Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Kerla, God's Own Country!

I'm back from Bangalore, India! Yes, it's a bit earlier than expected, but George, Manju, and I decided it was for the best. I was really struggling, and we came to the mutual consensus that working with orphans in India is not my calling, at least not for this season of my life. I'm a little disappointed, but I trust that God has another plan for me.

It certainly wasn't a waste! I learned so much, and I was able to accomplish what I set out to do: teach and love the kids. Punith and Sudeep will be ready for their proper grades next year, I taught all the kids to read music for the piano, taught them five songs on the recorder, (Hot Crossed Buns; Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Jesus Live in My Heart; Amazing Grace; Seek Ye First; Jesus Lamb of God), and discipled them. The final Sunday I was there, all the kids played their recorders for church, and everyone loved it. I miss them, but it's also good to be home.

My final week, George, Manju, and I decided it might be good to take a little retreat by myself, to rest and reflect on all I had seen and done in India. So through a travel agent friend, George arranged a really good deal for me to visit Kerla, "God's own country," a state southwest of Bangalore. (Just like every state in the U.S. has a slogan (the sunshine state, land of enchantment, etc), India does too, and that's Kerla's slogan because of its natural beauty.)

So Wednesday evening, July 19th I flew from Bangalore to Cochin, the capital of Kerla. Here we are coming in to land:

I stayed at the Abad Atrium Hotel, and ordered room service for the first time in my life, soup and ice cream for only $3. I was pretty impressed:

The next day my driver picked me up early at 8:30 to visit the Cochin vegetable, fish, and textile markets. Here are some snapshots of market life:

Bullock Cart:

Merchant apartment:


Dried Fish:

Kerlites (Kerla people) seem to be bananas for bananas:

They must be to do this!

Speaking of balancing stuff on the head, this guy must have a lot of practice to balance ten trays of eggs!

Kerla people always seem to be smiling. I reckon them to American Southerners:

They were always greeting and stopping me to get a photo with me. It's not like they wanted me to buy anything, either. People in warm, southern climates seem more friendly than those in northern climates. I think it's because in the North, it's colder and people want to stay inside part of the year near the fire or under blankets. In the south, it's hot inside and people want to get out, so they sit on their porches or in the streets, talking to their neighbors and drinking tea. This creates two different sorts of cultures. It's just a theory, but I wonder if it's true. Course, that would be changing now in modern countries, what with air conditioning and heating.

Maybe it's just that people in the North have to work harder than people in the South to grow food, because in most southern places, there's a longer or (in the case of Southeast Asia) two growing seasons. Having to work harder, Northerners have less time and don't socialize as much. Even cultures that are no longer agrarian may have lingering traits from these recent rural times. Also, this theory might explain why people in rural settings also tend to be more friendly than city people. Not to imply that rural people don't work hard; that would be a stupid thing to say. But their work is manual, and you can talk while you do manual work, but if you're working in an office or some such job, you can't socialize while you work.

I think it's a combination of both theories, along with other factors, that makes Southern people generally more friendly than Northern people.

Here's a wholesale textile shop I spent quite a bit of time in. The owners spoke English well, and I found this gorgeous dress:

I wanted it so bad, but I couldn't think of where I'd ever wear it in the U.S! Moreover, the top didn't fit me, and I couldn't think of any top that might go with that skirt. So I bought a simpler white skirt with red and green embroidery that will go with any top instead. It's also very pretty, and will look especially nice at Christmas time!

Next, my chauffeur took me to Alleppey (2 hours drive) to a houseboat. This is what it looked like:

Here's my "crew." The guide/pilot is on my left in the blue shirt. The other two are the engineer and cook.

From 1:00 to sunset (6:00) we cruised around the backwaters (freshwater rivers and canals) that linked the Arabian Sea with the largest lake in India. It was incredible!

The boat pilot spoke pretty good English and told me all about the history of Kerla. He was an excellent guide, and a few times we got off the boat to walk along the river and get a closer look at the local life and scenery:

Village lady using the "local laundromat."

Apparently a lot of young people are leaving the area because they don't want to be farmers like their parents, but work better-paying jobs in the city with IT and such. So a lot of the rice fields are left untended for lack of labor, like this one:

They're stemming the problem a little by importing foreign labor. Isn't that funny? The American IT companies are outsourcing to India, and now India has to outsource their farm work! It's kind of ironic.

My guide was also Christian, something that is a little less rare in Kerla than the rest of India (19% compared to the nation's overall 2%). That's because St. Thomas (a disciple of Jesus) first brought the knowledge of the resurrection to Kerla shortly after 70AD, so Christianity is quite old and accepted as part of the culture in Kerla rather than viewed as a foreigners' religion. He told me all about the persecution (including death by angry mobs) that Christians face in Northern India. He said a lot of Hindus and Muslims feel that it is their duty to kill Christians. Not most, of course, (only extremists) but enough that it happens from time to time. Two of the kids in the children's home, from Orissa state, lost their parents that way.

He also showed me a local temple of a goddess Kali, who according to tradition likes blood sacrifices, and thus enjoys the color red. Everywhere I saw red cloth draped over trees and homes, even in the front of the boat, so the goddess wouldn't demand blood.

My guide had a very "us" versus "them" attitude that as a missionary, was distressing for me to hear. "The Hindus do this, while we Christians never do that." "You often see Muslims do such-and-such, but we Christians have the true way." It's no wonder Christianity hasn't grown recently in Kerla. They've dug a trench around themselves and built up a fortress. Not that I can blame them, given the circumstances. That's the natural human defense when surrounded by so much hostility and outright danger. I just pray that someone will have the courage to jump-start a revival and reach out to all the "pagans" around them. (That's easy for me to SAY. Doing is another matter.)

He also had a subtle attitude of what I call the "great Western benefactor." He kept talking about how wonderful it was when the Europeans came and settled India and brought their medicine, clothes, education, roads, etc. This spilled over into him asking me to give to this or that cause. I felt weird about that. I was, in his mind, one of those "great Western benefactors." George told me to avoid this stereotype as much as possible. Even though it made me feel guilty, I resisted the emotional urge to give this guy any sort of donation (though I did give him a tip, of course, that goes without saying). George and Manju taught me the importance of trusting God for all things, especially finances, not people. When giving, especially in third world or developing world contexts, it's better to establish a close relationship which is not based in any way on money. Then, when God tells you, you can give naturally out of your love for that person and shared passion for their ministry, not out of emotions, and certainly not in a way that would create an unhealthy relationship or dependency.

Anyway, at around 4:00, we stopped at an Ayurveda massage parlor:

I got an hour and a half massage with natural oils and spices, plus a facial:

And finally an herbal bath. It was all very relaxing and only cost about $20!

Before she started, the lady prayed. I asked her who she prayed to. She said she prayed to Lord Krishna (a Hindu god). I told her I prayed to Jesus. She quickly said that she prayed to Jesus too and believed he also was God. I found this a little odd. I tried to question her further, but she didn't speak English well, and who wants to debate while you're getting a massage? So I just let it go. Just before I left, I tried an experiment and asked if I could pray for her. She said yes, so I prayed for her in the name of Jesus and asked God to bless her. She smiled at this and seemed to find it amusing. She said something to my guide, and when I got back in the boat, he laughed.

"She told me you prayed for her in the name of Jesus. She thought that was nice of you, but she doesn't believe in Jesus."

"Funny," I replied, "she told me she did."

His grinned widened. "Those Hindus always say that. She just didn't want you to preach at her."

Ah. That's what I figured. Well, she got her wish. I wasn't in the mood for preaching anyway.

Nearby we picked up some freshwater prawns for my dinner. The cook kept telling me how much better they are than saltwater. Sadly, not so. Freshwater prawns, as cliched as it sounds, really taste just like chicken!

We anchored the boat around 6:00 and my guide and I went for a walk along the river until we reached the lake. There we saw a gorgeous sunset:

Me sitting on the edge of the river:

I slept in the houseboat that night. It was very comfortable. The ever-so-slight rocking of the boat put me swiftly to sleep.

The next morning I got up at 6:00 to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately it was so cloudy I couldn't see it, but starting at 7:00 I did enjoy another two and a half hours cruising down the river, seeing the early morning birds and activity of the local people. The guide took me to a little church where the first Indian Catholic missionary (Chavara) worked:

A nun showed me around. Very European-looking place. There was a wall of photographs on one side of the church. Each person in the pictures had received some miracle by praying to a statue or painting of the blessed Chavara. I wondered, "how is this any better than praying to some Hindu god or goddess? They've just exchanged one form of idolatry for another. Christ should be getting the glory, not a mere mortal." Of course, I didn't say that out loud. I just smiled and told them they had a very nice chapel. I must say, one thing that was really cool about the mission was that in a time when the Vatican insisted that almost everything be in Latin, Chavara got permission and often preached in the local language, Malayalam, which also happens to be George's Mother tongue. (On a side note, all major languages in India stem from Sandscrit, and are now all similar to Hindi, kind of like how most European languages stem from Latin and contain some terminology- such as music- and grammar from Italian. Hindi is the national language of India and is used to communicate in many settings (not that everyone speaks it), just as English has become a trade language in Europe (again, not that EVERYONE speaks it).

At 9:30 on Friday my driver picked me up from the houseboat dock and took me to Marari Beach Resort. When I first arrived, they tried to put sandal wood paste on my forehead, but that's what the Hindus put on at temples to show dedication to their gods, so I politely refused. But the coconut they gave me to drink was nice.

Talk about gorgeous! Here's my bathroom. I had my own mini courtyard:

First, a naturalist took me around the two butterfly gardens. The gardens were natural, simply created by planting lots of flowers outside that the butterflies like. They were all indigenous. Here's the caterpillar of the Southern Birdwing, the largest butterfly in India, about to go to pupa:

There were some baby goats too:

Next, I hung out on the totally empty beach:

How often to you get a whole beach to yourself, huh? It's because it was off season, monsoon time, with huge, dangerous waves. For that reason I couldn't get in the water. But it was nice to watch the green surf come crashing in on the snow-white sand, sending up clouds of spray and foam. I chased crabs and crows. After awhile an India family came and started catching the crabs. They would always bring their catch to me to show before tossing it back. That was fun.

Then I went for a long bike ride around the fishing village. I rode for about 10km (6 miles) through the jungle and back roads. A lumberjack let me pet his elephant. Too bad my camera ran out of batteries!

I came back to watch the sunset on the beach, and enjoyed a delicious steak dinner, crab bisque, and mango lassi (traditional yogurt drink) at the restaurant. In the morning I attempted a one-on-one short yoga session. Interesting.

From there a local tour guide took me to see some sights around Alleppey: two famous churches, Chinese fishing nets, Mattancherry Palace (Dutch Palace), the souvenir market, Jew town, and the synagog. The Chinese fishing nets, as their name suggests, were introduced by the Chinese before the time of Christ. They are situated downriver in the backwaters, taking advantages of the back and forth current that flows with the tide and usually brings lots of fish. Unfortunately, with the second monsoon coming so late, or perhaps not coming at all this year, the fisherman aren't catching much. They use a system of weights and counterweights to lower and raise the nets in and out of the water. I helped two sets of fisherman do this, and it's hard work!

As for Jew town and the Jewish synagog, Kerla used to have a thriving community of several thousand Jews, dating from before the time of Christ. They've traded with India since the days of King Solomon. (Many believe that's how St. Thomas got to India. Being a Jew himself, he probably traveled on one of their merchant ships.) Unfortunately, all that came to an end when the Portuguese showed up. Fearing the Jews had a monopoly on trade (and out of general stupid prejudice), the Portuguese attacked the Jewish settlements and slaughtered thousands. Despite this, the Jews continued to thrive in Southern India until the re-establishment of Israel, when most Jews moved there. Now there are only 9 living in Kerla, barely enough to maintain the synagog.

At 4:35 I had to catch a plane back to Bangalore, and sadly, that was the end of my Kerla retreat. But I played recorders with the kids on Sunday for church, and Monday
I took Charles, Sudha, and Manju out for lunch at Barbeque Nation (a very good restaurant, once they understood the concept that "no spice" doesn't mean you simply scrape off the spice that's there) and we celebrated Chichan and Anjeli's birthdays. Here's Chichan and Jedi cutting Chichan's cake:

I took this final group photo just before I left:

Then at midnight, I left for the U.S.! What an adventure! So what now? Well, after much prayer and advice from my mentors, I've decided to take a "sabbatical" from missions. I need to re-evaluate God's calling on my life. In the mean time, I'll be teaching, writing, and promoting my book Treasure Traitor which is coming out November 1st! I'm excited to see what God has in store next...

Prayer Requests: Thanksgiving for a successful time in India! Please continue praying for those eleven precious kids: Deeraj, Punith, Matang, Eso, Anjeli, Hemu, Susan, Ashish, Chichan, Sudeep, and Jedi, and the new staff member Swarnalatha. Also for God's continued direction in my life as I take this "sabbatical."

Until next time, keep praying and loving,

L.J. Popp


Wendy said...

Laura Jane, I left a comment on your post at the JET blog here: I'm wondering if you could contact me as soon as possible regarding using your post-tsunami story in the magazine I edit.

Amit Patel said...

Kerala is fantastic place for wander it is situated in south Indian. There are lots of famous Temple. There are beautiful beach and here you can spend you holidays.
Thank you,
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