A hazy cloud hangs over Southeast Nepal this time of year. Though the region sits in the shadow of the Himalayas, the air is so dusty and smoky (from forest fires and field burning) that you cannot see even the foothills that are only a few miles to the north. In fact, it is a relatively short ride to the crest of the lower Himalayas (at about 7,000 ft) where you can get breathtaking views of the peaks of the upper Himalayas, but they invisible to us.
Political borders have little to do with identity. This is the land of the Gorkha people, who are a mixture of Indo-Aryan castes and Mongoloid-featured clans of Nepali origin. Historically known as fierce warriors, the British still retain Gorkha regiments in their Armed services. In recognition of their ubiquity in this region, the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1950) permits “on a reciprocal basis” that the nationals of each country enjoy the same privileges in matters of “residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.” The border crossing at Kakarvitta is always crowded as Nepali Gorkha pass the gates unhindered. But we Americans are required to make immigration stops in India and Nepal for exit and entry while our hosts wait for us.
We drove to Damak on the Mahendra Highway, the main east-west highway of Nepal, a drive that is not for the faint of heart. It’s a two lane road with 6 lanes of traffic (not including the pedestrians who walk in the direction of traffic and don’t know when you are coming up behind them). You really can’t call it traffic though – it is more like eddies and currents in swift moving streams where the center is reserved for the hardest flow – and in opposing directions!
Pastor Ram, who greeted us at the border, unfolded history, customs and culture to us ds we drove – commenting here and there, pointing out peculiarities, and answering our queries. We crossed a number of rivers – some considered sacred – with competing temples on their banks. There were also pires for burning the dead, one of which was in service as we passed.
Nepal might seem strange the first time you encounter it, though like all things that seem unfamiliar at first it becomes recognizable in all of its life-on-life energy before too long. Poverty is oppressive here, but human resilience is awe-inspiring. It is not abject poverty we were seeing, but vibrant communities living within the limits of things they cannot control. We get to work with an amazing church planter here, Pastor Ajay. He works with the people who are marginalized by the civil authority, the caste system and poverty. He and the men he has been leading are bringing a message of hope that transcends both culture and circumstance. We were privileged to spend a couple of days with men and women who are living such countercultural lives of joy in the midst of the troubles that surround them. As I considered the challenges they face, I was inspired by the closing declaration of Habakkuk…
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
Surrounded by leaders for whom that is a daily reality, I found myself encouraged and humbled. And continuously prayerful for my friends there.