Sunday, April 25, 2010

Week 20: to Tamil Nadu

The featured photo this week shows Kris and I sharing with Fr. Thomas Rathapillil and some of those being served at St. Joseph`s House, a facility providing for terminally ill people. That we were able to take the trip to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu was a minor miracle in itself, as a belated invitation for me to speak at Gandhigram Rural University nearly had to be declined due to AC bus or train transportation not being available. Our travel agent, Sebastian, managed to find an auto driver to help us out for four days (three nights) at reasonable cost. It should also be said that none of the experiences detailed by Kristine below would have happened but for the efforts of our extremely attentive host at Gandhigram: Dr. S. Narayanasamy.

Making this trip was also, in part, a pilgrimage into my past. 39 years ago (at age 21) I had traveled to Kodaicanal to interview Keithahn, an American who lived and worked with Gandhi for over 20 years – and who was very active in the founding of Gandhigram Rural University. Though I knew he had died some years ago, I wanted to visit his home where we had shared together for a week. So it is we drove the narrow road up to Kodaicanal (which, at elevation 6,000 feet also providing relief from the scorching heat of the plains). It was with difficulty that we were able to eventually find his home, now empty, and the place where he and I had worshipped together on an amazing cliff nearby. While there was a sadness to this experience (most folks we spoke to had no memory of this fine man), we met a woman supervising two young children up the road from his old home. While it was claimed that these two boys were Keithan`s grandchildren, it was later clarified by email from a grandson now living in the U.S. that they were not. We also found the worship place, though it had been partially destroyed by a road constructed to access a palatial home built by the billionaire Birla and given to Sai Baba for his occasional use. Ironic, yes?

The remaining portion of this week`s entry is a reprint of Kristine`s letter to friends sent out a few days ago. If you have already read it, please forgive the redundancy. Her words express our experiences so well would be no reason for me to cover them with mine….

Dear Friends,

We have just had a remarkable few days. Besides Mike speaking to a group of college students, we visited a prosthetic clinic where they make limbs for the rural farmers. They had pictures of amputees climbing coconut trees! Next we visited a live-in community college (not the same as in the States) for young people who need skills improvement before they can apply for college. We both spoke at that event and the young people were very lively and interested, and the Salesian fathers (Dom Bosco) were quite welcoming. The next morning we visited a business man who was crippled by polio, and confined to a wheelchair. He talked about the many challenges that physically and mentally challenged face in India. (ex. Most streets/sidewalks in India would be impossible for a wheelchair to navigate without another person`s help.) Nevertheless he and another teacher organized a hospital train where those with challenges could receive surgeries and needed services to improve their functioning.

We also visited a hospice for the destitute. The priest who started this place (fairly new-4yrs) had a personal experience of finding a man next to a garbage bin trying to eat some rice with the pigs who kept pushing him over. The man was paralyzed on one side and had a gaping, vermin infested wound on the other. So began his mission to help those who had been abandoned by society, often in their last days of life. With the help of an English woman he was able to raise funds for a building which now houses over 300 people. What is amazing is that this Fr Tom suffered a quadruple by pass some years ago (he is 60) and the other two priests who are Jesuits are both over 80 years old! They have a paid staff of about 20 nurses, aids, an MD on call. He now has received a land grant of 15 acres in south Chennai, where he hopes to start another hospice.

Our driver Jibi, was quite impressed with Fr. Tom and at dinner shared with us that he was a Pentecostal Christian (somewhat rare in India) and that their small church (about 10 families) had started an orphanage which we hope to visit soon.

I have to admit missing so many folks and all the comforts of home, but this trip has been a blessing in many ways. Our daughter Mira will be flying into Bangalore at the end of April and most of May we will tour the northern part of India, before returning to Pala for five days to say good byes to the friends that have made this stay so special. Then we fly to Italy, and eventually we`ll visit Israel and Egypt. After visiting my family in Chicago we will return to Portland the second week of August -- nine months of summer!

Love and blessings to all,

Kris (AKA Mrs. Michael)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Week 19: Home Hospitality

In this picture Kristine and I are receiving the hospitality of A.M. Rasheed and Suhyl Rahman in Suhyl`s home near Alappuzha in Kerala. I had met Rasheed two months ago through his friend (and my co-worker, Stany Thomas) and had given a lecture at Nedumkandam College where he is Principal. I had met Suhyl through Rasheed one week ago, when I gave my last lecture at Mahatma Gandhi University where he works and is active with SAMSCARA (a service organization of employees) which sponsored the talk. Suhyl had then invited me to his home and Rasheed had offered to provide the transportation! Such spontaneous kindness occurs here with embarrassing frequency.

A typically Hindu cultural standard is to ``Treat a guest as God.`` As Moslems, Rasheed and Suhyl abide by a similar standard by showing great generosity and kindness. Together they insisted upon providing all meals during our 30 hours together, as well as paying for a 4-hour boat ride on the canals and lakes in and around the city of Alappuzha (known as the Venice of India). The boat ride was glorious, revealing tropical splendor throughout as well as tree climbers harvesting coconuts, a tamed eagle at a rest stop, children be taken by boat to school, laborers filling their small boats with sand to sell for construction projects, and scores of people going about their daily lives using the life-giving water by catching fish, cleaning clothes, and performing other tasks. After being served a fantastic meal (vegetarian, to suit me) prepared by Suhyl`s wife and oldest daughter and served by his son and son`s friend, we continued to engage in a wide range of conversations including religion, politics, and personal matters. We also were obliged to visit the home of Suhyl`s sister and, later, his elderly father (who is credited by many as the first to educate Moslems in Kerala on topics relating to other religious traditions throughout over 60 years as a respected Islamic orator).

Earlier in the week I had attended an event at Mahatma Gandhi University which I had thought was to honor students with whom I had shared. Upon my arrival, it was clear that I was the primary person to be honored! Something similar had happened to me at St. Thomas College the week before, so I am surprised that I was again surprised! Speeches were made, cake was shared, and one student had an odd request of me: to sing a song! For over 50 people I did my best with ``Simple Gifts``, one of my favorite Quaker songs that seemed appropriate. The applause was definately out of proportion to my meagre vocal skills....

Former St. Thomas College Principal (President), Father Mathew Kokkatt came to Pala for a two day visit to see a doctor -- and used the occasion to take Kris and I one morning to visit his traditional family home as well as two others. So it is that I finally was able to personally thank him for the key role he played in the formulation of my Fulbright Grant proposal. Through him on this day we spent time with a married couple who, at age 53, had finally given birth to a child after years of disapppointment: wow, now that is persistence (with the help of God`s grace?)! Another friend of Fr. Kokkatt served us desert in her home -- on the same day she and her husband were preparing to fly to Switzerland: wow, how many folks in the U.S. would have sought to avoid that untimely hospitality?!

Fr. Kokkatt had us back to our home just in time for us for Kris and I to be picked up by Matthew Sebastian, Chair of the Political Science Department at St. Thomas College. He had made an appointment many days before for us to meet his family and have lunch at his home. His lovely wife (a high school teacher) and two daughters (one finishing medical school, and the other in college) made us feel completely at home. Among other things, we talked about educational systems and classroom practices -- telling stories that brought many smiles. After this full day of home visits, we were too tired to attend Saturday evening mass (though the humidity of the day had also taken a toll)....

Having visited Moslem and Christian homes this week, we should also mention our sharing a week before in the home of Dr. T.V. Muralivallabhan (another friend of Stany Thomas). Murali (as his friends call him), had insisted upon showing Kris and I to a couple of local Hindu Temples before arriving at dusk to his home. His home also had a prayer space devoted to a variety of incarnations of Vishnu, including Raama and Krishna, though Shiva and his son Ganesha were also represented. Hindus declare that there are at least 10,000 names for God – and tend to culturally accept (and occasionally absorb) virtually all of the world`s other religious traditions. Murali is, himself, strongly in the tradition of the ancient Hind sage Shankaracharya and his 19th century devotee Vivekanada who taught respect for all faiths: after all, is not each religious tradition but another path to trek up the same mountain at the summit of which is the Truth that is God?

Hindus, and all those influenced by Hindu culture, are often said to be preoccupied with issues of dharma (duty). This helps explain the extreme hospitality shown to us by so many people in India. While I am sure some folks genuinely like Kris and I, while others want to visit with us for the status attached to having done so, there is no doubt that doing one`s dharma plays a role. As a last example of ``doing dharma`` for this week`s blog entry, I will tell of the visit by Mr. Nayar to us two days ago.

Mr. Nayar is a desk clerk working at the Gandhi Guest House across the street from Gandhis Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad. One month ago we stayed three nights there during my involvement with a Global Warming Conference. Mr. Nayar and I had enjoyed light conversation during our stay, and he had phoned us in Kerala later to say that we had overpaid our bill by 1,000 rupees (about $20.). I had told him to simply make a gift in our name to any charity of his choice. Instead, while visiting relatives about 6 miles from where we live in Pala, he travels with his cousin by bus to hand deliver the Rs 1,000 to me. He insisted that was his duty! Kris served them some apple juice and fruits (what little we had available for surprise guests) and I insisted upon walking with them back to the bus stop. Picture the three of us men sharing a small umbrella in a torrential downpour of rain – laughing at our common discomfort while observing how wonderfully clean the air smelled! Duty. Doing dharma not only builds community, but can be a lot of fun!

Rasheed, Suhyl, Fr. Kokkat, Matthew, Murali, and Mr. Nayar: May your life examples continue to inspire me and others to build a world more at peace with itself…..

Monday, April 12, 2010

Week 18: India --La Vida Loca Part 2

In Part I of A Vida Loca (see Week 11), I ended with butterflies (a miracle of a bug, in my opinion). In this part, the less miraculous forms of insects will be discussed, but not extensively since what I know about bugs is limited by my meager experience.

The bug which has impacted me the most here is the mosquito. They love sucking on me and there are welts and itching to prove it. Obviously, there are others who enjoy the same complaint, as India has many contrivances used to prevent and destroy mosquitoes. First there is the mosquito net. We obtained one of these in January (after the fact, the bites were numerous by then) and since then it has protected us at night. Another gadget which may be peculiar to India is the plug-in mosquito deflector. Essentially, it is a small tank of toxic insecticide, when plugged into an electric outlet, releases fumes to repel mosquitoes. We do use them, but as I have seen mosquitoes flying around our apartment; its effectiveness is in question. A third line of defense is the mosquito zapper. This device is shaped like a badminton racket. When turned on, the webbing is electrically charged to electrocute mosquitoes( or any other bug which get in its path). So on many nights we play the game of mosquito badminton.(we love the smell of mosquitoes frying in the evening.) Lastly, of course, there is the mosquito repellant that you apply on your body. A nurse told us that the only thing that really works for more than ten minutes is preparations loaded with DEET. I have only used this on occasion since learning that besides repelling mosquitoes, the substance can also cause neurological problems (especially in children). As I already had Jungle Brain, I didn`t want to chance it.

The second type of bug which is a source of amusement and aggravation is the humble ant. One day I was totally mesmerized by about twenty tiny ants trying to carry a fly up to our kitchen window and over the wall outside. It was like watching some piano movers, with the same starts, stops, reversals and final success. Very entertaining. Not so entertaining when you find them in the closed containers that are supposed to prevent them from contaminating the food, drowned in the pan we use to boil water, or on anything you leave on the kitchen counter for more than five minutes. Spiders inspire the same ambivalence. Now the huge full bodied ones still engender fear and destructive impulses ( At Kurisumala, there were some huge ones. But considering the spirit of ahimsa that permeated the place, I controlled aggressive impulses. Often I did not sleep well, however.) But for some reason, I have always liked Daddy- Long Legs. And they try to inhabit over twenty corners in our apartment. I am always torn, since they do me the favor of killing mosquitoes and other bugs. However, their webs make the place look like I haven`t cleaned for months (OK...Did I hear those that know me saying, SO, What else is new?). About once every two weeks, I destroy their homes, not them. They repay the favor by rebuilding.

Another miracle in Kerala are the varied and exotic flowers. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, and other tropical plants of which I have no name bloom in a variety of colors fuchsia pink, red, golden, and salmon colored in the low land areas. The other day Mike brought home a tropical bud given to him by a Hindu. It is called the Hood of Shiva and looks similar to a peony bud before it flowers, pink but outlined in red. Inside there is a multitude of red stamens, where supposedly Shiva sat atop this feathery tuft. You may have seen the orange and yellow hanging thunbergia which Mike posted on the blog several weeks ago. This was a photo taken at Shanty`s Mom`s house in the mountains. Also common in the higher elevations are huge types of pure white and pink and white lilies.(The plants are over 6ft tall.) Another type of flower which Shanty called a Christmas lily, looks more like a small bouquet of red orange flowers.. And of course, huge red poinsettia plants grace the mountain roads. What appears to be a type of morning glory is seen everywhere, but they are usually light purple or blue in color. There is another common vine with yellow flowers and a large dark center, which surprisingly is a variety of thunbergia (alata),. In potted plants, we found a relative of the crown of thorns we have in Oregon. But this variety has larger stems and flowers which come in a variety of colors (not just the red we have). What an adventure is experiencing a fragrance in the dark and discovering the source-jasmine! On Christmas Eve midnight mass, I kept smelling it- but where was if coming from? Finally, I noticed many of the women had white garlands of it in their black hair!

As mentioned before, women provide outstanding color and elegance to the culture. However, while you will only see women in Kerala modestly dressed in churidars or saris, bill boards, periodicals, and media represent women in Western attire-jeans, shorts, tank tops and bikinis. Somehow it is OK for actresses, models and celebrities to dress this way but the ordinary woman would not consider even wearing a sleeveless dress! On the other hand, men appear to have quite a bit of freedom, especially in informal settings, other than work. Western clothing (jeans and a tee shirt), dhothi (the ethnic dress for men is essentially a wrap around skirt which may be worn long or short above the knees) with a shirt or shirtless. While the women are covered with layers of clothing. Such apparent inequality is not restricted to apparel. Women are still primarily responsible for child-rearing and domestic chores. Even when a woman is college-educated, she may not be employed outside the home, especially if she has children. When women do work, they do double duty. Meals are an arduous affair. All three- breakfast , lunch and dinner require hours of preparation.(most women arise at about 5:30am). What we have seen here is generally, the women prepare, serve, and clean up. Only after the men and children have eaten do they serve themselves.

While I have to admit to biting my tongue in the face of what our culture calls women`s oppression, I also need to say, most women do these tasks with grace,and even joy. And although the men generally do not do domestic work, most often they do have s spirit of courteous service. For example, Stany often takes it upon himself to drive us to and fro, calls to make sure we are alright, and is totally responsive to our needs. Reflecting on the Easter mystery and Jesus who said he came Not to be served, but to serve, I wonder that in our quest for equality, we have lost what it means to serve with joy. Like Peter, we balk at tasks which appear too mundane for greatness!

What`s in a NAME?

Christians in Kerala employ an interesting variation of biblical identification. Although they do have what they call family names, they do not use those as surnames. For example, our friend Stany last name is Thomas, which is his father`s first name (like Jesus, son of Joseph). Stany`s children are Tom, Anna, and Hannah Stany and Shanty, his wife, is Shanty Stany. But he is still Stany Thomas. Recently, I went to the doctor and the nurse, who was a nun, asked me for my name, and after some verbal back and forth, we decided it was easier for me to write it for her: Kristine Sonnleitner. My file was completed and written on my chart was the name: Cristeen Michael. Go figure!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Week 17: Easter Time

The Good Friday procession pictured above involved walking about a mile while observing the traditional stations of the cross. Most folks were eager to trek after having spent the previous 3 hours in Church (in addition to the three hour service the night before)! Children had lots of energy and most adults were grateful for a chance for them to get it out of their system! The mood was celebratory yet solumn. What little talking was done in whispered Malayalam – including many comments (I later learned) critical of the priest for taking so much time in Church!

Living this weekend with my colleague Stany Thomas and his family (eight people plus us!) has been taken by all in stride. ``Auntie`` Kris has become immensely popular with the three children of the household who enjoyed doing artwork with her, coloring Easter eggs for the first time, and (the best of all!) searching for the eggs after Mass on Easter morning. I am the ``Uncle`` Michael who is a little crazy (so true) but still fun. I think it was mostly the kids and I who enjoyed the loud explosions at the church (used to wake up every one within a mile or so: to be at church by 3am) – yes: for another three hour service! The explosions kind of reminded me of the IRA bombing campaign during the summer I spent in Northern Ireland so many years ago… Ka BOOM!

I confess that the highlight of the long Easter Mass for me (and for many others, judging from the murmuring) was when the electricity went out – leaving the priest without a sound system to be heard, and us all enveloped in the pre-dawn darkness. A little time for peaceful meditation seemed a relief from the powerful amplifiers and (shall I add) tone-deaf singing of this particular priest. I wonder if his being tone deaf is at all related to the dynamite-strong explosions used to wake us? Ah yes: we had several more of those ignited just outside the church building, along with traditional firecrackers, to celebrate the rising of Jesus from the dead. No doubt neighbors who are Hindu or Moslem are especially amused – though I am told they have as free a reign to be as loud as they want to be during their religious celebrations!

Whatever sarcasm may be found in my comments so far should not overshadow the transparent spirituality that pervades our host family and their community. All in the household gather (yes, religiously) every evening of every day at 7:30pm to say prayers for a half hour before dinnertime. If any loved one is having problems, all are there to provide moral or other support. Yesterday I went with Stany to visit an uncle with severe liver problems. No less than ten cousins and others came to visit that hospital room during the hour or so we were there. Family is central to this society. Far more than material wealth and possessions, people here are often rich in family and other relationships. Spirituality contributes to these relationships. We could all learn much from the closeness that is rooted in their traditional practices.

An invitation to share an evening earlier this week in a Hindu household left the same strong impression. Before driving us to his home, Murali took Kris and I to visit two nearby Hindu temples. In addition to seeing images of God to which devotes may pray, we were told of a story about how a particular tree was said to be inhabited by demons that would suck your blood should you harm the tree: now there is a twist for the traditional environmentalist! ``Harm the tree and you die`` leaves a very strong message as to the value of the tree! Another tree variety had a cloth wrapped around it so that it could be literally hugged if one desired to do so! No demons there in that one, just respect for nature. Raama and Krishna, the two most popular incarnations of Vishnu (the creative aspect of God), both lived in the forests and both loved and were loved by all of nature – so why should not we? At his home Murali and his family treated us to a vegetarian feast, noting how their faith tells them to treat every guest as if they were God. Even as Raama cares for each of us, so each of us should treat others as if they were Raama returned to visit... God is always present all life.

This Easter week was also noteworthy as having our last classroom lectures prior to the student presentations and examinations to come. The wednesday before Easter was a little like Good Friday in that my PG 2 (post graduate, second year) students met for the last time after having studied together for two years. The prospect of future separation had many in a somewhat sad and emotional state. The simple ceremony held during class time had the feeling of a wake for the death of a loved one. I was honored to be among the living memory of their experience together. Many photographs were taken of friends together, the whole group as one, and almost everyone seemed to want an individual picture taken with me!

India can be a very humbling place. Materially rich in comparison with most people we meet here, Kris and I are almost constantly showed with the hospitality and kindness of those who are more spiritually centered. Regardless of faith tradition, they value the love of family and friends far about material possessions. To be included in their circle of relationships both warms the heart and makes it ache. As was true of the students, separation will bring sadness when we move on with our lives and space and time take their toll. Hopefully the relationships we have here may be nurtured over the distance that divide us and these relationships cab remind us of where our true wealth is to be found.