Saturday, September 19, 2009

Welcoming The Poor Men (Feasterville, PA)

I picked the right day to convince my dad to walk with me for an afternoon. The plan was that we would meet for lunch on the Pennsylvania side of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge and then he would walk the last 8 miles with me. When I arrived in Burlington I couldn't help but notice the huge sign with a pedestrian and a red line going through it at the entrance to the bridge. "Change of plans," I told my dad on the phone. "Pick me up on the NJ side instead."

If he wasn't already heading in my direction I would have had to hitch a ride for the first time on this trip. I will cross that bridge - literally - when it comes. On this afternoon, I cruised across the Delaware River in a Toyota Prius that, while fuel efficient, can't quite mirror the zero carbon emissions of my footsteps.

My father and I have taken a lot of trips together, but I believe this is the first time we have ever walked eight miles together. We have driven through a snowstorm near the Grand Canyon. I've watched him try to order food in horrible French along the Champs-Elysees. He has even white knuckled it along a beautiful stretch of Vermont highway as I brought us from 65 mph to zero in his Honda Sprint with .... wait for it, the handbrake. None of those gorgeous locales prepared us for the glamour and elegance that is Street Road in Bucks County. Okay, I'm lying. All those places were 100 times more beautiful than the stretch of Street Road between Philadephia Park Casino and Bustleton Pike. What made it special was that we were doing it together. Poor"men" walking. This was likely the only time on my trip were walking wouldn't be a solitary activity.

Bucks County is my dad's turf. He runs a non-profit organization called Welcoming the Stranger, which offers free educational classes to immigrants and refugees who have settled in the Bucks County area just north of Philadelphia. While he is busy welcoming strangers, I am wandering around the country being the stranger who is welcomed. It is almost like all the years my parents have been welcoming people and showing them love were giant deposits in a cosmic hospitality bank and now I'm starting to fill out withdrawal slips as I make my way across the country. If that is the case, so be it, because as we like to joke, that is the only inheritance that my brother and I will be getting.

My hosts on Saturday evening were a married couple who my father's program had played a part in welcoming to this country. Oslwaldo and Vilma Lavado came to the US from Peru in early 2001 along with their son Alex. Over the past eight years they have made a home in Feasterville, worked on their English and are now putting their son Alex through college. Oswaldo admits he might like to move back to Peru someday. Vilma prefers staying here. For now, they laugh off their different preferences and are happy to be close to their son.

Let's say this straight off: My Spanish is horrible. In 2001 - ironically the same year Oswaldo and Vilma came to the US and began learning English - I flew to Guatemala for two months in an attempt to master the Spanish language. The only thing I ended up mastering was the route between the immersion school and the local internet cafe in downtown Xela. I learned a few things, I got a bad case of homesickness, I only completed 6 weeks of school instead of 8 and then I flew my girlfriend at the time Nikki down to do a little traveling with me before escaping back to the comforts of Los Angeles. So yeah, I'm not anywhere near fluent in Spanish.

When we arrived I gave speaking Spanish a college try while my father and Oswaldo went to retrieve my dad's car. We soon discovered Vilma's English was much better than my broken, present-tense-only Spanish, and we stuck with that for the rest of the evening. Oswaldo and Vilma served my father and I a Peruvian Feast. I would tell you what we ate, but I would probably get the names of the dishes wrong and almost certainly massacre the spelling, so take my work for it - it was delicious. Both the juice and the dessert Vilma served was made from purple Peruvian corn and was wonderfully sweet. If you haven't figured out by now, I don't shy away from anything sweet. In fact, I advance toward it with fire in my eyes. Five or six glasses of this purple juice later, Oswaldo and Vilma probably figured that out too.

My father said his goodbyes and I went to bed early as I was particularly tired. I had been walking for five straight days and my rest day would be Monday in Philadelphia, a mere 17 miles away. I was really touched by Oswaldo and Vilma's hospitality. They even gave me a Peruvian t-shirt for me to wear along my journey. It occurred to me that they put themselves through a lot of hardships - leaving their home country and their friends, having to learn a new language as adults - so that their son could get an American education. That is the inheritance they have given him.

I've also been given an inheritance that can't be measured in dollars and cents. My parents don't have a huge retirement account, but they are relationship rich. Having seen them live out their priorities over the past 36 years, I've witnessed the fulfillment that comes from always putting people before possessions. Always. I think I am gradually taking that lesson to heart in a practical way. I'm glad to say I've already received my inheritance. What's even better is that they are still here, so I can say thank you. I will take a page from their playbook and say it in Shona - Ndatenda.