Category Archives: Travel

Growing Up in the Midwest

The Memories of My Childhood Home

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy in the present is to recall happy times from the past. Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good.” Gretchen Rubin

Memories become more important with each passing day of life–some sweet and romantic, some painful and dramatic. Every soul on earth thrills to recall the best of the past. Remembrances summarize who we are and how we got there. They remind us of the uniqueness of every life. Some are so real that what we experienced in the past reappear in full color and haunting sound when we close our eyes and push the replay button. Mysteriously our brain induces a frown when we remember odors like the musty shower stall in a damp basement. We can recall the tone and intensity of our mother’s words, “That is strike one, don’t ever do it again!” We feel the panic remembering our wet tongue sticking to a flagpole after a dare. Our memory allows us to fly through the air with the greatest of ease only to crash land when gravity overcomes our Superman cape. Every year the memories pile higher and higher.

Our brain begins to develop as early as four weeks after conception. This super-computer has a nearly unlimited hard drive recording and storing what we have seen, heard, and felt. Some argue we repress the most negative aspects of the past and retain the best. Actually, we have a mixture of the good and the bad. Have you wondered where memories are stored? Current research contends that new memories are encoded in the hippocampus of the brain and then eventually transferred to the frontal lobes for long-term storage.

We have no idea what our brain could absorb and retain if we had been exposed to more languages, books, travel, and memory requirements. The more experiences we pack into our life the “bigger” we become. More languages and a larger vocabulary allow us to express ourselves more clearly and extensively with a larger circle of friends. Books are our transport to where we have never been. Travel, near and far, enlarges our worldview and mutual respect for all people.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

Most rural Iowans didn’t travel extensively in the 50s and 60s. A Sunday afternoon drive defined travel for many farmers. Families worked six days a week without more than a week’s vacation every year. Even families that had the financial resources to travel a few hundred miles to another state could not leave their farm unattended for more than a few days. The one family in our county that traveled outside the USA became overnight travel experts. Car and train travel far exceeded air travel for rural Iowans.


Blood Stained Glory

It isn’t possible to relate some experiences with the intensity or emotion they deserve.  How can you capture with words the sacrifice people make to secure religious and political freedom?

The incredible history and culture of China dwelled behind dense clouds of mystery for centuries.  The average non-Chinese only imagined the beauty and mystic of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, or the Terra Cotta Soldiers.  Even Chinese citizens knew little about their country.  Then, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), a leader from the peasant class rose to power with Mao Zedong.  After Mao’s death, he led China through the first stages of a market reform that opened some doors to the West while continuing to severely restrict the religious and personal freedoms of his people.

But, the crack for foreigners was wide enough for me to visit a few churches in Mainland China in 1991.  My second stop after visiting a former Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Sha Kai was Guanzhou (formerly Canton) in hopes of finding the gravesite of Rev. Gam Sing Quah.  Rev. Quah, a young convert living in the USA came under a deep personal conviction to plant Cumberland Presbyterian churches in China, and set sail from San Francisco on October 8, 1908 as an employee of the Women’s Board of Missions of the CPC.  By 1923 he had organized eight churches.  He died in 1937 in Canton, leaving the ministry to his two sons—Samuel and McAdoo.


While in Guangzhou we toured the impressive Sun Yat Sin Memorial.  Sun Yat Sin was a revolutionary and the founding father of the Republic of China.  As we sat down in the nearly vacant auditorium, I noticed my guide from Hong Kong become very quiet as we listened to the music played throughout the auditorium.  The tune was captivating even though I could not understand a single word.  When I glanced at my host, tears were gently flowing down her cheeks.  So, I sat and assumed this was a special moment.


Finally, she said, “You know I am really surprised with this music.   ‘Blood Stained Glory’ is the name of the song. Students listened to it for inspiration in the Tiananmen Square in Beijing before the government massacre two years ago. It’s hard to believe the government would allow it played here at this time in our history.”  Later, I would learn the lyrics of “Blood Stained Glory” tell the story of the price paid for freedom, regardless of the country.

Perhaps I’ll bid farewell and never to return, can you comprehend? Do you understand?

Perhaps I will fall and never to rise again. Will you be forever waiting?

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the flag of our Republic has our Blood Stained Glory.

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the flag of our Republic has our Blood Stained Glory.

Perhaps my eyes will shut and never open again, will you understand my silent emotions?

Perhaps I will sleep forever, never able to wake up. Will you believe that I have been transformed into mountains?

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.

If it’s to be so, grieve not, the soil of our Republic contains the love we have given.

The following link plays the music accompanied by shots of the Chinese struggle for freedom.

I sat in silence long after my host left the memorial.  I felt strangely close to a people’s struggle. Mental images of a young man standing in front of an approaching tank passed through my mind.  Few people that saw that display of bravery will forget those moments of tension.   After the young man momentarily stopped the tank, he disappeared into the crowd and to this day no one knows his identity, although some believe he was arrested and killed.  The facts remain unclear.


I could not imagine at the time how critical the Tiananmen experience would be in opening China to the world.  The largest nation in the world would soon become a global political and economic force.  Unfortunately, there are no reliable figures to demonstrate the growth of Christianity in China since 1989, but everyone agrees that numbers have grown significantly. The lives lost in Tiananmen Square were not in vain.  There are still many steps to be taken for full religious freedom to exist in China, but the wall has been knocked down and spiritual liberty is sneaking in day by day.

As I reflect politically, many people have shed blood in every nation on earth in an effort to secure freedom.  No one should underestimate such cost.

But thinking theologically, only the death and spilt blood of the Lord Jesus Christ has the potential to save every person on the globe from remaining estranged from God.  Oh, that everyone would be given the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life.  And, so, the incredible need for missions.

“On The Roads of Mandalay”

I have visited orphanages around the world—they always drive my emotion to an unattainable wish to adopt the whole lot of smiling, begging faces.  These love-starved children usually try to make eye contact while silently crying, “Please pick me.”  And, I always leave wondering why the world can’t do a better job of matching lonely homeless children with desiring adults.

God has always urged us to be compassionate with widows and orphans. “The King will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” — Matthew 25:40, NIV


We touch down in Yangon, Myanmar in early 2004 with representatives from World Vision International.  Our goal is to visit some of the sites where Cumberland Presbyterian monetary gifts collected through the Love Loaf Program had been distributed.  These ministries included an AIDS support group, a grade school administered by Buddhist monks, a community directed small business loan cooperative, and an orphanage.  Each visit introduces us to unimagined needs.


As we walk the dusty dirt streets of Yangon, we pass small, unpainted wooden homes on stilts backing up to the black waters carrying sewage to small canals running throughout the slums. This is the only option for the removal of sewage when people move onto undeveloped land and the government is unwilling to install proper public services.  Unfortunately, these moves are always the result of choosing between two miserable options. People leave a meager farm life to wiggle through the hellish tunnel of poverty while trying to find a job and some kind of makeshift lodging.  The transition is never easy and for many it means sleeping on the street under a cardboard box and pilfering through the stinking garbage dumps for something to eat.  We walk by a lot of people carrying very heavy loads balanced on their heads.  I wonder how they bear the burden, but they smile and move along chatting with other Burmese they meet.

Burma is often called the “Land of the Pagodas,” but the graceful white or gilded golden structures are absent in the poor communities.


Our guides ushers us through the large swinging metal doors of a building resembling a small abandoned warehouse.  The outside of the building has obviously been white washed years ago and now carries what I assume is the graffiti of area gangs. Inside, thirty 8-12 year old orphan boys and one smiling girl converge upon us with few inhibitions.  The orphanage director tries to restrain the children, but within a few minutes they are hanging on our legs and trying to converse with us in their limited English.  I am ashamed that I have not bothered to even learn the simplest greeting in Burmese.


We receive a brief orientation and are then privileged to take a seat on little wooden chairs from the mess hall so we can divvy out the stuffed animals, key chains, baseball caps, pens, notebooks and a host of other things that we have brought as gifts.  None of the kids are disappointed by their presents, but it is obvious that they are constantly glancing to see what their friends are receiving at the other gift stations around the patio.  The director then asked three of the little boys to show us their sleeping quarters.


The 40 x 20 feet sleeping area is crowded but neatly kept.  The walls are painted light aqua, stained from years of heavy use, giving me the opinion that the caregivers operate on a very limited budget.  Portions of the plaster have fallen revealing fragile adobe and lathe.  The dampness makes the room feel much cooler than the outside temperature.  The concrete floor has a few rugs spread here and there, but the nap has long since been worn down, leaving only the burlap weave.  The forty wrought iron beds are crowded into two rows that run the length of the room with no space to walk between the beds.  The kids must climb in from the foot of the bed.  Despite this simplicity, my mind drifts to an orphanage in Liberia where four kids often share a double bed.  At least each child has a bed to himself.  I see no sheets or blankets, and only two pillows in the whole dorm.  Each bed has a burlap mattress that isn’t over a quarter inch thick.  It is obviously an effort to keep the children from sleeping directly on the supportive wire mesh.  Each bed has one wooden box approximately 2 X 3 X 2 ft. on it.  And, each box is closed and padlocked.  The boys explain that their box contained all of their earthly possessions—clothes, toys, pictures, and books.  I ask one boy, “Out of everything in your chest, what is most important to you?”

He replies, “My books, I love my books.”  And, he runs to open his chest to show his limited treasures.  In his case, his box is nearly full of books.  I nearly cry when I see another little guy showing his favorite toys; two axles and their remaining rubber wheels.  The body of car or truck has long since disappeared.


None of the children have shoes.  Most of them have never owned a pair of shoes in their life—their feet heavily calloused.  Given the glass and nails so prevalent on all the community streets, the bottoms of their feet must resemble thick leather.  They allow us a peek into the kitchen but the darkness is as empty as the shelves.  Everything is prepared over gas heating elements.  I can only assume that the groceries are brought in on a daily basis or the children will be hungry for the day.  I am so overwhelmed by the experience that I move to the less depressing patio to try to find a few moments alone.  Our guides indicate it is time to go, so we wave goodbye to the kids and return to the quite streets.  My mind drifts to Kipling and his poem “On the Road to Mandalay.”

On the Road to Mandalay

by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,

An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,

An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:

Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —

Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,

She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”

With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek

We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.

Elephints a-pilin’ teak

In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,

An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;

An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else

But them spicy garlic smells,

An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,

An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —

Law! wot do they understand?

I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’-fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Note: You might be interested in going back to the English period of Burma with the help of a song by Peter Lawson that evolved from Kipling’s poem.  It is interesting to me that my mom introduced me to this poem more than thirty years before I dreamed of going there.  My mother was such an incredible farmer’s wife—a Renaissance woman.

“Come with Me to the Jordan”


This walk will be memorable. I invite you along. For most of those privileged to make this pilgrimage, it will be a once in a lifetime experience. Seldom can you hop off a bus and know that within five minutes you will be standing at the edge of the Jordan River—the same river where John baptized Jesus.  The Israeli government promotes two sites for pilgrims to use for baptisms and other affirmations of faith. The Office of Tourism opened the Yardenit site in 1981 to replace the original site of Kasser Al Yahud at the southern end of the Jordan, near the city of Jericho and within sight of the Dead Sea. Even though the Yahud site is probably the most likely site for the baptism of Jesus, Yardenit remains the most popular.  Today, we are visiting the Yardenit site just a short walk from where the Sea of Galilee provides the Jordan with its water.

As we walk the sidewalk to the entry into the dressing rooms, restaurant, shops, and steps down to the river, we see Mark 1:9-11 written on mosaic tiles in multiple languages.  We pause in front of the English mural and read: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

It only takes a few second for us to pass through the entry booth.   The Jordan, probably twenty feet below the level where we stand, draws our attention.  The view is breathtaking; the experience is surreal.  Shades of greens, grays, and browns dominate the landscape. Trees and shrubs, such as, apple of Sodom, tamarisk, rhododendron, and angus castus, border the river. Only the sky is light blue and a slight breeze cools the riverside.


We begin to hear pilgrims singing in more than one language.  Many of the visitors at the river’s edge wear white baptismal robes and form lines to the water waiting for their moment of baptism or reaffirmation.  Despite several ceremonies occurring at different baptismal areas side-by-side along the river, we soon become focused upon our own service.  Today, we will baptize four from our group.

Life is one continuous experience after another.  We hardly pause to distinguish one from the other.  More importantly, I wonder which events actually personally involve God.  When does God choose to enter directly into the life of people?  Is God mostly an observer?  Just how personal is God?  Why would the Creator want to relate to the creature?  Since God is omnipresent and infinitely loving, what would restrict him from always being by our side?

Scripture teaches us that God prefers, but doesn’t demand, to dwell in all parts of our created nature—the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Christians call the presence of God in an individual “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit”. The biblical justification for this is found in its books, but especially rooted in the last chapters of John, particularly in John, chapters 14-17.

Jesus once said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

For me, the personal nature of God is often confirmed in God’s unique, sometimes silent, appearance in daily life.  We will see this physical confirmation in a few moments.  Watch carefully or you might miss it; or more likely, you may see the occurrence but miss the message.

Some of us head to dressing rooms to change into our white ankle-length gowns. As we approach the water’s edge, the tall plumed river grass waves in the gentle breeze.  We fortunately come at the end of a day and more and more pilgrims are finalizing their services and leaving the area.


Mark Hester and I will baptize the others.  Each has chosen immersion.  This mode of baptism is new for Mark and me, so we help one another.  It is still a rather strenuous process and I wonder how 3,000 people could be baptized by immersion in a single day.  But, then my mind shifts from mode to significance.  We have finished the baptisms, and Mark and I stand face to face looking into one another’s eyes; we decide at that moment to reaffirm our baptism by cupping our hands and pouring water upon one another.  It is a special moment, but the experience doesn’t climax with the falling of the water from our head back to its source.  We stand up to our thighs in gently flowing waters as small fish nibbled on our feet and legs.  None of us want to leave this sacred place or walk away from such a precious moment. As we begin to leave the water and climb the underwater steps to the riverbank, quietly a brown dove glides in and lands on a handrail three feet from us.  Someone exclaims, “LOOK AT THAT!”  We stand quietly for a moment and then walk the rest of the way to the bank.

I am so glad that Sally and Mark were right there to share this appearance of a dove on the bank of the Jordan.  Granted it didn’t land on one of our shoulders and there was no audible voice affirming God’s presence.  But, I choose to believe that God wanted us to know that he was there to bless this significant moment in our lives.

A Cotton Christmas Tree–Not In My House

My favorite color is not green–most of the time.  Christmas amends the rule.  Christmas brings green and red from the color charts and predominantly marks them in my mind.  I want to see and smell spruce.  Christmas isn’t quite right without those two indicators that the celebration of the birth of Jesus is near.

Life in el Quindio, the center (eje) of coffee plantations of Colombia, South America, brings green into view everywhere.  You see the deep shining green of the coffee tree leaves and the more muted greens of the leaves of the platano and banana trees everywhere you drive.  But, the spotting of a classical North American spruce or pine is not only nearly impossible; it is illegal to harvest them in Colombia.  So, the evergreen Christmas tree is not a part of the decorations in Colombian homes during December.


The Watkins family always made a big deal about the search for the perfect tree.  Dad would grab his double-edged ax, and my sis and I would follow his big footsteps in the snow deep into the timber to find the right tree.  Of course, color, fullness, shape and height were the primary selection factors.

In Colombia, elaborate “pesebres” (nativity scenes) are front and center in most living rooms and churches.  If you see a “Christmas tree,” it is a simple limb severed from a hardwood tree and stuck into a five-gallon bucket.  Each square inch of every branch is then covered with cotton; and, you end with a white tree decorated with bulbs and lights.  For me, the “swab” tree is more irritating than helpful in creating the spirit of Christmas giving.  So, during our first treeless Christmas, my letters includes brief complaints about the lack of a “proper” tree.  In other words, in regard to Christmas trees, I am not adjusting well to my new culture.    I keep my discontent quiet around Colombians, but vented my feelings through writing.

As a rule, most North American churches have their share of sympathetic members.  They take the needs of missionaries seriously. Additionally, every church has one or two “can-do” people.  They make things happen.  Betty Frazier was one of those people.  She wrote us a letter nearly every week reporting on her family and the “goings on” at the church I had pastored before leaving for Colombia.  Simultaneously, we were sending our journals to Betty so she could understand our life on the mission field.  No doubt our letters often rested in the same post office going in different directions.

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Betty is distraught by our lack of a tree.  She buys a $150 tree on half price in January and spends a morning packaging it for the three-month journey by boat to Colombia via surface mail.  Betty is a very spontaneous person, capable of both bouts of empathy and anger.  Her postal clerk notifies her that the post office cannot mail her immense package to Colombia in one box.  Instead, the post office requires two smaller boxes.  This sets Betty into a spontaneous rant about the government’s unnecessary regulations and exploitation of the public, leaving the clerk in a nervous sweat in the middle of winter.

Later the same day Betty returns to the same post office, tugging her two boxes behind her.  She is not smiling when she pushed them over the counter and into the emotionally bruised chest of the reluctant clerk.  This time the packages meet the code for size and weight.  But the news that the cost for surface mail will be $78.75 stuns Betty.  That is more than she paid for the discounted tree.  Again, she delivers a blistering review of the United States Postal Service; and makes it clear that she wants her complaint passed to the proper authorities including Tennessee’s BB senators-Republicans, Brock and Baker.

The Christmas tree arrives in early July–two massive cardboard boxes, apparently gift wrapped with more than 100 postage stamps of small denominations, all carefully placed by Betty’s loving hands.  We gladly pay the $30 custom fee and return to our home knowing our 1977 tree will be green, the proper color for Christmas trees.

An Air Warrior Is Defined by Battles Fought, not Miles Flown

Many people flying during the holidays go to battle and lose the war.  American Airlines promotes an annual road warrior contest.  The winner writes an essay on his/her most memorable airline experience. I considered entering but assumed they wouldn’t accept my entry since the flights didn’t occur on American.  I usually fly American if possible, but all North American based airlines suspended service to Liberia during the civil wars of the 1990’s.

I would define an air warrior not by miles flown but by the combat endured.  And, my story recalls one skirmish after another.  Even though I have traveled by air to more than 50 countries, nothing can compare to this assignment.

The battle began in New York City when I boarded an international flight to Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Air Afrique.  Sometimes, you get a sense about what will follow by how it begins.  We sat grounded by fog for three hours before take off.  I added the three hours to the projected flight time and prayed that I could shorten the trip with some serious sleep once we left the tarmac.  It is amazing what one sleeping pill and a glass of wine can do at 33,000 feet.

Thirteen hours later we landed in Dakar, Senegal for fuel and more passengers.  The agent booked us through Senegal and the Ivory Coast because there were no direct flights to Monrovia.  I knew my first trip to Africa would be a challenge.  We were some of the first people to visit the country during the brief period of peace enforced by the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group.  Joe Snider, a church colleague, and I made the journey to encourage Liberian Christians and review how we could best help in the country’s rehabilitation efforts.  We would visit the churches, a medical clinic and a boarding school yet to report on the damage to their physical buildings.

Our landing in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, included the amenity that we would be rewarded at nearly every stop both going and coming—a delay.  The layover grew from four to eight hours, pushing back our arrival in Conakry, Guinea to midnight.

The Guinea airport resembled a sidewalk sale with one hundred customers looking for the same bargain in front of one table.  Suddenly and shockingly, two scrappy sweating teenagers grabbed our bags and shouted something in French.  We walked briskly as they led us through a maze of customs, immigration, health checks, and dispatch.  Our self-appointed helpers then tossed our bags into the trunk of a taxi in the dimly lit parking zone, and held up a sign in English, “$20 please.”  Joe knew that was way too high from his previous flights in Africa and gave them $5.  The guys were not happy and undoubtedly cast a few French curses our way as we crawled into the dilapidated taxi and slammed the door.  I was learning that African airports are no place for timidity or kindness.  Instead, the key behaviors are aggression and firmness. We handed our hotel address to the driver, and he nodded, smiled, and mumbled, “I know.  We go.”

Within a minute we left civilization and entered a freaky darkness of a twilight zone.  It took an eternal ten minutes before we would see another vehicle or  a light.  I looked toward Joe periodically and he sat like a stoic monk, evidently not as concerned as I.  My mind played tricks on my insecurity and I finally whispered, “Could this guy being taking us some where to jump, dump, and rob us?”  He just smiled and said, “You worry too much.”

We finally arrived at the tiny hotel where a simple card table served for check in when the attendant finally answered our rapping on the door.  Again, the driver requested $30 and we decided to give him $15.  He kept badgering us through our registration and started to follow us to our room until the attendant turned him back.

This would be a short night because of our 8 a.m. departure.  The next morning we spoke with another traveler and learned the taxi fare to or from the airport was $8.  When we arrived at the airport the baggage boys converged upon us like ducks looking for a piece of bread tossed on the ground.  Finally two guys won the screaming contest, grabbed our bags and pulled us toward their pre-determined path.  It was scary to lose complete control of our possessions and our movement through the airport. We went behind the airline counter, through the a filthy employee break room, and unto the airfield.  The one visible plane belonged to a different airline.  No one had looked at our tickets until that point.  They just assumed we were taking the only departure that day.

We soon learned that our particular plane didn’t fly on Friday.  Our agent had not done due diligence in researching African airlines.  So, there we were, looking for another taxi back to the city with no way to contact our Liberian hosts about the change in arrival dates.

It was good to have a day to rest. Black marketeers approached us in the lobby offering us diamonds; an opportunity we would have in other hotels, coffee shops, and water closets along our journey.

The next morning we were back at the negotiating table with the taxi driver because of our early departure; he insisted that doubled the price.  I had begun formulating in my mind a presentation to mail to Guinness to nominate Conakry as the most difficult airport in the world.  I later changed my mind after a few hours in the Yamoussoukro airport.

This time the baggage boys ignored us and we pushed our way through the throng of people to the miniature airport check-in.  We reverted to the early days of international aviation—no computers, no scales, no respect for lines, and no nothing.  We had fallen right into the center of chaos and the French language.  We literally shoved our way toward the counter as others tried to make end runs around us.  I used my suitcase to block the flow on my right while Joe’s extra thirty pounds slowed the other side.  People warned us that Air Afrique always sold unlimited tickets for limited seating; and the seats were given to the fastest, the strongest and the loudest.  We stepped to bat with the best we had of all three, forgetting all the manners our mothers had taught us.

Somehow, we managed to get our tickets approved and then faced the expected bribe for the custom’s officer as well as the departure tax.  All of this required francs.  Fortunately, we had enough of the currency to pay these fees because it was obvious there was no monetary exchange service in the airport.  We met “Zacchaeus” at the last desk before leaving for the plane. He insisted on seeing our billfold to check for Guinea currency.  He was firm that no Guinea money could leave the country.  He confiscated the last few bills and coins we had.  We were glad to toss that money into his pot to exit the country.

When we climbed the wobbly rusted steps I could see we would be flying on a small W.W. II aircraft.  The well-appointed aircraft included no life jackets, no inflight service, no seatbelts, and no escape orientation. A couple of caps over the oxygen ports were totally missing.  I was thankful there were two people in the front seats, so I assumed we at least had two pilots.

One half of the passenger seats were removed to clear space for baggage and cargo.  It would be misleading to say we had no stewardess.  There was a lady that stood at the entrance of plane to check our tickets, and then disappeared until she came back with coffee for herself and sat down never to move again.

This was my first time to travel with baggage that moved around, made disgruntled sounds and even stunk up the place.  Not only were we hauling local beer, boxes of fruit and vegetables; we had two white bearded goats, one plump pig past ready for market, and several crates of restless white and red chickens.  Wouldn’t you know I sat next to one of the goats that kept trying to nibble on my pant leg?  The brief flight could not end quickly enough.

We arrived in Monrovia 24 hours late and unannounced.  Since Jimmy Carter was also arriving for peace meetings, the tiny airport was buzzing with people.  Our Cumberland Presbyterian hosts were not at the airport to receive us.  We cleared baggage claim, immigration, customs, and the health official—it was so good to hear English again, even if the accent was heavy and difficult to understand.  I learned the importance of having a travel mate in the third world; one person could watch the luggage while the other did necessary paper work and handled all negotiation.

Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of the taxi driver.  We explained we were on a mission trip and he proceeded to charge us three times the normal cost.

(Note: Our visit in Liberia was ten days of unbelievable exposure to sadness and despair.  We did our best to bring some hope, but we left with a feeling the peace initiative would not last.  And, it didn’t.  But, this story only tells the difficulties of air travel.)

When we tried to confirm our flight to Abidjan to leave Liberia, agents told us the flight had been cancelled.  Their next flight was four days later—just what I wanted, four more days in a country tittering on the edge of war and swarming with peacekeeping soldiers.  So, instead we purchased tickets on Weasua Airlines.  I always get concerned when I can’t even pronounce the name of the airlines. Their license would be pulled five years later for safety infractions.

When we arrived the following day to catch our flight, Amos Sawyer, the acting President of Liberia, needed our plane to return from a peace conference in Yamoussooukro, the capital of the Ivory Coast and that we would not be able to fly directly to Abidjan.  Instead, they suggested we fly to Yamousooukro on the plane going to retrieve the President, and then rent a taxi for $30 for the three-hour drive across the Ivory Coast to Abidjan.  That was the only immediate option and we agreed with little thought.  I just wanted to head for home.

Upon arrival in Yamoussoukro, the place was humming with officials, African drummers, bands, young enthusiastic dancers in bright orange and red costumes, and adequate security to dispatch all the presidents of West African countries departing from the peace conference.  When we deplaned, we ran into a significant obstacle.  No one had told us we needed a visa for land travel across the Ivory Coast.  And, we were only getting portions of the bad news in a mixture of French and English.  Finally, we found a bi-lingual Peace Corps worker when we heard him swear in English when all his personal items fell out of his carry-on on the floor in front of everyone.  He agreed to negotiate with officials about the visa and eventually secured a one-day pass for our travel.  Then, when we found a taxi, we were shocked to find out that the taxi was not the estimated $30, but $300.  Such a fee was out of our range of possibility.  Eventually, we booked a bus for the three and a half hour ride to Abidjan for about $25, hoping we could catch our late evening flight.  It was a very bumpy ride on cushion-less seats.  The upside was the blaring Bruce Lee video heavily laced with violence and sexual espionage.

After a one more day delay in Abidjan, we were able to confirm a flight back to New York.  I stopped at the top of steps before entering the plane, and turned my head for one last look at the so-called “dark continent.”  This road warrior was returning exhausted, but unscathed, from the battle.

A Christmas Gift I Will Never Forget

It’s Thanksgiving, 1975, not our typical day with family because we now live in San Jose, Costa Rica. We moved four months ago and the time has passed ever so slowly, like the months before I got my first driver’s license.  I feel I must nudge the hour hand of the clock to force it to cycle twice and signal another passed day.  Language learning is the worse and most difficult task I have undertaken. My mouth wants to utter a lot of phrases but they are not in Spanish. Living in a foreign land forces me to make comparisons between what was and what is.  The results are depressing.  I hope this changes soon.  Who ever wrote absence makes the heart grow fonder was a self-deluded romantic.  Absence makes the heart grow resentful.  I am more than a bit upset with God for calling us as missionaries to Colombia.  What is He thinking?  We can feel the despair of the present, but have no idea whether the future will get better.

Had our calling to serve not been so certain, I would have thrown in the towel and returned to the USA where they eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, where most people speak English, where people know the meaning of pilgrim, where Thanksgiving signals a hint of winter.   Bah, Humbug, and it isn’t even Christmas eve.

When a husband and a wife fall into the same pit of discouragement at the same time, who will throw down a rope?  This whole experience is a very slippery mountain that tests our faith, determination, and commitment.  It wears down even our resistance to illness.  I am just getting over a bout with pneumonia that stole 30 pounds from my plump body.  Where is our family when we need them?  The truth is they didn’t want us to leave in the first place, so we have to sleep in the bed we created for ourselves.

We are lying in bed after a turkey-less Thanksgiving and I say, “If you think this is bad, can you imagine a Christmas away from family and friends?”  This is our first realization that Christmas will be lonely, very lonely.  And, equally bad, we see or hear none of the normal Christmas signals of late November.  The yeast of the season has lost its reason.

The temperature reads 85 instead of 30. No one peddles Christmas trees in the lot next to Kroger’s or Hy-Vee.  Fisher Price toys for tots are non-existent except through the mail and then you can expect delays and taxation at the customs office. This year our extended family will be easy to visit because there are only three of us within a thousand mile radius, and we all live in the same house.

Of course, we will make new missionary family traditions, but that brings little solace when set side by side with what we will be missing.  I realize for the first time that Christmas involves going to the attic for two kinds of Christmas boxes.  Not only are we unable to pull out the tree bulbs, the stuffed Frosty and Santa (the one that somehow lost one arm years ago), the pine cone wreath that has long since lost a fragrance, and the angel topper.  Neither can we dig through the boxes of experiences past with those people we love most.

Those laments resurfaced daily from Thanksgiving until December 16th, when we got the most unexpected phone call from our wonderful sending church friends—Dr. and Mrs. Anne Bourne from Camden, TN.   They always serve as our sounding board for both the good and the bad, and always call when we need them most.

Anne starts the conversation, “How are things going for you?”

We reply, “We are hanging in here, but there isn’t a lot of joy in Mudville, even though it is nearly Christmas.”

Dr. Bob says, “We have a little present that we are sending your way that might help.”  Visions of a “care package” immediately popped into my head—a fruitcake, a country ham, and some North American toys for David.  “It is scheduled to arrive on December 22 at 6:30 p.m.  But you will need to pick it up.”

I ask, “What do you mean?”

Anne continues, “You will need to go to the San Jose International Airport and wait in the baggage area until you see Bobby and Elizabeth.  We are sending them to brighten your Christmas!”  We are absolutely speechless.  Elizabeth was our son’s #1 baby sitter during his first year of life and almost like a daughter to us.  They were 13 and 15 and their parents are giving them up to spend their Christmas vacation with us.

Elizabeth with David as an infant in Camden.

Elizabeth with David as an infant in Camden.

Such love and sharing still rocks me.  Of course it can’t compare to the God’s gift of Jesus, but it was a real “incarnational” gift that remains one of the most precious of my life.  It definitely modeled in a concrete way the divine love of God by sending His son to dwell among those He loves.  But in a human sense, the gift of two kids for Christmas “saved” us by transforming sadness to joy.  That year, we sang “Joy to the World, some friends have come.”