Thursday, February 19, 2009

Take a Rickshaw Ride!

You Can the Guy out of India...but You Can't Take India out of the Guy

From 90 Degrees to 9 Degrees...

I made it home last night around 5:00 p.m. The traveling was like a Twilight Zone epidode because I was going west through several time zones, and since it was always light out, it seemed like I was traveling for days and not getting anywhere. It started with a Tuesday a.m. 4-hour drive from Tiruvannamalai to Chennai...3 hour flight to Delhi...6 hour layover in Delhi airport...7 hour flight to Amsterdam...9 hour layover in the airport there...7 hour flight to Minneapolis. From the plane, I saw Iceland and Greenland. I slept really well last night, and so far the jet lag hasn't been a problem. We'll see how the next few days pan out. I spent the entire afternoon working on organizing the over 2,500 photos and videos. I'll put up a few here on the blog...on my previous posts, too. Take a look. You can see them all soon on Flickr....I'll send a link or post a slide show here when they're ready.

"India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most astrictive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!"
~Mark Twain

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Going Dutch

Halfway home...

I guess I forgot how noisy and busy India is. I've spent the day in the Amsterdam airport and all I can think of is HOW QUIET IT IS! Why is everyone whispering? You would need to multiply the number of people here times three and increase the decibel level significantly to match the airport in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai. The noise level and crush of people can be overwhelming, but you do get used to it, and you just have to accept the fact that there's a constant "festive" atmosphere. My favorite times were late evening. There were still a lot of people out on the streets, but they had eaten and the men were socializing around the shops and food stands, and things were winding down.

I'm so thankful that I made this trip, and that I'm coming home safe and sound. One thing I didn't tell anyone... The day I checked into the Madurai YMCA, there was deafening music playing on a loudspeaker outside. Turns out there was a political rally getting underway. The podium was right outside my window. A large intense-looking crowd began to gather, and just about the time I was to go out for a temple tour, a group came marching down the street waving placards. The only thing more unnerving that seeing a lot of police is seeing a lot of police in a foreign country. My driver and temple guide pushed me gently back to my room until the actual program had started, then I kind of slipped out quickly. It had something to do with Sri Lanka. Supposedly it was some kind of peace rally, but I'm not so sure. It was definitely political, and the speakers were certainly animated and loud. I made a point to stay out until the rally was over at 10:00 p.m. The other sort of unnerving thing was all of the police security at some of the better hotels. Otherwise, I felt completely safe and secure, even venturing out on my own.

Anyway, maybe I'll return to India someday. The people are so surprised and honored that you come to visit them. I'm very proud of the work that LPGM, Bethania Kids and my relatives have done to make India a more peaceful, prosperous and loving place, especially for children. Maybe you can have some small part in that, too.

See you Stateside, and watch for my photos.

Thanks for all your well-wishes and prayers,


Monday, February 16, 2009

On the Eve of Departure

More Miscellaneous Thoughts...
India is a country of such diversity and great contrasts - to the point of being bizarre. It's like watching one long performance art piece. You never know what you're going to see passing you by on the street....14 people in a 2-person auto rickshaw (like a yellow-and-black 3-wheeled golf cart), a person driving a motorbike while holding cement blocks, a funeral procession with drums and horns, peacocks (the national bird)... Sitting next to me in the internet cafe doing online chatting is a old swami with a long, greying beard, wearing a pink robe, matching turban, and some lovely beaded bracelets. (By the way, "internet cafe" is a's a dusty roadside room with plastic molded chairs and no a/c. Last night I had a computer on which the "x" didn't work.) My all-time favorite visual so far, however, was an old man pulling a rickety wooden cart loaded with Xerox paper!

A Few Random Things I WON'T Miss About India...
--Perpetually filthy feet. I don't think they'll ever get clean.
--Lack of shower curtains. Indian bathrooms either don't have shower curtains or they have ones that are inadequate. In Kodai, the bathroom had an elaborate shower, with several massage heads and a curved glass door, but...the shower door didn't go all the way to the floor. They just don't get it. This morning, the drain in the bathroom floor wasn't working well, so as a result, when I opened the bathroom door to leave, I discovered that the bedroom was flooded.
--Tipping. It's a newbie tourist's nightmare. Especially when you're trying to convert INR to USD in your head. You either offend someone or shock them. First of all, you look in your wallet and see all these 100 or even 500 bills and think, "I'm rich!!!" (Of course, these are only about $2 and $10 respectively.) Then you think, "Well, since I'm so rich, why don't I leave a generous tip?" However, a generous tip may be completely bizarre in most leaving a days wages or something like $100 to an average waiter. I did feel very fine giving my main driver Chandran, my manual rickshaw driver Murugan (remember him?) and my auto rickshaw driver Manikandan generous tips. They went beyond the call of duty.

Leaving Tomorrow...
Today, my auto rickshaw driver, Manikandan (we got acquainted with him there first time we were in Tiruvannamalai), took me on a nice tour of the 8 temples surrounding the base of Mount Arunachala. There are 9 all told, including the large temple here in town. I also had some quiet time at Quo Vadis and was able to read up on the mountain and its religious significance. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex Hindu concept, I'll just say that it is a very sacred site. This is where Shiva (Siva) manifested himself in a great pillar of fire to the gods Vishnu and Brahma, who were getting too big for their britches. The mountain is the result. Vishnu, in the form of a wild boar, attempted (for 1000 or so years, I think) to find the depths of Siva's presence. Brahma, in the form of a swam, attempted to find the heights. Both were unable. Siva has many names (1008, I think) and manifestations. Among them is the concept of Siva as the great lingam (lamp). You may have seen something about the huge Deepam festival here on the PBS special on India. Men hike up the mountain to light an enormous lingam as the full moon is just rising and the entire town cheers. Wish I could be here for that. Next time...

The small roadside temples always have a few people filing through. The large temples I've seen in India are teeming with people. The air is close and humid and reeks of sour ghee (clarified butter), milk, sandalwood paste, turmeric, and other things which are poured over or applied to the statues and to the devotees. Extreme reverence is always the order of the day.

Hard to believe, but I'll be picked up at 10:00 by a taxi for Chennai (Madras) for a connecting flight to Delhi, them Amsterdam (with a 9-hour layover!), and on to Minneapolis...returning Wednesday afternoon.

Now, I need to go get a bite to eat at the Roots Cafe and see if there's any way I can get the harmonium I want to buy onto the plane.

Malai Vanakkam (Good Evening)...or in your case, Kalai Vanakkam (Good Morning). Probably my last post for awhile. I have fallen in love with India. Still, I'm ready to leave. Clean feet, here I come!

"Mr. Mark" (As they call me here. Hey, if I can't pronounce things like "Melipattakabattchulum," they shouldn't have to attempt "Spitzack.")

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Miscellaneous Thoughts

A few random things about India I'll miss...

--the smell of moth balls - everyone bathroom has them

--sauntering cattle

--multiple light switches in each room (I counted 37 in the current suite!), most of which have no geographic relationship to the device they control and some which remain a mystery

--Nescafe instant coffee (always with hot milk and sugar)

Ants in My Pants

A funny incident I forgot to tell you about earlier....

We were at the Siloam Girls Boarding School for their evening event. (Ever spent an evening with 700 hyped-up schoolgirls?!). For the second time on the trip, we opened the folder to discover that we were on the program...i.e. "Mr. Gordon Olson and LPGM Group." Why Gordon hadn't figured out that this would happen - as it has in the past - I don't know. And even though he's a musician himself, he came running to me asking what we should do. What, am I wearing a sign that says "Talent Coordinator?!" With Cath's help, I decided we would do "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes." She offered to lead "Head & Shoulders, Knees and Toes" as a warm-up song. (Big mistake. Ever try doing that with 700 hyped-up schoolgirls?! They did not need a warm-up song.) I ordered Gordy to go somewhere and dress up like Granny, and told him to enter the scene when we sang "We will all go out to meet her when she comes...Hi, Babe!" He grudgingly agreed. Meanwhile.....
Before the program started, we had noticed a massive colony of red ants doing their thing just in front of us, between us and the dance floor. I watched and avoided them the entire evening--- but managed somehow in the flurry of getting ready for our songs to stand right in them!!! I have never before felt such intense itching! I took the opportunity to scratch during the "knees and toes" phrases. Otherwise, I had to pretend nothing was wrong. As soon as the program was over, I ran for a cold shower and some "Stop Itch." Almost a month later, the bite marks still show.

Oh, and the song? Well, the children looked bewildered throughout. And it turns out, when "Granny Gordy" enetered, they thought he was a monkey. Oh, well. It still got a laugh. When in doubt, do drag!

The Family Pinnacle

"Who will answer gladly, saying, 'Here am I. Send me, send me.'?"

Karl Gustav Theodor Naether, ca. 1903

On Friday afternoon, Pastor Anandaraj and Mr. Arivanandam took me on to Krishnagiri. Here, our ancestor Theodor Naether, the pioneer missionary of what was to become the India Evangelical Lutheran Church, began his work. Naether married my great-grandfather's sister, so I guess that makes him my great-great uncle-in-law or something like that. Naether is highly revered by the IELC Lutherans here. They sort of whisper his name, and they glow when talking about "Father Naether." Here great-grandfather Georg Naumann and grandfather John G.P. Naumann began their work, and here my mother Helen Naumann had her earliest childhood days, having been born in Kodaikanal while her parents were there for language study. Great great grandfather Ottom Willkomm was also a missionary to India. On their way to India in 1029, my grandparents stopped in Germany and received from Mrs. Naether the large Tamil Bible that her husband had used. At the time of Naether and my other ancestors, the church became known as MELIM (Missouri Evangelical Lutherans in Mission). Several missionaries left the Leipig Mission in Germany for doctrinal reasons - Mohn and Naether among them - and were "adopted" by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the U.S., which sent them to India.

The church is Christ Lutheran Church, and though the old church building survives, a new one was built in 1995, which was also the centenary of the congregation. The architect was Paul Bertelsen, who has designed several beautiful church buildings in India - some of which we saw earlier in the trip - including Quo Vadis, the New Jerusalem Church in Panruti, and other Arcot Lutheran Church projects supported by LPGM. (We especially liked the weaving hall at Lebanon Home for Women.) Once again, the church leaders had been assembled and had secured a photographer for the occasion, and I was treated like a dignitary. I was given a garland and shawl by the son of the first person baptized in the IELC (by Naether). He himself is very, very old. I was very tired, but gave a brief thank-you speech.

After lots of fuss, and after viewing the graveyard where the Naethers and others are buried, we moved on to the very large elementary IELC school, where I met with the headmaster, former headmaster, teachers, and others, and visited some of the classrooms. I'm glad I brought along some photos of my cat and of the Church School Choir at Mount Olive. The kids here have really enjoyed them.

In this trip, I have had to wrestle with my heritage, which is steeped in rigid confessional Lutheranism. Despite my own objections to many things the Missouri Synod stands for and my own break with that denomination, I can see that the bottom line is that the Indian Christians are so grateful that people like Naether and Grandpa made such monumental sacrifices (Naether himself died of the plague, which also took [some of?] his children) to bring them the Gospel. The Gospel - the good news for these people - was and is that Jesus stands with the lowest and weakest, regardless of status, caste, color, or creed - and brings them to his loving embrace. Whether or not you agree with the proselytizing, the missionaries also brought hope and love in the form of numerous social programs. For instance, I'm proud of the work my grandfather put into adult literacy and into his work with the blind. The church folks here reminded me that he learned Tamil - including colloquial Tamil - very, very well, and that he was very much loved by the average villager. He refused to wear a pith helmet, which tended to be a status symbol for missionaries. He showed filmstrips (remember those?) and provided his own sound! The Indian people are so amazed and delighted that someone is thinking about them and would come all the way to India to visit them, or in the case of the missionaries, that someone would devote their lives to them.

I left Krishnagiri wiped out, with my head spinning. Chandran drove me the 3 hours to Tiruvannamalai, where I collapsed into dinner with the Koons.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Descent - Family Roots

You might recall that this pilgrimage had three parts: 1) Lutheran Partners..., 2) Bethania Kids, 3) family roots. I've come full circle now and am back in Tiruvannamalai, where it pretty much all began. Last night, I finished the ancestry portion of my pilgrimage. On Thursday, my driver and I left Madurai and drove 6 hours to Kanchipuram, the "silk city." Time was limited, so I only hit one shop, and only for an hour. Probably a good thing, wallet-wise. Prem Anand, the son of the pastor who now lives in the bungalow my grandfather built in Barugur, met me there, along with two of his friends. He lives in Chennai, but took a bus out to meet me. Prem has been a great help with itinerary and lodging plans, and it was wonderful to finally meet him. One of his friends is from an influential, well-known family. I'm not exactly sure how this shakes out, but I think his grandfather was a high-ranking minister in the state of Tamil Nadu, and I believe his father is with the Tamil Nadu government, too. For this reason, we had privileged access to the temple, going to the head of the queues and getting into places where others are not allowed (a little embarrassing). I was also able to take photos where cameras are technically forbidden. When they saw Parventhan coming, with a tall white "dignitary" in tow, they just parted and let us right through. Afterwards, we went to Parventhan's home, where I got "shawled" (more on that later) and saw his recent wedding photos. [Dear LPGM friends: Remember that moustached dignitary we saw on all those billboards? This guy knows him well, and he was at the wedding!] It was a fast, furious and exciting temple visit, and I loved it. My only complaint is that the elephant was reluctant to bless me. Maybe he knows I'm a Christian, even though Prem, Parventhan, and Chandrakumar told the temple attendants I am Hindu.

Exhausted, we drove on to Vellore, approximately another hour away. The hotel said they only had me booked for one night. I could've moved to a non-A/C room for the second night, but the place was not in the greatest shape anyway (dirty, mosquitos) so with one quick call to Prem, I was set me up for the second night in a lovely government-run hotel in Krishnagiri, which was more convenient anyway. In Vellore on Thursday, I saw the Tamil Nadu government museum - dusty but interesting - and then walked around the Vellore Fort. It was very hot and sticky today.

We then went on to Ambur, where my grandfather was a chaplain for awhile at Bethesda Hospital and taught at the teacher training school, also on the IELC (India Evangelical Lutheran Church) compound, along with a school for the deaf and other schools, and two churches - one built in 1966 with very progressive architecture. My guide at Ambur was the feisty Dr. Alice Brauer, who knew my mom's family and has been serving there for many years, currently in community development. Alice is, well, let's just say she's "blunt" - and she wouldn't mind me telling you that. She speaks her mind and offends people along the way, but I was somewhat prepared for that. I only gave her about 40 minutes notice that I was coming and am sure I'll never hear the end of that. I thought I could just view the compound and hospital on my own. At the last minute, thanks to Prem, I called her and she rose to the occasion. She gave me a grand whirlwind tour and boldly walked right into the house where my grandparents lived. It's now used for nurses training. All of mom's siblings were born at the hospital in Ambur.

I had some time left in the day before having to move on, so stopped at the "optional" Vaniyambadi, where Concordia Press is, and where Dan Burow's father was stationed. Dan is a fellow Mount Olivite and a retired pastor. I wanted to be able to tell him I stopped there. [Dan, I stopped there.] My impromptu visit threw the folks at Vaniyambadi into a tizzy. I made them lead me through the weedy hillside to find the grave of the small Kretzmann missionary boy who, Mom remembers, died in 1936. She visited him when he was sick, and she says it was the saddest funeral she and her friend Betty had ever been to. The grave was hidden behind a huge cactus and was unkempt, but we cleared the weeds away enough to get a good photo. In the chapel at the Press building, I found a harmonium and played it for the staff. Granddad was for several years the editor of the Tamil Satya Satshi, the Tamil Lutheran Witness.

Several miles ahead lay Barugur, where Grampa supervised the building of the bungalow - and, I'm told by the folks there, a nearby road, which I saw later! The first thing you see when you reach the turn into the grounds is a large building with huge lettering that says "REV. NAUMAN STAGE." The Indians love their monuments and plaques. If it was built by human hands and if any money was involved, t's got an inscription of some sort! Spellings are very fluid here, so thus the misspelling of Naumann. Elsewhere on the grounds I later saw the "Missionary Rev. Nauman Park." There is too much to say here about the Barugur visit, but suffice to say that

Rev. Herbert Anandaraj and his wife were thrilled to have me visit. Rev. Herbert had Grandpa as a his Bible teacher - 7:30 a.m., he says. They live in the central part of the house. I took a lot of pictures. And yes, Mom, the bathtub is there but has fallen into disuse. Everything's painted green! That bright industrial green that was used so often in the old days. The IELC campus here contains an elementary school, higher secondary school (goes not just to 10th standard, but to 12th), a school for the blind (which Grandpa started, Mom says), and a school for the mentally retarded, which is the lingo still used here (and I'm told is making a comeback in the states). I was especially impressed with the blind school and with the school for the mentally retarded. The latter fills a great void. - It is one of the few schools in Tamil Nadu that serves mentally handicapped children and makes a bold statement to the community about the value of educating these children. They are trained in basic life skills and are taught skills that will lead to some kind of work when they leave the school. The headmaster of the blind school is a dedicated and gentle man who you can tell runs a tight ship. The buildings, which he helped to design/build( I think that's what he said), look wonderful - spacious, clean and organized. All of the teachers for these "private" schools are paid by the government, and some funds come from World Vision, but they are in dire need of more help. These two schools impressed me greatly, and I hope to do something to further awareness about them.

Another host for this portion of the trip was the evangelist, Mr. Arivanandrum, who also corresponds with my mother and sister. He is full of fervor and love and was eager to tell me stories about Grandpa. He speaks very good English and has a great sense of humor. He guided the tour of the nearby village school which Gramps started for children of low-caste families. At that time it was huge issue amongst the missionaries and residents in that part of the world. The church in Vengattisamutarum is Redeemer Lutheran Church. I met two former teachers and a former student (all very old now). On our trek to the village, we passed a temple (falling into ruins) that I was told is from the 13th century. I asked if I could take a look. The director of the blind school ventured in with me. It's abandoned - looks exactly like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. The carvings are exquisite. In these temples, by the way, each huge pillar is carved - intriquitely - out of a single piece of granite. I was warned about scorpions, so didn't venture into the inner sanctum, where the god's statue would have been kept.

Back in Barugur, I met for sometime with some of the local church leaders (all men, which is disappointing). I also learned that there has been a schism and a new congregation is being formed. Although the Lutheran churches in India - Arcot Lutheran Church, IELC, others - have certainly not cornered the market on disagreements and infighting, it is way too prevalent here. The love of money is, of course, at the root of the evil, as are disputes about land ownership and concerns about prestige. People in India are really into position. If they have degrees or titles, they use them. The Arcot Lutheran Church, with which Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry is in close relationship, was started by Danes who felt that the church should truly be caste-less. Ironically, because of this, they themselves became outcasts. Most or all of the LPGM homes and schools are therefore in the very poor or outer-lying areas.

The pastor lamented to me about the lack of musical training for pastors and the lack of musicians to lead. I laughed and said, "What makes you thing things are different in our country?" They are singing songs in Tamil, which is good, but would like to do music that has more substance. Many still remember and like the Lutheran tunes for the Ordinary of the liturgy. They like them, and they work well, but the hymnbooks give very little guidance on how to sing the music or where to find the tunes. Maybe some kind of musical exchange study program between U.S. Lutheran colleges or seminaries and the Nagercoil seminary is in order?



Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If it's Tuesday, this must be Madurai

Tonight was one of those magical, almost sacramental times that you never forget. I was feeling pretty glum about life and Madurai. I'm staying in the YMCA - International Guest House. It's certainly not the cottage I had in Kodai. (My driver, by the way, keeps reminding me that it's not pronounced "ko-dee-kan-ahl" but "ko-dye-ee-kan-ahl.") I was not feeling too mad about Madurai until tonight. My room is somewhat clean. I won't go into the odor. I had A/C last night, but it gave out today. The TV works. Sometimes. At 800 rupees per night (about $16), I guess I can't complain.

Tempermental about the Temple
The famed Sri Meenakshi Temple - one of the prime reasons a person comes to Madurai - is - get this - being painted! So all 12 of its fabulous colorful towers are covered in scaffolding and thatch. You can't see a thing! It looks very eerie - like some bizarre towering tiki hut. When we arrived in town, I saw one of the towers and asked my driver what it was. When he said it was the temple, I said, "Yeah, right." I had a tour of the inside of the temple from a grumpy, mumbling guide that my driver recommended, and he became grumpier when I held him to the 50 rupees my driver had quoted. I ate a very mediocre meal at a rooftop restaurant. And my driver, Chandran, was getting on my nerves. He looks like a cross between Jerry Lewis and Gandhi. He's a great guy...just tries a little too hard. He speaks pretty good English, but keeps saying, "Take photo? Take photo?" at every little sight and insists on repeating everything I say 3 times. On top of all that, I was wishing I could be home for Anna's service. (In fact, I woke at 4:30 a.m., which would've been about the time the service was starting back home).
Today I went to the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, excited to see its' "nightly sound-and-light show." Alas, the palace is being renovated, so there is scaffolding everywhere, and the show has been cancelled during renovations. To top it off, workers were installing a handicapped ramp at part of the palace, and the contractor had one of his guys trying to make us pay to view that part - even though we'd already paid the "real" ticket counter. I complained, but to no avail. Chandran dropped me off at a place for lunch. Again, mediocre, with slow service. I then went to the Gandhi Memorial Museum, which was great, and suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of young college students who apparently had never seen a white person up close before. They stared in fascination and had to have their picture taken with me. Being the center of attention and adoration -- I could get used to this!

Murugan, the Rickshaw Driver
We drove to the Mariamman Teppakkulam Tank - a vast pool of water with a temple in the center. It is dry most of the year and used for cricket by kids, but had water in it because of the Teppam (Float) Festival, which just ended. A rickshaw driver hit me up at the Palace, and I relented. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened and completely salvaged my time in Madurai. He picked me up at 5 p.m. for what was to have been a 1-hour ride, but I ended up hopping out to shop and snap photos of the various market sites and had him drop me a restaurant. This one was also on a hotel, but this time, the food and service was fabulous: spicy mulligatawny (sp?) soup, little veggie-kabob thingies, pulcha (bread), free raw peanuts and pappadums (crispy lentil wafers), and the best tandoori chicken I've ever had. Oh, and did I mention that they had real liquor? They approximated a gin and tonic for me, using gin, lime water and a bottle of fizzy Indian soda. I had two, thank you very much. Oh, and gulab jumin (those little donut-like balls soaking in syrup). The rickshaw driver is Murugan (the name of the god Ganesh's brother). I felt guilty having a middle-aged man pull this big ol' white guy around town - especially when I found out he had a bum leg from polio (yikes) - but kept reminding myself that I was helping him and the local economy by renting his services and by shopping. He waited for me while I ate. Murugan has 4 kids - one daughter at marriage age - so that's on his financial mind. He spoke pretty good English and gave me a great tour, stopping at the various areas of the market (jewelry, vegetables, fruit, textiles - each one several blocks long). He wanted my address, and I took his (actually just the "address" of where he parks his rickshaw) and assured him I'd recommend him highly to others. I gave him 700 rupees (about $14), and he seemed stunned and got bleary-eyed. On the way back to the Y, he insisted on stopping to buy for me, out of his own pocket, a bottle of water. He somehow managed to get an icy-cold one. I have NEVER before seen an icy-cold bottle of water in India. Murugan seemed so tired and sad. It really does put things in perspective, as they say: 1) I'm disappointed about not getting to see the colors of the temple, and 2) he's worried about how to feed his children.

Thanks to Murugan, I'm in good spirits now and am looking for a t-shirt:
"I came all the way to Madurai and all I got was this lousy t-shirt showing me what the temple really looks like."

Sunday, February 8, 2009



Sorry, I forgot to bring the memory card, etc. to the internet cafe. Rest assured, I have oodles of photos and videos to share. Soon. -mjs


I flew from Delhi to Trivandrum - at the far southern tip of the country - on Monday morning. The state of Kerala is beautiful. From the plane I saw miles and miles of verdant countryside and coconut trees, coconut trees, coconut trees. I booked a taxi to Nagercoil. I wasn't supposed to do that; one was already arranged by the travel agent - which caused panic in those who wondered what happened to me when I didn't present myself to the driver. (And I wondered why some of you worried about me travelling on my own.) I made it to Nagercoil (about 85 km), where I toured Concordia Seminary there and met the sweet Rev. V. Robert Rajaskaran (and his wife Johnny), who corresponds with my mum and sis. Pastor Robert was my gracious host, and Rev. Dr. Patrick Monickaraj saved the day by accompanying me to the train station to make a special request for a duplicate train ticket for the one I'd lost (insert very red face here) - or never received (??)- no small task. On behalf of LPGM, I presented individually-painted portraits to the children of Concordia Girls Boarding Home and Lutheran Boys Boarding Home. These were painted, using photos, by students of Northfield High School. Attached to the back of each photo was a photo of the artist and a note from him/her. I am learning to ad lib speeches on the spot, by the way, and am becoming pretty good at it, if I do say so myself! The children were stunned and thrilled with such individualized and personal attention.

The next evening I met the girls of the Bethania Girls Boarding Home in Nagercoil, where Grace Subbiah has presided and served for many years. The girls gave me an elaborate lei and the usual outstanding song, dance and recitation programme. The work of Bethania Kids Foundation is shining like a bright star in this place.

Riding the rails...
On Thursday, I found my way to the correct train (stop laughing) and had a fascinating 6-hour train ride to Kodaikanal Road. I had "biryani to go" on the train. I managed to get an hour or two of sleep and chatted with a very nice fellow who spoke very good English. I have been the only white person in sight during much of the solo portion of this trip so far (not here in Kodai; there are many foreigners). That is a strange feeling. As is being watched by the waiters while eating. They seem to think I'm someone important. I actually have a little cottage here on the mountainside. My view is layers and layers of hills...the view my mother treasures. There is a Roman Catholic shrine-blessing of some sort going on, so the valley is echoing with loud singing and preaching.

New friends...
Bob and Betty Granner have been extraordinary hosts. Gethsy Jayapalan was my guide for some of the many Bethania centers here. My last "kids" thing was to teach 30 orphanage boys how to play American football. (Again, please stop laughing. Yes, I do know how to play. Sort of.) I also taught them to do "The Hustle." It will come as no surprise that I was much more comfortable with the latter. Some of the children in the orphanages lost their parents in the tsunami. They are so full of love and hope and are an inspiration beyond imagining. I will write more about that, and about the work of Bethania here, as soon as possible. My heart is full, for the children. My heart is aching, for Anna and her family. They are all in the hands of God.

Retro Posting

Backing up a bit... It will be hard to catch you up on everything, but here goes...

After I last posted, from Tiruvinnamalai, we visited two more boarding home/school sites at which children are sponsored by individuals via LPGM. We were going to essentially wave at one of them as we passed because we were informed that there was an outbreak of "smallpox" there. However, when we stopped to say hello, we couldn't resist venturing in to the grounds so that members of our group could meet children sponsored by them or their congregations. And as it turns out, the illness was really "chicken pox," so we were not that concerned about exposure. We then went up into the Kalrayan Hills to visit schools there, including one in the tribal village of Alathy. In this area, the schools and other community development projects for LPGM (including an organic farm) are coordinated by a young couple - both pastors: Benjamin and Priscilla Sudhaker. Priscilla is the first woman pastor in the Arcot Lutheran Church. Our accommodations were, well, a bit primitive. My roomie for the night, Dale Woodrow, courageously pulled a chair into the bathroom before bedtime so he could read in there when he woke up during the night. I tried to spend a maximum of 5 minutes in there. I wasn't sure what critters I might meet. While at the farm, we got to drink coconut water - yes, right out of the coconut - and experienced jack fruit for the first time. All but Ruthie. Dear, poor Ruthie, who was having tummy issues. She was a real trooper. She doesn't eat spicy food much - and um, all I can say is: good luck with that in India! A couple others of us had brief bouts...We think it was from some water we had in the hills. But it quickly passed, if you'll pardon the expression.

We went on to the coastal area of Cuddalore, where LPGM has its field office and where the 2004 tsunami took a huge toll. The physical damage is still visible. Then on to Pondicherry, which we LOVED! We were giddy as we checked into our beach resort. There were real, working toilets, Western showers (the Indian options for toilets and showering are almost always offered alongside), and a swimming pool. Cath, Kris, Ruthie, Jane, and I ventured into town to shop. Here's where I truly discovered that crossing the street in India is a real step of faith. I'm finding that once you start moving, you need to keep going. The Minnesota Nice "You go...No, you go...No, after you..." is a deadly approach.

Click on the video to ride through the streets of Chennai...

We flew to Delhi on Saturday and toured Old Delhi by rickshaws. I sincerely apologized to my driver for the weight issue, but he seemed non-plussed and cheerful. The tour of Delhi was kind of whirlwind... We passed Hindu, Jain, and Christian places of worship, and toured the largest mosque in India. We also passed by our first McDonalds (no beef though, only chicken or veg burgers). After a night in Delhi, we drove on to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. The latter is actually more impressive in many ways than the former, but after looking a my photos, I realize now how special the Taj is. It is so "India" - with Hindu and Moslem characteristics - and is truly the apple of the country's eye.

We stayed at the fabulous, modern (almost futuristic) Trident hotel in Agra and had our "last supper," of sorts, which ended in side-splitting laughter when I insisted the entire group go to the lavish men's room, where "you pee on mirrors!" We crowded in - all 5 women and two men - and took photos. The next day, we returned to Delhi. I was dropped at a guesthouse/hotel for the night, and the group continued on to the airport for their flight home. The guest house operators looked a bit stunned when all of them filed in to use the restroom in my room. It gave us a chance to say a proper goodbye, outside the van. I am so thankful for this little group of wonderful people and for the whirlwind adventure we shared. Jane, with her teacher's inquisitive mind which kept the guides on their toes and elicited great amounts of info we'd otherwise never have obtained; Dale, with his dry sense of humor and his yellow Concordia cap which was often my guiding beacon; Mary (Mary Beth), his wife, ever-journaling and pondering all these things in her heart; Cath, pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Neenah, Wisconsin, who looks particulary stylish in the white paper booties you put over your shoes at the Taj; Kris, compassionate and passionate about children - so well-suited to her position ministering to them at Bethlehem on Lyndale; Gordy, our fearless leader and consultant on all things Indian; and Ruthie, Children's Ministries director at Cath's church, who has moxie and goes where angels (and wimpy travelers like me) fear to tred. She knows how to experience life to its fullest, and all this after having survived only recently a biking accident with a drunk driver which claimed her husband's life, injured her friend and gave her injuries beyond imagination. Ruthie, for instance, asked the auto rickshaw driver for a driving lesson (and got one), and proudly ignored the "no hugs" tendencies of the Indian folk.

I MISS YOU GUYS! I'm doing OK. Got the train ticket. Haven't lost anything else....yet.

Hills and Valleys

Hello, All. I finally found 1) time, and 2) a computer. I'm in Kodaikanal, which is in the Western Ghats mountains, I believe. I think the elevation is about 6,000 feet here, and it's magical. Kodai ("KO-dee") is where my mother was born and where she and her siblings attended boarding school - at a Lutheran parochial school for missionary kids on a compound called "Loch End" because it was originally built by Scottish missionaries. Across the street is the private high school - originally "Highclerc" - where Mom's siblings went to school. It's now the prestigious Kodaikanal International School.

I arrived here on Friday at 2:00 a.m., after a magical train ride which began at dusk in Nagercoil. At 5:20 a.m. I was awakened by a call from Luther Seminary's campus pastor, who informed me that my friend Anna had killed herself. She had been struggling mightily with bipolar disorder, and many of us had struggled mightily to help her. It's been hard to grieve here alone, especially with a very full schedule (maybe that's for the best?). Some of you know that I have bipolar disorder and that depression and anxiety essentially crippled me for many years, so I saw myself in Anna, who's problems hit with a vengeance, as did mine, just as she began her first full-time church music job. Anna had finished the Master of Sacred Music program last year, and that's how we met. So my joy and excitement about being in Kodai is mixed with sadness, especially as I will miss both her service at St. David's Episcopal Parish and a memorial service at the seminary.

"The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God."
(Book of Wisdom, Apocrypha)

+ Anna Marie Laino +
November 12, 1983 -
February 5, 2009