Let me introduce you to the cast of characters in MARY ME: One Woman’s Incredible Adventure with God. Clive is the farthest to the left. Fiona is the third one in and Graeme is smack dab in the middle wearing a yellow shirt. Anna is to the right of Graeme with a white headband in her hair. Jan’s wearing an aqua blue shirt and plaid shorts. Andrea’s wearing white shorts. My tentmate, Kathy, is the one with the blonde hair behind Andrea and I’m on the far right.
Hot Doris, our fortress-on-wheels pieced together with Mercedes parts, is behind us. She holds twenty-eight seats, twenty-four faced front, and four look back on two square tables in the middle.
We were on what’s called an overland trip. It’s a cheap way to access remote locations. Each traveler purchases a segment of an ongoing trip and joins the group for six weeks or six months.
We explored the countryside from England through Europe into the Middle East and Africa. Salzburg, Thessaloniki, and Cappadocia became real as we pitched our tents and had a look around. In Palmyra, Jordan we pulled up amongst these ruins. Kathy and Clive tugged our packs out of the back locker and threw our tents down off the roof.
Each night, we’d set up our tents and the cooking team for the day would make dinner. After, we’d gather around the fire with a cup of tea. On this particular night, Clive passed a bottle of brown liquid around, and said, “We’re going to get to know each other tonight. Here’s the deal: you answer a personal question or take a shot.”
We played that game a lot. It helped us to bond.
Out in public, one of the group members would scream, “Dead ant!’
And we’d drop to the ground and act like, well, dead ants, lying on our backs with our arms and legs curled. Here we are on top of Mt. Sinai.
We each had jobs. One of mine was to shop for bulk food in major cities. Here, we’re in Cairo on our way to the market.
We took 3 weeks to get through the Sudanese desert because we kept getting stuck in the sand. We’d coax and prod Hot Doris along by placing sand mats—strips of metal sheeting—in front of her tires and run alongside to keep her from bogging down. One day, it took us twelve hours to go two miles.
Clive backed Hot Doris onto this boat. I thought for sure we would sink! Then out of the blue, a fish jumped on board. Shane grabbed it, cut off its head, and stuck it in the refrigerator for dinner. The helmsman tried to charge him for it. I can’t remember how that turned out.
Everywhere we went, we gathered a crowd. Usually, the locals had something to sell. Fresh nuts or bananas. There’s one delicacy I’ll never forget. As I peered into bowl after bowl, choosing my next snack, I screamed when I looked down at one filled with writhing maggots, scared the poor boy who was just trying to make a living.
When we were in countries where we spoke the same language, I loved getting to know the locals. In Uganda, I met Mimi in the campground bathroom. I asked her if she knew anyone who could braid my hair. She said she would. By the end of the day, she’d braided hair for 13 of us and made a nice day’s wage.
So she took me and Kathy into the market and showed us around. She bought henna dye to put on our hands and feet as a thank-you gift for all the business we bought her. She introduced us to some local prostitutes that had fancy designs on their hands.
And then she did basic designs on ours. She presented me with a vial of yummy perfume that she rubbed on the henna after it dried, said, “This is what we do when we’re getting married!”
We’d pull up at local watering holes to fill the tanks on the truck. That’s when I caught sight of them, the women at the well, just like the ones I’d learned about growing up in Sunday school.
Can you tell I’m a little nervous here? I’d just peered inside Mount Nyiragongo and noticed the volcano was smoking. If I had to put a caption on this picture, it’d be: “Should we be up here?”
The next day, after a magical hour of hiking, we burst in on an African gorilla family, a momma, a baby, two sub-adults, and a silverback! The guide held us back with his knife and put his finger to his lips. Very slowly, we lowered ourselves amongst them.
Then he grabbed my arm and pushed me toward the big guy. Really? A bucket list item, for sure. I snuggled in next to him as Kathy took this picture, but when I pet his arm, the guide made a funny sound with his mouth I’m not sure I can replicate. I got the message, though, and buried myself in the middle of our group before anything else happened.
As soon as Clive saw us coming down the path the following morning, he said, “Jump on board, we’ve got to make time.”
“Why the rush?” I asked, my head still swimming with thoughts about recent experiences.
“We’ve got to reach the campsite in Kinshasa near the Congo River,” Clive said. “You’ll board a flotilla in the morning and ride all day. I’ll pick you up in Kisangani before nightfall.”
“Five barges tied together. It’s a floating market. You’ll love it.”
As we climbed on board the crowded platform, a woman called our attention to a large cluster of fruit cut fresh from the tree. “Bananas!” And what was that smell?
Fish! They were piled in a slippery heap. Another woman filled an empty can with water and handed it to her friend who bathed her kids. A man tried on a pair of pants from a mound of clothing. Just like we’d do inside a dressing room, he turned this way and that looking into the mirror of the faces around him as he contemplated a purchase. Men danced and chanted to the beat of a drum, always the African drum.
Everyone peddled their wares while transporting them downstream. One man put a small black monkey with a white beard into my hands. Instantly, I fell in love.
Of course, later that night, Clive said, “You can have a monkey” so I was on the lookout for another.
Thank God I didn’t find one!
A few days later, the guide at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve told us they’d have confiscated him and charged me $5,000. Then he took us on a short hike through the forest into a pygmy village where we found 6 mud huts huddled in a circle. Like the one you see here:
Later in the day, the guide herded me toward a hut with his machete. I jumped out of the way. He laughed and pointed at what he was trying to show me. Inside a hut, an older pygmy nursed a newborn.
I pointed inside, “Mother?”
“No,” he shook his head and pointed to a young girl sitting by the fire. Across from her stood a young boy. I pointed at him and asked, “Father?”
He agreed, I think.
That night, I tried to balance on a chair, or rather a tripod made out of three sticks which had been tied together and strategically twisted to hold the weight of a human being or at least a pygmy. I wanted to hang with them, but they retreated to their own small fires.
Disappointed, I realized, We’re only a job. But not to the tiny kids. After their mothers fed them, they came back to us. We held them on our laps and sang, “Old MacDonald had a farm,” making animal sounds they’d recognize. “With an oink, oink here and an oink, oink there.” Though they didn’t speak English and had no idea what they were singing, they replicated what they heard and imitated the creatures perfectly. They sang with us, then for us until bedtime.
Another day, Clive pulled the truck over to the side of the road for lunch.
While the cooking team pulled our meal together, some climbed the tree.
And that’s when it happened. A sentence traipsed through my brain . . .
This truck is going to be in an accident.
A train of thought is usually connected, but not this time. Since I’d been directing my attention, well, up there, I assumed it came from God.
So, what was I supposed to do?
“Get off the bus.” Was that a given? And where should I go?
I was simply told it would happen, and I had to make my own choice.
Today, I’ve learned. I’d warn everyone and encourage the leaders to pull off the road for an early day. I’d get off by myself if I had to.
Hours later, inside the emergency room, a nurse stitched up my hand and my head then x-rayed my back and my knee but refused to give me painkillers. “You might have a concussion,” she explained as she wheeled me to a ward and put me to bed. The next day,
In the whirlwind of the next few days, there weren’t any quiet nights to escape and sit under the stars when I needed it most. Mom’s voice echoed in my head, “You’re coming home.”
“I’m not leaving my friends,” I’d told her on the phone. This accident glued our team together. I needed to stay.
But my back hurt, and no one knew why. And I wanted to feel my fingers again. So, when I heard her voice in my head repeat, “You’re coming home,” I thought, Should I? Wavering, I stared at Clive. My internal thoughts wouldn’t shut up.
After Clive left, I muttered, “I think I’m going home.”
Knowing my ambivalence, Kathy said, “I don’t think you should.”
“Are you going because of your mom?” She looked me in the eye. “Eh?”
“No,” I glanced down.
“Your friends?” She didn’t waver.
“Nope,” I answered not only Kathy but also myself.
Then she nailed it, “Are you going because you want to?”
“Wow, you’re good! No, not want to, but I am choosing to get the medical help I need. Then I’ll come back.” Boy, did that feel freeing, making a decision of my own.
But two days later, as we sat in the bar before I left, there I was again, wondering if I was doing the right thing . . .
And then it was time. At the airport, the good-byes hurt more than the injuries. Not knowing how to deal with all the emotion, I focused on the five copper bracelets Clive wore. Driving south, I’d collected similar ones, twenty-five cents each. With the intention of reselling his in the UK, he bought them en masse. So, he paid only ten cents apiece because he’d purchased so many. He’d given me a hard time paying so much for mine. In the accident, his scattered. These were all he had left.
“Pretty expensive trinkets you’ve got there,” I couldn’t resist. “What’re they, twenty bucks each?” We smiled, looked into each others’ eyes, and said more without words than we ever could with them.
“You can stay.” Clive reached for my hand. As my departure drew near, we hugged without any more words but way too many feelings.
Six weeks later, back in America, Sue, my bulk-food mentor from the Africa trip, called, “Oy, mate!”
Just the pick-me-up I needed. “Where are you?”
“Connecticut on Saturday.”
“Are you kidding?” I scrambled for a pen and some paper.
“I’m interviewing for a cook’s position on a charter sailboat heading to the Caribbean. Can you meet for lunch?”
“Better believe it.” I squirmed with more than a little jealousy. “The Caribbean?”
As I walked in the door of the address Sue gave me, I heard a man’s voice say, “The job’s yours if you want it.”
I smiled wistfully, happy for Sue as she introduced us. But over lunch, I could barely focus as she told me about the offer and all the travel it included. While I re-acclimated into small-town life, she was off on another adventure.
Heading back to the parking lot, we passed Captain Bill on the street. He looked at me and said, “With a crew of four, we could sure use help. Do you want to come?”
Sail. To St. Thomas? I grabbed Sue. “Is he serious?”
“I am!” He winked.
Like a get-out-of-jail-free card, his words caused an instant dance party. And just like that, we were off on another adventure. “So, fill me in.” I leaned closer and asked Sue, “Why’s this boat in Connecticut if they charter out of St. Thomas?”
“Last year,” Sue said, “They beached the boat. You never want to do that.”
“Just out of curiosity,” I grabbed her arm. “When’s hurricane season?”
“Starts next week.”
“You better be joking!” A catchy beat initiated our move to the dance floor. I slid from my stool, glad to ditch that conversation. As I passed Captain Bill, I heard him brag, “I found four pretty girls to crew for me.”
Was that the standard he used to hire? Uh oh!
At first, it was adventurous, wearing a leash on so we wouldn’t fall overboard.
Then things started to get a little hairy . . .
As long as Sue didn’t freak, I was good. She was my rock. This time, though, I saw my fear mirrored on her face. When Bill asked her to cover the helm, she refused, “I can’t do it, and I’m not going to pretend I can.”
“Well, who else is there?” Bill retorted, and that’s when I lost it. Screaming in my head, I stumbled downstairs. Through the porthole in the ceiling, I could see him dangling from the mast out over the now dark sea. I shook my head. How would we live through this?
With the boat at a ninety-degree angle, I planted my feet shoulder-length apart, braced myself against the wall, holding tightly to the bunk above so I wouldn’t fall into the sloshing water below. I pulled my lips over my teeth and bit hard when that threatening voice inside took up a chant, “We’re gonna die. We’re gonna die.”
The boat rose, pitched, and then fell as the bottom dropped out from underneath us. I placed my weight on one foot then the other, the only version of rocking or self-soothing I could muster. Just when I thought we were going down, I crumbled. The boat can’t handle this. It’s going to fall apart.
“God, if You save me, I’ll do whatever You want!” I whimpered in desperation.
And that’s when my life changed.
In a whole new world, life got even more adventurous with God.
One night, I had dinner with a man named Alan. I’d been telling him about my job search and he asked, “Why do you think you’re here?” as he cut a large piece of salmon in two.
And then, as he handed me a plate. “What do you like to do?”
“Take care of animals, shop, run errands, care for the elderly, and help people write their stories.”
“That’s your job description.” He pointed his knife at me. “Go get a business license.”
“The list of things I like to do is my job description?” I perked up. “Can I make a living doing that?” It was definitely worth a try.
Within a month, I’d made a plan, printed flyers, and gone to a class at the small business development center. Then I birthed Service with a Smile with its vague name because I bristled at the thought of being labeled or limited to a piece of me that could be criticized and rejected, leaving me isolated, lonely, or unloved.
There it was again. The reason I included, well, everything I had to offer.
I accepted almost any job, dressing as Barney for a kid’s birthday party and passing out candy at the mall as the Easter Bunny.
Why was that different than the others? Well, I could copy the TV show and get away with my impression of the purple dinosaur or love on the kids as the Easter Bunny, but people expect more from a clown. They expect goofiness, tricks, and persona. Without that, I felt like a fraud. I found out that in my pursuit for happiness, authenticity was essential.
I needed to be true to myself.
As I practiced making balloon animals in the birch syrup booth at the Saturday market, an elderly black woman teetered over, surrounded by two large bodyguards. I held out a taste. “A hundred gallons of sap boils down to one to make this unique Alaskan product.”
“I’ll take a bottle.” She reached into her purse for twelve dollars. We made our exchange, and she moved on. Seconds later, a young reporter shoved a microphone in my face. “What’s she like?”
“Who?” I restocked samples.
Simultaneously, everyone around me yelled, “Ro-o-osa Parks!”
How did I miss that? If I hadn’t been so busy working 84 hours a week, I might have noticed it was Rosa Parks Day, and she was our guest. Afraid of too little income, I took on too much until everything around me kept reinforcing this point.
So, I wrote a letter to God and asked Him what He thought I should do, and that’s when things got really wild . . .