Though largely illiterate, Joshua Albert’s praise for Logos Hope made me tremble with excitement.
“Without you all.. for 8 r 10 years, is like living without water.. so sad… really gonna miss you’ll.. may be someday I could join the crew… [sic]” he wrote.
According to the Facebook event I had just stumbled upon, Logos Hope—the world’s largest floating book fair—would be docking in Sri Lanka’s capital after a decade’s absence. The great ship’s visit to Colombo would coincide with my own, and compared to the only other activity I had ever done in the city (been scammed), it sounded utterly fabulous.
For roughly a month, I had been on the road in Sri Lanka and subjected to the usual hostel book-swap tripe—Danielle Steele romances, guides to unlocking your third eye and German translations of Paulo Coehlo novels. My pupils turned heart shaped as I pondered the titles Logos Hope would house.
To remind the world how intellectual and bookish I am, I marked my intention to attend the ship’s docking on its Facebook page and passed the news onto my boyfriend Jasper, whom I had taught to read a few months previous.
“Do you think they’ll have the third Harry Potter?” he asked breathlessly.
“They’ll have the whole collection,” I assured him, “and imagine what else!”
A week later, we found ourselves back in Colombo’s gritty bowels. It was a Poya day—the monthly full-moon public holiday—meaning the sale of alcohol was banned and the majority of retailers and restaurants were closed. Even more reason to load up on novels, we reasoned, and decided we should walk the five kilometres from our accommodation to the port to whet our literary appetites.
Because Jasper’s walking speed is half that of Google Maps, it was 8:30pm by the time we reached the ticket booth, meaning we only had half an hour before the ship shut up for the night. We boarded the Logos Hope shuttle bus anxiously, wondering if we would have enough time to get through everything on board.
“Where are ya’ll from?” beamed a friendly American in the front seat. He had snowy hair and a television smile, and with one glance I could tell he owned at least three yachts. We struck up a conversation with the fellow, who turned out to be the ship’s director. He told us glowing stories of their journeys to exotic ports, where the crew would divide their time between selling books, reading books and volunteering within local communities.
“There are 400 staff from 55 countries on board,” he explained, “most of ‘em about your age. We’ve been in Asia for a year now, and after Sri Lanka, it’s Africa for eight months!” Jasper and I turned to each with shining eyes, exchanging meaningful glances that said, WE SHOULD SIGN UP TO BE CREW!
Our conversation was interrupted by a loud beeping noise that appeared to be emanating from the man’s wristwatch.
“Hello?” he said to the back of his hand. “Sorry,” he mouthed to us across the aisle. “I’ll see y’all on board!”
The ship’s entrance hall looked nothing like a second-hand book store and everything like those souvenir shops you exit Disneyland through, but our smiles didn’t fade. We wove through the sea of Sri Lankans posing with portholes and trying to force their way past security into the cabins, and headed for the books.
At the first shelf, I scooped up the novel nearest to me. It featured a picture of a girl in a bonnet flanked by a flock of a sheep. A Widow’s Hope said the spine. The blurb told the story of a woman who meets Seth – a strong, gentle widower much more interested in tending sheep than finding a new mother for his daughter. “Yet God offers Seth the perfect solution to his problems if he can only open his heart again… and love,” it read.
Confused, I glanced up at the title announcing the section of the library I was in. AMISH ROMANCE. My confusion turned to panic. I looked further around the store.
MY FIRST BIBLE read the neighbouring section.
CHRISTIAN SELF-HELP said another.
PURITAN BIOGRAPHIES read the next.
I walked around the library, my eyes falling on random titles: Dating with Jesus; Extinguishing Lies We Believe with God’s Truth; What we can learn from the Amish…
The word FICTION suddenly loomed out at me, unaccompanied by any religious qualifiers. I ran to it as though I were drowning. The few books it had, though some of them pleasurable yarns, were all deeply religious American classics published at best 120 years ago – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Scarlett Letter and Ben Hurr.
“Jasper,” I said weakly. He was in the R-section looking for Rowling – a completely fruitless mission. “It’s a Christian bookstore.” Jasper looked even more gutted than he had a few days earlier when I had driven our rental car into a flooded ditch.
Grimly, he grabbed my hand and we made our way to the bustling registers to find the exit.
But in order to depart the boat, we had to wander through a winding mural telling an evangelical story known as The Prodigal Son.
“Hi there!” A Welsh lad of 19 wearing a t-shirt, sarong and sandals said, stepping out in front of us and blocking our path. You could tell he was the type of guy who used Jesus as a validation for his fashion choices, and would probably grow up to yell at his dog. We slowed down and reluctantly agreed to let him guide us through the parable.
“There were two brothers. One stayed with his father working hard on the family farm, while the other got his inheritance early and went out to explore the world,” he explained patiently, as if Jasper and I had just turned four. He gestured at the pictures of strippers with pointy breasts and high heels who tempted the wayward brother, and emphasised how bad these women were. “The lost brother drank alcohol! He gambled! He took drugs! Then all his money ran out, so all his friends turned away from him.”
The tale finished with the naughty son running back to his father to beg for forgiveness, which was granted accordingly.
I went to an Anglican school, so had no trouble understanding what this guy was getting at, but the closest Jasper (whose middle names are “River” and “Liahm” if that gives you any idea) has ever gotten to Christianity is dressing up as a nun for Halloween.
“Are you saying,” said Jasper slowly, “that the boy’s father was Jesus?”
“So what have you seen of Colombo?” I interrupted, ignoring the Welsh boy’s pointed remarks.
“Well I’ve not yet been off the boat,” he replied. “We’ve got everything we need on board really. I got off in Malaysia once to buy this sarong.”
“Er… nice” said Jasper. “I guess you’re very busy?”
“Well, today’s been quiet – we’ve only turned over 5000 customers. Normally we get at least 10 000.”
I did the maths in my head: 10 000 people a day x $1 each admission fee + thousands of book sales = squillions of dollars.
“So how much do you get paid?” Jasper inquired.
“Paid?!” asked the boy incredulously. His voice took on a hysterical note. “How could I get paid for helping people? I’d feel terrible! No one gets paid, not even the director or the captain.”
My mind flicked back to the director’s veneers and Google Smartwatch.
“Oh, right, of course,” we mumbled. “Well – see you later!”
“God bless!” he yelled after us desperately.
We marched down the gangway and reboarded the shuttle, the only slumped shoulders on a busload of shopping bags and their delighted owners. But in spite of our rotten luck, our dejectedness soon turned to unbridled laughter.
“Scammed again,” we giggled, reasoning that we hadn’t come off too badly: at least we hadn’t applied to join the crew.