Time to say goodbye

One of the most amazing views, one of the most beautiful songs I have seen/heard (even though I do not understand most of it).

Location: Bellagio, Las Vegas. Time: Around Christmas, 2006

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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

That time again

I had to write this post right now. I am at work, sitting on my desk, deeply touched and speechless. A colleague who I don’t know very well but do chat with sometimes, said that if I didn’t mind, she would like to say a prayer for me and my family before we travel. Of course I didn’t mind. Who would mind an act of kindness like that? Then she proceeded to say the prayer. It’s hard to explain in words how it felt. All the anxiety that I had about this long travel, especially because of an incident with my son the last time that resulted in a trip to ER and us missing the connecting flight , just vanished as she said her prayer. It made me believe that everything will be alright. More than that, it is comforting to know that there are people who look beyond all the differences and treat me just the way they would treat a friend or a member of their family.

It may seem like something very small, but small things like this matter a lot when you are far far away from the place and the people who identify you. When someone goes out of their way, to shovel your driveway (that has 12 inches of snow, by the way) without even telling you because they know that you are alone at home with an infant and don’t have a clue about shovelling snow from driveways, or when they literally make you ride with them to the airport so you don’t have to park your car at the airport for a month. These are the things that are appreciated and remembered forever and we are thankful for having such people around us.

Incidents like these make me believe that you don’t have to go anywhere to find God. God is inside the people around you only if you care to look deep enough.

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..