Foregoing proper family time is one of the biggest sacrifices I make as a professional traveler. It is too easy to go “off the grid” and think that every one just understands a vagabond lifestyle. Far too often it is just assumed that the traveler in the family is out of the country and the conversations go from, “Hey let's grab lunch!” to “When’s the next trip, how long are you gone and why are you leaving me again?” Always absent from the birthday parties, weddings and the impromptu Sunday morning coffee chats with the grandparents. Absent from the little one’s baseball games, grandma’s chemotherapy appointments and the family BBQ’s at my parent's pool. Absent becomes an all too common trend.
When looking at my niece and younger cousins, I think about the close bond I made with my favorite aunt as a kid because of the trips to Chuck E. Cheese’s, the movie nights and always knowing without a doubt that she would be in the crowd at every baseball game. Will I be that awesome uncle or someone for them? I notice that my parents are donning a few more greys these days and my grandparents are having run-ins with illnesses more often. Should I be home reigniting the Sunday family dinner tradition that was so strong throughout my childhood? These questions run through my mind regularly and fill me with a small sense of guilt.
Sometimes, I would do anything for a one way ticket home to surround myself with family and bask in the cheap rent prices of the Midwest. However, that is not in the cards right now and won’t be for a long time. Until then, I will forever appreciate Southwest Airlines for the cheap flights (and 2 free checked bags!) from NYC to Kansas City that I frequent 2-3 times a year. I highly cherish this valuable family time and am incredibly thankful for it.
I finally turned a corner on not feeling guilty for being gone on my most recent trip to Nepal. As a part of my job with buildOn, I get the privilege of living with different host families twelve times a year around the globe. As a trek coordinator, I manage teams of Bronx high school students and volunteers traveling to a community to break ground and construct a primary school. This experience is called trek, and yes, you can get involved. My host families have all been amazing.
However, my latest host family in Nepal was unlike any others I had stayed with. They left me feeling full of so much warm love and happiness that I didn’t want to leave. For 9 nights, I became part of the Sunar family in the Bhagatpur Village. Despite our language barrier, our differing skin tones and our unique understandings of the world, I truly knew I had found long lost family members that I just had not had the opportunity to meet yet.
Every night when I wandered back into my room of their tiny concrete home, I was exhausted. It would have been very easy for me to take my bucket shower, eat my dinner and go to sleep without much interaction. Instead, no matter what time I rolled in, my three host sisters, Joti, Alicia and Aribica were eagerly waiting to greet me with the biggest smile and a “Namaste brother!” I couldn’t help but smile and quickly put my things down to join them for dinner.
Dinner time in Nepal is all about sharing family time. We would all surround a little fire stove while sitting on straw mats on the dirt floor and take our turns washing our hands. My host grandmother proudly served us heaps and heaps of rice, lentils, potatoes and vegetables that she had been preparing for hours in her primitive kitchen. My family never served themselves first and always made sure that I was so full that I could barely move because not taking seconds is simply not an option in Nepalese culture. Most nights we would practice our languages, and without fail they would burst out laughing every time I butchered a Nepali word or phrase. One night, I gave them a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle with the photo of two elephants on it. To my surprise, they had never seen a puzzle and were very confused as to what it’s purpose was. For 45 minutes, we sat and focused on putting that puzzle together and I happily observed as their problem solving wheels turned every time they placed each piece. Most people would have given up, but all 7 family members huddled around to tackle this puzzle. This reminded me of the days spent piecing puzzles together with my mom as a kid and even though I was filled with nostalgia, I knew how proud she would be to see me teaching them our favorite past time.
Piecing together that puzzle was just one of many activities we shared in that small little kitchen. Thanks to my great friends at LuMee, we took hundreds of illuminated selfies and videos. My host sisters sat one night and artistically colored in my henna tattoos with markers I had brought them. We talked about their religion, their family and how education is important for everyone. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We were family. No matter how stressful the day, every night when I went to sleep underneath my mosquito net on my bed that doubled as a table, I couldn’t help but think about how much they have, despite lacking many modern day luxuries that so many of us prioritize. They have family, they have love and they have community - is that not what we are all searching for?
When it was time to finally leave my family in Bhagatpur, I was filled with the usual sadness I feel at the end of my treks because of the unknowing of whether or not I will ever see my host families again. The reality is that I very likely will not. As I walked to the bus with both little sisters palms in my hands and my entire family following behind, I looked at them and grinned and said, “I love you family” and through their tears they said, “Love you brother!” In that moment, I knew that my family has forever grown by seven members.
My family means the world to me. If I didn’t travel that world, I would never find my family members like the Sunar’s, and that to me is more than enough reason to keep traveling. My family will forever grow.