Strange species break out of the box: millipedes, mynahs and Minnesotans; snakes and sparrows; roses and reeds. I’m touched by an Arab traveller and a Nobel poet, and taunted by a false friend.
When I taught English at school holiday camps in South Korea there was a teachers’ orientation week when the campus was quiet, but our supervisor kept warning us with glee: “the monsters are coming!” In the last few days of solitude I’ve been thinking, “The Minnesotans are coming!” and wondering how monstrous or mild the species would be.
Yesterday they arrived: 28 students from St Olaf College, Minnesota, supervised by a husband-and-wife professor couple. Mostly 19-21 years old, with only 6 guys. From a range of churches, or none. Their five-month course is called “Jesus in Cross-Cultural Perspective” and asks “how interactions with ‘native’ culture and religions shape Christian faith and life”. They first hit the UN in Switzerland, then swung via Athens to a month of Egyptian history in Cairo, from where they’ve just come. After India they’ll have a week’s break in Thailand before one month each of Chinese art in Hong Kong and Korean culture in Seoul. The St Olaf Global Semester programme has come here annually since 1974 when I was born. Three students have parents who attended, three have older siblings.
Today we were officially welcomed to the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC). A band with three oboe-like instruments and three percussionists led us to the meeting hall, where our foreheads were marked with a red powder dot, and we received a pinch of sugar and a rose. Five people, including me as the honourable kiwi, lit the five wicks of the oil lamp. One speech recalled Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, where how people respond to human need is how they respond to Christ. I liked the director’s phrase of “critical theological imagination” – left-brained analytic and right-brained creative united in studious passion for God. He exhorted us to release God from the cages we chain him in and discover “God outside the box”. Perhaps that sums up one purpose of this course. As well as such advice, we were given elephant-emblazoned satchels, umbrellas they said we’d soon need, baseball caps and stationery.
The ECC (www.eccbangalore.org) was founded in 1963 to promote “wider ecumenicism”: a 4D unity of churches, faiths, humankind, and all creation. It has about 50 staff, including four ordained clergy, two with PhDs, a dozen administrators, half a dozen cooks, two librarians, three drivers, and four guards. The 29 acre campus resembles a park. (See pictures of the campus and my quarters here.) Signposts bear environmental messages, inspirational proverbs – “The tree does not withdraw its shade from the woodcutter”, and scriptural verses – “For only a penny you can buy two sparrows yet not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.”
Striving to count every sparrow, at least every species, several boards list “birds spotted on the ECC campus”. There are harriers and herons, buzzards and babblers, warblers and drongos and Tickell’s flowerpecker. These ecumenical avians embrace all castes, from Brahmany kites to pariah kites, and span the spectrum from white-breasted kingfishers to black-winged stilts: the grey-headed mynah, brown flycatcher and golden-backed woodpecker, the red-vented bulbul, green bee-eater and blue kingfisher, the purple-rumped sunbird and yellow-wattled lapwind.
Other animals live here too. I’ve seen metre-high white ant hills, 10 cm-long millipedes, 2-inch moths. There are skittering squirrels, small lizards on the walls, and lines of big ants – after a bite, my arm was still slightly swollen the next day. The odd stray dog sneaks in and there could even be snakes – so stay off the grass at night. But don’t forget to smell the rose garden, where a sign has this poem:
To a bee,
a place of courtship.
To a poet,
To a scientist,
a thing to be crushed and analysed.
To a woman,
a piece of decoration on her hair.
To a priest,
an ingredient for puja.
To a rose plant,
To my God,
a media: the gospel of fragrance.
You are one in many,
Many in one!
The first few days here I felt sleepy by dinner, but I’m recovering from jet lag and beginners’ street shock. One of the best medicines is of course the library. Here I stumbled across the collected poems of Indian Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. After reading these first lines of his Gitanjali or Song Offerings (which I briefly reviewed here), I borrowed the book for bedtime devotions.
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
As well as enjoying nature and poetry, I love the food and my stomach is fine! ECC water treatment must work, while bottled water undergoes multistage purification: labels list ultraviolet treatment, micron filtration and ozonisation. My friend Grant, of the sweepstake on how often I get sick, feels it’s unsporting of me to drink such processed stuff:
“Given my interest in when you succumb to the water isn’t it cheating on your part to use puritabs etc etc? Go on – play fair. Try every source of water you can find!”
The Americans seem friendly, and I’m making good progress on names, helped by artistic name-tags on their doors. Two turned 21 on Friday. There were celebratory charade games, with confusing references to American sport and entertainment. Jogged with three in the cool air at 6:30am this morning. At our first group meeting, they contemplated their Global experience so far. Many nodded with understanding as their professor read out these reflections of Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Arab traveller to India and China.
At first I was terrified, but then I learned to love the sea… Travelling: it makes you lonely, then gives you a friend… It offers you a hundred roads to adventure, and gives your heart wings… It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller… It gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.