The main lesson the Lord forced us to learn on this trip was a total dependence on him, even when our destination and our methods for getting there were uncertain. He drilled us with the meaning of Hebrews 11:1, which says that faith is being "sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."
We couldn't have asked for a more efficient way for God to introduce us to the concept than having to ride a rickety old bus through the Chinese countryside. All we knew of our first stop was the hand-drawn landmark on the map given to us during our training, which looked something like an alcove with three stems extending from the top of it, three discs branching off from these three stems. We also knew the name of the city, but being in the right city didn't necessarily mean we'd be at the particular stop our trainers had selected as the start of our mission.
When we had boarded the bus, we clamored over sacks of sugar cane and the other travelers' weathered luggage. I was crammed up against the window, my enormous backpack pressing up against me with as much weight as a small Chinese person. Steve's beast of a pack, considerably heaveier than mine, occupied its own seat. Steve, not particularly small himself, weaved his legs between the mound of bags and produce that had accumulated in the floorboard as the other 10 or so passengers had filed in.
The little bus seemed to be held together by a few resilient screws. Hinges squeaked and bolts chattered as the ancient vehicle puttered along, ascending up the mountainside and winding perilously between the unprotected edge of a cliff on one side and a high concrete embankment on the other. As we snaked our way up the mountain, I noticed that all sorts of vehicles were passing us with ease. Our bus particularly struggled on steep hills, its engine roaring loudly as other buses and cars whizzed by.
Two hours passed as I stared out the window, indulging my eyes with the breathtaking panorama spread before me. Every inch of every hill and valley was manicured with zig-zagged rows of rice paddies and tea trees. I marveled at the farmers' ability to plant so precisely and efficiently. What must have been mundane to them looked like a work of art to my foreign eyes.
I looked back at Steve. Both of us had been praying on and off throughout the ride, and now we wondered whether we were nearing our destination. At the bus station, we had conversed (in his language) with the old man that was now riding shotgun for the driver, and I hoped we had aptly conveyed to him our desired stop.
When we began to see signs of civilization, we started to gather our things. The bus squealed to a halt near a few dilapidated buildings, and the old man and the driver, in his typical brash style, barked unintelligible orders at us. The best we could do was shrug and repeat the name of the city. After scanning the landscape in vain for our unorthodox landmark, we decided to continue. We motioned at the driver to move on, and the bus lurched forward once again.
A few kilometers down the road, we experienced a deja vous. The driver's bulging eyes looked back at us through the large mirror above his head, and he once again yelled the city's name at us, pointing up and down the road as if to say, "This is where you want to go." Not exactly at peace but feeling pressured, Steve and I grabbed our cumbersome packs and squeezed our way out of the crowded bus.
At Steve's insistence, we checked our compasses. The bus had continued west, our intended direction, and we judged that we had gotten off too early. But we didn't base this conclusion entirely on direction. Our landmark was nowhere to be found.
To the south we saw a road that looked like it led into a city.
"The driver must have thought we wanted to go downtown," Steve said. In actuality, we wanted to go to the outskirts, to a place where we could begin our trek into the valleys and foothills where our people group lived.
By this time, I was uncharacteristically stressed out. I wasn't particularly fond of the idea of being lost in a foreign country, especially when there was work to be done. As annoying as it was at the time, Steve's calm assurrance won me over, and I joined him in a prayer asking the Lord to lead us to the right place.
After prayer, we decided to walk in the direction the bus had continued. Slowly, but surely, shack by shack, store by store, we trudged into what began to look like a small town, with motorbikes zooming by, buses crunching over the gravel road, and clusters of people milling about on both sides of the street.
The people gawked at us like we were some new breed of human. To them, we probably were with our white skin, brown hair, and newfangled hiking gear. As I have learned traveling abroad, the best way to deal with this awkward staring is to greet the people looking at you, especially if you can do so in their own language. By acknowledging them and acting as though it's natural for you to be there, you instantly become a person rather than just a strange phenomenon.
A few greetings later, I had them all smiling and whispering among themselves. Steve interrupted my interactions with the crowd.
"What does that look like to you?" he asked.
I followed his gaze upward, and there it was: a giant alcove crowned with three discs at the top. God was faithful, and we were on track.