Epiphytes

We rode the train all the way up to 關山 last Monday! 關山 is a very small and relatively remote village north of 鹿野. Years ago, it had its own pair of missionaries. Now, it serves as yet another odd appendix to our branch.

At 關山.

Our purpose in visiting such a distant locale was to call on several less-active members who live in the neighborhood and haven’t been to church in years. Upon knocking their doors, however, all but one remained silently closed. The outlier was opened by our target, who promptly informed us that it wasn’t convenient for us to visit her because of the conflict between her mother’s traditional beliefs and ours. Oh well.

Because trains only pass every few hours, we and the sisters rode our bikes back to 鹿野 for the rest of the day. Our hour-long journey is chronicled in the below photographs:

Rice paddies.

Rice paddies.

Rice paddies: aqueduct edition.

Rice paddies, houses, and mountains.

Rice paddies and a lone yellow house.

Rice paddies and our bicycles.

Railroad tracks and crumbling apartments, bisected by a swath of rice paddies.

Mountains, trees, a shack, and a foreground of scenic rice paddy.

This rice paddy holds a special place in my heart.

There was also a large dip in the road, bridged by a trussed aqueduct.

In 鹿野, we visited the same members as usual. Outside of 周弟兄’s (Brother Zhou’s) house, we were greeted by a new sight:

It’s what’s for dinner.

A cage occupied by oodles of giant snails! 周弟兄 confirmed that these invertebrates would, indeed, furnish their afternoon repast.

Recently, Elder Illu and I are worried that our LAs are stagnating. When he first began visiting them, it seemed as if they were progressing, but we think that this may have only been an illusion due to him never having met with them before. My impression is that most of these people aren’t even aware that they’re considered “less-active.” They assume that, because church is so distant, it only makes sense to attend once every month or so.

As we sat talking with 周弟兄 inside his house, Elder Illu and suddenly spotted a large mass scurrying past the door in the bedroom facing us. Elder Illu abruptly stopped teaching the lesson and told 周弟兄: “I hope you aren’t afraid of spiders.” He told 周弟兄 about the arachnid we had caught sight of.

With Sister Zhou, we cautiously approached the bedroom door. Elder Illu spotted the arachnid crouched next to a large mattress and pointed it out to Sister Zhou, but, with her elderly eyesight, she didn’t see it. Thinking it was underneath the mattress, she lifted it up, but the furry and extremely fast spider ran right underneath! It scurried about. We both tried desperately to indicate its location to her, but alas, our efforts were in vain. The creature scuttled into a dark corner and disappeared among piles of heaped textiles. Sister Zhou replaced the mattress. “It’s OK,” she told us. “That kind isn’t poisonous, anyway.”

In preparation for our Easter-themed English class party, I drew a tract we can photocopy and hand to members and people on the street.

The original. It features a malicious-looking rabbit firing an egg from the mouth of a chicken.

The tract as it appears when photocopied in black-and-white.

There had better be a lot of students at our party!

On Friday, it was raining again in 鹿野. Within a few minutes, I was wetter than if I’d jumped into a swimming pool in my white shirt and tie. In times such as these, there’s nothing to do but to grit one’s teeth and pedal furiously, oblivious to the water and mud splattering abundantly onto one’s glasses, face, and clothing.

Lastly: I’m not one to number my oolocytes prior to the cracking thereof, but it seems probable that the creation of our stake will be realized. We’ve exceeded all of the requisite numerical requirements, and the application has already been created and submitted to the Asia Area Presidency. Yeah!

-Elder Elliott

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It’s getting mimsy in here

A week of draining bike rides, great progress, and lame excuses (your husband is asleep? I just saw him walk past the window). I’m unsure of the proper method of managing these ludicrous guises. Ought one to viciously confront the culprit with the searing light of truth? Or should the falsification be gently brushed aside and left to quietly moulder in the corner? Elder Illu and I have recently favored the latter tactic.

On the train returning from 鹿野.

We went to 鹿野 again on Monday. This time, the sisters insisted on coming with us. I’ll afford the reader the privilege of guessing, based on the above image, what the weather was like.

Yep: another day of pouring rain! It was as strenuous as ever: huge billows of blowing acid rain, mud splattering everywhere, and steep and long bike rides. We just about killed the sisters! If you don’t make the train back at 8:02 PM, you have to ride for a solid hour to reach Taidong from Luye. Our last lesson in 隆田 concluded at 7:50 PM, so we rode like mad to the train station and barely made the 8:02 train.

Elder Illu gestures at the camera.

This week, all things considered, went quite smoothly. One of the highlights was a family home evening activity hosted by the branch at one of our members’, 林弟兄’s, home. A carpenter by trade, he has extensively modified his house, creating sizable additions and an elevated restaurant on stilts where he and his wife serve patrons. Upon entering the elevated restaurant, I found the floor unusually flexible, and the distance between supports remarkably broad. I innocently asked him: did he use software to design the structure, or pencil and paper? He responded: “Neither. I just thought of it and then built it.” Needless to say, I did not linger unnecessarily.

林弟兄’s house.

We ate food brought by the members, including the bamboo sprouts that are currently in season, a lot of rice, various soups, fish, chicken, an assortment of other vegetables, and regional cuisine supplied by Pizza Hut. Following dinner, all enjoyed a spiritual thought on the Sabbath. Lastly, the 鹿野 members taught everyone how to do their tribal dances.

Dancing the “counterclockwise fire circle orbit,” not to be confused with the clockwise variety.

Elder Illu and I were glad to see that everyone was very inclusive of the LAs we’ve been working with. On Sunday, seven of them came to church, and most stayed for the full duration of the meeting!

On Friday, our second 鹿野 trip of the week, we began our ride home as usual (on Fridays, we stay after 8:02, so we must perforce pedal home). We stopped along the way at a 7-11 in the middle of nowhere for drinks and batteries. I was surprised to see a whole family of white people! I tried greeting them, but none showed a reaction, and I was unsure whether or not they had heard me. Having purchased our necessary supplies, we left the convenience store to resume our journey.

No sooner had I taken several pedals than I heard an awful grinding, screeching noise, and my bike rapidly halted. I looked down and saw my cable lock intertwined about my bent and twisted derailleur and thoroughly intertwined throughout the spokes of my rear wheel in a gigantic mess. I had forgotten to loose the lock before mounting my bike! I flipped out my kickstand and started tugging at the cable in an attempt to enter the passcode and disentangle the jungly mess, but it was to no effect.

Then, as I sat on the ground, two of the white-skinned beings approached me! One inquired of me, asking if I needed any help. I equivocated. They informed me that they were on a bike tour down the east coast, and volunteered the service of one of their guides who specialized in bike repairs. I reluctantly admitted that my bike was in bad shape, and they summoned the native guide over. She fixed my bike in about five minutes, including readjusting the derailleurs and fixing my rear brake, which had been messed up for a while. While I talked with her in Chinese, Elder Illu conversed with the white people. They were all from Brooklyn, and had won a free bike tour of Taiwan in a race there. I was very surprised at the speed of their speech. Finally, we thanked them profusely and continued on our way. Had they not been there, we would have been in quite a pickle. As it was, we sped through the night and arrived home within an hour.

That’s about all for this week. Elder Illu is a very effective missionary, and I am privileged to work with him. It has been a very productive and enjoyable week. I bid thee farewell.

-利張老

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The Smith & Waster

Elder Illu found us a “shortcut” on Thursday night. Seeking a shorter route to a less active member’s home, we turned onto a promising-looking narrow road that ran along an irrigation ditch. The houses on each side became fewer and smaller as we rode, and we were soon bumping along in the dark on a rutted dirt path. We rode past a last, solitary house, where several karaoke-singing elderly men and women waved at us. Then, the path entered dense vegetation, and we were plunged into darkness.

Only a few seconds had passed before, without warning, several barking dogs leapt from the dark rustling bushes and dashed after us! We sped as fast as we could through the pitch black, bumping and swerving as branches whipped in our faces.

One by one, the pursuing canines dropped off to the sides of the path. Just when I thought we were clear, a deep growling reached my ears. A great snuffling heavily-built dog lunged out from the vegetation and barreled down the hill to our left, straight towards Elder Illu, and chased him with zeal! Our feet spun as fast as centrifuges. Finally, the huffing beast plunged into the foliage along the path, and all was silent.

I had just started to laugh with relief when a gate we were passing began to rattle and clank. I had just enough time to hurl my weight into the pedals before a pack of howling hounds dashed out through several holes in the gate and onto the road. The starving brutes shot out like bullets! Pedaling with all my heart, might, mind, and strength, I kept barely ahead of the jaws snapping at my heels. At last, they too fell away into darkness.

We eventually emerged onto a main road, and found ourselves almost exactly where we began.

Aside from the shortcut business, our week was quite excellent. On Monday, we had planned to sacrifice our P-day to serve 鹿野 members. We rushed to the train station. When we arrived in 鹿野, it was pouring! The weather is often much different in 台東 and 鹿野 because of the discrepancy of ocean proximity and altitude. 台東 was clear, but in 鹿野 the gutters were rushing with torrents of brown water which in Utah would promptly be named as major rivers. We were soaked and frigid when we arrived at the first member’s home, and he said we couldn’t work because of the rain. Instead, he drove us in his ancient and wheezy car to some scenic overlooks that double as paraglider jump sites.

鹿野 scenery.

At the 高台 paraglider takeoff site.

Little park we went to. There were lots of gigantic snails in the water, which laid hard fluorescent-pink clusters of spherical eggs on above-water rock faces. Pretty cool.

After riding about, we went down to Brother Lin’s cow-rearing shack, where we ate some barbecue! Elder Illu and I partook of the flesh of a pig and a cow which Brother Lin had killed the day before, cooked on a flat rock and sandwiched between slices of white bread. The pork is about 90% pure fat, which is startling at first, but it was really good, at least partly because we were so hungry.

Elder Illu.

烤ing the 肉

We went to serve at the wilderness laundromat again. We almost finished, but the concrete, of course, ran out right before the end!

So close!

On Saturday, President Day held a big priesthood meeting in 玉里. Elder Juan, one of the area seventies, was present, as were President Day and President Saunders. There were 105 priesthood holders in attendance at the tiny chapel, which is quite remarkable given the small population of the area. Their talks were awesome! They extended some very inspiring and bold invitations for the members, which I hope will provide enough impetus to push the branch into full throttle to prepare for the creation of a stake.

President and Sister Day also came to our branch sacrament meeting on Sunday. President Day gave another inspired talk, which I translated for Sister Day. Six of our less-active members attended. It was quite lovely.

In 玉里 for the priesthood meeting.

That’s about all. Bye!

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Fierce Dogs Do Not Enter

Service with the district, sans sisters.

My first full week in the Taidong 3rd branch was pretty crazy. Here are some images accompanied by occasional words:

Pulling the tares from the midst of the sweet potatoes.

On Tuesday, we served a local ward member/farmer by riding to her land and helping her pull weeds from a plot of sweet potatoes. The best part, aside from the joy of Christlike service, was the conical hats.

In Taidong, it takes a lot of biking to get around. That holds especially true in our area, which would take several hours to bike across. Because our area consists of the boonies rather than the dense center of Taidong, our members and investigators are spread between many different 村s, or villages, scattered throughout farmland and mountains. On Thursday afternoon, we decided to visit one of our more distant less-active members. We rode uphill for about an hour and a half to his house. It was pitch black, and the air was opaque with mist, so the stars and moon were not visible. Jungle and fields were on either side of us. There was complete silence, save for the constant humming of insects on both sides and the occasional trickling of water.

When we finally reached the top, he wasn’t home. I could have predicted that. We turned around and descended the mountainside, speeding back to the city. Dogs chased us.

At the wilderness laundromat, ready to pour some ‘crete.

We also served for a full day at a member’s property. I’m not really sure what this construction is, but I coined it a “wilderness laundromat.” Standing in the remote forest, about a thirty-minute car ride away, it is occupied by bunch of big rusty chemical tanks and machinery. Assorted items of clothing hung from pipes and clotheslines strung between metal scaffolding.

A laundromat’s bandsaw, for especially dirty raiment.

We are given boots.

Sister 馬 gave us this blade and told us to cut the tree down. It took over an hour.

Our job was to flatten a large area by scooping rocks around, mix concrete, and then pour and smooth the concrete to form a flat surface, the purpose of which remained remarkably nebulous. By means of shoddy approximations of volume, sketchy gigantic electric egg-beaters, oil barrels, and extra-long extension cables, we mixed and poured several hundred pounds of concrete and significantly increased the area of the plaza. The material underlying the concrete was mostly really loose mud, charcoal, and broken glass. I give it about a year before it becomes saturated with water, pushes over its retaining wall, and slides into the gully by its side.

Civil engineering, Taiwanese style.

Pouring cement.

This week also included 元宵節, the end of 過年. Everyone in the city was setting off great quantities of firecrackers. The entire town was roaring with the constant tumult of small explosives, punctuated by occasional gut-thumping blasts of large mortars, followed closely by the accompanying wailing of car alarms. Weird trucks filled with painted-face gong thumpers sped around town, contributing to the unceasing cacophony.

On Friday, about a dozen of these cars also filed through the streets, shaking the foundations of adjacent apartment buildings with low-frequency madness.

Curry.

On Friday, our quest to meet with as many less-active members as possible brought us to 鹿野, the remotest corner of our area. It’s actually a detached unit, part of our branch but not continuous with the other area. It is very rural, much of it consisting of rice paddies and squatter-style huts.

My companion was pretty exhausted on the train ride to 鹿野.

Typical 鹿野 scene.

鹿野 is much more third-world than most of Taiwan. Some places in 鹿野 are very poor. We encountered a family in a tiny metal and garbage shack while looking for a member. One of their sons was completely naked! Their mom sent the other boy to run in front of us and guide us to the correct house.

The best seat in Taiwan.

We had a great time meeting with the 鹿野 less-actives. The Spirit was very strong when we talked with them. On Sunday, five of the less-active members we met with came to church.

Because we had too many lessons in 鹿野 to make the train back, we rode our bikes instead. It was dark and raining a fine mist. We sped home for an hour, climbing laboriously along mountainsides and whizzing down at top-speed. My front light went out, so all in front of me was pitch black! I rode closely behind Elder Illu so his light would illuminate the road. I could barely make out the reflective paint lines on the road hurtling past. When we at last coasted into the city, the 元宵節 festivities were in full-swing. It sounded like a war zone. The streets were packed with gong-whacker trucks. When we walked into the apartment, exhausted, my face was caked with mud flung by my tires during the descent.

It’s been a great week, and a very busy week. Elder Illu and I have been exerting ourselves as much as we can to further the work in the third branch. It has been fulfilling to see the fruits of our effort.

Sincerely,
利長老

 

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Moved to…

…台東! Romanized as “Taidong” or sometimes “Taitung” (Giles-Wade, ugh), this mostly-rural area is located near the southern tip of the island of Taiwan, along the Pacific coast. It’s one of the prettiest places on the island, which is one of the reasons I’m so happy to be here.

Me and my new companion, Elder Illu.

Last Monday, my last P-day in Shuanghe, Elder Montierth and I rode the Maokong gondolas! The gondolas are usually closed on Mondays, but because Taiwan was still in the midst of Guonian, they opened for the special occasion. These boxy cars are much faster than they appear. We sat in a car with a woman suffering from a fear of heights. She reminded me of my mom, with her constant outcries upon her children’s jostling of the car. Here are some pictures:

Elder Montierth.

Me.

View from the car.

At the top station.

We rode the MRT to the zoo station, where we boarded the swinging gondola and sped out over the jungle-carpeted mountains. The cables hung draped between tall steel towers mounted atop the crests of steep saddles. We swooped high above deep, thickly-forested ravines, and passed above mountainside terrace farms and tiny ramshackle huts. Straw-hatted farmers far below inched along between rows of vegetables.

The zone leaders called us on Wednesday and informed us that I would be leaving. I packed my bags on Thursday night. They were crazy overstuffed, because I somehow managed to accumulate a significant mass of possessions while in Shuanghe, but figured I would be moving to a nearby area and it wouldn’t be too much trouble. I weighed one, just for fun, and it was almost 100 pounds.

In the time preceding the transfer meeting, I talked with some other elders about where they wanted to move to. Everyone said either Taidong or Hualian. I agreed that those were great places to go, but I told them I didn’t think I would go anywhere along the east coast, because few missionaries are sent there each transfer.

When the new area assignment began, I waited tensely for the appearance of my likeness upon the PowerPoint slides. Minutes passed, and missionary after missionary was assigned. At last, I saw my image fade onto the screen–in Taidong! It was really exciting. My new companion is Elder Illu, who was actually my babysitter on my first full day in Taiwan! He’s an outstanding missionary. His father is from Guatemala, and he grew up in West Valley, UT.

Elder Illu.

After the meeting, President Day called the Taidong and Hualian missionaries into a classroom. He told us that President Gong wants to create a stake in Hualian, which would include Taidong. (Currently, there are only districts and branches). To do so, the paperwork would be submitted on April 1, preceding General Conference. This is a leap of faith, because the statistics in Taidong and Hualian aren’t quite up to the Church’s stake standards yet. They are very, very close. Our job as missionaries is to go into crunch time to get the wards up to the numerical standards by the end of March. It’s a big responsibility.

After the meeting concluded, we all rushed to the MRT station. It was all very last-minute. We had to take the MRT to make the Lu Guang, one of the slow trains that goes down to Taidong. After dashing to the underground Lu Guang station, we were just in time for the thundering arrival of the huge old train. The cars were so full of people that we couldn’t put the luggage in the same car as all of the missionaries, so we scattered to other cars to find space to put the luggage. They were all full of people packed like sardines! Just then, the “doors closing” alarm began to sound. We crammed ourselves–and my insanely heavy luggage–into the nearest car.

It was a real adventure. There was barely room for us two, let alone the baggage. The trains are pretty antiquated, unsafe, and packed way, way, way above capacity. There were many exposed valves and buttons on the walls, surrounded by warnings not to turn or push them. Someone must have, because an alarm began sounding in the stuffy, jam-packed car. It continued for about 30 minutes. At every station, more people squeezed aboard! We were trapped. Some people vomited. At last, we reached the station at which most of the passengers would disembark. They flooded out of the door in a mad rush, and in the process knocked over one of my suitcases, which blocked the exit. Other people were dragging suitcases as well, which they were too weak to lift. The departure alarm started to sound. I just grabbed their suitcases and swung them over. At last, the chaos was all over. The last stragglers dashed out between the closing doors. The cars were empty.

On the 7-hour ride down to Taidong, we conducted our weekly planning session. I looked out of the window from time to time. The city turned to industrial wasteland, which soon became jungle. We emerged from a tunnel, and I saw waves crashing on the rocky Pacific shore! People stood on the rocks with long fishing poles in the surf. The scenery was amazing: steep, jungle-covered mountains and ravines on the right; the wide ocean and beaches on the left. Clouds of mist drifted about overhead.

After the ride, we arrived home barely in time for the 10:30 bedtime, so I pulled some of my clothes out of my suitcase and went right to sleep.

The next day, we attended a sports party hosted by the district. Elder Illu and I ran in the 3,000-meter.

The district track meet.

Despite wearing sunblock, I was smitten with a moderate sunburn (Taidong is within the tropics, and much warmer and sunnier than Taipei). It’s great to be out in the wide open fields and rice paddies of Taidong after the city confines of Taipei. After the insane Yonghe crowds, the empty distances here are a relief. We spend a lot of time biking between houses, and I can finally think in silence. The people here are much less rushed and stressed than those of Taipei.

After the track meet, we ate at this maritime/train-themed box lunch store. Weird. It’s apparently quite famous, though.

Elder Illu, our two roommates, President Cai, his wife, and two members.

The morning market where we bought fruit.

Taidong is very different from Taipei. The population is very small. Our area is gigantic, probably the largest geographical area in the mission, and contains a town we can only visit once a week because of the length of the travel there. There are many farmers here, and a lot of the locals and members are actually Taiwanese aborigines. It’s awesome to be able to serve here, especially with the challenging task President Day has entrusted to us. Elder Illu and I have very comprehensive plans for what we’re going to do in the next weeks to meet the stake requirements, including many strategies for reactivating ward members and finding new investigators. This is an area full of energy and potential for growth.

Until next week,
利志聰長老
Elder Elliott

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