Our road journey took us to the Indian – Nepal border where we were granted an entrance visa. Until the moment the immigration officer processed our papers and stamped our passports, we were unsure about whether or not we’d get permission to enter Nepal. We’d always assumed that we were flying from India into Nepal and would get our visas at the airport upon our arrival. Last night, however, our travel agent informed us that the airport for departure was in Nepal, not India. His face fell when he learned we had no visas yet. He told us that if immigration turned us back at the border, our only recourse would be to backtrack to an airport in India, fly to New Delhi, and from there into Kathmandu. If I’m learning anything on this trip, it’s to trust the Lord for the details and move forward in faith. We asked the Lord to go before us and assign officers who would be merciful to these uninformed westerners. He answered, and we had our visas within 10 minutes of entering the building.
Another hour’s drive through rural Nepal delivered us to a small airport tucked between farmers’ fields. Security was comprised of two tiny rooms – one for gents, one for ladies – with dingy curtains for doors. When my turn came, the female officer searched my purse and then asked me to unzip my money pouch. That’s when the fun began. When she saw American $50 bills, she immediately asked for one. Well, well, well….that’s called bribery. Using my best Nepalese, I told her no. She asked why not. I told her that she was receiving a salary for her work and that she wasn’t to ask for bribes. Then she launched into a discourse about her country being poor and ours being rich, and that I should hand over my money. Again I told her no, but she refused to let me leave the room. That’s when I remembered the cheap keychains and souvenir pens I’d purchased for impromptu gift-giving. I dug out one of each and offered them to her. Her face lit up and she opened the door so I could finally enter the waiting area. So much for my cross-cultural negotiation skills!
The flight to Kathmandu was on a small plane, maybe 30 passengers. We flew at 12,000 feet – above the clouds but lower in altitude than our sightseeing trip to the lake on Saturday. Interesting! Enroute we enjoyed a view of the magnificent snow-covered Himalayas. Mt. Everest was easily identifiable above the other peaks.
One of my suitcases went missing from the baggage claim area in Kathmandu. It contained my notes for upcoming speaking engagements, my Bible, my laptop’s spare battery and electrical cord, gifts for my kids, and other important belongings. I’d kept these things in my carry-on suitcase for the whole trip so far just so they couldn’t be lost. This time, however, the plane had no overhead bins and airline rules required me to put the bag in the check-in section.
When one suitcase similar to mine was left unclaimed, we realized that someone had probably picked up mine by mistake. Thankfully there was a phone number in that suitcase and an airline employee quickly made the call requesting its return. I must admit that after sleeping only 1 ½ hours the night before and driving for many hours in the heat, I had precious little reserve to count it all joy while wondering if I’d ever see my belongings again. It was as though the Lord said, “Testing. Testing. Do you hear Me, Grace? Can you trust Me with EVERY detail?”
My, oh my, what a day this was! It began in India when we woke up at 4:00 a.m. and ended nearly 20 hours later in Kathmandu, Nepal. In between, we spent six hours driving in a Jeep again. ‘Round and ‘round those hairpin curves we drove while dodging buses, overloaded taxis, and wild monkeys. Only once did I think we were going to die (no fooling!). A bus approached from the front when the road was extremely narrow and there was a drop-off of several hundred feet on our side. We were so close to the edge that I instinctively covered my head and laid low in the back seat. The adrenalin did a rush!
The scenery was breathtaking – tiered hillsides containing corn and rice plants, white water rapids on fast-flowing rivers, a massive concrete British-built bridge leading to Bhutan, teeny houses made of straws mats and grass roofs. Also enroute we saw an enormous engineering university and an even bigger hydro-electric power project – proof of Sikkim’s progressive forward movement.
Sikkim is heavily forested, but not so with other areas of India. Once out of the mountains, we traveled across plains where the scenery reminded me of photos in a National Geographic magazine. The area was alive with motion, like ants on an anthill. People were everywhere. Some sat in the shade, their eyes void of expression as they stared at nothing in particular. Others repaired bicycle tires. Some shaped raw wood into beautifully handcrafted bookshelves, tables and chairs. Others sold pineapples, bananas, oranges, and eggplant from wee wooden booths or from a blanket on the ground. I saw children picking up fresh cow and water buffalo manure and carrying it in straw baskets on their backs. Further down the road I saw a mother and two children shaping manure into patties and laying the heaps on a concrete bridge to dry. An old one-legged man on crutches hobbled at the road’s edge. A beggar with no hands cast a pleading look at passersby. A little girl, maybe five years old, carried a younger naked child whose skin was so dusty that she appeared grey in color.
It seems almost surreal that parts of the world can be so different. We, as North Americans, have mega surplus and still we often want more. “God forgive us for whining. Grant us contentment and hearts that see the world the way You see it.”
The day ended with dinner at our Indian travel agent’s home. The conference women came, too, and we had a delightful time together enjoying a true Nepalese banquet prepared by the agent’s wife and served by their nieces and nephews. Their home was made of concrete, painted pink inside. Shared by extended family members according to custom, it’s much larger than our house. The living room held at least three couches, several loveseats, and a half dozen comfy chairs. At least 20 pink satin cushions adorned the furniture. The hostess was a sweet lady. She reminded me of my mother, encouraging her guests to eat more! When everyone finished the main course, she served a dessert made of banana custard containing small bits of fruit salad. It cooled my palate!
Rather than take taxis back to our hotels, we chose to walk. That gave me an opportunity to talk with one gal in particular, a women’s pastor from Nagaland. As we walked, she told me how her father had been persecuted for his faith during the 1960s and 70s. Tortured and hung upside down, he’d persevered and is still alive today. She told me how pregnant women had been raped and tortured, too. Thankfully there is peace today, but she said that Nagaland is negotiating with the government for freedom from India. The country is so different in culture and religious belief that the people think it’s best to separate from India’s rule. Apparently the Prime Minister spoke with Nagaland’s leaders earlier this week but this sister hadn’t heard the outcome of the talks. She asked me to solicit prayer support for their people. She says their state’s motto is: Nagaland for Christ. Without independence, this will never be achieved.
We reached the women’s hotel and bid farewell to these dear sisters. I absolutely love speaking to women’s groups, but this is the part I find most difficult. Saying goodbye to those whom I’ve grown to love, not knowing whether I’ll see them again this side of heaven, is always a challenge. My prayer is that God will use them in a mighty way to minister to their own women’s groups now. And I’m also praying that my books will somehow be chosen as titles to send to India because these gals want to read them. What an honor it would be to encourage them through my devotionals.
Today was scheduled as a sight-seeing day for the women. An Indian travel agent arranged for them to visit the Tibet border, about three hours’ drive from Gangtok. As foreigners, we are required to stay at least 20 km from that border, so he arranged a different vehicle, driver, and guide for us. That was a wee disappointing because the ladies were finally feeling open with me and it would have been fun to spend the day with them, but hey, I didn’t relish the thought of being arrested and tossed into a Chinese prison for pushing the law.
We jumped into the Jeep at 8:00 a.m. and began the windy uphill journey. And believe me, it was UPHILL. For two hours we hugged the hillside, more so when a Jeep came from the front. In several places, large rocks or boulders had fallen from above and landed on the road. We crossed several bridges and twisted through numerous military bases where signs told us that photography was strictly prohibited. Fog engulfed us and the road finally snaked above the clouds until we could see nothing in the ravines below. Finally we rounded a bend and, to our delight, were greeted with a colorful bazaar located on a pristine lake. Ahead of us lay a mountain pass that led to the Chinese border. On either side towered rugged mountains, some still covered with snow. A sign welcomed us and told us that the elevation was 12,400 feet.
The moment we stepped from the Jeep, young men towing yaks surrounded us. That’s right – yaks. Black, hairy, shaggy beasts bedecked with saddles and knitted covers for their horns. The men wanted us to ride the yaks but we denied their request at first. I mean, who knows how fast a yak can run if one tears away from his master?? Having had a bad experience with horses, the thought of being bucked off a yak simply didn’t appeal to me. But we watched Indian tourists enjoy the ride and it seemed harmless enough, so we eventually said yes. The yak owners wanted to take us up a mountainside where we could see the Chinese border if the fog lifted, but I took one look at the incline and felt that idea pushed the limit of common sense. Bouncing along on level ground was good enough for me, thank you. Somehow I’ll have to find a way to post a picture to prove that I really did this. Imagine!
This was the last morning of the three-day conference. Again, flexibility was the key word. We completed the first class, and then the women decided they’d like to have a class about keeping their marriages healthy. So, I quickly rearranged my notes and handouts and shifted mental gears.
I believe the change was a good thing. The women obviously felt more comfortable this morning than on the first one, and they laughed several times through the marriage class. It would be fascinating to know how much they really understood. Some spoke fluent English while others spoke a minimal amount; my hope is that those with a better grasp of the language will chat with those who need a little help and explain anything they may have missed. Several times they’ve expressed regret that more women didn’t or couldn’t attend. They’ve also said that they’re going to take the material to their home churches and teach it to their peers. Praise the Lord!
This morning between the two sessions, I laid my carry-on suitcase on the table and opened it to reveal more than three dozen fabric bags stuffed with toiletries. Wendy Hagar, a woman in Ontario whose ministry is to send such gifts overseas, had kindly arranged for me to take these along. Because we’d planned for 70 women originally, I was able to give about 30 to the gal with whom we met in Hyderabad on Sunday. Then I was able to give two bags to each of the women at this conference; they took one for themselves and another for a friend back home. What a delight to bless them in this way!
They used this time to present me with gifts, too. One gal gave me a beautiful pink and teal woven shawl as a thank-you token from the entire group. Then another gave me a black skirt and shawl to match their traditional dress. She wrapped me in them over the clothes I was wearing that day, and the group smiled and nodded their approval.
On the other two afternoons, the women ran off to sightsee in their own groups and I returned to work on the next day’s handouts in my hotel room. But this day, they invited me to join them on a shopping trip. I’m a lousy barterer in this culture, so one woman took it upon herself to do it for me. I bought some Darjeeling tea and a few souvenirs for family back home. We had a ton of fun running from one shop to the next, all over the main bazaar. Hmmm…seems the average woman loves to shop in any culture!
Like yesterday, the morning’s session began at 8:30. This time, however, we started with singing. My, oh my, these women sounded like an angelic choir as they lifted their voices to God in the Sema language. I sat in silence, humbled by the passion with which they sang. Frankly, I think they could have continued all morning, and I surely could have listened if they’d chosen to do so!
Their singing drew the attention of the hotel keeper’s two sons and one daughter, likely between the ages of five and twelve. They stood in the hall and peeked through the doorway until one lady jumped up and invited them to enter and sit in the front row. They sat perfectly still, wide-eyed and listening to every word that was sung and spoken.
Several times throughout the morning we stopped for prayer. Again, their simultaneous supplications rose heavenward. I listened in awe to their voices and sensed the Lord’s presence in that place in a very real way. These women were obviously here not to be entertained but to do business with God. Again, I cried out to Him to speak through me and minister to these gals in a way that would be culturally relevant.
The first session was meant to reinforce our value as women in God’s eyes. I believe God really spoke to their hearts. I felt so blessed to have this opportunity to remind them of their worth, and to encourage them to use their gifts to impact their nation for Christ.
This morning, we did a craft between sessions. I’d found a great deal at Michael’s craft store, perfect because of its Easter theme and lightweight foam pieces. So, each woman received a palm-sized foam banner with a gold cord to hang it. They decorated their banners with various foam shapes including crosses, flowers, hearts, and their choice of the word Jesus or Faith. Some added extra pizzazz with gold glitter glue. They had a blast! And you should have seen the kids participate. Their banners were covered with shapes from top to bottom.
Like yesterday, Gene and I ate lunch with the women in their hotel. Rice and lentils, fatty pork, and mustard greens filled our plates. I enjoyed chatting with those women sitting at our table. I learned that each participant had paid about $100 for this conference. That included the cost of an overnight train ride to get here, and a couple of sightseeing trips. Most had never been away from their area, and it was like turning a group of kids loose in Disneyland. Spending $100 for such an event was a huge financial sacrifice for their families, but again, it proved their hunger for fellowship and spiritual refreshment.
At 8:15 I entered the conference room. How can I best describe it? It was 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, maybe. The inside walls were yellow and paint-chipped. The outside wall had two windows covered with dingy curtains. When I opened the curtains, I saw only the grey concrete wall of the neighboring building about 15 inches away. There was no light bulb. Eighteen or so plastic chairs, some red, some grey, sat in rows. And there was one small table on which I could lay my bag and notes. What a stark contrast to women’s conference venues in North America, with their theme-coordinated centerpieces and decorations!
The women entered the room and smiled shyly at me as they took their seats. Some were wearing blue jeans; others wore traditional dress made of woven fabric with the pattern unique to their tribe. A few moments later, the conference organizer introduced me and suggested opening the meeting in prayer. Then he explained that in their culture, they prayed aloud at the same time. Instantly the women began crying out to the Lord simultaneously. I’d never heard anything like it. Some wept before God, pouring out their hearts to Him in earnest supplication. And I cried out to God to encourage these ladies in a way beyond human expectation or ability.
As the first session ended, I asked the gals to split into three groups and gave them two questions to discuss. They hesitated and seemed unsure of my request. That’s when I realized that small group discussion as we know it might be an unknown in their way of doing things. It took a few minutes, but finally a woman in each group assumed leadership and then quiet but sincere discussion began. I circulated through the groups to get a better understanding of their backgrounds and needs, and one woman said that the session’s key verses were her chosen verses for the new year (John 15). Tears filled her eyes as she spoke. Her words greatly encouraged me; the Lord had obviously been at work by preparing her heart for the message and by giving me the appropriate words. Indeed, He was doing something beyond human ability.
Exactly 22 years ago today, I left Nepal after the birth of our second child. Now I’m back in this part of the world and feeling right at home. Certainly there are changes – technology has taken a front seat (internet cafes, public phones, fax machines, etc.), and most people speak English now. It seems strange to see the majority talking on their cell phones as they walk through the crowded bazaar where bartering is still the norm.
Gangtok itself is most unusual. Built on a mountainside, each structure is at least six or seven stories high. Concrete steps connect one block to the next, upper and lower. If you were to fall over the edge of a sidewalk, you’d fall a LONG distance. Gene says it’s a wonder that the city can stay in place.
Gene and I are having a grand time using our Nepalese language again. After more than two decades of not speaking it, the words are coming back with surprising ease. And the look on shopkeepers’ faces is priceless when we strike up a conversation or ask questions.
Because this conference’s organizer didn’t arrive until late afternoon, we had time to hire a taxi and do some sightseeing. We visited a flower show – for Rs 10 each (24 cents) we gained admission to a small hall filled with orchids of every color and description. Many locals were there, snapping photos galore with their digital cameras or cell phone cameras. Afterwards we drove to a scenic waterfall, navigating hairpin curves through a residential area, dodging little children playing in the street for lack of anywhere else to play. The road was so narrow that we passed oncoming vehicles with about two inches to spare. It was so steep that my nerves just about came undone. Talk about white-knuckling in the back seat. I was very thankful to reach the waterfall safely. It was pretty now, but it will be magnificent during the monsoon season. There were huge stone carvings leading to the waterfall – reminded me of idols we’d seen in Nepal years ago.
Gangtok is a potpourri of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. For instance, I saw a massive Catholic cathedral with stained glass windows. Beside it stood a shrine as large as a house, featuring a statue of Mary in the center. Strings of Buddhist prayer flags decorated the shrine. Go figure.
The conference begins at 8:30 tomorrow. Originally, 70 women were expected to attend and I was to speak through a translator. Because of church political situations, only 17 have come and they all speak English – some more than others. Like I said, flexibility is the key!
A driver fetched us at 5:00 a.m. so we could catch our flight to Delhi. The day’s temperature was already rising. At this hour, traffic was nowhere near as hectic as on Friday afternoon. Still, the air was already thick with beeping horns and the smell of diesel. Enroute we dodged countless Indian “autos” – small open passenger vehicles with three wheels – whose drivers used neither headlights nor tail lights. Needless to say, they were a wee difficult to see in the dark. So were the pedestrians.
At the airport we navigated security and were pointed upstairs toward our departure gate. Within 20 minutes we boarded our plane and I was seated next to a sari-clad Indian woman who appeared to be several years older than me. We made small talk until I told her that I was interested in hearing about the lives of Indian women, specifically the challenges they face. That topic grabbed her interest. She immediately began telling me about her past (“I’m the only one in my family who attended university”), her arranged marriage (“compatibility doesn’t exist”) and how she has financially supported numerous extended family members. Then she told me how her husband grew jealous of her business success and began beating her. “Daily abuse is the greatest challenge Indian women face,” she said.
When she finished telling me her story, I asked her if she had a dream for her life. She smiled. “Oh yes,” she said. “I want to make a difference in the lives of other people.” I smiled in return. “I share your dream,” I said. She extended her right hand toward me and said, “We are friends. If you ever come to Hyderabad again, please visit me.”
Several hours and another flight later, we landed in Bagdogra where a pre-arranged driver met us. Then we began a four-hour Jeep journey to Gangtok, Sikkim. The road wound through tea plantations (the home of Darjeeling tea), and a wildlife sanctuary where homes stood on stilts. “This keeps people safe from elephants,” explained the driver. Eventually it began its upward climb around hairpin curves.
Higher, higher, higher we climbed until we could barely see the bottom of the ravines below. And then darkness fell. And boy, did I pray! “God, there’s no safer place than in the center of Your will. Please…keep us on the road!” We had to stop at a police checkpoint and get special permits to enter this part of India, enjoying a 10-minute respite from the bumps and turns. But a half hour later, poor Gene, physically exhausted from the travel of the past few days, got sick to his stomach. As the drive continued, we were surprised to find electricity everywhere. Teeny lights twinkled from hillside huts and tiny bazaar shops. And when we finally reached Gangtok, a city built on a mountainside, everything was lit up. Much different from our past experience in rural Nepal, when the brightest lights outside came from fires or flashlights.
As always, God’s strength pulled me through. Fifty Indian women from various backgrounds attended the conference. The audience was comprised of seminary professors, pastors, OM staff, and lay women. Young and old alike from India, the U.S., Australia, and Europe. What a privilege to encourage these women in their spiritual journey! Several asked me to pray individually for their family concerns, and again, I felt blessed. I have much to learn from these humble and loving Indian sisters.
I’d been scheduled to speak for 10 minutes to a congregation of nearly 600 at the Sunday service. At breakfast, one OM staff lady asked me if I’d like to wear a sari for the service. How could I refuse such a sweet offer? Bless her heart, she dressed me in one of her own saris, a purple silk creation. Then she gave me a pearl necklace and earrings, saying that these were a gift by which she wanted me to remember her. Later, when I returned her sari, she insisted that I keep it, too.
The day’s highlight was visiting this Indian sister in her modest apartment. She warmly invited me in and we chatted about the prior day’s conference, which had been her idea. Then she said, “Please pray for me. Pray that God will help me be most effective as I mentor younger women.” With pleasure I honored her request, and then she prayed for me. Our hearts were knit. Because of the possibility of jeopardizing existing ministry in this part of the country, I’m not free to share everything that we saw and learned over the weekend. Suffice it to say that God is at work in amazing ways. In time, I hope to be able to tell you more about ways that you can participate in one particular area, making a difference in the lives of young women at risk of being sold into the sex-trade industry. I’ll be free to tell you more as the project comes together. Prayer is the key, both now and always.
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