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Nepal Newsletter

August 9, 2009

August 9, 2009

c/o NSI, PO Box 8975,
EPC 1813, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Dear friends,

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise." Psalm 84:4

I cooked breakfast this morning as deep harmonies resonated in the courtyard outside.  Our new apartment looks down on the Assumption Catholic Church.   With its terra cotta roof rising into a long glass cornice and an octagonal spire surmounted by a cross, the church is a mix of Asian and European influences.  Murals of Jesus painted in Nepali scenes hang along the sanctuary walls.  The church’s windows are left open in summer, so many days of the week spiritual music wafts up to us.

We flew into Kathmandu a week ago, ending 5 months of furlough.  In the airport arrival hall a large board informed us of the countries where the H1N1 (swine flu) virus had been found.  The poster had apparently started as an orderly printed list, to which additional countries’ names were taped up on pieces of paper or hand-written at various angles in different colors.   As we approached customs, a man pointed what looked like a plastic pistol at each of our foreheads in turn.  “Just checking for fever, sir.”   We all passed, got our visas and entered the country.

Coming out of the airport, the traffic emphatically reminded us that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Some say there are no rules on Kathmandu roads, but that’s not true.  One can’t help but admire it all – cars of every vintage and overloaded buses, trucks spilling sand out their backs and tractors chugging loads of reinforced steel, naïve country folks darting across, motorcycles with whole families on board, motor rickshaws and the occasional cow – just flowing into one.  Consider the busy intersection near our home.  Neither direction has a clear right of way nor are there any stop signs or traffic lights, but everybody seems to get through fine.  Vehicles can pull out and head straight into the flow of oncoming traffic, fully confident that approaching cars will dance around them.

We looked forward to our first furlough (or home leave) in 5 years, and indeed it was a full and rich time.  We slept in 38 houses, half of them family and half church groups; we spoke in 55 places, most of them United Methodist Churches in the U.S.; and we swam in 23 different spots, ranging from Lake Tahoe to Lake Ontario to New York’s Finger Lakes to the Irish, Mediterranean, and Atlantic Oceans, with a canal and a few swimming pools thrown in.  We loaded up on home cooking – our favorite meal being charcoal-grilled cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and sweet corn, topped off by a pie, something we ate in a number of friends’ backyards as the lightning bugs came out to greet us.

A high priority of such a time at home is to re-connect with family, and we managed for our boys to have 5 weeks each with both sets of grandparents, and to meet all their aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as great-aunts and -uncles.   For Zachary and Benjamin, there were a number of firsts: sledding on snow, herding cattle, visiting Valley Forge, the Liberty Bell, and Washington, DC, seeing a Broadway play (Mary Poppins), boating in the mist of Niagara Falls, canoeing, reeling in a fish, hiking in the Dublin hills and in the south of France, tying up their boat in a canal lock, and being knocked down by an ocean wave.  Because of the kindness of a generous church in Springfield , Pennsylvania , both boys were able to attend U.S. schools for about 7 weeks.

One Sunday at noon we stood amongst a small audience in the basement of the Crossroads United Methodist Church in Felton , Pennsylvania .   We’d just given our 45 minute talk about Nepal .  Two long tables were piled with cold cuts, cheese, rolls, potato salad, condiments, and pies.  An older lady trundled over, careful not to catch her foot on a chair leg, and looked up at me.   She introduced herself, saying that we’d met several times in the past.  Marie was 92.   After our small-talk ran out, she said, “I just wanted you to know that I pray for you and your family every day.”  Thank you.  That’s one big reason why we’ve remained as missionaries.  We spoke to groups large and often small, our primary hope being that someone in the audience would become a regular pray-er for our work.

Seeing us give our presentation, our lads were keen to have a spot up front themselves.  So, at the end of the program, we’d let them come forward to take questions from the audience.  Apart from an occasional fight over who held the mike, they did well.

A lady put up her hand and asked, “What sort of restaurants do you have in Kathmandu ?”

Zach took his turn to field it.  “Well, to start with, there are many small shops selling the Nepali food of daal bhaat, which is rice.  Then there are Indian and other restaurants that middle class Nepalis can afford and we go to those.  The best meals, though, are in the Western hotels, but only the rich can afford places like that.”

The questions eventually ended and Deirdre put the boys in their pajamas for the drive home.  As we got ready to go, Zach walked up to me through the thinning crowd.

“Look what that lady gave me who asked me the question.”  He held up a crisp $50 bill. “She said, ‘Tell your parents to take you out to a nice restaurant.’ ”

Fortunately, furlough isn’t about having to raise money, but our boys were a popular attraction.

In May – the middle of furlough – I returned by myself to Nepal , leaving the boys and Deirdre for a longer time with our Irish relatives.  I came back here for three weeks to catch up on some work with NSI, including writing the next year’s annual plan and budget.

On my first Saturday back in Nepal , I attended our usual church on the far side of Patan.  That morning the Catholic Church beside our new apartment was full and the service had entered into choruses of praise.  A young woman made her way into the right-hand side of the church and sat down on the floor with the rest of the people.  After a few minutes she got up, asking her neighbor to watch her knapsack while she went to the bathroom.  She never came back.  Some minutes later the pressure cooker bomb in her knapsack went off with a deafening roar, raining roof glass down on the congregation and leaving a black crater in the floor.  Three people died.  Pools of blood lay beneath the murals of Jesus.  The bomber left behind pamphlets of ‘The Nepal Defense Army’, a group that had tried to extort money from the church in the name of Hindu fundamentalism.

The next day Nepalis of all faiths came together in a service of support for the Catholic Church and solidarity against violence and religious extremism.  The blast’s effect continues to reverberate, though, with other churches now being threatened or extorted.

The political situation here is little better.  The Maoist-led coalition government collapsed after 9 months in power and an even weaker coalition has taken its place.  The opposition Maoists have now scheduled 6 weeks of street demonstrations and obstruction of Parliament.

Through it all, life somehow just goes on.  One encounters the age-old daily rhythms of Kathmandu .   The multitude of characters, from beggars to businessmen, crowding through the uneven streets, buying their fruit off push carts and their dry goods from store fronts open to the road.   People in a steady stream momentarily stopping to worship at a corner shrine.  Clusters chat as they wait for their bus.  In conversations, they swat at Nepal ’s politicians as they would a persistent fly – an inescapable annoyance.

In the months leading up to it we often talked about our furlough, saying we were ‘going home.’  The interesting thing was that after only about a month in the U.S. , we also began to refer to our expected return to Nepal as ‘going home.’  As our heads spun with the many places we visited, all of us – but especially the boys – seemed ready to come back here to Kathmandu .

Yesterday Benjamin and I went shopping for fruit, making our way along a line of bicycle carts piled high, vendors hawking.  He stopped and stared, furrowing his brow at piles of green oval fruit.

“What’s that?!” he asked, with more than his usual curiosity.

“Those are mangos.  Don’t you remember mangos, Bendo?”

“Mangos.  Sure.  Mangos!  Yeah, I remember mangos.”

The faded memory stirred, he demanded that we must buy some, which we did despite their high price.

This morning with church choruses rising from below Benjamin and I stood together in the kitchen and ate a couple of mangos, letting the juice drip down our chins into the sink.

We’d come home – or to such as the Lord has provided us for the season.

Mark, Deirdre, Zachary & Benjamin.

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