The Curse of Chino on 13th Street


This week we have run into a few troubles, one of the most pressing is that I have now acquired an addiction. I was recommended by a sister missionary to buy a type of milk, which is vanilla flavored and called Maria milk. It is like someone milked a golden cow and put it straight into the bottle. I can now say that milk is not the same and never will be. Nothing can replace this vanilla milk, and this past week we've been running around town looking in all the supermarkets and Chinos. Only one Chino in all of our area sells them. We now have on multiple occasions gone out of our way, or taken a long way home just to buy one of those 50 cent kid milk boxes. Why did you bring this to my attention, Megan? 

The second and most important problem is that we found out through first-hand experience something dreadful: 'The Curse of the Chino on 13th Street'. Yes, the Chino is on 13th street, well territory. But its real!! Every time we have bought a Duro or ice cream on a boiling hot day, one of us has dropped our ice cream on the ground. I'm warning you people, it is not worth it!! They sell their ice cream for less than the other Chinos, but that is probably because they know about the curse!!!

I don't know how I haven't brought this up, but I feel like I'm in the Bible Belt of Panama. Since Panama is the Belt of North and South America, I guess that makes us the Bible Belt Buckle. Never have I seen so many people with a firm testimony of God. It's genuinely beautiful. Of course, there are many different pastors who have a desire to throw everyone else under a bus and explain why they're right and everyone else is wrong. Others who realize that we are all on the same team. Let's just say I have learned a lot about many different sects of religion and their beliefs. For the first time in my life, I have actually had to defend my faith. I felt very blessed to have this student of the scriptures as my companion, Elder Reyna. I am learning a lot and my testimony is deepening and building in many ways.  It has been really interesting to see how much we all have in common, but see what little details people fight over. I have also learned how to hold my tongue.

Who is more scared?
We had a conference at the stake center, in which we needed to take a ten-minute taxi to get there. We have a lot of investigators that want to go to church. However, for a family of eleven, that would cost twenty big ones just to go to church. However, this family is golden and have genuinely been a miracle. When we explained about Joseph Smiths first vision, the father exclaimed, "Wow, how blessed is this young man." Normally we get a lot of strange and skeptical faces. Then we explain that every single prophet that we read about in the Bible are known for their 'fruits' (Matthew 7: 15-20). Then we invite them to pray because God will not lie to us and he wants the best for us. Prayer is very powerful, and when we turn to him with questions he will always answer them.  Getting back to this family, as we left this meeting the kids in the car were just so excited. Hey when is the next session? When is the next time we can come back? 

To respond to your emails, apparently, the Winter Olympics don't exist here. It's ignored so much that I haven't heard one person talk about them, it has not even been in the news, which is probably because the news is still focused on Carnival. I don't know if its because they are just too busy thinking about the world cup, or that they don't have snow to practice anything....but I mean the Jamaicans have a bobsled team soo...I actually forgot that they were going on until it was mentioned in an email. 






We Gotta No Banana's

To answer a few general questions about Changuinola, yes we are completely surrounded by Banana Plantations. I will have to send you a picture of a map we have here, just to give you an idea. It has been amazing, you see people driving around tractors pulling trailers of people to work on the farm; all carrying machetes and sporting rubber work boots. Just about everyone has a bike and it's a big thing here to customize your bike. I have seen bikes extended, lowered, or with tanks of pressurized air on the side so they can have fog horns. 

There isn't a day that goes by where you don't see a pickup truck piled with bananas.  We are so close to the Chiquita Banana production line we get them for dirt cheap. It is like 10 cents a banana if you buy them one by one, but you can get them for less if you buy them by the branch. Yes, that's very common and we had a member cut off a part of her branch and gave it to us and we are now waiting for our 30 bananas to ripen. But that's Bananos, Bananas. There are so many different types of bananas, the most popular being Mal'duro. That's what they use to make Patacones and there is no way to eat Patacones other than with Fried Chicken. Oh, I'm living the dream and I finally understand why they say Panamanians only eat deep-fried food. Here in Changy I don't doubt it; I could live off of Patacones as they are cheap and delicious. 
Banana Plantation
This week we decided to open up Finca 4. We started with Cosechas (or proselyting) and felt strongly to go down into a specific area. We started walking down this gravel road and after a little bit, it led to an endless trail. I mean I felt like Dorthy when she was first told to follow the yellow brick road; it'll get you there. There was nothing more than the eyes could see but the endless banana fields and no houses. It was at that moment where we both were like, I don't feel anything...  The spirit just dropped. Strange! 

We turned back around and headed for the entrance of the trail. As we made our route back, I just kept thinking, why were we here. I felt strongly to be here and as I was in my thoughts it ended up being that a teacher was leaving the school. She left just as soon as we passed.  We walked and talked and she was very interested. She was an English teacher here in Panama from New York. Apparently, she had a lot of families who were members but on the side of her sister in law. The work of the Lord was beautifully planned that we were in the right spot at the right time. That's one of the many blessings I have seen during this past week.
Where we attend church.
We had a baptism of Luis this week.  We live close to a river, and well we don't have a church building or baptismal font. (The closest building is about 40 minutes away.) We have special permission to hold church at the side of a house. We have our church outdoors sun or rain and the spirit is just very strong, no matter where you are. The blessings you have at church are so strong and so irreplaceable, but I have to admit its so much better outdoors.

It rained the night before and so the river was very full, so this young man was being pulled downstream with the current. My companion was literally holding him in place. It was a beautiful ceremony and he is one brave little man. Shivering and Freezing, he refused to leave the water until he was baptized without being torn away by the raging tempest current.
Now my companion is a convert with a powerful testimony. He has a photographic memory, which combined with his passion for reading makes his scripture knowledge astounding. I learn something every day. It also comes in handy because we have been teaching lessons and in my two weeks here we have had to Machete quite a few people. Meaning that we show them scripture evidence where it proves this belief over that. Of course, it depends on the person and the situation.You have to take a good gage at that, but my companion plays one of the strongest defense I have ever seen. Which makes me feel more at peace with the many many different sects of religions here. 

My companion happens to know a little bit of street magic. He has been able to fascinate kids and gain more attentive listening by offering to do a magic trick after our lesson.  However, one Grandmother called him out saying he was a magician who practiced dark arts and had beasts. Without hesitation or fear, he told her, oh maybe I do have a beast, who knows. But is that all... I mean I have heard so much worse, let alone the doors slammed in my face, or the water being thrown at me. 

We were able to finish teaching and by the end of that lesson, she was attentively listening. When we were leaving the Grandmother said to me, I want to get married. Now I don't know what that means. If 1) She was referencing before when she said she didn't want to get baptized because that meant she had to be married or 2) I now have someone waiting for me to return home. Either way, WOOO!

Elder Irizarry



Changuinola


I live in a Banana plantation, and it is beautiful and tranquil. (To get here, I got up at 4:00 in the morning to leave Colon and got to here at 9:30 at night - very long day of bus travel.) It is so different than Colon; there isn't loud plena music blasting your eardrums into oblivion.  There aren't people yelling at you in wali, wali.  I love it here. Our house is small, but it actually is the nicest house I've been in yet. Oh, and yeah I don't know if I told you, but we are told we cant drink the tap water; it's a nice yellowish green and unnaturally cold to shower in. All the natives drink it just fine, but many missionaries get sick here from the water. We've been given a little bit extra money to buy gallons of purified water. 

Leaders of Changuinola here have an area that touches Costa Rica in which they would need to drive thirty miles in a bus. I am not sure if I will ever be there. 

I find that I can't teach in the same way or use the same slang here that I learned in Colon. Here there are a lot of the Ngobe tribe. Kunas, and Emberas. Oh, my! Its crazy the differences in their culture and wow is their dialect the most complicated I've heard yet. While I am here I am supposed to learn it. It has been quite an experience to teach them and learn about their beliefs. Kunas are by far the easiest to teach, and Ngobes are the hardest. They don't talk a whole lot and you end up talking really slow and ask a lot of questions.

My companion is Elder Reyna, he is one of the strongest converts I have met in my life and he has a firm testimony. He is from Peru but also lived a few years in Argentina. He has completed 18 months of his mission and is very well rounded, very easy going, but determined and dedicated to the work. I feel honored to be his companion. He has taught me so much in just a week's time. I also feel so special to be here in Changuinola. There are not a lot of missionaries or members here but the members help out with everything they can. We have members with cars and they go past other members homes and pick them up to go to church without even being asked, which is really amazing. We are a small branch and we sit outside a house on a bunch of cold metal chairs and have our meetings.The best part is that is is actually cold here!!! It rains a lot and when it's not raining the sun doesn't have a grudge against you!

This week, we have found a lot of success in getting permission from parents to baptize their kids. This has been a big problem here, along with getting married and drinking coffee. The Ngobe traditionally drink coffee like Panamanians eat rice. When your not full have another plate of rice, or when you don't know what you can have as a side, you eat rice. For some people who drink coffee 12-15 times a day, it's hard to give up. 

When we walked by our investigators home to bring them to church it was so funny. Here there are a lot of different churches and oddly enough in Panama, they call their reunion and sacrament meetings... Cults. Yup that's very normal here and it's utterly hilarious. We actually hear many people say, "oh I'm going to a cult that starts in an hour". You will see signs that say cult has these hours on these days. There are many Jehovah's Witnesses here and the other day we stopped by a home right as Jehovahs Witnesses were talking to the parents of some of the members here. Elder Reyna and I jump out of the car, and when the kids saw us, they all ran over yelling, "We're ready to go to church." I have never seen anyone's face so confused and astonished as that man when he turned his head to see who was taking them to church.

This week we were able to give two blessings of health. One we gave to a baby who was sick and another to a thirty-year-old man who was literally lying on the floor coughing up blood.  Both experiences were very powerful.

Elder Irizarry


Normal Everyday Missionary Work & Goodbyes

I am writing this ahead of time because I don’t think that I will have time this Monday. Transfers are coming and it's typical to only be in an area for three months. I think that I am probably going to be transferred because I have been here in Nuevo Mexico for just under 5 months. I hope not; I love it here! I know the area, the members and the investigators and their situations. Ironically, I just found out that I was in the area where Elder Betts served! It was quite literally the last three days that we found an old note from him here. I found out that I actually taught some of the same people that he had taught.  Sorry man, some of them were progressing but it is possible that one day Anna and Alfredo will be picked up again by a future missionary. They are pretty solid but just have a little trouble getting to church. As any missionary who has served in this part of Colon, its Nueva Italia on a Sunday, there is no transportation. It was sad as I said my goodbye to Aldea and it was just very tranquil. Of course, the bar on the other side of the river was blasting music but this time it happened to be Bob Marley. I came to the walkway to listen to three birds and it was so beautiful this time of year.  I could not have asked for a better goodbye. Well…. except that nobody was there. It's probably better this way. 

Now that I am leaving I should probably tell you a bit of what we have been doing there. We have been teaching many families here who are apt to listen, many have a great faith in God, but know nothing about Jesus and the scriptures. Others attend different churches but they do have their questions.  Now, after reading the Book of Mormon and many other things they want to get baptized. They just feel nervous to get to church. Its like when you buy a pizza and nobody wants to be the person to eat the last slice but they all want it. We invited them and many ask…yea, I want to but who else is going? Many have a testimony of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. We have been teaching one of my favorite investigators, se llama Juan. He overheard our lesson about the word of wisdom and was captivated. He told us, "Why doesn’t the world at least the youth here know about this!" We invited him to baptism and left that day and Elder Franco after we sat down at the bus stop said, ‘You know what we just did right?” I was just like, ya we invited the brother in law of Diana to baptism…. And? Then he said, “He is El Nono or El Casique” (meaning the tribe leader). 

We started teaching Juan and he fell in love with the Book of Mormon and asked for two more books so that he could share them with his friends. He asked a lot of questions and all them were rather deep. He has a passion for the history of different tribes and cultures. Now the Book of Mormon explains a lot about the people who were in the Americas, how they got here, what their belief was, challenges, circumstances, but the crowning point was when Christ came after his resurrection and gave personal ministry to the inhabitants here. This book not only is up his alley of personal interest but very spiritual. 

I remember and will always cherish the one day we were answering one of his questions and I have never seen anyone look at a book the way he studied the scriptures while we showed and pointed things out. With a voice softly trembling, he said and I quote, “I have been looking for this answer for the past twelve years of my life…and here it is so plainly in the Book of Mormon. Why couldn’t I have had this book sooner.” When he had a question, he had his scriptures opened and was waiting for us to guide him as to where he could find his answer. I actually gave him my triple combination and he is now using it often. We have invited him to baptism a few times and he genuinely wants to get baptized but he is just very busy. That and as the leader, he can’t have a legal sway on politics or religion. With time, he said, “I don’t’ care, I know this is what God needs me to do.” He is just now at a stage where he wants to know the Book of Mormon front and back so that he can defend himself when others start questioning him.

I have strong reason to believe, that when he gets baptized. It will turn into a smaller version of the King Lamoni story. Like Matthew said, “When they see his good works, they will glorify their God,” or as Paul put it in his epistle to Timothy, “He will become an example to the believers.” I am just thankful for this experience that I have had here in Colon. Even though I didn’t get to see it all play out, I couldn’t have dreamed of an experience like this. I can’t express my gratitude sufficiently.  That is what I have been doing in Aldea...Normal Everyday Missionary Work! 
This past Sunday, we had a baptism and this Wednesday we had another scheduled. It was her birthday and she was really excited about baptism. With the very small budget we have here, we scraped enough money together to buy a cake, it was perfect. Just until she came into the water and then had a panic attack. She never told us that she had a fear of water. After calming her down, she went for the first time underwater and forgot to plug her nose and started flailing. We had to do it again but she being more panicked and took a step out. We dismissed everyone and gave them warm remarks for showing their love and support for Marret. Bless her heart, even though she was utterly terrified, she was firm in her decision to get baptized. We lowered the water and tried many things to help her, but after two hours of sitting in the water, we called it a night. She, this week, has been practicing in the river by her house and we have plans for next week to try another time. I have never been prouder of a little girl for trying to follow Gods example, and have never seen a man with more patience than Elder Arriaga that night. It was really a testimony builder of preparing down for letting the Lords will swallow up our own will even if it is difficult.
So it happened, I will now be serving in a new area Changuinola, boarding Costa Rica. I say that as I am writing this in hour eight of my very long bus trip to get here. Isn’t that the greatest blessing in the world, eight hours of an air conditioner.  I sat next to a tour group from England which also meant eight hours of English; what!!! The lady I sat next to was just the sweetest elderly lady who loved to tour the world and even better, a history buff. Oh’ you better believe we had a good time. Within the first ten minutes, I started going into missionary mode but she shut that off saying, it's better if we don’t talk about that, we have a long ride left. She did have questions later and I was able to at the very least bare my testimony.

I should be getting Changuinola around Tuesday morning and I am honored to be one of the eight missionaries who is practically in Costa Rica. This morning we waited for a bus for about thirty minutes to get from Colon to Panama City and I missed the 6 o’clock bus from Panama City to David. However, we ended up passing the 6 o’clock bus on the way because it had broken down and had to go into a garage while everyone in that bus waited so that is another blessing. I am now with Elder Reira and he is pretty cool! We have only had the chance to talk three times and one of those times was when I passed pink eye to one of his investigators. We are already off to quite an experience and there are only going to be more.
The first bus ride from the bus terminal Albrook to David was nice, I was on a double-decker bus and sat by the window. Wow, what a view! The second bus from David to Changuinola was a little bit sketchy. The trail that you go up reminds me of going on the narrow road out by Hearst Castle or when we drove to see the sunrise on Mt. Haleakala in Hawaii. We went up and down those winding mountainous hills and at times we were driving in the clouds and sometimes above them, we past waterfalls, rivers, dams, and rainbows on the cliff side. I felt like I was on a tour bus. It was absolutely beautiful, I felt as if I was going to a secluded mountain to become a monk. As with this haircut, I am halfway there… and the best part was I was genuinely cold. I think I am free from melting, but I have no idea how they got a road up here and how they planned it out, but it was amazing. I wish that I could have stopped off to have taken pictures. I am also glad that I didn’t have a lot to eat today because I think that it would have turned that trip into a different experience. Many small decisions turned into great blessing throughout this day.

I am here and alive, I actually got here late, late, late Monday night! Changuinola is in the boonies, but I absolutely love it. 

Growing My Testimony & Hair

To keep you updated, Russel M. Nelson is now the active and living prophet. He is 93 years old, but still kicking and as lively as can be. I have not heard much else about the new members of the apostles, but I'll keep you updated on that as well. However, it was really cool this week for the first time we taught someone about the restoration and prophets where I got to talk about Russel M. Nelson. I had no doubt in my mind that Russel M. Nelson is the current prophet called by God. When we taught it the spirit flooded the room and testified to me, my companion, and most importantly, our investigator that Russel M. Nelson is, in fact, a living prophet of God called to this time to receive revelation and direct the people of Zion. It was so powerful and I am so thankful for the experience.

We had divisions this week, but this time I was with Elder Kuhn from my district in the MTC. Was that the best! He is such a cool guy and such a good missionary. I saw that we both have improved significantly from the MTC and that we both have learned and adapted from the different experiences put in front of us. As we worked together with our different talents and abilities it went so smoothly. We had lessons after lessons where you just felt the strength of the Spirit in the room. It went by so fast. It didn’t even feel like work. We talked about everything. I would love to be his companion one day in the future. Let’s hope I get that lucky. I learned quite a bit from him in just that one day. I realized how much I actually knew and that I really learned quite a lot from past Elders. It was actually such a blessing. 
At the high point in our day, we got to teach a recently baptized Kuna, who I had met before. But Elder Kuhn asked me if I had a scripture that I could share with her. I shared one of my favorite scripture stories in the Book of Mormon, Ether 6:1-12. It was a favorite scripture shared by our teacher to both of us in the MTC and soon after became my favorite. If I ever feel down, If I ever feel like I'm not doing well, or that that life is hard I turn to this scripture. It teaches us that these ancient people had followed the commandments of God to build boats and travel to the Americas. They sat in the boats just waiting to get to the Americas for nearly a year. They didn’t have a whole lot to do, but sit there in boredom in these air-tight cells and wait as many times, the waves were strong and heavy and pushed their boats completely under the water. But the entire time they didn't complain. They sang songs and praises to the Lord and accordingly, the Lord blessed them. At last, when they got to the Promised Land they humbled themselves before the Lord for the strong blessings they had received. What a strong spirit that was with us when we taught. You could cut it with a knife. I felt an impression to read this scripture and it was exactly what this woman needed to hear. 

At last! We finally had a baptism. No, it’s not who you may be thinking. It was a 10-year-old girl named Kate. Their family was inactive and we've been working to get them back to church. Kate has recently been very sick and in the past few weeks, she has gotten better after a doctor’s visit. After working for a while we finally prepared her for baptism. Now before the baptism, there is always a small interview which we can't interview our own investigators for security reasons, so other Elders need to come for the interview. At the end of the interview, we asked her who she would like to baptize her: Elder Arriaga, Yo, or as a joke Elder Sierra (the companion of the other missionary). She said, "I don’t care, I just want to get baptized". And so Elder Arriaga and I both said, "Look, Elder Sierra has about 1 month here and hasn’t ever baptized anyone." She chose him. Now that meant he had to take a one-hour bus to where we are, but he had his first baptism! And most importantly, she was baptized. The family is in a very humble circumstance was open-minded about going back to the church and motivated to baptize their youngest. Just like we read in Alma 24:27 "...The Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people". What a blessing was it to see their family receive the blessing from turning to the Lord in a time of struggle.
Speaking of struggle, With divisions, we went to the house of a broken family who wasn’t raised with the same principles I was raised with. The youngest daughter was recently baptized, but struggles to feel the spirit with the environment she has been placed in. What a wonderful opportunity it was to read her the Book of Mormon. This book has the answer to all of my troubles and is the source of my joy. This book gives us the strength to get through the hard trials in this world. This book will bring you closer to God and strengthen your personal relationship with him. If you have not had the chance to read a copy they have a digital pair online at LDS.org. If you haven’t read them recently, I encourage you to do so. It will change your life as you study this divine gift regularly. Of these things, I testify in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Until Next week,
Elder Irizarry

Oh P.S., Our neighbor Short, the one who took us on the tour to the waterfall and who normally is in Aldea with us and who gave me this haircut..., finally got his mission call. He's going to Cobón, Guatemala. We are so excited for him and hope he won't freeze to death. He already has such a great headstart from going out with us so many times. He will make a good missionary. Good Luck, Elder Short, You'll do great. And Cobón, prepare yourself for this Loco.