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Visit to North East India

Can a quart really be fitted into a pint pot? Well, it certainly felt as if it were possible to the seventeen of us who visited the Church of North India last month, as we reflected upon the two weeks stay we had there and realised that our experiences amounted to about two month�s worth!

So, why did we visit India? In May of this year, Derbyshire churches will celebrate 30 years of partnership with Christian churches in North India (CNI). During this time, the partnership has been mainly one of friendship between Christians in both countries, but it has also included exchange visits of people; support from Derbyshire for individual social projects in North India; financial sponsorship for Indian clergy in theological training; longer term stays by Derbyshire folk in order to teach English; and not least - many, many exchanges of gifts, letters and emails between individual friendships created through the partnership.

In early March this year, I had the opportunity to go with sixteen others from Derby Diocese to North East India. After all the essential vaccinations, applications for visas and several planning meetings together, we flew out to Calcutta on the 3rd March where we had a brief rest before travelling on to Bagodgra airport, Siliguri, in the Eastern Himalayas.

Our host there was the very amiable Bishop Naresh Ambala who had visited Derbyshire only last November. He especially wanted us to join in the celebration of the first anniversary of his consecration as a Bishop and we all wanted the chance to see the Himalayas, even if in the distance, so the arrangement worked well for all of us!

However, the main focus of this particular group visit was to set up links between Christian schools in India and Church of England schools in Derbyshire, so two teachers plus Alison Brown (Deputy Director of the Diocesan Board of Education) were included in the party.

Setting up the schools links was really successful, and it gave us a chance to visit many schools in the Eastern Himalayas, in Meghalaya and in Assam. In each school we were entertained by children singing, dancing and generally getting extremely excited by these strange people who had white skins � for many of the children in Assam it was the first time they had seen Europeans!

Picture of Di's host families in Shillong

After three days in the Kalimpong, Darjeeling area, the party of seventeen broke into three smaller groups and set off in different directions. My group headed for Meghalaya and Assam as that is the particular Diocese that St Mary�s (Crich) has been linked with throughout the partnership. Several visitors from Shillong in Meghalaya have stayed in Crich with our Church members over the past years and it was lovely to meet up with them again � Bishop Purely Lyngdoh and his wife; Eva Lyngwah; Rev Gaius; Gina, Parteii, Dherbi and Deibieng.

Before I went to India, a book I had read suggested that it is a land of contrasts - and that it certainly is! So what contrasts did we experience during our visit?

Contrasts of temperature:

Beginning in East Himalaya where none of us got used to the cold � I even bought a new woolly hat while there - and moving on to Shillong where it was warm in the daytime but the temperature dropped at night � a gift pashmina was very welcome � and finally up to Northern Assam where the temperatures were jungly tropical; we all found that we�d made mistakes with our choice of clothes for packing!

Contrasts of welcome:

In most places we were greeted as honoured guests and were overwhelmed with the receptions and the garlands presented to us. In the East Himalayas, the Christian Church was founded by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries and they left a legacy of pipe playing � we were escorted to our first reception by a full bagpipe band, the local young people playing were dressed in full Scottish regalia too! At all the schools bar one, the children had prepared special dances and songs for us. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in Northern Assam we were a curiosity, and people came out to stare at the white folk who have not visited that particular area since Indian Independence. There was also the so called guest house, where the guest had to find someone each morning just to get a bucket filled with water so she could wash!

Contrasts of racial characteristics:

In the Darjeeling area, the faces have Tibetan features; in Shillong, skin is darker and with Indian features and in the tribal regions the villagers reminded me of pictures I�ve seen of the Aztecs and Amerindians of South America.

Contrasts of cleanliness and comfort:

A visit to India is extremely good for the leg muscles as the majority of loos are at ground level and need to be used in a squatting position! The cleanliness of these varied enormously from place to place, although our respective hosts� facilities were always immaculate and many hosts had �European� loos. One host family in the tribal region built a loo especially for their visitors! Washing rooms varied from luxury shower fittings, to a concrete room with a small hole in the wall plus a bucket of water. After a strip down wash, the water disappears through the hole in the wall. My room-mate Jeni and I shared our final washroom with a complete swarm of honey bees which was hanging from the ceiling, occasionally buzzing angrily as a venturesome cockroach got too near it! But what upset me most was the rubbish everywhere, it just doesn�t get dealt with and it just seems to be mounting up everywhere you look.

Contrasts of emotion:

There were the highs of our excitement and exhilaration at the warm welcomes we were receiving and the joy of joining in Christian worship which is natural, uninhibited joy of the Lord pouring out in song and dance; there was the fun and laughter we had with so many children in so many schools; there was the humbling respect we felt for the work that missionaries of two centuries ago had done in the country areas in forming churches, schools and hospitals that are still operating today; there was the agony of seeing local Christians working hard amongst their own communities in dealing with new issues like HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and human trafficking, yet with few or no funds to do it with; there was the distress of seeing our dear friend Eva, caring for us throughout like a mother hen, while her father was dying in Delhi of cancer of the oesophagus (he died two days after we returned home); there were the tears I shed when we visited the tribal churches in Assam whose joyful worship I shall never forget � how much we can learn from them! And last, but not least, there was so much pleasure in meeting again with Christian folk who have visited Crich.

Contrasts of wealth:

India is a country of entrepreneurs � there are small businesses everywhere � shops; selling vegetables on the street; shoe cleaning; car mechanics; taxi drivers galore; weavers � But there are also those who beg and yes, Calcutta is full of them. I have never seen so many sleeping on the streets as I saw there � it shocked me, even though I was mentally prepared for it � the numbers were overwhelming. At the opposite end are those who run larger businesses or are Bollywood stars or who have good salaried jobs, but we were told that the gap in India is widening between the rich and poor, particularly with the economic boom that India is experiencing. And then we visited one Diocesan centre in Tezphur where the Christian couple in charge have chosen to live as simple a life as possible, opening their doors to all comers - the peace that pervaded that compound was profound.

Contrasts of education:

We visited good boarding schools that have real prestige in India, and local Church schools, stone built, but with few resources. There were few pictures on any classroom walls that we saw, and every class had fifty or sixty children in it, no matter where we went. But the school that lives in my mind is the one in Bengbara, it was a simple woven bamboo construction, with benches for the children and nothing else. Many of the children did not have uniform, but the local Christians were doing their best to give these tribal children an education of some sort, with no financial assistance from the State at all. We also learnt that many older children in the families of tea plantation workers miss schooling when a new baby is born as mother has to return to work immediately after the birth, so an older child cares for the baby. Of particular interest to me was the visit to St Michael and All Angels - a CNI school in the Jainta Hills in Meghalaya, which is linked with Fritchley School. Rev Gatpoh, the school principal, had sent a parcel of pictures that the children there have drawn for the children of Fritchley School, together with a video about the school. Sue Spenceley, head teacher of Fritchley and I worked with the Fritchley children on preparing a banner for me to take as a gift to that school. We also purchased a play parachute for the children who need to live in the school�s hostel during term-time, and the hilarious half-hour we spent teaching them some parachute games will stay in my memory for a long time.

Contrasts of travel:

Internal airways are luxury; some roads are good but many are potholed, steep, crowded and full of dangerous vehicles. Several taxis we travelled in would never have passed an MOT in the UK and bald tyres had to be switched on one occasion! Near Shillong there are coal mines, so the lorries there are numerous and always overloaded. On the steep hills, they topple over and we lost count of the number of breakdowns we saw!

But, despite the mixture of emotions we all experienced, it was a wonderful experience and I have no regrets about going to visit our partner churches and Christians in India � it was an inspiration! I�ve come back with two separate invitations to re-visit, and yes, I would like to go back. But it is an experience to be shared, so next time it may be right for someone else to go � perhaps you?

Di Fretwell