Missionaries from a third world country grow accustomed to its oddities when it comes to food, dress, culture, travel, and so on. Being a missionary kid makes it feel normal. When my family visited churches in the Western world, I was often asked: “So how is Bolivia?” To my kid brain, the question actually seemed pretty dumb, yet I would answer using words like “normal” or “home”, just like any American kid would answer if asked how life was in Phoenix or Buffalo. After living in the US for several years, I started to recognize and analyze some of the massive differences in culture, as my mind constantly compared this with that. I found it hard to pay $6 at Subway, for example, when I could get a heaping plate of food and a drink for even $2 in my home town in Bolivia. In America, there were no taxis madly swarming around each other on the chaotic streets, no party music blaring from neighbors’ back yards way past midnight, and no neighbors sitting on the sidewalk enjoying the cool night air.
The good and the bad:
Ironically, now that I find myself back in Bolivia, the comparisons are with this culture to the one I learned to appreciate in America. Every culture has its pros and cons. North America is blessed with order and responsibility, from the school system and governmental rule to education and personal discipline.
When you visit a third world country, remember that it will be quite different from the world you are used to in North America. Expect dishonesty, bartering, long lines, and never being on schedule. Yet also remember that there are so many things you can learn from these cultures, for they tend to value their families over their money and their friendships over their schedules. The truth is that life isn’t so much about what you accomplish, but who you impact for good. Jesus, who grew up in a culture much like that of the third world, taught that “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” for “[he is a fool] who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:15b, 21; ESV).
Christ was hard on greed and a slavery to tradition, yet He also called-out those who refused to work or pay their taxes, so we can’t say that Christ was from one culture or another. We must consider that He was above all cultures, for He teaches us a new way of living, a new way of thinking. Jesus praised the good in the culture He lived in yet also called-out its faults, thus giving us an example of how we should carefully consider the culture we live in as well as the ones we are exposed to.
Be ready to learn:
Take this to heart before visiting a new culture – try to leave your negativity at the door and focus on learning and analyzing before criticizing. It can be very challenging to do so, especially as we humans are such “comfort creatures” and generally quite patriotic. We must understand this about ourselves – the natural instinct will be to criticize and show your culture as better, just like fans would in their staunch support of the Cowboys or the Bulls.
Let’s take the bus!
I take public transportation all the time, since it is so flexible and cheap. Usually I’ll take a bus or a trufi (a minivan that is stuffed with up to nine people) at least five or six times per month. People here rate price and a flexible schedule far above comfort, so don’t expect to enjoy it much.
In Bolivia, you usually can’t buy your ticket more than 24 hours ahead of time, so don’t bother. The bus will never leave on time, so don’t look at your watch. It won’t get there when they say it will either, so plan to be late. Your seat may or may not recline, and you might wish for a vacuum before sitting down – just take a shower when you get to your destination. Your window might not work when it’s beastly hot out and it might not close on an overnight trip when your legs begin to feel like two icicles hanging from an Antarctic cave.
Therefore, planning ahead is key. For overnight trips take a jacket, perhaps even a pillow and a slim blanket. If you are travelling in the morning, buy your seat on the West side away from the sun, and vice versa for the afternoon. Take a snack and water with you, maybe even a meal if it’s going to be a long trip, as food sold along the road may well make you sick. Use the bathroom at every stop, if your bus does has a bathroom, don’t go in it – mentally add a “TOXIC” sign to the door in big red letters.
Note: Not all buses and public transportation are this way, many countries have nicer options now, which would include stewardesses, excellent food, and exceptional cleanliness. Even Bolivia is starting to have a couple options like this between nicer cities.
Watch your stuff:
You probably own several things that people in other countries have only seen in movies, such as the newest cellphone, slick laptop, or expensive camera. It’s OK to own these things, but you must be careful with them. In the US, I’ve seen someone call after a stranger that they had dropped their wallet in the street. That’s not likely happening in a third world country, unfortunately.
When you go to a new country, try to have someone pick you up and learn to depend on their guidance. Avoid changing money at the airport because of the poor exchange rate or on a busy street because of thievery. Instead, ask your host to recommend a place. Always put your wallet in your front pocket, or hide it somewhere you can feel it. Take the money you need for the outing, leaving the rest in a safe place. Be careful when pulling out your cellphone or camera on the street; don’t do so in busy areas.
Take TP with you on longer trips because some places won’t have any, but remember not to flush it – the septic systems are not built to handle it.
In general, don’t drink the tap water; buy bottled water and make sure to drink often as you can forget to hydrate yourself when you are out of your comfort zone.
Most places don’t have heating or a/c, so get ready to sweat if you visit us in our 9 months of summer.
Make the effort to eat what you are served, but avoid raw salads. Find something unwanted and perhaps disgusting in your food? Keep calm; push it aside and carry on.
A great sign of respect that you can show to another culture is to try and learn about it. You can start the process early by reading online or in books, but don’t come as a “know it all” since culture can have wrinkles in different places. Just like you, people love to talk about their home, their family, their life, and their culture. Ask about it, get curious, and try to remember what is said. If there is a language barrier, make sure to find help in a translator, a mobile app, or a handy pocket dictionary. You probably want to learn how to say “¿dónde está el baño?” and beware of those terrible missionary kids like me who tell you it’s “¡quiero comer un gato!” (Go ahead, look it up in your Spanish dictionary).
Don’t be loud and obnoxious, as some tourists tend to be. It’s one of the most ironic things to see, how those visiting from quiet suburbia somewhere in Iowa all of a sudden find themselves laughing out loud in public places and pointing at perfect strangers while bellowing in English. You might think this an exaggeration, but I’ve seen it one too many times. People in the culture you are visiting will think you are mocking them and will feel like you are trying to disrespect their way of life.
Other cultures will have a thousand things that we will think odd, disorganized, and counterproductive. Those who live in the culture are bothered by it too at some level, but they live with it on a daily basis, so we should try and appreciate the challenges they struggle through. My Latino friends who visit the US have this same problem, seeing all the “terrible and disturbing” things there, which an American simply understands and works-through on a daily basis.
Do you still want to go to a third world country or have I scared you off? Embrace the risks and discomforts realizing that this is the way most of the world lives. Facing risks in health and travel will teach you lessons in faith. Accepting discomforts will help you learn thankfulness. I encourage you to go with a desire to learn, letting God use the hardships to mold your character, that you might better appreciate the wondrous variety and creativity in our Father’s world.
So, when are you coming?