My husband and I recently snuck away to Monterosso, a small Italian fishing village. In my eyes, it is the most beautiful place on earth. Monterosso is an adorable water-colored village nestled along the coast, protected by jagged cliffs and connected by trains and trails to four other neighboring towns that together comprise the Cinque Terre (five lands).
A train ride from one town to another lasts approximately three minutes. But if you travel by foot, the hikes take between two to three hours. The trails climb up from the centers of the towns through vineyards and past waterfalls to high peaks. They level out offering countless views of the aqua blue Ligurian Sea, then wind back down into the next adorable village. Each trail is unique—one is predominantly stairs, another slanty and muddy, some narrow, some broad, but they all promise to work your leg muscles, provide you with spectacular vistas, and guide you along the way via red and white trail markers.
Okay, I’m laughing as I type. Because the trail markers, well, they’re not like the street signs this Ohio girl is accustomed to. They are basically hand painted stripes that could show up on a rock, a tree, a signpost, or any seemingly random interval the trailblazer decided to paint them. So let’s just say as my husband and I hiked our way through the Cinque Terre, we took more than a few wrong turns at Albuquerque.
But the markers were always there, albeit sometimes hidden. And when we felt extremely uncertain and unsure, we could hone in, focus, and eventually find another set of red and white stripes—on a fence, on a wall—reminding us where to go, to keep us headed in the right direction.
Step after step, bend after bend, the twists of the trails reminded me of the journeys of life. The times I’m walking along, enjoying the sunshine, when all of a sudden I have to watch my step, hold on to the rail, because things went wonky, and if I’m not careful I could slip or fall or twist myself into a dangerous place—somewhere I shouldn’t be. The gratefulness when I regain my footing, when I successfully maneuver through a tight spot, and even when after stumbling, I’m able to stand back up, brush myself off, assess the scrapes and scratches, and say, “I’m okay.” The times I’m exhausted, out of breath, but I keep going, one step after another, and then out of the blue I’m rewarded for obediently moving forward by one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen—vibrant indigo Morning Glories blooming inexplicably out of rocks, rows of vines intricately twisted lush with grapes, whispery silver leaves on a shady olive tree, the sea as far as my eyes can focus. There’s also the awe of viewing something I’ve never seen before just when I least expect it.
And of course, like life, there are all of the splits in the trail—the should I go up or down, turn left or right places. I have so many friends facing forks in their roads—should they move? Stay put? Change jobs? Who should they room with? If they’re supposed to go, where should they go? What classes should they take? What should they give up in order to have time for the thing they’ve been called to? How will they pay for it?
How about you? Any questions on your heart—decisions you’re trying to make? Turns in your life journey?
On our Italian hikes the signs seemed irregular to me, not where I would have put them, not how I would have marked things, but they were there. And when we are not sure what our next steps in life should be, when we can’t “see the signs” they are also there. We just have to focus, intentionally hone in, because we all have someone to help us along the way. Jesus says, “I am the way.” Which sure is reassuring when we’re lost, confused, misguided, or the backs of our legs are cramping.
I know Jesus is the way. I am confident He will lead my steps and show me where to go. Only sometimes when I’m at the fork in the road, looking left and right I don’t hear Him, can’t tell which way He wants me to go. Usually, because I’m looking in the wrong places in the wrong ways and muffling His voice with the noise of the world. So I get frazzled and flustered and frustrated. My heart beats too fast, and I worry that I’m lost. Should I be in the middle of someone’s lemon grove (yes that happened)? It just doesn’t feel right.
It’s one thing on a vacation hike, but in real life when we feel lost and confused what are we supposed to do? Take a deep breath, remind ourselves that He is with us, that He will never forsake us (similar to reminding myself someone has marked this trail. I have seen the markers. There will be more). And take a few steps forward.
For the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. —Deuteronomy 31:6
And if after five minutes of hiking, or five months of praying we still feel unsettled, well then, it’s usually time to get a sip of water, maybe nibble on a granola bar from our backpacks, and circle back, to the last time we turned, to where the path split, when we last made a choice. When I’m in the wrong place and actually take time to retrace my steps, it usually becomes quite clear where I went wrong.
Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. —Hebrews 13:5
And sure enough when I go back to where I veered, there is one of those crazy sets of stripes. Red and white. Red, like Christ’s blood that He shed to save us from all of our mistakes, missteps, and wrong turns. And white like how pure and clean we are now, because of His love. With signs like that, we can be assured we’re on the right track. We just need to seek His direction, go where He leads us, then take in the views.
For me in hiking (and in life), the thrill is not in reaching the destination at the end of the journey—no the joy is in the discovery, in the learning, in the overcoming the challenges, in the surprises I could have never imagined, but that God delights me with along the way.
Where are you headed today? Follow the markers God has put out for you and delight in the journey.
Let’s be honest – travel wears a girl out. Overnight flights, train rides, crowding into hostels or strange hotel rooms, long days of working, exploring and walking plus late nights making sure you don’t miss one single thing all add up to longing – craving – aching for a cup of coffee.
But no worries! Coffee is abundant and decadent everywhere you go (even abroad). You just need to know what you’re looking for and how to order it.
First – when you’re on the road, ditch your Starbucks habit goodbye. Now don’t raise your fingernails at me in a cat hiss. Few things make me happier in the morning than a venti Estima with a shot of mocha and room for milk. However, when in Rome or Paris or Nashville or Atlanta. Embrace the culture!
If you’re in a new town, find the local coffee shop, the one with the menu handwritten in chalk on a blackboard. Ask what they’re specialty is. Observe the locals. Are they all drinking iced coffees? Maybe you should try one on this hot summer day. Is the house specialty a chocolate monkey as it is at JoZoara in Nashville? You’ve gotta try one. It’s like a chocolate, banana, peanut butter milkshake with your daily dose of java all swirled into one. Phenomenal! At Kofenya, in Oxford, Ohio the house drink is a Walk in the Woods. They might know something you don’t. Why not give one a sample?
If you’ve wandered further away from home, embrace the coffee in your new land. Most of the world drinks coffee too, but usually everywhere else it’s STRONG! Order café in France, espresso in Italy or Spain and you’ll get a shot of espresso in an itty bitty tiny white porcelain cup. It’s strong, robust and will wake up your taste buds, then your brain. If you’re used to a venti back home, you might want to order two, or drink one first thing, and another later along your journeys.
Me, I’m a “with milk” kind of girl. So in France I order a café au lait. In Italy I get a cappuccino. When in Spain my daily order is a café con leche.
I also prefer a little sweetness. Don’t look for Splenda, Equal, Stevia or Sweet N Low – those chemicals are bad news and hard to find in foreign lands for good reason. Use sugar. It’s natural and it’s sweet.
Next -- your budget. Order your coffee TO GO – a emporter (in French), porte via (in Italian), para llevar (in Spanish). You’ll save a small fortune, and maybe even be able to afford coffee again tomorrow morning.
If you absolutely can’t stand a Styrofoam/plastic cup OR need a minute to look at your map or reapply your lip gloss or text a friend, order your coffee at a counter or standing up at a café table. Don’t be fooled by the charming waiter pulling out a chair for you. He may think you’re cute, but he also knows if he gets you to sit, you’ll pay two to four times as much to drink your coffee. Who knew sitting was such a luxury?
We’re a bit like coffee ourselves. Some of us are dark or light or tall or short. Some of us are strong or sweet or hotheaded or cool. God created sassy versions and frothy versions and simple and dependable versions of people. But we’re all delicious. Don’t forget that.
Now that you know how to do it, go and open your eyes and taste buds to the rich, frothy sensation of a coffee, wherever you are. Sip. Enjoy. Repeat.
You have it all taken care of, right?
You have a date with the Big Man scheduled in your Blackberry on recurring for every day. You have a regular prayer time, a routine for reading the Word, a group you meet with either on Sundays or during the week to talk about your relationship with Jesus.
It’s like clockwork. Until you go on summer vacation. And we all know vacation is a temporary thing, but time away from the Lord is bad any way you slice it. And sometimes, on vacation is when you need Him the most.
So, how do you keep up with your relationship with God when you’re on the road, at camp, at a relative’s house or as distant from real life as a foreign country? When everything about your normal schedule is out of whack, how do you stay in sync with Jesus?
In today’s electronic age it’s easier than ever before. You have a Smartphone. You have a laptop or access to a computer at your aunt’s house or hotel lobby. You have a sense of adventure. You’re all set.
Bible reading is a piece of cake online with www.biblegateway.com. You can look up any chapter or verse in almost any translation. Don’t have access to a computer? There’s an App for that – YouVersion – The Bible App – touts more translations than you’ll ever be able to read, bookmarks your spot for you, and has a search engine to help you find any chapter or verse on demand.
Churches are everywhere. So, it’s not your home church. So, it’s a little different. It’s still a group of Christians gathering together to proclaim God’s word, sing His praises and pray to Him. Find one with beautiful stained glass or an interesting history. Focus on the cross and the music and the readings for this week. If you’re out of the country, a church service in another language can still be amazingly spiritual and uplifting. The architecture and history of ancient European churches create a sense of awe, and help you realize how important God has been to generations upon generations.
Now, that you have the actual Word at your fingertips and at least a Sunday service to attend, how do you supplement it with discussion, advice, inspiration? There are so many cool opportunities on the web! Encounter Magazine has The Scene that takes a current event and tackles its relationship to scripture each week. You can download it at http://encounterface2face.com/category/the-scene/ and work through it personally. There are hundreds of churches that have podcasts of their sermons and inspirational speakers have podcasts for more online immersion in Jesus. Find one that meets your needs – male, female, sister, brother, athlete, musician, artist, dancer, bookworm, outgoing, shy, highschooler, homeschooler on-your-way-to-collegegoer -- there’s a website, a blog, a speaker on the internet who speaks directly to your heart via Jesus. Find them on your favorite search engine, plug in and make it part of your day.
You don’t have to stop with scripture and sermons. Download your favorite Christian tunes onto your iPod and an inspirational read onto your Kindle app, iBooks or e-reader for further immersion.
Just like at home where you had a set time of day, you need to commit to a daily date with God on the road. Do you wake up before the rest of the family or stay up past the rest of your crew – this alone time is perfect for you to hang out with Jesus. If your travels give you a little down time every day after lunch, make it then. Do you schedule a daily run? How about right before or after that workout?
But remember wherever you are, your Creator is there within your heart. He’s ready to chat, listen, comfort, encourage or just hang out whether you’re at home or on the road. Jesus wants to be your best friend wherever you go. So, even when you’re in new surroundings, you can still surround yourself with the Lord.
Where are you traveling this summer?
How do you like to incorporate your spirituality with your travels?
I’ve been warned.
I’ve been leery.
I’ve read stories about them and have even been charmed by the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist and even more so by Bo, Prosper and Scipio in The Thief Lord.
I’ve had a few close calls – people coming too quickly at me from a strange angle, someone else’s fingers headed towards my husband’s pocket, someone pressing uncomfortably against me in a crowd. But in those instances, I swerved, I ran up to my husband, hugging him and I abruptly turned away, avoiding potential crimes. Today, I witnessed a pick pocket in action.
My family was on maybe our sixty-fourth metro ride since we’ve been in Barcelona this summer. My husband gave me the look and shoved his hands deep in his pockets – our sign to each other to be extra wary of pick pockets, or as our seven-year old calls them, pocket-pickers.
On the subway the group cloistered around a set of the poles people hold onto for balance seemed overly pushy, like they were separating our family. A young lady, quite attractive, headed to another car, and then came back, preening, almost posing for the crowd. I grabbed our two youngest children and plopped into an available seat. Moments later yelling, scuffling, slapping, grabbing.
This group of four twenty-somethingers seemed to be traveling separate, but they weren’t, and they had a system. The girls were distractions and immobilizers. One guy was the living deposit box in the corner. The other guy was the actual pick pocket. He snatched a traveler’s wallet. A random woman on the subway witnessed it, slapped the thief’s hand, the wallet went flying and the skirmish began (an odd foreign coin I couldn’t identify hit me on the eyebrow. I returned it to the victim). In the end the man got back his wallet, but the band of pick pockets got away.
So, if you’re backpacking, touring, traveling and/or vacationing in Europe this summer. Be smart. Be careful.
· Wear a money belt, tucked into your pants or skirt, so that a pick pocket cannot access your stuff. It seems a little weird at first, but I promise it won’t show, unless you’re wearing jeggings. And, you get used to it.
· Do not carry your passport, just a copy of it (keep the original in your apartment or safe at your hotel).
· Do not carry more than 50 Euro at any time, better to lose a little than a lot.
· Wear your backpack as a front pack. Again, not a super fashion statement, but you’ll be glad you have all your stuff at the end of the day.
· Keep your own hands in your pockets, so no one else’s can find their way in.
· AND MOST IMPORTANTLY - be aware of your surroundings – any distraction, fight, performance, drama can be used to divert your attention away from your things.
Enjoy your travels by taking precautions, so you can enjoy the amazing sights, flavors and spectacles around the world.
Laura L. Smith