Several of my blogs concern a role I once had which was commonly known as ‘line up’. Briefly the job involved making all manner of preparations (‘line up’) required for the floating bookship MV Logos to visit ports. The vessel was crewed by a diverse group of 140 volunteers from 25 nations. It was owned and operated by an international Christian organisation. Click this tag ‘line up’ if wish to read other blogs which concern this role.
In the following story the main character is LUM (‘line up man’ ).
LUM had had some previous experience lining up for the ship in a number of ports in various countries. He had now been asked to get involved in another country and port. It would mean a new culture, foods and people. An enriching learning experience to which he was looking forward to. That the country was in a state of emergency due to recent happenings did not seem to figure much in his thinking. In retrospect perhaps this should have been considered more.
Once he arrived in the country LUM was partly based in the capital city trying to secure government permissions for the ship to come. This included getting access for the general public to come onboard. However he still had to make fairly regular trips to the coastal city where the ship was due to visit. This involved some hours bus ride through the desert. Endless sand dunes piled like waves in the sea. Sunglasses were essential. Sometimes needing pain killers to ease headaches from the bright light. Usually there was one stop in the middle of nowhere in particular. Most passengers then piled out to follow the call to prayer. It was a dramatic scene to watch. People bowing down on their prayer mats in the desert.
Just getting into the port authority area took half a day as various passes were required. Many dealings such as this seemed to take much time. As far as passes were concerned they also needed renewing every week. Slowly LUM awakened to the fact that most things could get done much quicker by ‘greasing the palm’ of whoever was in authority. This way of getting business done seemed to reach into every service required. There were also times when both officials and other contacts changed their minds. Sometimes people were very positive about the ship coming. On other occasions the same people were, at best, ambivalent. LUM was told that on a previous visit of the ship a number of officials were annoyed by not being ‘rewarded’ enough. Maybe this explained the fluid nature of some people’s views. Asking for written permission for things was not always straightforward. LUM recalls offending one official by pressing for more than verbal assurances. Did not LUM see that he (the official) was an honourable man? That his word could be trusted.
This period in LUM’S life was in the days long before mobile phones. You could spend half a day or whole evening trying to make an international phone call. First of all you had to visit the telephone exchange. Then fill in a form to book the number and destination country with the operator. Then wait, and wait, much like you might in a doctor’s surgery. Eventually the operator beckoned you to go into a booth. At last you would be put through.
As with port entry the process of phoning might be speeded up if extra money was involved. For LUM it presented a moral dilemma. It seemed that for large parts of the economy people in jobs were paid very poorly. In order to make a living there was an expectation that a job would also be an opportunity to get tips. When does a tip become a bribe?
LUM’s time in the country coincided with the annual fasting period of the majority religion. He felt awkward not abstaining from food or drink during the day when most of the population was doing so. There is something about eating that is a communal and shared activity. He felt very antisocial eating out in public when others were not able to eat. Once he recalls eating in a restaurant in the early evening. Everyone else was sitting at table with untouched glasses of water. All patiently waiting for the signal when the day’s fast would be over. For LUM it was not pleasant to have a roomful of hungry, perhaps resentful, eyes watching him eat. He concluded it would be better to avoid such embarrassments and eat at more suitable times.
Due to security issues the contact LUM had with colleagues living long-term in the country was very limited. LUM felt quite isolated. Any engagement with others often meant surreptitiously visiting houses. Usually one by one entering and leaving at widely separated times. Done ostensibly so as not to arouse suspicion. LUM was not sure such precautions meant much. On one occasion a colleague living in the country pointed to an apparently crippled beggar. He was sitting on the ground across the road from the house they were meeting in. LUM’s colleague said the man was often there. At the end of the day he would leave and walk away. His lameness miraculously healed. LUM was told the ‘beggar’ was employed to watch their house and report on comings and goings. Probably any precautions taken pandered more to the need to feel careful.
Maybe LUM had led a sheltered life but one unpleasant experience was the awareness of being followed. One occasion whilst out walking comes to his mind. It was chilling to look over his shoulder and keep seeing the same person behind him. To confirm he was being followed he took random turns through the streets. Yes it was same person some distance behind. Whether LUM was slow or fast or whichever way he turned LUM appeared to be shadowed. Strangely once LUM accepted he was being followed he put it out of his mind.
After a number of weeks preparations the ship was due to come. Due to other commitments LUM had to leave the country some days before the actual arrival. However all preparations seemed to be in order. Other line up people had come and they would be around for the ship’s visit.
The ship duly arrived in the port and the gangway lowered in anticipation of being open to locals. Within just a few hours the shipping agent gave a distressing message. He said the vessel had to leave port immediately and anchor in international waters. Apparently there was a threat. What really was going on LUM has never come to understand. The door to stay was firmly closed. What was clear was that the ship had nowhere to go for weeks with a crew of 140 sitting many miles offshore.
For LUM personally it was also disconcerting that several of the foreigners he had contact with were deported shortly after.
This crisis of a ship with nowhere to go opened an unforeseen opportunity. In a matter of days a colleague was able to get permission for the ship to visit another place. Somewhere that up till then had not been thought possible.
Many years later LUM reflects on this whole experience. He believes there is a bigger picture. Behind well intentioned plans that seem to come to nothing God is working out his purposes.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”Romans 8:28 NIVUK