My first trip to the United States was the most memorable of all the trips that I subsequently made – for some good and some bad reasons.

I was here to spend 3 weeks in Denver at my company’s headquarter at the time, at the ‘1800 Grant St’ address that I knew so well but had never visited before. Denver is one of my favourite places in the US, mostly due to the fact that it was the first place in the US I visited and the beginning of learning so many new things about a world very different than my own. It also marked a turning point not just in my career but also in my life. Plus it’s close to the Rocky Mountains which makes it such a fun place to be at.

I stayed at a Residence Inn hotel, the ones that have apartment-like buildings and kitchenettes. Unfortunately, I had been misinformed before leaving India that you cannot take any food with you while travelling to the US, and on top of that, I did not have the slightest idea of how difficult it would be for me to find some vegetarian food. All I had was some home-made snacks and instant cereal that my mom had packed for me. To cut a long story short,  I starved most of those 21 days. Breakfast used to be fine because it was provided at the hotel and there was stuff I could eat. I used to take the hotel shuttle to work and back in the evenings and was too much of an introvert to ask anyone for help. Even when I did ask somebody once about where I could find vegetarian food, he asked me to google it. “Really?” I thought. “And how do you think I will get there?”. It sounds ignorant now, but at that time, I had no idea about the power of google and mapquest. I had lived my whole life without ever needing them before and its funny that now I cannot go through one day without using Google.

So I just used to survive on the breakfast bags they provided at the hotel which had a fruit and a muffin maybe. For dinner I used to eat Mom’s snacks, but before long I was longing for some real food. One day I asked the hotel people about where I could shop for some groceries and took the shuttle to a Safeway close to the hotel. I did find some instant noodles that were vegetarian (I hope) and survived on them for the next few days.

Then one day as I was waiting for the shuttle outside the office, I met another colleague from the Chandigarh office who was visiting Denver. I had never talked to him before, but he was a kind guy and asked me if I needed help with anything. He said he could show me some places where I could buy vegetarian food and I jumped at the offer. I still remember I bought a frozen pizza and some frozen rice and Mexican refried beans. I was happy I was going to eat a real meal that day. Went back to the hotel, heated the pizza as per instructions, started eating and hated it. It tasted so bad, I had to throw it away. Then I tried the frozen rice (wondering why anyone would freeze rice) and the beans. Had to throw that away too. My taste buds were just not used to the spiceless frozen foods. So I just sat and cried and then had my cereal and went to bed.

One day I asked one of the friendly ladies in my team about where I could find vegetarian food and they decided to take me out for lunch. We went to a Mexican restaurant close to the office and for the first time in many days, I had good food. I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the Mexican food was very similar to Indian cuisine. It was probably one of the happiest days of my first visit.

One of my colleagues from India office had just recently been transferred to the Denver office. He and his wife along with their one year old little girl were staying in a temporary accommodation across the street from the office. He invited me to his place for lunch one day. I still remember what his wife cooked that day. They were still living out of the suitcase, looking for a home and taking care of a baby at the same time. I was grateful beyond words and had to really restrain myself from asking them if I could please have lunch with them every day.

If you didn’t know this about me before, you would know now that good food is really important for me. I did learn a lot during that first trip. In fact, on the subsequent trips, I would become an expert on finding Indian groceries and restaurants wherever I went and cooking Indian food in the hotel kitchenettes with the limited supplies I had. I also became more tolerant of the tastes of different cuisines and would actually miss them when I went back home.

I made a new friend, a very nice colleague who took me sightseeing and shopping on a weekend. She was divorced and had started dating again recently. All foreign concepts for me at the time, so discussions with her were really interesting. Also met a friendly and kind African-American shuttle driver who knew all about Gandhi and Bollywood. Above all, I gained confidence, personally and professionally. That I could train people who knew better than me in many different areas. And that I could survive going halfway across the world, alone, without having ‘real’ food for so many days, without having anyone to tell me how to survive, and still come back home safely.

In many ways, I am a completely different person than I was just 6 years ago. And it all started with that first trip. That is why Denver and 1800 Grant St will always be special places for me.


Life is cheap

Ten days ago, just a few days before the the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there was a terrorist attack in New Delhi. The latest one in a string of so many that we have started losing count now. It happened outside the high court. Some were young law students going in for their internship, many were there for a hearing of their case which they probably had been fighting for years in a hope to get justice. I wonder if they will ever get justice now.

Hearing the stories of these victims on TV is so painful I don’t even want to watch the news anymore.  It’s hard to imagine how painful it is for people who lost their lives, their limbs, their loved ones in a snap, just like that, because some crazy fanatic decided to play god.

My father is a survivor of one of these terrorist attacks that happened a couple of decades ago. He was amongst the few lucky ones who survived a blind gunfire on the people traveling in a bus at night. He came home the next morning, still in shock and his clothes covered with blood. Physically, he was unharmed. I was too young to understand anything. Now when I think about it, replay in my mind the story of that night that he has told us so many times, I try to think of what the unsuspecting victims of such violent acts and their families go through. How do they get over losing a family member like that or having to live with the horrific memories of people dying around you, falling on top of each other, covered with each others blood.

We were lucky that my father came back home that day. I don’t know what our lives would have been like if he hadn’t. I would have become a completely different person in a different place, most likely not writing this blog post. People pray for peace on earth. I do too. I pray for the leaders of my country to wake up one day and do something about it instead of just condemning these attacks when they happen. Safety is the most basic right of a citizen. If a government cannot protect its people and keep them safe, why is it even there? I also pray for the victims and their families, no matter where they are in the world – India, US, Pakistan or elsewhere, that they find the strength to deal with it. And for us common people, who can do nothing but pray and try to raise our kids to be honest, aware individuals so that they can grow into honest leaders with a conscience.

Grass is always greener in the other person’s plate

Okay, this title was just an unsuccessful attempt to be funny. It is the combination of an English and a Hindi proverb which basically mean the same thing. The Hindi proverb is translated as “The laddoo (a sweet, round, very yummy treat) in the other person’s plate is always bigger than the one in yours.”

We took a trip to one of the Lake Michigan beaches on the Labor Day weekend. Seeing all the people trying to get some tan made me think about this. On one hand, people with the perfect fair skin are trying to turn it dark. On the other hand, people with perfect tones of dark, are trying to turn it white by applying all kinds of “fairness creams”.

Everyone who has grown up in India would remember seeing all those commercials on TV where a dark complexioned girl is shown having problems getting a groom (or a job as a TV show anchor), she starts using one of these fairness creams, turns fairer in 14 days (!!!) and voila, a price charming falls for her and selects her as his bride (or she gets that job)! I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds these commercials disgusting. They run major havoc on the self esteem of millions of girls who rub these creams on their faces day and night and hope to have the happy ending of the girl in the commercial. The only one getting happy anything is the cosmetics company.

Times have changed a lot now, but these commercials have still not ceased. In fact they have gone a step forward – in addition to “Fair and Lovely”, they now also have “Fair and Handsome” products (!!!).

Growing up, I was one of those girls. Can’t remember how many times I was told by so many well meaning people that if only I was fair like my brother or all the home remedies I should follow to turn into Cinderella… I tried the fairness creams too. But quickly understood the scam behind them. Even now, while visiting an Indian grocery store, I sometimes get tempted towards those aisles. But I know better, and living in the US has helped me appreciate what I have. I am not afraid of the sun anymore and don’t hesitate to get some more tan. Liberating!

Leads me to believe that we would all be much happier people if we start appreciating what we have been blessed with instead of looking at the other person’s laddoo.