by Laurie Klein
“Adventures are never fun while you’re having them.”
—C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
November 29 marks the birthday of beloved author C. S. Lewis. He created Lucy, who sailed the seas of another world: perilous, wondrous Narnia.
I love her character. I like sharing Lewis’ birthday. But braving the unknown? Book me for armchair travel, please.
God’s sense of humor intervenes. I spend my entire 50th birthday traveling to a remote village in northeastern Thailand. In the company of spirited, short-term-mission teammates, I cross the international date line where time hiccoughs, then replays itself.
“Good thing we’re headed east,” they joke. “Or you’d be 100.”
*ADVENT, 2000: RURAL THAILAND*
Epic humidity. Uber-hot spices. Unusual plumbing. Deadly fire ants, spiders the size of hands, roadside cobras.
We are outliers here. Seems we must relearn almost everything: all. day. long. Villagers with pointing fingers, dazzling smiles, and laughter muffled behind a hand, call us farangs: big noses, ghosts, people of white race.
Incrementally, culture shock flattens me: it feels like fallen arches of the soul.
Still, I want to serve God and these gentle people. I try to traverse the winding, red dirt lanes via the Spirit’s leading. As I do, my feet feel 100 years old. And hopelessly gauche. Villagers in flip flops, teammates in sandals—am I the only one wearing socks?
Chronic nerve pain afflicts my left foot, leaving it frigid and bruise-blue. I wear tennis shoes for support, micro crews for warmth. Rusty earth-colored stains ruin my socks. I hate red dirt.
We are here as assistants to the resident missionary, an American, about my age, fluent in Thai. I secretly call her the Advocate. She mediates questions, cultural quagmires, and occasional quarrels, so she’s often unavailable, meaning: we hone our pantomime skills.
In addition to all the Advocate juggles, she’s lovingly bent on keeping us busy.
The Advocate envisions an all-day birthday party to celebrate Jesus. For Buddhists. Who don’t speak English. She assigns tasks: food, games, clearing the field of rocks.
She turns to me. “Will you supervise the evening program?”
I lean into Lucy’s courage. I try to emulate Mary’s “Yes.”
I nod. Reluctantly.
Lord, I trust you will see me through.
And then . . .
The Advocate asks me to mentor an Earnest Young Convert (I’ll call him EYC). Newly arrived from the city, he might know a dozen English words.
The lad seems born to lead. Independent and aflame with ideas for the program, why wouldn’t he dodge my input? I must look 100 to him. Plus, I’m a farang.
EYC envisions an open mic, ceremonial dances, and a children’s sign language choir complete with white gloves. Thais only. So much for the performing talents of my teammates and yours truly.
The Advocate pats my arm. “You’ll be so good for his development.”
EYC also writes a play, but he declines to discuss it with me, preferring the ease of shared language with the Advocate.
I should not take this personally. But I am (supposedly) in charge.
He does make an effort to connect. Or is it a dare? One afternoon EYC hands me a stick crowned with a knob of meat: mmm-Mmm, barbecued rat.
Somehow, I nibble a corner, pretend it tastes like chicken. Might he trust me now?
I begin to understand the three Wise Men braving foreign cuisine, day after day, during their travels.
Lord, help me collaborate. And help me tread gently.
Into the jungle
Lucy found her sea legs. Mary endured the donkey’s lurching gait. Facing discomfort, with faith, they sallied forth.
Today, map-less, I wander the jungle. I’m supposed to ask a stranger to make costumes for EYC’s play. If only I had a translator.
How dare I impose? It feels like white entitlement. I dread being misunderstood, resented, judged. The errand gnaws at my pride.
But I keep walking. Thanks to the Advocate, colorful cloth overflows my arms. I shift it over a shoulder. Once I reach the seamstress, how will I pantomime, “Please, you don’t know me but will you make traditional costumes, for free, so that children you don’t know can dramatize a Western story you probably don’t want to hear?”
The wind kicks up, and I hug the traditional cloth for warmth. Where am I? All these palm trees appear identical. If I get lost, who will point this hapless farang homeward?
I begin to understand Joseph trudging mile after mile, seeking shelter and welcome among strangers.
Stop, I tell myself. Breathe. Remember Lucy praying aboard ship as terrified crew members manned the oars, desperate to escape the Dark Island.
“[If] ever you loved us at all,” she whispered, “send us help now.”
I second Lucy’s prayer. And watch for snakes.
A clearing . . .
My aching feet finally reach uneven ground where ragged tree stumps make footing dicey. A woman drapes wet laundry over a porch rail.
I step forward, smile, act out my errand. Several times.
A long silence ensues as she studies the fabric, then me. A level, assessing gaze. It feels heavier every second. Finally, she nods. I give her all the colors within my hands. I wish I could pay her.
She chuckles, and I am sharply aware my God has preceded me here, preparing the stage for this interplay. That glimpse dazzles me. I tent my hands, in grateful respect. The woman returns my gesture. Then she points out another red dirt path. I hope it’s a shortcut.
Relief hums through my bones, lightens my steps. I begin to suspect wonder afoot. (To be continued . . .)
FRIENDS, FRIENDS . . . THIS IS WAY-FINDING
THESE DAYS WE ALL INHABIT A STRANGE NEW WORLD NOT OF OUR CHOOSING: perilous, yet still wondrous.
What weighs you down today? What will you release?
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