As I sit here in the cozy Indiana home I grew up in, I — like most Americans — am preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with those I love.
It’s been a lazy day so far … sleeping late … lounging around in my pajamas … watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade … and going for a run.
Soon I’ll drag myself off the couch and head into the kitchen to prepare today’s meal — baked turkey seasoned with lemon, rosemary, garlic, and thyme; mashed sweet potatoes with a hint of cinnamon; green beans; sweet corn bread; and finally, your choice of pumpkin or dutch apple pie.
Sounds delicious …
But is that all there is to today? Will I pay more attention to preparing food than spending time with family? It’s easy to get so caught up in the traditions and expectations of American Thanksgiving that we forget to reflect on all that we have to be thankful for. I’m guilty of that pretty much every year, and this year is no exception.
Perhaps I have trouble reflecting on what I have to be thankful for because I am just so completely … well, spoiled … that I cannot even recognize a “blessing” anymore because I think of it as more of an “entitlement.”
How quickly I forget the lessons I have learned overseas. How quickly I forget how materially blessed I am to live in the United States. How easy it is to take for granted the access I have to quality medical care. How often I ignore armed conflict throughout the world because it isn’t happening on my home soil.
But if I were to allow myself to truly remember what I have seen, who I have met, and where I have been, I would not live such a complacent and entitled life. It is for that reason I have decided to take a few moments on this, a day of thanksgiving, to recall the life-altering, eye-opening experiences I have had while traveling and to acknowledge that I have much to be thankful for.
Three experiences stand out as particularly poignant …
1.) The families living in Egypt’s notorious “garbage cities”
My first trip to the more “developing” world was to Egypt in 2004. While there, I witnessed such extreme poverty. One place that is particularly memorable is Mokattam, one of Egypt’s “garbage cities.” This city-within-a-city houses thousands of families whose livelihood depends on sorting garbage. But they don’t just sort it … they live in it. Literally. As you drive down its narrow alleys, you can peer into homes where you will see mounds of trash overtaking each room of a family’s flat. Dogs roam and scavenge everywhere and the smell is overwhelming. To this day, I have yet to see poverty replicated on this level.
2.) The little girl in Uganda who asked me to pray for her malaria
In May 2009, I spent two weeks volunteering at an orphanage just outside Kampala, Uganda. Although I had spent time in the developing world before, I was not prepared for the suffering I would encounter in Uganda. I had assumed that the biggest public health threat to the country was AIDS. I was shocked to discover that although AIDS has certainly devastated the population of Uganda for decades, it is actually malaria that poses the gravest threat.
I held the little girl’s hand and asked how I could pray for her. “Pray for my malaria,” she shyly requested, and then looked to the ground with tears in her eyes. “It makes me very sick,” she added. As I held her hand tighter and asked God to heal her from this deadly disease, I was painfully aware that one of my team members sat not 100 yards away praying the same thing. Only she was praying for an entire family, several little girls, who weren’t just living with the disease, but were currently experiencing its tortuous effects as we sought to give them needed medical care. I’ve never seen anyone die, but I thought little Claire would leave us that day as she shivered and sweated with one of the most violent fevers I have ever seen. But this was just daily life in a malaria zone in southern Uganda.
I will never forget this little girl.
I was not prepared for the intense human suffering I would encounter in Uganda, but nor was I prepared for the children’s deeply-rooted faith in God and their hope for a brighter future. The children I met demonstrated remarkable courage, faith, and resilience, even though they faced disease, abuse, abandonment, and loss. As a result, it is not just the tremendous suffering I saw in Uganda that has left me forever changed, but also the response to that suffering. Both compel me to commitment and action.
3.) Crossing “Stari Most,” the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia-Herzegovina
We traveled to Mostar, Bosnia while on our honeymoon in Croatia in 2010. Our main motivation for the day trip was to notch another country. We quickly realized that this day that we had approached with somewhat selfish intentions would prove to be a life-changing experience.
Although it’s much more complicated than a brief summary can do justice to, suffice it to say that in the Former Yugoslavia, the Serbs (Orthodox), Croats (Catholics), and Bosniaks (Muslims) were waging war against one another for the better part of a decade throughout the 1990s. It’s easy to forget this fact when you’re traveling through the beautiful and restored Dalmatian coast of Croatia. But in parts of Bosnia, it’s a very different story. Building after building still bears the scars of war. Residents still harbor significant animosity toward opposing ethnic groups. In Mostar, a bridge divides two of these groups — the Croats and the Bosniaks — in a staggering reminder of continued tension.
It is this very bridge that continues to haunt me. You see, it doesn’t just serve as a physical divider between the two groups. Less than 20 years ago, it didn’t even exist. The original bridge, Stari Most, or the Old Bridge, was built in 1566 by the Ottoman Turks. But, in 1993, the bridge was destroyed by Catholic Croats hoping to permanently relegate their Muslim neighbors, the Bosniaks, to the other side of the Neretva river.
After the war, restoration began on the bridge and it was opened again to the public in 2004. But just because the bridge has been restored, doesn’t mean the differences between the town’s residents have been reconciled.
To me, this bridge serves as a reminder of just how deeply prejudice and hatred can penetrate a society and how the wounds of war can fester for decades without ever fully healing.
Traveling has allowed me to witness firsthand the impact of poverty, disease, and war. Sure, I could have just read about these places in National Geographic … but I’m pretty sure that just reading an article about them would not have made them real. It would not have changed my life in the same way that actually going to these places has.
Travel has given me the opportunity to see just how blessed I truly am.
If you are at all able, I encourage you to travel somewhere challenging. If you want a vacation, go to the beach. If you want to truly travel, then push yourself to step outside your comfort zone. I certainly recognize that not everyone has the money to take such a trip as I am suggesting. But, please don’t let money be your only excuse. There are ways to raise funds to volunteer abroad.
At least once in your life, go some place where you can’t drink the water. It might just change your life.
How has travel taught you to be thankful?