Travels With Bapu

For more than 50 years, Carl Taylor has taken his work in public health to the extreme. His latest adventure: At 83, with a new knee, he retraces his 1949 trek across Nepal.

Cover Story

January 23, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff

In their house in the woods near Lake Roland, guarded by a topiary creature that used to be a crane but now resembles a scrawny dinosaur, Carl and Mary Taylor sit and gently correct one another's yarns.

Which year was it, exactly, that they rode on horseback into roadless Bhutan, where Mary had lunch with the queen and their young son played on the floor with the 6-year-old future king? Was it Carl's father or his neighbor who killed the crocodile in the Ganges River and found five pounds of silver jewelry in its belly, the only remains of the women it had eaten? How old were the children when they lived in Nigeria, getting the educational bonus of life as a tiny racial minority?

There is a lot to keep straight. Dr. Carl E. Taylor, 83, an emeritus professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and a revered figure in the field, has worked in 70 countries. Mary Taylor, 82, an education professor retired from Towson University and a much-honored UNICEF volunteer, worked and lived with him in many of those countries. Together they made their work an endless adventure -- and gave their three children an unorthodox upbringing.

These days Carl is sorting slides and finishing up a report on his latest escapade: a 140-mile trek across Nepal, one that retraced the route of a pioneering 1949 trip on which Taylor conducted the first national health survey of the closed mountain kingdom.

Then, as a young physician, he rode elephants through malaria-infested jungles and performed surgery atop stone slabs, without anesthesia, on impoverished villagers who had never laid eyes on a physician.

This time, he discovered that portions of the route on which he and his colleagues were the first foreigners to travel is now trodden by more than 60,000 trekkers each year. It was a shock. But a few hundred yards in either direction from the trail, Taylor reveled in the resilience of the Nepalese village.

"I guess the main thing I felt was an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be able to do it again," says Taylor, a tall, silver-haired man of erect bearing. "To walk the same trails. To climb a few thousand feet in a day. Just to be there and sense the fact that despite all the changes, Nepal is still Nepal."

He was accompanied on the trek last November by his two sons -- Daniel Taylor-Ide, already knighted by the king of Nepal for his conservation work there; and Henry Taylor, West Virginia's commissioner of public health. (Betsy, their daughter, is an anthropologist specializing in Appalachian culture at the University of Kentucky.)

Six grandchildren also went along on the trek, each with a specific project. One took photographs from the same points from which Taylor had taken photos in 1949, to document the changes. Another collected 35 species of butterflies. Another studied the games and toys of Nepalese village children. Yet another, forced to miss the West Virginia track and field championships, ran the entire route of the trek.

Family enterprise

Such enterprise seems bred in the Taylor clan.

"My parents thought that if sabbaticals are good for adults, they're good for children, too," recalls Daniel Taylor-Ide, 54, who lives on a mountain in West Virginia. "So every five years, we'd go for a year to live in a village or in the jungle."

A book recounting the family's experiences would be a parenting manual with a difference. In fact, Mary Taylor is writing that book, tentatively titled "Life in Orbit." Though she was kept off the November trek by an injured knee, she has had her own Nepalese adventures. In the 1960s she made a documentary film about the lives of women and children in Nepal; one of her own children held the light meter while another held the tape recorder.

In a house alive with artifacts, each comes with a tale attached.

There are the carved wooden ducks from Indonesia -- illustrations for the 23rd Psalm translated into culturally appropriate language: "The Lord is my duck-herder. He leads me beside rice paddies ... "

There is the Tibetan sling, woven of yak hair. Carl Taylor demonstrates with gusto how the yak herders fling stones to hunt birds, scare off predators and steer their herds.

There's the tiger skin in Carl's jumbled home office, where the nine-foot beast's well-preserved head snarls from a side table. Desperate Indian villagers flagged the Taylors down as they traveled to a mountain hospital for the birth of their daughter in 1948; a tiger was preying on their cattle and buffalo. Carl shot the tiger after three nights of lying in wait -- and they still reached the hospital in time.

Says Jesse Taylor-Ide, 19, Daniel's son and Carl's grandson: "It took me quite a while when I was growing up to realize there was anything unusual about the fact that every adult I knew sat around telling stories about India and Nepal and all kinds of exotic places."

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