Floating book fair: Hope on a ship


Mehmudah Rehman

DUBAI: Visiting Logos Hope and meeting her crew was every bit as enlightening and enjoyable an experience as I had hoped it would be. For the uninitiated, Logos Hope is a vessel owned and operated by GBA Ships e. V., a German non-profit organisation. Nearly four decades ago, GBA Ships decided to bring the written word to the ports of the world through their floating book fairs.

Since 1970, their ships have made over 1,400 port visits in 162 countries and have welcomed over 400 million visitors on board. Not only does the crew bring a floating book fair, they also carry out charitable activities and on a large scale and organise events at every port that they dock at. Logos (a Greek word meaning ‘word’) Hope is the company’s newest acquisition, and it happens to be the largest floating book fair in the world. Run entirely by a group of 400 volunteers, the vessel is currently docked in Dubai, and will be here until February 5, after which it will depart for Abu Dhabi.

I walk up the stairs into the ship and I am received on board by a smiling crew member. “Welcome!” she says to all visitors and ushers them inside to the book fair. I enter a large hall with a wooden floor that carries a delightful collection of more than 7,000 books mainly from Europe and the United States, as well as some local language books, in this instance Arabic.

All genres including fiction, children’s books, self-help, self-development, cookbooks and course books and so on are neatly stacked on the shelves. The books are priced through a unique unit system by which the crew need not price the books for every port. A book may be priced at 10 units – which might mean 10 dirhams in Dubai, or 20 rupees in India. By simply applying a reasonable conversion rate to the units, the books are kept accessible to everyone. This is especially useful when selling books in various countries. For instance, what would be a reasonable price in Dubai might be an exorbitant one in Ghana hence the method of unit-pricing is quite useful.

After half-an-hour of window-shopping at the book fair (and wanting to purchase nearly everything) ,I think of my impossibly cramped tiny bookshelf and am content with buying just one: “Tasty Low Fat Cooking.” (I am hoping the bright pictures and recipes will magically improve my kitchen-related disasters). I find that the only part open to the public is the deck which holds the book fair and the adjoining coffee shop.

Soon I meet with Jessie LaPlue, the media relations officer for Logos Hope, who has been on the ship for a year now. She is a young American who offers to take me around the ship. I am only too eager and we walk through the ‘authorised only’ door into the other decks. Logos Hope is an enormous ship with seven decks and I find myself in a real maze of staircases and doors.

“The easiest way to get lost on a ship is to take the wrong staircase,” quips Jessie, noticing that I am observing everything with a confused look on my face.

Suddenly we are another world as Jessie expertly weaves through the labyrinth of staircases and leads me to the deck outside. I am stunned by the view of a glittering Dubai skyline against the waters and a grand Queen Elizabeth II nearby (also docked at Dubai) and wonder what it would be like if we were actually sailing. I have vivid recollections of the Titanic as I see the life boats, rafts and finally the bridge (similar to the cockpit of a plane) where the captain commands the ship when she is sailing. We walk back inside and see the huge dining hall which accommodates all four hundred passengers at the same time.

So what drives all these people, all 400 of them, to serve on a ship for two years as volunteers? “Primarily,” LaPlue insists, “it is the feeling of being able to make a difference, to bring a smile to the faces of disenfranchised people.”

Not only does Logos Hope bring reasonably priced books (at a fraction of their original price) to far-flung nations such as Ghana, Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it also conducts a great amount of charitable work on each port that it docks at. The crew distributed medical aid, food supplies and literature suitable for children in Guyana in 2009, while in West Africa in 2010, over 900 eye-examinations were completed and hundreds were treated in dental clinics. In Liberia in 2010, the crew helped rebuild orphanages, provided computer training to young people and distributed 50,000 books to community groups and colleges. In Sierra Leone in the same year, the crew donated 1,300 books to help establish 13 new library branches in rural areas. Their work has been commendable and LaPlue explains that two years on board a Logos ship can have an impact on you for life.

“It’s been a fascinating experience, really,” LaPlue says. “To be able to bring books and hope to people in West Africa, for instance was wonderful. There were queues of people who had never had access to books outside the ship, just wanting to catch a glimpse of the book fair,” she reminisces.

“Moreover, you get a chance to sample so many cultures on board without actually living in any country because the community aboard is truly international with almost 50 nationalities, and you get the chance to visit so many locations across the globe”.

I wonder if traveling to different lands and working abroad the Logos Hope is glamorous – anything like being on a cruise? “Oh no! Not glamorous at all! Remember we are volunteers (from the captain to the cooks) from different nations and each person on the boat has a task. Some are responsible for laundry and cleaning, some attend to the galley (ship kitchen) and some work in the engineering department, while some serve as doctors and so on. But since no one here is paid for their services, we do not have a hierarchy. Living on this ship for two years is all about compromising on your needs, adapting to others, and most of all having a true passion to serve. For, if you become a crew member just to travel and don’t truly desire to give of yourself, there is no way you can last for more than a month here.”

There is a very slow internet connection that runs throughout the ship, and if they are lucky, they sometimes get one news channel on TV. LaPlue tells me how the food can become tiresomely repetitive and that you sometimes wish for something other than the boring menu on board.

Families are missed and remembered by those who have left their dear ones back home, but a lot of passengers come with their children. “We’ve got about 30 children on board,” says LaPlue who herself has an ‘adopted’ family on the ship. I meet her ‘father’ from the Netherlands who explains that people on the ship usually form close friendships and adopt families. But there must be rivalries and enmities too? A department has been created that caters specifically to people management and unpleasant incidents which are unavoidable over a long period of time.

How does one go about registering as a volunteer? “Anyone above 18, who is of sound health and willing to work as a volunteer is welcome to apply. Rigorous examinations are carried out to ensure that the individual is healthy and extensive training in the water is then carried out before we set sail. To anyone who is eager to serve the people of the world, the website is a good place to start the procedure,” says LaPlue.