Monday, July 14, 2014

Bom Jesus

I've been to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa several times. It is a beautiful and powerful experience each time. Last summer was the first time I offered Mass at the tomb of the great missionary, St. Francis Xavier. The Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is one of the top tourist destinations in Goa, a state otherwise known for its beaches and susegad, a carefree approach to life (and alcohol), uncharacteristic of the rest of India.

Last year, the Rector of the Basilica shared stories of miraculous healings, as well as exorcisms associated with the relics of St. Francis, and of folks coming from far away, even non-Christians, who had heard of the saint's powerful intercession. He also let me venerate one of the first class relics of the Saint, which is kept at the foot of the altar of the tomb.

Panorama of the Sacristy
Yesterday, the Rector was out of town, but had left instructions with the Sacristan to set up for Mass for me. The sacristy itself is simply stunning, with several relics of holy martyrs, and beautiful artwork. I arrived early (by Indian standards), just before 10:00 a.m. There were few tourists and pilgrims. I had brought along my 1962 travel Missal and altar cards. With no congregation, I figured this would be an excellent time to offer Mass in the usus antiquior (even without a maniple, or a chalice veil and burse!). As with other sites of pilgrimage, one is able to offer the Mass of the patronal feast throughout the year.

Visiting priests normally offer Mass on an altar on the side of the tomb. There is little room there for any congregation. A metal grate, normally locked, seals access from the corridor. My (Hindu) cousin had came along with me, and he stayed for Mass. Soon after Mass started, I became aware of someone assisting, on the other side of the grate. It was an older gentleman, who heard Mass quietly and received Holy Communion.

The incorrupt remains of the holy saint attract the faithful as well as the curious. This year is the decennial exhibition of his relics, from Nov. 22, 2014 through Jan 4, 2015. They're expecting up to 5 million to attend, and though the Holy Father was invited, he will not be attending.

The website of the basilica.

The rather threadbare Wikipedia entry.

The rest of the photos from this year's visit.

Last year's photos

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Riding the Maglev

Back at Pudong airport, I charged my depleted phone and ate something mildly flavorful at an airport restaurant. At 4:30, I went to the Maglev station, in between Terminals 1 & 2. The train is pretty amazing. It takes 8 minutes for the run between Pudong Airport and Longyang Road station, some 30km (18.75 miles) away. A small display shows you the speed. Today, it hurtled past the traffic, trees and buildings at 301 km/h (188 mph). This is the fastest commercially operating train in the world. It runs every 15 minutes during the day. A round trip ticket costs 80 CNY (~13 USD). I got out of the station at Longyang Road, sipped a drink at the McDonalds and headed back to the airport.

301 km/h
Bags retrieved, checked in to the flight to Delhi at 21065, immigration, security check, changed my remaining yuan back to dollars. Now it’s time to head out from behind the Great Firewall of the People’s Republic to India.

zài jiàn, zhōngguó! 
(Tuesday, July 8)

Mother of China

Mass in the hotel room in suburban Shanghai
I celebrated Holy Mass in the hotel room early in the morning, then repacked stuff and went down for breakfast. The hotel has a half-finished feel about it. The vast dining room had an array of vegetables, noodles, soups and other unidentified eatables. I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous and nibbled at a few things. For some reason, I avoided the bacon.

View from the hotel room
The hotel’s free WiFi suddenly allowed access to Gmail via the mobile app. I sent a brief update to blogger via email. Nothing else worked. At 9:00 a.m., I was on board a small bus, heading back to Pudong airport. My Japanese friends from last night were in front of me and we shared brief biographical stories. (Mine always elicits further questions, as you can imagine).

At 9:15 we were at the airport. First task, exchange my Japanese Yen for Chinese Yuan, then deposit my check-in bags at the baggage drop. At the arrivals level, vendors from various kiosks yelled across the way at me. “Hello sir, hotel! Taxi! Phone!” I ignored them. I got a Chinese data SIM card (100 CNY for 300 MB. Daylight robbery, but I was stuck). The guy at the counter asked if I wanted to hire a car. I showed him the Wikipedia page for the Sheshan basilica. “Oh very far. 70 km.” He then quoted an exorbitant price for a taxi. I said I’d think about it. The price dropped 300 yuan. I walked away and for the next 30 minutes attempted to figure out if there was an easy way to get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan using public transportation. There was very little information available. Given the time and distance, I decided to shell out the money to hire a car, and got a pricey, but lower quote from another counter. 5 minutes later, I was in a Toyota minivan, zooming out into the concrete jungle of Shanghai.

The driver, Liu, an affable fellow in his 30s, had never heard of the Basilica. His English was limited. I pulled up various websites with the name and approximate address of the Basilica in Chinese. He worked both his phones. “Songjiang region. Yes. Sheshan area. You know?” Finally, several grunt-filled conversations later, a smile. “I have!”

The China Eastern Adventure: Part II

Into the Twilight Zone

MU521 landed at about 4:20 pm, 30 minutes or so behind schedule. By 4:50, we were boarding. The flight to Shanghai was actually quite nice. 2h45m on an A321. MU’s J cabin is quite decent – no lie flats on a day flight, but a respectable angle-flat seat. The food was quite good. No IFE. This gave me the opportunity to read and then take a nap.

Approach into Shanghai Pudong

Not unlike reading Pravda 
It was dusk by the time we landed at Shanghai’s Pudong International airport, at about 7:30 p.m. By 8:10 p.m., I was through immigration and had collected my bags. I then went to the supervisor at the Transfer desk to ask about the hotel. He looked at my itinerary as I explained. “Hotel? Ok. Wait here.” He pointed at the seats and waved me off. I waited some 15 minutes then went back to the counter. “Yes yes. Wait.”

What a contrast from Japan, where everyone is incredibly polite and courteous! One notices this as well with lines – the Japanese will line up in a respectable, orderly fashion.  The Chinese jostle and push, like Indians.

There was a Japanese couple waiting for a hotel. We struck up a conversation – they’re on their way to Phnom Penh (Cambodia), and were in the same boat.


All attempts at getting online failed. The airport WiFi went to a login screen that was only in Chinese. I’d read that one had to have a registered Chinese cell phone in order to log in. Neither my Indian or US SIM cards would actually connect to a mobile data network.

At about 8:50 p.m. the supervisor barked something in our direction. A China Eastern attendant appeared and asked us, relatively politely, to follow her. We walked through customs (the two officials looked half asleep), up one floor, past various counters tantalizingly selling local SIM cards and persona WiFi devices, to a hotel van that already was quite full. “Please, luggage,” the attendant said and absorbed herself in her cell phone. The driver jumped out and opened the luggage door and went back to his seat. (This morning, when I approached the Ritz in Tokyo – drenched in the pouring rain, to catch the bus to Narita, a helpful attendant took my bags, and pointed me to a seat in the lobby.). The Japanese couple and I rearranged all the bags to fit ours in, and we squeezed into the minivan, loaded to capacity.

There followed a 20 minute ride through the twilight zone. A short run on an expressway, and then one broad tree-lined street to another, left then right. Then left again. I soon lost count. At about 9:20 we pulled up to a giant concrete structure called “Li Hao Hotel.” The lobby looked deserted. It was gaudily decorated. It looked like this was a front for the mob.

I was the first to the check-in counter, half unlit. “Economy class two person per room. You pay more if you want your own room.” What a racket! Luckily, I'm on a business itinerary,* so I got my own room, which is actually quite comfortable.

Comfortable room
WiFi is available only on the ground floor. After a shower, feeling somewhat refreshed, I went down. One logs in using one’s room number and the last six digits of one’s passport. The People’s Republic wants to know who’s online! For whatever reason, my laptop simply would not connect. On my phone, I could get to Yahoo, and the Archdiocesan email, but that’s it. Not Google, Google Voice, Blogger, Facebook. None of my apps worked. I looked up a few details on Pudong Airport for tomorrow, and now it’s to bed.

I hope to get up early, say Mass in my hotel room, and then make it back to the airport, store my bags, get WiFi, and get a car to take me to Our Lady of Shesan.

(Monday, July 7)

* The ticket was bought for me, in case you're wondering, which you are if you're reading this. 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Mother of China

Pray for us.
More when I get out from behind the Great Firewall.
Fr. Gaurav Shroff
St. Joseph Catholic Church, Athens GA
(sent from my mobile phone)

Monday, July 07, 2014

From behind the Great Firewall of the PRC

... from a nondescript suburban hotel used by China Eastern to house their travel disrupted guests. Suddenly the WiFi in the lobby lets me connect to Gmail.
Hope to get to Sheshan Basilica today.
Fr. Gaurav Shroff
St. Joseph Catholic Church, Athens GA
(sent from my mobile phone)

The China Eastern adventure

China Eastern has horrible passenger reviews. The price really was too good to be true. Even in J! Besides, they're SkyTeam -- the only viable SkyTeam option to get from Japan to India.

That was the check-in line 20 minutes after it officially opened at 1120 this morning at Narita. Notice, no agents in sight! (They were huddled to the left as if preparing for a football play!) I checked online -- Flightaware kept saying that the inbound aircraft was on time. Frankly, I don't doubt that China Eastern (MU) just didn't update their data ...

This should have been a clue.

So, the flight is über delayed. Instead of 1350, they were saying a 1630 departure to Shanghai Pudong (PVG). I was scheduled to connect to MU563 departing PVG at 2150 for Delhi ...

When the counter opened, they said that I had been transferred to Japan Airlines for the NRT-PVG leg with a 1410 departure, and the sweet check in lady (they're all so sweet here!) walked me over to the JAL counter. She took my papers. Got my bags onto the belt. "The bags will only go to Shanghai. You'll have to check-in again."

The sweet JAL girl then looked at her screen and my itinerary, several times. "Are you going to Delhi tomorrow?" I said, no, tonight. She excused herself and went back to the MU counter. Well, it turns out that there is no flight to Delhi from Shanghai tonight. She came back and apologized profusely. There must have been a computer glitch when I booked this on the internet. China Eastern will pay for a hotel in Shanghai tonight. However, I won't be getting to Delhi until a day later. Would that be ok? I agreed. She came back -- that would mean that I wouldn't get on the JAL flight, but would remain with MU. Oh well. She checked me in, gave me a food voucher for 2000¥, my boarding pass and lounge invitation.

Back to the MU counter -- I asked them to print out a new itinerary (so I can show the immigration officials in Shanghai, to use the new visa-waiver program), as well as a note to say that they'll get the hotel tonight.

Then to the dining hall for a passable lunch, and calling my mother to update her of my changed plans, and on through security and immigration to the China Airlines/SkyTeam lounge.

Checking Flightaware and the MU website: the updated departure for MU524 is 1800. It's still not left Shanghai. I saw that there's another MU flight -- leaving at 1655 from NRT. It's taken off from Shanghai ... that's a good sign!

So, I asked the lounge agent to contact China Eastern. A few minutes later a sweet (aren't they all!) China Eastern agent came to my seat, with a new boarding pass and baggage tags. She assured me that my bags would be transferred. I certainly hope they will. I'm now on MU522 -- an A321 not an A330.

Hopefully, I'll get into Shanghai by about 1930 tonight. And my bags as well.

Originally, I had a 5 hour layover at Pudong. Not enough to really get into the city, but enough to ride the Maglev to Longyang Road and back. My hope was to have enough time to go visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Shesan. It seems now that I'll be able to.

And meanwhile, I get to do this ...

... St. Christopher, pray for all travelers today! :)

Light moment of the day: the JAL agent scrutinized my Indian visa intensely. "When does it expire." "When I do." She bust out laughing. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Eucharistic Prayer of Our Lady of Akita

[From a booklet at the shrine of Seitai Hoshitai.]
Most sacred Heart of Jesus,
TRULY present
in the Holy Eucharist,
I consecrate my body and soul
to be entirely one with Your Heart,
being sacrificed at every instant
on all the altars of the world
and giving praise to the Father,
pleading for the coming of His Kingdom.
Please receive this humble offering of myself.
Use me as You will for the glory of the
and the salvation of souls.
Most Holy Mother of God,
never let me be separated from Your Divine Son.
Please defend and protect me
as Your special child.

Our Lady of Akita

Seitai Hoshikai (the Institutes of the Handmaids of the Eucharist) is a Japanese religious institute. Starting in 1973, Sr. Agnes, a fairly new member of the institute, received apparitions and messages from Our Lady. A statue of Our Lady, carved by a local artist in wood, start lachrymations (weeping). Between 1973 and 1981, there were 101 separate events of lachrymation, some witnessed by up to 2000 people. EWTN has a good history of the events.

On my last day in Japan, I visited the site of the apparition, in a remote convent, about 20 km north of Akita airport, in the town of Yuzawada. 

There's few websites with practical details --- this one gives instructions on how to get there from the train station. The airport is further south of the city. I rented a car. It came with a built in GPS device, without which this wouldn't have worked. One would have to know Japanese fairly well to follow the road signs. The people are, of course, terribly friendly and helpful. When I got to the tiny airport of Akita, a lady at the information desk had a sheet of paper with my name on it. She then directed me to a van in the parking lot, and then drove me to the Hertz office. I'd reserved through AAA. The gentleman at the counter actually gave me a larger car, with a built in GPS, and a lower rate! 

It's a 40-50 minute drive from Akita airport to the shrine. Most of it goes through some pretty nondescript, modern towns. 

The convent and church themselves are wooden structures, built in traditional Japanese style. There is a large field next door, where there is a Mary garden and the Stations of the Cross have been erected. 

My flight from Tokyo got in at 11:00 a.m. I was at the shrine by a little after Noon. The sisters were very friendly and hospitable, and spoke enough English to communicate. I first offered Holy Mass in the main church (one of the sisters attended the Mass -- out of a sense of hospitality, or to keep an eye on me, I'm not sure which! :-)). After that I prayed in front of the famous statue, and then went outside to pray the Stations. A few hours after my arrival, I was on my way back to the airport. I was booked to return to Tokyo on the 1935 flight. I pulled into rental place a little before 1530. At 1535 I was at the check-in counter, and ANA very graciously put me onto the 1555 flight, with no hassle and no extra charge. By 1530, I was on board -- this was a new 787-800!

My Mass today was offered for the intentions of all the priests and seminarians of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. May Our Lady continue to protect and guide us and lead us closer to her Son!