Missionaries used to be the most likely candidates found living out their faith on foreign soil, but these days people of all walks are being led into positions as volunteers or teachers in remote regions of the world. Many are taking “go ye into the world” to heart, and finding surprising results. Some are finding their way to South America because it offers cheaper living, the promise of adventure, the allure of challenge, and a sense of fulfillment often missing from life at home.
Opportunities are endless, and even if you’ve never been to South America, someone you know has, or will be moving there soon. It has the usual hurdles of language barriers, cultural differences, and confusing legal practices, but there are a few additional points to consider as a foreigner and as a believer.
Not all white people speak English
It may seem obvious, but one small assumption can result in embarrassing consequences. If you’re coming from a country united by a single language (English) and moving to a place that is also more or less monolingual, it can be easy to make unconscious generalizations. If you are in Perú and don’t speak Spanish well, the stress can tempt you to immediately run to the first white person you see and start unloading your problems in English. The stranger is just as likely to hail from Finland as from any Anglophone nation. The rule applies for Spanish as well since Brazil, the continent’s largest and most populous country, speaks Portuguese.
Go to Mass
The Catholic Church has had an enormous effect on the Latin American region. Conversations about God will be within this context, so if you’re not familiar with this part of the culture, you should become so. Also, in many areas, worship may be more vibrant in South American cathedrals than you’d expect.
Know Your Geography
Some of God’s greatest wonders lie in South America, and preparedness will help you experience them. In July, going to Santiago, Chile wearing shorts and flip flops, will likely lead to hypothermia. The equator runs through the middle of the continent, and the seasons swap on either side of that line. It is easy to underestimate the temperature differences between the extreme north and south ends of Argentina. Cold, Antarctic currents keep surfers away from many of the beaches, unless you have a wetsuit.
Learn to Ask For “No Mayonnaise”
If you are picky about what you eat, the most important phrases you can learn will be food-related. In place of the ubiquitous ketchup that graces tables all across the States you will find mayo squirt bottles. A vegan will have a tough time in the meat heavy countries of Chile and Argentina. In rural areas, it may be difficult to adhere to a specific diet, and many times, being a kind and generous Christian may mean eating the food given to you with gratefulness.
Get a Good Pair of Walking Shoes
Local flights can be cheap, but labor strikes happen more regularly than scheduled flights. Buses are cheaper and more reliable, unless heavy rains wash out the roads. Taxis can be cheap, but driving standards vary tremendously all over the continent. Sometimes the only sure way to get around is God’s grace and your own two feet.
This is on nearly every how-to-travel list available, but it’s the most important piece of advice a traveler can follow. Whether you are in South America long-term or short-term, being flexible means being open to what God is doing in your life—and what He’s doing in the lives of the people around you.
John Ford Milton is a filmmaker, world traveler, and erstwhile language teacher. He is currently located in Atlanta, Ga.