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Friday, December 19, 2014

A Gift From All of Us: Conclusion

Yesterday’s post described my desperation to get home for Christmas. The auntie I’d had the most contact with during all of my childhood had died in July, but living in the jungle of West Africa, I’d only learned of her passing in late September. As October drew to a close, letters from home spoke of my father’s newly-diagnosed brain tumor and the need for surgery. Even without the family crises, the mere remembrance of last year’s lonely, miserable first-Christmas-in-Africa, made my Swiss colleague and I long for Christmas at home.

To re-cap the story up to this point: On Sunday, we’d walked the five miles of rugged terrain out to the inter-city roadway, waited hours to climb into a taxi-truck and ride two hours to the nearest city. That evening’s phone call home let us know that we had enough travel money in our Stateside bank account to catch a special holiday-rate flight home, if we could get the check cashed into local currency, purchase the plane tickets and get the necessary government visas—all in a matter of days, not weeks.

We concluded our business in town by Monday afternoon and reversed the journey of the previous day, all the while speaking of our longing to get home for Christmas.

Tuesday morning, we decided to go for it. Treating seventy-eight patients took all of the daylight hours; preparing the clinic for our absence would have to wait for Wednesday since we only had oil lamps.

Wednesday we worked at getting medicines ready for those patients who would return to have our apprentice re-fill their prescriptions; packed up vulnerable items in the house to protect them from the various small wildlife who might succeed in invading our home when we were away; and used the last half-hour of light to throw clothing into our suitcases.

Thursday our weary legs carried us back out those five miles, singing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” all the way out to wait for another taxi-truck to return us to Kamsar.

By late-afternoon Friday our American check had been turned into all of the cash needed, one little paper bag of currency at a time, but we missed the taxi-truck for the twelve-hour ride to the capital city.

Once again, our good friend at the mining company accepted the challenge, securing a seat on the company’s employee-only commuter plane.

Rejoining the story...

After one turbulent half-hour flight, we landed in the city and bolted for the taxi stand nearest the airport. We needed to drop our suitcases off at a missionary friend’s house before going any further.


By the time this had been accomplished, however, night had fallen; the travel office had closed. We had to wait for the office to open Saturday morning. The chances of making that Tuesday flight looked even more impossible than it had just three days earlier.


“God can still pull this out,” I said to my downcast friend. Was she also remembering all that had gone into getting us this far? The Lord could do it, but would He?

“Now, that we’ve come this far, my heart is set on being with my family this year. Let’s keep praying!” Anne-Lise said.


Early Saturday morning, we slipped and slid our way over the boulder-strewn side street to the closest taxi stand. We took the first one we saw, not examining the condition of the vehicle as usual; we just had so little time now.


“Okay, ladies,” the travel agent said, “The ticket to Switzerland will be a bit more than the one to America. Let’s see.”

Oh, no! It can’t be; we only have the exact amount in local currency with us. My horrified expression could not be disguised as the anxious thoughts claimed my attention. We’d come so far; we were so close.

“Here you are. Will you be paying for both tickets together?

“Yes, we will,” said Anne-Lise. My stomach tightened as we waited to hear the amount. “We brought the cash with us; may we have the tickets now instead of returning for them on Monday? We’ll need a photocopy to apply for the exit visas.

The agent looked up at us. “You don’t have exit visas for this Tuesday flight? I’m not sure you can get them in time.

“We know it’ll be tight,” I said, struggling to see the figure on the paper before the agent. “We just need to try.”

“Okay, well are you exchanging US dollars with us or do you have the local currency?She slid the paper over towards us. My heart fell as I noticed Anne-Lise’s ticket was a whopping $100 more than we had planned. It was over; we’d tried but failed. I heard Anne-Lise affirm we had local currency and listened to the calculator on the agent’s desk click out the final total.


We sat in stunned silence as the agent read off the amount due. Her eyebrows arched, as her head tilted to the right. “A problem?”

“No, nothing like that,” Anne-Lise said. “We thought it would be higher in the local currency; that’s all. No, we have the money right here.”

As I watched the money being counted, I fought to hold back my tears of joy. Of course, the exchange rate would be different when coming from the mining company friends than the business folks. One major hurdle down and the most difficult still to come: the visas.

We climbed out of the next taxi at the home of a missionary friend who had charge of securing visas of various kinds for the missionaries. “You want this when?” Kent asked. “You are not seriously thinking you can make a flight on Tuesday, are you? This is Saturday night and the offices are closed on Sunday, you know.”

“Yes, I know. Can you please try? I’m just desperate to get home for Christmas this year.”

The giant of a man, clothed in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, smiled at us and shook his head. “I’ll try, but I’m not making any promises.”

We spent Sunday worshipping at the church just down the street, and then waited for the phone to ring. Not only did the phone not ring on Sunday, but Monday proved equally as silent. Repeated inquiries resulted in the same response, “Still waiting to hear.

On Tuesday morning, a friend contacted Kent twice. He still had no hint of when the visas would be released, but admitted it didn’t look good.

At four o’clock, I headed for the cottage to repack my suitcase for the journey. I thought of the FAX I’d just sent my parents. I’d drawn Santa’s sleigh and put cut-out headshots on stick figures inside the sleigh. I wrote the arrival time for the flight. I dreaded the possibility of notifying them I wouldn’t be coming after all.

“Dannie, maybe we should face facts here. If we’re going, we have to leave for the airport in two hours.” I kept shifting the contents of my suitcase. “Do you think we’ll get the visas at the very last minute? Has God told you we’re going home tonight? Oh, I so want to be on that plane.”


“No, God hasn’t told me anything. We may not be flying out tonight; but I need to do my part, if I expect God to do his, don’t I? If I ask God to provide the visas for that flight home, I’d better be ready when he brings them to us, right?


In fact, just fifteen minutes before we needed to leave for the airport, a car honked at the gate. The visas had arrived.


Thirty-some hours later, having bid Anne-Lise adieu in Paris where our connecting flights took us in opposite directions, I stood on the plane and draped the bright-red ribbon with large bow around my neck and shoulders like some kind of beauty pageant contestant. I shifted the gift tag so that my parents would see it as I approached. I could hardly wait to share about what God had done through the kindness of so many people to bring me home for Christmas.


****MERRY CHRISTMAS, DEAR READERS!****


Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Gift From All of Us

Note: I’ve been on a long pause while writing a memoir of my first term living and working in Africa as a blind missionary. I will soon resume the chronology of my twenties here, but I wanted to share a Christmas memory with you from those jungle days in my forties. The story happened eighteen months before I lost my eyesight. I do hope you’ll enjoy it. Please, feel free to send me stories of a special Christmas in your past. Read on for “A Gift From All of Us.”
The overnight essentials bulging our daypacks, we slipped out the back door and skirted the path around our jungle village. Walking into the early-morning December African sun reddened our faces. How we longed to be helping our families decorate for Christmas, large, fluffy snowflakes falling in time to the lively Christmas tunes.
In fact, the desire for home nearly crippled my attempts to plan another holiday so far from my family. Letters from home came in stacks of several weeks’ collection, so the news of my aunt’s passing in July only reached me late September. By October the news of my father’s newly-diagnosed brain tumor and pending surgery heaped a load of desperation into my homebound desires. I just had to get home.
“Why do you keep speaking about making it home for Christmas this year? I’d love to spend the holidays with my family, too, but don’t really see how. Even if we did have the money, we need at least one week to get to the capital where we can buy the plane tickets; not to mention the weeks it would take to get the proper exit and re-entry visas, which we can’t even apply for until we have the plane tickets. Still, it would be nice, wouldn’t it?” My colleague, ever the realist, spoke the truth, but my heart screamed louder.
“Maybe when we call home today, one of us will have news from our folks that travel money has been added to the account.”
“Wouldn’t that be great; but, this time, money isn’t the only issue. We might have enough for the holiday rate, but we’d have only one week to get from the jungle to the seat on that plane, including turning the check into that much local currency. One week! We’d need more than one miracle, but God’s in the miracle-making business, so maybe.”  
Sinking deeper into my thoughts shortened my stride over the sandy path. “Well, you just never know,” I called to my colleague as I ran to catch up. “God just might surprise us!”
After the five-mile trek over the rugged path, we reached what passed for a highway in Africa. We sat on the splintery roadside bench, singing Christmas songs while waiting for a passing taxi-truck with enough room for two.
Two hours later we threw a leg up and over the rear of the truck, assisted by friendly co-passengers yanking us in by a free arm. My silent pleas for a Christmas miracle so distracted me that the worm-seeking chickens had untied both of my shoes without me noticing, until time to climb out of the truck.
Perseverance in trying to connect with our folks paid off. I hadn’t heard the lovely voices of my parents since April, but late that Sunday evening, after exchanging Christmas greetings, Dad shared the news of additional money in the travel account. It might be enough; now, how to turn that into local currency.
“Yes, it’s wonderful to have the money to go, but we need to be realistic here. How can we get everything done in time?” Anne-Lise reminded me.
“Nothing is impossible with God. We just need to do our part, you know?”
Unavoidable delays completing our business resulted in a return trip facing the beastly-hot late-afternoon sun. The grueling five miles from the inter-city road to home was draining us, necessitating a first-ever rest-stop. Naturally, as we sat on the boulders and let the tiny spot of roadside shade refresh us, conversation centered on the Christmas calls home.
“Yes, I know how impossible it seems for us to get home for Christmas; but if we do all we can, maybe—“
“And, if we exhaust ourselves doing all we need to leave the jungle for three weeks; ride a taxi-truck for ten hours to the capital city;  only to discover we don’t have enough money, or can’t get a seat on the plane this late? Oh, it’d be fantastic to be home for Christmas, wouldn’t it?”
“I can’t think of anything else. I know it’s a stretch and all that work might be in vain, but at least, we’ll have tried,” I pleaded.
By the following day, Anne-Lise joined me in singing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” agreeing the joy of the possibility merited our best efforts. Our concerns about the tribal response proved unfounded as our family-oriented patients and staff rejoiced with us over our upcoming holiday travel. Once all seventy-eight patients had been treated, we turned our energies to setting things up for those whose medication would need to be renewed in our absence.
Household preparations such as defrosting the kerosene refrigerator came next. Packing-away items used inside the house to protect personal things from jungle critters took most of Wednesday’s light, with only half an hour left for throwing clothing into a suitcase.
Thursday morning, we started our walk back to the highway. Our legs found it harder to traverse the five miles a third time in four days. Our national workers carried our suitcases out on their heads, but they beat us to the highway by a long shot.
Another extended roadside wait, belting out Christmas carols; two hours being jostled and bumped over the rugged terrain in the back of a taxi-truck; and finally, we arrived back at our Kamsar friend’s house.
During breakfast Friday morning, Greg listened to our dilemma over turning a check into local currency, and offered the help of his buddies in the various offices of the mining company. Greg ping-ponged from one office-back to his house where we counted each little stash of currency he brought. Once Greg had the figure of how much we still needed, off he zoomed to another office to collect a bit more. It takes a lot of banknotes when the local currency doesn’t offer more than about seventy cents for their largest denomination, and we needed cash to buy two round-trip plane tickets home.
By the time we had all the local currency in exchange for the American check, we’d missed the last taxi-truck to Conakry, the capital city where the tickets must be purchased in person.
Once again, Greg picked up the internal phone for the mining company and pleaded for his desperate “bush bunny” friends. Success!
Late that afternoon, we slipped into our seats on the special employee-only commuter flight to the capital city. We had a bundle of local banknotes, but would it be enough? Would we get a seat on the flight just days away? Could we actually get those mandatory exit and re-entry visas in time? No doubt about it; we needed a miracle or two if this wouldn’t end up being our only flight this December.
****Conclusion: A Gift from All of Us…coming tomorrow