Walk. Smell. Heal.

Not too long ago (maybe a couple of months), I found a haven close to where I work. It’s a shame it took me so long to find it. I always knew it was there, just never paid much attention to it, never thought it could change my life in so many different ways. You may think that I’m being a little dramatic, but it is true. I know it, and I feel the positive changes with every visit.

Over the last couple of months, going here for a walk has become an important part of my day. It’s like a 10 minute vacation I get, sometimes the only time I get for myself in the day. I walk around the circle, taking in the aromas of coffee and food, watching people, watching life and its hustle and bustle. So many different kinds of people – walking, eating, talking, doing nothing – each with a story of their own, stories that I want to hear sometimes.

Ten minutes go by quickly, and then I get back to life – stronger, happier, with a resolve to do better, be better. Looking forward to coming back tomorrow to this oasis in the middle of concrete, and heal some more.

Experience Pigeon Forge

Just got back from a trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with the family. I am not going to bore you with all the details about the trip, but there were so many fascinating things that happened that I cannot help but write about them, before they fade away in memory like so many others already have.

So here is a quick list of things I learnt/experienced/realized during this trip:

1. That even a vegetarian can grow to love traditional Southern (American) food, even if it means having a salad (probably not-so-southern), mashed potatoes and dessert (yum!) for lunch. I now have a newfound love for scrambled eggs and buttermilk biscuits and we will have to visit Cracker Barrel much more frequently because of that.

2. That there is an ‘America’ I know nothing about in spite of practically living here for the last 7 years. On one of the days during our visit, tired of all the money-making business around us, we made an impulsive decision to drive to the mountains. We did not know that we would cross over into North Carolina and get a chance to peek into the going-abouts of a predominantly Native American town, Cherokee. The town was unusually quiet for a Friday afternoon with most of the shops closed and streets deserted (probably because of Good Friday?). At a convenience store, I saw a native american family who were nothing like the american families I am used to seeing. Made me wonder what it would be like to be an alien in your own home, cornered in, er… a corner? In the wonderment, I also got carried away and bought some souvenirs from a tribal crafts store supposedly carrying handmade Indian goods, only to find a little ‘Made in China’ sticker on them when I got home. At least it was not ‘Made in India’, otherwise I would have felt guilty about indians taking away american indian’s jobs too.

3. What I have gathered from hearsay about southern culture, always gave me the impression that people from the south of USA are more conservative than their northern counterparts. For the same reason, I was not expecting a warm welcome and might even have been a little apprehensive about us being the only ‘different’ people there. Wrong. The kind of warmth exuded by the people was nothing like what I have experienced before in the US. Not meaning to say that I have not found other places to be friendly, but this was by far the friendliest places I have visited in the country. It might have also had something to do with the quaint rusticness of the people, that reminded me a little bit of home, or the southern accent that I find so charming.

4. There is no right answer to the question “where are you from?”. One time, I answered “India” and they said “I know, but where do you live here?”. The next time, I answered “Indianapolis” and they said “But where are you from originally?”. To top it, my smart Alec son asks accusingly later – “Why did you say you are from Indianapolis? You are from India!”. %#$#%$

5. I also found out that Santa Claus is not for real! Just kidding. I knew that. What I did not know was how magical he is. Well, now I know. Better late than never.

6. The best things in life are free.. technically. It’s kind of amazing that some of the best parts of our trip were the only ones that were free or cost very little. Like listening to this song sung by the old man himself. Watch the video below (it is still uploading and will be live approximately half an hour after this post is published). It is pretty amazing if you can ignore the noises the children are making and me moving around shaking the camera every 10 seconds.

http://youtu.be/iloPFfyVsHA

The colors of nostalgia

We celebrated our first Holi in the United States today. Although we have been here for almost four years now, it was only last year when we actually got to know some Indian people. For some reason, we could not find enough motivation or time to go looking for other desis. Plus we got our social fix from local friends and colleagues from India who used to visit from time to time. That also meant that sometimes we did not do anything to celebrate our festivals. After all, festivals are meant to be celebrated with other people. What fun would it be to celebrate all by yourself? That’s why we always ended up not doing much at all for these special days. It was in fact much easier and more fun celebrating Halloween and Christmas because everyone else around us was doing the same.

Last year was different. There was not one special day that was not celebrated with this new-found group of desi friends. It is a different kind of satisfaction, to meet people whose jokes you can always understand, who are just as crazy as you are about movies and cricket, and to see our son getting to know little bits of his culture even though he still thinks that the Diwali decoration that I got from India is actually for a Christmas tree.

You don’t really understand or realize what you have been missing until you get to experience it again. Keeping up with tradition, we had a Holi get-together at a friend’s place today. We got there, rang their door bell and waited. The door opened and suddenly people came running out to smear our faces with the powder colors called ‘gulaal’. The kids stood there watching with their mouths open, probably wondering what was it that had come over their parents. It will take them some more years to understand what is so much fun about this. Actually, I was a little taken aback too. I had expected it to be just another get-together with a little bit of rubbing gulaal on each others faces just for the sake of doing it. I had almost forgotten about the element of surprise that makes Holi so much fun.

Some of my best childhood memories are of the festival of Holi. Getting out of the house early, armed with gulaal, pichkaris (water guns) and small balloons filled with colored water. Hiding and waiting for our friends and other suspecting victims to come out so we could drench them before they could drench us. Playing with colors until the evening when our parents came to drag us back in. The fast colors that would not wash away and the tints of which would still be on many proud faces the next day at school.

Those were some of the best days of my life and sometimes it makes me sad to think that  those casual days of  no responsibility will never return, that I will never go back to that house on that street and will never meet those friends again. Life changes when you grow up. I just wish that even as adults, we could be as capable of finding happiness in the littlest things, as we did when we were kids. I wish I could be as impulsive and stupid as I was when I used to live in that house on that street, without being judged by anyone. I wish I could skip and jump instead of plain boring walking. Who knows, may be I will do that one of these days. Thanks to my desi friends for reminding me of the child that still lives inside me, I’m pretty sure I will do that one of these days.

Denver

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.

Crossing over

I still remember my first trip to the US very well. I was 27, out on my own, so far away from home for the first time in life. I had lived in a hostel before, but that is not the same because a) you can go home if you want, b) you have friends to talk to and c) you don’t have to worry about what you are going to eat for the next meal.

So there I was at the Washington DC international airport, feeling lost in a sea of strangers, kicking myself for having made the decision to come, missing the husband and the family already and at the same time trying to figure out which train to take to go to which terminal. Then something happened. Somebody smiled at me. Another person smiled and yet another said they liked my handbag. And I’m thinking “Wow!  These people don’t even know me! Americans must be really friendly people!”. Because that is not what you normally see in India. I mean, if you don’t know someone, you don’t smile at them while passing them by on the street or compliment them. And you definitely don’t discuss weather with them. I don’t know why we are that way. Maybe because there is so many of us that if we start smiling at everyone we pass on the street, we will probably have stiff mouth muscles by the end of the day. Maybe it is a defense mechanism against the big bad world. By staying aloof, we make sure we don’t trust too soon, and don’t get deceived by strangers.

However, getting smiles and compliments from strangers did make me feel better that day. It gave me the comfort that regardless of the awkwardness of my situation, I still somehow fit in.

More on my first visit in the next post..