By John Shaughnessy
Catholic News Service
INDIANAPOLIS — Their 800-day journey around the world led Matt and Nikki Javit to 35 countries, five continents and countless adventures.
They snorkeled in shark-infested waters off the Galapagos Islands, learned the sport of cricket from children on the streets of India, and were invited to dinner by the head monk of a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. Just to name a few adventures.
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 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,” recalled 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, added: “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 long journey into one backpack each.
As they prepared for the trip — they traveled from February 2017 to May 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 said as he and Nikki sat at a table in their Indianapolis home for an interview with The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
“I knew we would go to all these different churches and they sometimes wouldn’t speak our language,” he said. “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 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 reenactments, and the women of the city wearing black on Good Friday.
A Mass in the cathedral on Easter morning ends with more than 200 men carrying a huge representation of Christ’s resurrection into the streets.
“We’re extremely blessed people,” Matt said. “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.”
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. They started in South America, spent two summers in Europe, lived two and a half 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.”
“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. A shrine 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 noted.
During his second trip there, according to the local church, some people threatened his life so he fled up a hill. There, while he was praying, Mary appeared to him, assuring him he would be successful in his efforts to lead people there 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 said.
Matt added, “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.”
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, like their visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where the Nazis exterminated over 1 million Jewish people during World War II.
“We got to experience 27 months of kindness around the world,” Matt said. “People are so welcoming and kind no matter what religion and faith you are.”
Nikki added, “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 couple saved extensively before the trip and tried to cut expenses along the way, like house-sitting in in exchange for housing.
The journey also made their 14-year marriage better and closer, they said. And they have no regrets they gave up some prime earning years to take the journey; Matt was a sales executive and Nikki being a pharmacist.
“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 said. “You’d be surprised what you can learn from people and the profound impact they can have on you as well.”