Monthly Archives: June 2003

Back in the saddle, again

I’d only just passed through customs in San Francisco when I heard a page for Kumar Shrestha. Kumar Shrestha, please pick up the blue courtesy phone. First impulse was to go to the Delta counter that had paged him and sit around to wait for him, shouting, Bala du?.

I didn’t. Instead I bought a newspaper and a coffee to pass the three-hour layover.

I was going to need a lot more coffee before I ended my traveling. As we approached Houston, storms prohibited our plane from landing. We circled for half an hour before landing in Corpus Christi to refuel where we sat on the runway for about an hour before taking off again to attempt another landing, which was successful.

I spent the night on the floor on the bottom level of the Houston Intercontinental Airport, where every ten minutes the light rail would zip by, stopping a few meters from where I was sleeping and declare, Next stop, Comfort Inn, which was subsequently repeated in Spanish.

Also in the basement was a group of about fifteen high schoolers from a Christian choir on tour from Kansas.

Besides the steady stream of announcements that lasted into the night, the choir provided added to the already bountiful ambient noise of the airport: elevators binging out the floor numbers, light rail buzzing along, vacuum cleaners droning in the distance, and then a choir singing, He’s got the whole world in his hands, accompanied by no less than five badly strummed guitars.

After 16 months, this was my first night back in my native country.

Back home, I was expecting more strange things. Or maybe just to feel strange, to be confused at my once-and-future home, but I wasn’t. I didn’t weep when I went to the grocery store.

Nothing had really changed since I left. Cars still had four wheels and people were still using cell phones. Whoppee-tah. Maybe I expected too much from the United States. It would have been stupid to expect it to suddenly molt into an entirely different creature over the past 16 months.

It hadn’t. Maybe I’d gotten to a point where I could say, It’s been a year and a half. Going without a burrito for another day isn’t going to kill me.

I missed Mexican food. I missed donut shops with loud groups of retirees hassling the teenagers behind the counter. I missed our newspapers. I missed the public libraries. I missed running into old friends. I missed my photo albums and college radio.

But there’s an equal number of things I’m missing about Nepal, like speaking Nepali or, taking daal bhaat.

I even miss the buses, because a bus is seeing a friend or going someplace new. And nothing’s new in the United States.

Diversity visa odyssey

I met Roshani at her sister’s wedding under rather strange circumstances. Matt and Shana had phoned and said they were coming from Narayanghat with the Godmother, our codename for the elderly didi who oversaw everything at Shana’s home, like when fans could be turned on or just passing through Shana’s kitchen to collect a couple of tomatoes.

So one evening Matt, Shana, and I joined the wedding procession and walked through Birganj carrying the wedding gifts, food, etc. We wandered past the Ghantaghar, the clock tower that is the emblem of Birganj, and meandered north towards Murli Gardens, a suburban area of Birganj where I live.

Roshani and her sister at home

Roshani and her sister at home in Murli Gardens, Birganj.

We walked down my road, past my house, and ended at a house near the chowk south of my house.

That’s where I met Roshani. After her sister’s wedding we’d see each other in Murli or around town. Rob’s (a N/192) youth club (YCC) had employed her as some sort of coordinator.

I remember one of our first conversations after the wedding was on my birthday, a couple days before Christmas. Our paths began to cross more frequently and soon she and I were friends.

But it was a strange friendship, because young, unmarried Nepali girls usually don’t freely socialize with random, male foreigners who happen to lurk about in their neighborhood.

Just because of the proximity of where we lived, I got to know Roshani’s mother and father. I think that helped keep up appearances. Roshani really became my best friend in Birganj. She was always eager to practice her English with me or ask me questions about Nepal.

I remember after some plumbing problems in my home I went and asked Roshani who was liable for the cost of repair in such a situation in Nepal—the landowner or I. She gave all the volunteers in Birganj tickets to see a dance program at her college that she had helped organize.

It’s been difficult to assimilate in Birganj, mainly because there are so many other groups of people coming from all across Nepal and India trying to do the same thing. To say that people are wary of one another in Birganj is an understatement.

Yet Roshani and her family always made me feel included, accepted. She was my Nepali bhahini and her family was my own family.

One rainy day back in February, I left home without my umbrella on my walk to school. When I passed the YCC, Roshani yelled out at me from the second floor awning, Hey, where are you going?

I told her that I was going to school.

Can I come along? she asked and with a surprising amount of earnestness, waving an umbrella in the other hand.

She came along with me to school and as I had predicted, school was canceled because of the torrential downpour. (Few students come with it rains hard or through them morning, perhaps because the limited amount of clothing a student has, or maybe because of the threat of illness.)

So she observed as I quickly reviewed something I had taught the day before and assigned some quick homework. As we walked back to the YCC office, we started laughing at how wet I was from walking in the rain. I was drenched from top to bottom.

Roshani had been holding the umbrella while I tried to duck as much of my body underneath, before finally just giving up and walking in the rain.

She put down the umbrella and said, If you’re walking in the rain, I’ll walk in the rain, too.

So we did.

And slowly Roshani and I became close and talked almost every other day. I started feeling that maybe I was doing Roshani wrong by being her friend, because I didn’t want people to whisper in the street after I’d left Birganj.

I felt that we could both be happy with a friendship I didn’t want there to be any chance that she would want anything more from me—nothing.

I guess things started to fall apart a week ago. Some of the volunteers were going to a concert at the Town Hall in Birganj on Monday and Roshani was going, too. On Thursday I was invited to go to Itahari (in the east, south of Dharan and north of Biratnagar) to Yvette’s birthday party.

Itahari wasn’t far (about five hours by bus) and I hadn’t spent time there before so I said, Sure. Count me in.

On my way to the buspark on Friday I passed by Roshani’s house. Her mother was sitting in front of the shop that the family owns.

I stopped in and leaned against the counter and told Roshani’s mother to pass the word along that I was going to Itahari for a couple nights but would be back on Sunday or Monday in time for the concert.

She barely let me finish before she called upstairs for Roshani, ROSHNEEEE!

A moment later Roshani came barreling down the stairs and I told Roshani about my plans, assuring her I’d be back in town for the concert. She feigned a frown and told me that she was planning on inviting me to her house for dinner on Saturday night.

I was surprised. I’d been asked over to just eat with the family—nothing special. But this was a special request.

Her sadness in having to move it back a week came from having to reschedule buying this or that food. This was going to be a special dinner. But Roshani perked up when I told her I could come next Saturday.

Smiling again, she asked, So what will you bring me when you return?

Again, I was totally caught off guard and asked, What can I get you in Itahari that you can’t get in Birganj?

Not the point, apparently.

Roshani's sister getting her hair combed at home

Roshani's sister's amazingly long hair gets combed over by her mother.

On the ride to Itahari, I started putting pieces together. Our relationship was going places I didn’t want it to go. I thought of one conversation I had previously forgotten.

About three weeks ago, Shailendra, my landlord, had told me that if I wanted to marry a Nepali girl he could arrange for ten Newari (the people who’d settled the Kathmandu Valley) girls for me to choose from.

I jokingly mentioned this over coffee one morning at Himanchal Cabin to some of the other volunteers. We laughed at the prospect of me choosing a wife like that and Roshani had blurted, Make sure I am one of the ten when this happens, or something to that effect.

I had just laughed not pausing to wonder if she was serious. I was starting to think she was.

In Itahari I talked to some of the other volunteers about my revelation. They just shook their heads, asking, You didn’t see this coming?

There wasn’t any real solution to this problem, since it would have been impossible to have just stopped being her friend with her living so close to me or working with Rob’s YCC project.

Could I just tell her explicitly, looking into her eyes, We will never marry. So just cut it out. OK?

Like that would work. I mulled it over without any real solution on the ride back to Birganj. We went to the concert with a group and I didn’t detect the hints and nudges that I had started to pick up before.

The next day I was at home when the phone rang. It was Roshani.

Roshani: Are you coming by tonight?

Me: Uhh, I can if you like.

Roshani: What time will you come?

Me: Umm, maybe at seven?

Roshani: OK. Seven. My father wants to talk to you.

Me: Errr . . . OK. See you at seven o’clock.

Seven o’clock came and I walked to Roshani’s thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts. The father was going to ask me to marry his daughter with the entire family present. Gifts might be presented. They would give me a tikka.

Maybe they would ask me to chop off the head of a goat to celebrate the coming union. I had walked myself in font of a firing squad and was going to have to talk my way out of things—in Nepali.

I started forming basic sentences in my head like, I would marry your daughter, but . . . .

Roshani’s father was sitting outside the shop wearing sunglasses at sunset. I first walked to the counter and spoke a bit to Roshani’s mother and younger sister, Ruby, before I sat next to ‘Dad.’ Sigh.

Anyhow, I started talking with him and we chatted about the weather and my trip to Itahari. A few minutes later Roshani stepped off a rickshaw.

We exchanged greetings and Roshani looked gravely at her father, asking if he spoken with me yet. The father looked tired, looked away and said, Not yet.

I looked at Roshani and asked in Nepali, Spoken to me about what?

The father looked at me and said, Come upstairs. Look at my knives.

We went upstairs and Roshani brought out an assortment of Nepali khukuri.

I indifferently turned them over in my hands, impressed by the carving of the scabbard but wondering if I was about to be propositioned to marry Roshani by her father (who was, incidentally, wielding a knife at the moment).

Roshani brought her father and I some chiye and then sat down across from us. I drank my chiye and glanced up when Roshani spoke to her father, Well, go ahead, ask him.

Oh Jesus, I thought, No, please don’t.

Pops cleared his throat and stared into the distance, How much does a plane ticket to the US cost?

So Roshani’s brother in Katmandu won a DV to the US, and they had some questions to ask, like how much a ticket would cost, when the paperwork was due, if a work permit would be separate, et cetera.

Lots of questions and very few answers. I tried to explain that I’d never had to get a US visa before and that I knew very little about it. If they needed a visa for Nepal, I could have helped.

After I offered what help I could, Roshani gave me cornflakes in hot milk and we looked through her family photo album.

She showed me photos of her brother, Bishnu, who is living out the family dream of living in the US in Dallas, Texas, my old hometown. When I come to the United States in the next few weeks, I’m going to bring a package from Roshani to Bishnu.

I felt a little hurt, since the visa conversation is so threatening to me. My friend Andrew summed up how I feel about the visa issue.

Roshani and some lecherous man (your author)

Your author should apologize for having been clearly lecherous.

In Jhapa, he befriend a guy name Nissam, whose best friend, a Nepali, had gotten a Canadian visa and was studying in Toronto, Canada. Nissam used to remark to Andrew about how he really wanted to go to Canada or the United States.

One day when Nissam is going on about how much he wanted to leave Nepal, Andrew asked, Why don’t you just ask your friend how you can get a visa so you can go?

Nissam told Andrew, Well, he is my friend, and I wouldn’t want to offend him.

The next week when Andrew stopped by Nissam’s sunglass shop Nissam pointedly asked, Andrew, will you give me a Visa so I can go to the United States? So Andrew realized that he wasn’t the friend to Nissam that he had thought he’d been, which was disappointing.

With social and language barriers to leap, developing a good friendship here takes a little work.

But I felt that Roshani was just asking for help, not for a handout. And why shouldn’t I help her? That’s what friends do.