We returned in Feb 2010 from a three-week trip to Chennai as guests of the Bishop in Madras. A report of our eye-opening visit is below:

People, Poverty, Pollution, Pretty dresses. Visit to Madras (Chennai) 13 Jan to 3 Feb 2010 as guests of Pastor Ruben (who had job swopped with Ben King our curate and who had stayed three weeks with us) and the Bishop in Madras, Diocese of Madras, Church of South India.

We got there in fine style with Emirates and were picked up by a Diocesan car and spent time slowly getting to grips with how things work! Our accommodation at the Diocesan LITE building was basic but clean and people fell over themselves to help, though there was often a lot lost in translation. We had our own cook, a lovely chap called Vijay, who is 26 and told us that his mother was 14 when he was born and his father was 28. We've met the Bishop a several times, including a dinner date at a top hotel (he paid!) and handed over the £515 collected by the Parish for use at Ruben’s church. This will go towards a parish centre.   We had our eyes opened wider than we ever imagined. The poverty is appalling, with shanty settlements along the rivers and sometimes on the streets, huts with straw roofs and no windows and not much else either. There are beggars on the streets and people actually living on the streets too. On one corner local to us a lady sat cooking on a wood fire with two naked children playing with a dog in the gutter. She held out her hands for money. Many earn money by scavenging from skips and dustbins and selling stuff on and from the informal economy such as ironing on the street, mending shoes and bicycle repairs. Cows roam around and there are numerous stray dogs, thought they don't seem to bother anyone. But the overwhelming impression was of the people. They are lovely. They are so open and friendly, and couldn't do enough for us. They give so much when they have so little. The children are delightful. They all (inc. the adults) want to touch us and say hello. I guess it's because we look so different, and they couldn't get over a tall orange haired woman! They just stare! The women all look beautiful in their sarees, which are all colours - we didn't seen two the same except once when we saw twins. 

Ruben took us south to Mahabalipuram village with ancient temples and carvings, which was interesting as they were all made from monoliths (one piece of stone), and one of the temples had withstood the tsunami. In fact the CSI had a tsunami relief programme. We went to Ruben's church on the first Sunday and were very warmly welcomed. We were able to give the children all the gifts from St Michael's and St Mark's and they were delighted. We taught them Our God is a Great Big God! There must have been over 50 lovely children between about 2 and 16 years old, all dressed in their Sunday best. Several times we were invited into a wedding that was taking place in the main hall of the Centre building and to our surprise we were asked to go up onto the stage twice to have our photos taken with the bride and groom and to pray for them! What an honour. The brides all looked beautiful in red and gold sarees with flowers in their hair, and both wore garlands.   There is traffic everywhere, and noise. The main aid to driving is the car horn that is sounded at random and whenever another vehicle comes within a few yards. Cars, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, rickshaws, bicycles, scooters, pedestrians and the occasional cow all juggle for pole position. Sometimes it looks like the TT at traffic lights! It's also very dusty and we could imagine that in the rainy season it will be a sea of mud. Both sides of the roads are used in both directions but we only saw two accidents. Jaywalking was the only way to cross the roads and traffic just avoids you.  

We visited a secondary school nearby (The Bain School) with 3,700 students run by the CSI. The classes had up to 60 children and we watched a "traditional" geography lesson. The teacher never moved from where she stood, and there seemed to be a lot of rote learning and repetition, no interaction with the kids and no personal touches at all. But there was perfect behaviour and spotless uniform with the kids standing up to answer questions. There were children doing mock exams in the corridors, and there was an atmosphere of quiet and industry. The Head is a formidable, but very nice, lady whom we saw in action disciplining a student - and her father! You wouldn't want to cross her!

We had a fabulous day visiting rural development programmes funded by the Diocese using land given to the church years ago by the original missionaries. We saw rural poverty to tear your heart out and it drove us to tears. (crying happened on many occasions during the trip). It made all our geography lessons seem trite when we saw it in the flesh. We saw people washing from a pump by bashing the clothing on stones and living in straw huts. This is not only in geography books. But the Lord is doing wonderful things there through pastors and lay workers who have given up so much to help these people. His love is evident everywhere. And the people - so friendly, and everyone wanted to touch us - Kathy was even asked to kiss one of the workers on the cheek- and they were all fascinated by us. I guess they never see westerners, let alone those with orange hair. They stare out of buses and smile and wave. We were taken to two infant schools where the kids are all smart in their uniforms and one group sang to us a song, which said, "Every cell in my body is happy" which sums up their attitude to life. They have so little yet they are content. We were miles out in the country to the north and it was really remote. We doubt if any of the people know what's happening in the world. In the first place we went to the adult literacy rate is 25%. We take so much for granted. We will never complain again. Some children live in CSI hostels (like the Bishop did) and about 80% of them go on to college.

Tuesday of the second week was National Day, and we were invited to the celebrations at the Bain School. It was very moving and interesting. We were, again, treated like honoured guests. It began with the raising of the flag and the National Anthem, then a short service where we sang one of the hymns Kathy sang at the official opening of her own school when they went into new premises back in 1965! There were various displays of dance with such graceful girls in beautiful costumes, and a sketch depicting the new laws introduced to stop child exploitation, which is rife here. Girls can still get married at 12. There were speeches in Tamil, English and Hindi all performed by Year 8 students, the same ages as ours, ie 13. It ended with the school song, which, to our amazement, was to the tune of John Peel! Chorus - "May our school live for ever and ever." The second weekend we spent at Arrakonam where Ben spent his first placement, living with the family he lived with. We had a wonderful time. We went to their church on Sunday. We sang 2 songs and Kathy was asked to give her testimony. The church was full, and with two overflow areas and people standing in the doorway we reckoned about 5 to 600 people. A heavenly moment for us was all those voices singing a hymn in Tamil to the tune of "The Lord's my Shepherd". People wanted to touch us and for us to pray for them. An amazing thing was when we were in the pastor's office we saw a sudden movement in the corner of our eyes and when we looked it was a chicken - someone had given it as their contribution to the collection to be auctioned! We also went to a mission school where 233 children of missionaries from all over India live permanently whilst their parents are in the mission field. It was a marvellous place and we were very deeply touched. There is some amazing work being done in this country, especially by the CSI. Kathy was shown how to wear a saree. You need a degree in engineering to put one on, though they say it can be done in three minutes! She wore one all day one day and said that it felt lovely. It is deep maroon and silver. She didn't want to take it off! It's now in the wardrobe along with four more.... another example of people's wonderful generosity.

During the second week we flew to Delhi and our trip has was eventful, to say the least. On the way there, about 50 miles from Delhi, the Captain announced that there was dense fog at Delhi and visibility was marginal at 50m. We were no. 10 in the queue and we may have to divert. Knowing a little more than most about these things, we realised this could be a problem. Too much info for a pilot! He told us it was a Cat 3B ILS approach – a funny thing to share this with the passengers. Later we found that all this information was in the local paper as it happens so much. The paper also told us the radar had failed for two hours and some of the runway distance visual sensors had failed too. We then did a huge loop to the north and east to lose time, and we prayed. We were now no 5 but there were delays, as aircraft couldn’t taxi from the runway exits. Finally he decided to have a try at landing, and we arrived safely but landed in to the thickest and foulest smelling pea souper we've ever seen. Even taxying in we took ages as he could hardly see…so much so that the buses couldn’t come out to the aircraft to meet us. We were nearly 2 hours late and arrived wiped out at the hotel. In the morning after a cold night with no heating and hot water we discovered that the "3* + deluxe" hotel was anything but, and it was in a really seedy part of Old Delhi. So, to cut a very long story short, we had a huge hassle with the tour operator, which culminated in David getting a migraine which made him sick. We checked ourselves out and went to the Ramada Plaza, 5* and worth every rupee. (lots!) We had a really restful night and felt fine in the morning. However, despite this we did get to the Taj Mahal, where we had the usual Indian disorganisation at the entrance! We travelled virtually all the way by car in dense fog and prayed for it to lift at Agra. Sure enough, as we approached the outskirts it lifted. The Taj is magnificent. Books show you what it's like but nothing compares with reality. The decoration inside and the inlaid colours are exquisite. There weren't too many people there so that made it even better. Our journey back was tedious and the traffic in Delhi is indescribably dreadful, far worse than anything we've seen anywhere, and makes Chennai seem tame, so it took the best part of 6 hours to do 120 miles! All this contributed to David's headache. The pollution was horrendous - the air is blue and that makes the foggy weather worse. One memorable sight was a posh school with kids arriving by auto-rickshaw picking their way through the dozens of families living in tents and shacks on the pavement outside. We passed an oil refinery and many brickworks pumping out black smoke. We flew back late in the afternoon and had an uneventful flight. New Delhi looked quite nice after the fog lifted.

In the final week we visited the museums and gardens and made final visits to see the Bishop and the school. We also attended the confirmation of Ruben's nephew and visited the travel agent and got a refund for that dreadful hotel and used the money to adopt a child at a CSI Hostel School. We couldn't believe how quickly the time went. We got more and more used to the Indian ways and our immediate locality. We saw a country, which touched us deeply in all sorts of ways, and we had experiences, which we'd never have thought possible. The main impression is of the people. It's often a patronising cliché to say "the people are so friendly," but here it was absolutely true. Everywhere we went we were greeted like royalty, and we got fed till we could burst! People in the street wanted to say hello – and ask our name and shake hands. But the warmth of their welcome was humbling, and they couldn't do enough for us. We can see how people are drawn to this country. The cultural divide is another thing, though, and there are so many things that are hard to come to terms with. However we received a lot of grace to cope with things we'd find intolerable at home. Thankfully our health held up throughout the holiday. We were very careful about where we got food from and about the water, as well as making sure what we ate off was clean. The flight back was good with a seven-hour stay in Dubai Airport. Back to snow!! David and Kathy Howe, St Michaels, Stanwix with St Mark’s, Belah, Carlisle. 01228 511819