The alarm on my otherwise useless cell phone went off at 5:30 am. We were leaving early to meet and distribute vitamins to the children of Bhatpara, the most remote village we had visited yet.
India is crowded. Even rural areas have bustling street scenes, with people milling, shopping, selling all through the night. A woman makes chapati beside the road. A man with a few goats tied to a stick butchers one and sells the fresh meat. Youths gather around an oil drum to drink and gamble on Carom or Rummy.
Oil lamps at the edge of the street are are more plentiful than stars in the sky. A billion people create enough air pollution to obscure all but the brighter stars, even in rural areas.
But this time, as we drove toward our destination, the crowds began to thin. Onward we drove through a large forest of tigers, where there were few people on the road, mostly in small groups.
When we emerged on the other side of the forest and crossed a bridge, we were one of the only vehicles on the road.
We entered a remote area of tea gardens. The rich tea country is in the hills. These tea gardens were on the plains: cheap, poor quality tea, even poorer people – but the people are of high quality indeed.
As we passed each field, everyone would stop working and turn to stare: it was rare to see a motor vehicle here. Even trucking was done by oxcart.
At the end of one long, rarely traveled dirt road, we came upon the village of Bhatpara. The adults all labored in the surrounding tea fields.
There are no days off in the tea fields. The nearest town is not close; the people of Bhatpara couldn’t walk there and back in a single day. They are cut off, isolated.
There had been no schools in the area until Bridge of Hope started one in 2005. Now the children were learning, excited, and looking forward to our arrival. They had been preparing for us for weeks.
They ate local. They did everything local.
Howard Schiffer and Vitamin Angels had determined that bringing a few micro-nutrients to the children and pregnant and nursing women could make a big difference in their lives. They were so right!
The whole village welcomed us with a celebration of joy. The children treated us to a series of dances. As Father Beni observed, just yesterday these children were fragile, helpless babies; today they are confident and strong as they performed their dances.
The children thrilled to show off their English skills. Hindi is the official language of India, but the teacher explained that it is only spoken by twenty percent of the people. More than a thousand other languages make up the rest. English is the language of learning and commerce.
“Hello sir what is your name?” each child asked as he thrust his hand forward. “Pleased to meet you!” he smiled.
A man standing near told me through a translator that I was the first doctor ever to visit this place.
I examined and spoke with hundreds in this friendly, hardworking village. I saw children with stunted growth and those who were wasting away. I saw kids with parasites, skin problems, respiratory problems, and pus coming from their ears.
I knew that something as simple as vitamin A twice a year could reduce the illness rate by more than thirty percent. Each would get a first dose today, and more importantly, every six months going forward.
I saw several children who were mute, whose mothers wanted me to fix their throats. But the real problem was that the children were deaf, so instead we talked about how to invent a sign language for the village.
Meanwhile, my son Garrett and Howard’s daughter Zoe interviewed parents and children to learn from them about their lives and to record their stories.
We did the best with what we had that day, and inaugurated an ongoing Vitamin Angels/Bridge of Hope program of support.
As we were preparing to depart, I asked one of the older women a question. When I had watched some of the laborers plucking the green leaves by hand, every now and then a worker would pause, chew on a tea leaf, gazing upward with an intense expression.
I hadn’t seen this behavior among the workers in the hill country, in the fields with higher quality tea.
I’ve tried doing this myself, and spat out the bitter leaf without learning anything.
“Why were they doing this?” I asked. “Could they tell by taste which trees were perfectly ripe? Or did chewing the leaves give extra energy when tired? Why do this?”
I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping at her reply, “They’re still curious what all the fuss is about.”
Her village was surrounded — cut off by — tea gardens. She had labored in them her whole adult life, and more. But the fresh leaves had always been carted off to be turned into tea elsewhere.
She had never had a cup of tea.