Discovering America - One More Post On Travel

by Ramesh Mahadevan

Many of us desis become incurable wanderlusts once we set foot in this country. We call up our old wingmates and classmates, pack ourselves like sardines in an old car and drive across two time zones. On the way, we take in two or three metropolises, a couple of national parks and come back with a fresh harvest of T shirts. When we stop by for a photo session at the Great Smokies or some such, we run into a symmetric bunch of desis in a symmetric car; however, four out of five of us ignores four out of five of them. The fifth one says hello to the fifth one of the other group and somehow the faith in desi brotherhood is restored. In fact, there are far more desis around the 'Old Faithful' geyser (in Yellowstone) on a fourth of July weekend than there ever are in any India Association meetings around here.

Wandering in America is a truly great experience. This is really a beautiful country. However, there is a subtle, but nonetheless a tremendous effort going on to bulldoze the geography and homogenize the whole country. If you are left standing in the suburbs, you don't know whether you are in Seattle or Miami or Phoenix. Well, almost. Unlike India, where a Bombay is different from Madras is different from Calcutta.

There is no escape from the KMarts and McDonalds. And practically every town has a dump that is converted into a Spaghetti Factory. You hear of a local ice cream stand that is so popular that people come from all over the universe to have ice creams. And in a matter of months it will be franchised into other towns. Heck, even the Indian stores in University Avenue (Berkeley) look like the ones in Devon Street in Chicago or the ones in Jackson Heights. The 'sameness' is endemic.

I have been to every one of the fifty states in this country. (Next I am going after all the zip codes - just kidding) Let me see if I had been to any exotic places in the USA, where not too many desis have bravely set foot before. And where no Potel exists yet.

Hawaii is perhaps the biggest tourist trap and rip-off I have ever been to. Especially the touristy spots like the famous Waikiki beach. Strange people are constantly urging you to see something or buy something or eat something - just part with your money, please. Somebody was even trying to sell me something which looked like a used tattoo. The Waikiki beach itself is nothing more than an endless stretch of fat human bodies, probably even more crowded than some of the desperate refugee camps.

"You can put on a uniform and ask for a 'beach tax' of two bucks each and they would willingly pay up" explained the famous SCIer Narayan Raja who lives in Hawaii these days. (Much thanks to him and his fiancee and Anurag Bist for showing me a good time) They took me to their exclusive hangouts, outside of the main tourist sections. The bluest beach, wettest spot, windiest pass - you name it. There were even tidbits about how banyan trees made their way to Hawaii from India, how desi 'mongoose' completely eliminated snakes from Hawaii. I am sure there must be a story about how Jai Mahraj made it to Hawaii as well.

People from all kinds of exotic Polynesian lands such as Samoa, Fiji, IIT Madras and Tahiti were all there, speaking their own brand of pidgin english - almost like the Singapore English. They are proud of their seafaring techniques and how they chartered almost a third of the world without much modern navigational tools. They are so big and huge I felt very nervous in front of them.

Did you know that the southernmost point in all the fifty states is in Hawaii ? A nondescrept place called Ka Lae (the South Point) in the big island Hawaii, a mere forty or so miles south of the Volcanoes National Park. I had to drive in pouring rain, take a detour off the main road, down an unmetalled gravel road for the last ten miles, with barely enough clearance for half a car. On the way, I passed some very noisy, very impressive array of windmills. The southernmost tip itself is just a rough, rocky, surprisingly cold seaface.

There was an intriguing coffee shop north of Ka Lae, (obviously situated at the 'southernmost community' in the USA) with an impressive collection of old curios. There was even a Bonzai garden at the back. A very mysterious, old, Oriental man ran the place. Narayan Raja has a story about this coffee shop that I hope one day he will post on the bboard.

Exactly ten days after I was at the southernmost point in the USA, I was at the northernmost point in the USA to earn some more bragging rights. The northernmost point is a place called Point Barrow, just a few miles north of the Eskimo town called Barrow in Alaska. The Arctic Ocean was frozen like hell, but the place was warmer than the southernmost point. (It got very cold, soon afterward)

Barrow was a depressing place, to say the least. One would have thought an Eskimo village would look very cute and picturesque. Instead, there was dirt, mud and garbage everywhere, especially in front of most houses. The houses looked strange, because they were all built on stilts because of permanent frost underground. Sorry, no igloos and most of the Eskimos have become modern enough to drive just snowmobiles instead of their sleighs.

In fact, this modernization has not been too easy for the local people. (The local Eskimos, call themselves Inupiat Indians and have many oriental features. I told them I was an Indian too, from the 'Desi' tribe - just kidding) With traditional fishing and hunting substituted by year around supermarkets (milk is just six dollars a gallon !) many of them don't have much work to do. Some of them moved around like sleepwalkers. Though it wasn't really a tourist spot, many natives were quite friendly, and a good one third of the people were non-natives. Drinking used to be such a problem, now there is prohibition and I was even shown the 'De-tox' center as if it was a tourist spot. There is no Police department - only a department of Public Safety. There were absolutely no trees, being way inside the Arctic Circle. (okay, there were some in the airport terminal, which itself was nothing more than a shed)

It freaked me out to see the sun shining brightly at twelve midnight and to realize that the daylight lasts for eighty two days in summer. Some children were even playing around midnight. And there were midnight softball games. The town had disproportionally large school buildings. (Anyone graduating from High School in Barrow gets a free air ticket to Europe and elsewhere in Alaska, you get a free air ticket to any place of your choice in the state. I had half a mind to write my high school equivalency test there, except that I was afraid I would flunk it.)

For a place that far from civilization, the town was blessed with nice restaurants. Apparently there is very little to do in winters except to eat. The 'Arctic Pizza' for example, offered fine Mexican, Italian and American food, served on fine china. They even had a large screen TV. After my huge lunch, the chef walked out to meet me and guess what, he was from Pakistan ! Of course, nothing surprises me anymore. It goes without saying that I played on the South Asian connection and mooched a great dinner out of him and his wife. Or was it a lunch ?! With sun shining round the clock, you don't even know which meal you are eating, unless you looked at your watch.

Save your money, because you must, should and ought to go to Alaska at least once in your lifetime. Kannan SubramaniaN, our well-known SCIer was my company during most of my Alaska trip and yes, we are still friends ! Lets hope he writes some more.

Believe me folks, North Dakota actually exists, especially the western portion of the state ! The North Dakota bboarders, such as Chandra who posts mainly on India Digest, would probably throw flames at me for this.

Prior to the trip, we looked hard to locate some interesting tourist spots in North Dakota. One of us discovered a Roosevelt National park on the map and off we went. We didn't realize that the roads leading to the park (strange use of the word 'park', since we didn't see any trees there) would be ramrod straight for hundreds of miles. Occassionally, every hundred or so miles, there were tiny, tiny blobs of villages, some with population of just eight or ten people. We walked into a diner in one of those villages. They had blocked off half the restaurant because a school reunion or something was going on. As we stepped in, the reunion folks suddenly stopped their revelling, turned around and stared at us for a full two minutes. Perhaps they had never seen anyone so different and so brown in all their lives !

Somewhere along the line, we saw a board at a desolate spot, which proclaimed that it was the geographic center of the USA. We ignored it and drove along. Hell, if there are no T shirt shops or wax museums around it, it is no tourist spot.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama is one of my favorite small towns. If you flew in to get there, you would ride the smallest of airplanes - the sort of thing that even flaps its wings. It is a hellava ride and the instructions inside the plane are in another language called the Southern accent. I think, this town has the smallest airport I have seen in this country. Till recently, they didn't even have an X-ray machine and had to hand-inspect your under garments right in front of the whole town. (Once I even ran into a Senator while waiting for a plane, who quickly realized that I wasn't a voter and spared me his pitch - but I am digressing)

This is a one horse town, even more one horsy than Clemson, characterized by horrible rains and football fever. And yes, our own energetic and quick witted bboarder Balaji Kannan is also a guy gone Tuscaloose. It was fun meeting him.

After getting bored out there, unable and unwilling to yell 'Crimson Tide' all the time, I was taken on a private tour of the headquarters of a paper company called Gulf State Papers. So what was the big deal going around a Corporate headquarters ? Unlike many other such dumpy office buildings, this was also simultaneously a consummate art gallery with many priceless paintings and sculpture, all around the various offices ! Even the computer desks, office furniture etc were 'arty' and nobody had a messy desk ! There were peacocks and other exotic birds simply wandering around the complex. (reminded me of BITS Pilani) It might interest you to know that the Gulf State Paper made its zillions of profits by being the inventor of the (folding) brown paper grocery bags that is so common nowadays.

Here is the list of 'Best of' and 'Worst of':

Most beautiful cities - San Diego and St. Petersburg. In the whole of North America, the undisputed winner is Vancouver.

Fun places to hang around - Key West, Downtown Chicago (yes !), San Francisco, Monterey (California), Las Vegas and Boulder (Colorado).

Must see - Acadia National Park (Maine), Yellowstone (Wyoming), Arches National Park, Zion National Park (Both in Utah), Alaska.

Eminently avoidable - Elvis Presley mansion in Memphis, Hare Krishna temple in West Virginia, Mount Rushmore in S. Dakota, a variety of Parrot jungles and Monkey jungles in Florida, the entire city of Los Angeles, Liberty Bell (Philadelphia).

For a different kind of experience: Navajo American Indian nation near Window Rock (New Mexico) or any other similar place.

Since one of the touristy thing to do is to climb tall buildings and tall structures and look down, here is my complete guide to tall thingummies.

Big rip-off tall structures - Space needle (Seattle),

Okay-once-in-a-lifetime - CN tower of Toronto, Sears Tower, World Trade Center.

Longest lines to get in - Washington monument, Statue of Liberty and the dumb Arch in St. Louis.

Wear pants and not shorts if you must go: Renaissance Center (Detroit)

Of course, the mother of all tall structures in the world is the Eiffel Tower. It is easily the most boring tall thing I have climbed. (The Qutb Minar, in those days when you could still climb it, was only slightly less boring) There is this story about this famous writer who always dined in a restaurant situated inside the Eiffel Tower. The writer was asked how come he patronized the restaurant so much, given that it wasn't a particularly great place to eat. Pat came the reply. "Because this is the only place in the entire city where I don't see the damn thing".

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh