Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pokhara: Trekker’s Oasis, Weekend Getaway, Tourist Hotspot

I unexpectedly had two weeks off of work. I found out about three days before my holiday started that both of my office mates would be leaving—one was going trekking in Manang with his family, one was traveling to Thailand for three weeks to attend/present at a conference on multilingual education. By default, I would have time off too.

This was not completely unexpected: those two weeks were Dashain, the biggest Hindu festival of the year. Everyone takes off of work; shops, businesses and schools are closed, and public transportation is drastically reduced. My Nepali teacher warned me that, by the fourteenth, the city would empty out. No kidding! I attended a songwriting workshop, sponsored by a congregation across town, all week, an on Thursday, my travel buddy and I had a difficult time finding a bus to take us across town! Someone gave me a ride on the back of their motorcycle home that afternoon, and it took ten minutes to get from downtown Kathmandu to my neighborhood—a journey that can take up to thirty minutes depending on traffic!

Apart from the songwriting workshop, I spent an extended weekend in Pokhara with some Nepali friends from the school I taught at last summer. Pokhara is about a 5 to 8 hour bus ride away from Kathmandu (again, depending on traffic, how long rest stops are, and whether or not there is unrest on the road). It’s the beginning/ending point of many trekking expeditions into the Himalayas, especially the Annapurna range, which can be seen from Pokhara. The town also has a lake—Phewa Tal—that reflects the mountain view, making quite a striking vista. While this makes it an obvious spot for foreign tourists, many Nepalis from Kathmandu also go there, mostly for a break from the smog, dirt and population congestion of Kathmandu. That’s what my friends from the school were looking for, as well as an opportunity to visit some members of their ministry team who live up there.

I have been to Pokhara numerous times. When my family lived in Nepal, our agency would regularly have their annual conference there during the winter months (during the tourist off-season, so hotel prices were cheaper). However, I got to experience Pokhara in a lot of new ways this time around. For one, it was quite humid; second, it rained consistently, which prevented us from seeing Mt. Machhapuchhre (Mt. Fishtail), the peak you can see most clearly from Pokhara, flanked by the Annapurna III and Hiunchuli peaks. They were hidden by rain clouds, though, if you were skilled enough, you could distinguish between himal and cloud during clearer times.

Thirdly, I got to hike up the hill on the other side of Phewa Tal, on top of which is a Buddhist Peace Pagoda. What people told us should have been a 45-minute hike one-way took us almost an hour and a half to accomplish! It was quite steep, but the view of the lake, Pokhara, and the surrounding hills was spectacular! I also got to see David’s, or Devi’s, Fall, a waterfall that plummets underground quite impressively.We also got to explore the Gupteshwar Cave, from which you can see the opposite side of the fall.

Because I was “bideshi” (a foreigner), I got to pay 20 rupees instead of 10 for my entrance to the fall, and about 40 rupees to go through the cave. Funny ha-ha: on average, one pays 130 rupees for a plate of daal-bhaat. This includes: lentils, rice, curried vegetables, saag (any green-and-leafy stir-fried vegetable), and up to two kinds of achars (or chutneys, usually chemically hot). If you get meat or roti (a flat bread), then it can be up to 180 rupees. On the trip back, our bus stopped at a touristy restaurant for lunch, where they had a daal-bhaat buffet. When one of the guys in our party and I asked how much the meal was, the cashier said 200 rupees for a vegetable plate, and 250 rupees for a meat plate. We found out later that the guy had charged us both the “bideshi” price—our other Nepali friends had paid 130 rupees and 180 rupees respectively for their plates! We teased this guy—who consistently insists that he has dark skin—that he must have lighter skin than he thinks!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Imagine If...

I know, most of you are probably thinking of the game “Imagine If” right now, but, just stay with me a minute.

Think about your favourite worship song or hymn. Now, think about the arrangement or music style that you enjoy singing it in most (for example, one of my favorite hymns recently has been “There is a Fountain,” by 18th century hymn writer William Cowper, but I enjoy the arrangement by Enfield, available on their first Hymn Sessions album, released this year. I would describe the music style as a softer rock). Got that? Now…

Imagine that this arrangement didn’t exist. The words may be fantastic—theological, poetic, thought provoking—but the melody or tune is completely unpalatable, or has strange connotations (like, a continues I to V chord progression sometimes makes me think of Larry the Cucumber playing the Veggie Tales theme song on that horn-thing). Would it be appealing to you? Would this be one of your favourite hymns regardless?

There have been generational fights about music and worship style within the American congregations for generations now, most of it boiling down to pitting one person’s personal preference against another’s, or someone deciding to be stubborn just because they think they know best. There are now some good conversations concerning the value of using a variety of different music styles in worship, and evaluating which style is most appropriate for individual congregations depending on generational and cultural demographics. In a way, I think it’s a blessing that these conversations, even fights, happen, because it shows that we have a large heritage in Western song. Imagine now that we didn’t have this heritage. That we had no songs in our language declaring the Gospel to the lost, responding to God’s love demonstrated to us through the Gospel, or reminding us of our Gospel inheritance. How different would your life and community be?

Ponder that for just minute…Imagine that you had no worship songs in your language…pretty depressing, right?

I was able to witness something amazing this past week. I attended a songwriting workshop for believers with a Tibetan Buddhist background, and was privileged to be part of the audience to hear the first performance of a worship song in the Kagate language. The Kagate people are a small ethnic group (estimated to be about 2,000 total in number) in Nepal, mostly located in the Solokumbu and Dolakha districts (so, over by Mount Everest). They primarily follow Tibetan Buddhism, and being a significantly small minority group, have had parts of their traditional culture—such as music—suppressed or overwhelmed by surrounding cultures, like the Sherpa. After some of the discussions in the workshop about the value of utilizing traditional cultural music forms when writing worship music (both to encourage the local believers and reach out to unbelievers), the two Kagate brothers in attendance went home and wrote a song in one of their traditional idioms. They chose to base their song on Matthew 11:28 (portions of the scripture have been translated into the Kagate language). Their father, a very literate man who grew up in a Kagate village, helped them write the melody. They then sang it for us all the next day, to the accompaniment of a guitar (a bit of modernity thrown in there). The brothers admitted that they were fluent in speaking Kagate, but weren’t use to singing in it or using “scripture words” in their everyday speech. They apologized ahead of time if they stumbled over some of the words or messed up the melody. One of the brothers said he was too old to really be singing in public (he was probably in his early 40s), and felt a little shy, so requested that the audience show him grace. The audience was very receptive and excited about this new song!

This song was a good example of the work that many in the Lhomi congregation—a people group that spans Nepal and Tibet—have spearheaded in Nepal: redeeming local cultural forms, especially the arts, to glorify God. Those in the Lhomi congregation have found this to be effective both in encouraging believers to grow in their faith, and reaching out to non-believers, because its putting the Gospel in “local clothes” so to speak—presenting it in a form that is culturally familiar.

Attending this six-day workshop was quite the cultural experience for me. Though I grew up in Nepal, all my interaction has been with people of Hindu and urban background, and primarily from the dominant groups of Newar, Bahun and Chetri. These groups are all of Tibetan Buddhist background, and hailed from some of the minority people groups in the country: Tibetan, Lhomi, Sherpa and Kagate. All these languages were utilized during the seminars, and translated into Nepali as the common linguistic medium. I hung out with the Lhomi group during the actual songwriting sessions. Ninety percent of their communication was in Lhomi, with the random Nepali sentence, or translation into Nepali or English for my benefit so I wasn’t completely lost as to what they were doing!

Probably about half the people present considered themselves “musicians” (ie, they sang professionally or knew how to play an instrument), but tried their hand at songwriting anyway. The majority of people in the Lhomi group were women, so in between cooking meals, doing dishes, and making tea for everyone (there were about 30 people who attended in total) they joined the seminars and workshops, lending their laughter, lyrics and melody ideas to the songwriting process, and recording the day’s work on their mobile phones so they could review the new songs for future performances! All of them said that, while they “weren’t musicians,” they learned lots of new things about their musical heritage (there were two seminars on traditional Tibetan music), and about what the scripture says concerning the role of music and song in worship. In total, the Lhomi group produced six new songs for use in congregational worship—some more polished than others—and a few of the younger people present were interested in taking dramnyen lessons—the stringed instrument used to accompany singing in their churches, which many of them found easier to play than the guitar.

Please pray:
~ For unity in the Gospel within the Lhomi congregation, and that they would continue to spread the Gospel to other TB groups in culturally sensitive ways.
~ For the Kagate believers, as they begin to explore how they can utilize their cultural art forms in worship
~ For continued encouragement and fruit from the work done in this workshop

Thursday, October 7, 2010

News from my neighborhood...

  • Part of the zoo wall collapsed. I wasn’t there when it happened, but rumor has it, it was quite epic. Some say the brick wall just collapsed. Others say that a car tapped the wall and it folded. Another said that the car slammed into the wall and it fell over. Anyway, we at the hostel are just glad that it was the wall encompassing the bird exhibit, not the tiger…
  • Dashain is just around the corner—it starts today in fact. This festival is the biggest one Hindus in Nepal celebrate. It honors the goddess Kali, consort to the divine destroyer. Its one of the few times a year some people eat meat. Anyway, the city has been extremely busy, shops have been having sidewalk sales, and ATMs are consistently running out of cash or breaking. While I was blessed to arrive at the ATM when it had just been stocked with a new cash supply, another friend walked all over Patan trying to find one that worked and had cash. I’m told that the Valley will be pretty empty in a few days time, with everyone leaving to their home village to celebrate.
  • A Newar drumming ensemble that processes outside my gate at 6AM has consistently woken me up these past two weeks. There’s a video posted on my Facebook page of their short parade.
  • There’s a stretch of road near the hostel that has been informally labeled “New Thamel.” Thamel is the traditional tourist hotspot in Kathmandu, with pricey restaurants, souvenir shops, and seedy guesthouses. This road in Patan has the pricey restaurants and a few more expensive stores, but no seedy guesthouses that I can see. The interesting thing? Nepalis are the ones who most frequent this strip. Some hostel mates and I went to the Golden Dragon restaurant for dinner last night—actually a very cheap Nepali establishment with REALLY GOOD momos!—and as expected, we were the only foreigners. On our way back, we decided to splurge and get dessert at one of the fancier places—cheesecake (for about $2.60) and lemon curd (for about $2.25)—and low and behold, we were the only foreigners who stepped into THOSE places too! I’m consistently amazed at how Westernized some of the more lucrative Nepali families are; the youth culture in the city looks in a lot of ways like the youth culture in the West. My hostel mates and I ended our evening by laughing ourselves into stitches from watching the Hindi film “Aladin.” I would highly recommend it to any of you. Here’s the website, and according to my mom, it will be available in Netflix soon:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Finally…concerning my trip to Dang!

What visible difference does literacy make in your life?

This question may seem very irrelevant to you. Literacy has always been a part of the life you remember, though your competence in reading and writing may have grown over the years. So maybe I should ask you a different question:

How would your life be different if you weren’t literate?

The obvious answer might be “I wouldn’t be able to read my Bible,” or “I couldn’t read the sports section of the newspaper or browse the internet.” But literacy impacts our lives beyond reading and writing. Some things I could think of…

  1. I wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere new. I wouldn’t be able to read the road signs, much less the directions someone might give me. Even better, I wouldn’t be able to type an address into Google Maps because I would have no such computer skills—all that typing and navigating requires a pretty high literacy level. Heck, I wouldn’t even be driving—I wouldn’t be able to pass the CA written test!
  2. I wouldn’t be able to order coffee at Starbucks. If I did have the guts to ASK for coffee, I wouldn’t know what specials they might be having, what new drinks they have, and, I wouldn’t be able to read the prices for the drinks. I wouldn’t know for sure if the barista was giving me the correct price, or cheating me. Being a barista is not the highest paying job; how do I know she didn’t charge me an extra dollar, which she will later pocket?
  3. I may not know the details of a bill being passed by my state legislature that will have a profound affect on me as a citizen. Right now, I get notices from my student association about bills, etc, that affect me as a young adult, and I can email or write to my representative’s office to let him/her know where I stand on an issue. Were I not literate, maybe someone would tell me, but I would not be able to “research” the details myself—key to deciding where I stand on an issue so I can authoritatively voice my position.

This list could go on. Some of you may not consider yourselves “readers,” but you nevertheless use our literacy skills to navigate our daily life. I encourage you to add to this list, perhaps as a comment to this post.

I traveled down to Dang—a southwest region of Nepal—two weeks ago, with members of my NGO to visit one of our partner NGOs and the community groups with which they work. The groups I had the privilege of visiting talked widely about how literacy had impacted their lives. These groups were made up of women, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who had come together initially to take literacy classes conducted in their villages—the first opportunity most of them had had in their lives to learn to read and write. For them, literacy is not an end in and of itself. It’s the means to tangibly improve their lives. Before being literate, many of them had been easily cheated in the marketplace because they lacked basic arithmetic skills, and were uninformed about laws that in fact protected their children from being sent to the landlord’s house as a slave to repay a debt. They did not have the skills needed to network with each other, discuss these issues, and look for ways to solve these problems. Now that they are literate, their confidence is transferred to other areas of their lives. Here are some of the things these ladies are now doing:

~ One group has opened a general goods store in their vicinity. By providing needed commodities to their village (laundry soap, salt, etc), they are able to fund their own group and provide scholarships for some village children whose families couldn’t afford school tuition.

~All the groups I visited were very excited about the new toilets they had built in their homes, and better aware of the importance of clean water when it comes to staying healthy. Learning how to spell “water” in their classes had opened the floor for talking over all such issues and brainstorming how to make things better in their community.

~ All of the ladies better understood the importance of sending their children to school, and were better equipped to communicate the priority of school to their children and help them with their homework. Well, all but one lady…when she was brave enough to say “my children don’t go to school; they don’t want to so I don’t make them,” the other ladies were quick to lay into her about the importance of sending her kids to school!

~ One of the groups was made up of Tharu women and high-caste Brahmin and Chetri women—and they worked together! They even liked each other! The Tharu are the people group indigenous to the southern Terai region of Nepal. Once malaria was brought under control during the 1950s, people from the hills—mainly high-caste Hindus, who’s groups rule Nepal—began to move into the area and basically colonized the region, American style (think of how in many cases Native Americans were driven off their historic land or cheated out of it, etc, by European settlers). As a result, there is historic tension between these groups. In light of this, I was impressed with how well the Tharu and Nepali ladies in this group interacted with each other.

~A few of the girls I met were former kamlaharis, or house-servants, sent to work at a landlord’s house. Their families made this decision for a variety of reasons, not just to repay a debt. While the government of Nepal outlawed this practice several years ago, it is still widely practiced in the Terai today. These girls had all returned to their families or were with relatives, and all on scholarship from the government to attend school. One of them had become the office assistant for the NGO we partner with in Dang. She had been involved in over 200 kamlahari rescues this past year! This meant coordinating with the local police and dealing with the dozens of phone calls and messages threatening her well-being as well as others at the local NGO.

~ Many of the groups were beginning to think of becoming politically involved. It’s a bit much for me to give a history lesson here, but Nepal’s new government will put the control of community resources back into the community’s hands. This gives formerly suppressed groups, like the Tharu, a voice in how community resources will be used. However, in order to do this affectively, they need to have skills gained through literacy. The involvement that many of these women have now had in their communities makes them prime candidates to be elected into these positions.

All of these women’s primary concern is “how can we better improve the quality of life for our families and our communities?” Literacy has become the entry point into making these changes happen.

Many of you are probably asking, “what about the men?” and “ where does the Gospel come into all this?” These are questions I’m still finding the answers to as I work with LDC-Nepal. Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Who’s a missionary?

*Names have been changed for the safety of those mentioned in this post

Maya’s family’s home is situated in a lot behind a row of public restrooms in the middle of the city. To get to her front door, I passed the public water tap (her house doesn't have running water), and a sleeping dog, and shared the path with ducks and chickens. Maya greeted me with by putting her palms together and saying jaymashee, or victory in the Messiah.“My place is like living a village,” she laughed.

I’ve known Maya’s family for almost sixteen years now. She taught bal sangati, or children’s fellowship, at my Nepali church with my mother, and her husband, Phillip, has been one of the church’s elders for just as long. She continues to teach bal sangati, and while Phillip is still one of our church’s elders, he has been working abroad for almost 12 years now. While he was always able to find work in Nepal as a driver, the pay was never enough to support his family (especially to pay for his daughters’ school tuition). As a result, Maya and her two daughters, only see their husband/father for a few months every three years or so.

However, Phillip is essentially a tentmaker missionary. While his family’s situation compelled him to leave the country for work in the first place, God has opened up numerous opportunities for ministry abroad. Every year, thousands of Nepalis leave the country to work in service capacities in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The majority of these are men, who work as drivers, factory workers, office assistants, restaurant and hotel employees, and the like. They often live in dorm situations, and send money back home to their families to support them. Phillip has been involved with a Nepali church in Dubai for several years now. I remember as a child hearing reports read aloud in church on baptisms, and the discipleship and evangelistic endeavors in which he was involved. While the church is in no position to support him financially, we regularly pray for him as a body.

Maya herself has been quite involved in church ministry. She has trained bal sangati teachers not only for our own church, but traveled to train teachers and start bal sangatis at our church plants in Western Nepal. Its important to her that children hear the Gospel as well as adults, for, as she puts it, they will be adults one day, and consequently the leaders in their communities, churches, and government. Bal sangatis are crucial in reaching these children with the Gospeal as many of them come to church on their own; they are not brought by their families. It excites her to see people like Niran and Ramesh (two guys my age, who are essentially my brothers as far as everyone’s concerned), and myself—children that grew up in our church—now involved in children’s ministry or other missionary work. “You’re like my children,” she told me, “and it makes me happy to see you also serving the Lord. You are regularly in my prayers!”

However, she was clearly frustrated at the current lack of “harvest workers.” According to her, two of our church plants have really good bal sangatis; the teachers there have come to Kathmandu for training by a local agency that publishes bal sangati curriculum as well as trained others in their villages for the work. Others however don’t have them, not for lack of children, but for lack of people willing to step up and serve. At one point, there were six bal sangati leaders at our church, but one had to leave the country for work, two left the city for further training (medical school and engineering), and one is getting ready to leave the country for further training as an accountant. “Its just like the Bible says—the fields are ready for harvest, but the workers are few!” she exclaimed. “I keep praying that God will raise up more workers!”

Maya gave me a few more details about the church plants in the Western part of Nepal. Because of the Maoist insurgency, only old people and children were left in many of the villages—all the youth and young adults had fled to urban centers like Kathmandu in order to avoid being drafted/forced into the Maoist army. Villagers remaining were often required to provide the Maoist armies with food. The church plant in one region was not ignored by the Maoists either. Maya said, “They told the church that they needed to give them [the Maoists] money, because we were supported by bideshis [foreigners]. The pastor told them ‘we are not supported by bideshis, all our work is our own. If you stay around and watch us you’ll see for yourselves.’ ” Even though the Maoist insurgency is technically over—the Maoists are now one of the primary parties within the national parliament, and have disbanded their guerilla forces—the face of these villages will continue to be changed.

Please pray:
~ For people like Maya and Phillip as they serve faithfully, yet apart.
~ That God will answer Maya’s prayers for more workers in the area of children’s ministry within our church and our church’s plants in other parts of Nepal.
~ For the current political situation in Nepal. I’m still learning details, but right now the country is run by an intern government while a constitution is drafted and elections are organized.
~ How you might become involved in ministry at your local church. Nepali churches aren’t the only churches lacking for help in areas such as children’s ministry.