I am wrapping up a 13 day trip in India. Each journey to this part of the world has had its impressionable moments—standing on the beach of Chennai several years ago, surveying the damage caused by a massive tsunami; teaching my first theology class in Hyderabad to young, teachable students who showed such deference it was hard to get them to challenge me; sleeping soundly out of sheer exhaustion on a concrete floor in the airport of Delhi; playing tennis on clay courts at a club, established by the British in the 1840's, with a former national tennis champion, who now manages the Indian Davis Cup team (I look for ways to be humbled!). The Indian people are truly gracious people.
On this trip, I brought my wife, and after six days of intense ministry, we decided to go exploring with a good friend (as well as escape the steamy heat and mosquitos of Chennai for something more pleasant). So we took an overnight sleeper, third class, to Ooty (a small town 7500 ft up the Nilgiris mountains). Entering the sights and dank smells of a crowded Indian train station leaves its own impressions for sure. Our compartment on the train was tight, with seven others sleeping in the same quarters-along with numerous bugs that decided to join our party. Nothing like living it up!
Our driver took us on an adventuresome drive up steep, hair pin turns to the top so that we could see Indian tea plantations and maybe ride elephants nearby. The wildlife preserve was shut down by the government for some reason, so we opted for buying table cloths with elephants painted on them. But we did see massive tea plantations, and they were spectacular (along with trees filled with monkeys). We even went into a tea factory and watched how tea is made. I was so impressed, though the one rat that ran across the production floor took a little something away from the experience. We still bought their tea, and even some local exotic oil that mixed with coconut oil is guaranteed to restore hair folicles that have long since grown dormant. I will keep you posted on my new look.
We did splurge on a hotel at the top of the mountains. For a reasonable fee, we stayed in relative luxury. It came with a gorgeous view, a spa, nice rooms, wi-fi, and fine Indian cuisine. We did discover that the internet does not work, the spa was shut down due to low season, and we were the only ones in the whole hotel—so there were only certain items available from the menu. Oh yes, there was no heat in the rooms (in fact, in the entire hotel!), and the tea in the room was Nestea (what!?). But the staff were wonderful—really!! The chef cooked everything from scratch, hosted us while we ate, and took us on a tour of his kitchen. Imagine this at Spaghetti Factory!
One of my delights on the campus where I taught the week earlier was spending time with a young Indian instructor, part of the emerging generation of teachers here. He will soon, hopefully, begin Ph.D studies abroad. We talked at length about the differences between Western and Indian thinking. We in the West are so much about doing, achieving, while this culture is far more interested in being, in maintaining status. When a leader fails, it's like an egg that breaks. There's little hope of putting it back together. So leaders have to maintain a certain distance. There can be no appearance of evil. Maintaining an image that commands respect is critical. I come here teaching leadership to DMin students, speaking to vision and strategies, but I have to remember that it is more about relationships and character. It is less destinational.
My other learning is that there are lots of walls here. The caste system even infiltrates the church. Genders tend to sit together. Classes cause people to disassociate. People seem to stay in groups that are more homogenous. The mystery of the gospel, that in Christ the barriers have been erased (Eph 3), is in need of more unpacking and modeling, as it does in my culture.
While travel is costly and often a headache, the return on investment is still immeasureable. I'm already scheming a future DMin course in north India and a trip to the Himalayas. It beats traveling to Clackamas.