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

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