We are a family of three; Andrew, Jodie and Jessica (aged 18) from Tasmania, Australia who are currently serving in Douala, Cameroon, Central Africa on the M/V Africa Mercy, the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, through Mercy Ships International. God has called us on a journey that has been many years in the making. For this season we call Africa home, as we seek to bring hope and healing to the poorest of the poor.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Ruined for the Ordinary

This is just a collection of random thoughts that I wrote a while back that I have now undated a bit, but resonates more so now, as we are about a month away from walking down the gangway for the last time, for this season.

Tears threaten to overflow at any given moment, over the silliest of things and anxiety floods through my veins. I can’t do it. How can I leave this place? That is how I feel one day. The next, anger and frustration bubble up inside me and I secretly hate being here and cannot wait to be anywhere else. What is this paradox?

I don’t think it really hit me, the beginning of the end, until we began to slowly sail away from our berth in Las Palmas, back in August last year, and I thought to myself, “This is it, I will never do this again”. As the soulful strains of Theodore, a long time friend of Mercy Ships, standing on the edge of the breakwater, playing “Amazing Grace” on his trumpet,  reached my ears, I nearly lost it right there and then. How does one do this anyway? Nobody told me that the transitioning would begin almost a year before we even left. One by one, those “lasts” seem to be stacking up like a pile of Jenga bricks, threatening to topple over at any given moment, just like my emotions. 

It hits me at the most unpredictable of times. Standing in my “kitchen” in the place I have lived the longest of anywhere in my whole life, watching a little ortho patients at the Hope Centre with a “Tom Hopper”, a special frame made by our friend Tom who went to be with Jesus last shipyard, sharing ice-cream with new friends in favourite city haunts, the sales staff who know my coffee order off by heart, walking the familiar hallways and staring out at the twinkling port lights from the pool deck. 

It hits me like a freight train at those time when you would expect, remembering to say goodbye to alumni crew because next time they come back, it will be me who has left. Walking out of the library for the last time, a place I have poured my heart and soul into, watching the dockside tents come down and the wards empty out. Saying goodbye to Dolf Kevin, the patient through whose veins flow life giving blood from my daughter, when the Operations Managers plan a special dinner for Andrew and each say nice things about him, watching Jessica try on her graduation cap and gown, the tassel she picked swinging wildly about and knowing that very soon the haze of Africa will be in the rear view mirror. I can barely stand it.

But part of me yearns to live without having to remember to sign up for a laundry slot or to book out a car for my four hour slot on a weekend. I can’t wait to not be awoken by the shrieking sounds of a 6:00 am fire drill alarm, I long to be able to get specialist medical attention, to be able to eat what I want, whenever I want, to sleep in an adult size bed, to go to a shopping centre, to drive my own car, have winter, to be there to celebrate with my family, to have Christmas in Australia and to be understood when I speak-ALL the time, But then I realise the great contradiction is, that if I no longer yearn for these things, then I am no longer living on the ship. Wherever I am, my heart will yearn for the other. It’s my reality. I am ruined for the ordinary.

Once we have said our goodbyes, finished our travels, arrived back to Australia and reunited with our family again, moved into our own place and the dust has settled. Then what? When will I get used to my new normal that was my old normal but somehow slipped away to be replaced with bent legs, globetrotting, miracles, dry ladies, a four room house, greeting royalty, drums beats, AK47’s, dolphins and whales, head size tumours, sidewalk shopping, spoken French, coke in glass bottles, dinner with the Governor, coconuts, needlegunning, pirate drills, stowaways, living in community, dental screenings, slow internet, landrovers, plantains, thunderstorms and cyclones, containers, African fabric, lining up for food, markets, 1000 goodbyes, blackouts, watching the blind see, giving blood to patient and listing to their heartfelt thanks, Christmas cookie bakes, ward worship, chicken fingers, baby chimps, dockside tents, gridlocked traffic, things carried on heads, moto taxis, scrubs, $1.00 lattes, cleft lip babies, flotsam and jetsam outside my window,  …..the list goes on and on. This is our normal. And I don’t know how to live like that…back in the “ordinary”.

Watching our Douala berth appear through the mist in what seems like both an eternity and five minutes ago, I struggled to remember each and every little detail, fully aware this was our last arrival into a host nation. My senses were heightened, as the beat of the drums cut through the fog, the advance team cheered wildly on the dock in their matching, blood red African fabric outfits. The excitement in the air was palpable, the humidity like a cloak, as I stood on the deck, perilously close to tears running down my cheeks. I swallowed the lump in my throat, as big as an apple and felt blessed, as I have a thousand times before, that despite all the odds stacked against us, when most people had given up on us, we never let go of our dream to serve on the Africa Mercy and God made a way. He never gave up on us!

Now we walk the fine line between living with “two feet on deck” and planning for our future. It is a difficult thing. My mind feels like it is being pulled in a thousand different directions and sometimes I have trouble sleeping. My brain is constantly buzzing.I long to feel at peace, as I know that the time is right for us to leave Mercy Ships for this season and we are very tired. But my heart breaks when I think about that moment when we walk down the gangway for the very last time. I know that part of me will want to turn around and run right back up to complain about what is for dinner that night. But another part of me wants to run into the arms of my mum and dad, knowing I don’t have to say goodbye in a few weeks time, to smell the sweet smells of eucalyptus and listen to the cackle of cockatoos, to have our own space at last and to be in my own culture.

This song comes to my mind right now…

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing remains,
Yes, one thing remains.

Your love never fails,
It never gives up
It never runs out on me

Because on and on, and on, and on it goes
Before it overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never ever have to be afraid
One thing remains
So, this one thing remains.

Your love never fails,
It never gives up
It never runs out on me

In death, in life I'm confident and covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid.
There's nothing that can separate my heart from Your great love...
(“One Thing Remains” by Jesus Culture)

I need to drum these lyrics into my mind and soul. His love NEVER fails and it NEVER gives up on me! His love is higher than the mountains we will face in the next year, it will be constant through the trial and the change and I NEVER have to be afraid! In the quite of the night, about two months ago, as I cried out to God when I lay awake, yet again, I felt a still small voice whisper, like a balm over my soul, "Trust Me". I cling to that truth when the anxiety take hold and fear clamps like a vice!

Also a couple of quotes that have spoken to me....

"Then I think that maybe courage is not at all about the absence of fear, but about obedience even when we are afraid. Maybe courage is trusting when we don't know what is next, leaning into the hard and knowing that it will be hard, but more, God will be near. He is the God Who Will Provide. He will provide His presence, His strength, or whatever He decides we most need. Maybe bravery is just looking fear in the face and telling it that it does not win because we have known the Lord here. We have known the Lord in the long dark night. " 

(Katie Davis Majors in Daring to Hope: Finding God's Goodness in the Broken and Beautiful)

And lastly who can forget this gem.......

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Cameroon at Last!

Yes, I know, we are about to depart Cameroon, but in the interests of keeping my blog coffee table book to a certain standard, one simply cannot be all non-chronological! Our arrival must come before our departure! You must hear the beginning before you jump to the end of the story. :) 

Our August arrival into Cameroon was much anticipated, after spending years securing a protocol with the government. After a successful shipyard and a time of rest for our family and other crew, we arrived in Douala. The skies were overcast but our spirits were high. We heard the beat of the drums and the smell of Africa in the air as the dockside morphed though the mist, the blood red of the Advance Team’s matching outfits, clearly visible from a distance. Jubilation was in the air and even the light rain that escalated into a torrential downpour could not dampen the occasion!

It is hard to describe the torrent of emotions that were rushing through us as we pulled alongside: joy, sadness, expectation, nostalgia... This was the last time we would pull into a host nation. Tear pricked my eyes and a lump caught in my throat as I tried to savour every sight, sound, smell and sensation, soaking them into her soul.

I always say a picture is worth a thousand words, so please enjoy this pictorial of our historic arrival into a new nation for Mercy Ships…..

The Africa Mercy, escorted by the Cameroonian Navy, arrives at last to the shores of Cameroon.

Just a really cool pic by one of our talented Communications photographers, taken from our Cameroon berth, as the AFM is approaching.

Port of Douala workers looking on with curiosity, as we get closer.
(PC: Kirsten Jack)

Almost in, all decked out in her flags!

The Advance Team get a close up glimpse of their home sweet home!

Pilot boat pulling alongside our pilot door on deck three, ready to guide us in.

The Cameroon flag flying proudly from deck seven.

Crew gathering to wave to those dockside, bearing the flags of our nations.

Crew jamming up a storm to celebrate our arrival.

Jessica and classmate Elliot. Their last arrival into a host nation, for this season!

Academy kids (including Jess), teachers and Academy alumni gathering to watch our arrival.
(PC: Unknown)

The Advance Team!

New day crew and crew celebrating with singing and dancing on our new dock.

Our new day crew proudly displaying their nation's flag!


Local port workers securing the lines.

Gangway coming down!


Africa Mercy Managing Director, Warrie Blackburn and Captain John Borrow beginning the procession of senior leadership, down the gangway, bearing the Mercy Ships flag.

Warrie giving her welcome speech.

Africa Mercy Senior leadership (including Andrew) gathering under a marquee, to shelter from the rain and watch the arrival ceremony proceedings.

The band playing on in the rain, right next to the sewage truck!

Local VIP's and AFM Senior leaders gathering in midships.

These guys, they had it rough, looking back with almost ten months hindsight! They did a sterling job, under adverse conditions to bring the Africa Mercy to a new country.
(PC: Suzanne Veltjens)

Home at last......

Our dock!
(PC: Anne McClary)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Shades of Shipyard....

Ok, so I have been super slack with our blog this field service and now it is time to add a few posts before we depart Douala! To be honest, over the years it has become more and more of a challenge to find fresh ways to say the same thing. Our life on the ship follows a certain pattern, that is repeated year after year, but I will give it a go. 

Most of you wouldn't know that I print a hardcover coffee table book of our blog each field service, so I am quite pedantic about posting in chronological order. My last post had us departing Benin on our way to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria so I will pick up from there.....

It had been three years since we pulled alongside at the Astican shipyard in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Spain. Three years since we called out “Hola”, sipped sangrias and strolled along the promenade, our eyes bugging out of our heads at the audacious fashions and lack of clothing! Three years since we welcomed the guys from the Astican shipyard on board, three years since we marveled at fabulous vistas and trekked over black volcanic rock. Three years since tapas, Theodore playing on his trumpet and La Terrazas Outlet Mall! It was great to be back!

This is shipyard. Shipyard beats to a different drum. The halls of the hospital no longer echo with the laughter of children and joyful singing, but with the sound of electrical tools and shipyard workers boots. Deck heads are down, lights and air conditioning are off, hallways are cluttered with all manner of things, the vacuum system is intermittent, blackouts are common and dinner could be pizza ordered in or cold salad on paper plates. The ship has a new buzz.

Love it or hate it, this is shipyard. Without it, the Africa Mercy could not hope to function effectively for the next ten months in a developing nation!

As in previous years, families were required to move to land based accommodation during the dry dock phase, for the safety of the children. We stayed in hotels that very kindly donated rooms and facilities to Mercy Ships. Our family also took a small side trip to Barcelona.

There were dozens of projects on the agenda for dry dock and shipyard this year but some included:

·       Survey and incline testing
·       Replacement of cabin flooring (carpet to lino)
·       Hull cleaning
·       Portside capstone motor
·       Emergency switchboard upgrades
·       Cold room upgrades
·       Window replacements
·       Deck 3 fwd. office modifications
·       Funnel corrosion repair
·       Omnicell (electronic medical dispensing system) installed

…..and the list goes on! 

Tug boat pulling the Africa Mercy into the dry dock berth.
(P.C: Unknown)

AFM being pulled onto the dry dock tracks, out of the water.

Dirty propellers!

All shiny and clean!

High pressure cleaning the hull
(P.C: Unknown)

When the ship sits in a dirty port for so long, it grows a lot of barnacles! 

The big picture! The Africa Mercy high and dry in dry dock!

Spraying primer on the hull.

No it's not a slide, it's the garbage chute!
(P.C: Unknown)

Carpenter sanding floors in the cafe area.

Jess helped out in the cafe for three weeks full time, during shipyard, cementing her as a Starbucks barista!

These are the stairs that go all the way to the ship entrance during dry dock, all six stories! This is pizza going up for the crew, which happens from time to time during dry dock when the galley is fumigated or there are long blackouts.
(P.C: Unknown)

Storage space is at a premium for the sail! The pool is not open during the sail/shipyards so makes for an excellent and secure storage area Above are the bench seats used for the patients on the dock, as they wait to be seen either in outpatients/admissions, rehab or screening.

Some nurses checking out the new Omnicell system. These automated dispensing cabinets more easily optimize inventory, minimize stocktakes, and reduce missing doses.

A project assistant hard at work installing new shelves for a hospital office renovation.

Jess was asked by the Communications Department to tour a vision trip through the Academy. She did a wonderful job! 

A time honoured shipyard tradition in the soccer game between the Astican shipyard workers and our crew. This year we went along to cheer our guys on and Astican arranged an amazing BBQ for us, after the game. Our guys are the ones in blue. Astican beat us this time, but there's always next year!
(P.C: Unknown)

Lovely lit up at night.

Even though the ship is not in a host nation, the goodbyes continue, unabated. Jess said goodbye three of her close girlfriends during the first two days after we arrived in Las Palmas.
(P.C: Unknown)

Shipyard deck. engineering and projects crew, alongside our Astican colleagues.

Many people may think a port is an ugly place, but to me it will always hold it's own special beauty.

We had heard good things about Barcelona, so we took a ten day trip and loved it so much!!! What an incredible city. We were able to take a day trip through the Pyrenees Mountains, that included a visit to the teeny, tiny nation of Andorra, because we are all about collecting stamps in our passports! 
(P.C: Some random tourist)

Back to Gran Canaria, a hidden jewel where the pace is unhurried and the sunsets are divine.
(P.C: Jessica Rothwell)

Gran Canaria has so many quaint little towns to explore, where you can get lost between the rows of colourful houses, see beautiful vistas and stunning cathedrals. Above the town of Arucas, as viewed from the Marquesa Botanical Gardens, featuring an iconic Canary Islands dragon tree. Arucas is also home to the famous Canarian Arehucan rum.

Looking down at Arucas, from a vista, at the stunning town centrepiece of The Church of San Juan Bautista.

Hands down my favourite town in Gran Canaria, the town of Mogan, filled with cute canals, a beautiful marina and colourful bougainvillea entwined over arches and balconies.

Magical Mogan.

Gran Canaris is full of surprises around every bend and we were delighted to discover the town of Firgas, also know as the "Balcony of the Atlantic", with it's artificial waterfall that flows down the steps right in the centre of its old town, tumbling 30 metres down Paseo de Gran Canaria street.

Alongside the waterfall are these beautiful tiled benches with frames above them, listing all the major towns and cities on the island of Gran Canaria.

The church bells of the church in San Roque Square can be heard over the whole town.

The boardwalk at the Playa del Puerto in the beachside town of La Aldea de San Nicol├ás. Here we just chilled, admired the typical Canarain architecture and consumed a stellar Spanish omelette.

This shipyard we decided to tackle one of Europe's great drives, GC-200, before it is no longer. A major highway is being built that will bypass some of the spectacular cliff top sections of the road. Just a little snap from the Mirador El Paso (lookout point) Marinero, from the hair raising drive.

After so many visits to the Canary Islands, we have began to get a little more creative in order find things to do that we have not seen/done before. The Bufadero de la Garita's is a naturally occurring blow hole that sucks water in and then blows it high into the air.

As we wrapped up another year of shipyard, "at sea" drills began again in ernest. Lucky Andrew has been a muster leader (name caller) for around three years now.

Re-loading all the vehicles on the ship again, ready to sail to Douala. Time now to make a very special mention of our friend and previous Transportation Manager, Tom Waechter. Loading the vehicles this year was truly a labour of love. Dear Tom, a beloved crew member and most servant hearted man I know, passed away during this shipyard whilst hiking with his wife and family back in the States, on holiday. We heard the news on the last day of our trip to Barcelona and we were shook to the core. Many of the crew, including Andrew rallied around to take care of Tom's duties and to honour his memory in a deeply moving memorial service on board, just before our sail to Douala, of which Tom's wife Ann-Marie and his two sons were able to attend. 

Shipyard over for another year, our every last shipyard. The hospitality team always bring cookies and drinks to the bridge as we prepare to sail out of a port.

Captain John Borrow looking out of the bridge.

Up comes the gangway, the last time we will see this familiar piece of metal go past us, after shipyard.

Adios beautiful Canary Islands. What an amazing privilege and pleasure it has been for us to berth in the Canary Islands time after time, over the past seven years!

We look forward to sailing in one last time and spending our last days with Mercy Ships, docked in the Astican shipyard. We already have a date set for dinner at 
Ristorante Pizzeria Al Maccaroni, our favourite restaurant, on the promenade, for our very last night with Mercy Ships! Bon apetit!