“As I wander about, the past and present merge into one another and this merger leads me to think of the future. Time becomes like a flowing river in continuous motion with events connected with one another” - Jawaharlal Nehru 1951
I’ve been back in America now 16 days. Home? Not quite. I haven’t made it out that way. If such a way exists anymore.
Home in the sense of a permanent place of belonging as opposed to a new found transitory sense. ‘I am home where my feet touch the ground and my heart pumps,’ this I think is a seeping realization of the effects of my past 9 months. At the same time it is comforting, it is like the Void, infinite, swallowing, daunting. Not that I want the rest of my life to be constant travel never returning to a familiar space, maybe far off this will be a path, but after experiencing 9 months of that I know it’s a lot tougher than it sounds. At least when you have roots in a very specific place. But the truth is, I have ‘the bug’. I was bitten on the weathered hafa of Tangier, in the dim lit bars of Casablanca; across every home and bed over five continents I was called by the siren of the Journey. There is no coming back from that.
Especially when your vocational path has much more to do with intellectual engagement, political organization, and writing than any ‘career track’, how could one ever be content with not being on the road?
Upon retuning to the states I realize the most valuable material I carried with me is the now growing collection of memo books I have. I’m on number 7 now. A compiled set of bound sentences filled with references and unfinished thoughts; half-truths and the lies I tell myself, these pocket size notebooks weave a profound truth not just of myself but indeed the world I saw. Like a mixing of the drive way of 523 North Main St, a figment of my memory floating barely in space and the shadowed side street, with it’s cobweb of wires spinning through the cracks of light falling over the grey concrete of Arjun Nagar; the bright mornings of calle de la republic de cuba and the slam of the printing press across the street; the quite solitude of lovers and families on the green grove of Jiron de gomez sanchez; the open vastness of the village road in southwest Nepal, rising out of marshy fields in the shadows of the southern foothills… photos barely do any justice.
And can one truly convey this to another? Barley.
A great darkness tucked out over the horizon and the closed mills, fortresses in the night. Monterrey streets glowed in the technicolor windows of bars and cantinas, travelers’ lodging, and bus ports. Vaquero boots and flannels, jean jackets and baseball hats shuffled over a hundred duffle bags. Men puffed through cigarettes on the bus terminal chatting and checking the incoming buses on the large computer screen hung behind the glass wall.
I started to talk with an old man. He as on his way to La Potasa, a town north west of Piedras Negras, my destination. He was on his way back from visiting his son and newborn grand daughter, his eyes creeped with pride his hands spreading the distance of a loaf of bread, “Precioso” he said jubilantly. I told him I was visiting the town of my great grandfather, mi bisabuelo. He smiled. It didn’t come up that I was from el otro lado, the other side. I suppose due to my deception I had become accustomed to.
The night was long with a dozen stops at every which town. I was scheduled to be in Piedras just before dawn. The country at night appeared hard but warm. The faces and greetings as people exited and entered the bus, quick smokes as we waited ten minutes, or changed drivers, were ernest. I drew less glances anywhere else (besides Nepal), perhaps in la madrugada los espiritús, the spirits cloaked me. Returning blood after four generations welcomed to a land nearly forgotten.
The bus stations were short of decoration. Bundled men and women dozed in hard plastic seats. The green-yellowed lights created that 3am haze. A light buzzed in the corner and garbled news/sports/weather droned on and on crackling out of an old T.V.
It was still dark when the bus rolled through the outskirts of Piedras, a few men got off near a taxi stand, I guessed right and waited for the next stop, I saved my self a headache and nice sum of pesos by doing so. Early workers appeared with lunch pails and backpacks along high narrow side walks. I caught a Taxi outside of the station, “Hotel economico…más barrato”, a 20 peso ride later and I stood outside “Hotel Torre”, not much of a tower. I rang the buzzer a few times. Broken. The taxi had taken off. ‘Shit’ I thought, looking down the desolate street with a few figures at the end of it, acutely aware of my presence. I peered through the window a man slept on a sofa in the lobby. I knocked, waking him up. He came cautiously to the door eyeing my duffle bag. Cracking the door he peered out “Que quirers?”
“Un habitacion” I said. He asked for ID, I showed my passport, his disposition changed nearly instantly. “Ahh un americano, bienvinido, pásale” opening the door. He was watching soaps on the T.V. The room wasn’t available, at 8 it would be. I took the second couch and watched the terrible telenovelas, stepping out into the brisk morning for a smoke. The sun was peaking above the horizon painting a much more beautiful city.
The room was fine, cheap, no water in the shower but I was only to be there three nights. Not to worry. Cucarachas scurried for shadows when the lights were flipped, but I was scarcely surprised. I’d seen worse.
I stored my stuff and went out for a morning walk.
The streets were nearly empty, the sun was hitting the 60 degree angle on the horizon, palms and lush trees filled with moss hung in the growing humidity. I walked down a small side street guessing which way to the river. Ranchera muffled out of a kitchen window, the day was breaking, toy bikes and basketball hoops spelled life along the river-drive. I arrived upon el paseo del rio, the river walk, and saw the other side. I saw el riò bravo and the bridge where my family became American, the landscape my great-grandfather saw when he left home for the last time. The river flowed with a power that could be felt some 200 meters back, a few couples speed walked along the bank. An old man sat on a bench. I was undoubtedly overwhelmed by emotion.
I was where I had never been before. Land that that my ancestors had lived. The Rio Bravo valley, before the spanish, before méxico was méxico, before a lot of things, this is where I came from.
What I had dreamed of doing since I was a kid and learned where my family came from was within a few days time.
I can think of no better way of completing my journey than the way I did. A few days wandering around town. Talking with strangers, evening paseos among dozens of families fishing, biking, playing ball; couples sitting, girlfriends laughing hiding jokes to passerbys. The evening were absolutely beautiful, the nights were cool, and the beer cheaper than DF, yet the food I can’t lie couldn’t compete.
My last evening I had gotten my smoothie and was sitting at one of the many river-facing benches, a young man approached, he smiled, we greeted each other, he sat down on the bench, “Can you believe it?” not waiting to see if I could or not, he continued“The PRI and PAN (two major Mexcian political parties) same pinchie cabrones” he sighed exasperated. “And these cabrones” he gestured across the river to the golf course that faced the river walk and the close-but-distant figures of large golf players scooting around the green in buggies, flanked by the green and white Border Patrol SUVs. “Can we ever get a break!” the young man exclaimed. Shaking his head. Obviously under the impression I to was mexicano, I as usual felt no need to correct the man. We talked for a while. He was going to be crossing soon. Next week in fact. He had a visa, through dubious means yet not entirely untrue. His name was Miguel, he wanted to study, his english was not bad. He recounted when he was a child and his father and him walked along this same river bank, he saw “la migra” and inquired to his father who they were and why they existed.
“la migra existe porque, ellos no quieren nosotros en el otro lado…y por que, por que, por que…”
I couldn’t continue the rouse. “Carnal, mañana yo voy a cruzar al otro lado…pero soy un gringo. Este ciudad es la cuidad de mi bisabuelo.” Miguel’s head jerked to face me, his eyes widened with more surprise than I expected. He laughed almost not believing me. I had to speak in english to convince him. I told him of my journey. He was taken aback to say the least. We sat in silence for a moment.
One of the Border Patrol SUVs zoomed off on the other side. We spoke a bit more. But what else was there to say? There was an impeding, damning, and nearly insurmountable border between us. We wished each other luck, of which I would need none to cross, and said goodbye. I walked until it got dark. The world weighed on my shoulders. If there was a way to burst this wall, to break this dam, to cross this river to something that was worth while, something emancipated… I wished, I wished.
“…y por que…por que…por que…?”
The night grew dark. I had a few lousy tacos de barbacoa, of which I’m surprised didn’t make me sick. The hotel I stayed at served as a jumping off point for men on their way north. I spoke with another man. He had been deported 3 years ago. His daughter lived in San Antonio and was 6.
That night sirens blared down the street. Militarized police asked for everyones ID, why they were in town, etc. etc.
The morning of the 27th I, along with mothers with children on their way to school and workers on the way to a job, crossed the bridge from México to the U.S.; shadows passing above a ghost river. The U.S. side agent spoke first in Spanish to me, I laughed and greeted him with an undeniably American accent and handed him my passport. Usual questions. Usual responses. Brief bag search. Paid taxes on one of the bottles of mezcal I had, wasn’t gonna give Texas that much. I found a taxi driver, who was mexicano and assumed I was and got a 3$ drive across town to the greyhound stop at the gas station where I would wait for 8 hours. I quickly learned that though we may be in Texas, Spanish was the dominant language.
I listened to Nikhil Banerjee on my phone, eat surprisingly good enchiladas con arroz y frijoles from the gas station taco joint, read up on some political theory for my Fulbright proposal. A typical day, just spent in a gas station in south Texas.
Half an hour before the bus was to come I sat out by the bus stand, in what would have been unbearably hot weather was cooled by strong wind across the hills of the Rio Bravo valley. I thought of my great grandfather, Trinidad, waiting on a ride to San Antonio. I wondered how he got there. There were no buses back then. Maybe he caught a ride. I doubt he had the funds for any private transit. That was a tough guy, worked in the fields, the mines, and the GM plant in Pontiac Michigan.
As I travel through the world I know at every point there are homages to be made, to my ancestors who shared the road with me, whether Trinidad not even 20 traversing “el otro lado” searching the land of dreams for the reality that would become my family; or be it my great grand father Kim Kyung-ha walking across the vales and mountains of North Korea with only rags wrapped on his feet, escaping imprisonment from the occupying Japanese, my journeys have never been solitary, nor will they be.
I sit in the kitchen in my folks’ new home in Worcester (pronounced Wusta), Massachusetts, plotting my next escape into the life of travel. Southern Spain, or back to India for a year, maybe Vietnam on a chefs tour of my own, or back to Medellin to visit an old lover, or to Ghanna to converse with a comrade… my journeys will carry me far and keep my heart wide, my eyes ever on the horizon.