My senior year of university I decided to spend my fall semester studying in north India. My parents were furious. I had already spent two semesters abroad- my freshman year in France and Senegal, and my junior year in Kenya and Tanzania. Since high school I had babbled on about wanting to study in Africa, so my parents had time to prepare for that, and in my freshman year—France probably sounded “safe” and “normal,” (not to mention they probably hoped I’d get the travel bug out of my system before the inevitable Kenya trip) so they could rally behind that—but India?
“You’re using that college like an expensive travel agency!”
“How will you get a job some day if you never study in a real classroom?”
“I bet if she were dating someone from Vietnam or Brazil, she’d want to travel there next!”
Finally my dad acquiesced, “We both know she was never going to join the ‘glee club’ and participate in normal college life, if it isn’t costing us extra, then let her do what she wants, because she will probably just do it anyway.” (huh? Glee club? Normal college life?)
“Fine. But you have to be home for Christmas. No matter what. Period.”
I should mention that the year before I conveniently didn’t tell my parents I was missing Christmas to stay in East Africa for research… until I already had a university grant and couldn’t come home. They weren’t happy, and probably figured I planned to do the same thing again.
The truth was, that was my plan. I had time in my plan of study to do something else, and I was ready for my next adventure. The fact that P was South Asian helped me to decide where to go next. If I could have figured out a way to quickly add a study abroad option in Nepal to my schedule I probably would have, but my university had an India program, and it was easier to make that jump.
My plan was to spend a semester in India, learn the basics of the language, culture, religion, etc, then meet P in Kathmandu for a month after the program. I was hoping to take Nepali language classes, meet his family, get to see his home city with him, and then come back for my final semester. The rigid stipulation that I had to be home by Christmas squashed that, and P ultimately decided not to travel home during the break if I was only going to be there for 4 days. But how could I travel so close and not stop in for a visit? A flight from Delhi to KTM is only about an hour. Who knew if I’d ever be that close to Nepal again? I was determine to go… with or without P (although definitely with his blessing!)
I had a great time in India. I learned an incredible amount in a short period of time, and as the days wound closer to the end of the program, the more nervous I became. Reality dawned on me, I had already made the plan and I couldn’t back out… I was going to meet P’s family. Alone. By myself. I was petrified.
It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I’d met P’s dad for a few days when he graduated from university the year before. His dad was nice and friendly (I can talk about this another time), but traveling to his home, alone, in another country, felt a lot more official, and scary. I was going to meet his aunt, his mom (who I think was still a bit worried about the whole “American” girl thing), his cousin and his grandfather, and P wasn’t going to be around to facilitate the meeting process.
Most of the students spent the last few days of our program in Delhi finishing final projects, finding shops to buy last minute souvenirs for friends and family, some even had their hands decorated in henna. Meanwhile I was spending time at the Nepali embassy getting my visa, and purchasing my plane ticket to Kathmandu. I had that old Bob Seger song stuck in my head for days… “K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu/I think it’s really where I’m goin’ to/Hey, if I ever get out of here/I’m goin’ to Kathmandu.” It was totally cliché, but true, and it was wedged in my head until I landed at the KTM airport.
Then came the time when all the other students left. I accompanied them to the airport to see them fly home to the United States, and I was left waiting for my own flight. I was excited but trembling. I was so worried (I spend too much time worrying) of making a bad impression. A friend and I spent days looking through my collection of clothes trying to find nice looking outfits (I was only taking a small bag, and leaving the rest of my luggage in a storage area at the Delhi airport.)
Nearly all the clothes I had were Indian salwar kameez, kurta tops and long Indian design printed cotton skirts. I felt comfortable wearing these things in India, especially since I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, and Western travelers in places such as India or Africa tend to dress a bit odd anyway. Either all “ethnic,” or all khaki jacket safari-type clothes with lots of pockets, or kind of hippy-styled. I blended in to this crowd for the most part, but I was worried if I wore things that were too South Asian P’s family would find me strange, but I didn’t really have any proper American clothes either. I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that while in America P’s dad wore a suit and tie every day, even if he was just going out to the grocery store. I didn’t have anything fancy. I felt woefully unprepared in every way.
The flight from Delhi to Kathmandu was beautiful. Not too long after leaving Delhi one can gaze out the window of the plane and watch as you fly straight at a high wall of Himalayan mountains. I remember sitting next to a western business man going to Nepal for a holiday. He was chatting away, but my hands were shaking with nerves and my stomach was doing flip flops. When the plane breached the valley wall it flew within view of some small houses on the mountain ridge, my first glimpse at real Nepali life. I was glued to the window for the final approach, shaky hands and all. When the plane finally landed at the tiny airport in Kathmandu I was a bit in shock. It was hard to believe I was actually there, in a place I had heard so much about, knew so many people from, people I was half way around the world from at that very moment.
The national airport is so small that you have to disembark the plane from a stair case that is wheeled up to the plane door from across the tarmac, then you walk along the pavement to the back entrance of the airport. This leads to a narrow walkway with windows on both sides, although the windows are a bit reflective so you can barely see the passengers waiting on the other side getting ready to disembark on the plane you just flew in on. I couldn’t help but try to catch my reflection in the glass and fuss with my hair and outfit the entire walk to the immigration counter. I wanted to look presentable, confident, somehow dignified. I was still shaking when I handed over my passport to the immigration clerk (who gently teased me about my nose piercing and asked if I was Nepali, an obvious joke from my pinky-whiteness), and walked downstairs to pick my bag from the baggage claim.
Then I followed the crowd toward the doorway that led to the arrival area of the airport. Just outside the main door was the waiting area for friends and family. From a distance I could see all the people waiting, a sea of unfamiliar faces, and I knew P’s dad was waiting somewhere out there in the crowd.