Monday, April 19, 2010

“Welcome to the Jungle!”

The Wanderings and Delusions of a Gay Mormon Missionary

Aerial view of pristine Amazon Rainforest or jungle, Brazil

I’d put my life on hold. I’d taken a leave of absence from school, put my scholarships on hold, left my job, and—moments earlier—said goodbye to my family. Two years later, I’d return to that same airport and see them almost as I’d left them: some slightly taller and wider but mostly just the same.

I, on the other hand, wouldn’t be the same person, arriving barely recognizable—physically fit, able to handle stress constructively, goal-driven, etc. Now that you know the ending of this series, the emphasis is conveniently placed on the how (the process and story) rather than the what (the outcome).

All of the preparation I’d made—attending missionary preparation classes and such—seemed slightly off. Working in the hypothetical and role-playing fundamentally discounted individual nature. No amount of practice could prepare me for the human interactions ahead. The first of these interactions, with Elder Rockefeller, a fellow missionary, was a clear indicator.

Neither of us were accustomed to our hours-old missionary existence. No longer being called by our first names, not being allowed to hug people of the opposite sex, not being allowed to watch television or movies, and now always having another missionary at your side felt a lot like walking in shoes of two different sizes. The rhythm of conversation was thrown off.

“So, you’re headed to Brazil, too?” I asked after our awkward introductions.

“Yup,” he said distinctly. Rockefeller, from that moment, came off as a combination of Goofy and that stoner from the back row of your geometry class. He wasn’t all there, but in an innocent kind of way.

As we talked (finding out we were going to the same area in Brazil), he seemed to have the same cool tone about everything from his memories of high school soccer to the breakup with his girlfriend just a month earlier. He wasn’t worried at all about the next two years of his life. In fact, to him, this adventure to another continent seemed to be just another day of life—an impression I couldn’t really fathom at the moment, especially since I hadn’t considered any aspect of my life particularly special at that point in my life.

Rockefeller Ballenger Carter

The trip became a blur of new faces and stories. A few other missionaries trickled in, but we stuck mostly to the groups we were assigned because we knew we’d be together for a couple of years. We were joined in those moments by Sister Ballenger and Elder Carter who I’d seen with his huge family taking pictures and crying as I entered the airport and as I said goodbye to my own family. He was the oldest in his family to serve a mission, so it was a highly emotional experience. I remember his mother sobbing as he held her with that deer-in-the-headlights open-eyed stare.

At 5’3” Sister Ballenger managed to put some energy into the demanding and slightly terrifying journey to another continent. She was the youngest of four kids, all of whom served missions. In conversation, it seemed that the things she’s miss the most while in Brazil would be U of U football and running marathons. She was refreshingly different and appealing in that she wasn’t just another 19 year-old boy mandated to go and serve. She was here by choice and a few years our senior.

Our conversations continue on our flight in which I sat sandwiched between Ballenger and Carter, the layover in Dallas, and then our flight to Brazil.

“I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” Sister Ballenger gasped, leaning towards me then pulling away realizing her forbidden impulse to hug me. It was a cautionary rule, a barrier to keep missionaries from being tempted by the opposite sex, and we heeded. Ironically, temptation from the opposite sex, I came to realize later, would remain a null factor in my experience.

The journey entering its tenth hour, Rockefeller, Carter, and Ballenger all drifted off to sleep as the cloak of night was pulled over our path. Unable to sleep, I pulled out a stenopad and started writing as everyone around me, a hodgepodge of races, nationalities, and languages. Regardless of these differences, they all drifted off to sleep—except for me and one other missionary across the aisle and down a row.

Plane to Brazil

We were both writing and I was intrigued. A fresh new journal lay open on his folding tray with a few pages turned like my stenopad with some scrawlings and a pair of letters to Nate and Cole, already on their missions, analyzing the experience I was currently passing through.

Noticing I was also awake, he passed me a note:

“Hey, I’m Elder Alan. Where are you from?”

“Nice to meet you. Elder GMB. I’m from Utah. Boring, I know.”

“I’m from Mesa Arizona.”

“Used to the heat then, I guess?”

“Yeah. I’m not too worried about that. You worried at all?”

“For sure. What if I don’t learn the language? What if I get sick? If there’s one thing I’m good at, It’s worrying.”

Our conversation turned to home and what we’d miss. Of course our families and school, but our nerds got the best of us as NPR programs were added to the list and we spent the rest of the flight recalling memories of Car Talk, Diane Rehm, and Prairie Home Companion across the pages ripped from his journal. Looking back, Elder Alan fits a pattern for me: intelligent, tall, dark, handsome. Were I to run into him today, I’d realize that my fascination with him writing and having a nice smile were more than I understood at the time.

Elder Alan

Light began to penetrate the plane’s tiny windows as the announcements regarding altitude and safely deplaning were read in Portuguese, English, and Spanish. That was the first sign that changes lay ahead for us. Lethargically but deliberately, everyone elbowed their way to their carry-ons and overhead luggage. As the missionaries gathered at the gate, we all seemed to realize the reality: we were here and there was no turning back. In a haze of foreign language and unfamiliar instructions we fumbled through customs, not quite sure what waited for us outside of the airport.

Once through customs of Sao Paulo’s immense metropolitan airport, we heard a loud, accented voice shout “Welcome to the Jungle!” emanating from a dark-haired man no taller than Sister Ballenger.


naturgesetz said...

I'm definitely looking forward to the future installments. You give such a window into your mind as the events enfolded.

naturgesetz said...


robert said...

"The journey entering its tenth hour, Rockefeller, Carter, and Ballenger all drifted off to sleep as the cloak of night was pulled over our path."

Nice phrase...

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

@naturgesetz: I'm glad you're enjoying this part of my life. I never wrote about it seriously because I didn't have anyone to share it with.

@robert: Thanks. That one didn't stick out for me all that much. I'm glad you pointed it out.

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