The best part of my job is waking up in the morning and having absolutely no idea what the day might hold.
While covering the 2015 International MINI Meeting in the lake country of Lithuania, I knew I’d be seeing plenty of the classic little cars from the last 55 years of production. I also knew I’d be participating in stage rally race across the countryside — sort of a timed scavenger hunt across the rural landscape and through a collection of small farming communities.
But, I didn’t know I’d encounter something that changed my perspective on the world — a place that would drive me to take action and help those I am able to help in some small way.
If you’re looking for just another car review piece, I should let you know in advance I’m ranging far afield from that here. This story is less about the MINI Countryman I chose as my rally car and more about where the race took me.
The IMM 2015 included a traditional rally race inviting teams of racers (one driver, one navigator) to chase different objectives in 60 minute segments. For example, the first stage had the teams drive to a centuries-old stone church, count the windows and report to a check-in point precisely at the 60 minute mark. Miscount the windows? Time penalty. Show up early? Penalty? Show up late? You get the idea. While there’s a lot of hustle and driving precision involved, the race is less about raw speed and more about efficiency.
A mid-stage of this race had my team stop at a small shop in a tiny farming community. We were under orders to buy precisely 2 Euros worth of what would be penny candy in the U.S – and we were not to eat a single piece.
At that point in the race, I was leading with the help of my capable navigator — tearing through the little towns with speed that the local Policija would have found unforgivable Capitalist indulgence.
Why was I hitting it so hard — maybe too hard — to enjoy the fun of it? It turns out I tend to be a bit competitive. I can be driven, no pun intended. Relentlessly so. Even with something as essentially pointless as an amateur rally race, the red mist descends.
We left the candy store, and my navigator called up our next destination from the route book: Antazave Vaiku Namai or the Antazave Children’s Home. Part of a network of Lithuanian orphanages, the institution is home to about 60 children, ages 3-17. Those numbers are not set in stone as language barriers make fact checking difficult.
I was supposed to stay at the orphanage just long enough to deliver the candy to the kids, collect some sort of a thank you gift and get back in the race. I fully thought I would do exactly that because I was in it only to win it. But, when we arrived, the kids were standing in formation on the orphanage steps — at attention to greet the first of the arriving race cars. As I came to a stop and pulled the parking brake, I knew the race was over for me.
My navigator and I got out of the car and slowly made our way to the children. We didn’t speak Lithuanian, German, Russian or any useful language. None of the children spoke English – at least not yet.
In return for the candy, they drew pictures of my race car as gifts. Suddenly, the race didn’t mean a whole hell of a lot, and I didn’t leave until each of the kids got a chance to sit in the driver’s seat, beep the horn, have a picture taken, etc. They didn’t speak any English, but it didn’t matter.
We only had one bag of candy for what looked like the 30 or so children assembled. What little one do I give it to, and whose artwork should I take in return? Whom do I choose? The answer came to me as the kids shyly stepped down off of the steps to greet us and check out the cars. I handed the candy off to a little girl — maybe six years old — and watched as she shared it with her fellows.
As the orphans surrounded the cars, I realized we’d have to let each and every one sit in the driver’s seat, beep the horn, have a photo taken and do whatever else would make the day as special as possible.
In the midst of that scene, it hit me suddenly that each and every one of these shy, smiling, excited children woke up that morning without parents — without a family of their own beyond the other kids surrounding them. Beyond that, I knew nothing of their stories beyond the cold truth that none of them asked for such a fate. I could imagine each dreaming of adoption somewhere in the world, and the knowledge of that inevitable longing and my helpless response to it shook me.
It was a rude reminder that I really have no problems in this life. Neither did my co-driver. I would bet anyone reading these words could say the same. I was one of the lucky, the blessed. And, I could not get emotional while realizing all of that because the kids themselves were happy at that moment. They were having a big day because this lonely sojourning writer and wannabe amateur race driver stumbled across them along with his friends and peers.
Staying much longer than I suppose the schedule called for, we lost the lead and the race, finishing fourth. And I couldn’t give less of a damn. I’m sure my navigator felt the same way because we came back to the rally HQ with these precious drawings given to us as tokens of friendship. We were only supposed to grab one each, but how could I say no to additional gifts when the kids urgently offered them to me? Those pictures are getting framed and going up on my wall.
More importantly, that orphanage challenged me. I have no use for politics, and I believe most causes quickly become rackets. I say the world would be a better place if we all just helped the guy right in front of us. My job put these kids in front of me, and I know I have to send what help I can to make their lives a little better.
Fortunately, even in the short time I spent with the children, it was clear the staff cared about them and was involved with the experience — and it seemed the town overall looked on the facility with some pride. Still, every little bit helps with so many children involved.
This writer is going to be sending care packages whenever I can. If you’d like to do the same and have clothes, non-perishables, toys or anything else that could be of use, here’s the shipping information I’ll be using:
Director, Kestutis Razanas
Antazave Vaiku Namai
Org Kodas: 909958
Zarazu Rajonas 4785