The Other Path

Brian Shepherd

© Copyright 2003 by Brian Shepherd

Photo of Brian feeding a baby with a bottle.

During the fall of 2002, rapidly approaching 30 and fully entrenched in one of life’s many ruts, my wife and I embarked upon a voyage around the world that would take us across three continents and through ten countries.  Both well educated and on the fast track to success we left a house, family, pets and jobs (that was the hard part) behind and finally took that first step into adventure like we had talked about for so long.  The following story highlights some of the moments that opened our eyes to the world that so few Americans ever choose to see or try to understand.

India - An awakening

As we began to make our way back through the maze of cribs and beds I walked by a large wooden crib with a tiny newborn girl and for some reason I stopped.  Clothed in a flowery dress and appearing more normal than the other children I soon realized she had no eyes.  As I stood over the small girl one of the sisters approached me.  Our guide who was standing now standing next to me acted as an interpreter.

“She has no eyes”, the sister said factually.

“I know. What happened?” I somberly responded.

“We found her in a dumpster a few days ago.  She will die soon.”  The sister quickly moved on to continue with her duties leaving the guide and I standing silently starring at the helpless, doomed soul.

The Sisters of Mercy Orphanage, one of Mother Theresa’s organizations was our first expedition into India.  We had docked in the city of Chennai (Madras) only a few hours earlier and immediately headed to the orphanage.  While we had visited similar orphanages in other countries, this one would prove to be extremely unique.   As we entered the primary building of the orphanage the sisters motioned for half of us to move upstairs.  As we made our way up the rickety wooden steps we expected to find a vibrant group of children, just as we at our previous visits.

The moment we entered the large open room at the top of the staircase it was evident that this place was different.  I walked by the first few cribs thinking the severely retarded children were the few, only to see that twisted, gnarled bodies and the soulless hollow stares filled every bed and crib.  Dull, hypnotic moans filled the room and I stood frozen for a moment, not sure what to do.  A group of ragged nuns worked tirelessly tending to the dozens of mentally retarded and physically deformed children.  As shaken as we were, we trudged through the room to the opposite end in which a great deal of activity was taking place.  Children of all ages were lined up on thin mats being dusted with a white powdered soap.  The flour-like consistency of the soap mixed with their soft brown skin turning them into imaginary figures.  As the luxury of running water was unavailable to the orphanage, the sisters would rotate the children on a portable plastic toilet.   A young boy sitting on the toilet reached out towards my wife and I.  Reaching out to touch his hand, my wife quickly pulled back as he bit her.  After a nun grabbed the contorted child and replaced him with another, we walked towards those on the mats.  I stood over the rows of children trying to maintain my composure as I peered over the skeletal bodies curled and bent lying on thin mats as if awaiting execution in concentration camps.

 My wife had moved closer to the children when I noticed her looking out the window.  Seeing she was no longer able hold her emotions in went to comfort her.  The sight of a deformed child’s hip protruding aimlessly from her body combined with smells and sounds of an orphanage with no running water was more than she could take.  After taking a moment to collect herself she reached down and gently touched one of the children’s lonely hands, hoping that perhaps a loving touch would bring even a pale glimmer of light into the darkness of their doomed life.  Realizing I needed to remove myself from the immediate situation I began to walk around the room watching the sisters tend to the children.  I had our digital camera at hand as the children in the past orphanages were delighted to see their pictures but the only pictures I would take in this place would be those taken in my mind.  I began to walk towards the staircase when the small girl in the flowered dress caught my eye.

We descended towards the first level with now scarred hearts and confused minds not knowing what else was awaiting us.  While still suffering from mental and physical dysfunctions, the residents of the first floor were able to interact at a basic level.  Smiles and eagerness replaced the cold stares and pain as we began sharing candy and crayons as well as playing games with the children (and now adults).  We sat on the floor with the orphans helping them draw in the coloring books we had brought.  Their bright, toothy smiles and moaning laughter provided a quick reprieve from the clouds of despair that hovered above us.  We alerted those who were just now making their way upstairs to prepare themselves, though I doubt it helped much.  I was walking about the room observing the interaction between the students and the residents when a student suddenly handed me a newborn child and walked off.  Not quite sure what to do, I quickly scanned the room for help only to see no relief.  Appearing normal, the infant, wrapped in a red terrycloth sleeper was tiny, with smooth brown skin and thick dark hair.  Beginning to fuss, I slowly walked around the room rocking the newborn life in my arms when suddenly a sister handed me a bottle and giving me a quick wave left the room.  Having the "Deer In The Headlights" response you might expect from a childless 29-year-old male I again gave a quick scan for an escape to no avail.  Knowing that having to feed one less mouth would be a relief to the collection of saints working there, and that it’s not rocket science, I began to feed the child.

Walking around the room slowly rocking the newborn child, I suddenly stopped for a moment as the sight of the pudgy brown cheeks sucking for the lukewarm milk gave me pause.  Staring at the infant whose size and age seemed to be similar to the girl in the flowered dress I wondered if the fact this child was on the first floor meant its destiny would be any different than the girl’s.  When I looked up, my wife had been alerted to my task while sitting on floor playing with some of the children and was looking at me with a quiet, contented smile.

Before our arrival in India, we had asked some friends what India was like. Unable to respond articulately  (from two lawyers no less) they said, “India is hard”.  At the time, I could not identify with the statement, but within my first few hours in India, I began to understand their description.  The few hours at the orphanage had been the first to truly penetrate the areas of my soul that had been previously protected by naivety and ignorance.  Though the day ended by playing with some of the children on the playground, the images and emotions from time spent on that second floor had already branded itself into my soul.

South Africa - Understanding

Our second stop in Africa was the natural wonder of South Africa.  I was anxious for our stay in Cape Town, as I would finally see the beauty so many people had raved about.  Additionally, I was excited as we would have the chance to travel through some of the Townships, seeing the effects of apartheid first-hand.

We had been assisting a local non-profit organization, Operation Hunger, for most of the morning and early afternoon.  Our task was to help them weigh all the children in various townships in order to track their development, allowing them to identify those who needed nutritional assistance.  We had small pouches of soup to give each child as they finished the process of being weighed.  I was helping wrap up at the last township and had grabbed an extra case of soup to pack on the bus.  As I was turning towards the bus, an elderly woman came to me and grabbed me by the arm.

“Master, master, please food, please, please master.”  She said longingly.

She was a broken old woman in a dusty gray dress.  Her dark, frail frame, capped by ragged white hair seemed to shrink just within the few seconds I stared at her.  My mind immediately referred back to the instructions from Clement (our leader) that the food MUST be saved for the children.  I stood frozen as my heart and mind waged war.  I looked around for help but everyone was gathered saying goodbye.  Being called ‘Master’ had shaken me.  Staring at her in disbelief I almost barked back “Do not call me that”, instead I stumbled through,

“I’m sorry, the food is for the children.”

She repeated her plea in almost a childish voice “Please master, just a little food.”

My voice cracked as I repeated my apology, knowing it was as hollow to this woman as the previous 1,000 times she had heard it. The woman then looked at me with eyes that sucked any remaining life out of me and reaching up, grabbed the back of my head and brought it down so our foreheads were touching.  Saying something in Afrikaans she then walked away.

I quickly turned towards the front of the bus to remove myself from sight only to walk into an elderly man.  His face and body were even more broken than the woman’s.  The lines and scars that filled his face were a roadmap of the path his life had taken him.  Slowly reaching out his hand he simply asked,

“Do you have any food?”

Still reeling from my encounter with the woman, I could barely muster the energy to repeat,

“I’m sorry, the food is for the children.”

“Do you have any food?” he repeated, looking through me.

Now almost unable to move I simply said “I’m sorry”, turned and left.

By this time the bus was almost loaded and ready to go.  I quickly darted onto the bus, trying to comprehend what had just happened.  As I sat in my seat, my wife noticed the despair that filled my face.  Asking what was wrong, I mumbled out a brief description the events although at this point, I had not even begun to process the events to give a descriptive recount.  As the bus pulled away I gazed out the window and saw the elderly woman.  She was waving to the bus with what seemed to be a smile on her face, but the smile could not erase what I had just experienced a few moments earlier.  While we had witnessed worse poverty and hunger in India, witnessing the effects of apartheid combined with the dire poverty proved to be the experience that finally bridged the river between the concepts of hunger, poverty and discrimination and the realness that it inflicts upon the human spirit.  As the bus rolled down the road, I struggled to understand how and why the events that caused this despair could take place, even though I already knew the answer to both questions.

As we had traveled around Africa, the topic of slavery and apartheid had often come up.  I had long wrestled with the ideas and seeds of slavery asking myself the question, how could we, as humans allow the concept of slavery develop and prosper?  While the words ‘Master’ had cut me and sent me reeling, the sharpest pain was that in a way, was it not true; a white man with food at his disposal and more money in his pocket than she will see in the next year?  Here I was, a white upper-middle class man in the middle of a South African Township, staring at elderly, broken woman, dealing with the consequences of the past 300 years of in-humane treatment.  While I was not responsible for the condition these people were in it caused the issues and effects of slavery to be more personally felt than ever before.

Brazil - Simple Joys

 As we slowly crossed the Atlantic Ocean and approached South America, I wondered what it would hold for us.  While poverty and strife remain rampant throughout Brazil, I hoped that perhaps the vibrancy of a great culture might provide a lesson based in happiness and optimism.  While I knew that the old adage that the hardest lessons in life are the most rewarding, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to deal with another difficult one.

One of the stops on our tour of the Amazon jungle was a small, traditional village that sat perched high above the mighty Rio Negro on a steep rocky cliff.  After a brief tour of the village our guides had arranged for a soccer match between the official village team and the students we were guiding.  As we finished our tour, everyone began to make their way to the center of the village where the soccer field lay.  The perfectly imperfect field, carved out of the thick Brazilian rain forest seemed to dwarf the rest of the village.  As we organized ourselves, we realized that a light mist had sprung over the field with the quickness of the animals that roamed the jungle.  As we stood on the lush green grass and peered about the village and jungle that surrounded us the village team approached on the far side of the field.  Dressed in uniforms and most of them with cleats, we quickly realized that this would not be an actual soccer match, but a lesson in humiliation.  The small, dark haired and skinned Brazilians were quick, agile and possessed a mastery of the game that is reserved for professionals within the US.  With most of us in either hiking boots or barefoot and dressed in a variety of creative clothing, images of the Bad News Bears instantly came to mind as I watched our rag-tag group of ‘athletes’ display their ‘skills’.  After breaking up the students into two teams the ‘match’ began.  Within moments it was evident that the proud villagers would have their way with the hardy, yet skill-challenged students.  As the game began, those not playing were meandering around the village and the field playing with the energetic, blissful children.  Some of the villagers were watching what was I’m sure to them, one of the most comical sights they had ever seen.

Soon after the game began, the Brazilian skies opened up to display their force, instantaneously soaking everything in sight.  For a moment I thought that we would cancel the game but it was quickly revealed to me that the forces of Mother Nature were simply a character within our story.  After a few minutes I went in as a sub and attempted to embarrass myself in the most graceful way.  As my standard running shoes provided no help on the almost submerged playing field, I removed my shoes and played barefoot.  I figured I was destined to get injured at some point so what the hell.  As I played, I began to understand what soccer was to Brazilians.  More that sport or competition, it was their expression of life.  Playing against the villagers was like being inside a Shakespearean play in which the actors simply ignored you and went about their art.  Even the now submerged field and monsoon rains could not disrupt their performance.  At one point as I was playing defense, a cross pass was sent over my head.  Believing there was no way the pass could make it to anyone I casually turned to see a black clad foot appear from nowhere, gently guiding the picturesque pass into the net.  The goalie and I looked at each for a moment in confusion then burst out laughing.  I mercifully took my self out of the game and ventured over to the sidelines.

At this point, the rain began to reach levels such that I expected to see a wooden ship loaded with animals pass by at any second.  Making it to the sidelines I suddenly paused and began to take in everything that was going on around me.  I turned back to the game, witnessing the smiles on all the faces.  Even the originally serious village team could not help themselves from laughing and chuckling at the events.  I then turned to see the small Brazilian children laughing frenziedly while running naked through the rain.  Turning once more I saw my wife, drenched, running through puddles, carrying a young girl on her back as she lifted her hands to the sky as if giving herself in sacrifice.  I looked to the parents of the children and saw expressions of joy and happiness as complete strangers from another country frolicked and played with their wet, naked children.  I then closed my eyes and moved my face towards the sky feeling the renewing energy of the Amazonian rain pour over my body.

While some argue that when traveling abroad, you must always maintain your guard, I quickly learned that those times when you are vulnerable are the times in which you learn the most about your surroundings and yourself.  Our travels through the world were an extraordinary experience that provided more education about the world and us than our combined 32 years of formal education.  As I finish my story, I think back to the stories I heard and read about before I left and realize; just as they could not prepare me for the experiences I had, neither will this story prepare anyone for their worldly adventures and education.  What it can do, I hope, is provide that spark within your imagination that slowly burns within your soul pushing you to explore the world and cultures that we know so little about and understand even less.  Just as the conversation with a friend on a cold, rainy August evening revealed the path less taken to us, hopefully these yarns will show that indeed, while difficult and challenging, taking that path will provide you with more than you can imagine.  While seeing the path is the first step, the most difficult, and least taken step is the one in which you leave everything you’ve learned and lived by behind and allow yourself to walk into the unknown.

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