Apparently everybody is a traveler these days. Or at least wants to be. Reading people’s Instragram descriptions is getting downright formulaic. “Passions: Books, craft beer, traveling,” reads one profile. “Photographer, surfer, world traveler,” says another. “I love art, movies, and traveling,” says yet a third. Travel, travel, travel, bla bla bla . . . bla. And that doesn’t include those that talk about how much they would love to travel, but just don’t ever seem to get around to it. I can’t count how many of my friends have said how they wish they could squeeze into my suitcase and come with me on one of my adventures, or how many have said that they would try to join me at some point. I guess that with my country count currently at 31, I would be considered a “world traveler” of sorts. It’s awesome, actually; I wouldn’t dare complain about the incredible blessings I have experienced. While I’m sure that most of you already know better, I’m also pretty sure that I have friends who honestly think my existence is one constant string of spectacular mountain hikes and tropical sunsets. So before anyone else falls under that illusion, allow me to disclose a few things.
One is that there is an awful lot that I don’t get to do. I watch my friends on Facebook finishing law-school, launching their own breweries, getting married (I am in no rush to get married by the way), and generally “moving up” in the world. But these things require staying in one place, putting in time and effort, and becoming part of one community. For those of us floating around from country to country, these things are not really an option. If I really had my way, I would be making a living coaching soccer and DJing parties (super spiritual pastor’s son that I am). I’ve done both; they were the best jobs I’ve ever had. But to be successful in any field requires staying put, growing roots, and patiently moving up the ladder. I left both behind for a chance to live in the Caribbean. I have no regrets about that choice, but I have neither coached nor rocked a party since.
Another is that like every human being, the other backpackers and I crave affirmation. For some, it comes from the attention and admiration of friends, family, and community. For those always on the go, it often comes from Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and becoming instafamous. And sure, the pictures of foreign street art and people in traditional dress will get some clicks, but only to a point, and only for so long. When 3 months away turns into 12 and friends back home realize this isn’t just a one-time vacation but a lifestyle, “outta sight, outta mind” sets in. Some will simply lose interest, while others just can’t relate. It’s too far outside of their experience, so it doesn’t resonate. Still others will actually feel resentful, as if being “one of them” wasn’t good enough. Either way, the interest will fade. It is inevitable. Yes, there will be other roaming bands of transient friends picked up along the way, but it is always only temporary, never permanent.
Another disclosure is that we’ve shed the old social hierarchy from our home countries only to set up a new one amongst ourselves. At the low end of the totem pole are the short term backpackers simply taking an extended break from their “real lives”. They’ve worked, saved up, and come to play for a while. They’re only low on the ladder because they’re not taking the risks that many of us are, but they’re happy with that, and soon they will return to their homes with a backpack full of dirty clothes, a camera full of amazing pictures and a few cool stories. For those of us actually trying to make a go of it here, things are different. We may occupy higher rungs but we also actually have responsibilities and things to stress over. There’s the struggling wanna-be English teacher (me right now), the established successful English teacher, the hostel and tour company owner/operator, and the bar/nightclub owner.
The latter two of these usually can be seen accompanied by their incredibly attractive South American wives. And at the very top is the shrewd, entrepreneurial genius, who comes up with a totally new idea, and through the perfect mix of hard work, perseverance, and being in the right place at the right time with the right people, puts his idea into practice and strikes gold. After a few years in one place, with a bank account flush with profits, he gets on a plane and jets off to a new place to start the process over again. This is the “one percenter” of young expats. I’ve met one of them. He’s younger than me. He’s been featured in the New York Times. The sanctified sections of my soul are genuinely happy for him and appreciate the services he has brought here. My remaining sin disgracefully covets his success. This is embarrassingly shameful to admit, but it is also true.
And one more thing, sometimes Skype just doesn’t cut it. Last week, I was on top of the world. Everything appeared to be coming together, and I was feeling fabulous. This week has been the opposite. I had it coming, but was hoping I could somehow slip out of a long line of foolish decisions and unwholesome attachments unscathed. God had other plans, and the consequences have been emotionally crippling. 3-year olds need their families. 30-year olds do too. My parents are currently 4,870 miles away, my best friend is 7,009 miles away, and despite being able to see their faces on my screen, I have been feeling every single mile of that distance this week.
So there you have it. My current location, Rio de Janeiro, is an amazing place. They call it the Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City, and I couldn’t agree more. It is also a risky place, glamourous, violent, beautiful, and cruel, with a seemingly personalized selection of temptations for someone like me. So much so that after just one week, I started to doubt that this was actually where God wanted me to be. I even agreed to leave Rio and go to Sao Paulo, and team up with Operation Mobilization’s Brazil office. But it appears that the Lord has closed that door, my planned escape hatch, and I have had to stay to face both my fears and the consequences of my poor choices. I expected a challenge in trying to live here, but I have been faced instead with an entirely different trial. And it has been very hard.
For now, it appears that it will be Rio or bust. It is also entirely touch and go right now. I am committed to pursuing any means the Lord provides for me to be able to stay here, but unless He pulls some rabbits out of a hat, I will have to return home sooner than expected. I know that God is sovereign, but in my own mind, a sooner-than-expected return would be a failed mission. That too, would be very hard.
I am so thankful that many of you are praying for me faithfully. It is a critical comfort and encouragement. Please don’t stop. I need a church here. I need to heal emotionally. I need to be strengthened spiritually. I need to make serious progress in my Portuguese. I need a source of income. I need to not become self-pitying and self-absorbed, but maintain care and concern for the needs of others around me. Above all else, I need to be constantly reminded of who I am and Who I belong to.
God is good. I don’t know his plans for tomorrow, but at least for tonight, I am in Rio de Janeiro, the Marvelous City, and I am very happy to be here. May God bless this adventure.
by Ian Bridgman