It was just as we were rolling down the highway through Richmond, Virginia I noticed a car driving alongside the Magic Freedom Bus, and a woman waving wildly and pointing to her cel phone. I thought perhaps something was wrong with the bus but the phone didn’t make sense. Then I realize she was indicating I should turn my phone on. As soon as I did it buzzed. I answered and the young college student implored me to pull over so she and her company could meet the children. They had read the sign on the back of the bus and put two and two together, since it was her mother’s sister from Venice, Florida who had told them about us and that we intended to visit Venice. It also turns out that the mother and aunt are cousins to Ahmad Zahir, the most famous Afghan singer and songwriter who had died tragically in the Eighties (and my musical hero in Afghanistan).
And so the Magic is real.
We stopped and filled up at a quick stop where this Afghan American family bought us pizza for an early lunch. There was much talk of the homeland and of our journey and as everywhere thus far people wishing we could stay longer. But the bus compels this little orphanage family to keep moving, and after hugs and photos off we went south on Interstate 95.
This was the longest drive we’d scheduled thus far, a good six and a half hours from Washington to Winston-Salem where we would recover for a night at my cousin’s house and continue on to Atlanta. The bus culture began to feel like it had developed past the strangeness and awkwardness into a real home. Dare I say the children, Nasrin and I were beginning to get attached to it, like a sanctuary where we could be ourselves completely, not worry about how we are perceived, about commitments, about our mission and our manners. Somewhere around the North Carolina line the highway straightened out lined by tall rows of pine trees. Nasrin took a break from playing the Afghan playlist on my itunes and clicked “strong women”, which included some very upbeat hip-hop. I looked in the rear view mirror and there was Frishta dancing, intuitively, the way one dances to such music. Mohsan joined her and soon all the children were dancing and laughing. I smiled a broad smile, feeling so proud of these students, their cheer, their adaptability, their poise and their eagerness to discover, to grow, to help their orphanage, and to support one another like a team.
We arrived at my cousin’s house just as the sun went down. David and his wife Cathy had cooked an Afghan dinner for us, but we determined we needed a little exercise before sitting down. We went to the Old Salem part of town and wandered the three hundred year old village and graveyard, talking about the people who had settled there and telling ghost stories. The last time I had seen David and Cathy was the night Obama won the Presidency. North Carolina had been a big win and there was much celebration in the city of Winston-Salem. It was a time I had been wandering the country trying to raise money for my immanent departure for Afghanistan, a place at the time I knew nothing about, to live with orphans and teach. From there to here, so many miles, so much changed.
The next morning we had to leave after breakfast. Though our stay was a brief wisp of time, I could tell the children had managed to burrow deep into the hearts of my relatives. The drive to Atlanta on Martine Luther King’s birthday holiday was very timely. The Leadership girls had studied his “I have a dream…” speech and admired it greatly. Once again we arrived at dusk, this time a relative of Rachel Williams who had been the first sponsor we visited on our American odyssey. Nidhi met us as we tentatively approached her driveway. She was born in India and had come to the U.S. as a student. As has everyone on this journey she gladly opened her doors and made us feel wanted and at home.
The sole agenda for our Atlanta visit was to engage with CNN journalist Aseih Namdar who had arranged for a lengthy report for their web site as well as a live interview for CNN television with Kyra Phillips. Tuesday morning the 17th we pulled up to a special parking spot right in front of the huge red CNN sign at the base of their Atlanta headquarters. Aseih and her cameraman met us and we made our way through security for a tour of the facilities. It was stunning for all of us to see the magnitude of the newsroom, the editing rooms, and the great hall with one of the world’s longest freestanding escalators. We had not actually known the interview would be live, so when the tidbit of information registered in our brains Nasrin and I looked at one another with a shade of horror. We fully expected we would freeze and be incapable of answering the simplest question, thinking instead of how this little report would be broadcast across America and around the world.
As with all things on this endeavor, it seemed we were being pulled along by the gravitational force set in motion back in December. There was no choice for us but to enter onto the set of CNN as if it was just another of many extraordinary moments, to be ourselves and to cling to the truth. In retrospect I was a little tired in the interview, more subdued than I’d like to have been. I have spoken to people about my life with AFCECO so many times, yet still I never really know exactly what words will come out of my mouth until the moment arrives. Maria and Nasrin were fabulous. There is some agreement that Frishta had a little hint of a scowl on her face, consternation that nobody was asking her a question.
Soon again it was time to roll down the highway. Florida awaited us, and warmth. Thus far we had raised four thousand dollars. It is a drop towards our goal, but as a stonemason I always knew that to begin building a house the first course of stones had to be placed, though the breadth of the building was unfathomable. And every stone secured in its bed of mortar is one less stone to lift.