March 22, 2013

The Real India: Life of Luxury

India is a huge country stretching from Pakistan all the way across to Myanmar and ranging from China and the Himalayan Mountains down to steamy Sri Lanka which almost brushes the equator. There are 28 states each with its own culture, language, history, and struggles. Even a native of India can only see their dynamic country through one pair of eyes and set of experiences. So the quest for the “true India” seems quite impossible and illusive. Once you begin to understand something about this culture, you discover something that throws a monkey wrench in your original hypothesis. This was really true during my trip to Delhi in February.

Flying into the Delhi airport felt like I was coming home, back to the familiar. When I am not in Delhi I crave when the plane I am on begins the decent into the Gangetic plain and I know that I will see my Asha family soon. This trip was different because my primary reason for coming to Delhi was something other than spending as much time as possible at Asha House. I did get to spend some beautiful moments at Asha House, but the focus of this trip was different. I was primarily there to be a support to a friend who was there to do some battle with the Indian bureaucracy. Because we needed to be in closer proximity to the government offices, we stayed with different people my friend knew in South Delhi and Gurgoan. This was not the part of Delhi I knew.

South Delhi is transversed by wide roads lined with lush greenery, and divided up in tidy sectors named with the letters of the English alphabet. In these cozy sectors you can find apartments and houses with gardens out front along quiet streets. The luxury cars (lot of imported Hondas) parked outside are meticulously being washed by the owner's hired driver. Just around the block is shopping area where you can get groceries, vegetables, photocopies, school books, and anything else you might need. Even though it is walking distance most people can afford Rs.10 to take a auto-rickshaw ride. If you are too lazy for even that you don't even have to leave your house. All you have to do is call up the store and they will deliver everything from rice and potatoes, to chicken, to potato chips and cold drinks (Indian English for soda). You also are able to order delivery of any kind of cuisine thinkable: Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, McDonald’s, Domino’s, North Eastern Indian, South Indian, and the typical Northern Indian fare. In this neighborhood there are no beggars on the streets or dirty children playing in the dust. There is a gated play ground for the children of the neighborhood to play in with monkey bars, swings, and slides all painted cheerfully.

I don't know exactly when it started hitting me, the fact that the Delhi I knew was not the one I was experiencing, but if definitely hit me that I was in another world when I stepped into DFL Place Mall. This is actually one of three super luxurious malls that are built almost on top of each other. The only way you can tell that you are going into a different mall is because you have to go through a security check when you cross from one mall to the other. It is like having three malls larger and fancier than South Park right on top of each other. The other two are called Select Citywalk, and MGF Metropolitan Mall. Google it if you don't believe me. Honestly I had a hard time believing my own eyes. THREE luxury malls.... why in the world? May in Dubai but not in Delhi.
My friend and I were at DFL Place to meet up with someone. We were staying at someone's house in South Delhi so this mall was a convenient meeting place. We got there a little early to wander around and get some ice cream. I found a frozen yogurt place (what is a luxury mall without frozen yogurt?) and was pursuing the menu overwhelmed by the Western amount of options, when a young girl pushed her way past me right to the counter, literally pushed me. Flouncing her hair and adjusting her designer bag she tried ordering the largest thing on the menu for her and her boyfriend. The guy behind the counter seemed embarrassed because of her actions and helped me first because I was technically next, but the girl tried thrusting her handful of Rupees toward him to try to get served first. In my head I was wondering if this was really happening and what I should do. I would expect this sort of thing from the Delhi that I knew before. In this country everyone pushes and shoves to get what they need. There are no tidy queues(lines) unless there are police to enforce them. Even with this there is usually some extra courtesy shown to foreigners. I am not saying that I deserve extra special treatment, but I didn't expect to be treated so very rudely especially by a female and one much younger than I am, and on top of that inside a mall that seemed the pinnacle of “civilized India.” This girl seemed to think the world revolved around her. I thought that was a western thing... maybe it came as a bonus with her designer purse. I got yogurt but my head was too much in a whirl of culture shock to really enjoy it.

The entire mall (really malls) experience was the most culture shock I have been through so far. At first I thought it was reverse culture shock (because these malls were so western), but I am not quite sure that was quite it. This was still India, but such a totally different India than I ever expected to experience. Since being in Delhi I have read a book called,“The Beautiful and The Damned: Life in the New India,” by Siddhartha Deb. In this book Deb examines the lives of businessmen, farmers, activists, and women in this country that is so rapidly changing. This man who lived for quite some time in NYC and seen western self-centeredness there, gives his own account of wandering around DFL Place Mall:
“ I was still wondering why I had been unable to enter the Paul Smith store. I didn't normally go to designer stores but when I had ventured into some of them in New York out of curiosity, I hadn't felt such unease. Somehow, I was more exposed and vulnerable in Delhi. This wasn't because it would be apparent to everyone in the shop that I couldn't afford to buy anything- because that would be pretty obvious in Manhattan too but it mattered to me in Delhi that people would know, as if the very objects would sneer at me for daring to enter their space. In the West, with its long excess of capitalism, it might be possible to scoff at luxury brands. They had been around so long that they had lost some of their meaning. But in India, luxury brands still possessed power” (Deb, 240)
Reading this hit on the head what I had been feeling. I felt out of place not because everything around me was reminiscent of the excess of the West but because because there was a strange pride and power that oozed from every shop, kiosk, escalator, display, and the people who strolled around wearing designer clothing and shopping bags emblazoned with luxury labels on their arms.

The India I knew was one of the orphan, the leper, the beggar, the persecuted pastor, the struggling family; the India of the people who appear as a faceless nameless mass to the people cavorting in DFL Place. I knew in theory that the India of leisure and luxury existed, but to see it with my own eyes, to smell the sickly perfume with my own nose, to feel the perfectly cold AC on my own skin, to taste its delicacies with my own tongue, was something quite unnerving.

Work Cited:
Deb, Siddhartha.“The Beautiful and The Damned: Life in the New India.” Viking by Penguin Books India. 2001  

March 18, 2013

The Real India: Intro

If you have been keeping track of me and my blog posts for the past 6 months, I am sure that you have been disappointed by the general lack of exposition on Kalimpong, India, and what I am observing about both.

In a tourist guide to India I read last year it said something like “the more you know about India the less you understand.” This has been very true of my experiences the past months. The more I see and learn, the more realize that I cannot fully know of understand this country or its many peoples.

I haven't written much about of my insights or observations on India and its culture on this blog yet because I feel ill-equipped and unqualified to do so. I am looking at things here through the dimly lit kaleidoscopic lens of being a foreigner in this place, I get glimpses of the dark and light of reality but they are all jumbled up and out of context in my perception. What furthers this handicap is my experiences are quite shallow. I feel that in this cozy house, 
tucked up on the mountain side, 
surrounded by a fences, 
buffered by school grounds and the principles house and gardens, 
which rarely looses power or has water problems, 
where I eat dahl and rice made by our cook for lunch,
but am treated to American dinners and baked goodies in the evenings, 
that I haven't earned a right or a place to comment on the culture and country that I am living in.
The garden in the front of our compound

Though I feel unqualified to comment at all, I am still going to attempt to share with you what I am learning about this strange wild beautiful country I am living in.

Check back for posts in a series I am calling “The Real India”  

March 8, 2013


As well as taking a trip to Delhi last month, I also took a short trip to Nepal.

Kalimpong is in a tiny northern finger of India that is wedged between Bhutan, China (Tibet), and Nepal. Nepal is just 4 or 5 hours drive from our house in Kalimpong. From Delo Hill, the highest point in Kalimpong at 5556 ft above sea level, you can see China, Nepal, Sikkim (one of the hardest to reach Indian states), and Bhutan. Most of the population of the Darjeeling District (which includes both Kalimpong and Darjeeling) are ethnically Nepali. The Nepalis here have been fighting for a long time to have their own state within India, Gorkhaland, so they can get better representation in the government and to have more control over the Darjeeling area.

My visit to Nepal was essentially for my visa. With the type of visa I have I need to leave the country every six months. Originally I would have had to stay out for two months before I could return to India, but just last year they changed this law. Coming to India I wasn't quite sure what I would do about this issue, but as He always does the Lord made a way.
Nepal Border
The German family who we are close to also needed to also go out for their visas. All we really needed to do was cross the border, fill out papers, and come back to fill out more papers, but the lady I am staying with knows a family who runs a school in a town just 45 minutes from the Nepal border. She arranged for us all to travel together and stay at the school for a few days. 
The Principle's Quarters Where We Stayed
At the border there are four forms for each person to fill out. That meant coming and going, I only had a total of eight forms to fill out, but the German family, with their four children, had forty-eight forms.  I really commend the families who choose to come live in places like India to serve the Lord. Just the paperwork alone is quite an ordeal. Living in Kalimpong and getting to watch different missionary families has given me a great picture of the ups and downs of living as family in a foreign country. 

When we crossed over in to Nepal all the kids started looking around for Mt. Everest. Can you find Everest?
Vehicles cannot cross the India/Nepal border, so when we got there we had to take everything out of our Indian vehicle and find another vehicle in Nepal to take us the rest of the way. When we arrived at the border we learned that there was a strike that day and no taxis would be running for another hour. So we made a huge pile of our bags, brought out snacks, and hung out on the side of the road for an hour (maybe it was only 45 mins, because Nepal is 15 mins behind Indian time). Jeewan Loy and his best friend Maxi played football with a soda bottle, and we befriended a goat who was trying to get to our snacks. Got to love missionary children. Who needs iPods and video games when you have a soda bottle and a goat?
Chilling at the Border 
Kick the Bottle

The children all enjoyed the huge school swimming pool. When we arrived, even before finding our rooms, the children inspected the swimming pool. They found that there was a kiddie pool as well as the large pool, and both of them had slides. Voluntarily the children all went to bed early because they couldn't wait to wake up and swim the next day. They spent and entire day swimming and everyone besides Manju and Jeewan Loy got sun burnt.
Swimming Pool

Mexi and Jeewan Loy- Best Buds


Nina and Manju
School Assembly 
We stayed at the school for the four days with the principle of the school and his family. They were wonderful hosts. Their son, Vaskar, was just home from Austria. He went to bible school in Europe and is married to a girl from Austria. He was coming to find a place to live and get things set up for them to move in the fall. Vaskar and his wife are also going to be starting a Kindergarten school in a nearby village. We were able to visit the house that they have rented for the school and were able to pray over it. Vaskar also wants to get involved in helping churches both in Nepal and India. Through him we got to meet a pastor in this village and visit church building that the congregants recently built with their own hands and finances. It is exciting to see people who are really committed to spreading the gospel, and challenging believers to really live a biblical life devoted to following Christ. Over these four days we had some great conversations about cultures (eastern vs western), education, revival, the state of the church in Europe, India, and Nepal, and various other topics. It was such encouragement to me, and just at the right time.
Future Kindergarten 

The Pastor and Vaskar

The Church
At the end of our stay the girls found a adolescent pigeon who had somehow gotten out of its coup. The school had a few pigeon coups attached to the second and third levels of the buildings. This little guy couldn't fly yet and so he couldn't get back up there on his own. The girls were quite worried that the principle's cat, who was quite pregnant, would try and make this pigeon her dinner. Somehow I couldn't see a very pregnant cat as a highly threatening predator. But anyways the girls made a little nest for the bird, gave it water in a coconut shell, and watched it carefully guarding  from the cat. They were quite sad to leave it when we had to go.

 The area we were in Nepal was not so different from the part of India we had just come from. The culture was pretty much the same. The economy is struggling more and people are poorer. Though the similarities there was something different that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe I will have to go back and spend more time there someday. We shall see what God has in store.

Overall the trip was a success.We had no issues with the visas (thank you so much for your prayers). The children had a great time. Us adults had some great conversations and encouragement (more to come about that). It was refreshing for all of us all to get out of our normal lives for a few days and get fresh perspectives. 

Here are some more pictures:

Typical House in this Busti (Village)

Hindu Holyman Texting on his Phone

Vaskar Bargaining- Lindy and I trying to look less-white so Vaskar can get a better deal 

Rickshaw Time
Sunset and the Road
On the Road
Most of the photos in this blog are courtesy of Harry Weiber

March 5, 2013

The Kingdom and a Ring

So last month (woah is it really March already?) I was able to take two short trips, one to New Delhi, and one to Nepal.
Beautiful Kalimpong

It was so nice to get away from Kalimpong for a little while. Kalimpong has really everything one could want or need, but it is still a little hill town, where everyone knows everyone, so it was great to get to eat some KFC, McDonalds, and Costa Coffee, do a little shopping, and just get a change of pace.
Sweet Babies
I was also able to spend a few short days at Asha House. I would have loved to spend more time there, but I spent as much time as I could fit into the schedule. Things are a little different at Asha House when you come as an old friend just popping in and not as part of a long anticipated team. I think you get a better picture of the real everyday Asha House. Even at a place as special as Asha House there are still days of drudgery: the days at the end of the school term when the kids are ready for a break but instead need to study for exams, when the diapers and laundry pile high, when there is another 70+ servings of rice and dhal to prepare, when life just moves slowly on. It was a good reminder to me that life is still life even when you are living the "dream" and fulfilling your vision. God has been showing me a lot about that these months. This just confirmed that there is something beautiful in doing what you were made to do, but there are still those days and seasons where everything doesn't sparkle and shimmer with meaning, where the days get dull and need a little elbow grease and trust to shine again.
Ready for Lunch
The couple who started and run Asha House are expecting a baby this summer. They have been trying to get pregnant unsuccessfully since they were married 8 years ago. We are all so excited but holding our breath. She has doctor's orders to be on bed-rest until delivery partly because of the delicate nature of this pregnancy and also because she has been having really bad morning-sickness (actually all-day-sickness). When I was there it got so bad that she spent the night in the hospital. She is doing much better now after getting on new nausea medicine. Her days are especially dull because she is pretty much confined to bed, and doesn't even find enjoyment in eating because of the nausea. Please keep both her and the baby in your prayers.
Rachel in 2009

I try my hardest not to have favorites and to spend the same amount attention on each child, but I definitely have a special connection to a little girl I will call Rachel. In 2009 when I first met her she was a tiny shy three year old, who had never known the love and attention of a functional family. Before she came to Asha House she and her siblings lived with their mother who worked in a brothel. In 2009 I helped teach her and four other little ones their "ABC's" and "123's." She was reserved and had a sadness in her eyes. During "school" she really had a hard time focusing and barely could hold a pencil. By the time I left she could write her name. I look back and see this as one of the most precious things in my life. Another one of these moments was in 2011 when I was back at Asha House. This little girl who I taught to write her name and who didn't know how to give or even receive love when she first arrived at Asha House came up behind me surprising me with a hug and the words "Aunty, you are my Aunty. I am loving you so much!" I was blown away by this outward sign of affection from a little girl who had been so reserved just 2 years back.

Leaving Asha House in 2011

During this most recent visit to Asha House I had another one of those moments  I was just hanging out in the girls room while they were getting ready for bed. I was leaving back to Kalimpong the next morning so I was trying to make sure that I spent quality time with as many of the girls as possible. I was sitting on the cement floor discussing the movie "Titanic" with the older girls who had just seen it, and over comes Rachel, who I affectionately call "miro chuha" (my mouse). She brought with her a little plastic blue ring, and showed it to me explaining that it was one of her Christmas presents. Rachel put it on my pinkie finger, the only one of my fingers it would fit on. I admired it and oohed and aahed that she should receive such a wonderful Christmas gift. I am not sure if you have even been to a children's home or an orphanage, but typically the children who live there don't have very many possessions of their own. Especially in India where community is the way that society functions, all possessions are shared among the group. When a little girl gets something pretty of her own it is quite a special thing.

The Best Gift
When I got up to say "good-night" I gave Rachel her ring back, thanked her for showing it to me, and told her that it was such a nice gift. Again she surprised me and said that I should keep it. What?!?! How could I take this token from this precious girl who has so little? Why would she want me to have it? Once she was tucked into her bed I tried to give it back to her again; her response was "take it Aunty, I want to love you." I don't think that there has ever been a moment to top this one. To be loved like this, to be presented with a gift such as this, from a little girl who has such a hard life at six years old, what a treasure! So much love in this tiny plastic ring. Every time I think about it it brings me to tears. Next to salvation and the love of God, the love that "miro chuha" keeps surprising me with is the best gift I have ever received.

Rachel at the beginning of 2012, picture courtesy of Andres Valenzuela
I want to love with this kind of selfless love, a love that gives generously even when it has nothing in the world's eyes. To be challenged to love by an orphan is such a humbling picture of the Kingdom coming.

"behold, the kingdom of god is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:21b)