Wednesday, March 4, 2015

My Circumnavigation of the World


All-consuming fear

          The first leg of my circumnavigation of the world was indeed the very first time I had flown alone. I was to go to Singapore for a two-year volunteer mission for my church. I’d be stopping for three weeks at Salt Lake City for training. It would take three flights to reach Salt Lake, during which, I would have to find my way around three foreign airports. Alone. Admittedly, I was a terrified 19-year-old. I said goodbye to my family and departed from Birmingham International Airport on an American Airlines jet with a tear in my eye as I looked out of my seat window to the airport, realizing I would not see my mum again for two years.

Here I am with my family at Birmingham International Airport, moments before I said goodbye

          The only memory I have of this particular journey was that the plane was less than half full. An air stewardess told me that I could take a whole row of seats for myself and enjoy the flight. But the fear of arriving alone at a foreign airport was all-consuming.

Terribly intimidated

          The memory of landing at Chicago O’Hare International Airport is extremely thin. What I do recollect is feeling awfully lost and terribly intimidated at the immigration counters. I hadn’t filled in the entry card correctly and had left a number of details blank. The officer bluntly ordered me away to complete the form as police all dressed up for war stared me down. I was a complete newbie and I was under a lot of pressure.
          Of course, this was USA in June 2002, just nine months on from the 9/11 terror attacks, so airports were on red alert and I was treated just like every other traveller – guilty until I had been mentally interrogated, body and bags had been scanned and searched, and all had been declared safe – or so it seemed. But given the new wave of terror freshly dusted in the USA, I couldn’t blame them.
          I eventually got through immigration, and so deep were the impressions on my mind, I could barely concentrate to read my boarding pass correctly. I momentarily panicked when I thought I was lost, but after asking around, I found people to be quite helpful. I was in good time for my next flight.

Three back-to-back flights

          It had been a beautiful day in America since I entered its airspace from high above the Atlantic Ocean. I was slightly more confident that I could find my way through Dallas Fort Worth after touching down in Texas from Chicago. Making sure that I was on time for three back-to-back flights in the same day occupied all of my attention, so my memory of the small things has regrettably faded. I’m sure I called home in Chicago to tell my mum I was fine and had landed safely in America. As for Dallas Fort Worth, things moved by quickly and I was soon on the plane again, this time to Salt Lake City, my destination for the next three weeks.

Indescribable relief

          I touched down safely in Salt Lake City and praised the Lord. Three flights had taken me from England, across the Atlantic and almost the entire land mass of the United States of America. Eight time zones in all. It was now night time and nearing the end of a very long and tiring day.
          Now, I was supposed to be met by a friend, Nate, at SLC airport. I had met all my scheduled flights and collected my luggage. Then I waited where I thought we were supposed to meet. Ten minutes passed with no sign of Nate. I began to grow worried. I went to a nearby payphone and called my mum in England. I must have sounded desperate by this time! She told me she’d try and contact Nate to check where he is. I suddenly felt homeless and helpless in a foreign country. There I was standing in an airport over 8,000km away from home with two large suitcases wondering where I was going to sleep that night. Waiting for a pick-up may seem a trivial matter, but to this nineteen-year-old jetting the globe in solitary company, it was a matter of life and death. Well, my despair was short-lived because Nate soon arrived apologizing for being late. My relief was indescribable. I had completed my lonely journey from Birmingham, England to Salt Lake City, USA on a lengthy Tuesday 18th June, 2002.

Horrific howling

          The night of Tuesday 18th June, 2002 was spent at Nate’s house. 

Here I am checking in at the Provo Missionary Training Centre (MTC) the following afternoon. I look so young and inexperienced

My circumnavigation of the globe would continue just under 3 weeks later. 

Here’s another picture of me shortly before leaving the MTC. A friend and I point to the next point of embarkation on our journey, the fantastic island city of Singapore


          On Monday 8th July, 2002, after nineteen days of training in Provo, I resumed my adventure with several fellow-volunteers. It sure was a whole lot more exciting and reassuring to finally be flying in the company of some friends. We took the short flight from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, a major airport with a 3km-long runway, standing as the hub for huge trans-Pacific air voyages.

  An aerial view of San Francisco’s main airport

          From there we flew on a United Airlines plane to Hong Kong. There was an extremely scary moment somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when we encountered some severe turbulence. The plane was rolling left and right, each wing in turn being forced up at 45 degree angles. Matthew Lee, sitting beside me, spilt his orange juice all over his trousers during the commotion. It would have been funny but for the horrific howling and wailing of a Chinese-looking lady in the window row beside us. A male companion was trying to calm her down but to no avail. It was like a scene from a movie, but fortunately this lady’s screams were an isolated case. After a few minutes of wild turbulence, the pilot made an obvious right turn and an increase in altitude as the cries ceased and normal service was resumed.
          It is difficult to catch up with the pilots who navigate our flights. I have managed it just once in my life. I would have liked to have thanked the pilot who skillfully controlled my flight to Hong Kong.

 The typical flight path from San Francisco to Hong Kong

Immediately felt at home

          Matthew, my friend who unfortunately spilt orange juice down his trousers 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, was having more problems at Hong Kong International Airport. He discovered that he had given in his boarding pass to Singapore at San Francisco, so he and Jacob Brown had to go off and explain the situation. We spent the next half an hour looking for them around the airport only to find that they had already checked in and were waiting for us.

Here I am at Hong Kong International Airport:

          The Hong Kong to Singapore flight was turbulent in patches but not to the extent of our trans-Pacific experience. Furthermore, this was the last leg of my circumnavigation of the world for around two years.

An aerial view of Singapore’s Changi airport

          Arriving at Changi airport represented the half-way mark. We got through immigration at Changi at around 1am local time on Wednesday 10th July, 2002. I remember the balmy heat hitting me like a brick wall when the doors to the night air opened. Warm at the dead of night! We were tired and groggy when our Mission President, Joseph Flake Boone, greeted us in the arrivals hall. He was dressed in a shirt and tie with immaculately kept hair and had the warmest smile, welcoming yet conservative, and I immediately felt right at home on the other side of the planet – for the first time since I left England in June.
          We were soon taken to our accommodation for the night. I was to spend the next two years in volunteer service briefly in Singapore, and more prominently in Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. The adventures, stories, heartaches, joys and personal growth I experienced in those two years filled four volumes.

A map of my home for two years in South-east Asia


 Some of my friends who travelled with me from Salt Lake City to Singapore. L-R: Jacob Brown, Neal Solomon, Me, Micheal Hubbard, Matthew Lee:

Leaving my Asian home

          The two halves of my round-the-world journey were the slices of bread that held the much larger filling of two years of volunteer service to the people of Malaysia and Singapore. The sandwich wouldn’t be of any nutrition without that filling, and suffice it to say, it was delicious beyond anything I had ever tasted.
Three friends accompanied me to Singapore’s Changi airport on the night of Wednesday 23rd June, 2004. If I could, I would have gladly quit my circumnavigation of the world right there in Singapore. Two years since arriving in South-east Asia, I did not want to leave because I had fallen in love with the place, the people, the food, everything. Malaysia and Singapore had captured my heart and I had never felt more at home than where I was right then. I had gained a whole new circle of beautiful friends in Petaling Jaya, Klang, Ipoh, Sitiawan, Kuching (all Malaysia) and Singapore.
          Two years ago, as I left England for America, I was filled with a fear of flying alone into the unknown. But it was even harder leaving my Asian home on this particular night.
          My friends and I had a Burger King meal at the airport and took photos together before my departure. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t enjoy a Burger King. There was just an empty feeling deep down in the pit of my stomach, more mental and emotional than physical, and it ached. It ached and ached. It was similar to the butterflies in the stomach associated with nervousness; slightly nauseous would be the best way to describe it.


With a couple of friends shortly before my departure from Changi airport, Singapore: (L-R: Micheal Hubbard, Me, Jake Claus)

I had accumulated a lot of stuff during my stint in Asia and I was 30kg overweight in baggage. The airport was ready to charge me 1,635 Singapore dollars! It was fortunate that I had already planned a trip back to Singapore the following month with my family, so I was able to leave one suitcase with my friend in Singapore and collect it the next month. That was definitely a moment where I was thankful to have good friends around and a family who had planned to come and see my Asian home. A wonderful piece of good fortune, as many of my fellow-volunteers have never returned to this part of the world.
          So I rearranged my suitcases right there in the airport and put all the important stuff in the one I was taking with me.
          When I reached the gate for departure, I saw my plane waiting outside. Qantas Airlines. An absolute beast! What a sight! The flight was slightly delayed so by the time of departure, it was already after midnight. That would have consequences for the final leg of my journey. The take-off was so smooth that I couldn’t feel it leaving the runway – the same could be said of the landing in Frankfurt, Germany twelve hours later. The smoothness of the flight and the pleasant company of the many Germans on board unfortunately didn’t match my desire to be on it.

My heart was left behind

Frankfurt airport in Germany was the most difficult airport to get around that I experienced on my circumnavigation of the globe. With no signage in English, it required asking people/airport staff for directions. My delayed flight from Singapore had landed at 7am local time and given me just 30 minutes until my connecting flight departed. There was no way I was going to make it!

An aerial view of Frankfurt airport in Germany

I managed to rearrange my journey back to England for the next flight at 11am. It gave me plenty of time to find my way around the German labyrinth. I also called Birmingham International Airport and left a message for my mum, Joanna, who would be waiting there wondering why I wasn’t on my scheduled flight.
I did bump into a lovely family from Montana at Frankfurt airport (see picture below) and discovered that we belonged to the same church, albeit in different countries. It’s nice when that happens!

We had to walk from our departure gate to the airplane – myself and around two dozen others. The walk seemed endless. Finally we arrived at a tiny propeller plane and my heart sank.
          My head was at an angle as I squeezed into the cabin in my seat. A little cramped for my liking but it was going to get me home. During the ascent I could dizzyingly feel the plane moving up through all the altitude levels which made my head throb each time. The air stewardess asked me if I wanted an orange juice. Afraid of bringing it straight back up, I politely passed!
          After a short flight I touched down where I started two years ago – Birmingham International Airport. I was genuinely happy to see my mum again, yet I was also authentically dejected to be in England. It was one of the weirdest feelings I’ve ever experienced. To have spent two years in the exclusive service of others and to have loved every minute of that time, then two flights later to have been stripped bare of all the beautiful duties of that work was a pill that I was trying to swallow but having trouble getting it down my throat. I didn’t know whether to smile or sob. I think I ended up doing something rather boring in between.

The cold chill when alighting the small British Airways propeller plane was a harsh reminder that the warm tropical climate I had so loved was now a world away, and I have to report that during my circumnavigation of the world, my heart was left behind in South-east Asia.


  1. Oh my goodness, this pulls at my heart strings Duncan. How I cried when you left. And cried. And cried. And cried. For ten hours straight. I cried every day for a year because I missed your physical presence so much. I knew you were doing what you were destined to do and I was pleased about that but I never realised what a wrench it would be for me. I knew about three months into your missionary service that you were in love with Malaysia. I had an inkling then that I'd lost you forever to that land, so far away, that we never knew about before 2002.
    I knew that coming "home" for you in 2004 was much harder than leaving home two years earlier. I felt the pain of your loss and I knew you wouldn't stay in England for long.
    It was fabulous to make that journey back with you in August of 2004. Seeing how everyone loved you so much confirmed to me that Malaysia was your future. And indeed it has become your future. I do still miss your physical presence but visiting periodically is so exciting.
    November cannot come soon enough for me to welcome you back home, albeit for a short time.
    I love you Duncan. I always have and I always will.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your story Duncan and j'adore your Mum's comment above. I know exactly how she feels as my son and family live in Sydney.. Once you've found your place in the world that's it, nowhere else feels lime home :)

  3. Great post! Glad you shared this adventure.

  4. I am glad you went on a mission. If not, there won't be US! Hihi love you babe!

  5. Nice one Duncan, Love the story so far and of course I know you happy now with your lovely family in Kuantan.

    Although I have not been on here much I have always followed you and done many replies via the apps but not sure if they show up with you.

    But thanks for sharing and how about that brother of yours. you were like book ends so alike..

    Regards your mate John in Johor Bahru.....


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