Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Off the Map

I have pictures, bathed in light, from a land that lies off the map, and after I left, sparkling letters still reached me. They were letters written in such charmingly flawed English that it seemed a crime to correct them, even though the students begged me to.
I hope you are quite well. I am in the very pink of health. I would like to write so many about but my English is very poor. Therefore, may I stop here.
Even though it was some years ago that I visited, I still remember one day in particular. We start the day by squeezing into a Jeep that strains to climb a mountain. We cross wooden plank bridges and pass local people on bicycle and foot, toting burdens on their backs or across their handlebars. Our destination is a community of nuns who runs a distant boarding school high up in the mountain. The purpose of the boarding schools, with their dirt floors and outhouses and lack of electricity, is to provide an education for the most impoverished and isolated children in the rural areas, who might have no access to education otherwise.

“They’ll try to feed us, but I’ll tell them we brought our own food,” our guide tells us. “They are too poor to feed us.”
When we arrive, the nun who welcomes us at the door looks bewildered, and she says something startling.
“I didn’t dream you were coming.”
She notices our confused reaction, and explains. “I always dream when visitors are coming, and we prepare for them. But I didn’t dream about you.” She shakes her head, perplexed, as if her own mystical version of e-mail is growing unreliable.
“I’m glad you didn’t dream we were coming,” our guide chides. “Because then you would have prepared us a meal.”
The nun still proceeds to cut open some fruit for us, and children who attend the boarding school draw us by the hand and lead us down an overgrown path to the outhouse. This school is the most isolated and impoverished place I visit, and the crude bamboo structures and sweet children and hardworking nuns are even more diminished by the soaring mountains and roaring rivers that surround them. Struggling nuns and needy children seem to spring from this wilderness like fragile wildflowers, as unknown to the outside world as they are humble and holy.

On the way down the mountain, the Jeep breaks down three different times. Each time it clanks to a disappointing stop, we pour out onto the road. The final time we emerge, it’s growing dark. We’re on a narrow road in lush forest, and the mosquitoes are starting to hum. A folk remedy for malaria involves scraping the flesh on the neck until raw, red stripes decorate the sufferer’s throat.
“Why do you scrape your throats that way?” I ask.
“The pain of this scraping experience causes you to forget about the fever of malaria,” a student cheerfully explains.

This “remote rural region” is absurdly busy. Passers-by on foot and bike, instead of passing by, stop to inspect our plight. An increasing number of men gather around the Jeep’s engine, poke at it, and make conversation. The women and children gather around us. I can’t understand a word anybody says, but everyone smiles a lot. I have no idea where all these people live, because there is only forest all around. After a while, a man and his elephant walk past. The elephant is draped in chains, and I wonder if it could tow the Jeep. The elephant, though, disappears from sight, heading into the mountains in the gathering gloom. At some point it is agreed that this time, the Jeep is not going to budge. Our journey is stalled.
We are stuck in the mosquito-ridden jungle with our only means of transport a majestic, mournful elephant that is headed in the wrong direction. I’m haunted by the disappearing elephant because I know where he’s going. I’m aching to ride into the mountain darkness, into that nun’s dreams—because anyone can see she dwells with God. As an outsider, with virgin eyes, I saw immediately that this nun was a shining treasure in God’s heart. But the nun and I are separated by an impossible distance—for one thing, I have volunteered to be here. She has not. I’m just flitting through-like a bird, or a bug. She is more like a sheltering tree--this is where she was planted, and this is where she will die. Still, just by passing through this place, I’ve caught a glimpse of God-- the God who dwells on mountaintops with struggling nuns, who dwells with hungry children, who dwells with the abandoned and the forgotten. It’s time to hike out of the jungle, so I turn from the mountains, and we start walking down the road to town. Also posted on Strange Islands