When I was young, I was taught a number of religious principles that have stayed with me over the years. Most of my young life was guided by those religious ideals. I wasn't a zealot, but had accepted that way of life as my own. It was how I made my decisions in life and I led a wonderful childhood.
Of course, I'd had my scrapes as all kids do. There were times I picked the wrong friends and gave in to the peer pressure more than I should have. Overall, though, I was a good boy.
I had a difficult time understanding how sexuality fit into the religious views I'd learned. Perhaps some of that was because I hadn't learned much about religious sexuality at that time. I was always told it was something best saved for marriage and it was always implied that I would learn about it when the time came. Occasionally, I would hear that sexuality is a wonderful thing and that it is perfectly fine to explore the multiple facets of a couple's sexuality within the bonds of marriage.
The problem was that I wasn't married, but I was getting turned on by any number of things as a teenager. In that respect, I suppose I was a normal teen. It wouldn't take much to get me excited. Since I knew I wasn't supposed to turn to intercourse for a release of that pressure, I turned to masturbation. It was a very pleasurable way to satisfy those urges. Of course, I had those days when I felt guilty for masturbating, but when those sexual desires built within me to a crescendo, I would turn to that as a release.
With my friends, I would say things that would drip with sexual innuendo. I would tease and joke about sexuality, but didn't have any first-hand knowledge. I'd read books and learned a number of things that way. I knew more about sexuality than most of my friends, I believe, but mostly because I was willing to read.
For that, I was blessed by being born in a family that likes to read. My brother had quite a collection of books and magazines dedicated to the idea of sexuality. I think he didn't feel as bound by the religion as I did. For that matter, I think I may have been the only member of the family who felt bound by the ideals. My parents and siblings all seemed to be quite comfortable talking about sexuality and even trying things. They were far more open and comfortable discussing sexual topics than I. I don't know when my brother lost his virginity. My sister was a teen and obviously not seriously interested in waiting until marriage. She knew that it would feel good and decided to move forward with her experimentation.
As we ended our teen years in my congregation, we would be invited to participate in a religious retreat. The retreat takes place in several different locations, even sites outside of the United States. It lasts for a year, allowing the young adults to learn even more about their religion and how it fits into their lives and gives them the opportunity to concentrate on sharing their religion with others.
When I was a younger teen, I was undecided about participating in the retreat. It was an option, but not one I was seriously considering. When I saw how excited my friends were about the idea of going, however, that pushed me towards going, myself. I wanted to experience that sort of excitement in my life. Therefore, as the time approached for me to receive my invitation, I decided to fill out the application and submit my paperwork to be considered. I was both excited and nervous about it.
Up to that point, I had very little experience with women. I was terribly shy around cute girls and since I didn't have a lot of money, I didn't date much. I also worried about what it would feel like the next day to see a girl I'd dated at school. To avoid potentially negative feelings, I didn't ask them out. I just hung out with my group of friends and left it at that. I had kissed a few girls, but hadn't done more than light petting. I was truly inexperienced.
When my invitation arrived in the mail, I was a little surprised to see that I was invited to attend one of the international retreats. I was going to have the opportunity to learn Spanish and to spend my time in a Latin American country. That brought on a whole new set of fears. I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it would be like to live in Latin America, my thoughts always concentrating on tiny pueblos with dirt streets, houses made of tin siding with leaky roofs, and very low cleanliness standards. I worried about catching diseases and about crime.
Since my invitation was specifically for attending in Argentina, that is where I concentrated my research. I wanted to learn more about the country before I actually went down there. I learned that though it is located in Latin America, it isn't a third-world country. It's more second-world, if that level exists. Though they didn't allow importation, except in Tierra del Fuego, they seemed to have a higher standard of living than many Latin American countries. They elected their president, though much of the government organization was socialistic in nature. The country is known for its fine beef production and a high quantity of natural resources in the southern half of the country.
The more I learned about the country, the more excited I became about going there. It sounded far better than I'd originally feared and my desire to go grew with each passing day.
Finally, the day arrived when I was to report for the retreat. We reported to a training center where we were taught language skills for a few weeks prior to traveling to our destination. From that moment on, my life was in the hands of the church's retreat organizers. I breathed, ate, slept, and played by their guidelines. I learned as much Spanish as I could, concentrating my efforts wholly on the project. I take pride in my learning skills and so did my best to learn as much of the language as I could. Luckily, one of my instructors had also attended the retreat in Argentina so I could learn the dialect I'd be speaking down there. The rules were many, but easy to follow if you put yourself in the right frame of mind.
One of those rules was limited interaction between members of the opposite sex. Granted, we had to interact since we were in classes together, but we weren't to date and were to limit our touching to handshakes or the like and it would be best if we didn't delve into our personal lives with each other. Since I had made the mental shift to a religious point of view, that rule wasn't too difficult to follow. However, I am not very good at keeping my personal feelings in check or to avoid talking about personal stuff with women. I ended up getting a crush on one of the girls in my class. I had also allowed myself to form a strong bond with another of the girls. Once I shared the idea that I had a crush, things started to change between me and the girls. They started to treat me a little differently, trying to increase the emotional distance between us so that they weren't distracted from the reason for the retreat. It was tough on me, but I threw myself into the language and was able to get through okay.
I'd never been on a longer flight in my life than the one down to Buenos Aires. We stopped in Los Angeles to visit the Argentine Consulate so we could get our passports stamped with the visa. The next day, we flew to Mexico City for a two-hour layover, followed by a flight to Lima, Peru, where we stopped again in the middle of the night. Our next leg of the journey took us to Buenos Aires, where we arrived in mid-morning. A taxi ride over to another, smaller airport, had us boarding another flight that took us to Bahía Blanca, the center for the retreat.
By the time we got off the last plane, we were exhausted. It's not entirely easy to sleep on a plane so nobody got a good night's sleep in a few days. We were excited to be there, but I wanted to rest and eat a good meal. Luckily, that was what was planned for that night. We met with the retreat director and had dinner together as a welcome. We even slept in a normal bed that night.
During our welcome visit, we found out that we were going to spend portions of the retreat in other cities. That would give us the opportunity to truly experience the culture and to immerse ourselves in the language. We would have other retreat members with us to help us with our religious learning and growth, but we weren't going to spend the year all together in one area.
My first area was in Tierra del Fuego ... the bottom of the civilized world. I was excited to be going to such a well-known place, but it meant that I'd have to spend the next day on another plane.
The plane stopped in several cities on the way south, which just extended my trip. By the time I arrived in Tierra del Fuego, I was ready to sleep for days. Unfortunately, that's not how the retreat works. You get to start right into the work immediately. I just had time to drop off my luggage at the apartment before we were off to work. Actually, "work" was lunch with a local family. We were served noodles with a red sauce and some meat. It was quite tasty and helped solidify what I'd learned in my earlier research: much of the country has an Italian influence. It was my first opportunity to try my language skills with native Spanish speakers. They were incredibly polite and spoke clearly so that I could understand what they were saying. I was pleased to find that I could understand most of the conversation without having to resort to the pocket dictionary I'd brought with me. We did spend some time talking about religion with the family as well, which was the purpose of the retreat, after all.
.... There is more of this story ...