Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In which I plan to spend even more vacation time

Just got confirmation from my group leader that I can take another four days of vacation time this summer. 17-23 August I'm headed to Iowa as part of a disaster response team with my church. We'll be doing whatever's asked of us. That will most likely be clean and mucking out homes that were flooded. And, if we're very, very lucky, we'll get to power wash thing. I like to power wash things. I know, I have a problem. I'm thinking about getting help for it, but not until after Iowa.

Now I just have to finish letting my knee heal (inflammed tendon) and then get back into "mission trip" shape. All in three and a half weeks. Yep, gonna need prayer for that one (as well as all parts of the Iowa trip).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Yet another way my life is different than other people's

This afternoon at work I overheard a couple of performance guys discussing the relative merits of roller coaster, particularly the accelerations (lateral and longitudinal) and the methods of achieving said accelerations at the start of each ride. And I understood the conversation and almost went and joined in.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Few better places to be

I'm currently laying on my bed, surfing the web and working on the India slideshows, with my two cats curled up sleeping next to me. There's few ways I would rather spend my Sunday afternoon. And I think my cats would agree.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

India 2008 - Recap

I've been meaning to post something like this since I got home from India but just haven't had the time. What follows is basically an email to a friend, but it does a good job of summing up the trip and it's going to be a while before I get the time to write anything more or different, so this will have to do at least for now. You can find some pictures here. Theoretically I'll post more of my own in the near future.

So, yeah, the trip. I'm still processing a lot of it. It was good and hard and challenging in a lot of different ways. The biggest thing for me seemed to be that there was just so much that was different. Or, maybe it was that a lot of things were kinda familiar but just different enough to make the difference. When we were in Bangalore, many people spoke English and almost all of the advertisements on the street were in English, but there was just so much that was so different and that made things a little disorienting. Another way to look at it was the food, especially the bananas. We ate a lot of bananas (they're one food that, as long as the skin is intact are safe for weak stomached Americans to eat). We ate a lot of different varieties of bananas. They all tasted kinda like the bananas that we get at Kroger down the street, but they were a little big different. The bread, the peanut butter, the cookies, cereal; pretty much anything prepackaged and most of the fruit tasted mostly like what we expected but a little different. And after a handful of days like that, the longing for something familiar, which I guess could be called succumbing to culture shock or something like that, becomes pretty strong. This is where time with the team just hanging out, the granola bars and Peter Pan peanut butter and books that we brought with us became really, really important. I think every member of the team went through this at one point or another. I hit it pretty early due to getting sick almost immediately upon landing in Bangalore (I must have picked up something on one of the flights over). But I got some antibiotics that Gail had brought with her and after about a day I was feeling better and was able to eat reasonably well after another day. And, really, if I was going to get sick, that was probably the best time. No one felt good that first day just due to the jet lag, sleep deprivation and travel shock. And it wasn't enough to keep me from doing anything other than eating dinner that first night (I opted for an early shower and bedtime).

But the people we met and the things that we got to do were amazing. The street children's drop-in center, Grace house, is an island of hope in a pretty barren landscape for the street kids of downtown Bangalore. Just the fact that these kids who have nothing and, really, are nothing in the society, can go and get food and clothing, be loved, have a chance to be kids, learn and play and experience a taste of what life really should be is amazing and offers such an amazing picture of the gospel. But it was also heartbreaking. Milton, who runs Grace House along with his wife Jebba, talked about how one of the boys had come a long way, how he had worked on his life, rejecting the drugs and the pressures of the street and the friends he has out there. Having to avoid the police at the train station because not only will they run the kids off but they will do so with brutality, beating them with clubs and sticks. We saw some of these security officers and the sticks that they carry are for real. This is a kid who can be no older than about 12. He's been coming to the center for a couple of years. Kids that age shouldn't have to be "working on their life". They should be running around and climbing trees and having their worst worry be a spelling test or whether Suzy likes him or something. The realities that these kids deal with was hard to confront. To hear the kids pray for their friends who weren't coming to Grace House was also difficult. But, again, it reminded me that we're all a lot like these kids in God's eyes. We've got nothing but a messed up life and then God calls us to himself, adopts us into his family on no merit of our own. It seems to good to be true and yet it is.

Throughout the trip, although more so when we were on the coast, the realities of Hinduism were very apparent. People worship gods which are not gods. They spend time praying to idols, things made by human hands. They offer food and drink to statues and sometimes animals they revere as holy. And it all just seems to silly and worthless and yet it's what these people put their trust in. They hope that if they're good enough they will be reborn at a higher level, eventually coming back as a cow which apparently is one step away from becoming on with The Supreme Being. This worldview does make people very friendly and open, but it's also really sad to see how lost they are. And, really, some of it is just kinda silly, at least from my way of thinking. The idea that cows are revered as as close to a deity as you can get on this earth is almost laughable to me. My dad's family is all dairy farmers and I grew up spending time on my uncle's farm in the summers. The idea that those cows are holy beings seems just silly. We got to go through a Hindu snake temple in Nagercoil one morning when it was raining and we couldn't work. That was kinda anticlimactic. The temple was obviously organized to accommodate a lot of worshippers coming through to do whatever it is that they do at the main shrine area. Basically, it's set-up like a line area of a ride at a Disney theme park complete with some line switchbacks and metal railings with chains. It reminded me a lot of the line area for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland only the real temple wasn't near as cool. At the main shrine area you looked down a little tunnel/short hallway and there was a small area with lots of gold, lit by candle/torch light. There was at least one person back there doing something, possibly chanting, seemingly offering something to something. It was hard to tell and we didn't linger long. We didn't see any snakes. We think they may have been in a temple annex area but it was hard to tell. And we had to leave our shoes outside when we went in. It's odd enough walking around a place like that but doing it in bare feet makes it all the more different. Although we had spent an afternoon without shoes and socks that Sunday when we visited an historic palace not far from where we were staying. That was another interesting experience that definitely would never have happened in the US.

We also got a bit of information about the Catholic church in the area and how they have adopted some of the Hindu customs, trying to make the faith more approachable to people (mostly people practicing some superstitions that are common among Hindus). That wasn't as difficult for me to stomach as it was for some others of the team. Yeah, it's not a good idea, but if you go back to the roots some practices of most Christians (Christmas trees, eggs and bunnies at Easter) have their roots in pagan practices as well. Not great, but it happens. And, in some senses, helped me identify with these people who seem so different from me as well as challenged me to question some of the things that I do (not that I'm going to stop eating chocolate bunnies or anything, but you get the idea). We also visited an ancient church which tradition says (according to the Indian Orthodox church) was built by the apostle Thomas. Our guide, a young man studying to be an Orthodox priest, told us several theories about the church. One being that it was built by Thomas and his followers (that's what he believed) another that it was built by Phoenician Christians who had heard the gospel from Thomas and had moved into the area (there's questions about whether Thomas actually made it to India or not). The church was, again according to tradition, built in 67AD. The priest talked about how the site was very holy and how many miracles had been witnessed there, some attributed to a small cross carved in relief on one wall (possibly by Thomas' own hands according to tradition. There was lots of talk of things that were "according to tradition" which I think is akin to saying "legend says".). The cross was also apparently very important in confirming that the building really was a church rather than a Hindu temple. At one point the building had fallen into disrepair and there was a dispute about whether it was a Hindu temple or a Christian church. The church shares many architectural features with Hindu temples, but the cross on the wall confirmed the buildings origins as a church. And, of course, we had to take our shoes off to enter the building. I don't know if we were in a place where the apostle Thomas actually worshipped God or whether we were just in a really old church. But, in any event, it was pretty neat to see and to remember how God has been working around the world of thousands and thousands of years.

As for the actual work, hanging out with the kids at Grace House was fun. There were two boys there when we were there, Manju and Ramish. They're both fun kids, full of energy and a bit timid at first but they opened up fairly quickly. The team split in half with half going to Grace House one day while the other half toured around Bangalore, visiting the train and bus station where the street children tend to congregate, eating at McDonalds (so nice to have a familiar meal, even if it was just a little bit different than at home) and dealing with collecting the luggage that didn't make it to Bangalore quite when we did. Then, the next day, the teams swapped. At Grace House we read through and then acted out a story from the Bible (Jesus heals the leper and Jesus calms the storm), prayed with and for and spent a lot of time playing with the kids. That was a really neat time and we all wished we could have spent more time doing that.

Down on the coast, our work involved helping to build small, brick and and concrete houses. The houses are 200 square feet along the foundation, smaller once you get the walls built. They're smaller than my master bedroom inside and about 50% larger than the cubicle I sit in (a standard two man cube that houses four peons or two people with the full set of furniture). To think that a family of three or four, maybe more if multiple generations are living together, live in that amount of space is sometimes difficult to contemplate. But, the weather is fairly mild and much of life is lived on the streets or in the common areas of the village. And, it's basic shelter and no smaller than what the people are currently living in. The houses we were building replaced woven reed shacks that the villagers were living in, sometimes right next to the site of their new house. These are the same type of houses that were completely swept away by the Tsunami in December 2004. It's hard to imagine that in the span of just a few minutes these people lost everything. The villagers were almost without exception fishermen (or wives and families of fishermen). Which meant that each evening the men went out into the sea, through the very choppy surf, dodging many big rocks along the coast, in these little boats, some no bigger than a large canoe. They spent the night fishing and then brought their catch in to be auctioned each morning. They cleaned and repaired their nets (just like in the disciples in the Bible), spent the afternoon relaxing or playing cards, slept and went out to do it again. While we were building the homes, the home owners were sometimes nearby, keeping track of what was going on, offering "suggestions" (as far as we could tell. They spoke Tamil, the local dialect. And that's nothing close to English. Occasionally some on our team would default to Spanish when English didn't work. That didn't make anything any better but I found it humorous.). Apparently fishermen view themselves above brick layers and house builders so they won't help with the building process. But they will definitely point out when things aren't to their liking or express their desire for a larger house or a different style "window" or whatever...at least we think that's what they were talking about. Again, it was often hard to tell unless someone translated.)

We spent a lot of time moving bricks around (small red bricks like are used here only less dense, more likely to crack and very, very dry. We all brought home a lot of brick dust.). It seems that the bricks were never where we needed them and that each wall of the house required more bricks than we knew actually existed in India. We helped lay foundations, build walls, pour roofs and everything in between. Most of the crews who were working building the houses were very open to letting us help, very patient when we screwed up (who knew bricks had a top and a bottom?), were complimentary when we finally got things right (some bits are harder than they look) and overall were a great pleasure to work with. We learned that sometimes you have to pump water because that water that comes from the "city" isn't on all the time. And we also learned that not everyone had a full understanding of fluid dynamics (sometimes it doesn't help to pump faster. Water's incompressible anyway you pump it so there's a limit to how fast the water is going to come out of the pump. It might look like it's coming out faster if it has greater pressure, but those molecules are only going to move so fast through that pipe. We also learned that when you can only speak a few sentences in each other's language, communicating the basics of fluid dynamics is very complicated.) We learned that shovels don't look the same the world over. The ones we used were more like hoes with the blade bent over. Works really well for mixing concrete or breaking up dirt, less so for shoveling anything. Using one of these shovels was an acquired skill and required different muscles. We drank coconut milk straight out of coconuts, became the local tourist attraction (at least Emma and Lauren, a 19 year old from Pennsylvania who joined our team for the trip, did, especially to the college age boys who found us during our final day of work. Emma nicknamed them "creepy lurkers"), got to play with the kids of the village and talk and pray with some of the women. We put on a program for children one evening where we acted out more Bible stories and sang lots of songs (Sherry's experience with Good News Club came in very handy here). Some of the people of the village and a few of the workers attended that as well, which was neat to see and good to know that they heard at least a simple presentation of the gospel in their own language. I also remembered that as much as I enjoy a few days of manual labor, I live in a point and click world at home and, for the most part, I enjoy that. I don't mind the physical activity. In fact, I like that for the most part. But the monotony of building houses like that would get to me after a while. I like the mental challenge that my work brings better than the physical challenge of building houses.

There's much more to tell. We saw a couple of the main courses for our meals alive just a few hours before eating them. We all got our full of curry at different times during the trip and then ate a lot of peanut butter. We had issues just about every time we went to the airport. We experienced traffic that can only be described as chaotic and an exercise in strengthening our prayer life. We smelled things we wished we hadn't and saw things we wished we could have looked at for longer. We learned that smiles and waves transcend language barriers. We got a better understanding of cricket (although the nuances are still far beyond our grasp). We got to know each other better and came to care about people who are so different and yet so like ourselves. And, yeah, so much more.

It was a good trip in so many different ways. I'm glad to be home but also hope to go back sometime in the future.