As several subscribers were writing to me about summer travel plans, WORLD subscriber Phil Joseph of Milton, Ga., made a request. He read a column of mine ("Halloween's real ghouls," Nov. 17, 2012) that mentioned old Communist prisons I had visited in Eastern Europe and Asia, and wrote, “My work has taken me to many parts of the world, but it never occurred to me to try to visit places like this. … I would love to have a list of [such] places to visit and why. … Suddenly the routine business trip becomes a much more exciting adventure. … The result would be a deepening of my appreciation for the world and everything in it.”
It’s a great idea to add a stop or two to a routine business trip, but a list of the sort Phil wants is beyond my reach. With support from a foundation grant, I’ve written lots of international stories yet have still only seen small parts of 47 countries, so we need “crowd sourcing”: Please send brief travel recommendations to email@example.com. Later on this year we plan to set up a travel forum at Worldmag.com on which individuals can post their recommendations in three categories.
The three categories emerge from a basic question: Why travel? Adventure, for sure—but seeing more of the world (like tracking more of the news) shows us (1) God’s love, (2) man’s idol worship, and (3) the creativity of God and of man created in His image. Some of my Category 1 visits came about through reporting, but non-journalists can also go behind the scenes by contacting ministries and missionaries whom they support. Travel to sites in my second and third categories sometimes require visas but no special permission beyond that. Here are five visits in each category.
Category 1: How God (through His people) shows love in the world
1. Observe at an Ethiopian cleft palate clinic: Twenty children came to a C.U.R.E. International hospital in Addis Ababa to be appraised by plastic surgeon Saul Lim. He examined them, gave them the good news that he could help physically, and gave a spiritual explanation for his presence: “Jesus brought me here for you.” Patients did not know the financial sacrifice he was making to turn their grotesque faces into ones that would allow them to work and live normally, but I did.
2. Visit a Beijing group home for children with cerebral palsy: A Chinese Christian happened to stay one night at a hotel by a railroad station in northwest China. She found four abandoned tots crying in a cold, moist, dark room featuring a floor streaked with feces. She stayed a month with those children, then spent the next five years creating and running two foster homes for 31 children. She said the refuge helped her to “experience God. The body of Christ seems real to me since I’ve been here.”
3. Hug “untouchable” children at a Christian feeding/teaching program in India: In the thatched-hut village of Manapakkam, 300 children sat on the floor of Praise Evangelical Church and squealed in delight as they took turns reciting Bible verses and performing in skits. They ate rice with bits of meat placed on banana leaves in front off them, but they also wanted to be touched by Christians who saw them not as sub-human inferiors but as God’s children.
4. Head to a joyful church service in the Zambian bush country: Susan and I rode on the back of a flatbed truck with 39 Tonga tribe members exuberantly singing of their faith in Christ: “He is not number eight. He is not number six. He is number one.” Standing behind the cab on the road from Siamusambo was like being at the prow of a ship with the wind blowing hard, with dirt roads tough on truck suspensions taking the place of waves, and thatch-covered, mud-daubed mega-huts acting like islands.
5. Love the unlovable: I found myself one afternoon on a rickety bus in Lima, Peru, with a bunch of teenage gang members. A ministry had invited them to a church party, but that didn’t seem like a good idea when several packed-in guys started pounding each another: Fight night seemed imminent. But then three teens pulled out (from their baggy clothes) charandos, little guitars, and three others pulled out sampore, the Andean pipes. Suddenly they were beautifully playing songs, the music bouncing off the bus walls. It was 10 minutes of heaven, unexpected and wonderful.
Category 2: Idol worship and its effects
1. Grasp the intensity with which Old Testament prophets confronted idolatry by hearing the tap-tap-tapping of idol-makers’ chisels and hammers at seventh- and eighth-century Mahabalipuram temple sites in southeast India by the Bay of Bengal. Get a sense of how the temple in Jesus’ Jerusalem had become a marketplace by strolling the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai or other big ones where buying and selling goes on throughout the day. Gain a new appreciation for biblical worship by visiting Hindu serpent worship temples, screaming women temples, and others.
2. Attend a 6 a.m. sutra chanting in a dark temple filled with hypnotic intensity and the smell of incense, part of the life of 1,000 monks on Mount Koya in Japan. See Buddhist attempts to become more spiritual through kugyo (“hard practice”) such as chanting in freezing water and bowing for hours on tatami mats. On a more superstitious level, pick up pine needles and stick them in your wallet, hoping that wealth will come, or pick up a big rock that might lead to the granting of wishes by some cosmic force.
3. See in Turkey—or in other Muslim countries and communities—lines of Muslim men prostrating themselves in unison and reciting lines in Arabic that most do not understand. Walk in the underground cities of central Turkey’s Cappadocia region where Christians hid to preserve their lives and worship opportunities when Muslim invaders gave them a choice of Allah or death. Roam Hagia Sophia, the ancient, domed Christian cathedral bathed in blood and turned into a mosque when Istanbul fell to the Turks in 1453.
4. Mourn at famous sites of Nazi mass murder like Babi Yar in Kiev or Panerai near Vilnius, or little-known ones like Varvarovka near Olevsk, Ukraine. The sense of ghosts peering out of every window or from behind every tree may be even more intense at the concentration camps of central Europe: I have not been to these, but I’ve read about infamous and readily accessible ones like Auschwitz-Birkenau (near Kraków, Poland), Dachau (near Munich), Mauthausen (between Vienna and Salzburg), Terezín (near Prague), and Buchenwald (near Weimar, Germany).
5. Visit Communist prisons and killing fields in Europe and Asia: I’ve written about some of them, but I also saw sadness in what should have been a place of joy, the 60,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. That stadium is home for the famed Industriales, the top team in Cuba’s National League, but when I attended only several thousand fans were present. Tickets for Cubans cost the equivalent of only 1 cent, but Havana’s collapsed transportation system made it hard to get to the game, and the trash-strewn park, with stinking urinals, was hard for fans to accept.
Category 3: The creativity of God, and of man made in His image
1. Walk into the cloud formed by Victoria Falls at the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. Missionary-explorer David Livingstone, the first European to see the world’s largest sheet of falling water, gave the name of his queen to the falls in 1855, but the indigenous name, Mosi-oa-Tunya—literally “the cloud that thunders”—is more descriptive of spray from the falls that rises to 1,300 feet and more. Livingstone rightly wrote of the falls, “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
2. Admire the Taj Mahal, the 17th-century white marble mausoleum in northern India that is the high point of Muslim architecture. Shah Jahan spoke truly when describing the construction he had funded: “In this world this edifice has been made; To display thereby the creator’s glory.” But Jahan sought in Islam what can only be found in Christ: “Should guilty seek asylum here, / Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin. / Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, / All his past sins are to be washed away.”
3. Enjoy the Parthenon, the 2,450-year-old temple in Athens still viewed as a crowning example of proportion in architecture. Mathematicians and architects have analyzed its “golden ratio” and delicate curves, and historians enthuse about Greece’s Golden Age, but it’s good to keep history in mind: Only a year after the beautiful building’s completion in 438 b.c. the Peloponnesian War began, and two years later a plague killed Pericles and other Athenian leaders. By the end of the century the Parthenon’s order remained but Athens had fallen into the disorder from which it never recovered.
4. Feel like Indiana Jones while exploring Angkor Wat and several dozen other millennium-old temples in the jungle of northwest Cambodia. Trees poke through temple floors in some places and vines drape statues. The temples were not places of assembly but seven-leveled replicas of Mount Meru, the Himalayan home of the Hindu gods, which functions like Mount Olympus in ancient Greek mythology. What that means practically is verticality: visitors should expect to do a lot of climbing up very steep and narrow steps.
5. Pray at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem—a supporting wall for Herod’s temple, and the only part of the temple not destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Ever since then the wall has been a homing signal for Jews throughout the world, and one so strong that Jewish scholars from the fourth century (Rav Acha) to the 18th century (Jonathan Eybeschutz) insisted that “the Divine Presence” fills the wall. Today it is magnificent in its looming plainness, and readily accessible through a plaza that can hold thousands of people, some of whom insert messages in cracks in the wall.