The variety of experiences that travel – no matter how short, or to which place – ushers in never ceases to amaze. I’ve just returned after a week in the US, and there seem to be many episodes to share……
Since 9/11, flying into the US is an exercise surrounded by security checks and interrogations. My last visit – in Oct 2002 – involved three random checks, one just before boarding the aircraft where I was asked to remove my shoes and socks. This time things were more relaxed, and instead of random checks there seemed to be a rigorously defined process. One new element involved removing shoes and passing them through the x-ray machine, along with the hand-luggage. It slowed down the queues, naturally, but also resulted in amusing sights of people struggling to pull out or put on their footwear (One such lady revealed an intricately designed tattoo under her T-shirt. It made me reflect over the common strategy of getting oneself tattooed in such places, and how such tattoos revealed on the outside only part of the pattern – the tip of the iceberg – as if inviting all eyes either to follow a line that led to forbidden regions or to let their imagination construct rest of the pattern.)
I was flying Singapore Airlines for the first time, and it was a good experience. The food – thanks to an advance request for a vegetarian meal – was very good, and so was the service. An elderly couple in front received a surprise wedding-anniversary cake from the crew; they were thrilled, and so were some of us who watched the small party. The in-flight video offered forty movies (including one Tamil and two Hindi titles), which could be started/paused/forwarded/reversed all using the remote control attached to the seat. I’m not sure if any other airline offers such a facility for economy class passengers; usually there is a choice of a few movies that run uninterrupted between fixed intervals. I watched an Italian and a Spanish movie (with English subtitles, of course) and hardly slept through the 8 hour flight to New York.
Immigration at JFK was a breeze. After a few customary questions, I was asked to place my “left index finger” and “right index finger” on the sensor, and then face a small camera. Quick and painless.
The flight to Dallas was almost empty. It was a very clear evening, and throughout the three and half hour flight I could see the lights below – every now and then there would be a large concentration of orange lights surrounded by mostly dark regions. These nerve centers of civilization – cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC – followed one another regularly, and it was quite unlike any view I’ve seen from a flight before. It is a beautiful planet from above.
In the space of four days in Dallas, I rode on cabs with drivers from five different nationalities. First there was our desi driver. This one was from Gujarat, and he launched into a monologue on how people in India think we earn in Dollars but forget that we also spend in Dollars. US or India, it didn’t make any difference, he said. I wanted to ask him if he then considered going back, but didn’t.
Then there was one who looked like a Mexican (Dallas has a large Mexican population). On one intersection a lady from an adjacent car pulled down her window and asked him something in Spanish. He gave a quick, blunt reply and drove on. A couple of minutes later he suddenly said : “You know, everyone just assumes I’m Mexican! Over here, if you not a White or Negro, you must be Mexican – they think no other people exist, man!! That lady there asks me directions in Spanish, thinking I’m Mexican! I can learn Spanish, but why should I?!!”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m from Palestine. But they wouldn’t know where that is!”
The next one was a Black. He said he was from Mauritania, and asked me if I was Indian. “Yes” I replied, and added that I had lived in Ghana – an African country near Mauritania – during childhood. “Where? In Accra? Kumasi?” he inquired. “Near Accra” I replied. Just before I left he greeted me with a “Namaste!”
That evening on the way to a Thai restaurant with a couple of friends, I overheard that our driver was from Syria. I had been reading William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu and had recently covered the pages where the author passed through a Syrian town named Allepo – I told the driver about it. He said it was city north of Damascus, Syria’s capital. Then my Indian companion – whom I’d met at the conference that day – mentioned that the town of Allepy in Kerala was named after this Syrian town, Allepo. It seemed a bit far-fetched, but when he added that his wife was from Kerala and she was a Syrian Christian, the connection to Syria became clear. Syrian Christians in Kerala are the oldest Christians in India, who arrived much before the Portuguese came in the 1500s.
The remaining rides were with white Americans, who, in contrast to the verbose nature of most of their countrymen, did not speak at all.
To be continued….