Wednesday, June 11, 2008

First Days

June 8th Fred Wrote:

I’m very glad we had a long lay over in Amsterdam on the way to Malawi. I think I learned more about children in that eight hour period than any other stretch of parenting.

It turns out that international travel is quite a stretch for young children. They find it challenging to see the danger, the need to be on guard, and to keep moving at a clip.

My first clue was when Dave, our youngest, kept weighing himself at the check in counter. He just sat down on the scale and was delighted that he was over the weight limit for our bag. Did he think I would really put him in a bag as I had threatened? That should have been a clear sign that my other experiences of international travel were not going to apply here.

Mind you I have seen Dave do many things like this and many things much more challenging than this. Yet I have never seen him be a precocious kid while engaged in international travel. Most situations are a kind of one and out where folks think, kids will be kids. It’s not an incident. Just move on; things can be smoothed over. But that is not the scenario with international travel that is relentless and hectic.

When we hit JFK the “can we’s” began. Can we get Dunkin Donuts, can we get pizza? Dave doesn’t realize you have to take care what you eat before three days of hard travel as it can come back to haunt you in small airplane bathrooms.

Yet, the kicker for me was when he dove under the belt at the security check line to pick up the change the folks in their right mind had left on the floor because the juggernaut of frustrated semi-undressed folks being harassed by their failure to pull out their laptop or take of those all too dangerous shoes. They weren’t going to slow down a line of thousand for fifty cents. Now, Dave, Dave didn’t think of any of those things so down went.

This picture, along with an emerging album full, presented an interpretation: international travel has too many options for children. That was the conclusion I came to after eight hours with them from Syracuse to Amsterdam. There are too many shops, too many people, too many gates, and way, way too many things that catch their attention and off they go. All Dave needs is a general direction and away he goes. Kathy and I tried our best mantra on him, if you are in the lead then you must be the dad.

Much to his credit he did start to listen. Although the first twenty times we said this he seemed non-plussed. He would give me a look that said, hey I’m a dog on a walk with one of those long leads what do you expect? I actually believe my children are able to reason on this level. What they can’t do at eight and twelve is find Amsterdam an exciting experience to just walk around and people watch. And Amsterdam is filled with interesting people. (Neither one of the boys seemed all too concerned about the women in their underwear in the windows, but their mother was.)

The big moment though began before we even left the driveway at our house. There was the usual grousing over who was going to sit where for the hour long drive to Syracuse. It hit me like a ton of bricks, you guys are going to be in airports, taxis, trains, and any other mode of transportation for the next three days so we can cross an ocean, a sea, and two continents. How in the world are you going to make it if you fight over what seat in the van for an hour?

The big moment was: they are not prepared for international travel. To go so far, so fast, you need to let go of any concerns about seats, placements, creature comforts. Two red eyes in a row with an eight hour lay over in Amsterdam is not going to be endured if you are not able to take a seat for an hour drive.

But how can you prepare them for such things? You can’t. But now we know, take lots of snacks, keep buying water as if there is an impending natural disaster, and try to explain to them that they are now on the edge. An airport like JFK or Schiphol in Amsterdam is not a place for a leisurely outing as the world is merging into one frenetic horde at each gate. Languages, cultures, and creeds are blurring at an amazing speed and pace. Children are not made for this pace. Yet, I wonder, are we?

“Sunday, June 8th Kathy wrote

I think I have found my people (though I never knew they were missing). Sitting on the plane on the way to Amsterdam I looked around and it seemed as if everyone around me was fair skinned, blond haired, and blue eyed. I felt so at home!
Amsterdam…what an interesting city. We took a 2 story train to Amsterdam Central and emerged in the city center. What amazing sites! All of the old buildings were made out of bricks and there were canals everywhere. Somehow I missed the memo that Amsterdam was full of canals and hundreds of bicycles. It took quite a while for us to get used to looking for bikes when crossing the street. We were almost run over several times. They zipped around quickly and didn’t seem to stop (even for red lights). Speaking of red lights, we had a very interesting walk going to see Anne Frank’s house. We took a shortcut through a small side street where we encountered some “window dressing”. Somehow neither of the boys seemed to notice the scantily clad women sitting in the windows, but I sure got the feeling that not too many families choose that route on their sightseeing. I don’t know David’s excuse for not noticing (he notices everything), but I can guess Ethan’s was the fact that he threw up on someone’s front stoop 5 minutes later (Amsterdam’s Burger King chicken nuggets didn’t go down well). After borrowing a hose from a houseboat and letting Ethan sit a minute we made our way to the Frank house. It was really a great stop- the content and sobriety level were a little over David’s head, but Ethan really appreciated it. It was after this point that Fred had exhausted his navigational abilities and we wandered the rest of the afternoon in various circles. Regardless of not achieving our intended destinations, we went into some beautiful churches and walked many lovely tree lined canals and felt very, very happy with everything we saw.

On June 9th Fred wrote:

Being flexible is a big factor in short term missions. The mantra is: it’s not a mission if there’s not a problem.

At first blush this sounds like an excuse for poor planning, but it is the reality of too many plans converging into one. With so many factors, so many aspects one or more of them are bound to go south, hit a snag, or just prove impractical.

Take bags for instance. When we travel internationally for study or vacation my bag is filled with my stuff. On a mission, my bag is filled with medical supplies, a thousand toothbrushes, and fifty ties to be given as gifts to chiefs and headmen. All of sudden my luggage is not my stuff, but a cargo container.

With Africa this becomes even more complex in that I tell people to travel light and then I push the limit of the weight requirement and number of bags each person is allotted. I do this as they are allowed one personal bag- which has many items that are not personally theirs- and one group bag. Each one is filled to the weight limit and then a little more.

The group bag is usually a hard plastic bin that can be zip corded shut to insure it wont be easily rifled through or burst open in transit. This 50 lb bin is not a problem until you have eight of them or six of them or four of them depending upon the size of your group. The problem arises when you need to check into a hotel for an overnight. Do you take the containers with you- neither fun or easy after a red eye? Do you trust the fellow at the Nairobi airport who says, “I’ll watch them?” Do you leave someone at the airport to sleep with the luggage? I have never seen a volunteer for this one.

Another problem with these bins are the airlines. Thousands and thousands of airtravel can unravel if you fly British Airlines, stay overnight in Nairobi, and then try to finish your travel on Kenya Airways. The problem lies in that BA doesn’t have a working relationship with KA like KLM or AirFrance. And you need a working relationship to get your bags which were packed according to international travel onto a domestic flight and not pay hundreds of dollars in freight charges.

Yet, on this last trip, the baggage problem needing flexibility was all my own. I forgot one at the house. It was a plastic bin filled with gifts, a thirty pound power source for our missionary family host, and little things like our emergency medical kit.

At the Syracuse airport we realized the oversight when we told the folks at Jet Blue we had “eight” bags when in fact we had seven. A quick call was made to Watertown. There was an hour before the jet would be “sealed” and the TSA wouldn’t accept any more bags. A “volunteer” set off at a furious pace.

It got even more complicated that Jet Blue didn’t have another flight going to JFK until Monday morning when we would be in Nairobi. The airlines are fussy about your bags flying with you (they are not as fussy about you not flying with you with your bags).

Long story short our plastic bin arrived at Syracuse five minutes after the plane was “sealed.” I begged, pleaded, played the missionary card but to no avail. Even though I saw the baggage guys stand around our plane with the cargo doors open for the next twenty minutes, those were the rules.

It may sound strange, but I struggled to be flexible to accept the rules. I wanted the rules to be flexible like a mission trip is supposed to be. Now I know one traveler’s needs shouldn’t trump a plane full of folks- but we took off ten minutes early from Syracuse and landed 35 minutes early in JFK- does there seem to be a bit of wiggle room there? Does to me.

“That is the rule, sir, there is nothing I can do,” was what the young man said to me over and over again. I wanted to say, “but we are going to Africa for three months where ‘the rules’ are not as inflexible.” I wanted to say, “hey, TIA (this is Africa) man.” He didn’t get the memo about being flexible.

Now, the bin will arrive three weeks hence. It will all be fine. The presents Kathy had picked out so carefully will be as duly received then as they would have been had they been presented walking in the door. We know that. Still I moped all the way to JFK.

As I did I heard myself say, “it’s not a mission, if there’s not a problem.”

On June 9th Kathy wrote,

On our second red eye in a row, David and I fell asleep before the plane took off from Amsterdam. At some point in the middle of the night I woke up and looked at Ethan across the aisle to check on him, he waved and continued on watching National Treasure (did I mention middle of the night??). Fred was some ten rows up torturing people with his snoring and sandalless feet. I went back to sleep and woke up in Nairobi. We stumbled off the plane onto a tram and went into the terminal to find out that they had rerouted us. Instead of going from Nairobi to Lilongwe, we went from Nairobi to Tanzania to Blantyre to Lilongwe. When we finally arrived in LLW our luggage was shockingly M.I.A. We did however find a lady from Nairobi who had wanted to go to Blantyre and they flew her to LLW (Is it possible they gave her one of our tickets??).
Tuesday, June 10th-I love Africa! It smells like Mexico with it’s dry heat and small brush burning fires. Even the flowers are similar to Southern California and Mexico- bouganvillea, verbena, poinsettia, vinca, oleander, and more. I don’t know how many pictures I took at the airport today while we were there checking on the missing luggage.
We ate Mediterranean pizza for lunch and hotdogs and Lay’s spring onion and sour cream potato chips for dinner with apple slices. Not a big stretch on the food front, but we are still in the capital.
Tuesday evening-Rumor has it that they have found our luggage in Nairobi and it will be on the 12:20pm flight tomorrow (Wed.).We have not seen our bags since Saturday. This might be a stretch for you to imagine, but on the last leg of our trip to LLW I was sitting between Fred and another man and there was an earthy smell about our row. I was hoping it was one of them but, alas, it was not. I am becoming Malawian. This may seem odd but this was actually one of my goals- to see what it looks like to become more natural (I’m not in any way ready to give up my razor and I wouldn’t mind a curling iron or blow dryer to curl my bangs under though). Baby steps. We’ve just started our 10 weeks.

On June 10th Fred wrote,

“Why did you sell me a ticket if there is no seat?”

This was the frantic question asked again and again by ten people as they formed a small mob around one of the Kenya Airlines desks in Nairobi. With each paltry response they groaned as one. And then when the woman behind the desk said the next available flight was in two days, well, they went a bit crazy.

Such a minor mob would be enough to cause a scene in any US airport, but there were four other stations at the transfer desk and each one had their own. I was part of a such a fracas at the other end. I was told there would be a seat for me on another airline going to another city than my destination. With the shouts and groans of the folks trying to fly to Mumbasa, my confidence level that we would find yet another drama in our new destination of Blantyre seemed high.

Another level of anxiety for me was our luggage. KLM refused to check past Nairobi as that would exceed the maximum number of hours they felt obliged to handle it. The woman at the desk at JFK assured me with a condescending glance that of course my luggage would be fine. There was an air of “we do this all the time.” Something in my gut told me you don’t really know the chaos you cause all the time.

Sure enough its two days since we’ve landed in Malawi and Kenya Air has now determined that our luggage should be somewhere at the Nairobi Airport. The official in Lilongwe described the next step as a “physical search.” A part of me wanted to say, well, good because metaphysical is out of the question where luggage is concerned.

The goodnews is that we made it to Lilongwe even if our luggage has not. A big part of me keeps praying that the bins with all the medical equip arrive. The pittance Kenya Airline will give us if the bags are lost can buy some new clothes- it will not cover the near $70,000 of medical supplies and equipment in the group bags. Being stylish in Malawi is not a major concern; an orthopedic surgical kit ready for an autoclave.

I have always had splendid luck on airlines and for all intents and purposes I still do. But I have the room to be flexible, the cash to cover unexpected expenses, and a hefty amount of arrogance that stranding me for too long will be in no ones best interest. This all came clear when I met my Malawian counter parts from Nairobi. We converged in the Kenya airlines office in Lilongwe. They were being told a bus would be provided to them; I was being told my luggage would be found, “no problem, sir.”

They repeated the question of the Mumbassa people to me, only with a lilt of disillusion rather than outrage. “I thought when I bought a ticket that meant I was given a seat.” They were ready to blame technology; they were sure it was the computer’s fault. I gave a bit more cynical view. “Maybe someone offered to pay more for your seat and the people at the airport said, “that will be fine.” That is exactly what I believe Air France did with my ticket. I base this belief by the incredulous look of the man at the transfer desk at JFK. I told him my flight had been cancled to Paris and his eyes suggested part pity and part disgust with such naivete.

With the current status of airlines and their all too public woes I am beginning to wonder if buying a ticket with any of them is more akin to buying a lottery ticket. It is as if I am buying a metaphysical ticket, the ideal of a ticket, that may materialize in some form, in some way, at some time. That is about a good a spin on this as I can muster.

On June 11 Kathy wrote: Two interesting things happened last night. The first occurred when I went to brush my teeth. I flipped on the light (which was an improvement from the night before when we had no electricity) and swore I saw something scurrying across the floor. I thought that maybe I had imagined it. Within a few seconds the biggest cockroach you’ve ever seen comes creeping out from under a towel David had left on the floor. There are two choices at this point- I chose to suppress the scream because in the end this will save me a lot of grief from not having to deal with two freaked out young boys. I decided I had one shot to smash it with a 5 liter water bottle, I, of course, missed making a loud smashing noise. I said, “Oops”, and no one ever asked what the big noise was. I thought this was odd until I remembered the night before that Fred had broken a louvered window slat trying to kill a mosquito in the bathroom and I hadn’t noticed that until I saw the broken glass the next morning. What sort of insect will we find tonight??
The second odd thing that happened was that while I was laying awake with insomnia (a very RARE thing for me), David started singing in French while asleep. Does anyone else find it strange that my 8 year old American son is singing a French song from a movie set in India while sleeping in Malawi, Africa?
Right now the boys are out playing soccer with the security gate guard’s children, Sarah, and Frederick, and most likely arguing over terminology. Ethan insists that while we are here he is going to refer to Soccer and the soccer ball as “Football”. This is very bothersome to Dave as we are not African. Besides this small glitch, they are getting along very well except for when David climbs the bunk bed ladder and stares at Ethan while he’s trying to read.

Abiding #1
The idea of a sabbatical was never appealing to me. I had envisioned a sabbatical as one of two things: holing myself away to write and then writing nothing as I would lose the rhythm of life, or, going into some sort of monastery like setting seeking some sort of solitude. Perhaps the former would have proven untrue; perhaps life has a way of following you no matter where you land. Perhaps I could have been successful in terms of writing, but monastic silence? Not a chance.

A good friend of mine did that as part of a sabbatical. I mentioned to him the likelihood that monks would have communicated to me my need to leave after a few too many failures to be silent. He said, “yeah, you wouldn’t have lasted.” So the image of a sabbatical loomed as either frustration or failure.

So why in the world would I take my wife, four of my five children, and a niece across continents and large bodies of water to experience frustration and failure with me?

It all began with a question of abiding. Abiding became an image, a question, a dream. At first the image was of staying put, of digging in. I have surpassed the length of time I have stayed in any church- we tend to be four and out. Yet, where I was ready for change, for a new challenge in the past, in Watertown I felt like I was just getting started. Abiding, then, became a question of can I stay put? If I learn to abide will I remain?

I began the sabbatical process over a year ago by exploring the way the word abiding occurs in the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments “abiding” has a very practical meaning of lodging, resting for a time during a journey, or simply being in the midst of. Yet, surrounding these basic meanings is a theological dream. There are echoes in the Old Testament of a God as vision and glory that comes and remains upon the tent of meeting; there are stories of angels coming to “lodge” for a time. The new testament has these images as well, but it also has an author and two long sections that treat abiding in a way that is much more than all the rest.

John, whoever he may be, the one who wrote a gospel and three epistles, treated abiding as a whole new idea, a whole new way of being. For him it wasn’t staying put for a time, it was coming to be in God. This new way of being, though, as it was written by John, is ever cryptic and illusive. Jesus tells his disciples to “abide” in him without any example, without any explanation. Most importantly, he tells his disciples to abide in him hours before he is crucified. This was a great challenge to my earliest notions of abiding. How can abiding be a kind of digging in, staying put, enfolding oneself into a community if Jesus told his disciples to do this in a town that was not their own, in an hour of great turmoil, and just before he left them? What sort of abiding is that?

It was with great lament that my hope and dream of abiding was nothing what John had intended to convey. In fact he offered a picture that was contradictory, even repudiating the desire to stay put. For that reason I decided to explore abiding for what John intended, not what I sought to arrange in terms of my life in ministry.

From this point on “abiding” took on a life of its own. Abiding has become more a sense of being present; its finding peace in work and rest; its knowing I am in God and God is in me no matter where I find myself.

1 comment:

Laura Garry said...

"Does anyone else find it strange that my 8 year old American son is singing a French song from a movie set in India while sleeping in Malawi, Africa?"

-Well I believe this is just the beginning of the international quirks you are going to run into. Have you listened to "New York, New York" while eating Korean in the middle of Malawi yet? It's just gonna get weirder. Haha. Nice to hear that Dave is singing Champs Elysses in his sleep though. :)