Posted by on Dec 1, 2011 in Blog, Reflecting | 8 comments

I arrived in Durban, South Africa on December 1st, 2010. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already. Of course, a few months ago it was difficult to believe it hadn’t been a year already. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. I’m going to do my best to review the year here, and a little more. Feel free to follow along as I do so. Or you can just scan the pretty pictures and click out (I chose over 100, I’ve tried to settle on 20). It’s up to you.


I’ll go with the greeting card format. This is basically how I summed up the year to my Grandma, in terms that she can both relate to and in language that I thought she would best appreciate. In the end this blog post will be a lot longer than the greeting card, but I’ve got more space to write here and my hands are less likely to cramp up.


In the last year (if you include a few weeks before a year ago and the coming few weeks) I’ve been in Texas, Louisiana, Haiti, Washington State, Idaho, Oregon, South Africa, Sierra Leone, France, Switzerland, Italy, Holland, and will travel to Ghana, and Togo. That’s ten countries and five states (if you don’t count the road trip from WA to TX). I’ve traveled by bus, train, ship, airplane, ferry, land rover, taxi, poda poda (rust-bucket half-buses), motorcycle taxi, tram, helicopter, metro, car, and canoe. I even got thrown off of deck 8 on the Africa Mercy and survived.




I’ve lived in the opposite hemisphere of my birth, traversed the equator by ship (thus transforming from a pollywog to a shellback), lived in Zulu country, swam in two oceans that I had never seen before (Atlantic and Indian), pierced someone’s ear, drew blood in a hospital, donated my own blood directly to two surgeries, assisted in oral surgery, trained for and joined a maritime fire team, DJed events in three countries, survived Freetown traffic for 10 months with ZERO accidents (massive accomplishment), and ran sound for the President of Sierra Leone. I met a member of the House of Lords, a UN General Secretary Special Appointee, a handful of random millionaires, and both a Miss Hawaii and a Miss Belgium.





Marjolein Caljouw and Jay Swanson

I lived on a hospital ship, which is weird enough in itself, but with over 400 people from roughly 35 nations (depending on the week). That’s 400+ at a time; over 1,600 came through and left on a short-term commitment. I work on a daily basis with people from the UK, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Benin, Canada, South Africa, and this mystical place called Colorado (just to name a few). I published my first book and finished writing my second. I’ve caught a pickpocket and just this week tried to chase down another thief in the port. Yesterday I witnessed about 150 police officers raid a slum to catch pot dealers and a cop killer. I’ve dragged an unconscious man out from under a pile of bodies and done advance overnight security for a major screening event. I was even in country for the cholera outbreak in Haiti. While I was there I managed to drive an ATV and an AMBULANCE.



I carry a pager. A real, honest to God, archaic, one-way pager. Well, when they can convince me to carry it I do. I even caulked computer monitors to desks to prepare for sailing.

I’ve learned how to hook up and align a satellite dish, how to terminate all sorts of random cables, how to say “no” in a dozen different ways to a dozen different things. I’ve learned how to drive stick, and I mean really LEARNED how to drive stick. I’ve learned that you can gain access to and climb just about anything you want with a smile and a nod; from lighting towers to abandoned Chinese buildings. I’ve learned that the asking price is usually about 150% what you should actually be paying. I’ve learned that it’s ok to eat street meat, but you should probably avoid pre-constructed cheeseburgers in glass cases on the corner. I got certified in First Aid. I’ve learned a lot through briefly dating a Swedish nurse and a South African optometrist (not at the same time, before you ask – I already know not to risk that). I learned that you only capitalize someone’s rank when used as their name and I learned about a million other things about the English language in the editing process. I even learned that XXX is the official emblem for Amsterdam – the irony of which had escaped my Dutch friends.




I helped my sister move to Portland and my parents move to Texas. They then sold my childhood home. I got to hang out with my dad in Haiti and Sierra Leone. I watched my sister persevere like a hero and make it on her own. My best friends have scattered thousands of miles apart. I haven’t taken my mom on a date in over a year, which makes me sad. I’ve discovered that true stability only comes from God, the great Unchanging One. I’ve learned that money won’t make you happy, and that in any case I have more than most. I’ve fallen in love and been subsequently crushed. I’ve said literally hundreds of goodbyes to awesome people that stole small chunks of my heart in parting.



I have never met so many people who were so much more wealthy or so much more poor than I am, let alone live next door to them.

I have discovered so much about the world. The primary thing being that I know hardly anything about it.


I’ve found that if I were to pursue medicine, I would want to become a paramedic so I could deal effectively with trauma and save lives in the field. I’ve figured that if I can make it as an author I want to move back to France to really focus on it someday in the future. I’ve discovered that God can and does provide. I have wanted for nothing. I’m not rich, but I’m not poor, and I have no concerns so long as I trust in Jesus. Worries are the faulty construct of my inability to see beyond myself.



I had a caddy and broke 100 for the first time I can remember. Though having a caddy was awkward, my improvement in score is largely due to him. How many people have played golf with their dad in Freetown? According to our caddies, it was weird that a father would want to spend time with his son. My dad is pretty great on an international scale.


I’ve thrown up out the window while driving a manual Land Rover with a migraine in stop-and-go traffic without missing a beat. I’ve slept in the mansion of some mysterious family in South Africa I never even met. I got attacked by a monkey who, when he couldn’t get at me, mooned me instead. I’ve pulled someone’s tooth and I’ve officially been the ship’s executive body guard (and caught a lot of flack for it in the process). I was even a voice actor in Florence for an audio series of English language lessons.

I’ve lived in three different cabins on the ship, been offered a handful of random jobs including a management position, and observed every kind of surgery from hernia repair to maxillofacial. I have a signed, laminated, limited edition photo of the one and only Dr. Gary Parker. I caught our forklift driving off the dock on film and got punched in the neck by Tony Blair. That last part about Blair wasn’t true but I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. One of our galley teams did get to meet him here in Freetown though. And Princess Anne even visited the ship.




Needless to say, it’s been a crazy year. And I’ve got another one on the way. From here (Freetown, Sierra Leone) we sail to Ghana for a few weeks and then to Lome, Togo. From Togo we’ll head to the Canary Islands for a much needed dry dock in June. Then we head to Guinea for another 10-month field service. I’m hoping to release my second book early next year and praying that I’ll be able to make a trip home to see everyone there.

Who knows where else I’ll end up, who I’ll meet, what I’ll ride to get there, or what random illnesses I’ll acquire in the process. All I know is that I’m ready for it to come. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made. For the experiences I’ve had. And for the lessons learned. I’m entering my second year with Mercy Ships with open hands. I expect great things.