “Umm… No...” But before I could say anything else she responds “Oh, Okay, because you know you’ve got two options right here” motioning to her daughters. Oh, my companion was dying, I pulled up my scriptures to cover my mouth. A bit later, the grandmother went on. “Wait wait wait… What is your name again?” I started by saying, “Elder” and I thought the grandmother had something witty to say, but her daughter chimes in “Wow, what a beautiful name, I think I’ll name my next child that…” Oh, help me.