Strangers and Pilgrims – Coming Home

For some weeks in 1979 I visited what was then Western Samoa in the South Pacific. An independent state it became known in 1997 simply as Samoa. Not to be confused with the American territory of American Samoa which lay to the south east! W. Samoa consists mainly of two inhabited islands in the midst of a vast ocean. I first visited on my own and was doing the job of ‘line up’, preparing for the visit of the ship MV Logos. See ‘line up’ tag links if interested to know more. Before going I had been given the name of one man that would introduce me to people who could help me with accommodation and contacts. Problem was that I only had the name and no address or phone number. This was before the days of mobile phones and social media so it wasn’t clear how I would find him. On arrival at the airport in the capital Apia I decided to take the airport bus which made a tour of the island’s hotels dropping people off. Money was very tight so was a bit anxious about taking a hotel but couldn’t think of any other plan. Anyhow got off at I think the last hotel on the route and went to reception to book a room for the night. While signing the visitors book whose name should I see but the one contact I was looking for. His room was next door to mine! What an answer to my prayers.

It was arranged for me to stay with an extended Samoan family. Their gracious hospitality was in accord with their culture and traditions. Three generations all slept on the floor in one room but I was given the privacy of my own room. At mealtimes I would eat first, watched by the father of the family. Then it was his turn to eat, followed by the boys. Then the mother and womenfolk. Finally, the poor girls ate whatever was left. I felt honoured but also the responsibility not to eat too much so as those following had enough to eat.

Western Samoa lies near the international date line. It is no mistake that this rather crooked line between north and south poles weaves its way through the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the earth. Mainly between remote islands and ocean. Imagine the chaos if the date line went through the heart of Greenwich, London instead. In 1979 W. Samoa was just to the east of the dateline** and was proud of its status of always having the last sunsets of any given day. Not to be outdone I noticed that the local newspaper in Tonga (west of dateline) had the strapline ‘where time begins‘.

Living and travelling near the dateline plays havoc with your diary. On one occasion I flew from Western Samoa to Tonga which was on the western side of the date line. Diary entry says I left Apia at 3:15pm on Sunday 28th October 1979 and arrived Tonga 4:50pm on Saturday the 27th. It was weird having 2 Sundays that week! About a month later I was on board the MV Logos. We set sail from Western Samoa on Sunday night at 11:10pm on the 25th November. Our destination was Fiji to the west of dateline. My diary has the words ‘NO MONDAY’ scribbled for the 26th November.

Such novel (to me, not to locals!) cultural and geographical experiences were of course exciting. However living for some months in such remote parts and often alone did leave me feeling vulnerable and lonely at times. One of W. Samoa’s most celebrated visitors of a bygone age was Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a Scot and a famous writer who spent his last days on Samoa. He was the author of much loved and world renown classics including ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘Kidnapped‘. His writing never impressed me as a boy. It might have had something to do with his works being prescribed English reading for most Scottish school children at the time. My interest however was awakened during my stay in Samoa. Despite dying over 90 years previously I was intrigued that his memory was still revered by locals. Known in Samoan as ‘Tusitala’ (‘teller of tales’) he had been buried in Samoa.

So while there I resolved one day to visit his grave. It was reached by climbing Mt. Vaea. Stevenson had written an epitaph as a poem which was inscribed on his tomb. Reading the last few lines spoke to me profoundly. Poetry can give space to feelings in the journey of life you can’t describe, awakening longings you are scarcely aware of. 

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, 

and the hunter home from the hill. 

RL Stevenson

About a year after my visit to Samoa I flew back from the Far East to the UK. After 30 countries and over 3 years away my thoughts were much on coming home. Although I’d had many separate travels during these 3 years there was also a sense of having completed one long journey. When leaving the UK in Sept 1977 I had no idea how long my time away would be. Here are my notes then of the return trip back to UK…

The journey to the U.K. was interesting: From Bangkok I flew via Delhi, Bombay and Rome to arrive somewhat weary in Frankfurt, West Germany to discover the airline had lost all my baggage. Truly forsaking all was becoming a reality – thoughts of returning home after over 3 years away with a Bible and a few notes as sole possessions filled my mind. I spent a night at the Int’1 HQ for both MV DOULOS and LOGOS in Mosbach, West Germany. The next day saw me travel luggageless on to London via Paris. In the air approaching London I was awakened from slumbers by my name being called on the plane’s tannoy system — surprise luggage was on this plane: False alarm as it didn’t materialise on the airport’s conveyor belt. Eventually it came on another plane — it was all quite a test as in 3 years of travelling no such thing had happened. Nov’ 1980

These experiences evoked a variety of contradictory emotions. The following is a short poem I wrote during that homebound journey. Like Stevenson’s poem it helped give expression to my feelings at the time.

In Christ we are always coming home

As coming home is our hearts meeting the object of our treasure

For we who love Him what joy to know this daily experience

Of meeting the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever

At whose feet our hopes are never disappointed

However many ‘homecomings’ I have in this life the true calling is that ‘here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (Hebrews 13 vs 14).

** At midnight on 29th Dec 2011 Samoa moved west of the dateline and missed out on 30 Dec in the process. It was said to help trade with Australia and New Zealand.

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled

Crowds visiting the on board book exhibition on MV Logos in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – Jan 1987

In early 1987 Elisabeth and I were living on board the MV Logos. For both of us it had been our home previously before we got married. This latest period we had spent nearly 2 years travelling around the Caribbean, Central and North America and the north coast of South America. As I look at my diary of the time it was probably the most intensive time of our lives so far. Constant travelling and adjusting to many cultures it was also rewarding. My job involved coordinating onboard and onshore programmes as well as the advance preparations for future ports the ship would visit. It meant a mixture of being on board for some time and then travelling ahead of the ship to other countries and ports. Then return to the vessel, usually in another port from that I had left**. In the meantime Elisabeth’s job involved personnel responsibility for the women on board. 

Our cabin was tiny. Once when ship was in Puerto Rico we had a few days off shore in the home of an American couple. When asked how big our cabin was we said it was about the size of their walk in wardrobes. However it was our home. The 140+ crew of Logos were split up into different ‘families’ as a kind of smaller grouping to celebrate birthdays and other social occasions. They were led by a married couple and so we had a ‘family’ of about 10 singles of various nationalities. We would usually meet in our little cabin.

In our cabin with our ship ‘family’ on MV Logos (1985-87). Photo taken from cabin door.

My on board ‘place of work’ was also very small. Porthole-less, it had enough floor place for a swivel chair and a small desk. Entire office reachable from chair. I shared this space with the Chief Steward Mandy. The room was dominated and divided by the forward mast, almost like an unwanted guest. Mandy on the port side and I on the starboard. Being far forward on the ship the area was prone to pitching if there were rough seas. Elisabeth also had a little cupboard like space as an office underneath the main internal stairway.

Mandy and I, and mast, in our shared office

In January 1987 we were berthed in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. I had visited several times previously organising the ship to visit. On one occasion Elisabeth and I were able to do so together and stayed at the home of an American missionary couple. They had a beautiful, tropical garden. The husband was a real romantic. Every day he picked a fresh hibiscus to put on the breakfast table. 

Anyhow back to life on board Logos. One evening in our cabin I stretched for something on a shelf and was literally floored by an intense chest pain. This was followed by difficulty breathing and moving. The ship medic didn’t know what it was but gave me pain killers. After a few days I was still in pain and very breathless. It was decided to admit me to a local private hospital where they told me I had pneumonia. There they put me on a drip for 2 days. However no one could say what was the problem. After hospital I was back on board but was told to rest. 

I was discouraged by my situation. All the more as no one seemed able to diagnose and thus treat me. Some were saying it was my heart, others my lungs.  An X-ray seemed to show that I might have pleurisy or pneumonia. One time lying in bed my gaze fixed on the small poster on our cabin wall. It was the words of Jesus to his followers…

Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me.”  John 14:1 KJV

My pain or my fatigue did not disappear but at that moment I felt Jesus had spoken to me. In context he was speaking to those who were fearful of their future without him. Yet for me his words of comfort to a troubled heart had both an emotional and literal meaning. 

Over the subsequent weeks my pain slowly eased and gradually I got a bit stronger. I returned to my previous tasks and travel. However it was clear that to fully recover Elisabeth and I needed to take things at a slower pace onshore. Elisabeth was also experiencing frequent migraines.

And so it was that in March 1987 we said goodbye to shipmates in the lovely island of Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles. Friendships had been forged through living and working together. Leaving such a caring community was not easy.

As we flew back to an unknown and unplanned for future in the UK we received a double blessing. No extra charge for our 80kg of luggage as we shared our situation with the airline. These were possessions from our home of 2 years and not from some exotic 2 week Caribbean holiday. Then as we waited in the departure lounge our names were called to the flight desk. Thinking there was some problem we were asked…

“There had been a mistake and the plane was very fulł. Would we mind if we were put in first class?”

Think you know the answer to that. 

Back in the UK my condition remained for some months. I was checked out by two doctors and a cardiologist. They gave assurances that whatever I had had it was not pleurisy or pneumonia and could not detect any problem with my heart. Maybe it was some kind of physical reaction to stress. Some things both then and later in life do not get explanations. It’s at times like that I need reminding of Jesus’ words on our cabin wall many years ago. 

POSTSCRIPT Little did we know that March 1987 would be the last time we would see this vessel that had been our home on and off over a 10 year period. On the 4th of January 1988 the ship ran aground. She had struck a submerged Chilean rock in the Magellan Strait in the very south of South America. Miraculously no one was lost and all the crew were safely rescued by the Chilean navy***. Today she is a rusting hulk resting on the same rock, half in and half out of the water with our cabin home submerged. However I would rather remember Logos as a tool that was utilised. It took people to welcome and serve the 6.5 million who walked up the gangway in 108 countries over 17 years. God had used the simple faith of a bunch of largely young and inexperienced people to touch many lives. That story continues to this day with other ships.

MV Logos, as I remember her.

** In another post I recall a visit to Haiti ( Poignant, Hopeful, Maybe Even Joyful ) where I detail more of what this advance work involved in the region. Similar work in other parts of the world can be found by clicking the tag ‘line up’ on this site.

*** You can read an interesting article here by Kathy Knight who was on board when the ship ran aground

Poignant, Hopeful, Maybe Even Joyful

Hibiscus, national flower of Haiti.

In February 1986 Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was deposed as President of Haiti and went to live in exile in France. Ordinary people were no doubt hoping that the near 30 year brutal rule of his and ‘Papa Doc’ (his father) would come to an end. However the general chaos remained with a military junta in control. Their will was enforced by the ‘Tonton Macoutes’, a sinister legacy of the Duvaliers which lived on. Their name was Creole for ‘bogeymen’. The populace feared them and the main thing was to avoid their attention. They would race round the capital in open jeeps and armed with guns. 

It was with this background that in the November of that same year (1986) I visited Haiti. My reason for going was to initiate preparations (known as ‘line up’) for the visit of MV Logos to the country. Make a brief survey of the situation for others to follow up later. Arriving at the airport in the capital Port au Prince I was immediately struck by a sense of chaos. Exiting the arrivals hall I was accosted by many wanting me to use their taxi services. In a more benign situation the scene would be reminiscent of some film star being mobbed by fans. Not so for me, it felt scary. Eventually I settled on one driver. Tip for using a taxi in a poor land. Always sit in the back with your luggage and just have the driver in front. Never allow a ‘hanger on’ person, either in the front or back.

As we left the airport it was unnerving that crowds were thronging around the car and banging on it. A big relief to get away. My destination was the compound of a Christian organisation in the capital. Upon arrival I began to understand the angry scenes at the airport. Greeted by my host he was shocked to see me. Did I not know there was a general strike on? How had I managed to travel in such circumstances?  I had arrived on one of the worst days of demonstrations and riots since the deposing of ‘Baby Doc’. The other greeting has also remained with me. It helped to cement my overall feeling of being in a place where law and order were in short supply… “welcome to the last kleptocratic country in the world”.

The compound was a haven of safety where a number of mission families lived. The whole area was walled in. Outwith the gates were people who seemed to live in hope of some economic benefit from those inside the wall. In my imagination it felt like being in some medieval fort or Biblical walled city. My misplaced sense of identifying with people made me question why those who were there to serve others were so insulated. In fact a concern at the time for the compound community was for one family that had decided to live in a house in the city. However my appreciation grew for having the safety of a walled compound. I recall being wakened at night by the sound of machine gun fire. 

Mission compound, Port au Prince, Haiti

My survey visit was only for a mere 6 days. The people I was with would not go downtown for the first 2 days of my stay because of the instability. Much of that time was spent sneaking around back roads to get from A to B. I had great respect for those who chose to live in these difficult, dangerous circumstances for years. I took seriously the counsel that when out and about to wear no watches, rings or jewellery. Another tip. Have small amounts of money in several places including in your socks or shoes.

One category of locals allowed into the compound were shoe shine people. I engaged someone to work cleaning my footwear. Definitely more of a salve to my conscience than any perceived need of clean shoes. Those I was ‘helping’ seemed desperately poor. Apparently the income the shoe shine people received enabled them to employ other people. Seemed there was a hierarchy of poverty. 

I don’t remember any tourist sights in the capital though am sure there were. My only ‘sightseeing’ memory was seeing the desecrated grave of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Given his and his son’s legacy of terror it was understandable why there would be some pride in my being shown this.

The dilemma for me in this anarchic situation was where would I get ‘permissions’ etc for the MV Logos to visit the country? I had been given the name of a potential useful contact who agreed to meet with me. Linked by family with the leadership of the junta it seemed this person could be a help. The address for the meeting was on the outskirts of the capital. I made my way there to a well to do part of the capital. My contact managed one of the country’s most luxurious hotels and I was to meet him there. It was all a bit surreal as most seemed to carry guns. Not your normal hotel environment. Turned out my contact had 24 bodyguards. If anything happened to his relative in power he was prepared to go into siege. Again my overactive imagination made it all feel like the set at the ending of many Bond films. 007 meeting his archenemy holed up in his lair. Ushered in to meet my ‘contact’ my bizarre musings were fuelled further. He was in a dimly lit room covered in piles of animal skins and surrounded by several men armed to the teeth. Not sure how dangerous I appeared to warrant such. 

Now to the business of the meeting. It was obvious from the start that my presence was of little consequence. My contact was glued to a ‘walkie talkie’ radio most of the time. For short periods in between his intense radio communications he would address me. It was clear that what I was saying was of no interest. What was transpiring on the radio was where the real drama was. My reason for being there became irrelevant as I too was drawn in as he repeated everything he was hearing. 

It turned out that a major riot was taking place in the city centre. My contact was following the event as it happened. It was clear he was speaking to some key informant in whatever was going on. It seemed the mob had now arrived at the offices of a world famous (now defunct) American airline. They had smashed their way in and were now trying to break into the safe where airline tickets were stored. In those days air tickets were often written by hand on blank triplicate (or quadruplicate?) forms. Blank tickets, it would appear, would be very valuable. I leave the reader to decide what kind of interest my contact had in this live account of looting. 

For my part the intermittent, inconsequential conversation with my contact was becoming embarrassing. It was clear that all I was doing was interrupting more exciting things going on. I suggested I leave. At this point my contact became interested and engaged. He must have been listening to me after all! He could help me with anything and introduced me to his partner. Apparently all it needed was a $2,500 up front ‘service fee’. I sensed the whole thing was opportunistic. Suddenly all that mattered to me was to get away. As politely and firmly as possible I got out of the place. It is at times like that that knowing the prayers of many for my protection became real. 

It came time for me to leave the country and travel to the ship which was then in Puerto Rico. As if to cement my kleptocratic understanding a ‘departure tax’ was levied at the airport. I was told it was not destined for any government coffers but some individual.

Some weeks later it worked out to return on board the ship MV Logos. We had an encouraging 10 day stay in Port au Prince as well as 5 days in the town of Cap Haitien on the country’s north coast where thousands visited. No space to relate the activities involved. If interested to know more you can click ‘Logos‘ on the tags cloud.

Haiti’s history is a blot on our shared humanity. A toxic legacy of gross injustices, African slavery, greedy colonialism, despotic leaders and extreme poverty. The suffering of its people being further compounded in recent years by natural disasters. The huge earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 200,000. Add regular tropical storms, further earthquakes and ongoing political instability and it would seem there is no end to ordinary citizens suffering. Environmentally even in 1986 large swathes of the land had been denuded of its hardwood trees such as mahogany.

I appreciate relating my Haiti experience may not be uplifting to the reader. My desire though is that our common humanity would engender love and compassion for the plight of this country’s hard pressed people. When words fail, sometimes nature and music can step in.

Haiti’s national flower is the hibiscus. A thing of beauty yet delicate, like the Haitians whom God loves.

“So much of what music can do most beautifully is humanize things that have become dehumanized,”

Laurent Dubois, Duke University professor and historian on Haiti.

While wondering how to finish this blog I happened to go to a musical concert. To my surprise among the featured musicians was the Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla. She sang a folk song in Haitian Creole. You can hear her sing Mèci Bon Dié on YouTube here. It’s a song of hope, even joy, for a land of resilient people in sore need of healing. The translated lyrics are below.

Thank you, God,

Look at all that nature has brought us.

Thank you, God,

Look how misery has ended for us.

The rain has fallen,

The corn has grown,

All the children that were hungry are going to eat.

Let’s dance the Congo,

Let’s dance the Petro,

God said in Heaven

That misery has ended for us.

“Merci Bon Dieu (Mèci Bon Dié In Haitian Creole)” (Harry Belafonte Lyrics)