In January 2011, Kwang and I took a 120 day around the world cruise with ms Amsterdam in Holland America from Fort Lauderdale in Florida. On the ship we had about one thousand guests and about four hundred crew members.
Jerry was a professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Stanford before his retirement. On the ship Jerry was having breakfast or lunch together with us quite often. Naturally we are exchanging our travel experiences. Since he and his wife love to travel, they started to go all over the world when they were relatively young, work related or simply for pleasure.
He told us the difficulties he had when tried to reach to the bottom of the Angel Falls in Venezuela while climbing among the tree roots spread like spider webs and small and large boulders on the wet trail. He is really proud of this trip and thought he was one of the few people who went on this at his age.
“We did it.“ Kwang interrupted him and Jerry was quiet with disappointment and surprise. Kwang continued, “Jerry, have you been to Africa?”
“Yes, yes, actually several times in Africa, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa,“ he answered with his eyes blinking. This time Kwang was surprised because of Jerry’s abundant travel experience in Africa. When I listened to their conversation, they were doing a seesaw game just like kids and it was one of the funniest things to watch them with their faces down on the table.
“Did you climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, since you were almost everywhere in Africa?” Kwang waited anxiously for Jerry’s answer.
“No, no, I did not. I have never even met anyone who made it“.
“We did it in 2008,“ Kwang told him and could not hide his excitement.
I jumped into their conversation to separate their seesaw game on the travel experience. Carefully I explained to Jerry how much we are proud of climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro at our age, Kwang was 74 and I was 72. Then gave more details of the journey, for four climbers with two guides and twenty six porters and eight days ascend and two days descend.
The next day with Jerry during lunch time we asked him if he could give us the lectures on religion or philosophy like he did in his classes.
“We have three more months to go on the ship,“ I begged him and Kwang added, “For you it is not difficult. Everything is in your head.“ Kwang touched his head with his middle finger. Jerry hesitated for a few moments and then gave us a positive answer. “Yes, I will do it but it was moré than ten years ago.“
“Thanks, Jerry.” We made chorus to him.
“But I will tell you a story that is more interesting than religion and philosophy. While I was in Ghana in Africa,” Jerry seemed to be organizing his scattered thoughts and continued. My cheeks were supported by my two hands and eyes were riveted on his face in order not to miss any words.
Then immediately I thought about the famous actress, Shirley Temple Black, who had been a movie star and served as ambassador to Ghana under President Gerald Ford.
Through his friend’s invitation Jerry had a chance to visit Accra, the capital city in Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. On weekdays he did work at the cafeteria and on weekends he traveled around the rural area in Ghana. One weekend he headed to Benin in Ghana to visit another friend. Outside, it was sizzling temperature. I could boil eggs with this heat. Jerry mumbled. At the local bus station he took the bus to Benin. To his surprise the bus had quite comfortable seats with air conditioning. All the seats were taken. Luckily, he got the last seat at the window in the back with long seats (big enough to seat five people). He was the only Caucasian among the local people. Everyone was looking at him like he was a monkey in a cage. Their eyes were fixed on Jerry’s face with extremely curious expressions. On Jerry’s right side there was a nice looking young man with a dark complexion. Later Jerry found out he had a sick friend next to him. The young man was taking care of his friend by giving him water and wiping off the sweat on his face. The young man was eager to practice his English with Jerry. His English was good enough that Jerry could understand him well. The people in Ghana have very rare occasions for exchanging conversation with American people. They did casual conversation and Jerry was told that the young man’s destination was also Benin where the bus terminal is and the sick man’s family would be at the bus station to meet them.
During the several hours long ride the friend’s condition was getting worse than before and the young man was giving water to his friend more frequently.
“Your friend is very sick.“ Finally Jerry expressed his deep concern.
“Yes, he is very sick and has AIDS and his family will meet us at the station in Benin.“
For the young man it was not a big deal having a friend with AIDS who is walking the fine line between life and death. Jerry was extremely uncomfortable riding with a seriously ill person with AIDS.
“Mmm, I am very sorry to hear that and hope he gets well soon.“ Jerry expressed his sincere concern to him without showing his uneasiness about the unexpected news. The young man nodded his head with appreciation of Jerry’s concern. The conversation was stopped for a while and Jerry was thinking about AIDS. First of all, he did not pay much attention to the news about AIDS in Africa to the same degree he paid attention on the Middle East as a melting pot, but could remember $25 million assistance for the African AIDS program from the Bush administration and Bill Gates sent several million dollars to the program. And the last unbearably sad stories he remembered were the babies that were born with AIDS virus. Jerry was looking at the scenery outside through the window absent mindedly.
The young man broke the silence. “In about 30 minutes we will arrive in Benin. Why are you going to Benin?“
“Great.“ It was Jerry’s short answer without giving any reason for his going to Benin. Benin was the last destination of this bus and it would return to Accra. At the bus station his friends and the sick person’s mother and other relatives came. Especially his mother was hugging him and sobbing.
With goodbye Jerry left the family for his next adventure.
When Jerry came back to the bus station after his four hour stay around Benin, he found out to his surprise the same bus and same driver was going back to Accra.
“How was the young man who was sick?” Jerry asked the driver as soon as he saw him.
They communicated with each other with a little English and body language.
“He is dead.“
“What? What are you saying?” Jerry continued. “He was ill but not that bad,” Jerry screamed.
The driver continued, “He was dead as soon as he got off the bus and after he hugged his mother.”
Jerry could not believe the driver’s story, absolutely not. He saw the person hugging his mother and her crying voice with joy to see her son again still echoing in his ears.
Oh my God. It could not happen. Jerry repeated again and again, Oh, my God. God, you are so cruel.
The driver continued his story. “He is buried already.“
“What? What did you say?” Jerry shouted with anger .
The driver nodded without any words. “It was only four hours ago.“ Jerry said a word in his mind.
Now Jerry’s voice calmed down and he understood he could not do anything for the family, and the driver continued the story. Jerry did not want to hear or could not bear to hear.
“That’s our tradition. As soon as the people die we bury them without any hesitation or delay,” the driver told him. Jerry could not understand the tradition. It means for everybody or just for AIDS patients? He did not ask any more questions and did not want to know. He just wanted to forget everything that happened on the bus and in Benin. He sat on the wooden bench covering his face with his trembling hands, waiting for the departure of the bus to Accra.
“Kook-Wha, I was with a dying person for several hours on the bus,” he concluded the most interesting story I have ever heard in my life and catching the expressions on his face.
“Life is empty as the famous philosopher told us. And we came in the world with two empty hands and go back to the other world again with empty hands but full of memories and a loving heart.”