February 7, 2020

Following the sun and a dream: A couple’s 800-day trip around the world deepens their faith—in God and humanity

Matt and Nikki Javit share in the joy on a day when they brought sports equipment to the youths of a Catholic orphanage in southern India, one of the many places they visited during an 800-day trip across the globe that deepened their appreciation of humanity. (Submitted photo)

Matt and Nikki Javit share in the joy on a day when they brought sports equipment to the youths of a Catholic orphanage in southern India, one of the many places they visited during an 800-day trip across the globe that deepened their appreciation of humanity. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Their 800-day journey around the world led Matt and Nikki Javit to 35 countries, five continents and countless adventures—including snorkeling in shark-infested waters off the Galapagos Islands, learning the sport of cricket from children on the streets of India, and being invited to dinner by the head monk of a Buddhist temple in Vietnam.

Their 27-month trip of a lifetime also led the married couple into an even deeper appreciation of their Catholic faith as their adventures included experiencing Holy Week in Peru, making a pilgrimage to Fatima in Portugal, and persisting through a thunderstorm as they climbed the same dirt hill that St. Thomas did as he fled angry locals in India.

Then there were the other sear-into-the-soul moments that these two members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis experienced—moments of life-affirming personal connections with strangers, like the one they had in Croatia with a man in his 80s named Vladimir.

“We were leaving church on a Saturday night,” recalls Nikki, who is 38. “He says, ‘Where are you going tonight?’ You could tell he just wanted to talk. He invited us back to his place. We always had this rule that if someone invites us into their home and they seem nice, we’ll go. We ended up talking all night long with him. It was such a good conversation. He just needed a friend.”

Matt, who is 43, adds, “There were so many small stories like that. We knew God was guiding us.”

That’s just one of the many memorable snapshots that will stay with the couple— memories they have stored with the same care that they packed everything they needed for their 27-month journey into one backpack each.

‘A way of being thankful for all you have’

As they prepared for their trip from February 2017 to May of 2019, Matt and Nikki each stuffed their backpacks with their laptops, a bathing suit, three sets of clothes, a week’s worth of underwear and three pairs of shoes. Matt’s shoes took a considerable amount of space since the former basketball player at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro wears a size 15. Still, he made sure to pack one other item that he considered essential for the trip.

“As a good Catholic, I downloaded the readings in English on my Kindle app before we left,” Matt says as he and Nikki sit at a table in their Indianapolis home. “I knew we would go to all these different churches and they sometimes wouldn’t speak our language. We went to hundreds of churches and attended Mass many, many times. Even though they weren’t speaking our language, you’d still get a great vibe in the scenario from just being around the people.”

That vibe especially came alive when they spent Holy Week in 2017 in Ayacucho, Peru. People from across that country and around the world pack the city which marks the sacred week with fairs, dancing in the streets, elaborate religious processions and re-enactments, and the women of the city wearing black on Good Friday. A Mass in the cathedral on Easter Sunday morning ends with more than 200 men carrying a huge representation of Christ’s resurrection into the streets.

“It was just fantastic,” Matt says.

It was also one of the many times they didn’t understand the language, but they still could follow the universality of the celebration of the Mass. Even more, it reflected their need to be at Mass each week.

“We’re extremely blessed people,” Matt says. “Going to Mass was a way of being thankful for all you have and asking for guidance in the week ahead. It was also a huge part of the travel experience. Going to churches is a way to experience the locals and get something authentic.”

Following the sun and a dream

In planning the trip, Matt and Nikki focused on “traveling with the sun.” So their direction always led them toward warm weather and as many beaches as possible as they started in South America, spent two summers in Europe, lived 2 1/2 months in India, and experienced three months in South Africa, six weeks in Japan and six months in Southeast Asia before finishing their trip with a tour of Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.

As they followed the sun, they also followed one of Nikki’s lifelong dreams—to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. As a small child growing up in Chicago, she became mesmerized watching the 1952 movie, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.

“It was on TV, and I became so fascinated with these three shepherd children who saw the vision of Mary,” Nikki says with a glowing smile. “I thought that would happen to me. I would run in the back field of our house and kneel down and shout to the heavens—to make Mary talk to me. For me, it was always a place I wanted to go.”

Their time there didn’t disappoint.

“We did the whole tour, and it was everything I hoped it would be,” she says. “The cathedral was phenomenal. We lit candles for everyone in our families. There were pilgrims from all over the world there. People were on their bare knees crawling [toward the shrine.] It was all really moving to me.”

They shared that same reaction when they followed in the footsteps of St. Thomas in India.

‘It kind of shook my soul’

The shrine of St. Thomas in Malayattoor, India, commemorates the evangelization efforts of one of Christ’s original Apostles.

“As the story goes, after Jesus’ death, a lot of the disciples went west while St. Thomas went east to India,” Matt notes.

During his second trip there, according to the local church, some people threatened the life of St. Thomas so he fled up a hill. There, while he was praying, the Blessed Mother appeared to him, assuring him he would be successful in his efforts to lead people in the area to Christ.

“At the top of the hill where St. Thomas fled, there’s a huge golden cross erected in the middle of nowhere,” Nikki says.

Matt adds, “Here’s what’s awesome. As you go up the hill, you see these massive crosses that have been left there by people who have carried them up this dirt hill.

“As Nikki and I were making the trek up there—it’s not easy—it started to rain and pour on us. We looked at each other. ‘Do we want to do this?’ We kept going. When we got to the top, there was the loudest thunder of my life. It kind of shook my soul. I felt like God was applauding our efforts.”

The next day, the couple stopped at a nearby Catholic orphanage where they brought toiletries, school supplies, basketballs, soccer balls and cricket equipment for the boys who called the place home.

“As the priest came out, he was talking to me,” Matt says. “I said, ‘Father, do you mind if I throw some of the sporting equipment out there so they can see it?’ There are 55 teenaged boys at the orphanage. They came flying out the doors. They played for hours until the rains came.

“I had the chance to interact with them, teach them some lessons and just hang out with them. Not a single child had shoes. Nikki and I were reflecting on that later. The kids never felt they were without. They were so happy.”

‘It could make me cry’

While the journey took them deeper into the traditions of the Catholic faith around the world, it also gave them a deeper appreciation for the way other people live—and die—for their faith.

“We had the chance to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp,” Matt says, referring to the site in Poland where more than 1 million Jewish people were killed by the Nazis during World War II. “It will move you in a way to understand the evil that’s out there. It’s sad, but I think it’s something we should understand.

“We had the chance to understand other faiths around the world as well. The Buddhist people were the kindest and the warmest as we went through Asia. We were in the countryside of Vietnam looking at this beautiful Buddhist temple during the Chinese New Year and the head monk came out and invited us to dinner. He wanted to tell us more about him and understand more about us and tell us about his faith.”

They had similar experiences with people who practice the Shinto religion in Japan and Hinduism in India. In fact, they took part in three weddings in India through connections they had made with natives of that country in the United States.

“For me, it’s just the reiteration that humans are great people,” Matt says. “We got to experience 27 months of kindness around the world. People are so welcoming and kind no matter what religion and faith you are.”

Nikki adds, “People with so little have given us so much. It was to the point where it could make me cry. We met people who had just food and the clothes on their backs, and they were breaking out their best for us. All they want to do is show you their kindness. They just want to spend time with you and create bonds and friendships with you.”

‘The blessings that come our way’

In looking back on their journey, Matt and Nikki say it reflects their personal approach to life of emphasizing “experiences over things.”

They saved extensively before they made the trip and tried to cut expenses along the way, including house-sitting for two cats in exchange for housing in Switzerland, and house-sitting for a dog in exchange for housing in Singapore.

The journey also made their marriage of 14 years a better and closer one, they say. And they have no regrets that they gave up some prime earning years to take the journey—with Matt being a sales executive at the time and Nikki being a pharmacist.

“People looked at what we were doing as a risk in some ways,” Matt says. “We both were at peaks in our careers, and we loved our relationships here. But we had a deep faith in ourselves and in each other and in God—to know there was something out there that was pulling us. We knew the challenge of the journey would give us a unique opportunity to learn new skills and develop ourselves in a different way.”

They have continued that approach since returning to Indianapolis. Matt recently attended a Vietnamese Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Indianapolis, bringing his Kindle app with the readings in English with him.

The smiles he shared with the members of the Vietnamese congregation that Sunday reminded him of the life-changing experiences he and Nikki had on the journey—and the life-changing connections that can be made at home.

“We saw the beauty of the people around the world, but we also understood how lucky we are to live in this country and the blessings that come our way,” Matt says. “You’d be surprised what you can learn from people and the profound impact they can have on you as well.”†

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