Monday, July 30, 2007

Ode to the Southwest Chief

It was afternoon in Chicago
When we pulled out of town.

Galesburg was nondescript.
I looked upon it
From the window
Over dessert
With a travel-writing acquaintance
Just met in the dining car,
That felt as if
I should have had
A long chiffon dress
And a longer
Cigarette holder.
He should have been wearing spats
And I should have entered in a hat.

It wasn’t much later we crossed
The Mississippi
Molten gold in the setting sun,
Looking exactly like Charlie Pride sung.
The longest double-decked, swing-span bridge,
Piers and boats gave way to rails,
Illinois gave way to Iowa.

We didn’t so much stop at Fort Madison, as pause
For a breath or two,
And then we were moving again,
My cigarette lay half-smoked on a platform in the sun,
A sentence hovered, unfinished.

Other rivers kept lazily in step
Through Montana,
As amber waves of grain
Became fields of cattle
That did not turn to watch us pass,
Though farmers at a railroad crossing
Waved with unexpected bonhomie.

Large clouds rolled across the spacious skies.
It was a rainy night in Kansas City.

We paced the platform uncertainly
Not knowing what we waited for,
Nor, more importantly, for how long.
The freight train passed us as we pulled out,
Leaving behind the other dinner companion
Who told me passionately
That this was a city
Far greater than NYC,
But she was only fourteen.

We joined the Santa Fe trail,
The dark Missourie flowed beneath us unseen,
And I slept, rocked by the rhythm
And the knowledge that
There were no more
Stops for me
This side of Colorado.

I woke with the memory
Of a long wait on the dark prairie,
For an Express this time
And another, soon after.

After scrambled eggs and toast,
In the company of a lady
Who’d come a long way from Boston
And seemed to feel she’d come
A longer way than I,
We came to La Junta.

We stopped long enough, Mountain Time,
For cigarettes and coffee in mountain air.
The pack of boy scouts
Were finally let out
To let go a little bit.
They called out “All board”,
And wouldn’t let me hang out the door.
So I peered over their shoulders instead.

The engine curved before us
As the railroad twisted upwards
And the whistle seemed to change its tune
As we climbed the Raton Pass.
Seven thousand feet higher, the trees grew thicker
And flowers grew purple on the ground.

Raton Station was pretty,
With yellow brick buildings and Rene told us
This is where the boy scouts come.

The Observation Car was strangely empty
Without excited children in scarves.
I remember a very young one
Offering to share his iPod.
I declined, choosing wisely
Not to explain
The involuntary playlist
On shuffle and repeat in my head:
No signboard passes that I cannot sing,
No landscape I haven’t already
Seen in song.

Now there was just an old soldier
With shattered eyes,
Who said he still believed.

The vastness of New Mexico
Rolled away to infinity
Thorny hills rose
From badlands where only shrubs grow.

Horses cantered in corrals,
Jackrabbits bounded beside the rails
And white-bottomed deer
Turned their faces resolutely away
On the banks of swollen streams
That would be called rivers
In other lands,
Whose lakes are not as large as seas.

I chose to lunch privately in my room,
My need for conversation was small.

It was windy in Albuquerque.

Another kind of Indian sold silver
And blankets on the platform.
I bought a tiny tomahawk
And the obligatory dreamcatcher
(The one I have on my wall
Is ragged now, after all,
Sagging under the dream it caught).

The station is old and evocative.
My dinner companion
(Was it only yesterday?)
Showed me around,
But briefly.
I was nervous
Of being out of sight of my train.

So I wasted quite half an hour
Standing by my door
In the unpicturesque part,
Striking my match in a gale.
But I wasn’t the only one,
I listened to tales of fishing
In New Hampshire,
In between
Assuring a harried person
With luggage
That this was indeed Car 331.

A railwayman whistled,
His walkie talkie crooned,
The engine driver accompanied on the horn.
We set off with a swing,
A rock and a roll
Along Route 66.

Gallup gave on to the redness of Arizona.

Ghosts of possibility clung
To rock sculptures and mesmeric plains,
An aching almostness of dust clouds
In the wake of horsemen
Riding hard to meet this or any other train.

When the day came to its long-drawn-out end
A lightning storm unfolded
On an Imax horizon.
The hours that followed
Did so unnoticed.

As Harry Potter marched to his death,
Winslow passed me by.

I made an exception for Flagstaff,
But was driven back by the storm.
Wind is just a struggle,
But rain has to be a surrender,
So I returned to Potter.

It was much later, after my reprieve,
That I looked out to find
The full moon was sketching
A great, grand canyon
Lavishly on the star-spangled night.

I slept, with a sense of largesse received
For the second time.

Some time in the early hours,
We entered California.
Needles, Barstow and the Mojave desert
Flashed by quietly,
I saw the City of Angels at dawn.
Pink skies, lilac hills and squalor,
Where palm trees grow and rents are low
And the feeling is laid back.

And I’ve seen palm trees before
But these seemed larger
Than life itself.

As we pulled into Union Station
Through a side entrance of LA,
They called out to Rene,
Waving jubilantly,
That I’d come from sea
To shining sea
A full hour early.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The great Southwest unbound

A “senior” couple said they preferred the train now that they “have the time to travel graciously”.

Gracious is a good word to describe the experience. Civilised is another. I met several people my age who make the time to go by train for that reason.

It just came to me what the certain something in the dining car was – it was real service, not the American approximation. And it was all very Orient Express, tablecloths and flowers, gleaming cutlery and glass.

I had reservations about being seated with strangers. Everyone gushes about how this is one of the best things about taking the Superliners, all the interesting people you meet, but I’m not at all sure of my abilities as a raconteur. But it was okay – just the bare facts of where I’m from and where I’d been in the past two weeks seemed to possess an Othello-to-Desdemona fascination.

And the conversations were interesting. One memorable person asked me what state Dubai was in. Another asked if I had learnt English because I was visiting the States. (I was sorely tempted to say no, because they don't speak English here, but I took the high road). But the others were surprisingly well-informed. In fact, many of the older people knew startling details about the other side of the world. Halfway through my journey it occurred to me that they belong to the generation that would have made the hippy pilgrimage (at least a part of it) to the East. I confirmed this at the next smoking stop.

I noted with secret glee that there’s a subtle but definite class system between the Sleeper Aristocrats and the Coach Not-so-much. It was most noticeable in the dining car: Sleeper types have an ever so slight club-member attitude to other sleeper types, though they both smile kindly upon the coach types.

I bought a beer from the snack shop simply for the pleasure of saying Sam Adams. The man promptly pandered to my pretensions by saying “You’re a long way from Massachusetts.” I replied with “Trying to hitch a ride to San Francisco”, but he didn’t get the reference. Or ignored it. Perhaps tourists who come here pop-eyed about pop culture are as amusing to them as the German Hare Krishna in Chicago was to me, when he said I was so fortunate to be born a spiritual Indian. (I encouraged this a bit and then donated five dollars to his cause – as amusement park fees.)

I was excited about Albuquerque being a one-hour service stop, what with all the Native American history. Unfortunately, understandably, any interaction is confined to souvenir stalls. On the subject of which, I feel that if you’re selling totem poles to tourists anyway, you might as well go the length and do it in a feathered headdress. Everyone else does it in costume. I, on the other hand, provided them with sterling entertainment during my souvenir buying, by jumping at my train like a jack rabbit at every distant whistle.

I took my Sam Adams to the observation car and pretended to drink it for a while. I really can’t appreciate beer. We were passing fields full of cows. I screwed up my eyes a bit and pretended they were herds of bison on the prairie. It’s impossible to look at the scenery without superimposing pictures on it. It’s featured in too many books and movies. There’s plenty of real drama as well. A row of green tractors stretching away from a filling station. A riveting formation in the distance that looked like a twister. Basically, the star of the event was the landscape. The phrase “unfolding outside the window” was invented for this.

I suspect that the California Zephyr (my first plan, the one that started my whole trip) or the Coast Starlight (my second plan) wind their way through more spectacular country. But the train I finally caught fulfilled to the letter the requirements I had from this: I wanted to see the larger-than-life land of opportunity that drew them in their thousands, and I did.

On the second day, I had to escape to my book for a little while in the day, because the sheer expanse outside makes you a bit giddy. Everything is giant, economy size. Trees, water bodies, shrubs, clouds, rabbits. Everything. Two thousand miles later, when I saw my friends in LA, I was quite surprised to realise it had only been two days since I waved goodbye in Chicago to one half of the couple.

Having time in its pure form takes a little getting used to, but once you realise that you’re entitled to just stare out of the window for two days – and in fact have paid for just that – it’s a great sense of release.

A mode of transport disguised as an old-world hotel is a great way to fly.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Railroad lady, a little bit shady – the sequel

I knew one craven moment when I wanted to call my friend and tell her to leave her meeting, walk to the station and hand me into the train. Fortunately, there was a lot of distraction to get me through the lapse.

Union Station in Chicago is delightfully studded with oddballs and colourful layabouts. Big black woman fighting out loud with imaginary “bitches and hos”. Scrawny white man singing very badly, only pausing to abuse someone for dropping too little change in his tin. Indian IT boys talking Telugu in a scrum. Excitable Jordanians refraining from talking Arabic, even among themselves, even in their excitement. Unmistakable New Yorker looking like she just stepped off the sets of a sitcom. All things wise and wonderful, in short.

As I had a sleeper ticket, I had the privilege of checking in my luggage. I discovered I could have done it in the morning, instead of using the gold-plated, diamond-studded left-luggage locker that took all my lifesavings. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed using a locker that I could just stick my credit card into and operate on my own. I’m also glad I didn’t miss the interesting chat there with someone who opened the conversation by saying “You must be the last person in America to finish it.” Harry Potter. Of course.

My paranoia brought me to the gate half an hour before I needed to be there. As I stood there waiting for the doors to the platform to open, I was thinking to myself that this was all very organised and much like boarding a plane. But once you’re out on the platform, the smart queue degenerates to frantic passengers at a railway station. Actually, there isn’t the slightest need for this general going to pieces – car attendants stand outside the doors to guide you. They should try Kurla Station, where I was directed to the wrong train, found that out only when someone else came to claim the seat and then had to get off and take a running leap on to the right one. With a suitcase. Well, four suitcases – there were four of us trying to get in the same door of the same moving train. It was all very traumatic.

My car happened to be the very first one I came to, since it was the last one on the train. I stowed my stuff and returned to the platform (my bravery is always restored once I’m in the situation). I presented my railway antecedents to Rene, the keeper of my car. From then on, he took it upon himself to point out railway-related objects for me to photograph. And asked deep questions about Indian Railways – some of my replies were definitely of the shooting-on-moonless-night variety, but often I surprised myself by actually knowing things.

I also got a list of the “smoking stops” (the real reason I was out there being uncharacteristically forthcoming), which turned out to be a good thing because the PA system was not working in my car. These are just stations where they stop for longer than five minutes, and they can let you out, and now I knew which ones to watch for.

American railway stations are a bit coy about putting their name where you can see it, but I didn’t mind much. I knew that every train contains at least one passenger per car who can glance at a pair of orphan rails in the night and tell you which station it is. Or look keenly at a clump of trees (identical to all those you’ve passed so far) and deduce that you are 15 minutes from the next stop. Or wake from a deep sleep and know instantly where we’ve stopped, why, where the coming freight train is bound and at what speed. All you have to do to unlock this mystic knowledge is wonder out loud if this might be Fort Madison.

We left exactly on time – I was a little surprised by this because everyone I met or overheard or posted on the net had said that Amtrak was always late. But in fact, I found it was almost German the way their schedule tallied with the one printed on the leaflet in my room. Ette. My “roomette” was a cosy two-berth one that I had all to myself, complete with door, curtains, shelves and large windows.

It was exciting being on a double-decker train. I enjoyed being able to run up and down stairs. Also, the vestibule is on the upper level, where the swaying of the train is quite dramatically felt. So walking was fraught with adventure.

Almost as soon as we started moving, I took a little stroll and found that I could go all the way into the luggage car – I said hello to my checked-in bags, spent a few delighted moments in the half-empty, non-air-conditioned space, pretending to be a hobo and then returned to the observation car. I heard later that I got in only because it was so soon after we’d moved, the door was locked thereafter. I did a lot of wandering up and down – there’s an elementary thrill in walking through the rattling cages that hold the train together.

Showering on the train was a surreal experience. Strangely, though the toilet was just as unstable, scary and inadvisable as other train I’ve been in, the shower is fine. Perhaps it was just the novelty.

I also did a lot of private leaping up and down at the sight of orange locomotives, yellow locomotives, coal trains, tanker trains, railway lines running parallel to roads, railway gates, tunnels and other non-events. Also, a single steam engine puffing luxuriously in a yard – quite definitely not a non-event.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Razzle dazzle

It was an unexpected joy to be in a city again. Coming in to land, the lights below lit a little flame of excitement. In the morning, it was good to get on the early commuter train into town, talking animatedly to my friend after so long. She went to work and I went to the Sears Tower. Chicago was overcast so the view was not as good as one would have hoped. I was grateful for whatever I got because I had no time to do more.

I tried to channel non-existent energy to make the most of my few hours there but both the flesh and the spirit were just waiting for a train. I walked a few streets of the Loop, taking in the sights, watching people as always, knowing that there were other old friends there that I’d promised to call but hadn’t. After walking for a while, it perked me up enough to be delighted by the elevated rails that weave in and out of the buildings, the man in the Radio Shack who finally produced the 220 to 140 adaptor I'd looked for in three states and the most amazing sandwich at Luke’s. I hadn’t heard the story of the coyote then or lunch would have been at the operative Quizno’s!

I saw uncomfortable poverty for the first time on my trip to the US. I was moved to buy a dozen donuts from a boy at a traffic light and then had to run back to my friend's office because I needed people to eat the other eleven. The three different newspapers I bought for similar reasons came in handy during my wait at Union Station. (Yes, my stops at India's traffic lights are fraught with expense).

I sat in a cafĂ© and read the classifieds. I love reading them in strange cities – there's something peculiarly acclimatising about knowing how much it costs to rent a one-bedroom flat and that someone has a white Ikea bookshelf for sale. They're full of the possibility that you might live there one day. You could half consider buying that small business for sale. Or you could just buy the large antique desk and start your own. The cheaper classifieds are also a great place for laughs in the absence of other reading material. Someone was selling a goldfish in a bowl for one and a half dollars, negotiable. Surely just the effort of placing the ad must have cost more than that.

Chicago had a luminous sheen to it. One of my cousins had described it to me as a kinder, gentler New York. Others have since enthusiastically endorsed that statement. Having only been to one of them, I am in no position to judge. What I did see was that it was unmistakably a big city.

People on the weekday streets gave that particular city impression of always being on the point of being needed somewhere else. Where they talk only of some other place they’ve been with someone else – and you know that tomorrow they’ll be talking to someone about being here with this person, so they’re never wholeheartedly anywhere at any time. The rush and blur of life in a metro... that I seem to have a strange love for.

I grew up in a small town, on a farm even, spent my holidays cycling through fields and woodlands and now get tearful about the concreting of that town, but I seem to have become a city person nevertheless. Perhaps it's because the little green sanctuary was on the doorstep of a city and we had a foot in each. Or just that my independent life has been lived in cities so that's where I feel most confident.

When I landed in Chicago it was late at night, almost twelve hours later than expected. As I walked through the selfish chaos of a big airport, I breathed deeply of the independence. I knew how it worked and I was in charge. My stride lengthened, my head came up, my mind grew cool and clear. The person who strode out of O’Hare and into a cab seamlessly at midnight was very different from the ditz who missed her flight from Ithaca that morning.

Chicago is... my kind of place.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A little left of centre

Flight 714 to Chicago left without me. That's why I'm now a little bit north of South Carolina, in Charlotte, where they eat hush puppies and beef briskets and don't care about Harry Potter.

Walking through Philly airport (for the 200th time this trip), carrying the book was like wearing a sign saying "book club, come on in, have a conversation". Those who've read it want to know how far you've got. Those who haven't, want to tell you they're going to and want to know how far you've got. Those who're never going to read it want to know whether this is the same as the movie that's just come out and by the way, how far have you got? One person justed wanted to know what the big deal was. But in Charlotte, as I said, they don't do Harry Potter. But they do hush puppies, beef briskets and corn bread

It would have been a miracle if I'd got through all my super-organised travel plans without mishap. So I didn't. I got the airport wrong and missed the direct, non-stop, pain-free, pre-booked flight to Chicago. So I took a flight to Philly on the chance that they may be able to get me on the fully-booked connecting flight. And a confirmed ticket for a scenic route encompassing most of the eastern states. Of course I didn't get on the connecting flight. And the scenic path brought me here, to Charlotte Airport, where they have white wooden rocking chairs opposite a pit barbecue with hush puppies, beef briskets, corn bread and sweet potato pie.

So, if you ever find yourself in Charlotte by accident, do not fear. I vouch for the fact that Hush Puppies are real. And they taste good. And they're not the MacAmerica version. And the wireless internet works much better than the other airports I've been in.

I would have liked to end with the moral that the best option is to get to the right airport in the first place, but it's not, really.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Hope Street, Providence

The house has the feel of an ancestral home, the kind of calm acceptance in the air that other such homes have had - sunny Cambrae flat, bright new Pullonath house and solid Lakshmi - in the good old days. Our good old days, my generation. So much so that I feel my old awkwardness return. Why does family invariably bring on a sense of inadequacy? So for the first two days, pretty Providence took a backseat to my own colourful internal landscape. But as always, the smog soon burnt itself away... to reveal elvish gardens and Charlie Brown skies.

There are real maple trees, with leaves that look like Air Canada! And flowers grow in the gardens that I have only seen in buckets at Spinneys or bouquets that sit on others' desks on Valentine's Day. There are birds twittering about the feeder that you've only seen on Animal Planet, houses you've seen in coffee table books, soil I've known in bags.

We went for a walk one evening, looking at gardens and houses. We were our parents and grandparents. The time and place are different but the spirit is the same.

There is luxury in this, holding a baby or a conversation. Lingering at the dinner table, just living our days together. Renewing ties, filling in the blanks. And like pages on a calendar, I cannot thread together a story. I see single scenes dissolving in and out, a music video or a slideshow. The remembered rhythm of a manageable space and evenings spent at home. The long-forgotten ringing of my feet on pavements meant for walking. Pugnacious shop fronts and neighbourhood grocers. The startling fact of neighbours dropping in to visit and congratulate – American people in an American world, behaving like they lived in tiny Ponnani. A long walk in the rain, drops ringing through heavy trees. The feel of an umbrella in my hand. Of doing nothing with others. The festive fragrance of a barbecue. The expectant chill of a drink while waiting for the Harry Potter party to begin. The uncomplicated joy of being here, now.

The contentment of these days wash through me so that I feel convalescent, like I am here at the end of a long and dangerous illness, out of danger now but tired and misty from battling it.

And when I leave, I am both healed and reft.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


My flight arrived a little early and I had to wait a while for Michelle. Sitting outside the airport, the ramifications of picking up threads with a friend after 14 years occurred to me for the first time. People change. And through their twenties, people change a lot. I know I have. I felt sheer terror at the intrepidity of this exercise - not so much because it might be a difficult day ahead, but that it might be the rainy funeral of our teenage joys. When she finally arrived, calling out from the car that I was sitting in Departures while she was waiting in Arrivals, and isn't that just typical of me, I knew it was alright. That first familiar burst of friendly fire told me that only our lives had changed, not our relationship.

She spent the day and night being a tourist with me and we walked the streets of Philadelphia as if they were the drive of Mount Carmel College. We laughed like we were 18, so much so that we forgot to have lunch - which is why I have not tried a Philly Cheese Steak.

Philly is an ultra-civilised city, and the first thing that strikes you is that it has a distinctly Scandinavian touch to it. History-wise, it was a natural progression from Virginia. We saw some momentous buildings and I have the pictures to prove it. But I'd already had so much history in my first two days, that I was feeling like I'd arrived on the boat 400 years ago and personally written the Bill of Rights. The line to the Liberty Bell was too long, so we peeped at it through the glass at the back and adjourned to the gift shop. My favourite historical part was dinner at The Tavern - the selfsame tavern that the founding fathers gathered at to drink ale and lay their plans.

The second thing that strikes you about Philly is that they're very proud of Benjamin Franklin. In fact, the man has had every last word squeezed out of him on to every available surface - from the expected fridge-magnet-like things to pavements, walls and even a King Tut exhibition at the museum. It takes genius to connect Ben Franklin to ancient Egypt, but they did it. I strongly suspect this particular quote (and half of those on the coffee mugs and t-shirts) were made up by copywriters.

We saw a film on Imax. The screen is so big, they call it the Omniverse, which says it all. It made me giddy in places, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It seemed like the kind of thing Dubai should have. Philly is way too genteel for this kind of techno-posturing.

Sunlight is different when it pours through a picture window on to a breakfast table. Blue sky is bluer filtered through trees. Having to wake up early to catch your sixth flight in 72 hours is not bad at all, when your friend's four-year-old greets you with "Are those toys for me?", while she makes you breakfast and lets you have mango pie for dessert at the crack of dawn.

So I'm in an airport yet again, enjoying feeling thin and fashionable and quite Mediterranean among the domestic tourists. The new backpack already looks like a seasoned traveller. It's also rather heavier than it was, with all the souvenirs. Well, not just souvenirs - I had my first taste of an outlet mall in Richmond. It's a great American tradition, almost better than apple pie.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Land of the free, home of the brave

On the way out of Richmond I was taken aside for "special screening". She went over my bag with a swab that was then placed in a machine. Afterwards I asked her what it was about. She said they were checking for traces of explosives and I was selected for the service because I'd bought a one-way ticket less than 30 days in advance. I'm sure the fact that such a ticket was bought in the Middle East was a contributing factor, but she was too courteous to mention that. That's one thing that they've been so far, in all their security procedures. Their attitude is "innocent until proven guilty".

Perhaps I was just influenced by my visit the day before to Colonial Williamsburg. Wandering through the well-preserved 18th century town where the famous fighters for independence actually lived and worked was a fascinating experience, and made up for not seeing the Civil War museums in Richmond. And the fact that the town is maintained by people in period costume, complete with horses, carriages, working shoe smith and inn keeper, was a particularly special treat for a Georgette Heyer and Louisa Alcott fan. I spent a happy half hour at the mantua-makers, discovering what those costumes were about, actually touching the different kinds of fabric that I only had words for.

It was pleasantly dramatic to walk the floors that Thomas Jefferson walked, see the room where the momentous decision was made, the old houses preserved as they were. It's been done very, very well. The tour of the Randolph House, for instance, had each visitor wearing a badge with a name of one of the people who used to live there. So your guide would involve you in the spiel as you went through the house. My 10-year-old niece probably had the best history lesson of her life. I was a slave called Little Aggy and was told to stand by the table when we reached the kitchen because that's where I would have been! Each card also had a little bit about the character you were. I was pleased, because Little Aggy was a slave with vision and was one of the first to speak up about education of slave children.

But apparently they're not slaves anymore, they're enslaved individuals. Jails are Adult Correctional Institutes. Why use one succinct word when seventeen is a much bigger mouthful?

There were hordes of domestic tourists but I had the uncomfortable feeling that I knew a hell of a lot more of their history than they do. When I read the bit about George Washington defeating Cornwallis close by, I felt a thrill of recognition and shared history - old Cornwallis clearly didn't mind making long journeys to pick a fight, a tradition honoured even today by some football fans.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Almost heaven, West Virginia

I didn't see the Blue Ridge mountains or the Shenandoah river, but Richmond was pleasingly green and different from anywhere else I've been. The roads wind through what seems like forests of conifers. I asked eager questions about wildlife and my cousin gratified me by saying that bears had been spotted somewhere near by recently.

Approaching Richmond by air, it looks like the Brazilian rainforest. I wasn't expecting so many trees. (Of course, it was nothing that couldn't have been found out in the most cursory Google search, but who checks the vegetation quotient of a place before visiting?) I breathed deeply of the saturated greenness of trees that were older than my grandparents, my lungs thirsty from the summer sandstorms of Dubai. My eyes relaxed on a skyline that had no buildings to block the sunset. My ears were soothed by the absence of cement mixers.

Apart from giant pines and even bigger unknown conifers, I was also surrounded by flowering trees with romantic names like myrtle. My cousin lives in a Wonder Years neighbourhood in a Steel Magnolia home. There were real, live mailboxes! And mailmen (mailpeople?). And children on bicycles. And iced Margaritas on a wooden deck. My first night here - with my first experience of jet lag - was cushioned by family and generous Southern comfort.

And what does the jet lag yeti look like? Well, by the time I landed in Richmond, my body had demanded and got a trial separation from my mind. And both body and mind were in the gray limbo that follows a break-up, where neither is in full possession of any faculties. They had no clue what was going on with the daylight - there was way too much of it. It had been a very long Thursday and the only clear feeling was that of being in a Douglas Adams book. It was actually 12 hours since leaving Schipol, but the clock said five. It was 11 in the night in Schipol, one the next morning in Dubai and 2:30 am in Bangalore, but still only four in the afternoon for me. It felt like it would continue being Thursday until the end of time.

Just as we sat down to a special dinner organised for me, my mind gave up trying to work out how many hours of daylight it had been subjected to, and mercifully fell asleep. And all this high drama was just to greet the fact that I gained seven extra hours - how much will my system kick and scream on the way back, when time gets arbitrarily taken away from me?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

West of Istanbul, East of Bangkok...

... lies a land conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. My first day in the US was at Colonial Williamsburg, where it was amply clear that this was a sentiment more honored in the breach than the observance, as far as the founding fathers were concerned.

But this is far ahead. My first taste of the USA was within the US Airways enclosure in Schipol. A lot of questions from security before I got my boarding pass: why am I going to the US, did I pack my bags myself, how am I getting from Chicago to LA, considering there's no air ticket for that... oh you're taking a train? That's interesting, not many people do that - would you happen to have the train ticket on you? That sort of thing went on for a while. It was scary as hell. But afterwards, I got the window seat I asked for, and a window on my connecting flight from Philly - without asking.

So, I'm now on the plane trying not to look too excited. You know you're on US territory when every available bit of air and surface is considered advertising space. Where other airlines fill the time in between boarding and take-off with inane music and self-promotional videos, US Airways have sold this time to hundreds of advertisers, probably for large sums of money that they have then not used to improve their food.

I'm feeling a bit bad because I didn't give up my seat to someone. It was a mother and teenaged daughter who wanted to sit next to each other rather than one behind the other. I thought they were just being spoilt, so I pretended that I was claustrophobic and so needed the window for medical reasons. (I love America - you can get away with anything if you can think of a fashionable mental disease fast enough.) But it turned out it was because the daughter was scared of flying and needed the mother. The man in the seat in front of me gave up his window. He's a better man than I.

The usual pre-take-off guff was even more ridiculous than usual. You also know you're on US territory when they say "federal regulations" with every third breath they draw. While I made derisive noises under my breath, we were airborne and I saw the prettiest sight I've ever seen. Wispy clouds hung below us, a gentle morningness floated over everything, and far beneath, flowering unexpectedly in the blue Atlantic, were white windmills! A fairytale field of them turning lazily in the water.

After many, many hours and the worst food I've ever eaten on an airline (this includes Air India Express), I opened my eyes from a deep sleep to see land. Like Columbus, I was startled to realise that I'd reached America.

I recommend Philly Airport to all people entering the US on a visa. Judging by the horror stories I've heard about JFK et al, I had a very easy time of it. No screaming drill seargents, nobody in fact, to say anything at all to you as you waited quietly in line, while holidaying children tore around the place unchecked. Not even a nasty signboard. I was subjected to a few gentle questions about my visit and then a brief discussion on the Dubai Desert Classic and that's it. It might have been Seeb Airport.

And here I am, unfrazzled, welcomed, on a tiny little plane bound for Richmond.

Baggage allowance

I am on Flight 749 from Amsterdam "with service to Philadelphia". (The rest of the world is content to say simply that they're going from one place to another. They're not currently en route to it nor are they in the process of making their way to the final destination.)

I'm sitting on the side of the plane overlooking the baggage loading section. Idly looking out, I spot my bags sitting on the carts. For some reason the sight of them makes me want to cry. Well, anyway it means they haven't got lost yet. But they look a bit orphaned and unprotected, out in the open on the tarmac. They're loading the bags on a sort of conveyor belt into the plane now. They've pulled a blue one aside. They're making quite a meal of checking the tags. It's vaguely reassuring that these guys are Dutch, though it doesn't make them any less human. Oh he's checking my tags now... and they're on the conveyor belt coming in. Hi bags! You look very small next to all the giant suitcases.

Now I'm free to feel bad for the blue bag, which is now sitting all by itself on the wagon. I feel like standing up and announcing "will the owner of the blue bag please rescue their property?" Then I remember the thing about people who can dissolve bomb components in shampoo to reassemble in airplane bathrooms, and I'm suddenly not quite so sorry any more.

Down at the Red Rose Cafe

Except this one's not down by the harbour in Amsterdam. It's in Schipol airport. And they've left off the Red Rose part and settled for Amsterdam Cafe. But it looks and feels exactly like the one in the song. It's hard to believe that it's inside an airport.

For the record, the date is 12th July, 2007. The time is 6 am or thereabouts. (I don't usually wear a watch, so no reason why I should do it now when it involves listening intently to garbled stewardess announcements about local time, one hand poised tensely over the screw to change my time and getting it wrong anyway. Airports have clocks.)

I can't believe that I'm actually in Amsterdam. You'd think believing that would require a leap of faith anyway, considering that all I'm in is another airport. But this airport has a vibe that can almost be called character. People seem relaxed, as if they were here by choice and not because an airline dumped them here at an ungodly hour to suit someone else's convenience.

I'm relaxed too. The famous Schipol Airport, stuff of myth and legend, giant hub of the travelling world, seems surprisingly small and manageable. Or I had dramatised and exaggerated the putative dangers as usual.

I'm the shortest person here, except for some eight-year-olds. Not all, just some. I'm also the fattest person here - America had better make up for this. The Dutch are a good-looking people. They're also an easygoing people.

There are no gas chambers here - only the Dutch would create a smoking section that's an open, comfortable space. In Dubai Airport, the smokers are losers. Here, they're shiny, happy types.

Watching people come and go, I noticed another interesting difference. Sitting in Dubai Airport, you notice - with envy - what people are wearing or carrying. Here, you cannot remember the details of what anybody's wearing, but I notice - with envy - how well they're wearing it. I just correctly identified some passengers as being Turkish and am feeling vaguely pleased at this sign of cosmopolitanship. You can also tell who's waiting to connect to a transatlantic flight by the way they light their cigarettes. They use matches. It's useless to bother with lighters only to give it up at this end and go hunting for another at the other end.

Also, how do people fall so easily into conversation with strangers? A pleasant hello is all that I'm willing to contribute. I find I've gravitated towards the only other Indian here. Now we're sitting at neighbouring tables and ignoring each other, while saying good morning to everyone else. In my defense, I did look at him but he ignored me first. He's wearing a t-shirt that says some Association of Umpires. Maybe he's famous in the cricketing world and ticked off at not being recognised. Anyway the Dutch guy on the other side is much better looking.

I suppose I should take out the camera I just bought and learn how to use it. I still have three hours to go.

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