India, Part One

We had just taken off from Newark to New Delhi when I realized that things were going to be different for the next two weeks. Continental served a meal for Indian tastes, and I was already trying to figure out what items were on my plate–or in the case of plain yogurt, why it was there. A spicy chicken dish started things out. There was a mango yogurt dessert.  There was also a small salad tray with some very spicy whole grains on one end and cool veggies on the other end with a whole green bean on top. The plain yogurt, I learned later, is a cooling agent to diffuse the heat when dishes are spicy.

Arrival in New Delhi came at 8:30 p.m. after the 14.5 hour flight.  We were surprised to find a new, modern airport; bright and spacious.  That’s one of the only things that can be described that way in Delhi.  Delhi is divided into the Old section and the New, but it all looks old to me.  Old and dusty. The entire city is coated with a heavy blanket of dirt kicked up from the roadsides. Trees are the sort of grey-green that look like a plastic plant that hasn’t been dusted in years.

Our hosts met us at the airport with a small van to take us to our hotel. However, the van wouldn’t hold us with our luggage. They attempted to lash our luggage to the rooftop but the rack was small, and standing luggage on end meant that the vehicle exceeded the height of the parking garage and couldn’t exit. Our hosts had to rent a second vehicle to hold us.

The hotel rooms are nice and clean, with thin, firm mattresses. There were some confusing things: There is both a large and small bucket in the shower stall and none of us is sure why they are there. The toilet has a bidet function that sprays directly to the front of the seat, which means that after turning the wrong knob to flush, my clothes were in direct line of fire.  They dried by the next morning. To take a shower, you have to notify the front desk. They tell you to wait five minutes, then hot water shows up in your shower. There’s a stepstool inside each shower.  There are dispensers of yellow and pink liquid in the shower. The yellow we assume to be soap since there’s a matching dispenser of yellow gunk at the sink.  What’s the pink? I thought it would be shampoo, but after washing in the morning, my hair feels thick and slightly tacky. Yuck.

We’re here to meet with representatives of the Church of North India (CNI), following Vijay’s lead.  Vijay is the Reverend Doctor Vijayakumar, our group leader and an Executive for Global Ministries. He works with them as part ambassador/part manager/ part grantsman from the UCC and Disciples of Christ mission organization. Our trip here coincided with a missions partner meeting that he was expected to attend with denominational representatives of Methodist, Anglican, and Episcopal bodies from USA, Australia, and the UK. These denominations, and others, provide mission support and money to fund the work of the CNI.  Our Cleveland group was considered to be part of Vijay’s ambassadorial troupe and were included in the Tuesday business meeting which lasted several hours. I worried that Dan, Pat and Sheila were bored to death, but each reported that they found interesting tidbits of information relayed during the meeting.  In addition to the international partners, there were four bishops from the Church of North India present and several CNI synod staff members.

They began the meeting serving tea and traditional Indian festival foods.  One bishop led me to the serving table and pointed out the things I should try. What looked most appealing to me was a light, fluffy lemon-yellow cake with poppyseeds. It turned out to be a shockingly salty appetizer. The oddest item was a roll of almond paste wrapped around ground pistachios and coated with an edible silver film that made the piece looked like it was gilded.  It was very sweet and chewy and turned out to be my favorite bite.

I got seated next to the presiding bishop—and having been introduced as a UCC pastor—was asked to offer prayers at the conclusion of the meeting and to include the blessing for lunch.

Most reports shared during the meeting were full of pleasantries, the high point for me was a challenge that Vijay presented to the CNI bishops: to not only consider themselves on the receiving end of mission support from other denominations, but to also find way to “partner with the partners” in given mission aid to other, more challenged, places.  Vijay used the extreme needs of East Timor as an example.  Other representatives seemed to brighten up at the suggestion and offered encouragement in that challenge.  The bishops heard the message loud and clear: become a full partner in sharing with others. Though it was a rather routine and boring meeting, Vijay had injected some heart and soul into the session, and I felt very proud to be part of his temporary team.

The meeting and the lunch was held at the church headquarters building, first in an upper level conference room, then in the lower level dining hall. Lunch was casual and friendly and included a lamb stew, various breads, lentils and rice, and salad.  Pat saw a green bean on top of the salad and promptly chomped it. She was quiet during the meal, and only later did we learn that the “green bean” had been an extremely fiery chili pepper, which gave us all something to laugh about later.

Meetings over, Vijay had arranged for a driver to take us to New Delhi tourist attraction:

  • a visit to the Mohandas Ghandi cremation memorial (a sparse but lovely memorial to a man dedicated to independence through nonviolent means),
  • a guided tour of the Qutb Minar, site of seven places of historical significance including an enormous and beautiful minaret (Muslim prayer tower), and arches and columns from an ancient mosque, ruins of a historic Hindu temple, and an iron column carved with Sanskrit writing dating from the 600s.  There were brightly colored green parrots flying around the ruins.
  • a driving tour past the Presidential Palace, Parliament area, and the famous India Gate, which is very impressive when lit up at night.

After time to clean up back at the hotel, we had dinner with the other mission partners in a upscale restaurant, sampling traditional Indian foods and ending with a palate cleanser leaf filled with sugary crystals with a cloves inside.  Then, back to the hotel to counter the jet-lag with sleep…if you can call it that.

About Ron Dauphin

Photographer, writer, proud dad, and UCC pastor.
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