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When Travel Raises the Hard Questions

When Travel Raises the Hard Questions

Travel is trendy.

Your local boutique store very likely sells coffee mugs and phone cases printed with “wanderlust” or “the mountains are calling” (insert trendy arrows and geometric designs), and you are tempted to buy these because you want to epitomize intrepidity, even while drinking coffee and scrolling your newsfeed on another mundane Monday at work.

But why do we feel the tug to travel?

I would assume the answer is different for everyone. For me, traveling facilitates my greatest value: learning.

Here are some lessons I learned while traveling:

1. Sometimes it is difficult to see God’s love.

In college, I interned at an orphanage in Guatemala City, Guatemala—a region infamous for corruption and gang violence. Daily, an armed guard helped us cross the street from one side of the orphanage compound—surrounded by a brick wall topped with barbed wire—to the other side of the compound. I chose not to tell my parents about said guard and barbed wire until I arrived home safely.

While there, my job was basically to love those children—children that had been abandoned, abused, and orphaned by unjust violence. The other interns and I spent all of our time with these children—playing games, making bracelets, helping with homework—all with the hope that they would see God’s love pour through us.

And sometimes they did. Sometimes a teen would share her testimony about why she believes in God and trusts in His faithfulness in her life.

But often they didn’t. Often I heard the question—implied, not spoken outright—“if God loves me, why did this happen to me?

And I didn’t have an answer.

2. The nicest people aren’t always the Christian people.

As I finished studying to be a teacher, I was presented with the opportunity to do part of my student teaching experience in Taiwan. I knew very little about the island; so little in fact that I didn’t realize it is an island until a month before leaving. Whoops. I got off the plane and entered a world of rice fields, red lanterns, and Mandarin. Everything seemed a stereotype, yet foreign—as if it were out of a different dimension that I had read about once.

Little by little, I learned. I went to night markets and day markets. I biked everywhere. I drank tea constantly. I learned enough Mandarin to get myself to a restaurant and order food (or point to a picture and say “this please”).

And while I learned, I noticed. How could I not notice? The defining element of culture in Taiwan: people are SO NICE.

Everywhere I went, people came up to me and asked in their very, very broken English, if they could help me. Where was I going? Why was I alone? Could they take me there?

At first, I was afraid. My previous travels had taught me to be on guard, trust no one, watch your purse, actually don’t even carry a purse. But eventually in Taiwan I learned to trust. People were genuinely concerned about me and wanted to help. One time, a woman and her young daughter couldn’t explain to me where I needed to go, and so they literally got on the train with me and took me there!

And the food—oh, the food! Everywhere I went, people were feeding me. Because food is love. Unfortunately, I do not feel loved through tofu, but love is love, and so you smile gratefully and eat as much as you can.

I could tell you story after story of how people touched me with their generosity.

I could also tell you story after story of how I toured temples, observed religious festivals, and saw food offerings—all to serve unknown gods.

These people—these nice, in a way that I had never seen before, people—were quite obviously not Christian. And I found that my childhood assumption was challenged. I found that kindness is not monopolized by Christianity. I found that actually some of the nicest people aren’t Christian at all.

3. Even in the muck, you can praise God.

Some of my in-laws live in Nigeria. When my brother-in-law married a local, we trekked across the globe to celebrate. It was my first trip to Africa, and I was thrilled. A new culture to learn, new family to meet, and new beauty to find.

But what I found shocked me.

Garbage. Everywhere. Even in the capital city, there seemed to be no system for gathering and disposing of waste. These people were granted twenty-first century industrialism without the nineteenth-century industrial age in which to build infrastructure to support the boom. And the result was unsightly.

Corruption. We traveled from the capital to the rural to visit old family homes from 20 years past. On the pot-hole plentiful, dirt roads, we were stopped frequently. Sometimes by armed men in camo uniforms. Sometimes by armed men in plain clothes. And always they demanded our passports, our visas, and a toll to pass. Fearlessly they stood in front of our car (apparently chosen at random from the others on the road), not allowing us to pass until they were satisfied. I’m familiar with tolls. But when I pay a toll to cross the Bay Bridge, I am confident it will be used in full by the state of California. The plain clothes and the negotiated payment did not assure me that our money would reach the Nigerian government.

Poverty. We’ve all seen pictures of “starving children in Africa”, but where I traveled, people were fed, well-fed in fact. They were farmers, eating the fruits of their labor. But their crops kept them, and their children tied to the land. School was an afterthought, higher education a dream, and pursuing a different profession was for the few with connections or wealth. Most experienced poverty of possessions, of house, and of opportunity.

All of this—the garbage, the corruption, and the poverty—were enough to leave any citizen jaded.

But instead these people had such joy!

The people in Nigeria are masters of PRAISE. They sing! They dance! They laugh! They shout in excitement!

At church they dance down the aisle to place their offering in the basket. Where I feel embarrassed and try to quietly blend in, they confidently self-express their hearts, and their hearts are full of PRAISE.

Despite their stricken situation, they praise Jesus because they know He saved them from the sin of this life. They look not to the garbage, the corruption, and the poverty of this world, but rather to the beauty, the peace, and the comfort that awaits them in heaven.

I surround myself with memories of these travels—a Guatemalan rug, two Taiwanese rice hats, Nigerian artwork—partially because it’s trendy (honesty is always the best policy). But mostly because it reminds me of the many times my eyes have been opened, my perspective has been challenged, and I have had the opportunity to learn. Those are experiences that transcend trendy.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Molly tends to get caught up in the moment. Some of her favorite moments involve snuggling with her 3-legged cat, talking about the deep things with real people (as opposed to fake people), reading young adult fiction and drinking coffee that tastes like earth.

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