Monday 24 July 2017

Entry 9: "All good things..."

Many of the best stories of our culture - perhaps of many cultures - are road stories. The Exodus of the people of Israel, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which spread from Ancient Greek culture throughout the world, are probably the archetypal road stories of western culture today, but many stories have followed in their footsteps (so to speak!). My favourite road story is JRR Tolkien's LOTR, The Lord of the Rings. Noting that Tolkien had Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the precursor volume, The Hobbit, entitle his memoir "There and back again", my observation is that returning rarely seems to take as long as getting "there" in the first place. The great exception is Homer's Odyssey, which is entirely about getting home again. But generally speaking, either the power of evil has been crushed, or the heroes have learnt the first time they encountered it how to surmount an obstacle, or there just isn't much left to talk about. 

Perhaps this is similar to the insight of a friend who lived for a period on Smoky Mountain,  Manila's gigantic rubbish tip. When he first moved there, recounted Hugh, time seemed to slow down, and he seemed to revert to being a child again. Everything there was so new and fresh (not literally, of course, but to his perception) that there was very little of the "dead time", filled with the barely-noticed habits with which we pass our days. Why does time seem to fly? Because we don't normally pay attention to its passing.

And so it was even as we travelled to Leh and back again. While I was climbing Rohtang Pass on the way to Leh, worming my way through the traffic jam to the toll plaza, negotiating steep hairpin bends, peering into the mist to make sure I didn't fall off the edge of the road into the depths below, you can be sure that I paid intense attention to my surroundings! But on the way back...the weather was kind, and we'd crossed passes much higher than Rohtang...I actually chased a Suzuki Swift "down the hill" until the driver decided to have a rest, at which point I got involved in a bit of fun with one of the Germans!

At virtually every point the way back was easier than the way out. Descending the northern side of Rohtang Pass was miserable, cold, wet and isolated; climbing the same slope was an enjoyable challenge on a fine day. (Even squeezing between a large truck and a sheer drop was fun!) On the way out we stayed in huts at a Buddhist retreat centre outside the town of Keylang; in the way back we were all put up in a good hotel in the middle of town. On the way out we struggled to breathe through a night in wind-whipped tents; on the way back we had acclimatised and the wind had died down. On the way out the 40km section known as Moore's Plain seemed lonely and bare; on the way back I kept catching up with the Germans, stopping to take photos of this remarkable, bare landscape, then catching up with the Germans again. Riding into Leh was, until the rain stopped, a nervous, cautious undertaking; leaving Leh was a relaxed, enjoyable romp. Most things are easy when you know how, and with confidence comes a more positive assessment of everything!

And so in afternoon of the third day we came again to Manali. This time I noticed how much the road has improved as I thundered down it and into the town, leading others who didn't know the route through Manali across the Beas River by the downstream bridge, left and past the bus stand, right and into the shopping precinct at the southern end of the Mall, right again, and past the BSNL (India's equivalent of Telstra) building, right and onto the one way street that leads past the great hospital gates. We passed through the gates and into the courtyard between outpatients and the operating theatre, down past the church, through the school gates, across a playground, down a ramp and onto the basketball court where I have represented the school staff in an annual series of cricket matches against the hospital staff. I was home, and my involvement in the Ride for Peace was nearly finished. 

Later that afternoon the Bishop gathered some of the Peace Riders and year eleven students in the school auditorium for a discussion on the nature of peace. That itself was a peaceable thing to do. I mean this: at some point in the discussion I reminisced on my involvement in children's ministry in Sweden with a man then in his mid-seventies. He once spoke of how, when he was young, children were to be seen but not heard. As a child he was a terrified of saying anything at all in public when adults were present. "These days, by way of contrast..." he continued, and he lamented the loss of respect for authority amongst Swedish children and youth today. He didn't know whether it was better during his childhood, when children were too frightened of saying anything, or these days (admittedly more than 20 years ago) when those in authority can find it difficult to get a word in edge ways. It's surely convenient for Indian teachers and others in authority over children and youth to argue that the same trend towards lack of respect for authority is evident in India. They may be correct, but as an ageing, white-haired, western adult I've consistently been met with respect in India.

Peace is a concept that is as difficult to define as it is important. The in-the-round discussion the Bishop moderated produced many examples of peace, but no succinct definition of what it is. But it strikes me that the discussion itself was eminently peaceable. One of Winston Churchill's aphorisms is that "Jaw jaw is better than war war." I'm sure that is always true, but it is particularly true when all parties to the discussion feel they are heard with respect. A person in authority, such as the Bishop, who enables and encourages all participants to express what they feel they need and want to express really empowers them.

That brings me to my second point about peace: its relationship with power. It's perhaps a significant coincidence that the two concepts have similar-sounding names in English ("peace" and "power") and even more in Hindi ("shanti" and "shakti"). I suggest that for peace to flourish power must be properly distributed. But such is our desire for power (Tolkien treats the nature and corrosive effects of power brilliantly in LOTR!) that the only way we can handle power properly is by eschewing (giving up) the desire for it. We must let ourselves be guided by love, not power. This line of thought leads directly to the example of Jesus Christ so wonderfully expressed in the old hymn quoted by St Paul in his letter to the Christians in Philippi, chapter 2, verses 5-11. Peace is difficult to define, but it is, I think, one of the main lenses through which we understand the central Christian message, the Gospel. There was something intrinsically Christian for the Bishop to use his considerable authority to draw under-empowered young people into a discussion on a topic which is of vital importance to every human, and to thereby give a good demonstration of the nature of peace.

Having hired my motorbike in Manali and already ridden to Amritsar to join the Ride for Peace my Ride was now over. I returned and paid for my Bullet, and took the Bishop, his wife and the four Germans to lunch. Apple crumble with apple from Manali's orchards for the Germans and trout  from the Beas River for the Indians was a peculiarly Manalian way to thank them for their fellowship over the past two weeks. When they left the next morning I moved into the flat in the compound where we used to live and put the front-loading washing machine to excellent use! There followed several days of a social round that deepened friendships, making me realise that Manali really is now one of our homes. On Sunday evening I caught a bus to Delhi where once again I deepened friendships with staff of the Church of North India's Synodal Headquarters and of my publisher, ISPCK. And them home to process what has been an amazing and wonderful experience. The next task will be to integrate it into my everyday life in Sydney's northwest. That, I'm sure, will be most enjoyable!

This is the last entry of nine for this Himalayan TravelBlog. I hope you have enjoyed it.

David Reichardt

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Entry 8: We reach our Goal

That night in our wind-whipped tents in Sarchu many of us were praying for better weather the following day. Some may have even been starting to think of how they could leave the Ride altogether. Weather has an extraordinary effect on mood, which goes to show what resilient people the first polar explorers were! Thankfully, the next morning dawned, not fine but as what the Swedes call “uppehållsväder”, (which means that the weather was “holding up” and the rain was “holding off”. It was the best kind of weather we could have hoped for. It was overcast, which moderated the effect of the sun’s ultraviolet rays on fair German and Australian skin, and brown Indian skin too. The wind that had kept tearing away at our tents in the pitch black of the night before abated too. So after another mood-enhancing (in the most positive sense of this word!) breakfast we set off.

Our task this day reminded me of a long day in the saddle in the Tour de France: about 250km to cover including two Cat(egory) 5 ascents and 2 long descents, the second followed by a 50 kilometre flat run into Leh itself. So off we set. The road improved from awful to OK, and we had a fast run along a valley floor. Then came a steep ascent from the Gata Loops - about 500 metres in two kilometres - before the the ascent flattened out until reaching Lachunglang la, our first “Col” of the day which, at 5079 metres above sea level, is the world’s third highest trafficable pass, much higher than any Tour de France Col I’ve seen! There followed a 27 kilometre long descent to 4,600 metres, and the little settlement of Pang, where the Indian Army, as in many places around northern India, was much in evidence. Then off we set again across Moore Plains named, presumably, for some English explorer who discovered what locals had long known. The road across Moore Plains is high, (av. 4,800m above sea level), desolate, flat, and punctuated by road crews and savage bumps caused by the road meeting culverts set in place to channel ephemeral flows of water. Moore Plains provided some of the best riding of the whole trip. Not surprisingly we passed a number of other groups of bikers travelling in the opposite direction. The only problem was that it spread out the field. At this point, although the good German riders frequently formed a breakaway group there was nothing like the Tour de France’s peloton, the bunched group of riders some distance behind, trying to catch up.

My machine had a 500cc motor, which is why I managed, on these good roads, to keep within striking distance of my new German friends, and to celebrate crossing the highest point of our trip, Taglang la, with them. At more than 5,300 metres above sea level Taglang la is too high to celebrate long, so the great, 2,000 metres descent began. Still not a confident descender, I was passed by rider after rider, and only caught up at Upshi, where we stopped for lunch at the bottom of the descent. After lunch it rained - in Ladakh! We filled our bikes’ tanks with petrol and once again Germans, more confident in the wet than us others, formed what in cycling parlance would be called a breakaway group which stayed with the lead vehicle in which Bishop Samantaroy had arranged to meet our host in Leh. Having slid off wet roads several times as a young rider I proceeded very cautiously in the heavy rain here. Remarkably, no one overtook me. We formed a peloton. As the rain abated and the road became drier the nearer to Leh we approached the faster we went. Suddenly we were in a traffic jam and, weaving our way through it like a group of busy blowflies we caught up with our lead vehicle. And so it was that we reached Leh together. Our host, a Ladakhi who had attended the Diocesan Tyndale-Biscoe School in Srinagar, Kashmir, took us to our digs for the next 4 nights, the Himalaya Guesthouse and Hotel. An old scout, I enjoy camping. But it did seem to me, as well as to the others in our group that our situation was greatly improved over the previous 2 nights! There was even internet access…well, if one sat in a certain place in a certain position, with one’s tongue held in a certain way!

Over the next few days we were tourists. Ladakh is deeply Buddhist, and Buddhists seem to like building their stupas, temples and monasteries in inaccessible places. So we rode in procession and in our Ride for Peace uniforms from one craggy outcrop overlooking the city and valley to another. I’m not sure whether the raucous clamour of more than 20 motorbikes echoing off city buildings constituted much of an advertisement for peace. Some within earshot might have wished for a little peace and quiet. One of the hotel guests I spoke with claimed the “right to peace”. On the other hand, the local children seemed delighted. Many waved enthusiastically as we thundered by. 

Our goal main goal in Leh was probably to have the official group photograph taken at the Shanti (Peace) Stupa, an enormous, gleaming white structure built in 1980. However, two other features stood out for me. The Moravian Church is one of the best built buildings in Leh. In a context where it is difficult to communicate Christian faith the building itself bears mute testimony to the excellence of Christ. We attended two worship services in the church compound: a fairly traditional, Moravian one in the main sanctuary, and a rather more exuberant, Nepali one, in the old chapel, which gave us some insights into the Christian revival that has been sweeping Nepal for a a couple of decades. 

The other feature of our Leh Days was our 240km round trip to Lake Pangorn. This remarkable lake is hidden by mountains, and the road there is exceptionally rough. In several places, where a landslide has deposited metres of mud and stone over it, the Border Roads Organisation has had to dig out the road! Several factors make Lake Pangorn interesting. Apart from being well-hidden it is salty and, probably because of that, very clear. 70 per cent of Lake Pangorn lies within Chinese territory; we had come nearly as far north in India as it is possible to go. And it was the location of the denouement in Bollywood producer Aamir Khan’s movie “Three Idiots”. That last is probably the main reason why so many Indian tourists are now making the arduous journey to Lake Pangorn.

So, after 40 years I fulfilled my bucket list wish item of to visiting Ladakh and Leh. This part of the world proved to be every bit as remarkable as I had believed. But now it was time to make the return journey.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Entry 7: Breathless in Sarchu

The next day’s ride, between Keylang and Sarchu, was only a bit over 100km, but many of us thought it was our most difficult day of the entire Ride, worse even than the previous day’s. The weather remained poor, and most of the day involved climbing, from about 2,500m above sea level in Keylang to 4,200m by day’s end. That’s not such a big climb for a willing Bullet, but it took us from a doable altitude, only a little above, say, Manali’s, to a height most of us had never been at before. And the road was largely rough, the hairpin bends were many, and we were still getting over the previous day.

We passed through exotically-named settlements: Jispa, Darcha, Deepak Tal, Suraj Tal and, perhaps oddest of all, Zing Zing Bar. That last sounds like something you might put in your mixer, but it boasted several cafés, including one we had to try, if only for its name: “Peace café”! One wonders whether Peace Café’s outback dunny, “Peace Café Toilet”, was appropriately named, but apart from the 5 in our group there were few signs of westerners, whose stomachs are infamously sensitive, (Although a doctor from New Zealand, whom I met later in Manali, maintains that he cycled as far as Zing Zing Bar in a day!)  and one assumes that the locals, and even Indians from far away on the plains, have cast iron constitutions! (Then there’s the coarse word meaning to urinate and sounding like “peace”, but that’s quite enough of that!)

It was the elevation and the cold wind that caused many of our problems. And a really difficult section of road which glacier thaw was rushing across and down, and wrecking. That caused a massive, two way traffic jam which we soon slipped through on our motorbikes, but getting across this temporary river proved more difficult. As Volkhard, one of the Germans, later remarked, most people tried to ride their bikes across where the water was quieter, but it was quiet because it was deep! It was better to steer our bikes up the quickly-flowing shallower channel instead, I got stuck behind a large rock, nearly dropped my bike into the deeper water and filled my boots with the glacier-fed and cold liquid. It didn’t matter that I took off my boots and twisted as much water from my socks as I could; soon I was cold and getting colder. I thought I had brought plenty of appropriate clothing, but the thermolactyl underwear was in my bag in a support vehicle way behind us. So we crossed on another rough road across a high, sloping plain to an adventure camp that consisted of a bunch of tents in Sarchu. By this time I was shaking uncontrollably, so I had some chai, claimed a tent, got into a camp bed under a massive overcast, and slept for a couple of hours.

Those running the adventure camp treated us well. The Tibetans and Ladakhis have a special quality to their hospitality, respect and politeness that outdoes that even of the Indians, I think. I was learning quickly about the restorative properties not only of hot chai with sugar, but of hot soup with salt! But here, over 4,000 metres above sea level, I noticed that the chai and soup only got warm, and rice and potatoes never seemed to be really cooked. I think it was Boyle’s Law that stated that 
P.V =   P.V
  T         T

where P means Pressure, V means Volume and T means Temperature. That is, if you reduce air pressure, as you do at this altitude, you will reduce the temperature at which water boils, so that you will not cook things as effectively as at sea level.

Be that as it may, dinner tasted good and we went to bed again. But in the night I sat up for 2 hours, panting. It wasn’t altitude sickness; I’m sure that the 2 weeks of preparation in Manali helped to acclimatise me. But I was struggling to get enough oxygen. The next day I learned that during the night our leader Bishop Samantaroy had had to take his wife Lily to the nearby army clinic for the same reason, and that many others had also suffered. Fortunately, Dr Philip Alexander in Manali had given us a lot of altitude sickness tablets, and these now came into their own.

I’m sure it wasn’t just altitude sickness that made things difficult; there was a psychological component as well. As the accompanying photo shows, the nearest rockslide has come to rest (so far) only about 50 metres from our camp. This is a dynamic and enormously powerful landscape. As such there is something foreboding about it that I think started seeping into our minds. I certainly did a lot of praying while I panted that night, and I resolved a struggle against rising panic. From here on things improved.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Entry 6: Over the Edge & beyond

There’s a sense in which Manali represents the end of the known Indian world. It isn’t, of course. Lake Pangorn, an arduous 120km journey further on from Leh, scene of the denouement in Aamir Khan’s still-new and already famous film “3 Idiots”, and lying mostly within Chinese territory, is a geographical, political and now my personal boundary for India.

But Manali still has enough reminders of the plains of India that lie far to the south to make me think that though it’s 2,000 metres above sea level, though the sky is a clear blue, not a murky, toxic soup, and though the women are a gorgeous mixture of subcontinental and east Asian, it definitely belongs to the subcontinent.

50 kilometres to Manali’s north lies the first of the great mountain passes, named Rohtang. (There is also Jalori Pass to the south east. If anything Jalori is more dangerous than Rohtang, but at merely 3,000m high it hardly qualifies as a great pass!) Rohtang is dangerous enough, and it represents the far edge of plains India. The word “Rohtang” means “pile of corpses”. Prior to roads, fossil-fuel-driven vehicles and soon (perhaps!) a tunnel that is still being built it was closed by snows for over half of each year, trapping the people who lived behind it. Sometimes people had to attempt the arduous, dangerous journey out. Often they failed.

Now all of that has changed. Each summer thousands of newly-rich middle class Indians from the heat south of the Himalayas come to Manali and to Rohtang Pass. They flock in their recently purchased cars, often hopelessly inadequate to this task, or in vehicles driven by tourist operators whose goal seems to be to spend as little time on the road as possible. The road? This twisted piece of ribbon on the south side of Rohtang Pass is being improved and widened, but still resembles an asphalted goat track in places. Up to 4 lanes wide, it narrows to less than 2. Two thirds of the way up is a toll station. And right there you have the ingredients of a recipe for continuing traffic jams. Oh, and male pride and impatience, of course! 

During the tourist season the daily traffic jam typically starts near Gulaba, about 10km from the toll station. We Peace Riders had our first real contact with this form of “un-peace” there, and our response was instructive. Not content with sitting in a traffic queue we set about burrowing through small holes between and to the sides of the vehicles. In about 20 minutes we reached the toll station, where we discovered that our efforts were futile. The Bishop, who held the necessary documentation for our group to proceed, had decided to travel in a vehicle that day, and that vehicle now languished in a traffic jam many kilometres behind - one might say under - us! So we waited, and talked, getting to know each other and other groups in similar predicaments. We ate breakfast and drank tea prepared by enterprising Indian vendors who had set up shop under tarpaulins. Riders were despatched back down the mountain to get the papers from the Bishop. Still we waited. And eventually something happened, as it always does in India, and we were allowed to proceed.

Filled with pent up impatience and energy the good riders shot ahead as we had been told not to do…into the thickest mist I have ever experienced. It was sobering to think that, utterly alone in this impenetrable mist, I could see 10-15 metres ahead, and had no idea how much further on was a sheer drop. Any bravado in me drained away. Vehicle after tourist operator’s vehicle slid past me in the murk as I discovered just how few rpm the Bullet needs to keep going, and as I tested to the limit my inadequate ability to negotiate hairpin bends. The mist cleared somewhat, then thickened, then cleared again, which only encouraged other drivers to speed up! I found another Rider by the roadside, taking selfies in front of the spectacular backdrop. I joined him, and we moved on to discover two more. I joined them, leaving the first Ride-cum-self-photographer to his devices. Perhaps he thought that if he was going to fall off the cliff he would at least leave a photographic memory of himself! My new companions outstripped me and I reached the Rohtang Pass alone again (“…naturally! It’s been a little while from now.”). After riding back and forth a few times in a vain effort to locate someone, anyone, I knew, I decided to continue. Fortunately I have been here before, for in its own green way the backdrop of vast mountains on the other side of the valley I was now starting to descend into was a intimidating as anything we were to meet later. It was raining, windy and cold. Despite my passing familiarity I started to wonder whether I would die alone on this incredible descent.

Rounding yet another hairpin bend I came upon fully 8 of our group, standing around and shivering. One of them had a puncture, and the others had decided, wisely, to stay with him. The frontrunners had, generously, left behind a couple of sweaters, but this was a group of boys and young men from the hot plains with no experience of these conditions. Lessons I learnt as a Scouting patrol leader nearly 50 years ago kicked in. No, I wasn’t going to go on, I would stay with them. When you’re lost or in trouble, STICK TOGETHER! I showed them how to find shelter in the lee of the hill. Someone produced a cigarette lighter and some packaging from which they made a fire which, for a couple of minutes at least, warmed their hands. 

Eventually the Bishop and the service vehicle arrived, the puncture was fixed and the situation resolved. We continued down the mountain, only to find that the good bitumen surface gave out into a kind of road surface that had just enough bitumen left along with gravel and a great deal of by this time very slippery mud to make it tricky. Sometimes it’s in extreme situations that one finds one’s calling. I discovered that I was pretty good at negotiating this gunk! As tentative as I was at getting around hairpin bends and riding on a good surface in rain, so bold I became at what you could almost call offroad or trail bike riding. 

All of a sudden I was outpacing some of the others, secure in the knowledge that the service vehicle was not far behind. I almost shot past the primitive tea shop in a tiny settlement on the valley floor that was packed with wet, happy and (one suspects) relieved Riders letting chai do its re-invigorating work on them. The rest of the run along the valley floor to the petrol station at Tandy, then the nearby buddhist retreat centre a few kilometres from Keylang was a high speed doddle compared with what we’d been through. Even the weather abated. Our huts felt like palaces, the food tasted like cordon bleu cuisine, and we retired to bed that night wet and tired, but feeling that we had achieved something of significance. We had gone over the edge, and into a new world, and we had survived to tell the tale!

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Underway, at last

It's getting late in Manali. I'm sitting on a balcony with excellent access to a wireless router, I've straightened out my access to it, informed new German friends, of the password, and done the washing! (Many may think that's madness, but I reckon Manali is one of the best places to dry clothes in the world!) I've only managed a snack for dinner, and tried, turning in ever decreasing circles, to choose what I'll need to take with me on the long journey to Leh, Ladakh, starting tomorrow morning. The characteristic, deep burbling noise of Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles keeps drifting up from below, a sure sign of young men having fun, and not wanting to go to sleep.

Perhaps I'd better back up. Internet access is patchy and a fair bit has happened. Early on June 22nd I headed off to Amritsar on the Bullet I've hired. I rode very cautiously although the conditions for riding were excellent. Nevertheless, I still reached St Paul's Diocesan School,Palampur, halfway to Amritsar, by midday. Under the guidance of its current Principal, Rev V.P. Singh, St Paul's is being extensively rebuilt. It needed it! Several of the previous buildings, relics from the era of Canadian missionaries, had reached their use-by-date. I had asked Mr Singh I could stay over for the night in the school's guest bedroom, so his secretary sent me there. Awkwardly, the guest room is in the same block as the kindergarten classrooms, and I was kitted out in black, heavy motorbike gear. The children were intrigued and their female teachers were a bit anxious at this large European male dressed like Darth Vader minus the cape! A number of them bunched together for mutual support as I walked past. Out of the corner of my eye I could see one of them gather her courage:

"Good afternoon sir," she ventured, so I spoke in my improving Hindi, explaining who I was and where I'd come from. Just then Mr Singh arrived and all tension dissipated. I told them that I'd be back with 40 or so other motorbike riders in a few days.

Early the next morning I set off again. Making good time I arrived in Amritsar by about midday. Unfortunately, the city's extensive new system of flyovers and bus lanes so confused me that I wandered around in the heat before my iPad's GPS app found me a street I knew.

I found lodging like so many times before at DMRC (Dit Memorial Resource Centre), an Institution run by the Church of North India's Amritsar Diocese. Coincidentally, the 4 Germans had arrived that day too. Three have come representing their church, the Evangelische Kirche in Hesse und Nassau, which is an ecumenical protestant denomination that covers an area north of Frankfurt am Main. The fourth is a biker, and friend of one of the pastors.

So is Bishop Samantaroy, both a biker and a friend of the pastor! He decided to take us for a ride along the famous Grand Trunk Road in the late afternoon traffic. To keep up I had to throw my previous caution to the winds! These guys were good! I thought I had adapted well to Indian driving conditions, but here they were, jetlagged  and weaving in and out or the westward-facing traffic as though they'd be doing it all their lives. That evening we attended we all attended the monthly prayer meeting conducted at the Bishop's house.

I spent most of Saturday making use of wifi. Meanwhile groups were coming from around northern India. The groups from Jammu didn't have too far to come, but the the people from Chhatisgardh traversed most of the subcontinent, arriving in the middle of the night. There were church services, city bike rides and information sessions, and young men strutting their stuff (I thought I'd left that behind me!) Then Monday morning was upon us. There was a public meeting in the middle of the city, photos taken with prominent politicians, and at last we were flagged off. Even then there were meetings every 40 km or so, at which Bishop Samantaroy spoke about peace in both interfaith and predominantly Christians settings. After the meeting at Pathankot, 100km north of Amritsar, we turned east and got down to the serious business of riding. Until we reached Palampur again, where that very same group of female teachers had ben waiting for 2 hours! There was another meeting.

Today has been more of what we can expect for the rest of the Rally. We travelled until we reached Manali, and another meeting with community leaders, talking about peace. At Manali the hospital, school and church had cooperated. They had used chalk to make an avenue that we all rode down onto the basketball court. The broad smiles on the faces of my friends at Manali as I rode past them very very touching. It felt like coming home.

Forty Years

N.B. Although I wrote this on June 22, the Uniting Church's birthday, I didn't get adequate access to the internet until the 27th. So here it is, a bit delayed.

Like many other Australians I know exactly where I was the day in 1983 when Australia 2 won the tacking duel that took the Americas Cup from American hands for the first time in 157 years. I was in my flat on the top floor of the guesthouse across National Highway 43 from the leprosy hospital in Salur, a town in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh where I was then starting a research laboratory that tested for drug resistance in different strains of the leprosy bacillus. It was about 4.30am in India when the race was decided, Sleepless with excitement, I was listening to equally excited Australian commentators whose voices waxed and waned, and were masked by that high-pitched whistling noise characteristic of short wave radio. This turned out to be one of the most frustrating events of my life. The next morning nobody in that rural, Indian Leprosy hospital had any idea what yachting was, let alone the significance of taking The Auld Mug off the Yanks. Except, perhaps, Elisabeth, the Cornish OT, who wasn't the slightest bit interested. I had no one with whom I could share my joy.

There was plenty of joy at the inauguration of the Uniting Church, 40 years ago today, and some 6 years before the the Americas Cup passed from American hands. There was joy aplenty at the official inauguration service at Sydney Town Hall, and joy at various regional events held around the country. The joy came, I think, with the sense of a long-anticipated and worked-towards union formalised, and the realisation that with this ecumenical act Australian Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians were doing something deeply right and of God. That it sometimes has felt like the last 40 years have been equivalent to Israel's 40 year Exodus in the wilderness has not diminished my conviction that we did the right and godly thing back in 1977. Even though my major ecumenical memory of 1977 was in getting to know the young women (and some of the young men) of Pymble Presbyterian's PFA group, and I am celebrating the UCA's 40th anniversary once again alone and in an Indian guesthouse, there are many things about the Uniting Church that I love and am proud of.

One of them is the many partnerships the UCA has formed with sister churches, particularly in the two thirds world. The guesthouse I'm writing this blog entry in belongs to St Paul's School, an institution run by the Church of North India and situated in a town called Palampur, in the foothills of the Himalayas not far from Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile reside. I'm overnighting here. Tomorrow morning I'll continue my journey on a Royal Enfield Bullet (500 cc for those interested) to Amritsar where I shall join more than 40 other riders on this Ride for Peace which I've described in previous blogs. I'm not being charged for tonight's board or lodging. While I and my congregation think I'm on long service leave, realising my long-held dream of riding a motorbike to Ladakh, for the school Principal, Mr Virendra Pal Singh, I'm on Church of North India business. And for the Bishop of the Diocese of Amritsar I am an ecumenical guest. At points along the way the Rally will stop and hold meetings with local civic and religious leaders to promote peace. I and the 3 other ecumenical guests will undoubtedly be called upon to make speeches. 

So my contribution to the Uniting Church's 40th Anniversary celebrations will be to ride a motorbike to Ladakh as an ecumenical guest of the Church of North India, promoting peace along the way.
Today, while others have been celebrating I've ridden half way to Amritsar where this year's Ride for Peace will start. I have a huge weight in tools which along with the other luggage I've brought along makes the bike wobble alarmingly at the very low speeds one's often forced to accept in Indian traffic, and which I'll gratefully pass on to whatever service vehicle is attending the riders. I'm worried that that something will go wrong, and crave your prayers that nothing will. But the big adventure is under way.

A bit like the Uniting Church, perhaps!

Saturday 17 June 2017

Facing Fear

Some days ago I followed my motorcycling tutor, Steve Ringeisen, 60km down the Kullu-Manali Valley towards Delhi, to a place called Bhuntur. Steve had several pieces of business he hoped to transact that day. (None of which he was successful with, as it turned out. That is not unusual in India. I have discovered that the way to live here is the way the Australian cricket team learnt to play their cricket here in the recent series. Stop behaving like a westerner! Be patient. Eventually the results will come! But that’s a story for another day.)

After lunch Steve asked me if I’d like to ride up into the hills that form the valley. “Well, I’m here to train for riding in mountains,” I thought. “I’ll give some hills a go.” Pretty soon, however, I was wondering whether I’d been mad to accept Steve’s suggestion. The accompanying glorious (I think) panoramic picture in no wise does justice to how steep that mountainside was. The road was at least surfaced, but it was barely 1 lane wide, and we had to negotiate really steep, repeated, narrow hairpin bends. I discovered that I’m much more comfortable making right hand turns than left hand ones. This ride also drilled into me that the relationship between clutch and accelerator is of the essence in biking. Nervous and tentative as I was, I had no real idea how to “feather” the clutch. Kangaroo-hopping while learning to drive in my parents’ 1969 Triumph down a broad street in East Killara was one thing. Trying not to do the same thing on a motorbike while going around hairpin bends that cling to a precipitous mountainside was, with all due respect to my 18 year old self, a different proposition. Then it started raining.

All of a sudden things resolved, as they do in India. Our asphalted goat-track joined a larger way. The rain ceased. We met some fellow adventurers eating lunch by the roadside, and upon hearing that the new road led down to a bridge over the Beas River that was well-known to us we decided that we’d had enough excitement for one day. The trip down that road was lovely, passing through village after little village, each with a spreading banyan tree at its heart. That, too, is a story for another day.

At least as much as learning how to feather the clutch, this ride was about facing fear. This whole expedition is. “How is it,” I ask myself, “that aged 61 I’m preparing to ride a motorbike in the high Himalayas?” A MOTORBIKE? The number of times I came off my old Honda 175 as a young man when I last rode bikes a lot! On the other hand, pain is a good teacher, at least for foolhardies like me, and preparing well is a good learning. I am learning that one calculates the risks, prepares as best one can for them, and does not go beyond what one has prepared for. As scary as that mountainside and its hairpin bends were, I was never in any real danger. My fear was both my ally and my opponent. It kept me cautious and alert to danger. But if it had paralysed me I would have been in real danger.

I’ve been learning to face fear ever since I became a follower of Jesus nearly 50 years ago. My experience of this has been that even when I was not well-prepared, could not have been well-prepared, God has many times seen me through difficult situations. I think the situation in which I was most fearful was when I somehow became involved with a neighbour in our Swedish country town in building a double garage with central wall across our boundary line. For this I was woefully unprepared. A new migrant, I had to learn a whole building vocabulary. Though strong enough to have become an experienced builder’s labourer, as a builder…let’s say my bent is more to the theological than to the practical! I felt hopelessly inadequate for the task. Each day I awoke with worry (fear’s close relative) gnawing at the pit of my stomach. I certainly made my fair share of mistakes, yet the project  succeeded. The critical point was when we had concrete poured into the building’s foundations and floor. There is a real art and science to spreading concrete which I had never learnt. The cement truck came, poured its load and left, giving us a few hours to complete the task of spreading, ‘floating’ and surfacing the concrete before it set too hard to work. While I was shovelling concrete and my congregational chairperson, a farmer with a farmer’s ability to turn his hand to everything, was floating it things went well. When he had to leave I continued doing what I’d been told to, but it became clear that there was a large area at the front of my side of the garage that needed more concrete moved there.

By now it was late afternoon, the concrete was setting and I was  desperate. Suddenly things resolved, as they can do, even in well-planned Sweden! A neighbour from across the road offered his services. Unbeknown to me, he was a concreter who had retired early with a bad back. Expertly, he caressed the concrete into place, giving this story its happy ending! That day I learnt that God seems to enjoy helping us when we have to go beyond what we are capable of, and we are impelled to cry out for help. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.”

Fear is a good servant but a bad master. That’s why, I think, the Bible’s most frequently uttered command is “Don’t be afraid!” This journey is teaching me more, or perhaps embedding in my consciousness the counter-intuitive truth that faith helps us to face fear. For example, I don’t even know whether I’ll make it to Leh, the journey’s goal. I’ve discovered that the Leh motorbike hirers’ Union is not allowing bikes registered out-of-state into Ladakh. The bike I’ve hired is registered in Manali, in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, and apparently it was the Manali motorbike hirers’ Union which precipitated the dispute! I don’t know what I or the whole expedition will do, and I need to decide this week. While not fear-inducing this situation is worrisome. That cry for help is a natural and right response to a tricky situation, even as I employ the best information-gathering, assessing, discussing and decision-making I can bring to bear.