So that’s what it’s like to be a celebrity!
Three days ago we were driven seven hours to the eastern border of Tripura to a tiny village where thousands were gathering to celebrate 100 years of the gospel in this state – starting in that village. The road was… interesting. Initially for the wonderful glimpse it afforded into the rural life of north-east India; the wandering cows and the tiny goats enjoying the warmth of the tarmac, the small boys bathing in road-side cisterns wearing nothing but a red thread around their waist, the paddy fields and fish ponds, the road workers carrying bricks, gravel, and hot tar in baskets balanced on their heads, etc. The jeeps with 15 people inside and more on the roof and hanging on at the back. Then again, the road was interesting for the driving style – honk as you pass and pray nothing is coming the other way at speed! Usually it was impossible to see further than the tailgate of the truck in front – not that that prevents anyone from overtaking – an absoloute necessity given that these trucks travel slowly, with enormous smoke, and in long convoys along steep, winding, dusty roads.
We did stop for a welcome break about halfway there in the village of Darchawi where we were fed sumptously at Sunga’s home. After that the road deteriorated considerably, often being completely unsealed for very long stretches.
After hours of climbing into the final mountain range in Tripura state, bordering on Mizoram, we wound our way down into the village centre, where we were given our registration materials. At the same time a convoy of three vehicles pulled in; two filled with soldiers (with rifles and sidearms) and the third with a local politician who was staying (along with his security) in the same hotel as us – a freshly-painted tourist lodge at the top of the hill, with a wonderful view down the ranges. Unfortunately we arrived 15 days before the hot water supply. Cold showers still. The security turned out to be very pleasant; the liuetenant colonel in charge of the detail spending some time talking with Connor about his work, and commenting that he looked like Jesus (!).
After unpacking and washing up we went back down to the gathering area; a broad open space with a dusty surface, several structures for things like first aid and information, a huge covered eating hall, (eating involved giving up one of the meal tickets we got handed with our registration packs, pulling a tin plate from the barrel of rinsing water, and taking it along a servery where it was laden with rice, dahl, goat or pork curry, fried fish and chillies, finding a spot to lean on a bench, and scooping it up with the fingers of our right hand. It paid not to arrive first when the food was still really hot) and an enormous bamboo semi-round structure covered with blue plastic on the outside, and lined with white linen inside, seating over a thousand with an enormous two-tier platform at one end, surrounded by speaker stacks, and fronted with an enormous flower arrangement and a gas torch (the flame of the gospel – lit ceremoniously by an elderly daughter of the first pastor in the area). Here we sat in a front row, then I was culled out of the pack, and seated, along with Sunga, in a special pastors’ area. This was sort of disconcerting, being separated from everyone else, but I was settling in, and shaking hands furiously with all the pastors as they arrived, when an usher came over and pulled me up again, and guided me up to the platform, then onto the top tier, and seated me in this golden chair like a pimple atop a battleship, where I had to stay for the next couple of hours. I got to see everyone’s back. The rest of the team, in the front row of seating, had a much better view. EXCEPT for when they lit the torch – and then everyone lit candles from it, and I looked out on a sea of brown faces, softly lit from beneath. Beautiful.
The programme was heavy on greetings from various dignitaries, the launching of various books (including the administration manual for a medical centre), speeches and occasionally a song. Finally I had to stand up and preach, through a translator. This was interesting – especially when I decided to go walkabout to illustrate a point using candle and torch, and the translator could no longer hear what I was saying. Ah well….
The programme on the next day wasn’t that different. Except that it was cultural day, and everyone was in tribal dress and we got to see several displays of tribal dance – which was very cool, and included huge variety. We took a few photos – but far more photos were taken of us! There was a large media contingent there, and despite the fantastic things that were going on on stage, there was usually at least one video camera focused on us. We had to be careful how we picked our nose or yawned. When we were outside we would constantly be approached by people to take photos (usually younger people) or to be asked how various kiwis who had previously ministered in the region were doing (mostly older folks). They had some difficulty believeing that we didn’t know all of these very famous people, who were so important in their history; surely at least some of us were related to them? Usually we referred these queries to Elizabeth. No-one was rude or objectionable, however, and it wasn’t too difficult to be celebrities for a couple of days. In fact, people’s friendliness and hospitality was often very touching; we’d be standing in the street for no more than a couple of minutes before someone would summon us in out of the sun, and provide us with fresh fruit (they grow bananas, oranges, pineapples, and betel nut here) and tiny mugs of beautiful sweet tea.
Day three Connor, Tina, and Terri got up about 4.30 so that they could walk to a tower atop a nearby summit and get photos of the sunrise. They arrived about 45 minutes before the dawn did, and had plenty of time to rest. That day we stayed for the opening of the Gospel Centenary Centre, then piled into the vehicles for the trip back into the city, arriving last night in time for a meal before bed.
Today we’ve had a quiet day. the four who went to Bangladesh arrived back and we’ve been swapping stories all evening and enjoying being back together. Conor has had two goes at rearranging his ticket back to Kolkata early so as to spend more time at Freeset. Ann and Liz went to a women’s meeting in the afternoon, coming back halfway through to get Tina and Terri so that they could join in with learning a hindi song. I’ve spent much of the day preparing for the two sermons I have to present tomorrow. We all went shopping at least once (Connor and I now have flip-flops for around the compound). Sunga has left his laptop and T-stick here all day so most of us have caught up on email. We’ve read, rehearsed some songs, played cards, and rested.
We’ve been here now for 11 days – two weeks to go, and it seems like we’ve been here for over a month already. Who knows what will come next…