This is Dad (Andy) typing. We got to Skype with AJ on Christmas. For the uninitiated, Skype is a video phone call over the internet. The video can be a little choppy and AJ's camera in the Philippines was low-res (kinda pixelated), but it was cool to SEE AJ and his companion and it was absolutely FREE!
What a wonderful and positive experience! AJ is doing well and we even got to chat a little with his Filipino comp, Elder Valdez. The conversation was long (2 hours) and very uplifting for everyone. There were eight or 10 missionaries at the computer rental store that AJ was at, including the zone leaders of the Alicia Zone. I'm sure there were a couple of instances when we made AJ homesick, but mostly it was just an enjoyable time with lots of laughing, smiling and even some teasing (AJ's developed quite a Philippine accent). Here are some of the highlights:
AJ had sent us a box that arrived about three weeks ago and we have kept it under our Christmas tree, unopened, since then. He thought it would be cool if we opened it while he was on Skype, so we waited a few more hours until our Skype call. So a few minutes after 8 p.m. (AJ was about an hour late from when he said he would be on) we busted open the box and it was loaded with trinkets, clothes and crafts from the Philippines. The prize of the package was a portrait of our family that an artist in Aritao (AJ's last area) had painted. This was the same artist that had done the painting of AJ and Elder Balaich on the bridge battling demons. It was very well done. We are going to frame it and display it proudly in our home.
It was a good thing that we waited until he was “there” to open the package as a lot of things needed explanation. He sent the webbing for three hammocks (we have two trees and they are not close together). He also sent a huge amount of wood-carved figurines and masks, including a Nativity and some caribao. He also included a set of three machetes (different sizes), wind chimes, knock-off NBA jerseys (wrong team colors) and some other wooden items (flutes, fans, animals and a back-scratcher for Dad).
Admittedly, the conversation was a little stilted and awkward at first as we got used to the “new” AJ and his funny accent (he rolls all his R's!). But as we got comfortable, it seemed we had a million things to say to each other and little time to say them all.
AJ expounded on his Dengue Fever experience. “It kicked my butt for about a month. I had a rash and my hands were all swollen and I just couldn't go. I had no energy.” He said he would start feeling better and they would go teach or something and by the time they were done, he was completely exhausted and could hardly move. He also said the accompanying rash was miserable as well.
AJ said most of his companions have been really great. His time with Elder Lim was incredibly frustrating, though. He said Lim was extremely lazy, but worse than that was he was “just plain mean.” Elder Valdez chimed in and said that Lim “did not want to be a missionary.”
One of the themes that AJ's conversation had was the fact that he is now realizing that his mission is “kinda po-dunk.” He said that the Cauayan Mission is located out in the middle of nowhere and the people are incredibly poor, very humble and kind of isolated. He said Cauayan is kind of the “Idaho of the Philippines.” Our apologies to all you spud-heads out there. I would have gone with Montana or North Dakota.
AJ said they caught another rat: “This one bigger than all the others combined.” He also said there are still several more and they have gotten wise to the traps. Besides the rats, he said his apartment is pretty nice. He also said they saw the A.P. (assistant to the president) apartment and it is “like being in America,” with a hot shower and a washing machine. “Plus they get to drive around in a nice new blue Ford Ranger.” He said he does not aspire to be an AP, though, because you don't get to do as much missionary work. Plus, “driving in the Philippines would be insane.”
It was a little odd in that his computer camera was fixed and mounted on the side of the screen, so for him to look at us, he had to look away from the camera (and vice-versa). So while we could see him for two hours, he rarely looked at us. We got to know the side of his face very well ;-)
When the other missionaries started wrapping up their Skype calls, we could tell AJ was getting antsy and we needed to let him go. But it was such a positive experience. There were no tears. Only smiles and virtual hugs and kisses.
He said they mostly worked on Christmas and Christmas eve, spending just two hours at the mission home. That made me proud, but also a little sad. After all, it is nice to be pampered and appreciated on the holidays.
President Carlos arranged for all the missionaries to get special letters from their families on Christmas morning and AJ said the ones we sent him were very touching. President Carlos and his wife made special stockings for all the Elders and Sisters.
The more we hear about the Pres. And Sis. Carlos, the more we have grown to love and appreciate them. Every parent of every Elder should have a mission President and mission Mom like them.
AJ is healthy and happy and seems to have had a great Christmas. I remember feeling so lonely on my first Christmas on my mission (I kinda had a dud comp at the time). But he seems to be doing well and is working hard. We miss him a lot, but are so happy that he is there and doing the Lord's work.
Thanks to all who read this blog. AJ expressed appreciation to all of you and said that any letters or thoughts you send are greatly obliged.
Merry Christmas everyone, from the Philippines and from Washington, Utah!