When I was in college I spent a summer in Asia as a missionary. Five other college students from across Louisiana, plus me and a chaperone, made up our team. If you want the Executive Summary of that experience here it is: Asia changed me more than I changed it. (By the way, I was a missionary in a country that doesn’t allow missionaries which is why I don’t name the country on this website. It’s a really big country and we love their buffets.)
During that summer we used every mode of travel other than living animals. In one leg of the journey we had a translator buy us train tickets from the province’s capital to an outlying village. It was tickets on the Fast Train that only hit major hubs, as opposed to the Slow Train that stopped in every village. We were supposed to arrive at our destination at 1pm. At every stop the train’s PA system would squawk the destination so we would listen to the incoherent language and match the word from the announcer with the Romanized lettering on the station’s signs.
At 1:30 we all started to get a little concerned since we were certain that we hadn’t passed our station. I drew a clock on a piece of paper with the current time on the face as well as the name of the village. I drew next to it a clock with a blank face and wrote the name of our destination city beneath it. I handed the paper to a server on the train.
She drew 3:00 on the watch face.
We were going to be getting to the village two hours later than we were expected.
We had our contact’s name but no address, phone number, or anything else. At that point, every one of us started to freak out. Not one of us made a sound but you could tell we were all on edge. For me, it was a swirling vortex of anxiety that centered on my chest muscles.
When we arrived at our destination we all trudged through the train station and walked out to the courtyard/taxi area up front. All of us slowly scanned the crowd, desperately searching for a white face amidst the sea of Asians. There was no white face and we didn’t speak the local language. We just stood there for a while, staring at nothing and not moving.
A man with a taxi-van made a guttural sound to get our attention and motioned for us to get into his taxi. Like scared, obedient dogs, we walked over and piled in. As we bounced down the potholed road, one of the ladies in the group timidly asked our leader, “Do you know where we are going?”
Our leader glanced back and said, “No.”
We stopped in front of a building that said hotel, guest house, or something else like that in English on the front of it. We walked in and sat in the lobby while our leader went to the desk, where she met an attendant who didn’t speak English.
A few minutes later a white lady showed up. Once we were in our rooms our leader broke down in tears of relief. After our leader had gathered her composure, our host in the city told us her side of the story. When no one showed up on the 1pm train she went home. When we showed up at the hotel the women behind the counter knew the two white people in town, so she called the Brit to see if we were his friends. When he said no they called the American. She immediately came to meet us.
All that worrying on my part had been for nothing. It didn’t get us there faster. It didn’t make the person show up for the later train. It didn’t make me magically speak the local language. All it did was keep me from enjoying the journey.