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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — 3rd Place Winner

Take Me to America

“Bahini,” I hear. The voice isn’t loud, and the bazaar where the tempo sits buzzes with noise. So, I ignore the voice even though I’m pretty sure it’s my attention she wants to get.  I stare out the small iron grated windows from inside the tempo, which is a miniature version of a truck: a small cab with an enclosed “bed” in back. The truck bed is lined with two narrow benches on either side. With only room to crouch or sit, the tempo is crowded, a person pressed up tight against me on both sides. Outside, six men stand on the bumper, holding on to the rack on the roof. It’s sweltering hot, yet they must be cooler outside. Inside all I feel is the hot breath of everyone around me. This isn’t the first time I’ve made this trip, and so I know the seven kilometers to Hetauda will take almost an hour to cover. So, I bear the trip as best as I can because the tempo is still better than walking.

“Bahini,” I hear again, this time more insistent, purposeful. I’m certain now it is meant for me, even though several women inside the tempo could be classified as “younger sister.” Family, strangers, even a foreigner like me is a “sister” in Nepal.

I see the woman addressing me, and she looks like the rest of the women over fifty in Nepal. Her hair, bound up, has the Brahmin red tail of yarn swinging down from within the tangle of braids. Her breasts sag into her waist; her blouse no longer tight enough to hold them up. And the sari—red and worn thin—looks as defeated. I notice some of her teeth are gone; those that are left don’t fit together so her lower jaw juts out a bit more to compensate. I avoid meeting her eyes. Too much is revealed there. I look instead at the skin around the eyes, around her mouth. So wrinkled. Much like sandpaper or a paper bag overused and crumpled up in the shape of a palm. I want to iron them out, those wrinkles, and see what lies within the lines. 

“Hajure,” I say in Nepali to acknowledge that I have heard her.

“Kahaan jannay?” 

And I tell her I’m going to Hetauda.

“Kahaan bata?” 

She is curious about me. Where do I come from, she wants to know, but I’m not feeling in the mood to go through the litany of fake surprise, smiles and laughter that follows the answer she hopes to hear. So instead of saying “America,” I tell her I’m coming from Bastipur. We got on the tempo together, so she should know.

But she is not to be humored. She wants the litany. She shakes her head. Bastipur is not what she means. 

“What country?” she asks me, emphasizing “country.”

And I say, “America.” Here in Nepal, the U.S. is America. And I, a Caucasian with light brown hair and blue eyes can be no other than American. Everyone different must be from somewhere else.

She nods. She has known before she asked. Now she moves forward as if formal introductions are over. Putting a wrinkled hand on my knee she asks me, “Are you married?”

How many times have I been asked the same question, I wonder. I feel the familiar well inside churning, awash in a rising tide of irritation from too many times being asked the same question and a frustration in knowing these questions can never be staunched. I know by the red yarn, by the sari, by the streak of red running the length of the part in her hair that she is married, probably since she was thirteen. As a young women from the U.S., I don’t want to be identified by someone else, not measured in relationship to men, as if that is all that matters about me. But this sort of stand-on-my own attitude is strange, foreign here. The fact that I am traveling alone troubles this older woman. She wants to be sure there is someone waiting for me, someone to come home to. Alone is lonely in Nepal. 

So, I have no answer but one. “No, I’m not married,” I say simply to the woman beside me in the tempo, knowing the words carried with them weight. Remaining single is not a condition women in Nepal take lightly.

She has a solution. It is in the twinkle of her eye as she tells me. I should marry a Nepali boy and stay here in Nepal. 

I wriggle through the trap, lamely. “I don’t want to live far away from my family in America.” 

As if on cue, she turns what should be a question into a statement. “So take me to America.” There is no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ allowed by the way she says it. 

My smile tightens. I knew our conversation would come to this. Everyone in the tempo is watching me, and I feel like I am taking a test. How much is the rich American willing to give?

I remember a time I was walking to Tansen, a town a little over an hour’s walk from the village where I was living. I ran into a young boy about twelve, the same age as my students. He asked where I was going.  I told him, and then he asked me what I do in Nepal. I explained I was a teacher. I was eager to be on my way, and so I took a step forward, toward a rocky path where a fork in the road sent the big paved road veering to the right. Only just then, he threw out in one breath. “Give me one rupee.” And I felt every bit of kindness I felt initially drain away. I called over my shoulder that he “should be ashamed, begging for money.” Only, my feelings were not so easily vented, the catharsis a farce. Lashing out in anger did little to cover the shame that lay underneath, for it was me who felt ashamed as I left him there on the road looking after me.

One rupee. That’s about four cents. The boy on the road had a home, I justified, and he was dressed in Bugle Boy jeans and a clean black T-shirt. His question, I told myself, comes from the numerous tourists that come here. They give money before he even asks. So he assumed that I, too, would give him money. 

Yet, who was I kidding? Even after I told him I wasn’t a tourist, and only a village school teacher, he knew I had money. If not in the pockets of the corta surawal I wore like the other unmarried women, then it was at home in America. In the three cars my parents owned. It was the two TV’s and the computer. He knew that I had plenty more packed into boxes in the attic, more than he could ever hope to have in his entire lifetime. Even the fact that I was there in Nepal was luxury. He would never even get a chance to go to Kathmandu. How can I hide the privilege that brought me here among the Nepalese? They see it more clearly than I do.

Once, in a fit of self-righteousness at the questions, the same questions--again and again--asking me for money, asking if I’d take care of things, if I’d take so-and-so to America, I asked Lila Nath Sir, a teacher at the school where I taught, “Is money the only thing that makes you happy?” I didn’t mean him, just him, but he answered quieter and less to me than to himself: “It is not happiness to see the clothes on your daughter’s back full of holes and lost buttons. No, I can’t be happy when the old man who lives in Nier has to carry his own water for a half-hour up the hill to his house.”

I stared up at the stars that same night, visible through the thin sheet of monsoon rain clouds. Lila Nath Sir had spoken first about his own daughter, a relationship I understood, even if I had no daughter of my own. Family was family; you cared for them, made sure they had what they needed, that I knew. But he’d talked, too, of a man to whom he was not bound by blood. A stranger, really.

In the US, I would walk past the old man from Nier limping with a cane down the sidewalk. I don’t look at him, nor he at me. I’d pass by him quickly, as he’d walk more slowly. We are strangers to each other. Yet here in Nepal, he’d call out to me. He’d greet me as “granddaughter” and I’d respond with “grandfather.” A sign of respect. In Nepal, we were all one big family.

Was it being part of this family in Nepal that I felt such responsibility? The principal of the school where I’d taught had asked me to write a grant for $10,000, to build a new school, as he’d heard another American had done in another village two or ten years ago. Why didn’t I say “yes,” “sure,” “no problem, glad I can help”? I wanted a reason to why I didn’t give money more freely, why was it so hard for me to ask for the money and build this village the nicest school they’ve ever seen? Even if it would really only cost $2000 and the headsir of the school, changing the figures a bit, might pocket the rest. How easily we give money in the States. Sign a check. Lick a stamp. We don’t have to witness the effect it has, where it goes, or for whom it is spent. Should I take that responsibility? Make sure that the people who live here are honest, even though it is their village, their school, their students who do benefit, even if only a little. 

Lila Nath Sir got his salary and spent most of it going out for a few meals and a few beers. Whatever he had left went to that new shirt for his daughter. Am I the one to judge him? His country is ranked one of the world’s poorest, most of the money ending up in the coffers of the middle man who doles out “one for you, ten for me. One for you, ten for me.” The poor get poorer. The rich get richer. Nepalese, in their humble way and despite their real status, use “We are poor; you are rich” as an excuse often enough. But there is still truth that rings through the shallowness of the statement, even when it comes from the richest Brahmin in the village.

Does the woman in the tempo see any of this? I’ve avoided her eyes, I realize because I did not want to see what real conditions are there, what she wants to see and what she is searching for. I only think of what she sees when she looks at me. Have my  misconceptions merely darkened the cinnamon brown of her eyes with my own view of how she sees?

I look down at my hands. Her hand is so close, almost touching my own. She sees me looking, and looks down too, taking her hands from my knee. Hers is so small, but she takes my big pale hand in hers—hers so warm, slender, used and familiar. The bones were prominent through the skin, arching up from where the skin loosened, bundled into small empty cavities between each finger.

“Look,” she says to me, even though I’m already looking. “So white.” 

She strokes my hand as if it were porcelain. She holds up her other hand. “Black.” She wrinkles her lips as if disgusted. Then she smiles, the smile fading quickly into disappointment. 

Where did she learn this, I wonder? Learn that white is beautiful and black is ugly. Even in Nepal, skin color is relative: the dark-skinned Indian is ugly. Sonia Ghandi is beautiful; dark eyes and hair with fair European skin coloring.

Once at school I brought in a Newsweek with a famous basketball player on the cover. Lila Nath Sir was leafing through the papers. He came to the centerfold, where the black player was photographed in a Bulls uniform, his face dripping with sweat. “Oh!” Lila Sir exclaimed, holding it back so as to not have the picture too close. “He looks like a monster.” He held the magazine up for the other teachers to see.

“So ugly,” Madame said, peering at the photo with cautious curiosity.

I was shocked into silence. They measured me “Western” because I’m Caucasian. I want to explain to the teachers how important this man is to Americans. A hero. A star. 

“He’s more American than I am.” I said to the teachers. They ignore me.

“And a thousand times richer.”

That they will not believe. Even if they knew had only $300 in my savings account when I left the States a year ago, and now in Nepal live on a stipend of about $100 a month. I wear the same corta suruwal to school every day, and they still think I’m rich. 

“He’s from Africa, isn’t he?” one teacher asked.

“Not him,” I said. “An ancestor. A long, long time ago.”

It’s an image of America that they remain glued to. They know my own mother was a refugee from Eastern Europe. But they still plant me firmly in the continent of their mind. I am American. This man, blacker than the blackest Southeast Asian the teachers have ever seen is not American. He can only be African.

Lila Nath Sir looks up from where he sits in quiet commentary with Shiva Sir. “There aren’t many Negroes, though, are there?”

I cringe at the word. And I realize he has heard me, but doesn’t want to change what he believes. He knows what Nepalese in this village know.

“Ten to fifteen percent of Americans are African-Americans,” I tell him. “African-American,” I say again, emphasizing the American in the world. I think I have only confused them. They hear “African,” not “American.”

How can racism exist here? Ten hours by bus from Kathmandu, the number of foreigners they have met could be counted on one hand. How can they have such a strong opinion about Americans—Black Americans?

“Beautiful.” I say to the woman in the tempo. She looks at her hand. She laughs. Flattered, but unbelieving.

I look from her hand, still holding my own, back up into her eyes. She was looking at me still.  I see it there, what I don’t want to see, the open and humble way she acknowledges me as someone whiter, richer, and more American. I didn’t come to this country to be different. I wanted to learn, to fit in, and to find a place for me. But instead, daily, I’m reminded of who I am and where I’m from. 

The tempo stops outside a store with pots and pans spilling onto the sidewalk. 

“Stop thinking that way.” I want to say to her. I want to say it loud and in Nepali for everyone to hear, even scream it. “You don’t know where I’m from. And I don’t know any more than you where I’m going.” 

But instead I squeeze her hand a little tighter before I pull my hand out of hers. The other passengers have stood up and are pushing their way out of the back of the tempo, no orderliness to the way they squeeze out. I follow suit, ignoring the rickshaw drivers who see me step out of the tempo, and call out to me in heavily accented English that they will take me anywhere I want to go. Is it back to America, perhaps, that I wish they could take me, away from all of these people who notice me first and foremost because I’m different? I walk along the street, past the stands of tomatoes and cauliflower, the women with plastic bags full of produce in their hands. 

The woman from the tempo has caught up with me, and is walking with a small boy in tow. 

“Take my grandson to America,” she asks. 

I smile when I hear the question again, this time because I sense both the comedy and the desperation in the question. Why not ask? It’s worth a try. I wonder if she’s ever heard a “yes” from foreigners and believed them.

I explain that I can’t take her or her grandson to America. I am not going to America anytime soon. Right now I’m looking for a place to have tea. She nods, already understanding. She sends the boy ahead to get the tea ready while she walks slowly beside me, showing me the way to a tea shop she frequents near the town center. The tea shop, I imagine, is like other Nepali tea shops, dark, dingy, held together by stones and bamboo sticks.

She takes my hand again, this time proudly as if she were showing me off to all the people on the street. I have a feeling that we have crossed a bridge or an ocean and now we are closer to becoming friends. I hold her hand tighter, hoping this afternoon she might show what I can’t see in the wrinkles on her face or in the dark cinnamon of her eyes. “Take me to Nepal.” I want to say to her. I hope after a cup of tea, we’ll both finally come closer to the places we both hope to go.