Saturday, December 26, 2009

Week 4: Christmas in Chennai

A week filled with incredible activity preceded our Christmas in Chennai. The weekend before, we were guests to the family home of Shanty.
In the highlands of Kerala – some 60km west of Pala. Tucked among lush greenery that reminded us of Oregon (except for its tropical trees and seas of tea), Shaman and Sonrisa were treated to a fishing expedition on the family cardaman estate and I was treated to visit a small college of 600 students nearby that is part of a Muslem educational network. The extended family of Shanty converged (including her mother, three sisters, one brother, and their families which together had eleven grandchildren having almost constant fun together. Constant also was the kitchen where feasts were prepared three times daily, in part to honor us. Guests are to be treated as God, we are told – though even God might have been embarrassed by their devotion to us.

This entry is written on Christmas Day, where we are celebrating 5 nights in Chennai (formerly known as Madras). As I gaze this morning over our obviously occupied hotel suite, the only clear sign of the holiday is our Christmas tree: a three inch tall wax candle we lit after mass last night. All four of us (Sonrisa, Shaman, Kristine and I) attended services at the Basilica of St. Thomas beginning 9:30pm Christmas Eve along with a crowd of several thousand. While only 2% of India is christian, those living in Chennai certainly turn out for this holiday.

Earlier on Christmas Eve we took in the sights of the city, including a cave where St. Thomas (one of the twelve original apostles of Jesus) is said to have hidden for four years prior to the year 72AD when he was murdered on a nearby hilltop (which we also visited). The cave was about 24 square feet with hardly room to stand and a small entrance allowing one person to squeeze through at a time. A 2x2 stone upon the floor served as a place where St. Thomas devoted much time in prayer. The thought of this man who traveled so far to spend 20 years in South India so long ago was sobering to us all. Any attempt for us to so hold Jesus in our hearts would seem to pale by comparison with the faith and suffering of this man….

Tomorrow we return to Pala (in Kerala) by train, to prepare for the departure of our daughter Sonrisa for the U.S. to resume her classes at PCC this Winter Term. She is not looking forward to night time on the train as we expect to find the same company of cockroaches who joined us on the trip here. At least we can be thankful that they do not feast on humans. They eat just about everything else, but at least not us! I, for one, look forward to the Super Fast Chennai-Kottayam train (which could be renamed the Cockroach Express)!

My talk on Gandhi at Madras University on December 23rd went well, with an audience of 30 not bashful to ask questions about how practical and relevant Gandhian Nonviolence may (or may not) be today. The stimulating exchange of views had me doing my best to respond as Gandhi might: affirming the right of people to disagree with him while also affirming the foundations of a vision humanity has yet to listen much to. A Gandhian commitment to seek improved understanding of Truth through seeking to love even those who might hate him requires tapas (voluntary suffering/sacrifice) which most people find too demanding. Yet is this not also the message of Buddha (hate cannot destroy hate, only love can destroy hate) and the way of the cross Jesus spoke of?

Our best present to ourselves this Christmas is as it always has been: our love for one another. Merry Christmas greetings from our Hindu and Moslem friends show how very encompassing this love can be. That we were able (with difficulty) to telephone our daughter Mira (back in the U.S.) has warmed our hearts. Others in our immediate family are likely to follow later this day. Even so, know that our thoughts transcend the distances between us and all others since(whether nations admit it or not), the reality is that we are all related as one human family.

Peace be with you all during this holiday season.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Week 3: Sonrisa & Shaman

The great highlight of our week three in India has easily been the arrival of Shaman and Sonrisa to join Kris and I for the rest of December. Having two of our children with us adds a lot to our shared experiences. It is their first time ever traveling abroad as a adults and every day really is an adventure for them. In the photo featured here, you see them together with temple elephant in Kochi (formerly Cochin) -- an elephant who is featured in processions around the city in which donations are solicited for a local Hindu temple.

Upon arriving after their long flight, Kris and I thought it would be good to stay in Kochi, the largest city in Kerala (about the population size of Portland) where their plane touched down two hours late at about 5:30am. With the help of a very conscientious travel agent (Sebastion of Darasana Travel in Kottayam), we had secured a 2-star accomodation at Annes Residency in the Fort Cochin area of Kochi. Three nights allowed for the overcoming of jet lag, and an introduction to India including the visiting of sites typically seen by tourists coming to this historic city.

So it is in Kochi that we toured various markets, craft stores, and religious sites. The sites included St. Francis Church, built by the Portugese in the 15th Century and resting place of the explorer Vasco da Gama. There also was a Jewish Synagogue dating from the 9th Century which still is home to a very small community historically known as the Black Jews of Conchin. We also saw a Jain Temple complete with its swastika symbols (representing the beginning of a new age, as taught by the 7th century B.C. founder of this religion famous for its nonviolence: Mahavira). It seemed as though around every corner of this diverse city there was another Hindu Temple, Mosque, or history lesson.

In Kochi around every corner there also seemed to be another merchant or street vendor so eager to sell products to tourists as to approach harassment. While our family did make a few purchases of clothing for Sonrisa and Shaman, cashews for me, and a dustpan and tea amker for Kris -- for the most part we did not play a typical tourist role. Prices were often inflated to maximize whatever profit might be squeezed from the declining tourist trade. What cruise ships come into port (few in number because of the global economic situation) remain only a few hours and have their passengers transported only to selected businesses -- leaving many small shops desperate for customers.

After Kochi, our next five days were spent at our residence in Pala (still called Palai by most who live here). We toured St. Thomas College campus, where this week I had no teaching responsibilities beyond guest lecturing in three courses. Much of our family time was spent with the time consuming daily tasks of shopping for food, hand washing our clothes (to be air dried in the sun), and accepting hospitality from many who offered it. We went out to dinner three times, including once hosted by our neighbor Dr. Chummar and his wife and once to share with Fr. Mathew and others at the hostel where he and other priests reside.

No doubt the highlight of our time in Kochi was the annual Christmas celebration at St. Thomas College where we were treated as VIPs seated in the first row among a crowd packing the campus auditorium. Two hours of speeches, singing, dancing, skits, and other activities before lunch were followed by much more of the same after lunch -- all showcasing students talent and creativity. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were frequently present as was Santa Clause and many renditions of Jingle Bells. Unusual additions to the program included an appearance by a Michael Jackson impersonator (very popular), and various skits including one in which a politician was portrayed as having gotten a woman pregnant (metaphor for acting badly) while denying any personal responsibility for his actions (a comic portrayal of a commonly serious reality). Along with the non-Catholic Bishop of Pala, I was introduced to speak (having not been told of that duty beforehand) and managed to not look too foolish.

In the blog next week our trip (today) to a jungle area of interior Kerala will be reported along with our adventures traveling overnight to Chennai (Madras) by train to

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Week 2: in & near Palai, India.

If people make a place, then the Thomas family (here picture) have done much to make Palai home to us. Dr. Stany Thomas teaches Politics at St. Thomas College (where I have begun one of my three courses) and has devoted time daily to assure that Kris and I have all we need. In this picture from last weekend my wife Kris and Stany are joined (left to right) by his mother (Accamma), father (Thomas), daughters Hannah (age 9) and Anna (age 12), son Tom (age 14), and wife Shanty. They watch over an elderly aunt who lives with them (unable to walk) and others (a large extended family many of whom live within an easy walk of their rural home. That they have made us part of their extended family is a great honor and spending last weekend with them was easily the highlight of an intensely busy week.

Having now composed and lost several more paragraphs to this entry my patience is nearly spent. Electrical outages, together with technological difficulties have had me spend over four hours to compose even this small entry. The many photographs relating to the trip to the Thomas family estate, views regarding the campus where I teach, and a nice set of pictures of events in Pala celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Virgin -- all will (hopefully) be available next week.

Now Kris and I must pack up to greet two of our children (Sonrisa and Shaman) who are due to arrive this evening at Kochi. We will spend three days in that fine city before returning to Pala on Sunday night. Perhaps this computer and other things electrical will then cooperate in allowing me to share more with you all.

Know that you are all thought of; that your freezing temperatures look good to us from our 90 plus degree days; that the Trail Blasers will survive without Greg Oden; that Oregon and Oregon State are both excellent football teams; and that life will go on regardless of what silly policy the U.S. may adopt in Afganistan.

Peace be with you all.
-- Michael S.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Week 1 in India

Dear People,

Our departure from Portland on Nov. 27th morning seems a world away. The contrast in the week is stark: From frantically completing my 4 courses at Portland Community College (getting Final grades in two weeks early) -- to meeting with my students at St. Thomas College just 4 days later. Our trip required two days involving 22 hours of flying: including 14 hours in one marathon stretch from Newark New Jersey to Mumbai(Bombay)India. While flying my thoughts wandered back to our fine Thanksgiving celebration complete with our son Shaman (21), and daughters Sonrisa (25) and Mira (19) -- as well as our foster daughter Margarita (26) with her new husband Reynaldo, her stepson Reynaldo Jr., and new baby daughter Hanilynn.

WOW. Our first grandchild, less than one week old! When Kris and I return to Oregon she will be eight months old. We will have to really spoil her then, just to catch up on lost time!

While Hanilynn must take the prize for highlight of the week, so much has transpired as to make any full reporting too lengthy for most of you to have the patience to read. Put briefly: In Mumbai Kris and I were treated to a needed overnight rest at the Atithi Hotel -- courtesy of the Fulbright folks (your taxes at work). Before catching a flight to Kochi (Cochin) in the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 29th, Kris and I hired a taxi to see a little of this city of 19 million souls. There was the Taj Hotel, site of a terrorist attack just a year ago. There was the sea of rusting metal roofs where large portions of "Slumdog Millionaire" were filmed. To be seen also was a motorbike speeding past with a family of five all riding together! Most vivid to me was the elderly woman with an emaciated stomach not more than 15 inches around, stoically pushing a large cart to work. No doubt she is among the nearly 800 million (out of 1.1 billion people in India) who are said to live on less than $2. (about 90 Rupees) per day...

AT Kochi Airport we were greeted my the warm smile of Dr. Stany Thomas from St. Thomas College. He takes us by car to our new home in Pala (Palai) noting various sites along the route including the church of St. Thomas (dedicated to the one of the original twelve Apostles of Jesus who traveled to southern India, evangelized, and died here. There also is the temple dedicated to that most famous of Kerala's native sons: the great ancient Hindu religious philosopher Shankaracharya. After about two hours of visual overload complete with lush banana, coconut, mango, papaya, and teak trees everywhere -- and a stop to visit the family of Stany's sister -- we arrive in Palai, Kerala. That no accident has happened while constantly honking and weaving our way among buses, motor rickshaws, bicycles, carts, cows, and pedestrians seems like a near-major miracle!

Much of the remainder of this first week is devoted to moving into the living space Stany has arranged for us. With his apparently limitless energy, we have managed to make our unfurnished upstairs of a house functional. Purchasing a stove, refrigerator, kitchen utensils, groceries, cell phones, and a wireless internet connection for our laptop has me feeling both exhausted and too privileged in the context of life here. I am oddly comforted by the fact that our bed is but a thin mattress on a wooden platform and we have no television or hot water. The two bedrooms, living room, two bathrooms, and small kitchen are large enough to easily accomodate those we expect to visit -- but in a manner modest by comparison with someone of my supposed stature. We are located only one mile from the center of Pilai (a city of 25,000) and within a ten minute walk of St. Thomas College (where I teach) as well as St. Thomas Church (where the mass Kris attends almost daily is conducted in the native language of Malayalam).

As I now finish this first of a series of weekly reports, it is sunrise. Vehicles can be heard of the wet pavement that is the main road to town with cows and goats grazing on vegetation and garbage by its side. Birds are now singing tunes exotic to my ears. Chickens will soon be pecking their way freely throughout our back yard and tiny squirrels will be playing in the fruit trees. Best of all, the mosquitos will surrender their possession of the night as the 90-plus temperatures of the day is unwelcome to them. I try to remind myself of this positive fact as perspiration will have all humans wet by mid morning.

In my next entry I expect to focus more on my first impression of St. Thomas College, my students, and some of the challenges of teaching there. Know that any comments you have regarding these ramblings will be read! Hopefully I will have photographs available for viewing next week.

For all our family members and friends: You are most definately in our thoughts, and those thoughts provide warmth to the heart.

Peace Be With You All,
Michael (Sonnleitner)

P.S. As a formality, let me make clear that all observations included in this blog will be only mine or my wife Kristine's -- and in no way represent any expression associated with the Fulbright or related programs, the U.S.-India Educational Foundation, or U.S. State Department.