I used to think there were two kinds of travel.
Type One: Vacation. On vacation, you sleep in hotels and designated campsites, maybe on a friend’s couch, and collect a mountain of photographs from every waterfall, beach and museum in the guidebook.
Type Two: Mission Trip. On mission trips you pray a lot, walk around in a holy aura, bond with teammates and ultimately achieve the noble goal of changing someone’s life—preferably someone poor and/or very sinful.
I have done my share of each. I have seen the Corn Palace, the Grand Canyon, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, both sides of the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, bison, armadillos, giraffes and flamingos. I have also tarred a roof in the Appalachian mountains, talked about Jesus with strangers in Florida, slapped stucco on a Nicaraguan home, taught in China and handed out Bibles in South Africa.
But the thing is, while we try to put on a holy face for mission trips and save the fun for vacation, the goal of both should come down to one and the same thing: traveling God speed. Whether your travel has the impressive itinerary of passing out apples or tracts to homeless people, building an orphanage, or just visiting your grandmother Ruby in Arizona, you’re going to need the same extra dose of patience on your trip, and it’s just as likely that you might change somebody’s life—starting with your own. Here are some tips for shaping your next trip, whether it’s a Type One, Type Two or somewhere in between.
Plan for people.
Traveling, no matter how exotic, falls flat if it’s not for the people—people who tag along, people you plan to meet and people who pop up in your path. Start by inviting someone to travel with you. Then make a plan to meet someone along the way. Too many spare bedrooms (and floors) in the world go to waste—don’t be afraid to ask to stay a night or two, and let someone show you their favorite insider spots wherever you’re visiting. If you’re hoping for overseas travel, consider organizing a trip around visiting a missionary or organization whose work you appreciate. It’s often much easier and more fun for them to host just one or two people than a large group that’s expecting a heap of work projects lined up. Offer to help, but avoid getting in the way—don’t insist on “doing everything.” Just tag along, watch and listen. It’s good for the budget and good for the soul.
Get off the beaten path.
Starting with those insider tips, make a point of getting out of the usual tourist traps. Most highlights from travel happen by spur-of-the-moment discoveries, so keep your eyes open, slow down and take U-turns. I’ve seen a conversation with a Zambian taxi driver lead to an afternoon in a local boat regatta, and a relationship with a student in China lead to front-row seats at a hip-hop dance competition (complete with television coverage of our attendance). Whether you’re stopping at the Flat-n-Empty Saloon in Nebraska, or the Rat Scurry Hostel in Bulgaria, take time to talk to the locals.
You will forget something.
Let it be. That biblical advice not to worry about what you will eat or drink or wear is good medicine for travel. If packing stresses you out, start by sitting down and making a list. Don’t let yourself put things in (and take things out of) your suitcase for more than an hour without revisiting the list or taking a break. Start a few days before—not a month, or you just end up repacking 50 times; and not a day, or you leave with your brain still on ludicrous speed.
Aim to take as little as possible, and you’ll still probably take too much. If you find yourself always behind a shutter button, try leaving behind your camera. If you take an hour primping every morning, leave behind those gel bottles and hair dryer. If minute-by-minute communication is your breath, consider leaving behind the iPhone and the laptop.
Keep the minor irritations minor.
Make a special spot in your heart that’s ready to hold the rest of you calm when all chaos sets in. On a recent trip to Zambia I failed to bring my camera or any scrap of paper (I was supposed to be writing an article about the trip), and I missed the flight. I sat in the travel agent’s office rescheduling my flight, holding back tears while I frantically called everyone I knew for help. When she printed my new ticket and said in a gentle voice, “It’s almost done,” I felt like I had just endured heart surgery (and I would know, since I’ve actually had heart surgery). And such experiences are good for the heart. When I finished seething in anger, I ended up having a great time. I spent a surprise night’s stay in a distant friend’s parents’ luxurious home, and had some of the most insightful conversation of the whole trip while I waited for the next flight.
Mission trips in particular have a way of pushing people to their limits. When you arrive jet-lagged and dazed at your destination to find that your shower spews dirty cold water for only an hour a day, your host doesn’t actually have any cement for the house you planned to build and there is no bus to the village for another three days, you might feel just a little antsy, and you might just take this out on the first person to cross your path. Stop. Breathe. Remind yourself it’s not about earning a medal in the history of Good Church People; it’s about still loving God and your neighbor along the way of whatever comes.
Look up, look down
Traveling tends to enlarge our view of the world’s uneven spread of wealth. Once you start looking for signs of economic inequality, you’ll spot them whether you’re on your family’s cruise vacation in the Caribbean or an outreach in South Dakota. Let questions roll in your brain. How should Christians handle wealth? How should Christians handle poverty? If you remembered to pack a Bible (or the Gideons have visited your hotel room), pull it out and hunt for answers.
Travel is also a perfect time to gain perspective on your normal existence and pace. Snatch time to reflect. Lie in bed daydreaming as the sun rises, turn down the radio and strike up a deep conversation with your road buddies, or let your brain unwind to the rhythm of a long hike. During those long hours in car, bus or plane, throw out some deep questions about what you see, and sit a bit in each other’s lives. In the New Testament we read that when the disciples had finished their most exciting missionary outreach yet, they came back to meet Jesus and were so busy that “they did not even have a chance to eat.” So Jesus suggested, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31, TNIV). And off they went on a boat ride to a “solitary place.” Nobody recorded what they talked about on that boat ride, but I suspect it was a lot of good debriefing, both silent and in conversation. Whether your day includes sitting in a hut with a woman dying of TB, attending a four-hour business meeting or just soaking in a hot tub, you deserve some time letting your mind simmer on the significant things of life.
Listen to creation singing
The Bible includes plenty of metaphors of clapping trees, skipping mountains, storms, waves, rocks and other unlikely agents having something to say about God. Instead of just posing your friends in front of the waterfall for a photo and hiking on to the next scenic overview, take time to ask yourself, What is all this trying to whisper or shout about the Creator? Read Psalm 29 or 98 to get some ideas. Make a space to be alone with nature—watch ducks, draw wildflowers, stare at the stars, notice the shape of trees or listen to a river. Let nature slow you down and remind you there’s more to life than your immediate concerns. God is with you, right here, right now.
Keep it humble
There’s nothing like sitting down at the bus or airport terminal and overhearing conversations. There are the travelers with sunburned noses, slinging down oversized backpacks and munching energy bars, boasting about bungee-jumping over waterfalls, getting wasted the night before and a laundry list of every other country where they hitched a ride or slept in a backpacker’s hostel. Then there are the older ones, the men with pasty white legs in shorts trying to shush their wives, who are insisting that their new human-sized carved wooden giraffe wrapped in newspaper simply must go on the plane. And there’s the mission-trippers, also with sunburned noses, plus some scratched forearms, suitcases newly emptied of donated school supplies and musical instruments, proudly retelling how miserable the conditions of the people they visited were, how daring their adventures in eating the local mush and squishing spiders.
How silly they all sound, you find yourself thinking—until suddenly you realize you’re one of them: this ugly out-of-place outsider is you, give or take a few details. Be quick to laugh at yourself while traveling, especially after committing your inevitable cultural blunders. And remember you’re not the only one who has ever traveled—nor does travel make you a better person than the people back at home.
Be the Samaritan type
From the start, make up your mind to search out the little places God wanted to use you on this trip. It might be anything from making funny faces for the kid crying in the museum line, to rushing in to help when a storm blows a tree branch on a tent in the next campsite.
Remember that story of the Good Samaritan? Remember the goody-goody churchgoers (synagogue-goers, that is), fresh from religious high, who missed the whole point when they strolled on past the dying man? And remember the nobody outsider who got down off his donkey, took time for the stranger and made a difference? It doesn’t matter what you call your trip—you can choose which kind of traveler you will be.