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.

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