Updated: Dec 1, 2019
I heard y'all. I could hear the sniggers from miles away.
"Is it even a solo trip if you went to Mysore?"
"Even my driver goes to Mysore, but he doesn't brag about it on his blog."
I won't lie. It hurt. I drowned myself in Altaf Raja songs for months. There was only one way out of this mess. I had to go on a proper solo trip. One that is worthy of this hallowed blog. That is when I encashed my life's saving (and a few non-vital body organs) and decided to go on a solo trip to the United States of America.
I wish real life was this dramatic. Truth is, I was in Raleigh, North Carolina last month for a business trip and later in New York for vacationing. (A big thank you to Citrix for sponsoring this trip!)
Different people have different ideas about USA. Some associate it with the glamour and debauchery of Hollywood. Few remember it for its unbridled Wall Street capitalism and debauchery. Yet others, picture an orange-haired megalomaniac sitting in a white house indulging in debauchery. My idea of America, which I believe is shared by many, was basically sky-high buildings and rampant obesity (and of course, some debauchery).
Truth is - America is none of this, all of this and much more.
From L to R : Adriana Lima at Madame Tussauds. Raging Bull at Wall Street. Trump caricature at Times Square.
While on the flight back to India, I reflected upon my former notions of America, most of which had been dispelled, when this apt quote of Mark Twain came to mind -
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
But before I delve into these shattered ideas of mine, let's start from the very beginning.
It was largely an unplanned trip and events leading up to my date of travel happened rather swiftly, much to my annoyance.
Getting a US Visa is an expensive ordeal. In fact, my trip turned solo when the colleague who was supposed to accompany me was denied Visa, for no apparent reason. This development was unsettling because 1) it was my first international trip 2) it was my first business trip 3) it's always good to have company on a trip.
Two essentials you should never forget while packing for a trip abroad are universal adapter and portable bidet. Also brush up on your mental math skills because Americans do not use the metric system. It's all Fahrenheit, miles and pounds there. After about a week, you stop mentally converting dollars to rupees because you realize it's not worth the trouble.
I was going on a business trip but I was not flying business class.
It was a 15 hour long direct flight from Delhi to Newark (I comforted myself by saying it's only 5 hours if I take into account the time zone difference). By and large, it was comfortable - with ample legroom, good food and decent in-flight entertainment. The crowd was a good mix of Indians, Americans and Indians-who-think-they-are-Americans. Seated next to me was an uncle who insisted on having yet another bottle of free alcohol - this time for breakfast - arguing that its actually night time in India right now.
I landed at Liberty Airport and took a connecting flight to Raleigh thereafter.
The TSA, Customs and Immigrations personnel of USA have gained infamy thanks to "random" cavity searches. Thankfully, none of that happened to me. Maybe they select only former Presidents and movie stars for it.
A funny incident did occur at the security check though, when the officer asked me to place my bag from the conveyor belt into the bin. Seeing my puzzled look, the lady behind me in the queue informed me that bin refers to a tray and not the trash can.
I don't know what I was expecting to experience in videsh but it felt reassuring and also underwhelming to realize that the sky there is also blue, water tastes the same and American people also look human-like.
(To be fair, they have much clearer skies, tap water is absolutely safe to drink and their womenkind are angelic.)
Americans speak English in an accent that is similar to what you hear in their movies and shows (duh!) except that in real life there are no subtitles. It takes some time getting used to but eventually you do get it (or at least pretend to understand and nod along). They also do speak the phrases you hear in movies, in real life. I gleed like an idiot when someone told me - "I'm gonna ask you to step aside, sir."
Readers of the book The Inscrutable Americans, will know that Indians traveling to US face their fair share of cultural anomalies and faux pas.
So, when the attractive hotel receptionist addressed me as sweetheart and honey, I was braced for the fact that she was not really into me.
Then, there were some issues that I will have to attribute to my ignorance rather than to culture differences. Setting up an iron board is quite straightforward but, for the life of me, it is impossible to shut one without assistance from a YouTube tutorial.
Also, I was not aware that showers have a liner let alone what's the purpose it served. Embarrassingly, my hotel housekeeper schooled me about it.
Generally speaking, Americans are well-mannered and nice. They hold doors for each other, prefix every sentence with a sorry or a please and they really do love to small talk.
Americans also value their personal space a lot. I had a colleague tell me "Gosh! you are sitting very close to me'", when I was sitting absolutely normally (by Bangalore office standards). Thereafter, I erred on the side of caution and maintained a one-hand-distance from them all.
Now, a few words on the three things Americans love the most - food, TV and cars.
If you thought Arnab Goswami was bad, wait till you see Fox News. US news channels are downright uncivil and biased.
Television advertisements are bland. There is no element of surprise. Contrast this to Indian commercials which might show you a model seducing a fruit for an ad on life insurance.
Sports, especially American football, is huge on both television and in universities.
Americans love their cars. I cannot emphasize this fact more. The lack of people diversity is made up by diversity in cars. You see vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Traveling by road is unarguably the best way to explore the country. Oftentimes, I was the only pedestrian on the street in Raleigh. People drive fast but they drive safely. Traffic rules are followed, but not out of fear. My Indian mind was conditioned to half-expect the cab drivers to spew gutka, every time they opened their mouths, but no, that never happened. I had the most amazing conversations with Uber drivers everyday on my way to and back from the office.
USA truly has lip smacking and mouth watering cuisines to offer - flavorful steaks, crunchy hotdogs, scrumptious barbecues, greasy hamburgers, tender juicy sausages.....to a non vegetarian. For a herbivore like me, it was a struggle scavenging and surviving on a diet of salad, bread, yogurt and desserts.
One evening, I stumbled on an Uber Eats listing which had a 'Make your own pizza' on its menu. Excitedly, I selected all the veggie toppings and ordered a large pizza. It turned out to literally be a make-your-own-pizza. The pizza that was delivered to me had an unbaked base with frozen toppings. I had to throw it in the bin and go back to ordering baingan bharat and bhindi do plaza from a spurious Indian joint.
Raleigh (pronounced Ra-lee and not Ra-lay), the capital of North Carolina (pronounced however you would like) is a thoroughly livable city. In fact, it is often rated as the best city to settle down in USA. The locals have an unofficial motto - 'Keep Raleigh boring' to preserve its exceptional quality of life. The city is quiet and peaceful with large green pockets, lakes, museums and a bustling downtown. I hate to say this again but the city reminded me of Mysore which in turn reminded me of Jamshedpur.
It pleased me to no end when I noticed that the houses there, with their slanting roofs and trimmed backyards, resembled their counterparts from a Goosebumps or an Archies I read growing up!
For an Indian, it is a cultural shock, seeing such large expanses of land and so few people around it. Most buildings in Raleigh are broad and short (for lack of a better description) and have huge spaces earmarked for car parking.
New York City (pronounced aukaat) on the other hand, is the most touristy place in all of US and A. It is, arguably, the greatest city on Earth. Stepping out of Penn Station and seeing NYC for the first time in all of its glory was a moment when my heart skipped a beat. A moment I shall never forget.
The tall buildings you see in Mumbai and Delhi are not skyscrapers - they barely even scrape the sky. Buildings in New York are so massive that you need to flex your necks into an obtuse angle to see their top. Doctors recommend a visit to NY to cure spondylitis.
New York is highly cosmopolitan. The background noise and chatter on the streets is Hindi, Telugu, Chinese, Spanish - anything but English.
The NY subway, operating 24x7, is the lifeline of the city. It is cost effective and spread out extensively across the boroughs. Just bear in mind that it is a century old and can get dirty, musty and sultry. But, it truly is amazing!
Not every part of New York is paved with gold. You do occasionally see homeless people, garbage on streets, rats on the subway tracks and graffiti on walls. (No, they don't call their underbelly as Little India).
In US, I saw three kinds of stores for the first time - Apple Store, Adult Store and Ammunition store. Just for laughs, I ask people to figure out 2 out of these 3 stores I shopped in.
Apple, peaches and other forbidden fruits
Enough has already been written about the cancerous consumerism in United States. It's the aspect of USA I disliked the most. Serving portions are gigantic and people are coerced into buying more commodities than what they need. Walmarts are larger than entire malls in India. And oh, they pumpkin flavor everything - candles, coffee, kitkats.
I have already penned down a thousand words by now and to add a few thousand more are these pictures that I took on the trip.
Snaps from Lake Johnson in Raleigh and the hiking trail surrounding it.
Interesting anecdote. One evening I wandered into an actual ghost town, walked across a state prison, chanced upon a herd of deer and then casually evaded a mental hospital. I live to tell the tale.
I have always had contempt for Indians who chose to live abroad. But, I now know why those people made that choice. I won't lie. I too was tempted when I met my Indian friends in Raleigh and New York tell me about their new life in the States.
The quality of life - air, water, infrastructure, education - is truly extraordinary (the heath care costs, though, are exorbitantly high).
The standard response to any permission you seek is - 'America is a free country'. The words democracy, liberty, equality and respect are thrown around quite a lot. But USA truly enshrines these values. These principles are not an afterthought neither are they enforced merely because a book says so. These values are the very idea of America. People do, speak, eat, dress and live as they please, as long as they are respectful of other people's rights too.
What really stood out were the accessibility facilities meted out to people with disabilities, who are treated as first class citizens. Not once did I face any form of racism or see it being directed towards any immigrant or minority. There is dignity of labour even in the work of a construction laborer or a waitress. There are many, many more such reasons that lure people from across the globe to obtain a green card.
Every now and then, this thought would pop into my head while walking in the streets of New York - "Yahi jagah, par apne log."
Mark Twain has another famous remark to his credit -
"East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."
Mr. Twain did not live long enough to see Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra create this amalagamation.
I hope, some day, Brooklyn and Benares meet to leave the world a richer place.