Friday, May 7, 2010

Matters of Perspective

I visited Kolkata, India for work in 2007, and delivered much needed supplies to a small local orphanage. The facility was a crumbling, dilapidated concrete structure. To one side there was a dark, sticky, hot room, the floor covered with various cloths and blankets, with a fine mesh netting strung over a rope crossing the room. Under the netting a dozen babies lay sleeping, grunting or babbling, or visually exploring their surroundings. Not a cry was heard. In the upper floor of this building was a room with several cribs, acting more as cages than a place to sleep to several toddlers. In a corner sat a lone child on a potty. In a building next door, several older children ranging from ages 5 to 12 waited excitedly for us to visit their room, a small area with a dirt floor and various cots lining the walls. A girl sat on a chair near the doorway, sunken depressions where her eyes should have been, but a wide grin on her face nonetheless. Several of the children had visible disabilities. All were eager for any acknowledgement - a smile, a word - of any kind. Two children were notably older and looked healthier than the rest. The director of the orphanage explained they had failed to be adopted due to a serious blood illness.

Elsewhere in Kolkata there were miles and miles of very simple shacks and homes lining nearly every street. There is nothing separating bystanders from the private lives of those living along the road. At night, many families draped crude tarps along the sidewalks and made small fires and rough beds for the evening. Many families bathed in a lake near the hotel I was in. From a distance the water was serene and picturesque, but close up it was littered with trash and choked with pond vegetation. The park surrounding the lake was covered in debris and trash, with many children and women scavenging and wandering among the garbage.

Fast forward to Ethiopia almost 4 years later. We visited a market looking for gifts and traditional art. The shopkeepers booths were packed tightly together along a dirt road just off a major intersection. After visiting a few shops and buying a few items, we realized every merchant would do whatever it took to nudge us through the curtain into their dark booths smelling of a beautiful mixture of woods, incense, leather, and cloth. The items sold were similar from booth to booth, so after visiting a few, there was not much to be found that we had not already seen. Everyone had a huge incentive to sell us something, and the effort and persuasion that went into their pleas reflected the opportunity they saw in a foreigner in the market. Having walked down one side of the market we were out of time and tiring of the unyielding attempt that each merchant made to convince us to buy something, anything, from their wares. We resorted to telling shopkeepers we had run out of cash. An older, gray-haired store keeper with leathery skin and years of hard life written in the wrinkles of his face gently pulled me by the wrist into his store, no bigger than a 8' by 12' closet, but with every possible inch of wall, floor, and ceiling covered with items for sale. Not wanting to look any longer, I quickly roamed the wares with my gaze and absently picked up a Mancala board to inspect. Upon seeing my feigned interest, the man immediately began to barter. The board was hand carved of ebony, beautiful yet simple. He was asking the equivalent of 10 dollars. I quickly repeated what I had told the last several peddlers - I had no more money, and the man quickly dropped his price to about 9, 8, 7 dollars. Blocking the doorway trying to convince me to make a purchase, I did my best to convince him I was out of cash. He even said he would let me take the board and the taxi driver could collect the cash from the hotel. He would do anything to make the sale. I did not want the board. In a last effort to make the sale, I saw, with heart wrenching dismay, tears welling in the old mans eyes as he broke down, pleading that he was hungry and would sell me the board. "Just make offer" he said.

I was shaken. I again repeated that I did not have money, and I exited the booth quickly. Stacey and River were in the booth of another merchant trying hard to make a sale. I collected them and we made our way to our taxi and hotel. Soon after we left, I had a pit in my stomach. With money in my pocket I had left the shop unwilling to look for something of interest and buy so that this man would be guaranteed a little money and perhaps a meal that night. I tell myself to live life without regrets. But no one does really. I have a few, and not buying something from this man is now counted as one of my regrets.

Earlier in the day we had made our way to the Blue Nile Gorge, to the north of Addis Ababa. Along the way we made several stops, often along the rural road seamingly in the middle of nowhere. In every case, almost out of nowhere, children would come running from the fields, eager for a handout, kind word, or a touch. Without explanation, their beaming, giddy smiles melted away as soon as a camera was pointed their way, and the hard lines in their young faces shone through. When the smile was gone, it appeared as if these children, 6, 8, perhaps 12 years old, aged a decade. Without a smile, there was no emotion to mask their sunken cheeks, their rail thin bodies.

But as soon as the camera was gone, the smiles reemerge. That's the beauty of the human spirit. It's the wonder of perspective. I saw it in India and Ethiopia - despite the conditions people may live in, if a person lives and grows knowing a way of life, there is an awful lot a person can put up with and still be happy. The shacks in Kolkata were surrounded by children chasing each other, splashing in the water, playing simple games with sticks and rocks in the dirt, enjoying each others presence. In Ethiopia, the children have rocks, sticks, and each other as their playthings. You can see them making chase among the goats, cracking their whips, looks of joy on their faces. Children, especially, can overlook an awful lot of hardship and find happiness in even the worst conditions.

But the old man teaches us there is only so much a person can bare, only so hungry a person can be before desperation takes over. The image of children surrounding our vehicle in Ethiopa, and the merchant's eyes filled with moisture, helps keep my perspective in check as we face our future as a large, multiracial family. I have spent hundreds of hours over the last 2 years working on our house in preparation for Krem and Hiruts arrival. There were many long nights, ending with sore muscles and frustration of facing many more weeks of work. Just the other night I was behind the house at 11 PM , with the cover off the septic tank, fishing a clog out of the sewer line. I'll admit the prospect the task made me less than chipper, but inside were 5 kids off to bed, complete with mattresses, surrounded by books, toys, dressers full of clothes for every occasion, steps away from cabinets full of food. They would wake up with smiles on their faces, and the prospect of vast opportunities in their future. If millions of people can find comfort and happiness in shacks and huts, with very little to eat, and little chance for a different future, we can certainly cope with the challenges that come our way as a larger family, with three different cultures and races under our roof.

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