How to Visit Greece on a Budget (and other ways to fail when you try)

Well, friends – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again –  no adventure is any good without a little misadventure, and based on that standard, this trip was one for the books.

This Grecian dream first became a reality when I was enjoying one of my favorite pastimes during a lunch break – looking up flights ok Kayak – and I noticed dirt cheap flights out of DC to Athens. I immediately called Bryant three times, causing him to step out of a meeting because he was afraid it was an “emergency” (it was), and we ended up booking the tickets after taking a few days to think about it.

I should now mention that these cheap tickets were with Russian airline Aeroflot, and that our layovers were in Moscow. When we bought the flights, we had a 2 hour layover on the way there, making our travel time about 14 hours (great for US to Greece). On the way back, however, we had a 17 hour layover in Moscow. We were actually really excited about this, thinking we’d be able to see some of Moscow – the Kremlin, Mummy Lenin, etc. – a city we’d likely never visit again.

Let’s start from here.

STEP 1: Buy cheap flights through Vayama with seemingly terrible layovers in the wrong name.

About a month after we booked,  I realized I’d booked the flight in my maiden name, then sent my passport off to be renewed in my married name. This is a big, bad problem…it’s not easy to change your name without paying tons of fees. Just ask Adam West.

After realizing that, our flight from Moscow to Athens was cancelled,  making our layover 11 hours instead of 2.

We then realized that Vayama, the online booking agent we used by Kayak’s recommendation, was completely useless in helping us navigate these changes, and I spent hours on the phone over the period of a month getting a different answer from every person I talked to. Cheers! Don’t use Vayama. Ever.

About a month before the trip, I was finally sent confirmation that I could get on the plane – which was a little nerve wracking.

STEP 2: Make the most of a long layover.

I always imagined Russia to look very bleak and grey, and maybe that’s still true for Moscow proper, but I was surprised how green and forested the outskirts of Moscow were from the air. It was actually quite lovely. The airport (SVO) was also nice. We complained about our cancelled flight and resulting layover at the Aeroflot desk, and 10 minutes later we were following a tall, blonde speed walker who handed us off to a mustached lady who let us to a charter bus. A whole charter bus for four of us…

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We drove right across the runway to a security gate and were taken to a nearby hotel, where we checked in, were escorted to a floor with a security guard, and left to rest. I keep referring to this as “house arrest” because the security guard was there to keep us IN, not to keep others OUT. But the room was simple and clean and we slept a full eight hours and were given a free meal before being escorted back to our charter bus, this time full of foreigners like us.

STEP 3: Accidentally book the best hotel/hotel room Athens has to offer.

Upon arriving in Athens from Moscow, we caught the very last train of the night from the airport into town. A sudden concern for our own well-being after sitting on a airplane for so long inspired us to carry our luggage up six flights of stairs instead of taking the teeny refrigerator-sized elevator up. When we finally threw our stuff down in the room we were ready. to. crash.

UNTIL…we realized we had a private balcony with this view:

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Hmmmm wat? I booked this hotel thinking it was barely not a hostel, but it was actually the greatest. The Acropolis is a sight to see, especially lit up at night, just looming 512′ over the rest of the town. Bryant and I jumped up and down on the balcony, before heading to the rooftop garden to enjoy the view. Heading to Athens anytime soon? I can’t recommend A for Athens enough.

STEP 4: Only spend one day in Athens.

Once the sun rose on our beautiful view, you could see the abundance of graffiti and trash that covers Athens. I wonder what Athens would look like had spray paint not been invented? Hard to say. We headed to the Acropolis first thing after breakfast on the rooftop garden of our hotel, as we’d heard it gets very crowded in the early afternoon.

People have been building and destroying things on the Acropolis since the FIFTH CENTURY B.C. – let that sit for a minute. The views from the top of the ‘crop (TM) were beautiful – Athens just seems to go on forever.

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We arrived thinking we’d be able to take a self-guided tour but were surprised that few artifacts/structures had so much as a plaque telling what we were looking at. I left feeling like a failure who needed to take a class in Greek history, or at least watch a documentary. I imagined Plato giving me a chastising glance at my lack of historical appreciation for what I was seeing. But then things started to look like this:

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So we got the heck outta dodge.

We walked around the old town the rest of the day, through a bunch of flea markets and shops and the National Gardens. I bought a new purse and Bryant fell down some stairs and spilled his coffee all over himself. All in a day’s work. We got some gyros for two euro and watched the sun go down on a Greek rap battle from our hotel balcony.

If you’re a regular gal like me and are spending a week in Greece, not an aimless backpacker with an affinity for Greek history, don’t spend more than a day in Athens. We enjoyed our day, but I don’t know what we would’ve done with another one.

STEP 4: Ryanair to Santorini

When heading to Santorini, Ryanair, one of the dirt cheap airlines in Europe (I once flew across Spain for 12 euro), is the way to go. Flights from Athens to Santorini are only about 45 minutes and only marginally more expensive than a ferry, which will take you 5-8 hours. Ferries are a great option for getting from island to island, but fly from the mainland to Santorini.

STEP 5: Pick your village

I consulted Santorini Dave to determine that Oia was our place. You should too: http://santorinidave.com/

STEP 6: Air BnB

I am a huge fan of Air B&B, and it’s gotten so popular you can find a place pretty much anywhere these days. Air B&B is a website that allows anyone to rent a shared room, private room, or whole place out to travelers. I’ve had several great experiences with this service, and you get a lot more bang for your buck than you would at a hotel. We stayed at an incredible villa in Oia, the “postcard” town on the island. If you’ve seen the pictures of whitewashed houses stacked on top of each other, they were probably taken in Oia. We stayed at the Villa Marina, and it was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that there were constant crowds at the entry gate to our place trying to take pictures.

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STEP 8: Splurge wisely

Here’s how we ate well and had a blast without spending tons of money:

FOOD: We packed quite a few snacks in our backpacks (cheddar bunnies, cliff bars, etc.) so we wouldn’t feel the need to buy snacks in the airport or on the island. We also went grocery shopping on our first day and bought some basic items so we didn’t have to eat out each meal. Instead of splurging on every meal, we ate a lot affordable and delicious crepes and splurged on a few meals here and there. Our BEST meal on the island (maybe our best meal ever?) was at Roka, our second-best at  The Red Bicycle, and we also paid an outrageous price for some fresh-as-it-gets scorpion fish at Katina. Our favorite breakfast/dessert place was Melenio Café – unreal fruit and yogurt parfaits and good coffee for breakfast, endless amazing desserts for after dinner.

FUN: Renting four-wheelers is a must – you can drive them all over the island and spend days exploring the other villages and beaches. Take these (sort of) trusty steeds to the lighthouse for some spectacular views, to Perissa to drive along the beach, and park in Fira to explore.

One thing to note about Santorini is that it’s not a “beach” place – there are several beaches, but they aren’t what you’d expect. The Red beach and White beach can barely be called beaches (my humble opinion), and the black beach (Perissa) is pretty great except for the fact that the sand is black and will blister your feet – flip flops are a must! If I were you and you were me, we’d spend a day at Perissa and skip the others. Amoudi Bay in Oia is the best place for swimming, but is more like what we’d call a swimming hole in the states. All rocks, platforms/cliffs/rocks to jump off of, etc. The water is gorgeous and crystal clear, but very chilly even into June when we went.

Here’s Bryant doing a gainer at Amoudi Bay. He lived.

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Our big fun splurge was a sunset catamaran cruise that included snorkeling, dinner, and a stop at the hot springs (skip these, they are lukewarm at best and will ruin your bathing suit). That was easily one of my favorite days, and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the island. There are many companies offering this type of cruise for similar prices.

Our catamaran captain Ilia. Best friends.
Our catamaran captain Ilia. Best friends.

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Finally, I’ll end this post with the donkey rides. You may have seen movies that were set in Greece, and seen people gracefully ride a donkey sidesaddle to their quaint accommodation. This is a lie.

First, the donkeys are mules, and the rides are only available from Amoudi Bay up to a residential area in Oia. It’s strictly a touristy thing. The day before we took our mule ride, we watched from our balcony as a mule spooked and took off up the hill with a girl as she screamed “STOP” over and over in the most blood-curdling voice I’ve ever heard. I think she will be scarred for life.

But, since we are decent horseback riders and it was only 5 euro, we decided to do it anyway. It was hilariously miserable – our mules jostled each other like a group of preteen boys trying to win a three-legged race all the way up the hill, dragging our legs on rocks and running into each other the entire time. The pinnacle of suffering came when another mule turned the corner in front of me, stopped, and pooped DIRECTLY on my thigh. DIRECTLY ON THERE. I think my face in the photo below just says it all. Bryant and I will probably laugh about this experience fifty years from now. It was terrible and everyone should do it.

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If you made it through all 1,882 words of this – I commend you.

 

How We Rest

When getting to know people, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “What is your favorite place on earth?” When I try to answer this question myself, I tend to think of moments in time rather than locations – rounding Camps Bay in an open-top bus as the sun sets; waking up on June 23rd to hop a plane to Mexico; driving country roads with my Dad in his convertible and blasting the instrumental version of Eleanor Rigby – I savor these memories with tenderness and joy. But a specific place?
If you were to ask my husband the question, “What is your favorite place?” he’d respond “EDISTO BEACH” loudly, and with conviction. He’s been making memories at a family house on the sound side of this quiet island since he was a kid, and his enthusiasm for everything about it is unmatched. We took last Friday off and headed south for the long weekend, and one of the friends who joined us happens to be a talented photographer – thanks Sarah Pascutti for the images!

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Seeing my husband’s unbridled joy at sitting on the dock for hours in ratty shorts and a straw hat, catching blue crabs and “living off the land”, made me thoughtful about the rest that he needs, and how rest looks different for each of us.

I used to think of rest as the antithesis of work –  doing nothing. So I’d do my best to have a restful “lazy day” by laying on the couch and watching TV. At the end of a day like this, instead of feeling refreshed and whole, I’d be stir crazy and on the brink of an identity crisis.  I realize that some of you may be thinking my dream is to spend a Saturday on the couch, and that is ok. I enjoy inactivity in short spurts, but I’ve had to realize that long periods of inactivity do not rejuvenate me.

Rest, rather than being the antithesis of work, is about freedom. As Tim Keller puts it,

God liberated his people when they were slaves in Egypt, and in Deuteronomy 5:12–15, God ties the Sabbath to freedom from slavery. Anyone who overworks is really a slave. Anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave—to a need for success, to a materialistic culture, to exploitative employers, to parental expectations, or to all of the above. These slave masters will abuse you if you are not disciplined in the practice of Sabbath rest. Sabbath is a declaration of freedom.

Bryant’s demeanor while we were at Edisto is the best example of rest as a “declaration of freedom” that I can think of. Those who have visited that island with him know that he is free there – enthusiastic, energetic, and, at the end of the day, exhausted. He comes alive and brings the rest of us along with him. As our friend Hannah put it, “I wish we could just bottle (this version of Bryant) up!”

Ironically, the more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted I am, the harder it is for me to do the things that actually make me feel rested. As mentioned above, long periods of mindless inactivity do not make me feel free, and do not make me come alive. They make me feel like a slave to laziness, to indifference, to next episode playing in 12 seconds… It’s less about turning off my brain, and more about feeding my soul the right things.

For me, as someone who does not “downshift casually”, rest is an act of will – something that I have to prepare for and then intentionally carry out.

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking…The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction (Tim Keller).

Prayer is rest. Reading is rest. Writing is rest. Taking a canoe trip across the lake with Bryant is rest.  Quiet conversation with soul-friends is rest. Taking a walk with my Mom is rest. Meditating (I’m terrible at this) is rest. Even exercise can be rest. This is how God restores my soul, grounds me, and reminds me of his goodness in the Psalm 23 sense:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.

Growing Up

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Swinging over Edinburgh, Scotland.

9 January 2014

Something is happening to me. I think it might be called growing up.

Right now I’m on a flight from London Heathrow to JFK, rounding out a 12 day holiday in the United Kingdom and Ireland. I’m exactly where I want to be – going home, that is. On Tuesday in a letter to Bryant, I wrote the following:

“We are on the bus from Cork to Galway and I’m a little homesick. Homesick isn’t actually the right word – I’m not afraid, bored, feeling trapped, or any sort of lonely. Rather, I’m thinking about what’s at home and knowing it’s so much better than what I see here.“

Many things in life are a matter of perspective, and mine has been shifting. I love this quote that my friend Jennie posted recently – “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” (Miriam Beard). That has certainly been true in my travel experiences, and the situations I’ve found myself in over the years have given me perspective, new theological questions, a deeper sense of humility, sympathy and understanding for different ways of life, and an appreciation for culture. I also love the thrill of exploring a new place and meeting new people – it’s like a breath of fresh air in my lungs and can be addicting, really. At times the world has seemed bigger – so many people to meet, countries to visit, and things to learn. At other times, the world has seemed smaller – similar physical and emotional needs across cultures, improbable connections with strangers, and how quickly a location and people group can find a place in your heart.

However, in our culture and in my own life, I’ve seen a growing trend of “wanderlust” that is often just thinly veiled discontent. Travel and adventure, seizing the day and being free can often be a popular way to run from hard work, from commitment, and from investment – anything hard, permanent, or taxing. Lately, I am beginning to realize a few things…

It is my duty to be a responsible citizen.

I am almost 23 years old. I am an adult. Although somewhat true of our entire lives, something is certainly true now – my generation is beginning to have real responsibility for the world and all the good and bad that comes with it. We are moving from 22 years of education into a more tangible place of responsibility. In the truest sense, it is up to us to take that responsibility seriously. It is time for me to learn – really learn – how to take care of money; how to be a good steward of what I’ve been given and how to practice generosity. It is time for me to learn to see and meet need. Maybe you are way ahead of me and your paradigm shifted when you were sixteen – I thank God for you. But for me, although I was learning and doing important things in college, most of it felt like a practice run of sorts.

Life is changing.

I think I grew up subconsciously thinking that even though I was getting older, my parents and grandparents were always the same. As I looked forward to turning sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, I only thought about myself and the excitement that becoming a young adult would bring. Then one day I looked over at my little brother and he was six feet tall. My Mammaw was taken last October by cancer. And the friends that I grew up with and love dearly are getting married, moving away, having children. Life doesn’t slow down for anyone. And we don’t have much time together. “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” – James 4:14. We hear it all the time, don’t we – “Life is short.” But isn’t it? I wonder sometimes what my life would’ve been like if I’d taken a different road. It might sound silly, but I wonder occasionally what my life would look like today if, instead of selling my horse and focusing on sports in high school, I would’ve continued to make horseback riding my first priority. I’ll never know. What a strange thing it is, to live. We spend so much time trying to manage the opinions of others; so much energy trying to build our own wealth, popularity, and status and it’s so insignificant. We try to be perfect and drive ourselves crazy doing so, but don’t realize we’ll never get there because everyone’s standard of perfection looks a little different – you just can’t please everyone.

I’m here – I’m a college graduate looking into the great unknown, even though my “unknown” may have a few more pieces in place than many others in my position. I am getting married in June and moving to Charlotte. I am living in a little green house with a red door. But I’m here and I feel the pressure – the pressure to make a lot of money, the pressure to be independent and successful, the pressure to be beautiful and intelligent and well-traveled. And I feel myself pushing back against it all, asking, “Why?” “What is the point?”

As I begin this new chapter of life, there are lots of things I don’t want to do. I don’t want to be so all over the place that I can’t truly “do life” with the people I need and people who need me. I’ll always be adventurous, but I don’t want to idolize the pursuit of the next-best-thing. The past four years of my life I’ve traveled so much and been involved in so much that i’s been hard for me to truly, deeply invest anywhere. I don’t want to settle into a 9-5 job and making crock pot dinners for my hot and holy husband every night, totally insulated from the world around me. I want to dig in. I want to be ready to see and meet the need around me. I want my home to be a place that is known for having an open door and my table to be a place where full, life-giving conversations happen. I do not want to be tempted to find security for my future in false places – everything that is not from God can be taken away in an instant. Instead, I want to experience God more deeply by living life in a way that makes faith – the sense of trust in God’s provision – necessary. I want to be aware of my dependence on God. I don’t want my faith to be myopic and overly introspective – instead I want to life in the belief that I cannot “grow in faith by sitting alone and trying to flex my faith muscles…but by putting myself in situations that require faith.” (to paraphrase Jim Martin in The Just Church).

This whole post has been a stream of consciousness. I’m not sure that there is a thesis that can wrap up what I’m trying to say, and these thoughts are a product of studying scripture (Ecclesiastes, Isaiah 58, Luke 12), reading several books, and musings from the journey that God has me on. I think part of this is an urging to look at yourself and the motivations that lie behind your actions. Do you serve others? If so, why? Is it to look good to the folks you want to impress? Is it to feel good about yourself? Or is it truly from a benevolent and selfless place that is focused on the need of others? I admit that throughout my life, many of my motivations have been from a selfish place.

Are you filling your time by pursuing things that have no eternal significance? Do you romanticize travel and adventure to the point that they are idols in your life – things you do not to better understand the picture that God has painted with humanity, but rather to look and feel cool and adventurous and free?  Do you go on mission trips and have intense emotional experiences about the depravity and suffering present in our world, but make yourself a hypocrite by insulating yourself from the suffering and pain that is close by you in your hometown? I did for a long time; sometimes I still do.

Sometimes in the Christian life it is hard to find the balance between giving, giving, giving, and finding the freedom to experience joy and have fun. I find this commentary from JI Packer on the book of Ecclesiastes helpful:

“Fear God and keep his commandments; trust and obey him, reverence him, worship him, be humble before him, never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to him; do good, remember that God will someday take account of you, so eschew, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light at God’s assizes. Live in the present and enjoy it thoroughly; present pleasures are God’s good gifts. Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy, he clearly has no time for the super spirituality which is too proud or too pious ever to laugh and have fun. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do and enjoy your work as you do it. Leave to God its issues, let him measure its ultimate worth – your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that are before you. This is the way of wisdom.”

Day 1 in the Wyld Wyld West

Day one of the Hutchins family western adventure began with a very rainy drive to Asheville, NC to catch our connecting flight in Atlanta. Mom and Dad were kind enough to drive and drop our happy trio at the tiny airport and we walked in feeling really confident. Jeff had never flown and Papaw hadn’t flown since 1960, so although it wasn’t his first rodeo, its pretty safe to say a lot has changed in the 53 years since he last boarded a plane. Thankfully, airport security at a place like Asheville’s small airport is a great opportunity to ease yourself into a healthy relationship with the TSA. We arrived an hour before our flight, which by my standards and past experience is incredibly early, so I sat outside and ate a burrito while Papaw and Jeff went through security alone JUST IN CASE it took longer than expected. Here’s a picture that is a pretty great reflection of everyone’s mood right before we boarded our one hour flight to Atlanta.

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The one-hour flight was uneventful and after taking the tram and walking “a country mile” to get to our next gate, we each had separate and delicious dinners and waited out our two-hour layover without much action. The flight to Las Vegas was, again, uneventful other than Papaw getting a crick in his neck from looking out the window too much and all of us feeling like fools when we realized Vegas was on Pacific time, not Mountain time, meaning our flight still had one hour left after we’d gotten all packed up and situated for arrival. Our landing into Vegas was a little rough and we were met with at the gate with all kinds of lights, fanfare, and posters of what appeared to be shirtless firefighters everywhere. We passed a group of slot machines and I said “Ooh let’s all put a quarter in one!”, which was met with disapproving looks from my two companions. This is now my second time to Vegas without dropping a penny in the gambling game, which either makes me a really good person or a really strange person, or neither, since the first time I was twelve and this time I’m with my grandfather.

Our first night, we stayed right off the main strip at a La Quinta and crashed as soon as we got there. We woke up this morning at 6 but it felt like 9, grabbed some continental breakfast, and stopped at the grocery store so we could buy snacks. Jeff bought a cooler for not one, not two, but TWELVE Diet Dr. Peppers (evidence below). Keep in mind that it’s only 24 hours until our next flight, so that’s one Dr. Pepper every two hours. Which is impressive.

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We stopped first at Hoover Dam, where we parked and walked across the top and took plenty of pictures. I’m amazed that something so colossal could be built right in the middle of flowing water. Kudos to engineers and river diversion. Afterwards, we continued on to the Grand Canyon, narrowly avoiding two collisions with other cars who failed to check their blind spot. I tried to convince Papaw and Jeff that they liked jerky so we could stop at one of those seedy jerky outlets in the middle of the desert and we could try some weird food (i.e. armadillo jerky), but no one took the bait, so we forged on.

We finally made it to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and it was certainly more breathtaking than I remember. We thought we’d missed the rain, but it came back…

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I’d argue that the canyon has to be more beautiful with a cloudy sky because it makes the view even more interesting. With clouds, certain sections of the space are shadowed and the sun shines through to highlight others, making the whole picture sort of ominous and magnificent.

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We saw some lightning in the distance and ended up getting drenched before we made it back to the car – not ideal, but part of the adventure. As I write this, we’re back in Williams, AZ, elevation of 6,770 feet, AKA not ideal for jogging. I learned this lesson the hard way about two hours ago.

Tomorrow we take on the Las Vegas strip before flying to Salt Lake City and beyondddddd……..pray for us.

Beautiful timing.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11

My internship with International Justice Mission finished up on Wednesday with the end of the first annual Northstar conference in Atlanta, GA. The conference was initiated by IJM’s Student Mobilization team for the purpose of equipping college student leaders with an interest the work of justice/the modern-day abolition movement. During our last evening session, I was sitting next to Gary Haugen (IJM founder) as Louie Giglio took the stage and began publicly thanking Gary for his faithfulness in IJM for the past sixteen years. I just sat there, glancing back and forth from Gary to Louie and having this weird out-of-body experience, thinking to myself, “HOW did I get here?”

What’s true is that there is no explanation for the things I’ve done, the opportunities I’ve been afforded, and the things I’ve experienced other than the gift of God’s grace. Let me say that again – it is by God’s grace that I’ve ever done anything noteworthy. When I look back on my life and trace God’s hand throughout it, it is so clear that I’ve had little to do with anything.

I had nothing to do with so many of the things that have made me who I am. I had nothing to do with the fact that I was born into a loving, whole home and raised by parents who love Jesus and love each other really well. It had nothing to do with me that I was given the opportunity to be educated. It had nothing to do with me that my parents taught me the importance of hard work and helped me believe in my abilities. I’ve just tried to do the best I can and squeeze a lot out of live as God directs my steps. Sometimes I do that with a pure heart, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ve run from what he wants for me and doors have slammed in my face. Sometimes I really screw things up and forget the purpose for which I was created, and try to make life about achievement.

I like this quote from Dallas Willard:

“Christlikeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment, of course. It is, finally, a gift of grace. Nevertheless, well-informed human effort is indispensable. Spiritual formation in Christ is not a passive process. Grace does not make us passive. Divine grace is God acting in our life to accomplish what we cannot do on our own. It informs our being and actions and makes them effective in the wisdom and power of God. Hence, grace is not opposed to effort (in actions) but to earning (an attitude).

Paul the Apostle, who perhaps understood grace as none other, remarks on his own efforts for Christ: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (2 Cor. 15:10) The supernatural outcome that accompanies grace-full action stands out.”

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be perfect. Until a few years ago, I felt pretty good about getting what I want and doing things myself without ever really, truly understanding my need for God. That’s a problem for many reasons, but especially when it comes to grace. You see – we need grace, and without it, we’re doomed to a life of never meeting the expectations we set for ourselves. But we can’t rest in grace until we realize we need it.

God wanted to show me some things about His grace this summer. He wanted to show me that walking with Jesus is different from working for Jesus. So he put me in a community of people who valued intimacy with the Lord over worldly success, over popularity, and over charm. He put me in a community of people who live as if what they believe is actually true; people who are desperate for God because they’ve put themselves in positions where they are sure to fail unless God shows up. People who were exercising faith, not just struggling to have faith –  “Great faith, like great strength in general, is revealed by the ease of its workings. Most of what we think we see as the struggle OF faith is really the struggle to act as IF we had faith when in fact we do not.” (Willard)

God chose to put me in such a community, and he chose to do it in the world’s most powerful city. Have you ever been around people like that? In case you’re doubting that they exist, here’s some of them:

God used these people to sharpen me in the Proverbs 27 iron-sharpens-iron kind of way. My friend Laura taught me the incredible value in having a friend who is willing to gently call you out on the junk in your life and won’t let you justify your way out of it. My friend Katrina taught me a lot about thoughtful question asking and active listening as a way to draw people out. My friend Kevin was an amazing example of someone who knows how to have A LOT of fun while still taking intentional time to think through and reflect on (and write out) things that God places on our hearts. My friend Hannah taught me a lot about the value in being vulnerable and real and asking yourself hard questions. My friend Michael taught me a lot about being intentional with people and seeing how “inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on…” (Hebrews 10:24-25). My friend Nathaniel taught me a lot about what a kind, solid, wise man looks like and was a great example of humility and integrity. My friend Ellen made me better by being one of the most genuine, authentic people I’ve ever known.

I could go on and on, but I’m leaving in an hour and a half for Las Vegas, so this post will have to be continued at a later date, or on a later plane.

To end, I’m so thankful that God put me in D.C. this summer, that he surrounded me with the most amazing community I’ve ever witnessed, and drug me through some challenging stuff this summer. I am thankful that he closed other doors, that he didn’t let me come last summer, and that he didn’t let me breeze by just going through the motions of life. This summer I was built up in faith, surrounded by people whose lives demonstrated God’s love, and who will have an influence on my life for many years. And on top of all that, I learned something about my career and what jobs I might be good at…which hilariously seems so secondary. He certainly made this summer beautiful and immeasurably more than I could have asked or imagined.

Perfect Moments

As far as this blog goes, I have struggled to know how to share my experiences this summer. Many of them have been profound but are still being worked out in my mind, others are too personal to share, and still others feel personally significant but not worth sharing. Today I was at my IJM desk reading an article that spoke of perfect moments. The author described these moments as “experiences shared with others when time stands still.” My mind immediately flashed to the movie The Sandlot, where Benny and Smalls are running to play baseball on the 4th of July and stop to stare at the fireworks as America the Beautiful plays. They’re captivated by the moment and, as silly as it sounds, I always get chills thinking about it.

When I read this, I realized the best way to share my summer with you was through snapshots of these perfect moments. Times when phones have been unplugged and hearts have been wide open. There have been so many in the 35 days that I’ve been here, and I don’t doubt that there will be many more.

1. Day one of IJM orientation. Gary Haugen is delivering the most compelling word on God’s heart for justice from Exodus 3. He speaks of what it looks like for someone to live in the absence of fear and shows us videos of Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. Mother Teresa is feisty and arguing with some men about her determination to bring aid to Lebanon and carefully addressing the needs of disabled orphans in Calcutta. “I have found the paradox,” she says, “that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only love.”

Martin Luther King Jr. on the day before his death – “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I’m in a dark room full of strangers and we’re all crying. I’m overwhelmed with the opportunity I’ve been afforded to be here this summer. A perfect moment.

2. Our commissioning ceremony at the end of IJM Orientation. All headquarters staff plus 80 new interns, fellows, and employees gather in a small conference room to celebrate new beginnings. It’s a rite of passage and I can’t wait to start working. We sing, take communion together, and thank God for the opportunity to partner with him in what he wants to do through IJM. We sing together and are individually prayed over by our mentors. I pause and know that I’m standing in one of the most anointed workplaces on planet earth. A perfect moment.

3. A regular night on the town that turned nostalgic. Colin, Taylor and I head to the district of Adams-Morgan and laugh about how in the world three people from Elizabethton have somehow ended up in D.C. together. Colin and I have been best friends since 7th grade and Taylor was his college roommate. We reminisce, as always. We go to buy THE LARGEST pieces of pizza you’ve ever seen in your life and our conversation digresses into hilarious laughter as we people watch from bar stools and drip grease all over ourselves. I’m feeling as young and free and happy as I’ve ever been. A perfect moment.

4. A sunset drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Myself, my friend Laura, and her sister Lynne are driving back to D.C. after a day at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. We’re salty, sandy, sunburnt, and full of coconut shrimp + crab bruschetta. The air conditioning doesn’t work in Laura’s car so we have all the windows down, our hair is wild, and we have country music blaring into the open air. The Bay Bridge is a two-mile arc over the water and the sun is setting, so I’m singing my lungs out and driving into the sky that’s on fire. A perfect moment.

5. The Hungarian Dance Barn. Colin and I meet up to explore the National Mall on Independence Day. We’re walking around checking out the Folk Life festival, which (from what I gather) is a celebration of endangered cultures and languages. We turn the corner and see a big circular wooden structure full of screaming, stomping people so we weave our way right into the middle. I spend the next twenty minutes trying to keep up as a tall, lanky, foreign man leads all of us in these crazy, loud, FUN line dances. It is sweatier than senior prom and therefore verifiably the sweatiest day of my life. Afterwards we get Lebanese food from a food truck and pineapples from hispanic ladies on the street corner and spend the next twenty minutes trying to guess the names of people walking by (we’re yelling names at people). We make a bet that whoever gets a name right first has to buy smoothies. We both lose so we both buy smoothies. So we both win? A perfect moment.

6. July 4th Fireworks. I’m on the roof of a huge house and have a 360 view of all the fireworks in the city. The sun has already set, it’s 75 degrees and breezy, and I’m surrounded by all the DC people I’ve come to love. I’m sitting cross-legged on a ledge but have the urge to stand on the corner of the roof, so I climb up and spread my arms out, laughing at the house next to us where people are screaming and dancing to “Party in the USA”. Dozens of fireworks light up the sky and fire trucks rush around trying to manage what I’m sure are plenty of firework accidents. I take it all in and consciously decide to never forget the moment. It’s perfect.

Spring Break 13 – Guatemala Part 1

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The above are the property of Jacob Nall (www.jacobnall.com)

Check out the whole set here:

Guatemala I-ASE Appalachian State, a set on Flickr.

ACT (Appalachian and the Community Together) is a wonderful organization on our campus that provides dozens of service experiences for the students of Appalachian. One of their most popular programs is ASE – Alternative Service Experience – which provides students with the opportunity to take service trips during university breaks.

I spent Spring Break 2012 in Costa Rica, doing the hardest manual labor of my life on an organic farm in San Isidro. This year I had the opportunity to lead an ACT trip with my dear friend Jacob Nall, Guatemala being our destination. We started planning in April of last year, so this thing was a long time coming!

Other than a brief time where we were fairly sure that our trip wasn’t going to get filled (and therefore cancelled), I’d say the planning went off without a hitch. We ended up with a full crew of 15, which consisted of 13 students, Jacob and I, and Dr. Catherine Fountain, AKA my favorite tri-lingual person. The woman is brilliant – has a PHD from UCLA, speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and English fluently, and is just an all-around rock star when it comes to traveling. The woman brought ONE JANSPORT BACKPACK for the whole week and left nearly all of her clothes behind when we traveled back to the US. And y’all thought you knew how to travel light…

Anyway, we ended up with the most beautiful and cohesive group of people that I could have ever imagined. I’m getting ahead of myself, but there was never an ounce of conflict between group members the entire week. The majority of us were strangers before embarking on this little adventure, but we gelled so well. I can genuinely say that I enjoyed each person’s company during our time together.

Personally, I didn’t find myself getting excited about the trip until a few days before. I had so many papers and midterm exams the week before break that I didn’t even realize what was actually happening until we all met the night before our 7:00AM flight. HELLO that’s early – and meant getting to the airport at 4:30. We had what seemed like a shirt journey to Guatemala with a 45 minute layover in Atlanta and all the excitement making time fly. When we landed in Guatemala City, we were given a royal welcome by employees and volunteers of Service for Peace, our partner organization. They had a big sign and big smiles for us and gave us a Spanish welcome before herding us onto a school bus.
I wasn’t sure how my Spanish would hold up – I haven’t really tried using it conversationally since last Spring Break – but my brain was apparently ready to do WORK because I felt more confident than ever. Conjugating on the fly was tough, but I was so eager to get to know the five Guatemalans that were spending the week with us that I put my embarrassment aside.
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Two of the Guatemalans that we were with spoke English pretty well and translated for the group. Each had a very strong, unique personality that came through even with a pretty thick language barrier. Juan Pablo is the in-country director of Service for Peace Guatemala, and was very eager to make sure things were running smoothly. He has a baby boy in Nicaragua and wore an undershirt with the baby’s face on it EVERY DAY. Roxana is a medical student and Mario is her 17 year old brother who loves Limp Bizkit and takes culinary classes on Wednesdays. Dulce, as her name suggests, was one of the sweetest, meekest, and most kind-hearted people in our group. Sergio and Andrea are adorable childhood sweethearts that genuinely enjoy the company of other human beings and are always laughing. They were an unforgettable group.
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Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world – ranked 12th for it’s violent crime rate. Large-scale drug and illegal alien smuggling are a constant issue, and the percentage of missing persons has increased 156% since 2009. This was, to me, more intriguing than frightening. Our accommodation in Guatemala City was a bunk room in the basement of a church – primitive but safe and gated in a community that was also considered safe. We had an incredible view from the back porch/courtyard looking over a small valley. Directly across from us on the other side of the valley was a shanty town – aluminum and cinderblock huts stacked on top of each other with trash spilling down the hillside. I never saw anyone moving among the houses, but each day music would echo off the walls of the valley and reach us in our bunk rooms. When they weren’t pumping the latin jams, someone was usually shooting off bombas, or fireworks without the fancy pyrotechnics. I had no idea this tradition existed, but based on my experience it is very popular in Guatemala to shoot them off for any occasion whatsoever – birthday, anniversary, engagement, baptism, just cause it’s Tuesday, etc.
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Our first day and a half consisted of getting to know Guatemala City. We rode the most temperamental mini school bus I have ever encountered in my short life into the city center, grinding the gears and lurching up hills all the way. We took a stroll through the packed streets and observed several processionals for Holy Week, which were beautifully symbolic when considered in their purest intention. The processionals we saw were for children, so tiny kids carried around large sculptures of Christ carrying the cross or other Biblical images and walked a route through the streets, regularly walking through intricately designed sawdust alfombras (rugs) that were intentionally placed along the path. Above all, it is a really important part of Guatemalan culture that I’m so excited we could experience.
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Truly, we felt like part of the “show” as we stuck out like sore thumbs with our pasty pale Boone-winter skin. Especially since there were 15 of us all in Service for Peace t-shirts, we drew some serious attention. After wandering around, visiting a beautiful cathedral, and wandering around some more, we made a pit stop at a ice cream parlor that offered flavors from oatmeal to beans…to cheese and avocado…and finally reaching a lot point with fish flavored hand-dipped cones. Negative ghost rider, I am all about some adventurous eating but setting thyself up for failure is neigh a good idea.
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Alright folks – if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I’m impressed. I’ll stop here and pick up with another post since we’re already at 1,000 words. Thanks for sharing the journey.