Wednesday, October 10, 2007

No phone in foreign land

So, I’ve just gotten off a United airlines flight. The LA airport (LAX) airport is as unceremonious as they get. Its about 7 in the morning. And if you think that’s uncomfortably early for me, for the friend who was to pick me up, it was unthinkable! Anyhow, Ronick wasn’t at the airport yet…or was he? I had no way of knowing!

See, here’s what happened. The trip to the states came about when Disney offered to take us to Anaheim for the premier of High school musical 2- A film I’d never heard about in my life, but I’d been told in the best Public relations jargon, that it was indeed a show stopper.
I’d been meaning to buy a local sim card, but turns out, no where in the vicinity of Disneyland are these things sold. So my first two days in glorious America were without the luxury of a cheaper option to my India number on international roaming-the costs for which are frighteningly high. But emergency rules apply, carry an active phone…weather or not to use it, is then an option.

My own personal take on Disneyland was far less impressive than the La airport. And for anyone who’s actually been to the LA airport…they’d know just how little Disney land impressed me! Sure, it’s a cute little place with world famous rodents moving around waving cheerily. But Minnie and Mickey could only be amusing for that long. Beyond the first couple of surprised seconds you’re just left wondering what the guy in the Mickey suit must be thinking! Lets face it… kids punching you in the nuts isn’t the best feeling in the world. And for Mickey, who’s 5 feet and the average kid, who barely manages a two feet altitude….the hand to crotch ratio is pretty obvious.

What surprised me about this country is their incredible ability to be excited about everything. No, I mean EVERYTHING! I don’t think anyone has ever been THAT excited about hearing simple things. Try telling them your name and they’ll go faaantaaastic! I mean, don’t get me wrong.. if there is one thing we should definitely borrow from the west, its congeniality. One of the nicest things about traveling to most places is that you realize the small joys of small talk. People you hardly know, people you will never get to know..and people who you probably don’t even want to know. But the fact is… pleasantry isn’t a bad thing. And a tremendous amount of small talk I’ve made in hotel elevators across the world is testimony to that.

Anyway, back to Disneyland. Like I said.. sure the place is pretty. I’d probably have had a lot more fun if we’d gone in a bigger gang. But we were just three Indians in a large theme park full of excited Americans. That didn’t matter. I enjoyed the roller coasters. I was introduced to something called churos (as over rated as the park) and I was introduced to what life is like without a cell phone. (The fact that my Bombay number was infact on…is to be forgotten. Only I think I did send a couple of messages to trace friends down at the park….and some calls where almost 400 hundred rupees were spent just getting over the “why don’t you get a local number” talk! I mean if I could, I would’ve man! But where will friends ever use their heads to understand THAT!)

Anyway, so that’s how the first two days went past without a local phone. The premier we traveled for..was done with. To my utter surprise, the film was indeed a teenage rage (the rhyme is an unfortunate coincidence). And the stars, all under 18, were enjoying every moment of it. I was introduced to another thing called the “blue carpet” premier as opposed to the red. Hollywood rules indicate, red is too hot for the summer.

So we got out of Disneyland…and I was geared up to drive to LA from Anaheim. Take a bus to Bakersfield and then board a train to reach Fresno where my cousin lives. First, I was mighty amused (and confused!) when the lady at the ticketing counter asked me if I had bags to check in. completely taken by surprise, I reacted with my usual –taken-by-surprise expression, an unending smile. Wrong place to try that strategy…who knows the trick to smiling more than the Americans! So she promptly gave me a bigger smile back and repeated the question as if the question had never been asked before! Twenty five dollars and 30 mins of waiting later, I was in an Amtrack bus that let me sleep, enjoy the American country side and use for the first time in my life, a chemical toilet.

Now, I know…some frequent flyers are rolling their eyes already, but pardon me for not knowing that these busses actually had toilets! Not that I had to go, not that I was even mulling over it..but the thought had crossed my mind. The only bus service I have actually taken is the haryana bus service. Things are simple…you want to pee, you tell the driver to stop. He stops, you get off to unzip your pants and then you realize some ten people get off wanting to pee as well! “if they all wanted to go, why didn’t they just ask,” your mind is thinking. Anyway, you zip up your pants..get on the bus..which comes to a halt again in an hour because this time someone else has to go. And in an instant, you realize why all those people got off when they didn’t really have to pee. As you unzip your pants again, the reason dawns upon you. You familiarize yourself with the if-they’ve-stopped-might-as-well-pee ideology and the rest of the journey is comfortable.

Back in America, somewhere between LA and Bakersfield though….I would’ve been too shy to ask them to stop. Plus the bus ride was under two hours. My bladder boasts of a much longer restraining period, so I was good. Until of course I saw this groggy old woman come to the back of the bus and disappear into a cubical. What seemed like an eternity later, she reappeared…and putting to good use, haryana transport’s gift to me, the might-as-well-pee ideology, I followed suit. Part, out of curiosity and actually ONLY out of curiosity!

Turns out, a chemical toilet is very uncomplicated. A big hole in the back of the bus with chemicals..and you can poop and pee all you want, and it has the capacity to take it all in. Having done my when-was-the-last-time-you-did-something-for-the-first-time thing for the day, I was good to now enjoy the countryside.

The bus finally pulled into the amtrack station at Bakersfield. A quaint little place, managed solely by an African American woman who seemed most excited about the proposition of being the boss. She smiled, she waved…she pretty much had the whole Miss universe thing going. When I asked her about some place I’d be able to get something to eat she smiled (no surprise there!) and directed me to a vending machine. Only problem is, I hate vending machines.

See, they have nothing that’s even remotely healthy. And my experience with the vending machine we have, back at the rat infested CNBC tv18 canteen in Bombay isn’t particularly enchanting. On a good day (rare surprise!), it’ll take in the cash, give out the change and give you what you want. On a partly pleasant day, it would just not accept the money and you’d have to be hunting for notes that the vending gods did actually think qualified to be inserted in its blessed machine. On a dull day, it would take some part of the money and return the rest, that go you back to searching for notes that made the cut. But on your average day that almost never pleased the heavens…the machine would take in your cash..make some strange digestive sounds and then would just not give you what you wanted. So in effect, you’d be left standing there. Staring at the object of your desire, which would have moved a few millimeters and then..NOTHING! If you were lucky, you could ask he guy at the counter to open the machine and give you what you wanted (why we need a vending machine, in that case is beyond me!). Or else when you were caught with the machine, past twelve when you really wanted to eat something…you’d have to try with all your might to shake the damn thing...hoping something would fall. Unfortunately, nothing ever did!

So my apprehension was justified. Plus I honestly didn’t want to down some fat laden thing. That’s the thing that amused me the most about Americans. Every food item comes with a carefully drafted calorie chart that tells you everything that this thing does contain. Saturated fat, unsaturated fat, transfat… if there was some kind of fat in your food item, it’d be on the label. One would think then, that the average American must be terribly health conscious…but my travel so far..and the woman directing me to this vending machine proved that theory wrong! Anyway, so I did the usual “naah! Any chance of getting something that’s not so fattening”. And she promptly did the honey-you-don’t-need-to-worry-about-fat thing. She held out her incredible paunch and laughed. I smiled…walked away and looked at the vending machine anyway.

One of the things I had discovered in the states (besides chemical toilets and churos and what not) was the bran muffin. I first ordered this $2.99 thing, thinking it was a chocolate muffin. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized bran was healthy, delicious and very filling. Honest to god, I couldn’t finish one muffin at a time. And the other half of it, which I would eat later in the train from Bakersfield to Fresno, was still in my bag. The Vending machine at hand didn’t have anything I liked. So instead I hopped into the restroom to just see what Mr Tomar was looking like with his new watch. Now, I know we’ve all done this at some point, so don’t judge me.

You know how at a shoe store, when you’re trying out a new shoe, we all start by looking at our feet and then gaze into our own if new shoes, by any means, will change the way our face looks! Well, that’s exactly what I was doing with my wrist. Pretending to point to something and seeing what my wrist looked like with this chunky fossil that I got not for the $115 price. But for $105, thanks to a Disney employee’s discount. So I did the starring thing, heard a man fart in the loo…and immediately, my excitement over my new watch was replaced by a need to get some fresh air.

Out in the open, I still had a few minutes before my train would depart this small town that I’m guessing didn’t have too many people. I promptly climbed up to the upper level of the train, only to realize that even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have been allowed to sit on the base level. Turns out, that’s reserved for old people, handicap people and those who’ve used the vending machine way too often, and the Amtrack guys fear that them being on the higher level might bring the roof down, at least for those on the base level.

And that’s when I was introduced to perhaps the funniest things I’ve ever heard in a train. Ok, here’s the deal. In Bombay, like most of us lesser mortals if you do have to take the train to work…and you want to know the station you’re at, you can do two things. Either you can ask someone (last resort), or you could peer through the window…find yourself the perfect angle and try and see which station you’re at. Anyway, the other trains I’ve taken in other parts of the world usually have those displays, or a computer voice that tells you (in the most pleasant tone, mind you) about the station you’re about to reach.

Here, I’m guessing our driver or part of what the airline calls Cabin crew, had taken it upon himself to tell us what we had left behind. What we should look forward to…and other things that might seem largely inconsequential in hindsight, but then, they seemed very amusing. I guess you just had to be there. About two hours later, once the sun had gone down, the windows from the inside had gone darker and most people were now in their sleep mode, our jolly fella announced, what I’m guessing was solely for my benefit, that “We’re coming up to Fresno, fellas. If you wanna get down at Fresno, now’s the time. Because we don’t wanna take you, anywhere you don’t wanna go!”. Fair enough- I thought. Gathered my bran muffin and fruit box leftovers, chucked them in the bin labeled PLASTIC BOTTLES ONLY looked around to see if anyone had indeed seen me do this criminal act and promptly got off at the station.

Back to my checked-in luggage. Yes, I was surprised when I was made the offer of having my bag checked-in, in a train. Here I was at the station now, thoroughly confused about where my bag would be returned. Fortunately for me, another girl had the –where-the-fuck-is-my-bag look as the train decided to chug away. An attendant soon came by with our bags. We smiled, relieved mostly and went our separate ways. Bags trailing behind as well tugged at them. Knowing that from here on, relatives would take over. And we’d now move from being confused tourists to becoming well-taken-care-of guests Now THAT is a good way to see a new country!



Mez said...

O' Freak i don believe it. I generally googled to see if u have a blog and bingo! u do. Uber cool on cnn ibn show..good going!!

Ruchiraa said...

Your travelogue is so funny! May I say something about the " Irony and Denial " note you've made about diary-writing? Well, I agree with you that when we write, we imagine being read, but read not at the present but some vague future- that's what I feel, at any rate. And then, there are other reasons for keeping a diary. Sometimes there are things you want to say, to shout, to scream, to hit out- but you can not, for the sake of peace or diplomacy or whatever else you want to call it. And yet there is no peace within you unless you let it out- and the diary comes handy here. It is like a confession box we all need at times.