Maybe it was just my imagination, or maybe I truly did look like an alpaca. –A really weighted down one, the kind that trundle through the Andes with seventeen satchels of tourists’ hairdryers swaying from their woolly flanks. Now cancel the Andes scenery, sub in the streets of Paris, and give the alpaca a massive green backpack (MGB), a laptop bag and opposable thumbs. That was me.
Early that cool March morning, I hobbled through Paris as a hapless hobo in hiking boots, pausing every half block to rest the ridiculously heavy grocery bag I carried in the hand I’d wrapped an old fleece around for padding. The locals just kind of looked at me and kept going. I guess they’re used to alpacas.
After a quarter century or so, I managed to lug my luggage across the threshold of my destination, the international bus station. Somehow—I don’t remember how, exactly—the family I’d been staying with had helped me bypass the glitchy bus booking site the day before and nab a ticket for bus #700, bound for London. Depositing my MGB in the double decker’s belly with a grateful grunt, I climbed to a window seat on the top right.
London, here we come.
I had no clue what bussing from Paris to London would be like, given that there’s a small, English Channel-sized obstacle between the two cities. But nobody else seemed to be concerned about driving across the Atlantic Ocean, so I decided not to be either. I merely watched the French fields, farms and forestlands flow past my window for a few hours, after which point the bus ground to a halt.
Everyone else seemed to be grabbing their passports and disembarking, so—skillfully feigning familiarity with the proceedings—I followed. We shuffled into a small, squarish building I discovered to be the French customs office, showed off our passports, and bid the officers au revoir. I figured we’d be cruising across the channel in no time, but nope—we had to first filter ourselves through another squarish building, the British customs office.
“Why are you going back to Canada now?” asked the officer once I’d explained that I’d only be in England for two nights.
“I’ve maxed out the time I can be away without losing my provincial residency benefits.”
He glanced at me with a look which people usually reserve for either lost puppies or homeless hippies and waved me through.
Back on the bus, I decided to pick photos for my next blog post rather than gaze ponderously upon the parking lot vistas outside. When I looked up from my screen again, we had driven into a beige cavern about the size of a train car. A garbled, deep-voiced recording murmured instructions which I hoped were not life-or-death important, and we started moving. The bus itself felt stationary, but we were swaying as if on a train—the motion amplified by reason of the bus’s height. The air grew dense, like the boot room of a snowbound ski chalet.
What a strange place to be, I thought, trying to ignore the stuffiness, canned inside a bus within a train within a tunnel, and underwater at that!
Travel writers typically wax about gaining new insights while abroad, and now I understood. At least, I understood how it must feel to be a single kernel of microwave popcorn lodged in a paper bag within a plastic sleeve inside a cardboard box inside a bigger box inside a shipping container. But I wouldn’t say the revelation was life-changing.
When we finally emerged from our popcorn bag underworld, rolling English countryside greeted us in blessed sunshine. London’s southernmost outskirts came into view, followed by the Thames, the London eye, and a skyscraper which looked exactly like a giant, broken, upside-down ice cream cone, except glass. We pulled into the Victoria Coach Station, where I transformed back into an alpaca, navigated several Underground stations, and walked to what my GPS insisted should be the right address.
I dragged my weighty satchels around the block, through a parkade, and around the block again.
Hmmm. Maybe across the street?
I walked to a house which might possibly resemble the one in Google street view, knocked, waited, knocked, waited, knocked and waited some more. At long last, someone walked up toward the house next door—which, once I’d asked for directions—I found to be the right place.
After crashing in a bottom bunk, I took it easy for most of the next day. Alpaca’ing an MGB around 17 countries in 5.5 months, I suppose, is enough to make anyone a touch drowsy. But that evening, I did strike out to a happening church in hopes of finding one last student to interview.
“Hey,” I approached a couple of lanyard-sporting greeters after the service, “do you know of any university students here I could talk to?”
They pointed me to one graduate student, ironically, from Toronto.
“When we’re talking in class about controversial topics which the church doesn’t agree with,” she told me, “I find it difficult because I feel like I’m usually the only person in the class that doesn’t agree. I want to know how to share the truth in love. I don’t always believe the same things as others, but I found in my undergrad that the moment you tell someone that don’t agree with them, they feel like you hate them. Just because I don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean that I don’t love them. But when I’d tell some people I didn’t agree with them in high school, they would stop talking to me.”
The importance of teaching discussion skills about hot topics, I remembered, just another way student ministers in New Zealand suggested that churches should support Christian students.
“On the bright side,” I said, “what are some of the opportunities that go with being a Christian student here?”
“Being around people that don’t know God,” she answered. “They’re under a lot of stress. My university is one of the most stressful in London. I see friends in my program who are really struggling, and it gives me opportunities to check in on people, pray for them, and let them know that God can give them hope. ‘You know what,’ I say, ‘I believe that God can bring peace to this situation.’”
“What advice do you have for other Christian students?”
“Pray,” she stated simply. “Ask the Holy Spirit to help you become more sensitive to His voice.”
I nodded. “And how do you think churches can support students more?”
In answer, she described a church she attended in undergrad, with a student ministry which met every Tuesday for free food, great teaching, worship and friendly community.
“I’d tell another student, ‘Find a church like that and meet with the pastor,’” she said, explaining how her own pastor met her for coffee. “Don’t be shy to go say hi after the service.”
Community. Sound teaching. Interpersonal foundations. Intergenerational mentorship.
These are the themes which, if you’ve been following this blog for long, you will have read more times than you could fit on an alpaca. From the first students I spoke with in Canada, across to Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, “Centrovia,” “Genovia,” Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and now London, the cry for mentorship, community, and solid Bible teaching echoed from students’ own lips all around the planet.
You can find a summary of these needs, along with other recurrent themes from interviews with Christian students around the world, in a synopsis article for my 360 in 180 trip, Top Nine Tips for Christian Students Going Into Secular University. As this article explains, while the challenges Christian students face in different countries can vary with culture, the solutions are largely the same. That’s exciting because it means that if churches, families and ministries focus on a few key, strategic ways to build students’ spiritual, intellectual and interpersonal foundations, the result could make a difference for future Christian generations worldwide.
Beyond uncovering ways Christian students around the world keep their faith in secular university, six months of living out of my MGB taught me a fair few lessons about faith too. From lodging with a stranger who picked me up on a sidewalk, to witnessing hilariously literal answered prayers for ‘daily bread,’ to reclaiming multiple lost valuables, to surviving the wildest taxi ride of my life, to learning how God works after the last minute, to finding places to stay on less than a single night’s notice, this livin’-on-a-prayer adventure has allowed me to watch God work in ways I’d only read about before.
So, all in all, was roving alone for 180 days as a nomadic alpaca with no plan except to circumnavigate the globe while talking to strangers worth it?