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Two Paths

Christina Andreassen

I went to see a friend the other day. I passed through two sets of polished doors and ascended the building in a gleaming elevator to get to his office. A receptionist offered me a cup of gourmet coffee before ushering me into a spacious conference room, where personal mementos, souvenirs from world travels, and numerous awards competed for space on teak shelves.

My friend arrived a minute later and greeted me warmly with a winning smile, his tailored suit slightly rumpled from a long day in the office. He sighed as he sat down across from me, and his smile dropped momentarily, revealing a tired and careworn face.

"Long day?" I inquired. He nodded. It had been a long day. It seemed like every day was a long day, even weekends, especially now with the burgeoning economy and the flood of new projects coming the company's way. Business was good and he was happy, he said, but I knew him well enough to not completely believe him.

Had I already heard that he was buying a second house? His wife was visiting friends in Rome and had been gone for over a month now, his children were studying abroad, and he had just returned from Madrid. A third car was arriving from the BMW showroom next week. An extra car would make things easier for him and his family. One less thing to argue about. There had been a lot of changes recently—a new office in a better location, a more efficient staff, a better PR manager—and there were more changes coming in his company's management, image, and products. It takes a lot to succeed in the fast-paced world of today.

We chatted about my recent volunteer work, a trip to a flooded province. He glanced through the pictures I showed him and commented on the beauty and simplicity of rural life.

His phone rang and he excused himself, returning a minute later to apologize for a hasty departure. Some urgent matters had come up, and he needed to attend to them at once. "We should get together again soon. Call me next week," he said.

I went to see a friend yesterday. I drove eight hours up winding mountain roads to get to a refugee camp scattered across four square kilometers of rural countryside. A breathtaking view, but rudimentary common conveniences. Where the road ended, the walking began. I waded through a knee-deep stream and hiked up a deeply rutted mud trail, accompanied by a dozen eager children who had spotted me on the road below. I sat on the step of my friend's bamboo hut and smiled at the ragged children who promised that my friend would arrive shortly. Then they ran off in the direction of the local well to announce my arrival to the others.

A minute later my friend was rushing to embrace me, a six-month-old baby slung across her back. She ushered me away from the throng of children that had reassembled, playfully shooing away the ones that chattered over one another as they tugged on my pants leg. In the dim, warm interior of her one-room hut, coffee was served. As I savored each sip, I considered my friend's thoughtful gesture; my cupful was probably her ration for the week.

Our conversation was broken and limited due to the mountain dialect she spoke, but her face shone as she struggled to tell me about her new baby, her family, and the small group of orphans she was helping to care for.

"What do you need most?" I asked her, thinking to offer her the best from the truckload of supplies I had waiting back on the road at the trail's end. I anticipated a detailed list in reply. "Nothing," she answered. "Whatever we need, God supplies. He takes good care of us." Her baby began whimpering and she hugged him close, describing once again the joy he brings her every day and mentioning nothing of the lack of money, official papers, and other resources needed to give him a good start in life.

Another refugee, a T-shirted boy in his late teens, came into the hut. After introductions he sat on the matted floor next to her, his fingers skillfully plucking a soft, sweet tune on the weathered guitar he held in his lap as he listened to our conversation.

"It must be wonderful to live in a city," he said at last, a little wistfully.

"Have you ever been to one?" I asked.

"No," he replied, shaking his head sadly. "But I hope to one day. I hope to move to a big city and become rich and famous."

I smiled as my eyes took in the breathtaking mountain sunset that lit up the western sky and my ears caught the happy laughter from a volleyball game outside the hut.

"I don't think that's what you really want," I replied to his surprise. "Believe me, sometimes the best things in life are the things that money can't buy."

Reposted courtesy of Activated, April 2008 issue.