The fact that Barna lives in Baltimore is a pretty big deal.
The first door we tried was the wrong door, and a Pakistani woman wearing a bright green sari answered. She didn’t speak English, but invited us in for tea so that we could wait for her husband to come home, as he would certainly be able to help us. This is the kind of hospitality that we came to know in South Asia, and being in Baltimore made it stand out even more. In America we’re skeptical of door knockers, a deep seeded reflex that is a result of generations of door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Girl Scouts, and Avon ladies.
While I attempted to deduce the location of our Nepali friends’ apartment by making robotic motions with my hands and speaking universally-recognizable grunting sounds, Sheena spied Sunil around a corner smiling and waving. We thanked the woman in the green sari and excused ourselves. Sunil enthusiastically shook our hands and led us toward an open door where Barna and Kalpana waited, smiling.
In Nepal, the line between family and neighbor isn’t always strictly defined. While walking through the Kathmandu neighborhood of Dobighat, our friend Pesal would chat with everyone we passed. When we asked who they were, he would always say, “that is my cousin.” Soon we realized that everyone in Dobighat was Pesal’s cousin—not by blood, but because they all hailed from the same village in southeastern Nepal and had all migrated to the same place. They love and respect each other like family, and every door is an open door. We’ve come to see our Nepali friends as family much in the same way. Barna is our Nepali sister, or bahini.
We first met Barna in Dobighat, where she had lived all eighteen years of her life. She is the blood cousin of Pesal, in whose house we had lived over the course of our two months in Nepal. Barna had the best grasp of English of anyone we had met in the country. Not only was she fluent in the language, but was well-versed in American pop culture and could easily transition between her Nepali accent and her California valley girl impersonation. She was especially excited those days, because she had just won the lottery.
Every year America holds a lottery for a small number of Diversity Visas, which provide an instant green card and permanent residency for those drawn. Barna had miraculously won the first year that she applied, and would soon be living out her wildest dreams of moving to America. This fact made her valley girl accent sound especially bubbly.
The last time we had seen her was in the alley behind the house in Dobighat, along with the rest of the family, as we departed for India.
In the time that it took us to drive Nacho from Nepal to America, Barna had said goodbye to Kathmandu and had flown halfway around the earth to take up residency in a Baltimore suburb where we found her living with her cousin Sunil and Kalpana, in the building adjacent to that of the Pakistani woman in the green sari, who probably had her own inspiring immigration story.
We had told Barna that we would take her out for Mexican dinner when we arrived, which held a particular significance because of Thanksgiving. We were in Nepal for the last Thanksgiving and had intended to throw a big American-style holiday bash. But as the time drew nearer, we were unable to source a turkey. Not that it would have mattered, because there aren’t any ovens in Nepal. Thanksgiving came and went without any celebration, but the following day we hatched a plan to make up for it: Mexican night. Pesal accompanied us to the neighborhood butcher where we procured a chicken, and we proceeded to make a full-blown fajita fest. As we sat around massaging our bellies after dinner we suddenly realized that nobody had told Barna that we were eating.
Now in the apartment in Baltimore, Barna and Kalpana sneakily usurped our plan by preparing a traditional dinner of dal bhat. She wasn’t going to let our dinner plans get in the way of her being a good hostess. In between chatting with us and helping in the kitchen, Sunil sat on the couch typing a journal entry on his tablet. He told us of his work as a delivery truck driver, and Barna excitedly told us about her new job at the 7/11 convenience store. She had just received her first paycheck, which amounted to about half the annual income of an average Nepali. Life was good.
We had been curious to hear Barna’s first impressions on life in America, and as she zipped around the kitchen Sheena inquired. I think we were both hoping to hear some profound insight about the differences in people and priority, that perhaps the move from the Himalayas to Baltimore would have shocked her into a state of nostalgic homesickness.
“Oh my GOD, I LOVE it here!” she said, excitedly waving a wooden spoon.
“What do you love about it?” Sheena asked.
She put her hand on her hip and wagged the spoon as she spoke. Her answer came without hesitation. “Well for one thing, we have electricity twenty four hours a day! I can just switch on the light any time and it always works!” She flipped the light switch on and off and shrugged her shoulders. It was true, in Kathmandu there wasn’t enough electricity generation to meet demand, and so for eight hours every day there wasn’t any electricity. She put the spoon down and opened the dishwasher where she sifted through a stack of pots and pans.
“Do you store things in your dishwasher?” Sheena asked.
“Yeah, we don’t understand this thing. It’s easy enough to wash the dishes by hand, so we use it for storage. We don’t even know how it works, actually.” I considered showing her how to operate it, but it occurred to me that there was something wholesome about not succumbing to all of our unnecessary gadgets, and I didn’t want to corrupt that.
It was interesting to gain a perspective on America from a new immigrant for whom coming here was a lifelong dream. Since arriving back on our home soil, we had pretty mixed feelings—I more so than Sheena. A slow shift had occurred during those two and a half years of passing from one continent to the next, seeing the way people lived, what was important to them, how they treated each other, and how they dealt with adversity. It had slowly become apparent to me that the world outside of our borders is all tied together by a similar thread, something in the attitudes and struggles and in the looks on people’s faces. There was a level of all-in-it-togetherness, positivity, and strong spirit. In general, the world is a very happy, a very wonderful place.
But when we arrived back in America, I sensed a slight wisp of dissatisfaction in the air. Rather than all-in-it-togetherness, there seemed to be a sense of every-man-for-himselfness. It wasn’t any one thing, but perhaps something in way the whole system functioned. Barna’s uncle Bharat had asked me back in Kathmandu what it was that made America the best country in the world. I had told him that I didn’t think that it was the best country in the world, but people probably have that impression because we are a nation of complainers. I told him that when there isn’t anything else to talk about, we tend to air out our grievances. We always talk about how things should be improved, which exposes the weak links, but by its very nature perpetuates a culture of discontent. We complain about our derelict government, our high gas prices, our idiot bosses, our incompetent phone company, and our long wait at the checkout line. From the other side of our mouths we hold ourselves up as the poster children of democracy, we have some of the world’s cheapest gas, our bosses are actually pretty smart, the phone company is trying its best, and our checkout lines are like finely tuned machines, but that’s only because we expect excellence, and never stop complaining. Bharat didn’t understand why this would make America seem like the best country in the world, so I went on to explain that our permanent state of mild dissatisfaction drives a continual push for progress. The end result is our continually improving surroundings, while the means to that end is our perpetual discontent. But at the end of the day our electricity is always on, and the living is pretty easy.
We headed south to Washington DC for a couple of days, and when we returned to Baltimore we let there be no mistake that we were taking Barna out for Mexican night. That evening she dressed up in her cutest of outfits and we hit the road. As we drove, she told us that despite having been in America for three months, she had yet to go out to a restaurant. Eating out is luxury, after all, and she was still trying to get on her feet. As it turned out, we had chosen a restaurant in a fancy neighborhood where her boss lived, which made it all the more exclusive.
We were seated under a faux thatched cabaña near the mariachi band, and soon our waiter arrived to take our drink orders. He was a typical American waiter, in that he seemed overly chipper and introduced himself, saying that he would be “taking care of us” for the evening. Barna jokingly ordered a beer, to which the waiter teased her for looking 15 years old. She made a sassy comeback, and Sheena and I looked on like proud parents as our brand new Nepali transplant verbally sparred with the waiter. He lightheartedly accused her of being an illegal immigrant, which she took in stride and without skipping a beat accused him of being Canadian. When it came time to place our order, and unable to decipher the Spanish names of the meat options—pollo, carne asada, carnitas, and the like—Barna asked if they had any buff. This, of course, is what Nepalis call water buffalo meat, and after I explained this to the waiter he emitted a belly laugh. Barna was clearly having a great time.
After dinner we strolled down the main street in the dark, passing by the bars and restaurants. We prodded her for more first impressions of America, and she told us how the women were all so beautiful, and that Americans apologize too much. Just then a girl walking in the other direction brushed Barna’s arm, and then spun around and loudly apologized. This gave us all a good laugh. A minute later a group of college-aged couples approached, and as they neared us one of the girls in the front caught Barna’s eye and said, “Oh my God! Your skirt is so CUTE!” You could nearly see the happiness exuding from her every pore. Our Barna bahini was going to do just fine here.
On our first night at Barna’s house, I had mentioned how Sunil had sat on the couch writing in his journal while the girls made dal bhat in the kitchen. After dinner, I asked Sunil what he had been writing, and he offered to read it to us. We gathered around the table and he read aloud in Nepali, pausing at intervals so that Barna could translate.
I still remember the day when my brother, Dr. Baroon Rai, mentioned his friends Brad and Sheena, who were getting ready to drive around the world. They all lived in Arizona then, and my brother was on his way to achieving his second masters degree. I love the idea of traveling, so this was not merely a piece of information, it meant a lot more and was very exciting for a person like me. The fact that they are not just traveling to a place, but the entire world, I had thousands of questions welling up inside me. Will I ever travel the world someday? No answer, but the excitement ran down my spine. I had done my research over the internet and had gained a thorough knowledge about travel, like the story of walking to the North Pole, and the motorbike world tour of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman.
Brad and Sheena named their journey Drive Nacho Drive, as they called their beloved white Volkswagen van “Nacho,” and started posting updates to the web. I liked their Facebook page and started observing them. After completing their journey to Argentina, they shipped their Nacho to Malaysia. I could not take my eyes off after viewing the photos they had posted from Latin America of the mountains, hills, rivers, streams, roads and the local people around. They were very beautiful indeed.
They reached Nepal after resuming their Journey from Malaysia. After their arrival in Nepal, they were meant to stay at my brother Dr. Baroon’s house. During their stay, they visited my home too, which was a few blocks away. They were introduced to my family members and especially the kids; they loved them and are more familiar. While they were in Nepal, I believe they had a wonderful journey. I still have their pictures of Thorong La Pass captured within me. After two months of stay, they headed for India. Once again through internet, we started receiving beautiful pictures and writings from their journey. With every passing day, they completed more miles of the world in their van, our very own Nacho, with joy and gusto, while I silently studied them. When I traveled back to Nepal, Brad and Sheena would be remembered and talked about all day by the children, and especially Liza (my brother’s daughter) would retell all her experience about Sheena.
Today, two and a half years later, the Nacho traveling the world is parked in front of my house here in Baltimore, USA. Brad and Sheena are sitting right beside me at our dining table having coffee with me. As I look at them, or to be more precise stare at them, I feel they are different from anyone I come across walking in the streets. Still I cannot get enough of them. They are chit chatting about their experience from when they were at my house in Nepal, and I keep imagining myself in their shoes. I am trying to think about all the possible things one might know about after traveling the whole world, but it’s easier said than done, as I cannot even come up with an idea of what might have happened. My niece, Barna, who met Brad and Sheena in Nepal, welcomed them in the US and is cooking Nepali dishes for them. Sheena says that they still have three thousand miles to go before they reach their home in Arizona.
To be honest, for me they are not just my brother’s friends staying at my house, but are an ordinary couple that dared to become extraordinary travelers. In Nepali, there is a famous saying, “We should treat our guests as God,” and today, I am actually realizing Brad and Sheena to be God in the form of our guest. Watching them constantly, I feel like I have traveled the world myself. Dreaming of traveling the world—billions of people do that every second, but actually doing it, very few can achieve that. From the bottom of my heart, I salute Brad and Sheena for their valiant and audacious determination.
Before this we were unaware that Sunil had been following our journey at all, let alone for the last three years. As he spoke and our Nepali sister translated, we reflected on our connection to this wonderful family and their country. One year after leaving our family in Nepal, we found ourselves reunited, at least in part. This time the hectic sounds of Kathmandu had been replaced by the silence of an American suburb after dark, interrupted only by the occasional passing car. Sunil had said that he couldn’t begin to imagine what we must know after a trip like this. But he comes from the one place where we learned more about the purpose of living than any other place in the world. I look at Sunil, Kalpana, and Barna; living examples of unadulterated positivity, kindness, and determination; and I wonder if they realize just how much they can teach all of us.