Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alaska... there could be nothing more!

Just left Seattle and am on my flight to Chicago, will eventually reach New York tomorrow.

View of Anchorage as I leave... very reflective moments :-)
It has been an exhausting and a fleeting fortnight. As I think back, I remember beyond the last fifteen days... the time when I first decided to come to the mission, the long period in between meant for fundraising, the numerous times I felt that it would be impossible to raise the funds, the immense generosity of the donors and benefactors... their faith that God would work something out my presence in the mission. I am remembering my family and for some reason am very sentimental. I decide against sleeping, get my notepad and start writing a letter. Something that had actually began on a whim has turned out to be a life changing experience for me and hopefully for many others. I am overwhelmed.

The Toksook Mission group with Fr. Tom, Maggie and Katie John
 It reminds me of the first day in the bush village ... the village kids all excited, I could sense the longing for love within them and could connect to it too. The kids would sit outside our house for hours at a time. Knocking on the door as though it was a drum set and eventually breaking it. It did not take long for me to realize that I was in a new place, it did not take long to get used to it too.

Alaska! Ganesh and Somesh had infected mind about its beauty... though they themselves never saw it. I am pretty sure their enthusiasm was based on the story of Chris McCandless, the protagonist in the book and movie 'Into the Wild'. That was the seed of my longing to go to Alaska. A mission trip was the perfect way to see it outright raw in all its primitiveness. 
Alaska besides being the 49th and the largest of the United States of America is home to some of the most priceless treasures of the world in terms of natural resources, natural beauty and exotic human civilizations and cultures.  

View of Tosook Bay as we leave
Our mission was based in Toksook Bay, a town/village far west of Alaska. The geography of the region is quite interesting. There are small hills and beyond the village it is the open Tundra. Beneath the soil there is a thick layer of permafrost which makes it impossible for vegetation with long roots to grow. Hence one only finds bushes- this is probably why the villages are aptly called 'bush villages'. Most settlements are quite isolated and self sufficient. Most people hunt Seal, Walrus, Moose and other wildlife for their food. In the summer fishing Salmon and Herring is big. There is a supermart in the village and a couple of other stores which makes visitors like us comfortable. This place is a typical example of a culture in transition.

Michele, working her back hard! one can see
Julie doing the same !
The native tribes, here they are called Yup'ik, follow a matriarchal system where the grandmothers form the village council and the eldest daughters heads the  family. The natives are divided into two major clans -The Eagles and the Ravens. To every person there are four clans associated, which are stated when the native makes a formal introduction. Something that impressed me was that unlike many other social systems (like the caste system in India) one is not allowed to marry people in the four clans associated to you. The reason was clear, to keep the blood pure (this means to avoid congenital diseases). It is quite amazing that the natives knew of this scientific fact. Children, as they grow were expected to learn both skills - of homemaking and hunting, irrespective of sex. The idea being that in an event of catastrophe one should be self reliant. Also, the children are left to themselves, having all the freedom to learn whatever they wanted to learn, though the pursuit for survival made it quite clear what they should be learning.
Fun activities with the kids

Having this background, the mission trip was put into the correct perspective. What makes the culture difficult is the cultural transition. Most of the kids had access to the internet and gadgets like ipods and touch-screen phones. The village was semi-modern with all the appurtenances of western living. Poverty was visible but at the same time there was an increasing tendency towards materialism. Most of the young girls had Bieber infatuation. There was a stark contrast, some kids hoped they could leave the place for good while others swore that they would never leave. There were other reasons why many of the village elders were concerned - the growing problem of drugs and alcohol. Live-in relationships seemed to be common, the priest had to announce during the sunday service that such couples should not take communion. There was a gloom of a culture fast evolving into something different.

We like to play too :-)
Our role as missionaries was to share the hope that we have in Jesus. To this end, we would have sessions with the kids (ages ranging from six to twenty) catechizing them about the teachings of the church and the hope that it entails to all those who believe. It was amazing how the kids responded to our sessions. They would come of their own volition, participate in all the group activities and even pray with us during holy hours. We had a bible study for the older people in the village and a couple of praise and worship sessions. The people of the village responded very well.

 In the evenings, I would walk up the hills with the kids. It was nice talking to them, getting to know them and developing confidence. We would talk about our favorite things and other times the ones which make our lives as difficult as it be. As time past, I got to know that some of the kids did have an innate tendency towards faith ( I think it this very natural, it takes a lot to genuinely not believe (and that is not necessarily bad!)). During one such walks we sat together in the midst of nature and meditated and prayed. It was gratifying to see their desire, longing for love and their pursuit to find it. Believe me, it is not easy to live in a bush village yet the people work towards keeping their hope alive. Their continuing effort, though challenged, was very inspiring to me.

Native food... dried herring, moose, seal ...
The welcoming nature of the people was evident right from day one, when we got a ride from the airstrip with a villager who was not supposed to pick us. One of the villagers sent us dried seal meat with one of the kids. There was another family that invited us to their house and treated us to an entire assortment of their native food. They even arranged for a steam bath ( a very cultural activity!)  for all the girls in our group!

The natural beauty of Alaska was the catalyst in making this a positive experience. Alaska, with all its glaciers, mountains, trees, animals, ... kept us in awe all the time. On our final day, we went on a boat trip around Resurrection Bay in Seward and what a rewarding experience that was! Something that really hit me was the beauty of this world, how it exists even if we don't and the need to preserve it.


As we were having our final discussions  about our mission experiences, a point was made as to how the problems of the bush villages are in fact the problems that we face in our own communities. This meant that once back from Toksook, our mission does not end. It begins!

P.S. We went to Alaska as a group of sixteen FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries. This post corresponds to my personal experiences and findings. These might not necessarily be the views of the people who accompanied me. If anything that I mention is not true please inform and I shall correct immediately.