Saturday, March 30, 2013

All We, Like Sheep

Note: This piece, written three years ago, is one of just a handful that I've had requests for reprints. It was certainly a fun essay to write, and I've been delighted at how many people have enjoyed and related to it. Every word is true -- we were every bit the completely naive fools described in this story. The fact that the sheep didn't manage to herd US off the cliff into the Urubamba river speaks only to the lack of imagination in your standard Ovis Aries, and does not in any way suggest that the 35 college graduates involved could have found half a brain between them. Nevertheless, what we lacked in intelligence or even a semi-reasonable game plan, we made up for in determination and good old fashioned American obstinacy. And I, for one, learned a little more about the love and patience required to save creatures who would just rather be left to their fate.

(If you enjoy this, I invite you to read 'Tell Me Who I Am,' found on my sidebar.)


Easter 2006 found my family in the Peruvian Andes. How it ever thought to look there was a true mystery; all we could remember was one minute we were playing "QuiƩn es mas macho?" with an Incan bartender, and the next we were sniffing llama poo.

(Just kidding. The only drinking game my family plays is the one where you eat a fistful of Mentos and drink a jumbo extra grande Diet Coke and then watch each other's heads explode. It's all good fun 'til someone loses an eye.)

Anyway, we were working with a humanitarian group in the little village of Salkantay, which is a mile above and 200 years behind Cuzco.

There is not a more beautiful place on the earth than Salkantay, Peru. Those Andes don't mess around with gentle slopes and rolling foot-hills. They shoot straight up into the stratosphere, beyond, it seems, the 14,000 foot elevation where the village is situated, thumbing their majestic noses at wimpy ideas like gravity.

My guy, a long way from home

They're green and precipitous and, in every possible sense of the word, breathtaking. This is the only place I've ever visited where you actually order oxygen from the hotel desk, and a bellman brings it to your room and, if necessary, straps a bicycle pump to your face and re-inflates your lungs.

Our group spent a week or so helping the villagers with a variety of projects, including building a greenhouse, constructing a running water system, and introducing the little Peruvian children to the modern, transcendent wonders of Spicy Cheetos.

Many of the villagers were descendents of the Inca, and only spoke Ketchua. A few spoke Spanish as well. None spoke English.

Yet it was so great to see our kids working side-by-side with these villagers, communicating with sign language and stick-in-the-dirt drawings and the kind of laughter you get when you realize the table you just spent an hour building together has three legs pointing south and one due west.

It was life changing. I have forever after looked at my oldest two children with different eyes.

One morning, however, we arrived at the village to learn that we would be participating in a new project.

The village was raising a special variety of sheep. (I'm not sure which breed. I think it was the "Woolicus Stupidus," but I could be lying.)

It was hoped that these sheep, if kept healthy, would provide a high-quality wool which could be used to make blankets, clothing, and other products which the villagers would take into Cuzco and sell. The impoverished residents of Salkantay had pinned a lot of their hopes for future prosperity on those sheep.

Well, a big part of keeping the sheep healthy long enough to realize a return on the village's investment was immunizing them. I couldn't tell you what kinds of diseases sheep are likely to get (mad cow?) but we were nonetheless pegged for the job of getting them vaccinated.

It should probably be noted here that, to a man, not a single member of our humanitarian expedition knew the first thing about sheep. Zip. I'm not sure any could even spell 'sheep.'

Nevertheless, possessed of the hubris that is the downfall of tourists everywhere, we trotted up the hillside to assume our duties as Sheep Herding & Immunization Technology Specialists, or for short, umm…well, never mind. We won't abbreviate that one.

The first thing we noticed after regaining consciousness (remember, we were three stinkin' miles above sea level) was that there were no sheep in the pasture. There was, technically, no pasture in the pasture. It was more along the lines of a grassy wall, which ran at a gentle 175 degree angle until it met with an ascending cliff that rose so aggressively "up" it appeared to loop back on the geometric continuum, qualifying more as an inverted "down".

This cliff was where the sheep were grazing, evidently affixed to the mountain by Velcro. And keeping them company was a herd of llamas.

Also on that vertiginous mountainside were some of the local shepherds, who, upon noticing our group sucking wind and collapsing like fish on a boat bottom, began to direct both the sheep and the llamas toward the pasture.

I can't really describe how they did it (tasers, perhaps) but somehow they managed to separate the llamas from the sheep, dispatching the llamas toward the village and leaving the sheep - and their victims - to their respective fates.

One of the men began instructing our group on the finer points of immunizing sheep. It seemed we were to first encourage the sheep into an adobe pen, where the local toughs would then single out individual animals and, using a complex formula known as "guessing," would holler out to we, the volunteer sheep-dopers, the amount of medicine their sheep required.

After the medicine had been administered, another batch of idiots, er, I mean humanitarians, would 'paint' the heads of the now-vaccinated sheep with red goo, which indicated that they were finished, and point them in the direction of the gate.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Oh. My. Word.

Let it here be observed, when the Lord referred to His children as "sheep" He was not paying them a compliment.

The only creatures on that hillside who were more brainless, more stubborn, more skittish and goofy and easily distracted than those blasted sheep were the human volunteers. The pasture and the pen were only maybe fifty yards away from each other (forty-nine of those yards pointing straight down; we could have simply picked up the sheep and dropped them into the pen if we could have caught the crazy beasts), but it took us nearly an hour of sheer buffoonery to do the job.

First, we thought we could just 'holler' them down the hill. "Go, sheep! Go on! Go, sheep, go!" Like we'd been scripted by Dr. Seuss.

The sheep, naturally, heeded our counsel by running in a circle and pooing.

So we determined that we were going to have to 'chase' them to the pen. We removed various jackets and hats and began jogging and flailing and, by this time, breathing out threatenings against those cursed sheep and their posterity to the third and fourth generations, convinced that we could scare them into cooperating.

The sheep responded by assuming individual trajectories and running in what was now forty different circles and bleating revolutionary slogans back at their tormentors. And pooing some more.

Next on the agenda, then, was an attempt at creating a Lifetime Original Movie moment by kidnapping a few of the lambs and carrying them toward the pen, confident that their mothers would follow along out of powerful maternal instinct. Oh, the mileage we would get out of this object lesson!

See? Moms stick close to their little ones. Right? Right? Well, I did anyway.

Unfortunately, sheep don't watch Lifetime Original Movies, and instead read in our act of collecting all the lambs an offer of free babysitting. They celebrated their new-found liberty by frolicking in a general anti-pen direction, and of course, pooing.

The hillside was becoming a slippery slope of unmentionable terrors for we gringos, who were wearing our "old" sneakers for the job. This meant we had essentially strapped rubber ice skates to our feet and were now trying to keep from falling into what you get when you combine a stressed-out sheep with a grass-intensive brunch.

My son, Dave, was one of many victims.
I think we burned his clothes and made him return to the hotel wearing a festively colored poncho.
Or at least we should have.

Strangely, we had the best luck when we simply hid from the sheep. "They're getting nervous," we reasoned. "Give them some time to settle down. Let 'em think we've lost interest. Then we'll break out the tranquilizer darts."

And sure enough, a few sheep gravitated toward the pen. Typical. And once we got three or four contained, the rest, as sheep are wont to do, followed them in.

Now it was time for the wrestling match wherein the local herdsmen would quite literally pick up a sheep in a position reminiscent of the Heimlich maneuver, and call out "Dos!" or "Cuatro!" which told the volunteers how many cc's of medicine that sheep would need.

Meanwhile, we were either filling syringes with anywhere from two to five cc's of this milky substance or handing them to others, who would then rush over to the Heimliched sheep and squirt the medicine into its mouth.

Yeah, that went well.

Not knowing that this stuff could well mean the difference between good health and poor, perhaps even between surviving the wet Andean winter or not, the sheep had less than zero interest in cooperating with the immunizers.

They spit. They thrashed. They pulled out shivs and menaced the other sheep. They mouthed off and stomped up to their rooms.
As if that weren't enough, once the medicine which wasn't all over the volunteer's shoe was in the sheep's mouth, the volunteer would actually have to massage its throat to FORCE it to swallow.

Then the immunizer would shout "PAINT!" and another volunteer would rush over to brush red dye on the sheep's head, who would finally be released to go its way, only to be as obstinate and stupid about exiting the pen as it had been about entering.

From start to finish, it was one big exercise in coercion and, at times, sheer, teeth-gritting determination not to be out-maneuvered by a 150 pound bag of helium in a wool sweater. Those sheep did everything they could to reject what was being offered to them.

They were short-sighted and temperamental and even aggressively determined to remain unprotected, exposed, and vulnerable to whatever disease lay ahead. They had to be led, pushed, and threatened. Some took several attempts from several well-stomped laborers to finally get the job done.

But at the end of the day, every one of those silly sheep bore on its head the symbol of its renewed health and brighter future.

Sheep Herding & Immunization Technology Specialists

I learned a lot of things that morning. About sheep and people and how mind-blowingly difficult it can sometimes be to do something good and necessary and life-saving for others.
About the kind of vision and effort it takes to call and contain and get the attention of creatures who might otherwise never pay any heed to what you do or say or want for them.

About the love that is poured into the healing of all mortality's pain, including -- especially -- the healing of broken hearts, and the mark set upon those hearts when they have been made whole by the Master Physician.

And mostly, I learned a little more about the Good Shepherd, who on another hillside on another Easter, reclaimed His sheep and, one by one, anointed their heads with salvation, inviting them to forever lie down in the green pastures of eternal life.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray. But we hear the voice of the Shepherd, who knows us, who has borne our griefs, carried our sorrows, and graven us on the palms of His hands.

And we follow Him.

Happy Easter.


Momza said...

I had been thinking about this particular experience of yours this past week--remembering it from when you shared it in the past--because I wanted to share it with my kids. And then here you are sharing it again! Thanks so much. This is such a powerful story--I hope to always remember it.

Kimberly VanderHorst said...

Laughter AND tears. Beautifully told.

L.T. Elliot said...

I just read this over the phone to my sister last month. We laughed so hard. And then I cried at the end. And I often think about it when I think of the Shepard and how pea-brained I can be.

seashmore said...

I love this story!

Becca said...

This one is my favorite. Always.