Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Customs from Around the World

When you are living onboard a ship filled with nearly 400 crewmembers from up to 40 different nationalities, what "Christmas" looks like to you might not represent what it looks like to ANYONE else, let alone EVERYONE else.  So, we set aside our expectations of Christmas at home and we embrace a Mercy Ships Christmas, one that tries to incorporate a bit of everyone's home culture and traditions.

Here have been a few of the highlights:

Sinterklaas - the Dutch celebrate this, on St. Nicholas' Eve & St. Nicholas Day (Dec 5th & 6th).  The Dutchies on board set out their shoes in the hallway that night and they blessed each other with treats - chocolate covered gingery snap type cookies, spiced cookies, anise flavored cookies and hard salty black licorice candies (definitely an acquired taste!).  They also leave carrots in shoes - not like coal as a punishment, but to feed the horse of St. Nicholas. Dutchies commonly exchange gifts on this day, but not so frequently on Christmas.  As the Dutch community onboard the ship is the THIRD most populous nationality (and maybe the most proud and vocal about their heritage!), we had a big celebration this year - complete with our very own Sinterklaas arriving with his Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) helpers - similar to Santa's elves, that cause a bit of mischief and clowning around - and bringing presents to EACH of the children in grade five and under!  Thank you, Sinterklaas!

Savannah's gift was a knitting doll!

Santa Lucia is a tradition familiar to me, growing up in a Swedish Covenant church that celebrated this every year.  Again, the Swedes have made this holiday quite significant in their culture, even though Santa Lucia was an Italian young lady who was either a martyr, refusing to renounce her Christianity despite being set on fire and stabbed through the throat. Another story says that she was helping the Christians who were hiding in the catacombs for fear of punishment from Roman Emperor Diocletian, and she needed her hands free to carry supplies so she lit candles on her heads. Regardless, as holidays do, the story behind it and the reason it is celebrated has morphed into a celebration in the deepest, darkest parts of northern Scandinavia of light and beauty.

Our community gathered following a Thursday night meeting for the arriving Lucia who came with REAL lit candles on her head, sweetly singing the Santa Lucia song.  The Lucias were followed by many starboys and some tomte who brought Swedish saffron rolls to all.

The first Nigerian starboy I have seen! :)  I love international community living!

Maybe this day falls more along the American traditions - cookie bake!  Thanks to the resources of a big galley and multiple ovens, this event becomes rather simple.  We purchase kilos of cookie dough which the galley prepares for us - we roll, sprinkle, cut and label, and run the trays back to the galley to be cooked.  10 minutes later the trays return ready to be decorated.  This is fun for young and old!

Winter Wonderland is a ship tradition that is celebrated the first Saturday in December.  it is an opportunity for those creative folk on the ship to sell their wares - cards, jewelry, knit puppets, fudge, waffle cones, chai tea, and ornaments flood the common area and people can complete their Christmas shopping at ease.

Carols by Candlelight was the night for the Aussies to shine - this Australian tradition dates back more than 100 years.  Gathering together in a park for a picnic for the day (yes, Australia is in the middle of the summer for Christmas - so sandwiches, strawberries, and crackers and cheese are common Christmas picnic items!), then sing carols together (you guessed it) by candleight when the sun goes down.  We celebrated this tradition yesterday with a barbecue on the dock for dinner, and then when the sun went down had some carols, a visit by the "Wiggles" and even an African Santa!  The real candles were a treat as we don't get to usually light any flame on the ship - and no children were burned, which was even better!  We did stamp out the paper cup that caught on fire in the hands of a 1st grader, and our fire team was standing by with an extinguisher in case things got out of hand! 

The Aussies were in charge, and getting excited!

the junior and senior high were the Advent candle lighters this week

As the sun set, the tone changed outside and we prepared for singing

An Australian, American and two Dutchies made up our group of Wiggles, leading a dancy rendition of Jingle Bells for the kids

And a special visit from a Santa who brought present to all the kids!

Acapella men's choir performed two songs

Tonight we will have a traditional Christmas Eve service to round out the events.  Life goes on as normal outside- patients continue to heal in the hospital downstairs and we remember to reflect on the season no matter what the temperature might be, or where we might find ourselves this year.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Our Crazy Yet Beautiful Home

There are many interesting things about living on a ship, tied to a dock, going from country to country in West Africa.  But today I want to focus on the many happenings that are taking place simultaneously onboard this ship of 500 feet in length, and eight decks high. 

At any given time we have up to 40 nationalities serving onboard.  And they are not all nurses and doctors.

Let's take a walk from deck one up to deck eight (and a half).

Deck One: Engine Rooms:

Down in this noisy and hot environment we have engineers and engine hands working around the clock to keep everything running.

Deck Two:  Cabins, Boutique, "Gym," Storage. While there are a few cabins on this deck (cabin not being a wooden chalet in the forest, but just your home onboard a ship), deck two is mainly storage.  This is where we keep shampoo, conditioner, shirts, dish cloths, Pringles, flour, coffee beans, dried apples, and all the food we need to feed 400 crew, 200 day workers, and 60-100 patients and caregivers daily.  This is a LOT of food.  We receive canned, dried and packaged food via shipping containers from Holland and from the U.S. In addition to this, every two or three days we acquire new fresh produce from our Chandler, a local connection that brings truckloads of onions, bananas, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, watermelon and pineapple.  It is weighed and paid for and we have a whole department dedicated to Procuring (getting) these goods, putting them where they belong on the ship, and getting them to the Galley (the kitchen) at the right time for the right meal.

The chandler's team bring it up the gangway, to be weighed on Deck 5, and then brought to Deck 6 (Galley) or elsewhere for storage.

Deck Three: Cabins & Hospital
If you don't work on deck three, you can actually be unaware that we are a hospital.  There aren't announcements taking place that herald each patient entering the ship.  Surgeons rotate through, staying anywhere from 10 days to several months, and bringing with them their area of expertise.  We will have a season of orthopedic patients who spend several weeks on the ward in their casts as their newly straightened legs have a chance to heal and new bone growth to occur, a season of plastics patients, a season of VVF patients, and MaxFax and General patients combined in all throughout our time.   Eye patients come - several in a day for a surgery that lasts just minutes, and they leave the same afternoon- escorted off the ship by a family member and a nurse or day worker, wearing a protecitve eye patch in place of a cataract. Potential patients come onboard to be evaluated by surgeons, receive CT scans, Xrays, and blood work.  Simultaneously, other patients are getting dressing changes, being rounded on with their surgeons, and being discharged to home or to the Hope Center where they will await their next outpatient appointment. 

Often worship is taking place in one ward with our Hospital Chaplaincy team, a group of eight day workers and two crew members that focus on the spiritual and emotional needs of our patients and their families.  At the same time, a lady might be undergoing a repair for a fistula developed through prolonged childbirth.  Meanwhile, the lab tech is running labs on blood drawn from the 12 patients with goiters who are taking medicine and monitoring the toxicity levels, to determine if and when they will be able to have a thyroidectomy.  The pharmacist is filling 300 packets of 12 Ibuprofens for the dental team - labeling them all in French, and packaging them for the dental team to pick up in two hours. 
The Infant Feeding Specialist is training moms and dads on the best way to plump up their babies so they'll be fit for surgery. The Supply Manager is restocking and ordering bedpans, syringes, sutures, adult diapers, and iv tubing that must be shipped from overseas, weeks or months in advance.  The Bio-med technician is fixing an anesthesia machine, and waiting on parts for the CT scanner, as he is paged about another machine that needs immediate attention.  The plumber has also been called to the forward office where the ice maker line has sprung a leak and now the carpet is drenched and the fiberboard cabinet is in need of repair or replacement. 

The Mercy Ministries coordinator is busy preparing her magical Mary Poppins bag full of all the goodies and supplies necessary for the next team to head out to a school, orphanage, hospital or day care center to entertain, craft with and love on the people there. 

Decisions are being made in a management meeting about which surgeries will be offered in the next field service, and what changes need to be made this spring to meet the patients' needs and the crews' needs in the best way.  This might involve a conference call to Switzerland (International Mercy Ships' Headquarters) and Texas (International Operations Center of Mercy Ships). 

In between this hustle and bustle, you have about 120 nurses living - six to a room - some of whom have worked from 10:00pm to 7:00am, and are now trying to sleep while life continues at the speed of chaos around them.

The printer is jammed, the patient scheduled for admission today isn't here (or has malaria) and we need to find another patient from the waitlist to fill the slot tomorrow.  The laundry and hospital housekeeping is working around the clock to keep the sheets and gowns and rags and floors and walls clean from the fluids of a hospital: I won't elaborate - you can envision this enough.
Ibrahim (patient) checking the heart rate of a nurse

some physical therapy taking place for an orthopedic patient in the hallway, with the help of a translator

the OR sterilizing department working on keeping the instruments ready for use

a baby in the Infant Feeding program

surgery in action

Deck Four: Sleeping Quarters
Rather an uneventful floor  - here live singles, couples, and couples with babies.  No offices on this deck.  No patients (or even unaccompanied children) allowed so during the day it's quite calm.  During the evenings it resembles a college dorm floor at times. 

Deck Five: Main level - the town square.  Here is where you enter the ship.  Here are the main offices for several of our departments (Stewards, Managing Director, Transportation, Human Resources, Finance, Hospitality, Sales, Operations Director, Purser, and Communications).  Here is where you would find our dining room, our cafe area, our library, ship shop, post office, bank, hair salon, office supplies.  This sort of the "main floor."
not all guests are greeted by the captain, nor do all guests look like this!  But, we all come through this door. This was a special Partners' Reception.

communications office getting a good cleaning from our crew services team

ship shop goodies being restocked
main cafe/Starbucks area - this is a gathering after our Thursday night meeting

Deck Six: School and more:  Deck six is where you'll find our cabin.  Also our International Lounge- home of our all crew gatherings, church services, special events (like the Nutcracker or Film Festival) and exercise classes take place here.  I am sitting in deck six currently in our Internet Cafe where we have 18 computers for crew use.  Laundry facilities, the galley (for all the food preparation) and the crew galley (if you want to make something different for your own use) are located here in addition to the Academy.  Our school has nearly 50 students from nursery to grade 12.  These kids are blessed to have an awesome advocate in Texas who spends his time raising funds and donations so we don't see "program cuts."  The students have music, P.E., drama, French, art and Bible classes regularly in addition to the core scholastic programs.  This is an amazing part of Mercy Ships, that is a hidden gem tucked away onboard.

International Lounge

midships/cafe area


sometimes people even work OUTSIDE deck six, like this deck worker, who is painting the exterior of our home.

Deck Seven:  Deck Department:  In addition to other cabins, more classrooms, and a couple of meeting areas, deck seven is home to our Captain and our officers that make all the technical and maritime decisions about our home - which happens to be a ship.  We are registered under the nation of Malta and though we aren't constantly sailing the deep blue seas, it is still a full-time job to maintain, test, certify, drill, and update our processes, our vessel, and our crew. 

The bridge is on deck seven, where the Captain navigates when we are on the move, and visits are allowed (with prior permission).  Deck seven also has some outdoor areas where the doors open and you can be enveloped by the warm, moist air of Africa (and escape the chilly air conditioning of decks two-seven).  This is where the Academy kids can play, and also the patients come to be reaffirmed that we are still in Guinea - the sea is still right outside, and the sun still does shine.

Deck Eight: Work & Play:  For those with children on the ship, deck eight represents play time- put on your rollerblades, get out your scooter, or sit your bootie on a Big Wheel and use some energy.  Maybe you'll walk laps with a friend while your kids blow off some steam their own way.  There is also a wooden play structure with jungle gym, slide, and monkey bars. 

The work side of deck eight is just as crucial for all of our well beings as the crane loads and offloads containers of goods, dumpsters of trash, and when preparing to arrive or depart a port, even Land Rovers. 

a side view of decks seven and eight

Deck Eight & Half: Play for the crew:  Up the step metal steps in the middle of deck eight you find a little hiatus, a generous and much appreciated gift from from the Mercy Ships Swiss Office:  a swimming pool.  It's not huge, but it does the trick of providing a little oasis where you can escape from deck ____ (you fill in the blank with what applies to you) and regroup.  Sometimes it's a rowdy area with kids (and dads) cannonballing, yet moments later it could transform into the Land of Nod with volunteers strewn about on lounge chairs like limp noodles, lulled to sleep by the tunes streaming through their earbuds.  

during the week we host a few swim lessons too

And in the midst of all this craziness there are lives being changed:
  • Someone seeing themselves in a mirror for the first time in years without only seeing shame and despair. 
  • God stretching a person to do what he didn't believe himself possible generous beyond what he thought he could give, forgive what she hadn't been able to, or see what had been veiled before. 
  • Friendships being made across cultures, languages, and backgrounds.
  • Physical transformations that restore hope, love, and even faith.
This is our crazy yet beautiful home.