Saturday, October 27, 2012

River City

Sometimes I wish I could write as eloquently and precisely as C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, or E.M. Bounds and the like, because then I wouldn’t have to use as many words as I’m going to in order to describe my last week.  I would make a terrible author because typically I get overwhelmed when I think about having to transfer emotions or thoughts to written words, so normally I don’t even bother.  But since it’s been over a month since my last post, combined with the fact that this will probably be my last post from India, I thought I’d give it a try.  Bear with me.

My friend and I had the chance to hop on a plane and travel to India’s holy city. What Mecca is to a Muslim, this city is to a Hindu.  Time or space doesn’t permit me to tell you about the history behind this city and the gods connected to it, but one thing worth mentioning is that it’s dedicated to the god Shiva, the Destroyer. Summary of Shiva: he’s violent, and likes chopping off peoples’ heads.  Ironic, because he is also known to be a spiritual seeker.  And he still resides in the city that is considered to be Heaven on earth for a Hindu.  I will never understand.

The focal point in this city is the Ganges River.  This river is believed to have sin-cleansing powers.  People from all over India (and the world) come to wash themselves clean of sins from this life and from all their previous lives.  They also believe that if they are cremated by the river and have their ashes spread in the water, they will escape the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Heaven.  After hearing that, try to imagine what this water is like.  Never in my life have I seen anything so filthy.  The whole city reeks of death, and the river is thick with ashes, body parts, waste, and pollution.  Yet still people come, thousands upon thousands, to wash themselves clean.

Our friend took us on a boat tour along the banks, and the sadness I felt as we drifted silently was indescribable.   The shoreline is covered by massive stone stairs (called ghats) that lead directly into the water, and they were covered by people.   But the most disturbing sight by far was the burning ghat, where the dead are burned right by the river and their ashes strewn into the water below.  We got out of the boat and stood directly above the site; from twenty feet I saw a couple bodies burning and other bodies being prepared for cremation.  Ten feet away from the flames, men waist-deep in ash-filled water were scavenging for anything valuable the family might have left behind.  Words can’t describe the feeling we all had as we witnessed this scene, but the only thing running through my head was the old, simple hymn, ‘What can wash away my sins?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.’

A tour of a famous Hindu temple afterwards was not much more than a blur, but I’m thankful I got a chance to see these pillars of Hinduism.  It helps me understand the culture a little bit better, and there’s something to be said for getting to know the country you live in.  But most of all, it made me so thankful for Truth.

Everything about that city – from the people, to the architecture – struck me as ancient.  It was like living in a backdrop of Bible times.  It was an amazing experience, but I was glad to be heading back to Delhi.  Never thought I’d think of Delhi as luxurious, but it was so nice to be back.  Plus, the weather had cooled down drastically by the time we arrived at our borough.  It’s finally Fall weather here!  And by Fall, I mean 80 degrees, but after 5 consecutive months of 100+ temps, it feels so cold!  Loving it.

So this is very likely my last post from India!  I have just over 2 weeks left.  I’m starting the phase of Lasts and Goodbyes, and not looking forward to it.  I have come to love this place.  Been through the wringer here (physically and spiritually), but man I love it.  Locals tell me this always happens to foreigners.  Somehow, India settles into your heart and never leaves.  The phrase they always hear is “there’s something about this place…”  It’s true.

But after 6 months away, I’m ready to be home.  See you soon :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

St. Michael's

It’s amazing how plans have changed.  I went to India expecting to be in the mountains of Mussoorie for most of the six months, expecting to be primarily with John, expecting to not know what to expect.  But for many reasons, we ended up moving to Delhi, and that has opened up so many doors that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  It’s so cool to see how this was the plan all along, and I’m just finding out what it is as I go along.  So far, I’ve had the opportunity to teach English, make friends in the city, and broaden my experience of international living.

But so far, the most exciting thing I’ve been able to do is be involved with St. Michael’s hostel for girls.  I know I’ve talked about it a lot with some of you, so bear with me as I will undoubtedly repeat myself.  In this home live about 87 little girls from villages.  Most of them aren’t orphans, but their parents or guardians either can’t take care of them or don’t want to.  I go there about 5 days a week for an hour or so a day to spend time with the 7-8 years olds.  They know about as much English as I know of Hindi, so it’s not always easy to communicate. But to me, cuteness is cross-cultural.  We color, learn new games, and embrace the chaos!  I love them more every day.  I’ve taught them how to high-five, play duck duck goose, and say as many English words as their first grade attentions spans can handle.  Nothing compares to the shrieks, hugs, and smiles I get when they see me walk through the door, or the sad faces when I say “Moochko ub chalna chaiaye”.  I have to go now.  Saddest (but cutest) thing ever.

Childhood is a precious thing, and many Indian kids aren’t privileged enough to have one.  Every day I see young children with old eyes, forced to act far beyond their years, many working all day every day as soon as they’re able to walk.  Their lives are hard and painful. But St. Michael’s gives these girls a chance to be a kid.  Their life is nothing like the typical American child, but their eyes still have some of the innocence every little girl should have.   But since St. Michael’s doesn’t officially adopt these girls, they are at high risk for trafficking.  Their parents or guardians could take them home at any time, and because they are usually poverty-stricken, could sell the girls into slavery (or worse), or the girls could be kidnapped.  I used to read stories like this all the time, but now that I know these girls – their names, personalities, quirks, who their friends are, things they love – it’s a whole different story.  Can’t explain how much it would hurt to watch a girl leave, knowing she might never come back.  I can’t focus on that…have to focus on loving these beautiful girls while I can.  November will come so fast.

This past Monday I stayed at the hostel for about 4 hours to celebrate a birthday party.  I took a bazillion pictures and videos and got to spend extra time with some girls I don’t normally see.  But the most impactful thing took place after the party.  I got to sit in with a class for the older girls taught by Vinita Shaw, the president of the hostel.  It was in Hindi, so I caught about one word per sentence, but I got the basic gist (and Vinita would translate for me occasionally).  She was teaching them common sense (not common in Indian street children), truth, God, basic life principles, and love.  It was amazing watching them think through the things she was saying.  For a Hindu, even a simple statement like “Aapkay pas bhi ek life hai” - you only have one life – changes their outlook on everything.  It was awesome.

I just love them.  I wholeheartedly wish I could adopt one of them.  I’m so thankful for this opportunity that I’ve been given to get to know them.  I’ve learned how to say “I love you” in Hindi and I say it all the time.  Mai toomsay pyaar kartay hoon.  I can’t get enough of them.  I apologize if you’re already tired of all the pictures I post of them, but fair warning: there will be more! :)

Friday, September 7, 2012

"It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life"

I wish everyone could live overseas for six months.  I have been given so much more than I’ve given up.  This kind of experience does more than broaden horizons and all that – it gives a perspective that I never knew existed but now consider invaluable.  Extended time in another country has allowed me to not only experience, but to adapt to another way of living.  And if nothing else, it has expanded my comfort zone.  I’m now familiar with hearing other languages being spoken to me, around me, and about me on a regular basis, with the slower pace of life, and with the many religious and spiritual rituals of the people here.  I may never get used to the heat or the dirt in this city, but I am definitely feeling more at home in Delhi. 

The past few weeks have seen a change in my outlook, and I’m starting to love it.  Life is simpler here; less complicated, less rushed, less hurried, but no less full.  In my humble opinion, everyone was meant to live like this.  I'm absolutely looking forward to returning to the States, but it'll take me a while to adjust to the quick pace of American life!  The title of this entry is a quote by JRR Tolkien, and I think it fits this country very well. :)

I went to dinner with my English students last night in celebration of our last day of class.  I just love them; they are sweet people and since they’re not from India either (they’re from Afghanistan and Iran), we have our cultural adjustments in common.  Even though I’m done teaching these students, it looks like I’ll still get a chance to spend time with them and hang out with them – praying for opportunities!

I’m meeting with the founder St. Michael’s hostel to nail down days/times when I can help out with the little girls.  So looking forward to getting officially started there!  I’m sure you’ll see a million pictures of them…they always come shouting “Photo! Photo! Photo!”.   I can never refuse them.

The only bad thing that persists is insomnia.  Since I’ve been in India – which over 100 days now – I’ve gotten less than 10 good nights of sleep.  Half of those were with heavy medication.  I’ve tried everything, but until last night nothing seemed to work.  My body and mind are exhausted, but for some reason I just haven’t been able to sleep more than 3 or 4 hours.  I’m learning to function, but I’ll be glad when I can finally have a good night of natural sleep.  I’ve discovered Ambien (didn’t know India had it!), and last night I slept really well.  Forgot what it was like to sleep more than 4 hours – I feel like I can conquer the world now!  Praying that it continues to work, unlike anything else I’ve tried before.

On a final note – the weather is getting better!  The days of 100+ temps, monsoon downpours, and 90% humidity are growing less and less frequent.  By October, it should be cool fall weather here.  I will never complain about cooler temperatures.

Missing you all, but trying not to live these next two months too fast :)  Taking it slow (like Delhi time).  See you soon!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This is Chai Country!

Chai is one of the things India is famous for…and this ain’t no Starbucks chai.  This is the real deal.  It’s safe to say I’m obsessed with it – I love it so much.

The recipe is pretty easy, and it’s a pinch of this, a little of that – mostly to taste.  Cardamom is the most essential spice in this tea, but it can be pretty pricey in the States.  Let me know if you want me to bring some back for you!  My friend calls this the “cappuccino of teas”.  It’s a little fancier and a little sweeter and spicier than your normal hot tea.  But I’ll never drink regular tea again, I think it’s that good.

For measuring the milk and water, I use a coffee mug.  The ratio is 2:1.  Two parts milk to one part water.  Pour the liquids into a large saucepan.  Next, the magic.  You’ll need:

1 tsp (or four little clove things) cardamom
1 tsp cloves
A little black pepper (trust me)
1 tsp cinnamon
3 spoonfuls sugar
2 tbsp loose leaf black tea. We use ground tea leaves, but if you can’t find ground it’s totally fine!  Just use less leaves because they’re way stronger.

Again, all these measurements are to taste.  Add more or less of something if you want – everyone makes it a little differently.  After you have all the ingredients in the saucepan, put on medium low heat to steep, stirring occasionally.  After about 10 minutes, bring to a boil.  Remove from heat and enjoy! You’ll need to strain the tea before serving, of course.

Some people love it, some people hate it.  You should try it though!  Indians drink this every single day.  They serve it every Sunday after church; if they have a guest over, they offer this.  It’s just one of the things I love about this culture.

If you're brave enough to try it, I hope you like it!

Getting all fancy with the visuals!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Just a few interesting facts...

Since nothing of noteworthy excitement has occurred since my last blog post, I’ve decided to include some of the interesting things I’ve been learning about Indian religion and culture.  The culture is shrouded by their religion - even their language is affected by their belief system - and my growing comprehension of Hinduism (and even Islam) has given me insight into why Indians live the way they do.  Here are just a few random facts about this country I am growing to love:

1.  In Hinduism, there are countless gods, but typically, most people are dedicated to one god or a family of gods.

2.  India is a land of symbolism and iconography.
    -elephant = good luck
    -peacock = beauty and grace (and it's their national bird)
    -tiger = power
    -camel = love (huh?)

3.  Just recently, India celebrated a holiday called Raksha Bandhan, and unlike most of their holidays laced with superstition and paganism, this one is actually quite sweet.  During this holiday, sisters tie a band or bracelet around her brother’s wrist as a reminder of love and protection and in return, brothers vow to protect and take care of their sisters.  It attempts to bring families closer together and strengthen the brother/sister relationship.

4.  Karma is a central belief in Hinduism.  What you sow in one life you will reap in the next. Reincarnation is much like the Law of Conservation of Energy, which states in part that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  Similarly, Hindus believe that the body dies but the soul lives on and on.  In simple terms, the ultimate goal of a Hindu is to be reincarnated over and over again while going through 4 basic stages (too long and complicated to include here), and then be absorbed into the spirit of their main god Brahman, which is an eternal state.  Women cannot achieve this – she must be reincarnated into a man first.

5.  Since Hindus believe that a soul resides in every being, animals are held in high esteem.  Animals are rarely killed, which is why most practicing Hindus are vegetarian, if not vegan.  The cow is their most sacred animal, and it is basically more honorable to be reincarnated into one than it is to be reborn as a woman.

6.  Due to discrimination against women in this culture, one in every sixth girl will die.  India has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, if not the highest, and most of them are girls.  Many of them are killed as young children by their own families.

7.  Hinduism is almost 4,000 years old, making it one of the oldest religions of the world.  It has dominated Indian culture for most of its existence.

8.  Most of the marriages in India are arranged.  Weddings are week long events with several specific parties and gatherings symbolizing certain specific things.  Don’t ask me what these specific things are, because I don't remember all of them.  I would actually have to get married here to figure them all out!  They are loud though, let me tell you.  While in Mussoorie, our landlords hosted a wedding and one of the parties was right outside our guesthouse (we’re talking loudspeakers RIGHT OUTSIDE my door).  Loudest music and dancing I’ve ever heard.  Let’s just say that they had fun, and I got no sleep that night.

9.  Indians have a six day work week, with each sector or area taking a different day of the week off.  I just solved the depression problem in India – give the people a two day weekend.

10.  Widows are considered bad luck in Hindu culture.  She is often blamed for her husband’s death, and many times is shunned or killed.  Although this mainly occurred in historic India, the wheels of change are often slow to turn.  Modern India is rising, and hopefully this will no longer be an issue, but widows here still carry the stigma of death with them.

11.  Rivers are very important to Indians.  In Hinduism, they are worshiped as gods and goddesses, and the Ganges River is believed to have sin-cleansing powers.  Indians come from all over the country to be cremated and have their ashes spread in the River.  From what I hear from the people I know who live there, the scent of burning flesh in the air is incessant.  As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, people often use the water to bathe in, wash clothes in, wash animals in, and set their dead children adrift in (no children are allowed to be cremated, so they just put bury them in the river).  They rely heavily on the holiness of the water to forgive sins and usher the soul to eternity in Brahman.

As I said before, Indian culture has historically been defined and shaped by their religion.  There is much more to this story, and I get new revelations about it every both fascinates and saddens me.  But after studying Hinduism at its most basic level, I am more thankful than ever before for the Hope that is in us. 

Again, thank you for your prayers and support!  I am so thankful for my friends :)  Three more months here, then home.  I've been missing the USA lately, but I'm looking forward to every step I'll take until then.