G.’s office decided that they wanted him in the USA for a few months. I chose to tag along, given that my software engineering degree didn’t come with a free project in the States. So here I am, typing my first dispatch from Arlington, Virginia.
G. has a Business Class ticket and we are allowed entry into the lounge with free food and uplifting muzak (I know I’ve nicked this phrase from somewhere, but can’t for the life of me recollect where I first read it), and a mosquito or two, I suspect. The music is punctuated by the sound of people munching on crisps, a wailing baby, and heavy suitcases with worn out wheels being dragged along the polished floor. Punjab and Rajasthan battle it out – on mute – in the IPL. This may not sound genteel enough, but a stone Buddha statue bathed in flowing water sits on the reception desk, dispelling my blasphemous notions.
I naïvely assume that the packed glass room by the gate is a viewing deck; it turns out to be the smoking zone, and if smoking doesn’t kill, suffocation seems very likely to do the honours. Two hours fly by. We watch the match run into the super-over, eat, and repeat the lines in the Lufthansa advertisement to each other. I try to be as level-headed as I can, considering we have a five-hour halt en route in Frankfurt. Germany! I can’t stop thinking of Michael Schumacher and F1.
The clouds part to reveal neat, manicured fields and small settlements. Are we really in the proximity of a great city? Where are the people? A few skyscrapers appear amidst the forests, looking out on the vast snaking Rhine. Germany!
The woods will have to stand in for the Black Forest for now; the roads will have to pretend they are part of the Hockenheim circuit. All my squinting into the sun doesn’t reveal any Gothic cathedrals or castles, though I do see numerous football fields, justifying the number of Bundesliga stories in the copy of Sport Bild I picked up on the plane, in veneration for the number of times it has supplied quotes from German drivers in English F1 articles.
Velvety hills dot the horizon, sloping gently down to the airport and reminding me very much of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Even though the temperature is 10 degrees C, the sun shines brightly in a pale-blue sky. We wander around the airport, are directed by a very cheerful elderly German lady to our terminal, and promptly sit down after the long walk to the gate mentioned on our boarding passes.
The area fills up with elderly Japanese couples, perhaps part of an organised tour. They take photographs and talk quietly. There seem to be surprisingly few Indians or Americans, considering our destination. G. goes to investigate, and finds out that our gate has been changed and that we have actually been sitting with people bound for Osaka. Another name, another country I want to visit for all the magic Haruki Murakami, Pico Iyer, and my friend A.’s pictures have evoked.
I watch the flight information board. Istanbul, Copenhagen, Split, San Fransisco. How I’d love to use this boarding pass to hop on and hop off planes, dropping into a new city every few days, making a tour of all the racing circuits of Europe.
The plane circles over green fields, not quite as manicured as in Germany, but neat nevertheless. Brown cottages with sloping roofs dot the landscape, and a thick bank of clouds appears in the distance, a translucent white sheet falling from it on to the green expanse underneath. It could be rain: we have just emerged out of choppy, opaque grey clouds. Rows of green trees are incongruously broken by others clothed in vivid purple. We have narrowly missed cherry blossom season, but I simply imagine that some of the trees dressed in light, pale whitish-pink are in fact those famed flowers, so popular and elusive.
We step into the open and are greeted by a whoosh of cold wind. This is exactly how I felt at Heathrow, I tell G., standing on the grey pavement, fresh from the tropical humidity of southern India. I love the weather and I can’t wait to explore a brand new country. We are driven at a speed that would almost definitely be fatal in India on roads whose silken curves are a soothing sight for sore eyes. We pass the Pentagon, which I’d prefer to see from the air, given that it is otherwise just a series of low buildings with a vast parking lot. The Washington Monument makes a brief appearance through a line of trees. I want to drive into Washington DC and ask for a job in the corridors of power and intrigue.
Of course I’m greedy: I want to see canyons cut by muddy rivers and the mighty Rockies, drive through barren deserts, visit the Beat haunts, go to the midwestern Prairies (solely for Willa Cather), and walk on the Main Streets of nondescript villages. I want to go on long road trips, like Kerouac and Steinbeck. I want to study indigenous history and revel in the gorgeous names of Nevada, Nebraska and Mississippi.
I know I’ll be lucky to get even a tiny, tiny fraction of this done. I can’t set limits on my imagination though, especially now when I’m all harebrained with excitement, taking breaks to stand on the balcony and watching the sun struggle through the clouds, cover the brown apartments across the road in an eerie orange light. I almost weep with joy when I realise that I can cross the road without having to break into a run midway, and that cars will wait politely till I have attained the safety of the pavement. I have had my first ice cream soda and am preparing to cook my first meal, after which I will curl up with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a Christian story set in the midwest. America, I look forward to making your acquaintance.