Lamka (literally 'Junction') is the local name for Churachandpur. We Eichers are half-way into our stay here - and continue to be dazzled by the blue sky above, the star spangled black nights (made all the more vivid by their being no electricity up to 20 hours of the day + night), and the general amazement of being in a place 'so unlike' what we normally experience in Thane.
Yesterday we decided that we would like to go on a hike. Besides fulfilling our hunger to see the country-side, it was also appropriate since it was my dear Mother's birthday (11.11). "Oma" has turned into a sprightly 76-year old who loves to go on hikes - and so she was 'with us in spirit' as we left Leinsangvung villa and walked into the cool sunshine of a November morning in Lamka.
Our guide for the day was Mang Haokip - our dear JSK co-worker Annie's brother - who along with our previous UBS intern Lun Haokip has gone on extensive tours of the hill villages for his church. Clearly the man of the hour to take us up the hill!
And take us he did!
Enoch (seen here with a local vegetable vending lady who had come to the home on our first day here) was asking me as we walked out of town: "Daddy, there are a lot of AIDS symbols here."
I came to Lamka in 1995 to do my MPH research project on 'Injecting Drug Use and HIV Risks' - and the past 2 decades have had many outreaches to people living with HIV - and to young people at risk of the disease. But the disease is still here. We had the blessings of meeting our old friends Drs. Nandumani and Ango Chongtham who have just come to Lamka a fortnight ago. Dr. Nandu is a surgeon posted at the govt. hospital and he has already been operating on people living with HIV - including a woman whose leg almost had to be amputated because of the terrible abscess that she had from injecting SpasmoProxyvon into her femoral vein - and the rupture of the artery when the initial surgery was done to drain her infection. The woman is still recovering at the hospital, but Dr. Nandu has been able to provide her a lifeline.
What has changed is that the government now gives free ART treatment for people with HIV. We hope to visit the ART centre on Thursday - if time and tide permit - but as we walked past the civil hospital we could not help see a sign that certainly was not there when I was working with SHALOM in Lamka in the mid 90s:
Within a short time we were leaving the 'town' behind and wending our way gradually up slope. We passed 'Headquarters Veng' where the district administration and various sundry govt. offices are. Sadly many lovely buildings are there - with signs on them like 'Weaving Centre' etc. - all nicely bolted with padlocks on the outside and precious little on the inside. My tax-payer money makes its way (at least a little bit of it) over to Manipur - where it is distributed to government employees who are on the pay roll - but often do precious little other than collect their salaries (and often have to bribe their superiors to get that too). Mang said that when he preaches about this in church, the folks don't really appreciate his comments.
There are still new houses being built. Using wood for a framework - and bamboo woven walls with mud plaster and a tin roof means that homes can still be built largely from local materials. We walked past home after home - many of them humble - but all neat and tidy. With the blue sky above I could not help and wonder at the contrast with the utter grime that surrounds us in our current abode in Thane. Why would anyone want to trade this for the distopia that most of our cities are?
A quick snap taken while driving by Moulvaiphei village on Sunday may give a clue. The shot above has women returning from washing clothes in the local stream. The bridge over this is draped with clothes being dried by others. Look closely, and you will see that one of the young women is using a smart phone. The fruits of education and aspiration mean that staying in the village is hardly an option for most young people. The cities and jobs and hopes of moving up beckon.
As expected we passed churches of all stripes. Some small. Some largish. A few under construction. Glancing into on yard I saw a cross leaning on home. What kind of church would that be? Some small lettering says "Praise the Lord - Amen." I couldn't help of thinking of what Jesus said "take up your cross daily and follow me."
As we passed one village, we heard a bell. "Someone has just died" Mang told us.
Sure enough, the members of the local youth association were already at work. A parachute canopy was being erected in the fore-yard. The furniture of the house cleared and benches brought from the local church. Soon a 'lengkhom' will start - where hymns are sung and short messages are given which will go into the night and till the burial takes place. Nothing happens alone here. I remembered participating in some of the lengkhoms during my time in 1996. The hymns were written in roman script so I could sing along with the tunes - telling of God and a place where there is no sorrow - while the steady beat of the drum goes through the night. These were also the first times that I talked from God's word to help console those who are going through the pain of losing a family member to death.
I had enthusiastically promoted the Eicher hike. But we have 4 members in the family. This was by far the longest walk Sheba has done since her surgery. We stopped frequently. Here at a 'Tea Hotel' where the daughter of the proprietor looked out shyly at us strangers.
Gradually we began the spaces between the villages began to increase. Our road became more winding and stopped being tarred. The view started to open up and we could see down the hill and over the town.
We could see that the hillsides were cultivated using 'jhum' cultivation - where portions of scrub forest are cut and burned and then planted for a few seasons, before moving on to the next portion.
At one bend in the road, we were resting in a shady bit, looking over the scene below us under the amazingly blue sky, when something approached that looked hallucinatory. For almost an hour, we had not been passed by a single vehicle - in either direction. But as we sat, a man came around the bend of the hill, pushing his bicycle.
There, smack bang in the middle of no-where, emerges a Bihari candy-floss man!
Dear Mr. Sharma is from Samastipur district of Bihar, and peddles his trade, selling flourescent pink candy-floss which he makes at his room in Churachandpur.
"What to do", he says "If I do not go out, we will not have food to eat!" And so he pushed on, with his Barbie pink confections like so many balloons around him.
When we pressed on we walked through pine forests and into the Gemol village boundary.
I was struck by the brilliant yellow flowers that burst out in hosannahs along the way. Mang told us that some of the early converts called this the Christmas flower - because when it started blooming they knew that Christmas was around the corner.
There is nothing like a fresh flower to adorn those who are precious to us!
And so we finally made it to the top - Gelmoul mountain - the site of the Jacob Prayer Mount that the ECA churches run. Some years ago, the local chief of Gelmoul village gave the land to be used as a place for prayer and calling on God. A large chapel is on top - surrounded by a number of small prayer cabins. We were met by a lady counsellor who spends time with people who come for prayer. Having come there we also spent some time in one of the little prayer cabins and thanked God for His many mercies to us.
A hearty picnic lunch and we were ready to go back in the late afternoon sun.
Before you get to Gelmoul you see this sight - the "M-moul." A mountain with a twin peak which can be seen from almost all parts of the valley - and reminds local people of the letter 'M' - hence the name.