RICHMOND, VA – Whether "metro surfing" in one of the world's megacities or bumping along dirt roads, a missionary's daily commute can look -- and feel and smell -- very different from typical transportation in America.
Sometimes it's eyes squeezed shut and a prayer on your lips as your bus careens down the road. Sometimes it's like a real-life video game, dodging obstacles on a motorbike. And sometimes it's just a normal car ride -- on the left side of the road.
Here are various ways around the world that missionaries get around.
Christian missionaries have used boats since the days of the apostle Paul. Boats remain an essential method of transportation among coastal peoples, refugees and the peoples of the Amazon and other remote regions.
In the Amazon, a missionary may journey by boat into the interior of Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Riverboats facilitate trade and maintain communication between villages and cities. One journey can last three days; some last three weeks. Nevertheless, it "is the only mode of transportation to further the Gospel," a missionary in Brazil said.
Elsewhere, an IMB missionary may take a 13-hour boat ride across the historic Lake Tanganyika in Africa. In Hong Kong and other parts of East Asia, ferries extend the reach of public transportation, making more destinations accessible to missionaries.
Light rail, designed to make travel within a metropolitan context more efficient, is commonplace in commutes for missionaries in the world's megacities.
The Cairo metro system, for example, sprawls across the city, delivering an estimated 4 million passengers per day over three different lines and nearly 50 miles of train track, both above ground and below.
Metros, like Cairo's, are usually crowded, so riding the metro can be an exercise in letting go of personal space. New urbanites often learn metro skills such as "metro surfing" -- riding the sway of the metro like a surfer rides a wave. "Sometimes," one missionary said, "I just laugh along with a complete stranger, hands stuck to our sides, since there is nowhere else to go, and ride the ebb and flow of the metro car."
In some locations, people spend days on a train, such as this one originating at the Hua Lomphong Railway Station in Bangkok, Thailand, to reach their destination. As missionaries roll across the countryside, children play with newfound friends, people swap stories and the conductor sells ice cream.
In India, the railroad brought during British colonization remains one of the country's most efficient modes of transportation. However, because railcars often are overfull, passengers have been hurt or even smothered.
During the rainy season in eastern Myanmar and in other countries, roads are marred by potholes and ruts, and they're even more treacherous during monsoon season.
"Some villages are completely inaccessible for months at a time without a four-wheel-drive vehicle," a missionary in Southeast Asia said.
Driving on the left side of the road is a new skill that missionaries must master in a number of countries. Cars are popular among the middle and upper class in South Asia. In India, it's common for businessmen to have personal drivers to transport them to and from the office.
Many Hong Kong locals, for example, choose to use the intricate bus system, but it can be quite difficult for travelers unfamiliar with the system's many routes.
Until recently, owning a car was too expensive for most East Asians. For the lower and middle classes, buses remain affordable and accessible. Even now, though the middle class has begun to buy cars, existing infrastructure does not allow for the increase in traffic.
In Ghana, 12- to 24-passenger vans are called trotros, or matatus in various other countries. These long rides in close quarters -- though said to be not as crowded or dangerous as they once were -- can be great times for sharing the Gospel, a missionary in West Africa noted.
In Nairobi, Kenya, matatus are brightly colored buses or vans operated by private owners, or saccos, taking passengers in and out of the bustling business district. The price is fixed, so saccos advertise their rides with unique decorations.
A missionary in Kenya once saw a matatu with John Elway's picture on the wall -- a tribute to the 1980s Denver Broncos. A wild matatu ride is "definitely a cultural experience," he said.
Passengers perch on a truck as it rumbles down a North African road. Some missionaries serve where seatbelts are only a formality, and riding in the back of a truck with 14 new acquaintances is an acceptable mode of transportation.
In Tehran, Iran, it is not uncommon for a family to ride together on a motorcycle as a versatile and inexpensive means of transportation.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, it's estimated there are 15 million motorbikes compared to 5 million cars.
According to a worker in South Asia, motorbike drivers "go anywhere on the road they want: sidewalks, ditches, in between cars," interacting with an ever-changing flow of traffic.
A worker in Southeast Asia confessed, "Seeing multiple people on a scooter at once always makes me smile. Although, [the bikes] are very dangerous. You learn to pray a lot when you drive in Asia."
One missionary recalls driving on a one-way street when a motorbike carrying fresh poultry came from the opposite direction, causing a crash and hurling 30 chickens into the air.
A father riding a bicycle with his two daughters through the streets of Amsterdam reflects the Europeans' outlook toward biking as a way to be environmentally conscious, maintain a healthy lifestyle and save money.
Missionaries in Europe say that as a result of biking, they've had conversations with other cyclists and, as one put it, "there has almost always been a chance to talk about our faith." And they often have the challenge of learning to balance groceries and/or kids as they ride through some of the foremost biking cities in the world.
In Mumbai, India, you can find dabbawalas transporting dabbas, or "lunchboxes," via bicycle for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some dabbawalas, transporting food is a spiritual journey rooted in Hinduism.
While a rickshaw seems to have been designed for children, it's simply a tricycle made to carry passengers of any age, such as this rickshaw in Jakarta, Indonesia, where the driver waits for his next customer.
One missionary recalls the day he tested the quality of seat padding in several rickshaws. Within no time, all of the rickshaw drivers were trying to convince him their rickshaw had the best seat padding.
In South Asia, rickshaws, which are called "autos," are motorbikes within a metal shell. These are the taxis of the region, and missionaries have found that while drivers wait for customers they're often open to conversation.
Some missionaries work with people who use more lively (and ornery) forms of transport. Donkey carts can still be found in the villages of Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and Europe.
These boys, aboard a donkey cart, are headed to draw water from a well in northern Ghana where most houses do not have running water, and people rely on wells for clean water.
Donkey carts can roll along dirt roads riddled with ruts. "It's not very comfy riding in the cart," a missionary admitted, "but that's probably due to the poor engineering of the cart, not the donkey's fault."
In Chad, camels are a main form of transportation, capable of surviving with little water and food, making them a great choice in rugged, dry terrain, even if they do spit sometimes.
In the Bible
Jesus met people along the roads He traveled: His disciples on the way to Emmaus and the Samaritan woman are two examples. May we pray expectantly that God will place people in the seat next to us, so that they, too, will encounter Jesus along the road.
"Whenever I have prayed that prayer honestly in South Asia or elsewhere," a missionary said, "I cannot think of a time when it was not answered."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This text was written by Lucy Campbell, an International Mission Board Journeyman serving in Eastern Europe.