Monday, September 28, 2009

Celebration, 9/20/09

*editor's note: this post deserves accompanying photographs, but I am really bad at remembering to bring my camera places. In the future, please accept substitute pictures from a previous year's Eid celebration.

The invitations poured in throughout the week. "Come celebrate Eid with us!" We had been waiting for these calls to make plans for one of the biggest days on the Islamic calendar--Eid-ul-Fitr. The celebration of the end of fasting during Ramadan. While it is my understanding that each region's imams and sheikhs determine when the fast begins and is broken based on the cycles of the moon, it seems the Hui Chinese ahongs (same as imams) really enjoy the spontaneous nature of the timing. A few nights before the end of Ramadan is the Laylat al-Qadr or Night of Power. This night commemorates the first revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad (pbuh) and some Muslims will stay at the mosque all night, praying and reciting Qur'an with the belief that the heavens are most open on this night for blessing and revelation from Allah. We kept asking all our Muslims friends what night it was, but they said the ahongs had not announced it yet. Finally, last Tuesday morning we get a call informing us, "Tonight is the Night of Power!" That's how it works out here.

Eid was a bit of a mystery as well. It is usually around 30 days from the start of Ramadan, but the exact date depends on the sighting of the crescent moon. Nonetheless, it was "announced" that Sunday would be the day (perhaps the government here requires more concrete planning?), though official confirmation could not be given. That did not stop the invitations from flowing in, and the more calls we got, the more excited I became. It is said that around 200,000 Muslims go to the Dong Guan Mosque on Eid and I was anxious to see it. After that, there was all the good food awaiting at whichever homes we visited. I've observed Ramadan once before, but not in a community, so no Eid celebrations. Today was my first.

After a late Saturday, M and I did not make it up for the traditional small breakfast of honeyed dates, nor did we make it to the khutbah (sermon). We did make it to the mosque just as the crowd was dispersing. I have no way of knowing if it was truly 200,000 people, but I will say that traffic was stopped for blocks around because the streets were filled with elated Muslims wearing white caps and colorful hijab, many wearing new clothes or shoes. Everyone was saying to one another, "Salaam!" and "Eid mubarak!" to us as we walked through the crowded streets and alleys around the mosque. It was incredible. We saw some friends. We also saw tons of beggars who receive a special zakat (charity) from the mosque for the holiday, as well as collect a lot of small change from the worshippers at the mosque. They had come from all the surrounding counties to the great mosque here in Xining. It was a sight.

My friend from the Middle East was approached several times to speak Arabic (true Arabic speakers are rare here), and people looked at me questioningly like I should be able to speak it too, but they weren't sure. My friend UE then started us on the long journey of bringing gifts to people's homes as they hosted us for Eid meals. Between 11:30 am and 7:30 pm we thanked our three hosts with four bags of fruit and a case of yogurt in return for three large meals. It was all delicious, but by day's end I was stuffed to the gills. I was assured by M that for Qinghai standards, these were small meals. Thank goodness!

I also made some new friends at these meals, a few who spoke very good English and few who patiently encouraged my Chinese and chopstick usage. One of our hosts is an influential man who was responsible for the development of sports in western China during the Mao years. He was a bit...impressed with himself, but was the consummate host. He even had us go to a park for post-meal exercises! Our second hosts were a family of brothers, the youngest two of whom were policemen. We crammed eight of us around a small table and ate and talked (or listened, in my case) and laughed. Again, impeccable hospitality, accompanying us down six flights of stairs to the gate in order to say goodbye. Finally, after a two hour break, M and I made our way to his good friend's family's house. We had so much food and so much fun and were again shown the most amazing hospitality (though they are comfortable enough with M to tease him quite mercilessly. I was assured that it would not be long until I would suffer the same fate). We finally returned home at 11:30 pm, very full and very satisfied. There was nothing else to say but, "Eid mubarak".

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On a train between Nanjing and Xining, 9/1/09

I don't usually travel like this, unaware and uneducated about the terrain I'm passing through; uncertain of east or west, mountains or sea. I think it is adding to the wonder, a welcome companion on my second lengthy train ride in three days. This time it's 27 hours, but at least I have a hard sleeper. As I said, I don't know where we are right now, but it is beautiful. We most recently passed a sign for Xin Ta Shi, so I'll have to look up what province we're in later.

Without knowing the attendant characters, and without knowing the tones for the words, I want to add a letter and mistranslate the name of that town as "New He Is." I find that name fitting if inaccurate. This is all new to me, even with my previous experiences in China. Our train is cutting through valleys and tunneling through mountainsides, following the winding path of a sluggish river. It's smallish now, but a half hour ago there were wide gorges sculpted by eons of erosion that left marks on the quietly green mountains rising into the mist. We are riding through clouds, tunnels, clouds again.

The people along this route look to be exceedingly poor. This part of China I recognize. Here are houses made of mud bricks that match the clay beneath. There are healthy looking crops that lie dangerously close to a river that would flood with a good afternoon rain. Despite the dreary landscape, satellite dishes occasionally dot the rooftops. Between tunnels, little scenes of the everyday emerge -- a line of young girls sport brightly kerchiefed uniforms with matching backpacks and climb the steep hillside to get to school; a circle of old mean and women kick and stretch in preparation for tai chi; a woman with a baby strapped to her back fills a washtub with water for dishes or laundry; workers sit and laugh on their break.

All of them dependent on one another, dependent on this polluted river which is nonetheless a source of life. I go back to my statement that they are exceedingly poor and I challenge it. They are all smiling. They have what they need for today and lacking that they have each other. At least so one could think watching from a train window.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kate's apartment, Nanjing, China, 8/29/09

The rain falls on the rooftops, a curtain of sound dulling the sharp edge of life teeming in the noisy streets below: honking horn, revving engines, vendors hawking their wares, customers haggling over the prices. We are all made one beneath this baptism of strained silence, listening for who knows what. The still small voice? It is washed away before the anxieties we create as the gentle pitter patter of a drizzle becomes a roaring downpour.

There have been many adventures already. The day I arrived is a blur, but I did get a ride from the airport and got to catch up with an old friend for the evening. He set me up in all kinds of ways, including giving me a cell phone for the week of journeying ahead. Unfortunately, he was not able to get an early ticket for the next leg of my trip, so I had to leave Beijing earlier than expected and had the privilege of experiencing my first hard seat ride on a Chinese train.

For the uninitiated, Chinese trains have four categories of seating. There are hard and soft seats, and hard and soft sleepers. The hard sleepers are open compartments with six platform beds each, stacked three high. There are also fold out seats with small tables in the hallway running past the compartments. These are the best value for a long ride. Soft sleepers are four beds in a closed compartment, which sounds amazing except for two things. First, the beds are not that much softer (hearsay), and second, people are allowed to smoke in the closed compartments, whereas the hard sleepers are smoke free. Hard and soft seats are just what they sound like, though the hard seats on the newer trains area actually quite nice.

The plan was to get a hard sleeper from Beijing to Nanjing on an overnight fast train. My travel time would be about 9 hours and I'd arrive refreshed in Nanjing ready for a day of activities with my dear friend Kate, who I've known since third grade. However, the only option available to me for the next four days was a hard seat on a slow train to Nanjing, travel time 15 hours. Ah well, it could be worse, right?

Yes, it can. And that was proven when I got on the platform for the train to find that every car was filled to overflowing with people. When I say overflowing, I actually mean it. See, I learned that afternoon that if your ticket does not have a seat assignment on it, you are part of the "standing room only" overflow group. In addition, there is really only enough luggage rack space for the people in the seats, so imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried to force my way into the train car with a large suitcase (49 lbs.), large camping backpack, and another small backpack. I literally could not get into the car, so one of the attendants opened the door on the other side and forced me in. People were sitting on the floor everywhere, in front of bathrooms and in the space between cars. It was insane.

This was a true China experience. I stood with pack on, suitcase in front of me, fielding dirty looks from people jostling each other for floor space, for two hours before a fellow passenger started speaking English with me. His English name was Apex (there are a lot of interesting names like that here), and he was on his way from work in Beijing to visit his family in Shandong Province. He is an aeronautical engineer working with experimental planes, and his English was impeccable. He was a man of peace. He helped me eventually get my bags situated as people disembarked, rotated standing and sitting with me, shared some food, and talked to me for nearly five hours until his stop. This man was a true blessing.

The packed train car reminded me of the buses in Guatemala, except this time we weren't hurtling down a mountain, honking the horn as we went around curves. People were everywhere, on top of each other, holding babies and sitting on the tiniest edges of occupied seats. A lot of people got off at Apex's stop, and I was bequeathed his seat for good. At this point it was near midnight and and time to sleep. Ha...yeah. Sleep came in 10 minute fragments, interrupted by my head lolling into the empty space of the path between seats or by the food cart guys passing by yelling out what they were selling and running over my foot. I did not get REM of any kind.

But I made it! When I first got on the train and saw there was nowhere to put my bags or sit down, or even get further into the car, I considered leaving. I considered swallowing the 150 yuan (about $22) and getting a plane ticket for the following morning. I kept trying to tell myself it was an overrated adventure, an unnecessary hardship. There would be more worthwhile adventures. But, I felt something deeper at stake, so I stayed. I'm glad I did, but when those doors closed and I had all that stuff on me, the thought of 15 hours ahead was mind-numbing, soul-crushing.

Now I am here, and the 15 hours are behind me. I am, at long last, in China. There is so much familiarity here, yet so much strangeness. I really do not know the language, though it is resurfacing a few chunks at a time. It is exciting to be back, but definitely a little scary. One year. Wow. The scariness is really just the unknown, the inconceivability of it all. What will this year be like? How will I grow, a a student, as a follower of Jesus, as a friend, as a man? What will be the outcome of it all? It will be hard, but I must bring the lessons of Presence in Portland to bear.

Ramón, be HERE each and every day. The answers to those questions will grow out of well tended soil of the Present life. God is here. You be here too.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Airport, Vancouver, B.C., 8/26/09, 10:48 a.m.

In a little over an hour the next year begins in earnest. I am exhausted. Yes, emotionally, but mostly physically. I'm running on about five or six hours of sleep in the last 48 hours. The emotions are dancing around the edges of my weariness, waiting to break out. I've come close to crying this trip already. I feel fragile.

And I feel alone. It sunk in while I was sipping my coffee bought with Canadian dollars that I really did not prepare for this trip. Obviously I was extraordinarily disorganized and did a shoddy packing job. But there has been even less mental prep, spiritual prep. The implications of leaving for a year still have not sunk in, nor has the weightiness of the various uncertainties. Other people have always handled the details for my overseas trips. They were the knowledge bearers before me. They let me focus on the spiritual, on caring for others. But now, it's just me. And I'm wondering about the basics--will I have a ride from the Beijing airport?

Either way, with all the doubts, the weariness, the feelings of loneliness; there is one thing I cannot deny. There is so much love for me in the pages of this journal. That means there is so much love for me in that city I've just left. That Portland. That home.

It came to me like an old friend a couple nights ago--this is my home. Portland is where I will return, in my heart and in my desires. I am not praying much these days, but my request is to be allowed to return. To really make it home. I wish it was easy enough to say I deserved it, to claim an equal trade for working as a wanderer these last years. But there is no deserving, there is only love.

Will I give it, no matter where I am, without reservation? Will I receive it, no matter where I am, without skepticism or doubt? It's much easier with these fellow broken vessels who are learning to live in love with and from me. God - that's harder. Despite my theorizing, it's hard to know (relationally, like conocer in Spanish) the love of God in these people who love me. But what else do I know of love? It grows on the Tree of Life in that Garden, lost in the fog. It grows at home.