Saturday, January 9, 2010

Impressions of India

It's a bit overwhelming at first. It's true what they say, that nothing can really prepare you for India. Everything hits you all at once the moment you step into it. The sights, the smells, the sounds. All indistinguishable in one great blur as you stumble about wondering what in the world you've gotten yourself into. The first thing that stood out to me was the chaos of trying to get transportation to the place you want to go at a price you're willing to pay. Usually I'm arguing with at least five or six bus, taxi or rickshaw drivers all at the same time.
Gradually, as the initial shock wears off, you are able to begin noticing individual details. The burning in your lungs from a mixture of smog, incense and marijuana. As you walk down the street the pleasant smells of spices and fresh fruits wafting from the innumerable roadside stands mix freely with the pungent aroma of raw sewage running through the gutters.
You get used to the constant honking of horns. The streets are every bit as crowded as you've imagined. From large buses to little cycle-rickshaws and everything in between. India has it all. They drive on the left side of the road officially, but that seems to be a fairly general guideline. Right of way goes to the person that wants it the most. This makes busy intersections quite exciting. I've spotted a few traffic lights here and there but never any that work. They have sometimes been replaced by traffic police but their power is limited to how impatient people are to get to their destination. Somehow it always seems to work and, despite all the honking, no one ever really seems to get too angry. It's a giant, chaotic, deadly, colourful dance. Then there's the holy cows of course, who are the wild card players. You never can be too sure what they're going to do next but they're unavoidable in India and if you can go twenty steps without running into one you've probably stepped in twenty cowpies to get there. I've only been run into once so far (by a cow, that is) but our local cow, Bessy, that always hangs out near our hostel has taken a personal dislike to Kaison and takes a swipe at him every time we go past. It's quite hilarious.
Then there's the people. There are a lot of them. About a billion I think. That's a lot. We can't really hide the fact that we're westerners so the offers for drugs, boat rides and silk shops are pretty much incessant. All of our conversations are interspersed with regular outbursts of "No boat! No rickshaw! No hashish! No helicopter! No money!"
The kids here are delightful, even though they start begging or selling as soon as they're able to walk. They generally speak good English and we've had lots of interesting conversations with them. It's encouraging to see the simple joy and innocence on their faces, in contrast to the despair and hopelessness that is evident everywhere else. The little boys have an appreciation for good facial hair and they often tug on my beard (yes, it's long enough to tug on now) and call me "baba".
The sky is always full of kites and the kids are real experts at handling them. It seems to be a national pastime. With cricket being another one, there's usually a game or two going on in any open area.
Hindus come to Varanasi for the holy river, and to die here if possible. There are several burning ghats where bodies are burned and the ashes put in the river. I won't go into all the details except to say that it is quite a dark place and the people are full of despair. While standing about two meters from a burning corpse I had a lengthy conversation with a man who works in the "hospice" there. His job is to take care of people who have come there waiting to die. By "conversation" I mean that I mostly prayed to God for words to say as he gave me a monotone description of all the rituals that must be performed for each body. I have never seen such emptiness and despair contained in one man's eyes. Looking into them was like looking into the pit of hell. I tried challenging him with a few questions about what he believed but he dodged them swiftly and carried on with his monolouge. I tried changing tack and told him a little bit about the hope and peace that I have in Jesus Christ but that went nowhere fast and the conversation ended with me walking away with him yelling after me and calling down curses from the gods.
There is so much bondage here. The air is thick with it. We've been starting every morning with 7:00 am prayer walks to bathe the city in prayer and true worship. We continue to take up the full armour of God each day and He has kept us within His blessing and protection each step of the way. To be honest, I was actually expecting a lot more spiritual opposition. But hey, it's early days yet.
Perhaps my greatest surprise is how easily I've become at ease here. I was thinking about how strangely at home I felt yesterday as I was sitting by myself in a little roadside cafe, enjoying a small pot of coffee, reading about Sadhu Nitenyana and his search for the Eternal Guru and exchanging travel stories with the Dutch couple sitting nearby. It is such a blessing to take the presence of God with us wherever we go. To be at peace in all circumstances. To know joy in suffering. To have hope for the future. To take each step in faith and to approach life from a place of true rest. God is good. I love Him more each day. If nothing else, India has shown me what depths of mercy and grace I truly have in Christ.
That is enough. That is more than enough.