Around the World in 334 Days
By Curt Devine
June 15, 2011
One of our writers, Curt Devine shares his experience on the World Race, an 11-month missions trip to 11 different countries. We asked him to reflect on what he’d seen, to offer us snapshots—both visual and written—of his trip around the world, from urban slums and red-light districts to prisons, rural churches and orphanages.
Day 28: Malaybalay, Philippines
The prison entrance smells of sulfur and mold. My team walks into Malaybalay City Jail guided by the warden, who tells the girls not to get too close to the prison bars.
“You don’t want to tempt these dogs,” he says with a crooked smile.
We make our way past rusted cells filled with dozens of men. They jeer and smile at us, some reaching out for handshakes and high-fives, others staring in jealousy of our freedom. Most of their bodies are covered head to toe with scars and faded tattoos, reflecting the gang violence overrunning this city. They stare at the girls with hunger, mumbling crude remarks. We came hoping to teach English lessons and encourage the prisoners to trust God with their future, but after only a few moments in these conditions, I feel doubtful we can even interact with them at all.
“I don’t know if I can handle this,” my teammate Jeannie says. “I don’t feel safe.”
I tell her nothing bad can happen with the guards standing nearby, but the darkness of the prison weighs heavily on me, and I secretly agree: it’s not safe. “God, are you even in this place?” I can’t help but ask under my breath.
“Keep coming this way,” the warden says.
We follow him around a bend to another wing of the prison. We walk past iron doors holding the jail’s troublemakers in solitary confinement and then past more crowded cells, finally stopping at a small, dark cell in the back corner of the prison. I look inside, stunned by what I see. “How old are these kids?” I ask the warden.
“Twelve to 17 years old,” he says. “Most are in for drug pedaling or gang robbery. Don’t be fooled, though. They’re young, but they’ve earned their time. Some are in for murder.”
About a dozen teenage gangsters rush to the cell’s bars, smiling and reaching out their hands to greet us. They wear colored bandanas and have fresh tattoos, yet they look more like children in gang costumes. I high-five many of them, unable to imagine their hands committing the crimes that earned them years in this seedy jail cell. “My name is Ronnie,” one slender boy who looks about 15 says to me.
“Nice to meet you,” I say. “Is there anything you’d like to learn today?”
“Can you teach me to worship?” he asks. “I want to praise Jesus more.”
His question shocks me. Is he serious? I wonder. But as he stares at me, I sense genuine longing in his eyes—the look of someone desperate to know God more, to feel His presence.
“I would love to,” I say, motioning to the small guitar leaning up against his bed. He picks it up and stands across from me.
“Thank you. Can you teach me ‘On the Wings of Eagles’?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, amazed that his faith survives in this darkness.
Day 103: Phuket, Thailand
Tonight we visit Bangla Road, one of Thailand’s capitals for sex tourism. Our goal: talk to prostitutes working in bars and invite them to lunch at SHE, an organization that provides women who want to leave the sex industry with work, shelter and group support.
Walking down this street for five minutes is enough to change the way I see the world forever. Old Westerners purchase young Thai girls for $15; tourists get plastered on cheap alcohol, and transsexuals run through the streets, flashing men and dancing on bar tables for attention. “This street is the pit of hell,” Mark, the director of SHE, tells us.
We arrive at about 9 p.m., before things get really crazy. I walk past a few bars when I notice my teammates, Lacey and Carmen, talking to a young Thai girl under a neon sign that reads “Bad Girls Bar.” I stop and listen.
“So, do you like working here, Ice?” Lacey asks the girl, who barely looks 18 years old.
“Well, it’s not what I love to do,” Ice says. “But I have to support my baby. He is 1.”
“Do you just work at the bar, or do you go with clients?” Lacey asks.
“Oh, well, some men take me on dates. Sometimes I go with them for a while, wherever they want,” she says, turning her face away.
“Well, you should come have lunch at our house tomorrow. We stay at a place that helps women get out of these bars and find jobs they like. Will you come?” Carmen asks.
“Oh, yes,” Ice stops and looks over her shoulder, noticing the British bar owner watching them suspiciously. “You need to go now. He will get angry with me, and do things.”
“OK, give us your phone number quick. We’ll call you,” Carmen says. Ice jots down some digits on a scrap piece of paper, smiling as she hands it over. “Thank you, Ice. You’re so beautiful,” Carmen says.
Just as Carmen pockets the paper, the bar owner walks out from behind the counter, moving toward them quickly. “Can I help you girls with something?” he asks, but not before they turn around and walk into a crowd.
A week later, Ice visits SHE and eats lunch with the girls. They sit and talk about food and movies, and later about how there is more to life than bars and abusive clients. “I’ve never had friends like you before,” Ice says with tears in her eyes. “I think I want to stay here.”
Day 142: Kigali, Rwanda
“They dropped dead right in front of me,” 21-year-old John Paul says, describing the murder of his parents 17 years ago. “I was very small, but I still remember.”
As my team visits young adults in Kigali, the city where more than 800,000 Rwandans died during the genocide in 1994, we struggle to relate. We spend time in government-funded houses talking and praying with people who lost mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters as a result of propaganda and mindless hatred.
John Paul sits up straight in a worn couch, speaking slowly as he recounts the aftermath. “I wandered the streets for a few weeks, looking for shelter, sleeping in the dirt,” he continues, looking down at his feet. It’s clear the memory still stings.
“Eventually my aunt found me, and we survived.” He pauses and looks at us. “Can you share some about your life?” he asks.
I’m speechless. I scramble to find some common ground and think through my hardships: working long hours at Starbucks, breaking up with girlfriends, pulling all-nighters for research papers. “I’m not sure I have much to share,” I say, embarrassed.
“That’s OK,” he says. “I know you are here for a purpose.” He tells us about his hope for the future and how he has seen God transform Rwanda from the inside out. “My generation is going to live different. We have destiny.”
We nod our heads in agreement, feeling like he encouraged us more than we did him.
“Can we pray?” I ask.
“Please,” he says.
We bow our heads and praise God for bringing life out of the country’s rubble.
In traveling from country to country, my team and I continually confront the cruelties of poverty and abuse. Men like John Paul remind us the world can be an ugly place, yet hope remains. Working with prostitutes in Asian red-light districts and with beggars in dusty African streets can be overwhelming. And yet when we step back, we see God working behind the brokenness—healing the wounds and filling in the cracks. Sometimes I still ask myself if coming on this race was worth it. I’ve neglected my Facebook profile and haven’t downloaded an iPhone app in six months, but in quieting the noise around me, I’ve been able to hear more clearly what God is doing throughout the world. The trip is only half over and I’ve already had a lifetime’s worth of experience. In abandoning all, I have more than I’ve ever had before.
Check out Curt's blog to hear more stories from his time on the Race. The World Race is a ministry of Adventures in Missions. Visit TheWorldRace.org to find out more and apply to go yourself. This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of RELEVANT. To get more articles like this, you can subscribe by clicking here.