Friday, October 28, 2011

A Common Bond

I must have gasped when my foot slipped off the narrow ledge because hands flew out from in front and behind to steady me so I would not fall.  It was dark.  Thankfully, Matthew had brought the headlamps.  He also brought our raincoats which helped us stay somewhat dry in the steady rainfall.  We left Kathmandu Nepal early that morning for our journey.  After a two hour drive to the parking spot, we crossed a long bridge on foot to begin the hike.

As we crossed that bridge overlooking the river beneath our feet, we did not realize that it would be another 7 hours til we arrived at our destination.

On the other side of those seven hours was a mountain village and a church on a hill.  It was hot and humid during most of our trek although our companions made sure we had plenty of water, snacks, a walking stick to use when the path was steep, and even an umbrella to shield me from the blazing sun.  We weren’t just heading to any village or any church.  Excitement overflowed as we pondered the meaningful journey we were on.  We hiked and hiked enjoying the breathtaking views surrounding us, occasionally stopping to rest or talk to people along the way.

“A few more hours, a few more hours,” our new Nepali friends kept encouraging.  Those hours were filled with many interesting things that we don’t often encounter when we hike in the mountains of Colorado.  Here are a few examples…

Giant spiders…

Cows fighting on the edge of a cliff…

Interesting berries picked from a tree…

(A piece of advice for anyone who plans to trek in Nepal at some point in your life – if you are offered these berries and a group of people gather around to watch you eat them…Don’t do it!!!!  If you do, you will eat them and they will cause your cheeks to implode because they are so sour and the people will laugh at you.  Just thought you’d like to know:)
After hours of hiking in the heat, the clouds suddenly rolled in.  Just as the first few drops hit the ground, we ducked into a village home right off the path.  Our companions knew the family that lived there.  We first sat on the front step with rows of corn cobs hanging over our heads and chickens walking around us.  A few minutes later, the rain was falling so hard that we had to move into the house.  We sat on the floor taking up the entire first floor which was a joint kitchen and living room area.  The kids in the house sat on the ladder leading up to the second floor sleeping area. 

We ended up staying there for about an hour and a half because it was pouring.  The family began to prepare the kindling and sticks to start a fire under the stove.  Smoke filled the living room as they began to fry their corn for us. 

As we ate the crunchy snack, I looked around the room and realized that there was a goat right there in the living room.  Again, not something we normally come across where we live.  This was a truly authentic experience of life in Nepal.

After the rain died down, we started on our journey again.  Just a few more hours.  Matthew and I did not think about the possibility that it might be dark by the time we arrived.  Shortly after our hike resumed, the rain returned.  Not a downpour like before, but steady.  It made the path slippery but we carefully followed our leader, Pastor Hanok.  After another hour of hiking, they pointed across a valley to our destination, a small home on the hill.  I breathed a sigh of relief that our destination was finally in sight but then suddenly realized that the sky was darkening, the rain still falling, and although I could see the destination, it still quite a distance away.  There was no way we would get there before daylight faded.

Matthew pulled out the headlamps and we continued on our way.  Darkness came quickly and the rain continued to fall steadily.  Our guides decided that it was time for a shortcut.  Rather than staying on the wide path lengthening our journey, it was time to cut across the ledges of the rice paddies to get to the home as soon as we could.  They circled around us to keep us as safe as possible, picking up the pace and hoping to keep us in step with them.  My foot slipping off the ledge was indeed a shock, but my other foot was firmly planted and the hands that suddenly grabbed my arms prevented me from falling.  “You’re doing great babe, we’re almost there,” Matthew encouraged, although with the dim lights of our headlamps, we were both unsure how far the house was.

A short while later, we were suddenly standing next to a house where the occupants stood waiting for us.  We made it.  As we entered the home, I realized that it was not unlike the village home we visited a few hours ago.  Our hosts showed us to our bedroom, which was up a ladder on the second floor.  Actually, the bedroom was the second floor and it occurred to me that, as honored guests, they had given us the only room in their house.  We changed out of our wet clothes and I looked down at my calves to see thin streams blood flowing from the places the leeches had attached.  Wow, what a journey.

Despite the rain, the dark, the fatigue, and yes even the leeches, it was worth it.  Our companions summoned us downstairs to meet the family we had heard about.  This was a family whose lives had touched the heart of my father-in-law, Michael.  The woman of the house, a beautiful woman who exudes strength yet has a sweet, gentle spirit, has the most amazing story.  I don’t even know how to capture it in this blog, but just know that her story is incredibly beautiful.  So much so that my father-in-law decided to design and sponsor a church to be built in this far away mountain village so that these people would have a place to worship together.  Once the funds were in place, the villagers joyfully labored to build their own church with their own hands.

In the morning, we walked across the rice paddies toward the music seeping out the windows.  The views of the mountains around us were spectacular.  We saw the church on the hill, our hearts full as we listened to the sounds of music floating in the air.  

As we were welcomed in, we smiled as we saw that the room was full.  They honored us with garlands of flowers although we didn’t feel that we were the ones to be honored.  They sang and danced and prayed.  Matthew preached a powerful message with Pastor translating every word.  The women asked me to pray for them which blessed me.  

Afterward, we spent time with the villagers and they even let me hold a sweet little baby.  They gathered in front of the church for pictures and we laughed at how I blended in.  (Throughout our entire time in Nepal, I heard the phrases, “Are you Nepali? You look Nepali” multiple times every day!)  At that moment, there was no division between us as Americans and Nepalis, but only a common bond of brothers and sisters in Christ.

The trek down from the village church was much less strenuous and took half the time.  We heard news of the earthquake that hit Kathmandu last night.  Later we realized that if we had gone to the mountain village a day earlier as planned, we too would have been in Kathmandu during the earthquake.  I was overwhelmed to think about how many times God has protected us on this trip…this was one of several times in the last few months that we were supposed to be somewhere but our plans had changed causing us to barely miss a riot and a protest and a bombing and now an earthquake. 

As we hiked down, we learned more about our companions that guided our way up the mountain the previous day.  These young men were all church leaders in their communities. 

As they shared their stories, we realized that practically every one of them had faced major consequences for their faith including being beaten or being disowned from their families or even having to flee the country.  During the rest of our time in Nepal, we continued to find this to be true among the rest of the people we met.

Matthew and I were able to visit and stay for several nights at a children’s home with 10 kids.  We thoroughly enjoyed our days with the kids along with the house parents and their own two children.  The kids taught us how to play in-depth games with little pebbles thrown into the air and caught on the back of your hand.  We sang songs with them and taught them a few new English songs.  Every day, they would give us new cards and letters that they created, filled with messages like, “Uncle, you are so handsome” and “Thank you for teaching us songs Aunty” and “We will pray for you” and “We love you”.  We taught them to play games such as Red Light Green Light and Simon Says, and Matthew taught them how to walk on their hands.  We aren’t sure who was feeling more sad when we had to leave the kids – us or them.

Matthew and I met another young man, Amrit, with long dreads and a trekking business that he runs to support his own children’s home, this one with twenty kids.  Not much older than ourselves, we realized that Amrit was in his early twenties when he started rescuing children and formed this children’s home years ago.  We only spent one evening at the home but we loved meeting the kids.   All twenty of them greeted us one by one and told us their names.  All sorts of percussion instruments emerged as they sang and danced for us.  It was great fun!  The next day, Amrit picked us up to tour Kathmandu since we hadn’t seen the sights yet.  We climbed up hundreds of steps to tour a temple filled with more monkeys than steps, and overlooked the city of Kathmandu.  He told us the story of how he married his wife – the very first child he rescued was his wife’s younger brother.  He met her years later but didn’t know that the rescued boy was her brother until later.  After he found out, he cared for her too by helping her get an education, and the rest is history.

The two of us also spent a few days at more of tourist destination in Nepal, called Pohkara.  Our days in Pokhara were spent eating at a variety of restaurants, trying to glimpse the snow capped Himalayas when the sky cleared, renting a motorbike for a mountain drive, and doing some hiking to explore the area.  We planned to go boating on the lake but it rained during our last day there.  It was a relaxing time taking in the beautiful surroundings.

After Nepal, we decided to stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a few days before heading to Bali, Indonesia…

Three Weeks in India...

“Let’s spend at least three weeks in India, so we have time to visit family and explore other parts of the country that we haven’t seen before,” we planned.  That conversation took place before we left our home several months ago.  India was the fourteenth county on our itinerary.  We did end up spending three weeks there, but the plans for exploring the country quickly faded after we arrived.  Instead, time with friends and family filled our calendar.  That much time with family also meant that delicious Indian cuisine consistently filled our bellies.  It was a much needed time of rest - especially after touring so much of the world - as we enjoyed the comfort of being in friend’s and family’s homes.  It was treasured time as we don’t often get to spend much with our relatives living across the world.  

Matthew and I were both amazed when we flew into the Delhi airport at how different it was since our last visit four years ago.  The entire airport has been redone with beautiful artwork and statues all around.

Not only that, but the city has changed.  Since the Commonwealth games were held in Delhi, the city has been cleaned up.  No longer are there numerous cows, pigs, and other animals weaving the streets between the cars.  There are also no longer massive piles of garbage scattered along the streets.  There is now a clean and efficient metro system which we often frequented during our three weeks there.  Some things, however, have not changed.  The roads are still full of cars and rickshaws weaving between each other while only sometimes following the rules of the road, and your ears are still assaulted by the constant sounds of honking.  There are still wires hanging everywhere in a tangled mess, with monkeys sometimes hanging down. 

Vendors still stand by the side of the road offering sweet chai and cooking street food that makes your mouth water when you smell it.  Unfortunately, our bellies often do not tolerate it well (which we affectionately call, “Delhi Belly”) so we have to pass on partaking.  Matthew and I love Indian food and could happily eat it daily.  We can’t think of a single meal that we did not thoroughly enjoy.   “I could eat this every day,” Matthew said consistently, hoping that I would get the not so subtle hint that he would love for me to learn more Indian cooking.  :)

Although we didn’t explore many different parts of the country, we did leave Delhi to take a trip to a mountain town, called a “hill station”, named Mussoorie.  Our first trip to the mountains in India revealed a beautiful and peaceful location which also brought welcome reprieve from the heat and humidity of Delhi.  It was only after our five days in Mussoorie that I learned that my father had gone to school there when he was a boy.

The reason we visited Mussoorie was to spend the week visiting an office called eMi – Engineering Missions International – an organization that Matthew’s father started years ago in which engineers and architects partner with local churches around the world to complete all kinds of projects including water systems, hospitals, schools, bridges etc.  The staff at the eMi office in Mussoorie welcomed us with chai and invited us to observe and participate during the orientation of the interns that was happening that week.  They housed us, fed us, and shared their lives with us.  We enjoyed meeting and hanging out with the four architecture and engineering interns, one who lives in the same town as my parents and another who is from the same town I lived in as a child.  We were also blessed to get to know the director of the office, also named Matthew and his wife Ivy, as well as some of the other staff members Hubert and Sunil.  They are all amazing people and I hope that our paths cross again someday.  We were really encouraged by our time with them.  We also didn’t realize how much we needed to rest until we were able to do so in that serene setting.

Back in Delhi, Matthew and I had fun exploring the city via the metro, doing some shopping and putting my bargaining skills to the test to purchase and mail things home to my mother.  We visited many of my aunts and uncles enjoying time in their homes, seeing what their daily lives are like, going out to eat, and even spending a night doing karaoke with their friends.  My uncle also took us to his church where we met a young guy that shared his absolutely incredible testimony with us.  We are not used to hearing about people facing that kind of persecution for their faith.

We also spent our days visiting friends and trying to get our computer fixed.  Sadly, our water bottle had leaked on our computer, frying the mother board, at the end of our time in Rwanda.  Of all places in the world, one would think that India would be the place to fix a computer.  “If it can’t be fixed here, it can’t be fixed,” my uncle declared.  He was right, it couldn’t be fixed. 

One night, we ventured out by auto rickshaw to see a movie, which proved to be an adventure.  I was surprised at how challenging it was that I don’t speak Hindi because daily on the street people would assume I should speak and understand the language.  They were often confused and sometimes frustrated when I could not answer them if they used vocabulary outside my basic understanding.  In Hindi, our family friend gave the auto rickshaw driver a detailed explanation of directions to the theater as she sent us on our way.   We didn’t realize when the driver dropped us off that this was not the theater we intended to visit.  When we tried to purchase tickets, we assumed that the man at the counter said that our movie was sold out.  In actuality, he said that our movie wasn’t playing there (again, the language barrier).  Once we realized that we were at the wrong theater, some locals helped us explain to another rickshaw driver which theater we needed to go to.  We hopped on and rushed to the other theater hoping we would only miss the previews.  The driver dropped us off and we rushed up to the theater only to realize that he also had left us at the wrong theater!  Thankfully, the other theater was within walking distance so we headed that direction.  We finally made it to the right theater and incredibly after all that chaos, only missed about 15 minutes of our movie.

Our other adventures in Delhi included a day spent with a good friend from back home.  Satish, otherwise known as Dan, DSB, or “little brother” as I call him, left the U.S. and was passing through Delhi on his way to another part of India where he volunteers regularly.  It’s pretty fun to spend time with people from home when you are halfway around the world.  Our day was spent catching up on life, eating some more mouth watering food, and then ended with a metro ride back to my family’s place.  It was my cousin’s birthday and there was going to be a party at the house complete with a dance floor and DJ.  We enjoyed introducing Satish to the family and had fun chatting and dancing the night away.

Our friend Mary (who we spent time with in Rwanda) connected us with her cousin who lives in Delhi.  Anugrah and his family welcomed us to their home in Delhi.  After we arrived we realized that their home is located very close to the area where my mother grew up.  We enjoyed an evening with their family and loved hearing about their lives and ministry.  Anugrah and his wife told us stories about how they had chosen to live in one of Delhi’s slums to love the poor.  They spent time helping people with their basic needs and advocating for their neighbors to get things like medical care that they could not access because of their social status.  Matthew and I were amazed when we told them about our visit to eMi because Anugrah and his father both think they may have met Matthew’s dad years ago when he was still working with eMi.  It was pretty incredible to meet a family in India who knows both my family and my husband’s family!

Another dream come true on this adventure we are living, was meeting our sponsor child..

Asha was shy at first.  When they first brought her into the room to meet us, she quietly kept nodding her head from side to side in agreement with whatever was said.  Asha, the girl we sponsor through Compassion International, has grown much in the 3 ½ years since I started sponsoring her.  I was so excited to meet her.  Asha warmed up after her initial shyness after we walked with her to her home where we met her father and saw her family’s tiny two room house.  The two rooms were a bedroom and a kitchen, both rooms approximating 10x20 feet total.

The power went out after we arrived at her home and she quickly went to get a candle and matches.  Much of what she did that day showed that she is a caring and responsible girl.  We had given her a package of candies and instead of eating them, she gave every person she encountered a piece of the candy.  When I asked her if she had eaten any, she hadn’t.  The staff confirmed that she is a good student and is very responsible and has many friends.  Throughout the day she would go and bring her friends to introduce them to us.  Matthew played the guitar and we sang together in English and in Hindi.  Asha also showed us some of her Indian dancing and we were able to dance together.  The kids at the Compassion project had also prepared a program for us including singing, reciting scripture verses by memory, and Indian dancing complete with costumes.

While Matthew and I talked with the Compassion staff, Asha drew pictures for us with the letters A+M (Asha and Moni) and the words “I love you” written across each one.  During our conversations with the staff members, Matthew and I were encouraged and awed while we listened to them tell us about their lives, learning of the persecution that some of them faced for their faith, even being beaten by family members.

I cannot express how fulfilling it was to spend the day with Asha and the Compassion staff.  The office had a world map so we showed Asha where we live and how far away India is from our home.  The other amazing thing was that throughout the day as we talked about our lives and our families, we realized that many of our family members have the same names!  I just love that feeling of God connecting people’s lives from around the world.

After India, we headed to Kathmandu, Nepal...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hit The Ground Running...

They have known him his entire life.  Peggy met Matthew's mom when she was pregnant with Matthew.  Peggy and her husband, Mark, also did a premarital counseling weekend with us, taking us to a cabin in the mountains to counsel us in preparation to spend our lives together.  We have also spent many evenings at their place sipping Rwandan tea by the fire, listening captivated as they described their experiences in Rwanda.

Their hearts are intertwined with the Rwandans.  Not only is the country beautiful (called 'The Land of A Thousand Hills'), the people are beautiful.  Their story of reconciliation is beautiful.  When a country has a population of 7 million people and of that 1 million are slain in genocide, no one escapes untouched, unchanged.  As I met people my own age, I thought about how old I was in 1994 and what it would have been like to have my world crash down around me like they did - many watching their friends, neighbors, and even parents and siblings lives being taken.  I cannot imagine that kind of devastation.  Yet this realization did not fully sink in until we visited the Genocide Memorial toward the end of our stay in Rwanda.

Again I am struck by the power of relationship, of reconciliation, of forgiveness.  Had I not known the history, heard the stories, and visited the Memorial, I wonder whether I would even sense that such a tragedy had occurred in such recent history.  The country is thriving.  Not only is the government set on having absolutely no hint of corruption, there is a huge focus on reconciliation.  There are reconciliation villages where perpetrators in the genocide live alongside victims who survived when their families did not.  This is even often coupled with the knowledge that that particular person killed their mother or husband or daughter.

Besides the unbelievably powerful impact of reconciliation, there are also many other things that show that the country is thriving - it is clean, green, and lush with every inch of landscape pruned by hand, there is underground fiber optic wiring happening all over the country, and you just get a sense that the country is fighting to move past the devastation in their history to become the pearl that emerges at the end.

This is where Mark & Peggy come in.  They have established relationships with people all across the country and are working to help support them to make this country better and better.  During our two weeks in Rwanda, we had the privilege of touring the countryside to see all the project they are involved in.  And boy did we hit the ground running!  We traveled from city to city meeting people they are connected with, connecting stories we heard with names and faces.

When I think of who Peggy is, I see a woman who is a strong advocate.  You can't help but feel that she is always on your side, cheering you along.  She is truly someone who loves well.  I loved seeing her delight when the driver realized that she remembered his children's names even though she hadn't seen him in a year and he doesn't even speak English.  His face lit up.  So did hers.  And it moved my heart when I saw her embrace a woman who suddenly and tragically lost her baby.  Peggy had just held her sweet infant the week before and gave the woman a photo of the baby.  It is the only photograph this woman has of her child.  Like I said, her heart is intertwined with the Rwandans.

And Mark...Mark is someone that just makes you feel comfortable.  Whether you're listening to the soothing strumming of his guitar or stranded on the side of the road in the dark after a bus accident (more on that story later) his quiet strength and easygoing sense of humor makes him a person that is just so good to be around.  Mark came alive during his interactions all over the country when he simply came alongside the Rwandans to help make their lives better...How to get clean water to this community...How to use local resources and empower the people to form their own solutions...This community has an excess of tomatoes every year, how about dehydrating them and exporting the sun dried tomatoes?  To be honest, I didn't always understand the technicalities behind the water purification or other solutions he helped to brainstorm, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the process.

Our time with Mark & Peggy was life giving.  Among all the ministries we saw, my favorite was the Wedding Dress Shop.  After learning of the need for wedding dresses, three to be exact - one big, one medium, and one small - Peggy's heart was stirred to help these women have dresses so they too could feel like a princess on their wedding day.  What started as an idea to bring 3 dresses from the U.S. has turned into a self sustaining business with a storefront presence that the Rwandan women run.  So many dresses have been donated that there are racks of them in the store.  Every time Peggy goes to Rwanda, she vacuum seals her luggage to bring as many donated wedding dresses as she can.  At the shop, women can find and rent the perfect dress for their special day.  It was so fun to look through the dresses on the rack while Peggy named people I know back home who were the original owners, "this one is Jess' and this one is Lindsay's."  The icing on the cake was seeing a woman shopping, trying on, and finding her dress.  Peggy also showed us a dress and told us a story of a bride in the U.S. who chose this dress specifically so she could donate it to Rwanda after her wedding.  Some people are so cool!

Another wonderful highlight was when I found out that I would be able to see a family friend, Mary, who I hadn't seen in years.  Mary is the daughter of one of my mom's best friends and we have known each other since we were little kids.  She is living and working in Uganda for a year and adventurously took an overnight bus by herself to cross the border to meet us in Rwanda.  It meant so much to me that she would do that to spend time with us.  The more time we spent with Mary, the more we found ourselves wishing that we lived closer together so we could spend more time with her.  Her hilarious sense of humor, her faith, and her spirit of adventure make her a joy to be around.

Spending a day with Peggy doing a Game Park drive was another highlight of our time in Rwanda.  I have never seen wild zebras so close, and being able to get out of the car and walk around with giraffes surrounding us was indescribable.  As a friend commented, they are just so otherworldly.  Our guide had an eagle eye for animals as she would suddenly say, "stop the car, look..." and then out of nowhere we would see a warthog or a gazelle emerge from the brush.

And finally, though it happened in the beginning of our trip, I have to end with the story of our bus accident.  The morning bus ride captivated our attention as we took in the stunning mountainous landscape while still buzzing from the excitement of meeting up with Mark & Peggy halfway around the globe.  We spent the day connecting with people we knew and then the four of us enjoyed a dinner together by candlelight.  One small candle lit our table because the power in the restaurant had gone out during the rainstorm.  We caught the last bus of the night for the few hour ride back to Kigali and all four of us dozed off after a full day.

The screeching of tires and sharp sound of metal scraping against the concrete startled us awake as the bus leaned to the right.  I grabbed Matthew's arm unsure whether the bus was going to flip on it's side or whether we were about to slide off the road and tumble down a steep hill.  It was pitch black out.  It was humbling to realize that one man's immediate response was to pray out loud.  Thankfully, no one was hurt although they made everyone get off the bus which is where we realized that the driver had taken a sharp curve too quickly and the rear right tire had gone into a steep drainage ditch pulling us off the road.  It is surprising that the bus didn't flip.  The bus was teetering on the axle, one rear wheel up in the air, the other trapped in the concrete ditch.  Many of the men on the bus started helping to try to push the bus so that all 4 tires were back on the road to no avail.

Suddenly, all the men dispersed at once heading in all different directions into the dark woods surrounding us.  I wasn't sure what was happening until I saw them return with rocks and sticks and anything they could find to build a ramp to get the wheel up.  Somehow, things went from bad to worse when the maneuvering caused both right tires to end up in the ditch.  Well, on the bright side, at least the bus wasn't balancing on the axle anymore.

Matthew and Mark's engineering problem solving minds were working overtime as they thought of potential solutions which couldn't be communicated because of the language barrier.  At one point, it seemed that the driver was following one solution that seemed so promising yet it ended up taking a strange turn and caused all four wheels to get stuck in the ditch!  From bad to worse to much much worse.  At this point we gave up all hope and called some friends to make the hour long drive to pick us up.  "Where are you?  How will we spot you?" they inquired.  Oh, don't worry, just drive on the mountain road until you see a bus stranded on the side surrounded by people.  You really can't miss it.

As we waited for our friends, an SUV decided to stop and try to help (it was really amazing to how many trucks and other people drove by without even slowing to see if we were okay).  The bus driver's next idea was to tie a rope from the back of the SUV to the bus to try to pull the bus out of the ditch.  The problem, as Mark so perfectly described (which also made us crack up laughing) was that the rope looked like a long piece of dental floss.  To our utter amazement, it actually did move the bus a little!  Then, the rope snapped in half - so they retied what was left and tried again, moving the bus a little more.  The rope kept snapping and they kept tying the remains and trying it again.  The bus and SUV kept getting closer and closer together because that tiny rope kept snapping and getting shorter every time.

If you look close you can see the "dental floss" rope :)

The front two tires of the bus were finally out (again, to our absolute amazement) but the rope was so short it was now unusable and the bus also seemed to be smoking underneath.  After a valiant effort, they finally gave up and started hailing drivers down to give rides to the bus passengers.  Shortly after that our friends arrived and indeed confirmed that the bus was pretty easy to spot on the side of the road!

We were grateful to be in a moving vehicle and happy to meet Mark & Peggy's friends who were willing to get out of bed, leaving their kids to rescue us.  Good friends are a treasure and I'm sure we will never forget our first meeting with them!

There are just too many stories to document in this blog, but I cannot end this post without a few more pics of some of the projects we were able to experience with Mark & Peggy...

A brand new Compassion International site

This is a cow that was donated to the village by Yobel Market in Colorado Springs

The villagers enthusiastically welcomed us to their church with music and dancing -
they are so so thankful for the gift of the cow

New homes for families - you can see a stark contrast between the
old home (above) and the new home (below)