Southern Cross

Fiji

Ever since I was a kid I have enjoyed gazing at the stars. I knew many of the constellations by name, and would often point them out to friends and family who may, or may not have really been that interested. Of course, being from America, I have been gazing at constellations in the northern hemisphere, but I had almost no knowledge of the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. I had heard of the Southern Cross, but had only seen a glimpse of it on my previous trips south of the equator in Africa as I was there during the rainy season, and often went days without seeing the sky.

IMG_1984My recent time in Fiji, with my wife Karen, however, showed me just how spectacular the night sky in the southern hemisphere can be. I still didn’t know very much about the constellations, but with the guidance from my friend Don, who lives in New Zealand, I was able to recognize α and β Centauri, along with the Southern Cross. I Googled, and found that by drawing an imaginary line between α and β Centauri, and then drawing a bisecting line from the mid point between those two bright stars to another bright star named Achernar, which happens to be the 10th brightest star in our heavens, and then drawing an imaginary line through the top to bottom star of the Southern Cross until it intersects the first line it will give you the approximate position of the South Pole.

Fijian Flower Market, Suva, FijiOK, so what does this really have to do with anything? Well, I guess it has to do with the fact that I like to know in what direction I am heading, which brings me, finally, to the point of this story. Karen and I had the opportunity to spend nearly two weeks with our friends Don and Kathryn who live in Auckland, New Zealand. As Regional Director with Campus Crusade for Christ over twenty-one island nations in the South Pacific, Don and Kathryn have the enviable task of working, and living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Sharing the good news of God’s love for us—as shown by the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ—with students on university campus’ around the world has been, and continues to be a very important part of what Campus Crusade For Christ, or now most recently known as CRU, is all about.

Kathryn and Karen with students at the University of the South Pacific, FijiThere were a number of things that we were able to accomplish while in Fiji, which I will write about later, but one of the things we were able to do was share the news of God’s love to students on the university campuses in Suva, Fiji. The students, who came from many island nations in the South Pacific, were polite and showed an interest in hearing about Jesus. But one of the things I was most disappointed in was how many students claimed to have a Christian background, but really had no assurance of forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life through Jesus. Most were unsure of what will happen to them when they die. Many believed that because of their behavior they only had a fifty percent chance of going to heaven. For some the percentage was much less. All this points to the fact that they believed they had to work to earn God’s love and forgiveness. Fortunately in God’s Word, The Bible, we are taught that salvation is a gift from God, given to us by grace. As a gift, we can’t earn it or work for it. God did it this way because He knew we could never be good enough on our own, meaning that none of us can boast about how good we are. God wants us to accept His free gift of forgiveness of sins and eternal life through His Son Jesus Christ, and when we do that we can be one hundred percent sure that when we die we are going to go to heaven. There are a lot of verses in the Bible that talk about this, but the one that I used just now is found in the book of Ephesians, the second chapter, and the eighth and ninth verses.

Don and Rob with two engineering students at Fiji National UniversityI sat there and listened to the students in the beautiful settings of the South Pacific Islands, and thought that out of all the stress these young people are going through right now—being away from home, in university studying for their futures, taking their final exams—this is one stress that they should not have to worry about. God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. We are not so bad that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace, nor are we so good that we are beyond the need for God’s grace. Believing in our hearts and confessing with our mouths that Jesus is LORD gives us not only forgiveness for our sins and eternal life, but also it gives an amazing peace that surpasses all understanding that we really can have a personal relationship with God. This is God’s desire, that is why He sent Jesus to die on the cross in our place. So it just makes sense to take the gift that is being offered to us.

I am happy to say that many of the students made that choice—as did Karen and I, and Don and Kathryn so many years ago. In all of the commotion of human striving we get distracted, and confused about what is true concerning God’s love for us. We make it harder than what it is supposed to be, and we try to do everything in our own strength, only to find that we fall miserably short of the mark. God knew that about us. He knew that this would happen, so He made the impossible possible by sending His Son Jesus to give us the only way to Him. These students who made the choice to put their faith in Jesus Christ came from various religious backgrounds, but they recognized the right direction when someone pointed it out to them.

Thanks to someone showing me how, I can now not only find north, and thus south in the Northern Hemisphere by the constellations, I can also find south and thus north in the Southern Hemisphere. Marking my barring, and knowing what direction I’m heading is somehow very…reassuring. Knowing that my relationship with God is secure through Jesus Christ is even more so. May God Bless You until next time!

“So, We Are Brothers!”

Southeast Albania

A few years ago a religious group became active in Albanian villages, and began teaching people a message that unfortunately did not ring true with God’s Word. Their message was that the world was corrupt and evil, and there was no hope, and it is just better to go to heaven than to stay on earth. That message became a devastating harbinger of death as three children in three different areas of Albania committed suicide as a direct result of believing this message. Understandably, this outraged Albanians toward this particular religious group, and set in motion a scrutiny against all other groups for many years to come. The sadness is that although the world truly has evil in it, there is hope, and that hope is through Jesus Christ and His message of God’s love and forgiveness.

Villagers watching the Jesus Film, AlbaniaDuring the years that I was part of Jesus Film teams (see previous posts), the year following these children’s suicides was particularly challenging. My son, Jeff, was part of my team, and in every village we went into we had to prove that we were not part of that religious “cult” before the people  would welcome us  into their village. This was a new development, because before, even though the people of the village may not have always cared about our film about Jesus, they were at least hospitable, and usually welcomed us into their homes. This year, however, the conversation with the mayor or “first man” of the village would start with a recounting of these suicides, and a firm warning that if we were part of that cult, then we could just keep on walking. In our case, just our word that we were not part of the cult was sufficient, and we were welcomed.

Our team with the mayor and his family, AlbaniaIn a village were we spent several days, we had built up a good relationship with the people of the village including the mayor and his family, in whose home we stayed. We had showed the Jesus Film the first night using our generator, and projecting the film on a screen out in a sheep pasture. Some people were interested, and some were not, but I was able to spend a great deal of time with the mayor, answering his questions, and sharing in more detail what the life of Jesus was all about.

Jeff playing with the children in the village, AlbaniaThe question of the cult never came up again between us and the villagers until one morning during our team meeting one of my Albanian partners informed me that an Orthodox priest in another village had heard that we were in this village, and that we were part of the cult, and he was coming to drive us out of the valley. We spent quite a bit of time praying about this, and then went on about the business of the day. One of the cultural habits that Albanians have, is taking a break in the middle of the afternoon for three to four hours, which usually includes a nap after lunch. Typically in the villages, people get up very early in the cool of the morning, often before sunrise, and work in the fields or with their flocks, and then come in around one o’clock for the break. Afterward they will go back out in the cool of the evening and work till nearly dark.

Village family relaxing in the afternoon, AlbaniaOn this day, Jeff and I had been resting on the front porch of the mayor’s home, over looking a beautiful panorama of mountains and valleys. The terrain was steep, and we could see small villages perched on the sides of the mountains across from us and up and down the valley, but even though the villages seemed close enough to hit with a rock if thrown, it would still take two to three hours to actually hike to them. As the people in the village started stirring again for the evenings activities, one of our Albanian partners came up to us and told us that an Orthodox priest had ridden his horse from across the valley and was talking to the mayor about kicking us out.

Rob and Jeff in AlbaniaI knew I had to meet with the priest, but I didn’t blame him for wanting us gone if he thought he was protecting his flock. I grabbed my Albanian Bible, and I walked down the dirt trail with Jeff. One of the villagers had made his home into a small café/bar by placing a plastic table out in his front yard under a tree. There the mayor and the priest were sitting talking, and when I strode down the path the priest eyed me suspiciously. He was the perfect stereotype of a Greek Orthodox priest. He wore a long black robe, had a black stovepipe hat, and a bushy beard. His horse was tethered to a bush along side of the path. By the priest’s glare I knew I was in for a fight.

Albanian mountain villageI said a quick prayer, and walked through the gate, and shook the mayor’s hand with a greeting as he stood up. I then went to the priest and stood in front of him and offered my hand with as big of a smile as I could muster, and greeted him with the traditional Albanian litany, of “Mirë mbrema, Si jeni. Mirë? Po, Unë jam mirë, falemnderit.” Which means, “Good evening, how are you? Yes, I am good, thank you.” The priest rose from his seat and took my hand, but his reservations were clearly etched on his face. We sat down and chatted for a few minutes, as is the custom, because no matter how upset you might be with someone, you never proceed with the conversation without finding out how they and their family, and their friends are doing. After the preliminaries, the priest got right to the point and accused us of being members of the cult that had persuaded small children to take their own lives. I assured him that I was not part of that cult, and I placed my Albanian Bible on the table between us. The cover had a collage of photos, and seeing his eyes widen, I realized he recognized it.

“That is the same as my Bible,” he said. I said, “Yes, it is the same one you have there.” I then opened up to the Book of John and showed him the first chapter. We both knew that the cult had completely rewritten that first chapter, and when he saw that my Bible matched his, I could tell he relaxed. I told him we were just here to tell the story of Jesus, and that we had shown a film about the life of Jesus based on the Book of Luke. He said he had seen the film, and quickly changed his tone from accusing to accepting. After a while he sat back in his chair, and tapped the table top with his hand, and said, “So, we believe the same.” “Yes,” I said. He then slammed his hand down on the table top, and exclaimed, “So, we are brothers!” We all nodded and smiled. Then he said with a laugh, “OK, we will drink beer now.”

Rob, Jeff, Spiro, and the mayor, AlbaniaSpiro and I became friends that afternoon, and after exchanging phone numbers, and sending cordial greetings to each other’s families, he got on his horse and rode back across the valley to his own village. I got a kick out of the fact that even his name, Spiro, fit my stereotype of a Greek Orthodox priest. Jeff, who had remained silent through the whole exchange, had a wry smile on his face as Spiro on his horse clopped down the winding mountain path. He and gave me a nod of approval, and the two of us stared after the priest until his black stovepipe hat disappeared beyond the hill. Without taking my eyes off the horizon I said, “Just don’t expect this at home.” He said with a chuckle, “What?” I said, “Drinking beer while telling someone about Jesus.” Jeff said, “OK. Well… we’ll see.”

May God bless you until next time!

Why Knot!

Albania, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Kenya, and my own Backyard

Jury Mast Knot I used for water melons in AlbaniaGrowing up, I was part of a  very active Boy Scout troop. We camped every month regardless of the weather. We made our own rope, lashed and thrashed together our own bridges and towers, and we were absolutely dependent on well tied knots. One of my scout leaders was a World War Two United States Navy veteran, who was most emphatic that our knots were not only tied properly, but also were the proper knot for the occasion. More than once my sensitive spirit was bruised when while presenting an incorrectly tied knot to my leader, he would pull it apart and tell me to do it again, but “This time the right way!” On one occasion I was sure I had tied the right knot the right way only to have him look over my shoulder, and ask me if I really believed that knot would save my life if I had to depend on it. Tears streamed down my face as I, once again realized that the knot I had so confidently tied would only unravel after any tension was placed on it. My scout leader never let me get away with a bad knot. I eventually became a very good knot manipulator under his constant tutelage. Out of all the things I learned in scouts the importance of a properly utilized, and properly tied knot has stood out above all the rest. It has been a valuable lesson that I have carried with me on every mission trip I have ever taken. I now have an armamentarium of nearly hundred knots that, yes, have saved my life, saved my equipment, saved time, and energy, and given me a certain peace of mind.

Unfortunately, because of my tearful past, an attitude of  lofty impatience has been created in me that can only be described as “Knot snobbery”. It irks me when I see knots not properly utilized. It twists my guts to see knots haphazardly cinched, and it really frays my longanimity when good lengths of rope are abused with poorly designed hitches. The horror of watching a length of rope being insidiously contrived by someone trying to tie down a tarp with exhausting wrapping, and endless looping and thrashing only to have to cut it later with a knife because the Medusa ball they have created is impossible to unlash, and straighten is often more than I can bear…

square_knotOf course, I am being factious, but the point is, knowing how to tie a few good knots can save you time, energy, rope, and maybe even your life. For instance, one of the easiest and first knots we learn is the Square knot. Do you know the difference between a good Square knot and a Granny knot? A Square knot will hold until dooms day, but a Granny knot will slip and unravel at the first sign of tension. All knots that are tied properly have a definite pattern and symmetry to them—even the most complex. If your knot looks like a plate of spaghetti, it probably has been tied wrong. It may hold for the purpose in which it was intended, but the time it takes to unravel it, or worse, cut and ruin the rope is a needless waste.

Besides the obvious uses for a good knot—tying a clothesline, staking out a tent, repelling or climbing a rock, mooring a boat, dragging a pole, tying your own shoes—some tasks are actually made possible, or at least easier when a length of rope is properly used. A case in point is, one day when I was on a Jesus Film team (see previous posts) in Albania, our team was resting for the afternoon on top of a high hill under the shade of a grove of trees above the village we were staying in. The people of the village had been very hospitable, and over the course of the afternoon the villagers brought up to us the abundance of their watermelon harvest. There was only five of us on our team, but that afternoon we were given thirteen watermelons. We ate two of them, but when it came time for us to go back down into the village, we not only had our gear, we now also had eleven extra watermelons. We couldn’t just leave them behind because they had been thoughtfully given to us as gifts. Did you Jury Mast Knotknow that there is such a thing as a Jury Mast Knot. One of its uses was by sailors to tie up cannon balls so they could carry several at a time. Some good Jury Mast Knots became very good “watermelon knots” that day, and we were able to transport all eleven watermelons plus our gear back down the hill in one trip instead of having to trudge back up, and then down to retrieve our bounty.

It should go without saying that in order to tie a good knot you have to BE PREPARED, and actually have a length of rope with you. I never travel without having at least fifty feet of braided nylon rope. It is strong, light weight, and the more tension on it the stronger the knot becomes. I can’t remember a single mission trip I have taken, where I didn’t use my rope for some purpose or another. There are upward of a thousand recognized knots used for many occasions, so the best approach is to learn a few of your favorites. A great resource is Des Pawson’s, The Handbook of Knots, from DK Publishing. I am not going to reproduce what he has written, but I will give you an idea of Stevedor Knotsome of the more useful knots that I have used. Knots can be categorized in groups depending on type and usage. There are Stopper Knots used to keep rope ends from fraying, or slipping through, oh… say a hole in a tarp, or to provide a handhold for climbing. My favorites are the Overhand and the Stevedore Knots. A Stevedore is a dock worker. Another Category is Binding Knots, such as Sailors Cross, Square, Thief, and Clove Hitch. For Hitch Knots I like the Cow Hitch which is used to tie a rope to a ring. A Taught-line Hitch can be used to tighten up the guy lines of a tent.

Highwayman's KnotA Highwayman’s Knot, which is used to tie a horse’s reins to a post. A Prusik KnotPrusik Hitch, is a climbers knot used to bind a sling to a main rope, and a Sheepshank designed to shorten a rope or relieve strain on a worn part of the rope. Bend Knots are used to join two lengths of rope together. I Like the Sheet Bend, used to tie two ropes together of unequal diameter. And then there are Loop knots, which can be tied

Sheet Bend Knotaround objects, or a pole, someone’s waist. The Loop knots I use the most are the Bowline, and the Jury Mast Knot (Cannon ball/water melon) knots.

My daughter, Aubrey recently ran into an old high school friend she hadn’t seen in years. He was one of the kids that hung out at our home on a regular basis with a bunch of other friends. Aubrey found it hilarious that he remembered her crazy dad, me, occasionally coming into the room with a length of rope and saying, “Hey, let me show you guys a new knot.” They would humor me, and over the course of time I probably taught them eight to ten useful knots. That was nearly ten years ago, and he still remembers.

Knot tying can be useful for everyday life, and is actually quite relaxing, and fun. So next time you feel stressed pull out your length of rope, your how-to guide, sit back and tie a few hitches. It could save your life someday. God Bless You until next time!

Can You Say Adapazarι

Adapazarι, Turkey, January 2000

I am looking out into my backyard where the snow is piled thick on the tree branches, and the world is covered by a soft white blanket. It is beautiful to see, and very distracting as I find myself mesmerized by the sheer magnificence of the sight. We have had more snow this month in my home town than in any month in our history. We are very thankful to get it, because for the last two years we have been in a draught, and we are twelve inches behind in rain fall. This brings me to my story of another snow storm  my wife, Karen, and I were in while participating in earthquake relief efforts in Turkey.

Karen and Melda, Adapazari,TurkeyAs I have mentioned in previous posts, I was in involved in earthquake relief after the devastating earthquakes in Turkey in August, and November of 1999. In January 2000, we found ourselves in the worst snowstorm that had occurred in thirteen years in the northwest part of Turkey, including Istanbul. Our main relief efforts were in a city about eighty miles east of Istanbul called Adapazarι. It had been a beautiful city until the earthquake left it in ruins. Many of the people who survived were too afraid to go back into their homes, so many of them were still living in shelters made of cardboard, metal, blankets, or wood. Basically the shelters were made of what ever they could find to protect themselves with.

Kids & Shelters in Adapazari,TurkeyA refugee camp made up of pre-fab shelters had been set up by the time we got there, and the people of Adapazarι were starting to move into them. It was in this camp, and in a pre-fab shelter that I set up the dental clinic, which would go on to be used by dentists from France, England, Canada, the U.S.A, and Turkey throughout the following months. Besides the clinic, our team also distributed food, clothing, and blankets, as well as preparing some of the prefab shelters for use.  I have told other stories concerning this time in previous posts, but the winter weather is what I want to concentrate on now.

Make-shift shelter, Adapazari, TurkishBefore I start, let me just say that for the time we were in Turkey none of our team complained about the conditions. We knew that we were only going to be there for two weeks, while the people we were trying to help had to endure, and survive for months.  Our team was shuffled around to various places to spend the night. The trick was to find a place still standing, and was safe enough to stay in. Our first night in Adapazarι, however, was the most… how can I put it… interesting?

Have you ever seen the movie, The Shining, with Jack Nickolson, and Shelley DuVall? Remember the creepy resort in the mountains, completely secluded by snow that the family was to oversee and maintain all alone throughout the winter? That was the kind of place we spent our first night in. There were only seven of us, and we were driven outside of town during a blizzard, through deep snow, and taken to a remote summer resort along a lake near Adapazzarι, which had been closed for the winter and was only opened  for us. There was no heat in this resort, because there was just no heat. It was meant to be open during the warmer months. It was snowing heavily as we pulled up to the front entrance, and even then the similarity to The Shining was obvious. Can you say RED RUM—OK, if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a reference to a really creepy scene where RED RUM is spelled in blood on a bathroom mirror. It’s MURDER spelled backwards. Well, any way, it is one of those movies that you spend half of your time watching through your fingers . Well, as we pulled up in our van, shadowed by the resorts facade with the eerie dead calm of thick falling snow, we felt as though we were about to meet Jack.

Man & Cart, Adapazai, TurkeyA meal had been prepared for us, which we ate by candlelight. We were very thankful for the food, and we were thankful for the candlelight as it was our only source of heat. We ate with our coats still buttoned up and our gloves on. We kept asking our wait staff for Turkish ςai (tea), which is always piping hot, and they assured us throughout the meal that they were going to bring us some. We wanted it with our meal to keep us warm, but we were not familiar with the Turkish custom that you drink ςai only after a meal not during.

After we got accustomed to our surroundings we eventually heard the clacking rattle of a gas powered generator that was being used to power a cook top, and a few light bulbs strung along the walls of the corridor leading to our rooms. The manager who had brought us in from the cold, and who was most eager to please us, informed us that normally the resort is locked up for the winter, and the electricity is turned off, but ever since the earthquake, power had never been restored to the resort. We assured him that we were going to be fine, and after drinking as much of the hot ςai that they could give us we made our way to our rooms.

The first thing Karen and I noticed was the two inch gap between the bottom of the door, and the footer that led out onto the deck overlooking the lake. This gap in the summertime allowed cool breezes to blow in off the lake and cool the rooms. Now, however,… in the wintertime gale force winds were blowing little tornados of snow into our room. We took a towel and jammed it into the gap, and then went to several other unlocked rooms, cannibalizing the blankets off the beds, and hauled them into our room. Our team was split up into three rooms with another couple, Roger and Nancy taking one room, two older retired men, Richard and Charlie, and a young male student, Bronson, taking the other, while Karen and I were in the middle room.

There was no running water for a shower, or even for the toilets, but we were able to chop through the ice cap of a bucket of water that had been placed in our room only a short time before by the resort staff so that we could at least pour water into, and flush the toilet. The amount of determination that it took to actually sit on the rim of that ice-cold toilet seat was to say the least character-building. I was the perfect gentleman, however, and allowed Karen to go first. We had no intention of taking a shower as our room was a frigid twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit according to one of the guy’s pocket thermometer. Even the bottled water we had with us was too cold for us to want to brush our teeth. I knew from my Boy Scout days that sleeping in the same clothes you have been wearing all day was a terrible idea in the winter as your sweat from the days activities only made you colder at night. So after finally convincing Karen that we needed to get out of our—despite the cold weather— sweaty clothes we snuggled under seven layers of blankets and changed into drier, albeit, cold clothing from our packs.

Eventually we warmed up under the weight of the blankets, but sticking our noses out from under the canopy we were able to blow steam into the frosty air causing a little flurry of snow to fall back into our faces. Another architectural feature of our rooms was that the walls were paper thin. We could hear everything going on in our neighbors rooms, most notably the cacophony of discordant snoring coming from the two old men next door. It was just too cold for Karen and I to sleep at first, and at one point Bryson could be heard saying, “There’s a mouse scratching in the corner.” To which Richard awakened, sat up in bed flashed his flashlight into the corner and said, “There you are! You little Dickens!” It took all of a good twenty minutes for us to stop laughing. It became very much like summer camp  where something said that would not even be remotely funny during the day light, cracks everyone up in the middle of the night. The slightest noise, or the most ludicrous  comment would send waves of giggling through the adjoining rooms. Eventually, very late, we dropped off to sleep. I was glad I was with Karen, and not stuck between Richard and Charlie like Bryson was.

Early the next morning Karen bolted up in bed, and said,”Oh, my gosh! What is it?” The morning call to prayer from the nearby mosque had, as it was intended, startled her from sleep. It was the first time she had heard the call so close, and it was a stark reminder of why we had come. With lightening efficiency, we pulled our coats out from under our mattress and flung them on, and putting on our shoes we met our team mates to begin another day.

Snow on Pre-fab Shelter, Adapazari, TurkeyEver since that time, in order to relay how cold it is outside, Karen or I will say, “Can you say Adapazarι?” As I came back into the house from shoveling the snow the other day, Karen asked, “Is it really cold?” I simply replied, “Can you say Adapazarι?” It was all the answer she needed. May God Bless You until next time!

A Man Dressed in White

Albania, but not just in Albania

I think sometimes we don’t see something because we are not looking for it. It could be right under our noses, but if we are not aware that we should be looking for it, we’ll miss it. If we don’t perceive that it is important to us, we could stumble, and trip, and fall all over it before it has our attention. To others it could be the most important thing in the world, but if we do not regard it with the same enthusiasm it will go right passed us.

Permet, AlbaniaI have frequently seen this happen when I have been on my missions particularly in regard to what someone believes, or doesn’t believe about God. In the early days of my missions to Albania as part of Jesus Film teams (see previous posts) it was not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a villager, and soon have the discussion turn to the topic of God. For some it was not a subject that they had ever really thought about. They would often recite the history of their governments atheism, explaining that because of what their government had impressed upon them they themselves were atheists, but usually they said this with no more conviction than if they had said they were farmers—meaning that they simply accepted what the government had told them, and then never gave it another thought. Sometimes, however, I have come across someone who really had given a lot of thought about God, but didn’t know where to look for answers. Still others would accept that there may or may not be a God, but for the sake of argument would humor me in a debate. Their motivation being usually that farming or shepherding was boring and here was a chance to do something entertaining—the belief that there is a God was totally inconsequential to them.

Our team with children of the village, AlbaniaThe wonderful truth is, there is a God, and He loved us so much He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to earth to live, die, and rise again for us. God has reached out to mankind from the beginning, but mostly we have slapped His hand away, and ignored all attempts He has made to bring us into His loving arms. He sent His Word, His law, His prophets—all ignored by the majority. So He sent His Son who was killed by the majority. The good news is Jesus only stayed dead for three days. He rose with power, and the promise that He will come again. The same power that raised Him from the dead is the power that forgives us of our sins and gives us eternal life when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. God made it easy for us. All we have to do is believe, accept, and proclaim Jesus as our Lord. Even today God is reaching out to mankind in amazing ways, but too often we are not looking for it, or ignoring it, or just plain rejecting it. But, in this story, I want to share something that I have had the opportunity to see first hand in how God is making Himself known to a struggling world.

Arnida speaking with a village woman, AlbaniaI was on a Jesus Film team in a village in Albania, the same village that the story God Answers Prayer to Glorify Himself took place in, when one of my team members, Arnida, told me about a dream her hostess had had the night before. The guys had stayed in one home and the girls had stayed in another. The home that the girls spent the night in was opened for hospitality by a woman and her two teenaged daughters and young son. The woman’s husband was working in Greece to support his family, and hadn’t been home in months. Arnida told me the next morning as our team was walking to our next village with our equipment on the back of two horses we had hired, that the woman had told her of a terrifying dream she had the night before. Arnida said the woman was terrified because the dream seemed so real at the time. The woman dreamed that a man dressed in white stood at her door and knocked, wanting to come in. The woman told the man to go away, because her husband was in Greece. The man dressed in white persisted, continuing to knock, and asking if he could come in. After several pleadings by the man, finally the terrified woman screamed at him to go away and leave her alone. The woman said that the man never tried to force his way into her house, but looked sad as he walked away.

Our team getting ready to enter the village, AlbaniaI was immediately excited when I heard Arnida’s story. I had read several accounts of Muslims having visions of a man wearing white telling them to read the Bible. In every case the Muslims who had these dreams were sure that it was Jesus speaking to them. Thousands of Muslims who have had this dream have put their faith in Jesus Christ. I was certain that this woman, who was a cultural Muslim—meaning she claimed to be Muslim simply because she was from a traditionally Muslim village, a carry over of the Ottoman Empire—had a vision of Jesus calling to her. I told Arnida that we needed to go back to the woman and let her tell me her dream. Several days later we were able to get back to that village, and we visited the woman, who seemed genuinely glad to see us.

Rob and Arnida with the lady and two of her children, AlbaniaWe sat comfortably on her front porch, and her daughters, as is the custom, brought us candy and something to drink. After several minutes of greeting and polite small talk, I told her that Arnida had shared with me that she had had a dream of a man wearing white, and I asked her to tell me the dream. She said it was so real that it terrified her. She said she was startled awake when she heard someone knocking on her front door. I said, “This door?” as I pointed to the door we were sitting next to. “Yes! This door!” she exclaimed. She said, “I went to the window and looked out. A man dressed all in white was standing at my door knocking. I shouted through the door, ‘What do you want?’ He said he wanted to come in and eat with me. I told him to go away, but he continued to knock, asking to come in. I told him that my husband was woking in Greece, and that he could not come in, but he continued to ask until I screamed at him to leave. He finally left, but I could tell he was sad that I did not let him in.” “Did he try to force his way in?” I asked. “No. He just stood there and knocked.”

Setting up for a Jesus Film showing, AlbaniaI told the woman that people all over the world were having this same “vision” of a man wearing white. I told her that the man was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I noticed that one of her daughters was holding a New Testament written in Albanian that our team had given her a few days earlier. I asked her to open her New Testament to the book of Revelation. Arnida helped her find it. I had the daughter read out loud Revelation 3:20, where it says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” The woman’s mouth dropped open, and astonished she said, “That is exactly what he was doing and what he said! Who is that man?” We spent the rest of the afternoon explaining to her and her three daughters who Jesus is, and what He has done for them. I told her that God loved her so much that He allowed her to have that dream so that she would not ignore Him. She and her daughters put their faith in Jesus that day, and were introduced to some Christians in the area that would help them learn more.

Sometimes we are skeptical of amazing stories like this, but the truth is, it has happened tens of thousands of times all around the world. Why? Because God loves us, and has a wonderful plan for our lives. God Bless You until next time!

A Chance to Pay It Forward

It isn’t often that we get to see a project that we started take on a life of its own, but when we do it makes all the plans and sacrifice well worth it. We live in such a violent, unjust, cruel world that we frequently lament hopelessly that nothing can be done about it. We watch the news, read the paper, listen to the gossip, and before we even know what hits us we find ourselves in despair, and living in fear of our surroundings, feeling that the very worse is yet to come. The biggest part of the problem is that the trouble in our world seems so enormous, and even if we wanted to do something about it we wouldn’t know where to start. But let me just say that in the midst of all this terror there is hope.

Remember the story I shared about the Star Fish. That story did not originate with me, but I shared it as an example of each of us doing whatever we could to make a difference in the world. Check it out. The story is at the top of my blog. The point is, during the times that we feel helpless in changing the bad things going on around us to good things we need to remember that sometimes even a little effort on our part can make a huge difference in someone else’s life, or in the circumstances going on around us. We may not be able to “change the world”, but we can at least try to change the little area we are in. We can make a difference if we try. And if we all of try, then the world could be a better place.

I want to share a really cool story about someone trying to make a difference, and the impact it has had on others. Now this story starts with me, but it continues beyond me, which is the way a good story should be. When Karen and I went to Kazakhstan—stories I have shared in several previous posts—we worked with a young Kazakh dentist named Dr. Igor. I know for all of you Frankenstein fans this is a little too funny, but Dr. Igor was a very important part of our team. Together we set up dental clinics in villages and in orphanages in Kazakhstan. We worked together for nearly two weeks, and also did quite a bit of traveling together to get from one village to another.

I was able to share techniques, and dental knowledge with Dr. Igor. He had only recently finished his dental training, but his university allowed me to sign off on some of his skills and training for certain procedures. I was very honored to be able to do that, and it was an unexpected pleasure to get to sign my name to his certificates. Our team grew very close in those days, and even though we worked very long and hard hours, I hated to see our time in Kazakhstan end.

I need to do a quick back story. A friend and patient of mine named Mark had asked me to go to Kazakhstan with him. Although he lives in my home town, his ministry frequently takes him to Kazakhstan, and so Mark was actually the team leader to get us to the villages and orphanages. Two weeks before we left for Kazakhstan, Mark was in my office as a patient, and we were talking about the up coming trip. Mark knew that I had a habit of leaving my dental equipment behind for others to use whenever I went to another country for a dental mission. I had already left equipment in Albania and Turkey. We talked about how expensive the equipment is, but that God had blessed me to be able to leave the equipment behind without worrying about the cost. I did tell him, however, that I needed this particular set of equipment for another upcoming trip, and that if I even looked like I was thinking about leaving this equipment in Kazakhstan, he was to kick me in the rump. My equipment is very portable, I call it “donkeyable“, because it can be carried on the back of a donkey. This kind of equipment is very hard to come by in other parts of the world. I found in Turkey during earthquake relief efforts, that portable dental equipment meant to them that it was on castors and could be rolled from one side of the room to another. So my donkeyable equipment was a boon in remote areas.

We had a great time working with Dr. Igor, so at the end of our time he mentioned to Mark that he would love to be able continue to do this kind of dental mission, traveling from orphanage to orphanage. When Mark told me what Dr. Igor had said I knew that it would be impossible for him to go to the orphanages without my kind of equipment, so I told Mark I would leave it for him. Mark said, “Do you remember what you said to me three weeks ago in your office?” I said I did. He said with a smile, and a tone of anticipation in his voice as he looked forward to kicking me in the rump, “Do you still want me to do it?” I said no, I didn’t.

I left the dental equipment with Dr. Igor, and periodically he would send me e-mails showing pictures of he and his wife as she assisted him in the orphanages using the equipment. This last summer, however, I received a real treat, when an e-mail was sent to me showing Dr. Igor and another Kazakh dentist on their first foreign dental mission to the small country of Tajikistan. They were able to take the equipment to the remote mountain villages in this very mountainous central Asian country. From the photographs I could tell they were having just as much fun working together and helping the people as we had had in the orphanages of Kazakhstan. So to that I say “Well done Dr. Igor! Great job! Way to pay it forward!”

You see, when it comes to solving the worlds problems we can’t do everything, but we can do something. And once we start doing something we see that the world is actually full of a whole lot of other people trying to do something, and the problems don’t seem so daunting, and hopeless. Like the little boy said in the Star Fish story, “I made a difference with that one,” as he chucked the star fish back into the sea. God Bless you until next time!

Learning To Haggle With The Best of Them

By nature I am the type of person that will not argue over price. If an item is listed for so much money, and if it is something that I want or need, I have a tendency to not fuss over what the vendor is asking for. When I have traveled overseas I often look at something that I want to buy as, 1) being a good deal—meaning I couldn’t get it for that price back home, or 2) it is unique enough that I couldn’t find it back home. But as I have become more experienced in travel I come to realize that sometimes it is not always culturally appropriate to accept the first price.

I have learned what is culturally appropriate from friends who live in the area I am visiting. This is one of the advantages to traveling with a purpose that I so often get to do. I go not as a tourist, but as someone who is providing a service for the people. I get to live in their homes, eat their food, study their ways, and be part of their families at least for a little while. It helps me feel as if I am, at least to a certain extent, part of the inside scene, and not just a by-stander, or spectator.

Like I said, though, by nature I want to give the guy the price he is asking for without giving him a hard time about it. Not wanting to seem like a greedy, over-the-top American comes to mind. There have been times, however, when I have had money in hand ready to pay the first price, or asking price, when I have had my indigenous friends come up and say things like, “Oh, that is too much!”, or “They will not respect you if you give them the first price,” or “They are trying to cheat you”, or “They think you are rich because you are an American, that is why the price is higher for you.” Well, OK… I am not actually rich. I like a good deal as well as the next guy, but what then is culturally appropriate behavior when it comes to the ancient art of haggling?

My first experience of having someone assume I was rich because I was an American came during my first time in Albania. We stopped at a road side kiosk. My Albanian friends  purchased a can of soft drink for the equivalent of fifty cents. When I ordered the same thing it cost me a dollar. My friends chastised the owner for taking advantage of their guest, and shamed him into giving me back fifty cents. I argued that I would have spent a dollar for a can of pop (soda) back home, but my friends assured me that a can of pop does not cost a dollar in Albania, and they couldn’t allow the kiosk owner be dishonest.

My real lesson in haggling came while I was on a team doing earthquake relief in Turkey. One day our Turkish friends took us to the Bazaar. Turkey is known for its high quality in leather, gold, and carpets. I just happened to really need a new wallet as mine was tearing apart, and I found a really nice sheep leather wallet with a coin purse at one of the leather vendors.  His first price was about thirty-eight million Turkish Lira which was equivalent to about thirty-five U.S. dollars—yes, inflation was terrible after the earthquakes. I thought that thirty-five dollars was a fair price for this nice wallet, and began to pay the man, when my Turkish friend stayed my hand and said,”You cannot pay the first price.” I said, “It’s a nice wallet. I couldn’t get it cheaper in America.” “Yes, but here we never give the first price. He will not respect you if you do.” “OK, so what should I offer?” “Start with 30% of the first price. He will counter, then you will counter, and then he will counter, then you will counter. If he doesn’t counter, walk away. There are other leather dealers.” So I offered the merchant ten dollars. He grimaced and said I was killing him. He countered, though, with thirty dollars. I countered with fifteen. He countered with twenty-five. We agreed on twenty. I was happy. He seemed happy. My friend assured me that the man still made money, so all around it was a good lesson learned.

Another thing I have learned while traveling is that many times a vendor will speak English, but sometimes he will speak only enough English to sell you something. Deviate from the usual haggling script, and you may find yourself up the creek in trying to get your point across. As I have said in previous posts, it is a good idea for Americans to learn at least enough of another language to get by in whatever country they are traveling in. It is a mistake, and arrogant to assume that everyone should speak English in parts of the world where English is not spoken as the first language.

Be warned that not every country will appreciate the haggling starting point of thirty percent of the first price. It is best to learn what is culturally appropriate in whatever region you are traveling in. The local vendors will still expect you to haggle, but the starting point may be quite different, and the outcome may be far from satisfactory. One time when I was in Liberia in west Africa with my daughter, we went to an open air market, and I offered 30% of the first price. The Liberian merchant was so offended that he refused to sell me anything. A few minutes later we joined a Liberian friend who had been in another area of the market and told her what happened. She smiled and said, “We are poor, but we are not stupid. Did you really think he would take 30%?” I said, “OK, so should I just go ahead and pay the asking price?” “Oh no,” she said. “He would think you were stupid if you did. Offer half, and then work up from there.”

On a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, our team had set up a dental and medical clinic in the Mathare Valley slum. One Sunday afternoon when most of the team were resting one of our young men on the medical team, named Alec, went out on his own and bought some local art from a kiosk not far from where we were staying. It was really nice artwork. I asked him what he paid for it. Having bought similar art from another kiosk a day before with a Kenyan friend telling me what was a good price, I found that Alec had paid about ten times more than he should have. It didn’t seem to bother him, because he felt the value was worth it—his nature was very much like mine was at the beginning. When we drove by the kiosk later that day, Alec said, “Here’s the place where I bought the paintings.” Much to his chagrin and our amusement, the kiosk was closed while all other vendors were open. I said, “Alec, you just paid him a years worth of wages. He is probably on vacation now. Mombasa…on the beach.” We all laughed. For the rest of the time we were in Nairobi,though, that kiosk was never open. Two years later my wife, Karen, and I where back in the area—that kiosk was still closed. I wrote Alec and informed him that his generous shopping spree had allowed that guy to retire. Oh well, you can’t put a price on a good time.

May God Bless You until next time!

 

My Perspective on America’s Election

Well, election Tuesday in America has come and gone. Most Americans will be glad that the endless campaign commercials, telephone calls, and mailers are going to cease, at least for a little while, and life will get back to normal, or as normal as it ever is. After the election we have the same president, pretty close to the same congress, and all the problems we went to bed with on Monday we woke up to find we still had on Wednesday. Some important issues were voted “Against”, and some frivolous issues were voted “For”. But as an American who waves the flag of democracy, I understand that the majority rules and we all just have to cope and adapt, and continue to do the best we can. But that is the paradox of a democracy in that after an election a little over half of the people are cheering, and a little under half of the people are booing.

Despite devastating storms, and other distracting problems around the country, Americans turned out in record numbers to let their voice be heard on election day. Some will have great hope in the next four years, and some will project doom and gloom. But that is just the way it has always been in a democracy, and we can pretty much count on it always being that way in the future. I actually have hope for the next four years. Despite the problems of crushing debt, unemployment, war, and natural disasters, the truth that I see is that God is in control. God will place men and women as leaders, but ultimately nothing happens outside of God’s will. With all of our problems in America some people might say that God is not capable of being in control, or if He is He is overly harsh and unjust. The truth is God loves us. In the past He allowed America to be a beacon of light and justice in the world, and we as a people embraced Him. Today though, not so much. We fuss about Him being on our money, in our schools, and in our courts, and many Americans today barely acknowledge Him. If God loves us the way He says He does, then I think He may be just trying to get our attention to turn back to Him before it is too late. So, you know, why don’t we do that…before it is too late.

I am proud to be an American (queue music please), I am proud of our form of government. I am even proud of how our government tries to watch out for the best interests of its people, as well as people in other parts of the world. Sometimes we complain that our government doesn’t take care of us. We sometimes feel that we are over taxed, over regulated, and abused by special interest groups, but before we go too far down that road of feeling sorry for ourselves let me share with you what I have observed in other parts of the world.

If you have been following the stories of my dental and other healthcare missions in various parts of the world, you will remember that in many of those places I lived and worked among the people, and experienced things that normally would not be experienced by a tourist. I have shared my life with people abused by unjust governments, wars, natural disasters, and extreme poverty. I have seen their pain, heard their stories of anguish, and I have at times felt just as helpless and hopeless as they have felt. Let me give just a few examples.

In one village I was in with my wife, Karen, we had set up a dental clinic. It was a beautifully situated village in a gorgeous valley surrounded by majestic mountains. That beauty was marred, however, when older villagers recounted the time when they were younger, under an oppressive regime, when people in the valley were rounded up and killed in the middle of the night just so the dictator of that country could build a secret weapons factory, and he needed to thin out the population. Having heard that story my eyes where then opened to the ruins of empty stone homes, and empty communities—the previous occupants had been eliminated for the sake of a weapons factory.

I was in another country in west Africa with a medical and dental team just after a fifteen year genocidal civil war had ended. The president of that country was imprisoned in Brussels and being tried for war crimes against humanity. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered under his leadership. I worked with people who had lost loved ones. I set up a clinic in an orphanage populated by children orphaned during the war. I worked with people who had undergone mutilations—short sleeve amputations where the arm was cut off above the elbow, and long sleeve amputations where the arm was cut off above the wrist. And why this carnage? Because somebody’s grandfather spoke a different language, or was from a different tribe than somebody else.

After a natural disaster in central Asia, Karen and I Set up a clinic in a refugee camp. The government in this case declared the final tally of those lost to be about one-third the actual death toll so that their responsibility would seem less…to them. The people in the region knew how many people had died, and they couldn’t understand why foreigners where the ones helping instead of their own government. I helped as much as I could, but I  now look back on that time, and realize how thankful I am for my own government.

We set up clinics in several areas in another country in Asia. What we found there was a lack of freedom of the people to express their beliefs as the government made laws keeping them  on private property, and any venture into public property was unlawful. At least they had that much freedom, but the people were under constant fear that even that would be taken away. Sure enough today more and more of their freedoms are beginning to be taken away by the government, and their future is looking darker and darker.

In east Africa there is very little help from the government for the people living in the slums. Foreign and domestic organizations are trying to make a difference, but are often hindered by corruption. It is not uncommon for ten and eleven year old girls to be raped and bare children. Meanwhile disease is rampant, and our healthcare teams barely scratch the surface of such a gigantic need.

In places where there is no strong central government roads are extremely dangerous and at times impassable. Police and military are often corrupt, and graft and embezzlement are accepted as a way of life. In these places a tax system is lacking or inadequate, so people by necessity have to fend for themselves, leaving them open to organized crime, and violence.

I bring up these examples to remind myself and my readers, that although our election may not have gone as we planned, and the direction of our country may be disappointing, we still have a great deal to be thankful for. And as an American who claims to follow Christ I have a mandate to pray for our leaders. And guess what? I will! Until next time, God Bless You!

Shedding a Little Light – Setting things Right

Tropojë Provence, Albania

I am going to put my description stories on hold for this post. I recently went to see the movie “Taken 2″ with my wife Karen, and my friend, Don who lives in New Zealand visiting us who  I actually met in Albania many years ago. If you haven’t seen it, it is a continuation of the movie “Taken”, which told the story of a man rescuing his teenaged daughter from sex traffickers in Paris who just happened to be Albanians from the region of northern Albania called Tropojë. “Taken 2″ now has the father of one of the sex traffickers that Liam Neeson’s character killed in the first movie declaring a blood feud against Liam and his family.

One of the really cool things Karen and I have had the privilege of doing is several years ago we started an “English Club” for Albanians in our hometown. With the help of other American friends, Dennis and Terri, who had been to Albania several times and an Albanian student, Edis who is fluent in English, we were able to have a fairly successful English Club for over five years. So far the distain for the movie by our Albanian friends who were part of our English Club is unanimous.

You can’t blame them really. Nearly all of the actors playing Albanians were actually Turks. None of the Albanians, who were depicted as the bad guys in both movies could shoot, fight, or keep a promise. If you have been following my blog over the last several months you will know that I have been to Albania many times, including Tropojë (pronounced Tro-poy-ya). My recent, four part, description stories Village Life were describing a village in the remote northern mountains of Albania in the region of Tropojë. Many of my other stories, Perseverance/Albania, Protection/Albania, The Night of the Chicken, and Yes, Yes, Yes, No, No, No, took place in Tropojë. This region also has a prominent place in my novel, Vale of Shadows.

Having said this, I know that Tropojë is a very rough part of the world. The mayor and his family of the Village Life village was part of a gjak marje, or blood feud at the time that I and my team were staying in their home. It started when the mayor’s brother killed another Albanian from the area while both men were in America. The brother was arrested and put in prison, but this did not satisfy the family of the man killed, so the mayor and his family were under constant threat. Another brother of the mayor had been shot, but he didn’t die, so the feud continued on. While we stayed with his family we were closely watched to insure that nothing would happen to us as the mayor’s guests. The mayor said, “It would be better for our whole family to be killed, than for anything to happen to you as our guests.” At the time I really thought that he was just being hospitable in a severe sort of way. The pledge made us feel safer, but only because we were not aware of the gjak marje until the last day or two of our stay.

Out of deference for my Albanian friends both here in America, and those living in Albania and other parts of the world, and the wonderful hospitality I and my team received in three different villages in Tropojë, I will try to cast a more suitable light on the people of northern Albania. First of all, however, I will assure you that I am in no way defending the criminal activity that has come out from that area. But what we call criminal in every other part of the world, to some is simply viewed as a way of survival. That part of Albania is very mountainous. Many areas still have no electricity, or running water, or roads wider than a sheep trail. To get a sense of the terrain close your eyes and picture the Colorado Rocky Mountains around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Now try to picture that same terrain with no roads, only sheep trails, and small villages perched along the steep slopes, and in the valleys. The Rockies start at about a mile above sea level, and the Balkan Alps start closer to sea level, but the awe inspiring grandeur is similar in both.

I have described in previous posts what village life is like, but what I haven’t discussed before is the history of that area. Albania is classified as predominately Muslim, and that fact is attributed to the five hundred years that Albania was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. What is little known by outsiders is that the Ottoman Empire cut a swath through the central part of Albania dividing it into three religious regions. To the north the people were predominately Catholic. To the south they were predominately Greek Orthodox, with Islam being in the middle. In the north the people, Tropojians included, continuously fought against the Ottomans, and although they were engulfed in the Ottoman Empire they didn’t loose their identity. Over time the Ottomans, due largely to the inaccessibility of the mountains, left the northerners to themselves. During World War II, the people in the north fought along side American Rangers, and British Commandos against the Nazi Germans. When the allies won, many in the north wanted to be Democratic, but the country was turned over to one of Tito’s lieutenants, Enver Hoxha, and the country became one of the most oppressive Communist regimes in the world. The northerns, however, fought against the Communist. I stayed in the home of an old man in another village in Tropojë who had fought along side Americans and British against the Germans, and later fought the Communists who captured him when he was a young man, and slit both of his legs up the back of the ankle and calf muscles to hobble him so he couldn’t make so much trouble. He showed me his scars. Even after all those years he still passionately wanted democracy. All this explanation is to give background to the fact that the people of northern Albania have been forced to take care of themselves, and over the centuries have come up with their own brand of justice and taking care of problems.

Now back to “Taken 2″, the gjak marje against Liam Neeson would have been executed by the men of the village from which the men killed in Paris came from. More than likely they would have been kin. In the small villages that I stayed in, not just in the provence of Tropojë, most villages had a hundred people or less, and there were usually only three or four last names. So in the scene where Liam’s character has an Albanian thug at gun point in a stand off, and another Albanian comes up and shoots the man in the back as if he didn’t care about him, well that would just have never happened. More than likely the man would have been killing his cousin, and an important fact is that Albanians have very close knit families. It is family above all others.

I am not going to go through the whole movie and nit-pick at every disparaging depiction of Albanians from Tropojë, but I thought that as one of a relatively few number of Americans who has spent a little time there I should at least share with the world that if it were not for the Tropojians making such a wonderful first impression on me with their kindness and hospitality toward strangers, I probably would have never gotten  involved in Albania beyond that first year. It was because of those experiences in the Balkan Alps of northern Albania that I began launching many of my other missions to Turkey, Kazakhstan, Liberia, and Kenya. So I would like to do a “shout out” to any Tropojian reading this that may remember me being in your village—I never forgot you. You changed my life! Shumë Faleminderit!

God Bless You until next time!

The All Night Train Ride-A Lesson in Flexibility

Kazakhstan

I get a kick out of watching movies that have a scene on the train. The camera shot always makes it look like there is plenty of comfortable room. Whether it is in a sleeper car, or suite, or even in the coach seats no one seems to be too cramped. The scenes shot in the suites are of particular interest to me. You know the ones where a bad guy sneaks in and starts beating up the good guy. They knock each other about a bit, kicking and punching each other across the expanse of the cabin. Suddenly to everyones relief the good guy prevails, and the bad guy is either sprawled out on the floor, or is chucked out the window. I watch those scenes and wonder just what kind of trains these guys are on that seems so amply sized. I guess I unfairly compare these Hollywood trains to the reality of trains in the real world. Or at least to the train I  journeyed on in Kazakhstan.

I am actually thankful for that train. We were able to travel the ten hour route, from Almaty in the southeast part of Kazakhstan to Qaraghandy (Karaganda) in the north central part of the country on a train known as the “Spanish” train, in more comfort than we would have had if we traveled by automobile. It is just that when we were told that we would be making the journey in a sleeper suite I envisioned the opulence I had seen in the movies. One of the very most important axioms of mission traveling is Be flexible! Meaning, you should never count on anything being exactly as you planned it. So flexibility in plans, goals, expectations, and attitudes is very important in order to get the most out of your experience. In the case of the Spanish train we also had to be very physically flexible as well.

Let me just describe our experience, and our endeavor to be flexible. Along with all of our portable dental equipment Karen and I were able to take one suit case apiece to Kazakhstan. We used our extra allowed luggage to transport our supplies and equipment. We traveled with Dwayne and DeAnne, and Mark to Kazakhstan, and then teamed up with Dr. Igor, Luba, and Timor. We were told that we could only take one suitcase per couple for our train in addition to our equipment and supplies. This was not a problem only I thought it was odd since, according to my expectation, we were to have all this extra room.

When we arrived at the train station it was clear to see that this mode of transportation was very popular. We had our tickets and pushed our way out onto the crowded station platform. Mark who had taken this train before continued to push through the crowd, which was difficult with all of our luggage and equipment in tow. Now even though my equipment is portable it still has quite a bit of weight to it, most especially the air compressor we were using. We obtained this compressor in Kazakhstan, which was far more bulky than the portable dental compressor I had brought with me from the U.S.A., but mine didn’t work in a reliable fashion the whole time we were in Kazakhstan due to electrical problems.

The train sped into the station far faster than I thought that it should, and finally screeched, and grinded to a halt. The train was very long, and our car was way up toward the front. Mark picked up the pace which meant we were running, and pushing through the crowd of travelers who seemed to be content to simply stand in the way. It wasn’t until the train came to a complete stop that everyone else began a frantic scramble to their respective cars. Mark yelled over his shoulder that we had to hurry, and finally we came to the door of our car and hurriedly handed the neatly uniformed, military-esque, uniformed porter our tickets and passports. Mark gave a big sigh of relief, smiled and said, “We only have five minutes.” I didn’t understand what he meant by that until we had squished our way into the narrow corridor of the car, and the doors snapped shut behind us as the train began pulling away from the station. We were packed into that corridor with our luggage and equipment like sardines having barely enough leeway to tug our belongings to our cabin.

Mark, Dr. Igor, Timor, and Luba crammed into one cabin, and Dwayne, DeAnne, Karen and I crammed into the other. The cabins had two bench seats that faced each other, and a stainless steel sink mounted to the outside wall between the two. The sink was really no bigger than a normal sized laptop computer, which is as it should be considering that the space between the benches was smaller than the size of my size eleven shoe. It was in this space between the two benches that we put our two suitcases, and our share of the equipment. Dwayne and I literally sat across from each other with our knees interlocked just so Karen and DeAnne would be able to sit. I looked around the confines of the apartment and wondered if it would even be possible to get one more thing in here. It was already after eleven at night so we decided to ask the porter to unlock the top bunks and prepare the room for sleep. The benches converted to bunks as well, so with Dwayne and I on the top bunks and Karen and DeAnne on the bottom bunks we were able to stretch out and converse a little more comfortably.

The trip was to take ten hours, which would put us in Karaganda early the next morning. I would like to be able to say how much we enjoyed the beautiful landscape of central Kazakhstan, but the best we could manage was our own reflections against the dark glass. It was early November, but already there was the promise of snow at our destination, which was only about three hundred miles south of Siberia. The farther north we traveled the colder it got within our cabin. We slept with our clothes on for three reasons. 1) It was cold. 2) It was coed. 3) We were to only have five minutes to plunge out of the train the next morning—we didn’t want to take the chance of oversleeping. As it turned out I had little chance of oversleeping as I slept fitfully at best. The rocking of the train from side to side on the tracks meant that we were rocking head to toe, and I never quite got used to that on the trip north. On previous posts I have described the lengthy days we had working in the orphanage, so during the ten hour night trip back to Almaty a few nights later I slept like the dead. I really remember nothing of the train ride back.

As I said earlier we were thankful for the Spanish train. It was the nicer of the two used by the railroad. Just after the light of grey dawn broke  on the morning we returned to Almaty we passed the other train that was in use heading north. There were no sleepers on that train, only benches, and boxcars. If you didn’t get a bench, you stood up the whole trip. It was an austere relic of the old Communist days. Hmm…I think I’ve seen movies with train scenes like that as well. May God Bless you until next time!