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A Day Among Giants

November 25, 2017

8:00 at Volunteer House, Buin brings breakfast from the kitchen.  Just for me, as I am the sole volunteer at Wildlife SOS right now.  It’s well before monsoon season, so it is dry and ferociously hot.  I have never been so thirsty, all the time, even as I am drinking, I’m still thirsty, all day.  I digress.  Eggs, chapatis, toast, cheese, fruit, and tea are standard breakfast fare.  I supplement with peanut butter someone left behind.  Between 8:30 and 9:00, my handlers -Shivam and Hari – collect me in the minivan for the drive up the highway to the WSOS Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC).

The elephants have already had their breakfast and been for their morning constitutional.  Their caretakers are up early with them every day.  This walk is the long one for their daily exercise.  Volunteers no longer assist with the morning walk as the practice included many extra bananas and the elephants were putting on too much weight.  Volunteers are suckers.

My first responsibility is to rinse the fruits and vegetables for their lunch, then chop them up, weigh, and divide it all into their individually labeled buckets.  It varies by season, but in May there are watermelons, cucumbers, winter squash, and bananas.  We chop it up to slow their eating and make the activity more interesting for them.  For the most part, everyone gets 10kg of whatever is available (3 times per day), a serving of grain porridge, and green fodder suspended from the rafters as if they were trees for grazing.  Suzy, however, gets special treatment because she has no teeth to speak of.  Her watermelon will be just the best bits, no rind, and her bananas are only the ripest ones.  And, as mentioned previously, Laxmi is served softened soy nuggets instead of the nearly solid porridge the others have.  The creation of faux trees is a variety of “enrichment,” to mimic natural situations in order to engage their minds.  Other forms of enrichment include tires and perforated barrels full of nuts.  Laxmi uses the halyard, which lifts bundles of browse, to scratch her back and, improbably, to floss her teeth.  She’s a clever girl.

But before lunch time is bath time!  In the wild, their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers would have taught them how to care for their hides, where to bathe and how to scratch, but being kidnapped as infants, this they never learned.  So it is my great honor and pleasure to bathe these giants.  They come up on the concrete pad in their enclosures, except the ones who prefer to stand in the yard.  It’s their choice.  Phoolkali stands patiently as her keeper begins to hose her down.  “Now.  Here. Scrub.  Scrub hard!”  He doesn’t have much English, but sufficient.  “Scrub bum!”  He finds this hilarious.  And I am scrubbing an elephant’s bum!  Also, I’m sure my soaking head to foot isn’t accidental.  But as I mentioned, it is tandoori-hot, so a mid-day drenching isn’t unwelcome.  (Yes, well, there was that rash.  But it cleared up. . . eventually.)  Volunteers are discouraged from random physical interactions with the elephants because as strangers, our only purpose is to provide food.  If we don’t have food, they see this as a confusing breach of contract.  But bath time is different.  They know the routine, so it is perfectly acceptable to sneak in some hugging along with the scrubbing.

After everyone is fresh and clean, the buckets come out.  As the veterinarian and his assistants make their rounds, part of lunch is doled out during medical treatments.  The practice of target training is employed to facilitate examination and treatment.  The elephants learn what is expected of them and they are rewarded for compliance.  There is a small gate in one wall especially for mani-pedis.  One day, on my way to the barn, I heard someone trumpeting repeatedly, unusual.  It was Laxmi with her veterinarian.  He was working on a new behaviour with her, to be able to examine her more easily.  But last time they had been working on “speak,” which is easier than “kneel”, that day’s lesson.  Laxmi knew that speaking had been sufficient to merit her reward before and thought if she just kept pushing, he would relent.  In the end, the banana was worth kneeling for, especially to dear Laxmi dumpling.

Giant grass-like greenery forage is then distributed, hung about the barn, with which the elephants may amuse themselves for much of the afternoon.  Humans have lunch and take a siesta.  Ours is delivered to the Office/Meeting Room/Volunteer Base stacked in tiffins which fit into something like a giant thermos:  chapatis, curry, rice, veg.  It’s too hot to work in the middle of the day, so everyone takes a break.  I flop down flat on the floor and take a nap, because elephant keeping is hard work!

After siesta, it’s chopping time again.  The wasps (they call them bees, but I don’t know about that) are on full detail, keen for the watermelons.  The keepers seem to be experimenting with how best to deal with them.  I agree that leaving the watermelons whole in the bottom of the buckets to be cracked on demand is a good plan.  Have you ever opened a watermelon with an I-beam?  Or a pumpkin with a concrete floor?  I have.  My world felt very small and fiddly upon returning from living with giants.  My cat’s litter box with its little scoop was nothing compared to picking up elephant poops.  The keepers do it bare handed, but the rubber gloves provided were only a polite fiction anyway.  Surprisingly, being herbivores, the smell was remarkably unoffensive.  The Forest Department takes and uses it to fertilize their projects.

Evening Walk is the most beautiful time of day.  We lead the elephants out into their wide open field, then they are free to wander as they please.  Or to stand where they like.  Or tear up vegetation or scratch against a tree.  For intelligent, sensitive beings who have spent decades, lifetimes, never being able to make a choice for themselves and the choices made by others bringing only suffering, I cannot imagine what it means to them to have this freedom.  We sit on the ground, watching them in their peaceful magnificence.  When it’s time to go in, their caretaker calls to Maya.  She walks away from him…. because she can and no one is going to beat her for it.  He calls again.  She stops, her back to us.  Then I feel it in my chest.  Phoolkali is calling her.  With a nearly subsonic oceanic purr, she rumbles to her friend.  I am thunderstruck.  They had spent their lives alone, with no herd, no companionship, no sisterhood, no one to talk to.  Maya slowly turns around and makes her way back to us.

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Dinner is served, including porridge, vegetation hoisted, and I am done.  I tell those dear ladies goodnight, and am conveyed back to Volunteer House.  The keepers will check on them again later, refill their amusements/snacks for the night, then do it all again the next day.

I tuck into the dinner Cook prepares for me as I am ravenous, every night.  Then I post a few unbelievable pictures from my day on social media and sleep like the dead for 10 hours.  I am grateful for being the only one in the House.  I’m giving everything every day to those elephants; I don’t have an ounce left for small talk with shiny kids on their Gap Year, bless ‘em.  In fact, having signed up for two weeks rather than the standard suggestion of one, was perfect.  When it was over, I was sad to be leaving them, but I had nothing left to give.  I’m not as strong as I was . . . 20 years ago when I hung shutters for a living.  I could feel my reserves draining, each morning the tank was a little farther off Full than the morning before. It was entirely worth it, every minute, and I will do it again.

A farewell trunk-fist bump with sweet Phoolkali, until we meet again

Summer HermArtage Wrap-up

August 29, 2017

It has been a rich season.  The man escaped the heat for a total of five weeks, between working north of the North Sea and eclipse-chasing in the PacNW, leaving me to run CatCamp and make art and enjoy the solitude.  Our village is chock-a-block with tourists; I can hear them; that is sufficient.  The repetitive dance track in the distance is party enough for me as I read myself to sleep with two cats on the bed.  It has been an excellent time of both learning and introspection.  The interwebs bring wonderful artists and teachers to my desk (Beth, Tam, Amber, and Whitney, to name a few).  Using the Great American Eclipse as occasion to consider my own Shadow and what of myself is being eclipsed has been . . . illuminating.  The big project, as with many summers, has been Il Soleone, the Lion Sun of August, Leo in all his flaming glory.  I’m a poor and untrained artist, but as a protagonist in a story I’ve otherwise forgotten asked her wanna-be-artist boyfriend, “Is there anything you’d like to see that no one has ever seen before?”  That is where my art begins.  If the thing existed, I could google a photo and show you.  But it needs me to make it, to bring it into the world for someone to see.  So every project is an experiment, with something I’ve never done before.  Some creations land in the world closer to my vision than others.

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Gattuso the Floorca dreams of being a purrmaidThis year, Il MerSoleone manifested himself into my studio.  Probably inspired by my Purrmaids duvet cover and the fact that I do live by the sea ~also the existence of the Merlion in Singapore Harbour, which had completely slipped my memory until Il MerSoleone was already well on his way~ this year I needed to paint a sun-lion-head on a fish-body.  There is no photo of this to reference.  Someone else could certainly do it better.  But he was in my head and on my heart, so his creation was left to my hands.  He is unlike previous Soleoni in other ways, as well.  This year has been a rough one.  Il Soleone 2016 looks almost benevolent in comparison.  He has no idea what lay before him.  2017 needs roaring at:  too much destruction, injustice, incompetence, meanness, greed, and devastating loss is happening all around us.  And he’s not having it.

India 2017 part 4: Wildlife SOS, an Introduction

August 17, 2017

The day finally came when Craig could say, “I took my wife to India . . . and left her there.”  My train ride from New Delhi to Agra was pleasant, uneventful.  I stepped off the train into a sea of people, all with a better idea of where they were going than I had.  But standing still is hazardous, as well as making one a target for pickpockets and con artists, so I flowed along through the station and out the main doors.  Just across the street was my name!  on a card held by a nice looking man in front of a sedan.  The last of my worries for the day evaporated.  Madhumitha, the volunteer coordinator whom I’ve been pestering for nearly a year, had come through despite the change of plans, which I will not go into here as it left me quite cross with our Intrepid Travel leader.  I’ve yet to send in my review, as requested.  Whatever time I have to write about India, I’m going to spend it on the good stuff first.  So, 12 hours late, but just in time for orientation, I arrived at Volunteer House.  Alone, yes!  Not only a room to myself, but the whole place, including Buin the House Steward (totally guessing at the spelling there) and Cook, who fed me very well.

I’ll give you a bit of background on how I came to find myself there.  Through the magic of the interwebs, I became aware of Wildlife SOS.  Their original mission was to rescue all the “dancing” bears in India.  And they have!  It was a 400 year old tradition among the Kalandar people and not only have these bears been rescued from slave trade, the programs of Wildlife SOS are retraining the old masters in new professions and their wives and providing schooling for their children.  Education is the key to breaking the cycle.

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With all the bears retired to peace and comfort, the organization has moved on to general wildlife rescue in the areas where the operate.  They get calls for everything from deer hit by cars to jaguars down a well to cobras in the living room.

Never again

Then there are the elephants.  I hardly know where to begin.  They are enslaved, chained in dark cement temples regarded but not treated as gods, required to walk hot pavement begging in traffic, and made to perform unnatural stunts in circuses.  Most are malnourished, without any veterinary care, are beaten into submission, and emotionally devastated.  There are currently 21 rescued elephants at the Mathura sanctuary.  Land has been purchased for expansion, but the need is overwhelming.  Still, every life saved is the diminishment of suffering and means everything to that elephant.  So, we set our sights high and carry on, one amazing pachyderm at a time.

A couple of years ago, during a fund-raising auction, I bought an elephant footprint!  One of the gentlest souls at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center was happy to tromp through paint and over some canvases for extra bananas.  Her name is Phoolkali.

As it turns out, being so gentle and even tempered, she and her best friend Maya are often given to volunteers to be cared for.  My heart nearly burst meeting her after having her footprint hanging in my home.  To be scrubbing the very foot that made it sealed something between us, at least on my side of the brush.  Elephants give the impression of thinking slowly, deliberately.  They communicate in very low frequencies.  I have felt the oceanic elephantine purr.  By the end of my two weeks there, Phoolkali had decided she knows me.  We parted with a friendly trunk-fist bump.  I look forward to returning to her because elephants do remember.

But here we are at the beginning of My Time With Giants.  I would love to show you photos of the enormous males who live there, but most are still in some level of legal battle and I was requested to keep those to myself.  But I did see Mohan, Raju, Rajesh, Suraj, Bhola, Walnut, Macadamia, and Sanjay.  Because they are so large and strong, also when any of them are in musth (a natural and cyclic hormonal state in male elephants) they all can become more unpredictable, volunteers do not interact with them.  It was enough to watch them walking out across the fields, majestic and at liberty to wander wherever they choose.

Briefly, here are the ladies whom I did have the pleasure of meeting:

Elephants are herd animals, so it is one more misery for them to live alone in their incarceration.  These five have bonded as a family now and have made it very clear that they will not abide being separated.  Suzy, who is blind and toothless and the oldest resident at ECCC in her late 60s, welcomed Asha and Lakhi to her barn.  Then Peanut and Coconut, along with Mac and Wally over in the frat barn, were rescued from the circus together.  They joined matriarch Asha’s little herd which has become known as the Peanut Gang.  She is the youngest at 8 years old now, probably the least psychologically damaged because of it, and the most rambunctious.  She is adorable.  These 5 live together in one barn, while 7 more females live in the other sorority barn.  None of the elephants at WSOS can ever go back to the wild.  Most if not all were kidnapped as infants, thereby missing the education their mothers and aunties would have provided on feeding and personal hygiene, how to be an elephant.  But they are all learning.  As their broken spirits heal, their true elephant natures blossom.  It is a joyful challenge keeping up with them.  The caregivers are learning right along with the elephants who they are, what they desire.

Asha, Lakhi, Suzy, Coconut, & Peanut ~ they are very close

Mia has terrible arthritis in her knees and her feet are in awful shape from standing stationary on filthy pavement all her life, although they are improving under the careful ministrations of her veterinarian and caregivers.  She lies down more than most elephants to ease the pain.  Her dear friend Rhea often stands watch over her while she sleeps, snoring.

Rhea & Mia

Chanchal is a bit of a social butterfly, having changed best friends a time or two since she’s been here.  Currently, she is pleased to have Bijli and Laxmi in her court.  Laxmi was a begging elephant and subsisted on the cheap fried potato sandwiches people would buy for her.  This is not a good diet for anyone, particular an elephant.  She was both malnourished and dangerously overweight.  But sweet Laxmi really just likes food, whatever it is, so she transitioned easily to a healthy diet at the ECCC.  If you look closely at the dinner photo above from Volunteer House, you will see along with potatoes another variety of chunks in the curry.  These are the very soy chunks Laxmi receives instead of the higher calorie porridge the other elephants eat.  First I laughed, then I wondered what Cook was trying to tell me.

Bijli, Laxmi, & Chanchal (+ friends)

And here are Maya and Phoolkali, the remarkable ladies with whom I would spend most of my time.

Feel free to browse around the Wildlife SOS website, use the search bar to find their blog posts on specific elephants and rescue ops.

India 2017 part 3: More Delhi & Other Stories

July 26, 2017

Before I take you to Agra, dear Reader, and introduce you to my elephants, there are other Indian adventures to share.

After having my spirit lifted at Central Baptist Church, we sallied forth into the mêlée in search of historical sites to see.  We walked to and admired the Red Fort.  It’s a big imposing structure, truth in advertising.

The next destination, Humayun’s Tomb, was too far to walk in 40°C, so Craig found us a bus “stop” ~more where people stop and wait for it rather than the other way around.  So as it passed by, we jumped on with a clot of others.  A polite young man moved his satchel so I might have the seat next to him.  He was on his phone.  And so was I!  He was trying to sneak me into his selfie.  So I looked him straight in the eye through the camera, even smiled knowingly, and he did not flinch.  I nearly laughed out loud.  I’d dearly love to know what the caption said.  Looking around the bus, I realized that Craig and I were quite obviously the only non-Indian passengers.  As Americans, we are so concerned about ‘manners’ and inclusivity and “don’t point” and being the giant-melting-pot-experiment that it’s fun to be recognized ~in an appreciative way~ for being different.  In Southeast Asia, where I am taller than any woman and Craig towers over nearly everyone, strangers run up to us and take pictures of the round-eyed, white giants completely without self-consciousness.  Sometimes mothers ask to stand their children next to him for the photo just because we are the most interesting thing they’ve seen today.  Or possibly all week.  The little kids are so tickled just by seeing us in their neighborhood.  It reminds me how profoundly fortunate I am to be able to travel, that people of all colors, shapes, and sizes are just people to me because I’ve seen our astonishing variety of outsides . . . and insides. . . and know that you can’t know much about the one just by looking at the other.

But we are still on the bus!  And it’s time to step off.  But, clearly, it isn’t going to stop.  I could feel the eyes of other passengers on my back as I timed my leap.  Movies played in my head of a brilliantly executed dive-and-roll.  I am not a stunt-person; I am a late-forty-something former quasi-athlete in an aquatic sport.  I should keep to my feet.  So, just as if it were an airport people mover (in 5th gear), with a deep breath I walked off that moving bus.  Someone on the street with a big surprised smile clapped for me.

Humayun’s Tomb is only part of larger grounds, with other tombs and a mosque in a lovely park setting.  It’s really a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city where people seem to come to sit on the grass in the shade, have a little picnic.  I recommend it.

Another recommended visit is the Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur.  Go during the day.  This is not, as I supposed, a star-gazing, telescopey sort of a place.  The reason to visit first thing in the morning eventually became clear.  Without the patient explanation from the guide, I would take the space to be an amazing sculpture garden.  However, all those steep and curvy sculptures tell time, track the sun, and point to the planets.  There was some very heavy geometry going on here in the early 18th century.  I enjoyed trying to understand it all.  I’m afraid the guide, or least the rest of our group, wished I didn’t and would just go take pictures.

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You will forgive me blowing right past our visit to the Taj Mahal, but it’s so well known and documented that I don’t have much to add.  Except, while I was cooling my heels until it was time to meet up with the group to depart, a guard approached me as I was looking down from one terrace to another, watching monkeys playing in a fountain.  I ran through a quick checklist of everything I might be doing wrong: outdoors, no formal dress code; haven’t broached any barricades; not eating anything.  Nope, I’m good.  So, what does he want?  Oh, he’s just bored.  I think it was really my hat.

Transportation around towns was often by auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk if you’ve been to Thailand, so-called for the sound of their two-stroke engines), each seating no more, often slightly less, than two people.  One night, our guide had acquired several to convey us back to the hotel, each taking the route its driver thought best.  So, when ours choked and died on a dark but busy street (tuk -tuk, not the driver), we were alone.  He tried several times to get it going again.  No joy.  So, then he rummaged around somewhere and pulled out an unidentifiable gadget, inserted it confidently into some orifice of the machine, and tuk-tuk-tuk, we were on our way again.

The tour included several train rides, which I enjoyed immensely and prepared me to strike off on my own later.  Rides of more than a couple of hours include a meal which is fine for eating.  I had the vegetarian option, of course.  And tea service!  With a personal pot for each passenger.  Vermintino and I did share.

On the way to Orchha, we stopped at a community collective, Taragram, to see their paper making facilities.  I’ve smelled industrial paper mills before and was dubious.  But it was unexpectedly fascinating and beautiful.  They recycle old cloth to make excellent, “special occasion” papers for diplomas etc.  If I had had a way to get some of those big delicious sheets home without bending, folding, or spindling . . . <sigh> I must be satisfied with my little purple notebook with elephant on, for special art.

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For this next vignette I regret not taking a video or even a photo, but I was stunned with delight to observe several dozen businessmen, there for a conference, circling together in the hotel swimming pool to make their own whirlpool/lazy river.  Just imagine.  Our guide commented that many Indians live in such arid places that a swimming pool is very much a novelty.  A good pool should dunk our inner child and draw it out to play.

This may have been my favorite day of the whole tour.  In the afternoon, Vandana Dubey and her husband came to our hotel.  Having separated ourselves, boys and girls, they provided (and wrapped us all into) traditional dress of the region.  She applied henna for the girls, which allowed plenty of time for the boys, in their simpler attire, to sit around the pool like maharajas drinking beer.  We were all very satisfied.  Then there was a spate of posing and photography (we’re still on her Facebook page!).  After that, we all went to Vandana’s house, met her family, observed her wonderful cooking demonstration, then thoroughly enjoyed everything we had watched her prepare.  She is building her business, so anyone passing near Orchha, please contact her to book a cultural experience like we had.

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Maharajas for a night

Sari not sorry

Vandana’s sister in the Dubey kitchen

Vandana cooks

India 2017 part 2: The People

June 13, 2017

The second most populous country in the world, polytheism in the extreme, an alphabet even more foreign than cyrillic, crushing poverty; how would this place weigh on me?  What would the people be like?  Would I be able to make any connection to the lives they live?

The Indians I have known abroad have been of a certain economic and/or educational status.  They could afford to live abroad, after all.  So, while we are friends, how much of that is because they meet me more than half way?  We speak English to begin with.  They have lived in the West.  They know both worlds.

There are good people and bad people and people just trying to get by everywhere, in every society, but India has staked a claim on a corner of my heart.  So many are so poor, but they share what little they have with those who are poorer still, the animals on the street.  There is definitely a need for a country-wide massive sterilization campaign, but as it is, street dogs ~also cats, and of course cows~ are given basic respect.  Traffic goes around them.  I watched what appeared to be a full water tanker trunk come to a complete stop because a dog was sitting in the middle of the road.  A waste of time, gas, effort?  Some might say so, especially because there are dogs everywhere, even where there are no cows.  But the only few I saw who had been hit were on the very busy highway.  There are laws of physics which must be obeyed.  One night, we saw a young man and his girl on a motorcycle do some tricky maneuvers to avoid mowing down a couple of rats playing recklessly in the dimly-lit street.  Some families have pets.  Occasionally there was a dog on a leash going for walkies with Master or Mistress.  Our friends in Mumbai have a gorgeous dog named Luca on whom they dote.  But even families whose home is too small or their budget too tight to take in one more soul, may have an arrangement with a particular street dog.  He guards their door; they give him food and a place to belong.  It is a natural custom to put a dish of water outside the home for any creature who may be thirsty, dog, cat, bird, squirrel.  People understand their climate can be brutal and are concerned for the beings with whom they share it, even when the birds make a mess of it.  My friend expressed her distress that she sees this slowly changing.  As western thought encroaches, people’s focus is narrowing.  They become more interested in looking out for themselves and their own enrichment, forgetting how they used to be, how they used to care.  I hope their deeper identity wins out.  The higher we place ourselves, the more disconnected from the rest of creation we become.

Connection.  Giving.  Meeting needs.  The Sikh faith was born in India, from a Reformation of sorts.  I knew very little about Sikhism before we went and having found several versions of their origins, I will stick to what we observed, who they are today.  The Sikh faith seems to grow good citizens, regular stand-up folk.

The articles of faith commanded by Guru Gobind Singh always to be worn are called the 5 Ks; Kesh is uncut hair, the perfection of God’s creation.  The Kangha is a wooden comb, practical and symbolic of a clean and tidy life.  The Kara is an iron bracelet, a reminder that what is done with the hands must be in keeping with the Guru’s teaching.  The Kachera is a simple undergarment, originally symbolizing a soldier’s willingness to be ever ready for battle or defense, but also symbolizing self-respect and mental control.  The Kirpan is a dagger, symbolizing the Sikh’s duty to come to the defense of those in peril, and is to be used only in defense.  It is the true Sikh’s duty to aid those who suffer unjustly.  Indians know when there is civil unrest, it will be Sikhs in the street guarding against looting and protecting their neighbors.

Reverence for one God, respect for oneself, regard for the disadvantaged ones, if you have Sikh neighbors, consider yourself fortunate.  Also, attached to every Sikh temple, gudwara, is a free kitchen or canteen, langar.  Staffed by volunteers, anyone is welcome to come and eat, without charge, as equals.  The food is vegetarian, except under special noted circumstances, and caste is not acknowledged so all people are welcome.  Those who can afford it make an offering to the temple, those who can not are not identified.

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Sikhs are a minority in a predominantly Hindu country.  There is a larger segment of India who are Muslim, having been ruled by the Muslim Mughals for three hundred years.

Loose percentages of the population:

  • Hindu      80
  • Muslim    13
  • Sikh            2
  • Christian   2
  • Buddhist   1
  • Jain           .5

As a Christian myself, the thought of 330 million Hindu gods and goddesses (as there are said to be, although there is no complete list) mooching around the place gave me the heebidy jeebidies.  But my God is there, too.  I was raised Baptist and despite certain disagreements I have with the organizations today, I am still a Baptist in my linguist’s spirit.  The eponymous practice of immersive baptism comes from the word Jesus used.  It’s the same word textile workers use for putting cloth into the dye, then bringing it out wholly transformed.  So, while any Bible-believing church could be home for me, it brought tears to my eyes when we just happened to stumble upon Central Baptist Church, New Delhi . . . on Good Friday.  We stood at the back of the sanctuary as the service was already under way.  The open doors may have been for ventilation, but a more welcoming sight I have not seen in some time.  The tune, if not the words, of the hymn was so familiar, there in the middle of a most unfamiliar place.  A woman caught my eye and motioned for me to come forward, to sit down, several times she offered with a kind smile.  But knowing the Hindi sermon would be lost on me, we slipped out when the hymns were finished.  Stepping back out onto the street, I was encouraged and felt another thread of connection in this vastly foreign land.  Yes, I could love these people.