Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stories from My Mission: Welcome to Argentina

While I was in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, my sister kept sending me newspaper clippings of what was going on in Argentina. In the year leading up to my mission Argentina was experiencing major economic problems that resulted in riots in the streets, and the interest rate demanded by lenders to the federal government spiked to 16% (sounds just like Greece? yes almost exactly like Greece). A troika consisting of The World Bank, The U.S. Treasury, and the IMF agreed to lend money to Argentina at a greatly discounted rate, with the demand that they cut their deficit and fix some structural problems. But due to riots in the streets, internal political disagreements, and many other problems (such as the president had to flee La Casa Rosada by helicopter to escape the rioters), Argentina eventually defaulted on their debt about a week after I entered the MTC. In a period of about 4 weeks the country went through 3 different presidents, with the last one resigning about a year later, which prompted a rather interesting election, but that is another story.

The debt default sparked a period of inflation which brought much hardship to the people I worked with. [Author's note: I want to take a moment to point out something problematic with how economists "measure" inflation. Officially inflation in Argentina peaked at 10.4% in April 2002, with a total inflation of about 40% for all of 2002. Even by economist's standards that is bad, but their way of measuring inflation generally includes things like washing machines, cars, houses, radios, TV's, computers, cellphones, and things like that. But for about half the population their main concern was food, and nothing else. Because I had to go buy food like everyone else in Argentina I got to watch the price of food shoot up dangerously. My food allowance as a missionary also had to be increased significantly over the course of a year. If you measured inflation using only food, the things people buy every single day, then inflation for all of 2002 would have been somewhere over 100%. I watched food prices double, and continue to rise the next year for a total inflation of 200-300% over the course of my mission. This left over a quarter of the population without enough money to even buy food, and I found this out by talking to these people every single day. That is something that is never reflected in the economist's numbers. And now back to our story...]

The worst part of the political uncertainty and turmoil happened while I spent two months in the MTC. After that we flew down to Argentina to land in the middle (literally) of all the unrest. While In the MTC I teased the elders in my district by telling them that when we flew into the city of Resistencia, where the mission office was, we may have to circle the airport a few times while they cleared the cows and goats from the runway. Some of them actually took me seriously.

We flew from Salt Lake City to Chicago O'hare, and from there to Buenos Aires. The airport that we flew into was the international airport, but we had to travel to another airport on the other side of the city (literally!) in order to catch our flight to Resistencia. There was a guide (who spoke 16 words of English) who directed us to the proper transportation, but the drivers didn't speak English, and despite two months of intensive training, none of us spoke a lick of Spanish. So there was little communication, mostly gestures and an occasional burst of the gift of tongues.

Because our flight did not leave until much later they took us to the Buenos Aires Temple (which has its own MTC, or CCM as it is called there). While at the Temple some people took pity on us and speaking very slowly explained to us that we could go to the cafeteria and get some food. Let's just say I was not very impressed with the vegetables cooked beyond recognition, the beef that was half fat and tendon, and the rolls that were hard enough to pound nails. The empanadas were good though. After a while the transportation came and picked us up and took us to the airport. This airport is right on the waterfront and overlooks directly el Río de la Plata, which is an estuary formed by el Río Paraná and el Río Uruguay. At its widest el Río de la Plata is 140 miles wide. As we stood there looking out the window at the river I mentioned to the other American missionaries that what they were looking at was a river, not the ocean. They all responded with disbelief, "There's no river that big." I went over to one of the sister missionaries from Argentina and asked her, "¿Eso es un río?" ("Is that a river?"). When she answered "Sí." ("Yes.") the elder's jaws dropped. They also started thinking, "If Elder Tanner is right about that being a river then he might be right about the cows and the goats on the runway. What have we gotten ourselves into?!?!"

After a while we boarded out plane to Resistencia (several missionaries were happy to see that it was a standard passenger jet, and not some dinky prop plane). After a short trip we arrived and were met by a couple elders who worked in the mission office. They transported us to the mission home and showed us our temporary accommodations, let's just say we were a little apprehensive with the accommodations. (Think high school locker room smell, with 4 tier bunk beds and a shower that consisted of a bucked hanging on the wall. At least the bathroom had a door.)

In the morning we had a few meetings with the mission president and his assistants to get us oriented and then we met our trainers. My trainer, Elder Tenny, had just arrived that morning and had not slept in about 24 hours. He fell asleep in our meetings and was a little out of it. But we did get the best pastries I had ever had (and will ever have for as long as I live, they were the best). After all this was over all the missionaries walked out and started milling about in front of the mission office while the office elders figured out how to transport everyone to the bus station so that we could travel to our respective areas.

While everyone was milling about on the sidewalk I noticed a pickup truck drive by and pull up to the curb about 30 feet down the road from where all the missionaries were standing. A set of policemen (about 7 or 8) climbed out of the back and out of the cab and proceeded to calmly arm themselves with shotguns, gas masks, riot shields, and body armor. While I watched them arming themselves (now about 20 feet away) I looked past them and noticed that about a block away there was a large crowd of people gathered in the street carrying banners and waving flags. I stepped over to Elder Tenny pointed at the policemen arming themselves and said, "Um...should we be concerned?" Elder Tenny was paying more attention to the office elders discussing bus schedules, and no one else seemed to notice the growing riot and escalating, armed police presence.

I stood there thinking, "Surely someone else notices the police with the shotguns 20 feet from us, and surely someone with some authority will say something." But no one did. About the time the shotguns were being loaded I went over to Elder Tenny again and again asked him, "Um...should we be concerned?" This time I got his attention and pointed to the police. He looked at them for a moment (he was rather tired) and eventually said to one of the Assistants to the President (AP), "Hey Elder Mackey! This doesn't look good, maybe we should go inside!" Finally the AP's and the office elders looked down the street and quickly assessed the situation.

"Alright! Everyone INSIDE NOW!!!", one of the AP's yelled out.

"You, you, you and you get in the car right now! Everyone else MOVE!!", he yelled pointing at me, my companion and a few other missionaries that needed to get to the bus station right away. As all the other missionaries quickly filed into the mission office, we hurriedly stuffed our bags in the van, jumped in and quickly drove away past the forming line of policemen. As we drove by the police Elder Tenny turned to me and said, "Welcome to Argentina!"

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