Git Dabling, West Bengal, India
February 12, 2009
Few things have impressed me as much as the story of the peregrini. They were Celtic monks who would set sail into the frigid North Atlantic. What made them exceptional was that they used neither sails nor oars. Their desire was to be driven by the waves and winds. They believed that wherever they landed was the predestined place where they were to share the joy of God with others.
I thought of them as I considered what to include on the packing list for a ten-day excursion, on foot, across the Himalayas. A typical Westerner might jot down a large rucksack, and a tent, perhaps? Hiking poles, two hundred dollar boots and twenty dollar socks? Cases of provisions? A stove, with pots, pans and utensils? Managing such a load on those mountains would prove daunting, indeed. I wondered, could a traveler, so overburdened, look up at the mountains and enjoy the trip at all?
So it was that I set off on my Himalayan journey scantily equipped for a western hiker, but still carrying too much baggage to be a true peregrini. In my small red backpack was a single change of clothes, a simple first-aid kit, a bottle of water, a few chapattis covered with jam, some almonds, a jacket, reading material, some personal effects, and a large Pictorial Dictionary of Sign Language. On the back of my bag, I strapped a pair of elbow crutches — my first destination was Puchowk, to visit a village girl named Adrena who suffers from MS. I knew the way along only the first hour of trail. After that, I would be clueless for ten days. But before I reached Adrena’s house, a boy came to fetch me.
“They sent me to get you.”
“How?” I exclaimed, surprised. “They didn’t even know I was coming.”
After the customary cup of chai, I taught Adrena how to use the crutches and gave her a smiley-face exercise ball to strengthen her weak hands.
“Last time I was here,” I told her, “I saw you using the banister to walk. With these, I think you will be able to walk again. I want you to teach at Father Felix’s school. You have a master’s degree in English and the school is short one teacher. Why not earn some money so you can pay for your medications and help your family? There will be many people at the convent willing to help you out.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied. “I’ve been thinking about it since the last time we met. Now that I have these, maybe I can do it.”
“Do you remember the parable of the talents?” I asked. “You have a beautiful mind and a good education. If you bury it in the ground like the unfaithful servant ... it would be a great waste.”
The route from Puchowk to my next stop, Lungsheol, was a mystery, but just as I was about to leave, Adrena said to her little brother, “Hey bhai, are you going to Sangkey today for the polio drops?”
In India, when you don’t know the way, a friend always appears.
He and another sister led me as far as Majan Dara and then he pointed to a mountain across the valley.
“That is Lungsheol. Go down, cross the river on the suspension bridge and climb straight up. The path is very recognizable.”
We parted ways and, following his instructions, I made the hour journey alone. Upon arrival at the local primary school, I found a Lepcha Cultural Festival in full swing. A man in full traditional garb came up to me and said, “My name is Thomas. Sister Chunku called me from the convent. She said you might be arriving tonight. Since you’ve arrived, you’ll stay with me.”
In India, when you need a place to stay, a friend always appears.
I was taken to a tent where the festivities were already underway. I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on because the MC was speaking in Lepcha, but it seemed obvious enough that I was supposed to shake the hand of the old, distinguished-looking gentleman in ornate traditional dress. When I did, the crowd shouted the universal salutation of “ACCHULEY!” with such enthusiasm that it startled me. Children were dancing, and the young men were playing sarangis and tungnas.
After a heavy lunch, Thomas Lepcha led me to his house. As the sun set, his children showed me the birthplace of Achyok Gaeboo, the ancient king of the Lepcha clan. Soon it was dark, but a half-moon illuminated the village in pale blue. By the dim light of an oil lamp, I opened my first-aid kit and treated Thomas’s aged mother’s damaged knee.
“Tomorrow there is a large funeral in the village of Nim Busty,” said Thomas. “Why don’t you come with me?”
In the morning, we woke and began our trip to a village I had not intended to reach. As we walked through the jungle, two men fell in beside us—representatives, they informed us, of the new political party. I silently nicknamed them “Greasy” and “Sneaky.”
“So why have you come here, to such a remote place?” Sneaky inquired. “Are you on tour?”
“No, I’m doing research, trying to find out where there are health facilities and health workers. My wife and I lived in a remote village for five-and-a-half years and opened up a health center there. Now, we are trying to decide where to live and work next.”
“This is good. This is very good!” Greasy responded, his voice loud in overdone affirmation. “You will have the Party’s full support!”
As if I wanted such a thing! Later, I overheard as Greasy confided to his friend, “This is the kind of person we need to catch. He will bring more foreigners with him, and it will mean money.”
At that, I almost turned around but decided to throw caution to the wind and see what form the day took.
In Nim Busty, the twenty-seven-year-old son of a rich man had died when he was thrown from the roof of a jeep careening down the mountain roads. After the funeral, we were hustled into a tent, and I sat before another feast. I was feeling like a giant, white locust, descending on households only to eat the food, when the uncle of the deceased came up and asked, “What else can I get for you, sir?”
Greasy turned to me and, for a moment, the Party sheen cleared from his eyes. “You know,” he said, his voice natural, even kindly, “in our religion, we say that the guest that arrives without an invitation is God Himself coming to visit.”
The uncle of the deceased then announced in a voice loud enough to reach the entire assembly: “Here we have an uninvited guest from another land. Aren’t we blessed? Aren’t we lucky? It is a great honor to the dead. Bring him more food and something to drink!”
Later, a man showed us into the monastery, where two-dozen monks sat chanting for the dead. Butter lamps were lit. Incense was burning. A monk in crimson robes was pouring water from a bumpa before an image of the absent son. On the altar, I saw bananas, papayas, oranges, holy tormas, a bottle of Officer’s Choice rum ... and packages of Happy Face Fun-time Biscuits. We were seated in the front. An uninvited guest had arrived. All of the gifts on the altar were for God—and assumedly also for me, an uninvited Guest.
On the way back to Lungsheol, another funeral guest walked with us on the jungle path.
“Sir, we think you have a lot to teach us, and we would like to hear your advice on how to change our village. Tonight there will be a party for you at my house. Please come.”
That evening, the moon was waxing, so the night was even brighter than the one before. Twenty-five of us sat around a bonfire. I asked them to tell me the story of their village and the small school they were running. Then I told them the story of Daragaon. They told me about village health problems, and I told them there were solutions. A table was set for dinner, with plates of rice and bowls of local style beef stew. “Sir, please do not forget our village after you leave.”
The bonfire had been lit for me. The table had been spread for me. The fatted calf, again, had been killed for me.
When I awoke at Thomas’ house the next morning, he informed me, “My wife’s father just happens to be going your way, and you don’t know the trail. He will lead you as far as Gidang.”
With yet another hearty meal in my stomach I headed off with a seventy-two-year-old man who, although he also carried a load, skipped lightly across the mountains. Every half hour or so, we ducked into a random house and drank tea. Each stop offered a great opportunity to continue my research. Several hours later, we reached Gidang and stepped into the house of Tshering Lepcha. When it became apparent that Tshering was traveling the following day to Barbhot, my next destination, Thomas’ father-in-law turned to me, “Well, you don’t know the way, and he is going. So you stay and eat here, tonight. Then you won’t lose your way.”
Tshering’s wife had worked for Hayden Hall as a paramedic. Throughout the afternoon and evening, she and her husband painted a picture of the surrounding villages and their health conditions.
The next day, a grandmother came to Tshering’s wife for help. Her grandson had thrown a rock and split open her hemophiliac granddaughter’s forehead. Tshering’s wife was out of bandages, so I stopped by the family’s house after breakfast. My little red first-aid kit came in handy again. I closed the wound on the girl’s head with a butterfly strip.
From there, Tshering and I made the grueling ascent to Barbhot, where a new Catholic church was being consecrated. The Bishop, Stephen, had happened to stay at Git Dabling the night before, so my family caught a ride in his jeep to come and meet me.
After the consecration festivities—which of course, included a feast—the bishop introduced us to the sisters at the convent, and they invited us to stay as long as we wanted. We spent a few days conversing with Sister Agatha, who was serving as the local nurse, learning about the remote villages that surrounded the convent. And we ate, drank and enjoyed the company of the convent community. I had been so well cared for along the way, I never got a chance to eat those chapattis and jam or drink the liter of water I had carried in my pack. I had to throw it all out!
Amanda, Asher, and I took the short hike up from the convent to Crusdara, Cross Hill. After passing ramshackle Stations of the Cross and a collection of dirt-mound graves, we arrived at its small, precarious summit. I had first viewed the cross perched atop this ridge while working the previous May on the bridge in the valley of Rateygaon. A cynical thought had crossed my mind as I carried rocks for the bridge’s abutments: It’s a shame that we place the symbol of our faith on the high places while its realities haven’t reached the valleys below.” As we crested the hill, I relived that moment. Here, Calvary was surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence—encircled with a crown of thorns. Whitewashed at one point, the much weathered cross had become a Petri dish for myriad strains of mold, mildew and moss. The support beams in the meditation gazebo had rotted away, leaving it suspended on the edge of a massive cliff. The Rateygaon bridge was just visible from the clifftop.
As I looked up at the worn cross again, we were informed that after its construction, some local people had vandalized it, mildly, in protest. The fence had been erected to keep vandals out and prevent further offense. But the stumps of burnt candles on the step before the fence gate and the empty incense packets scattered in the grass outside the enclosure told me those rusty barbs also kept out the faithful.
Does God need protection from those he came to save? From those who vandalized Him as he hung on His “Crusdara”? Does He need humanity at a safe distance? Wouldn’t He risk—and forgive any offense—to gain our intimacy? I wondered. When will we stop building fences to keep out the uninvited guest? To hide from our neighbor? When will we stop building fortifications to keep God contained and safe?
On the morning I left for Rateygaon, we decided to stop by the house of Gyemit, a local social worker. She had another visitor, a man from the village of Sungurey, whose wife also was a paramedic. We spent the morning talking about which villages did and didn’t have health workers, and what were the most important things that needed to happen. Soon, it was time to head down to Rateygaon to continue my research. As I said goodbye to Amanda and Asher and got up to head to out, the man from Sungurey said, “I’ll lead you along the trail as far as the village of Mungphel.”
It was a warm day, but a cool breeze blew in the valley. The inhabitants were turning the rice paddies with oxen and wooden plows. When I came to the bridge, it was as solid as the day we built it, with no stone out of place. Not bad for $100 and a group of guys who had never built one before.
I went straight to Maila-daju’s house, where I had stayed in May. Only his two deaf-mute uncles were at home. When they saw me, they smiled broadly, grunted and, using hand signals, led me into the house, continuing to smile infectiously. During my most recent return to the U.S., I had bought the Pictorial Dictionary of Sign Language as a gift for them. As we thumbed through the pages together, we quickly learned the signs for chair, table, bed, door and light bulb.
These two men, now middle-aged, were for the first time learning a language known by others. As they flipped through the pages, the two middle-aged men were like children learning their first words. Their hands trembled as lips mumbling their first words. When I got up to leave, they tried to give the book back. Uneducated men, they had never received such a gift. When I pushed it back into their hands, they were amazed that it was for them. I continued on my journey. A few fields away, I heard a noise, then heard it again. I turned back. Someone was shouting, “Hhhewoh! Hhhwewoh!”
It was the elder uncle. It was the first time I had ever heard him speak. He made a sign, which I interpreted as “You’ll come again, right?” I signed back that I would.
Down at Lal Doj’s house, I heard that everyone in the village would attend a wedding the next day. If we were to call a meeting, it would have be that night. Around seven-thirty, eighteen to twenty men were crammed into Lal Doj’s small receiving room, all talking excitedly.
“This year, thanks to the bridge, we could graze our goats on the other side of the river!” said one.
“None of the children had any trouble getting to school and back this year,” another reported.
“It is still in perfect condition. We will check it again before monsoon to see if any of the bamboo needs changing.”
When their excitement abated a bit, I asked, “What do you think needs to be done next?”
They talked about building a primary school so the children didn’t have to walk so far for education. And a health center. More bridges were needed. In the end, we decided to send a girl from Rateygaon to the next paramedic training. The village would collect money to pay for her transportation costs and incidentals. I said I’d pay for her training.
Lal Doj’s younger brother’s wife was nine-months pregnant, so I opened up the first-aid kit again and handed him some sterile blades, gauze for tying he umbilical cord, and some antibacterial ointment. The following morning, the mother-to-be fed me breakfast and then I climbed up out of the deep valley to attend a stranger’s wedding in Deorali.
It was another sunny day in the cool of winter and another warm welcome in another village I had not intended to visit. Although I actually never saw the bride and groom, I did share in their feast—another spread of delicious food.
The next day I joined Amanda and Asher in Samthar, and we made the hike to the convent in Suruk. We wanted to see the nurse, Sister Miriam. After our previous meeting with her, Amanda had gathered some midwifery supplies and a neonatal resuscitator for her work. She would return the following day to train Sister Miriam in its use.
Since we had met them in November, Ganesh and Babita had called weekly, inviting us to their house. That evening we were invited to house for dinner. The full moon was so bright, it was like daytime minus the color. Asher helped chase the goats into the pen and feed the chickens. A niece and nephew came over, and the three children spent the evening rolling a big wooden wheel around. Ganesh borrowed bedding from a neighbor and insisted we all spend the night. We shared a simple meal of rice, potatoes and chicken. Under the glass on the table was a large poster of a cornucopia, spilling out exotic fruit. Although such posters typically brandish nonsensical or poorly translated sayings, this one said, simply: JOY INCREASES WHEN IT IS SHARED.
The next day, back at the convent, a mother and father brought their baby to Sister Miriam. Only sixteen days old, the baby had burns over forty-five percent of her body. They had left the baby unattended in the house. A kerosene lamp had fallen from the window to her bed. The father, a drunk, had passed out drunk. Her deaf-mute mother, unable to hear her cries, had only suspected something wrong when she smelled burning plastic and flesh.
I watched Sister Miriam uncover the child’s wounds. Her feet, patches on both legs, buttocks, genitals, hands, and right cheek were severely burnt. The little girl’s ability to walk, her sexuality and her beauty were marred for life. My much-depleted first-aid kit still contained the two packets of petroleum-infused burn bandages I always carry. That day, it was Sister’s job to delicately wrap the child up like a mummy. It was not my day to treat but to pray. I prayed that those scars would be transformed into beauty marks, attesting to the fact that there is a God that sends ambassadors of His love into a dark world.
At each of the convents, I’d seen a small placard hanging on the wall in the dining room which read:
Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.
The first time, it read like overbearing and intimidating mandate. It seemed like Santa Claus who “knows when you are sleeping, knows when you’re awake, knows if you’ve been bad or good… so be good for goodness sake.” But after my experience with the Sisters it read quite different. It felt as if God had really arrived as the uninvited guest and was now silently and compassionately listening to our stories of the day’s struggles.
In nine days of travel, I had spent only forty-five rupees, so I was able to give three-thousand rupees to Sister Miriam for the surgical expenses. The next morning, Sister Miriam set off with the burned girl for the hospital in Siliguri. Amanda, Asher and I departed to Kalimpong. As we were leaving, one of the sisters handed us a bag loaded with chapattis, boiled eggs, cookies and orange juice. I was ending my journey with more than I had when I started. My loaves and fishes had multiplied.
My family hiked for hours along a route we had never traveled and knew little about. The mild trail weaved in and out of mango trees and past hamlets. At noon, we rested, and feasted from the sisters’ bag, on the banks of a cool mountain stream. Asher swam naked, and we caught tadpoles. Five hours and more than eight miles later, we arrived at the construction site for the Teesta Dam. Asher got a fresh burst of energy when he caught sight of the cranes, bulldozers, dump trucks and cement mixers. Later, we reached a hotel in Kalimpong, had hot showers, and fell deeply asleep at the journey’s end.
Some consider the Celtic peregrini fools who gave up their freedom and threw themselves into senseless fatalism. But if I could send a message back in time, I would say to those intrepid monks, “I have tasted of your desire to be at the mercy of the sea, to be driven by unseen forces. I believe in predetermined landfalls. I have faith that the joy of God increases when it is shared with the land’s inhabitants. I hope I have health and strength enough to follow your example all my life. I hope I never put my trust in oars and sails. I now know what you knew: Pure abandonment to Providence is a freedom no government can offer or deny.
To those carrying heavy rucksacks up a mountain, I say, “Look at your load with fresh eyes. Do its contents cheat you out of something greater? If so, put your load down, look up, tread lightly.
To myself, I say, “When you dare to travel the world as an uninvited guest, you become a little incarnation of the Divine. Don’t take that lightly, and do your best to act the part. Be holy, as He is holy.”
To Christ, I say, “These few weeks I tried to be like you. I tried to make a cripple walk. To give speech to the mute. To heal a girl’s broken beauty. To be divine while living in the flesh and instruct some disciples to do the same. I don’t know if I was successful, but in the trying, I got to know You better. Please, fill in where my efforts fall short. Thank you for increasing our joy as we share it.”