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

8 Miles Until 10pm

The above sign I have passed many times on the main road between Glasgow and Perth whilst heading to the north of Scotland. Each time I wonder if this is a window to a new dimension. Space and time merge on approaching. I have bored my wife at my childlike (she would say childish) enthusiasm each time we pass. My reaction is no longer funny.

For sure if it was 9pm and I was driving at 8 miles per hour it would indeed be 10pm in 8 miles. Any other time of day and it’s a bit more complicated. Maybe at 8pm it means 2 hours driving at 4mph. These speeds are very slow for a car so more realistically at 9:50pm it would be 10pm in 8 miles if driven at 48 mph. On the other hand it could be the sign is a cue to check the time and adjust your speed accordingly. Indeed reaching 10pm in 8 miles is possible at any time of day but requires great care to drive at the right speed. 

On the other hand am not sure speed is what is signified. ‘8 miles until 10pm’ seems to be saying that whatever speed travelled 8 miles will bring you to 10pm. 8 miles in any direction and at whatever speed brings you to a fixed point in time, 10pm! Yes this sounds rather fanciful. Yet some of the things that particle and quantum physicists theorise about our universe are even odder. 

Maybe there is something special about the time itself. For most 10pm is the end of day and rest beckons. Perhaps the sign is a challenge to reflect on the day past or prepare for day’s end. Experiences, things done or not done. Regretted or relished. It’s time to put to bed both literally and figuratively.

Context means a lot. The accompanying petrol pump sign on the notice gives it a more mundane, yet important, meaning. Still I’d rather hope that the roads dept. wish to fire up our imagination. I can choose to dwell on the depressing realities of the news that is often the backdrop to our world. It is also possible to believe in a magical, transformative world. Yet most of the time I do not have eyes to see. To complete a car journey it is necessary to have enough fuel in the tank or sufficient charge in your batteries. Yet our longing is for life and journeys to have more meaning than just the utilitarian. 

There is enduring interest in the works of fairy tale and fantasy writers such as CS Lewis and TR Tolkien. They show that adults have a need, like oxygen, for imagination. As much if not more so than children. People from every background and age have great affection for and are inspired by books and films like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. 

This humble road sign is an invitation to embark on an adventure. Like crew and passengers who choose to embark on some giant cruise ship. Everyone then makes individual choices of how to spend their time on board, living different lives. Yet all on board trust the captain will bring the vessel to safe harbour at evening’s end.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

― C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature