Thursday, June 09, 2005

Strange days in strange lands

It is 18 July 2001 and the moment that I have been anticipating for two years is finally at hand. I am about to step out of the plane and enter the land of the free and the home of the brave. I and my friend A.R. are greeted by a sunny summer afternoon at Boston's Logan airport. Customs are a breeze and it's onto the main lobby where after much juggling of quarters, dimes and nickels we finally manage to put a call through to another friend V. who is coming to pick us up. I watch sadly as the evil contarption swallows my quarters - 12 whole Indian rupees for each one, and demands even more every few minutes. I console myself with the knowledge that all the real cash is safely tucked away inside my shirt in a specially made wallet hanging from my neck. I pat it once just to be sure.

The call is finally done and it's another four hour wait till V. finishes his work-day and makes his way through the evening traffic to the airport. So we sit there with two massive suitcases for each person, marvelling at the fact that there is nothing to really marvel at.

Until I spot a vending machine. Excited that I have at last spotted something I have only seen in movies before, I entrust A.R. with taking care of my bags and jaunt over to
the vending machines to see what treasures I can lay my hands on. After a few minutes of careful perusal I convince myself that it isn't worth parting with a
dollar to have candy or soda just because I want to see a vending machine work.
I wander back to the seat, a bit miffed that there is no entertainment on offer in the land that made Hollywood. As I explain my disappointment to A.R., he sagely points out that expecting a broadway show or a strip club at the airport is a bit unreasonable. I don't see what's so unreasonable about expecting to see hot chicks in skimpy clothes at the very least.

V. manages to get out of work early and we are pleasently surprised to see him making his way toward us. I get the distinct impression from his expression that he thinks we are two plump virgins primed for ritual slaughter. I shake the gruesome image out of my head and engage in the entirely more enjoyable ritual of hugging and back-slapping. I understand his expression though. This is his chance of teaching the humble country bumpkins how to survive in the wild wild west.

As we make our way to the parking lot, he starts gloating about his new car. "It's a VW Passat," he says pridefully. "VW Rocks!!," he adds just in case. I nod my head appreciatively. I have never heard of the car. Now if it was an Audi or a BMW...

We load our stuff into the car, filling the trunk and most of the back seat in the process. "VW Rocks!!", we are assured. After a brief struggle which I win due to my size advantage, I occupy the front seat and A.R. is relegated to the cramped rear quarters. We embark on an hour long journey to Worcester. The first thing both of us notice as we get onto the highway is the number of cars. They just go on and on. And most of them are huge. "Why do they need such huge cars anyway," I venture. "They're Americans," says V. with a knowledgeble nod of the head. It is my first exposure to the idea that every unexplicable aspect of this country can be rationalised very easily by those two words. We shrug it off and concentrate on counting how many Porshes and BMWs we can see. Meanwhile V. is going on and on about how he managed to buy the car only for 22000 dollars when it is normally priced at 26000 dollars. My stomach
does a double flip just thinking about those numbers and I pat my wallet for consolation. It conatins 100 dollars in tens and twentys - at least I am not completely broke.

We are duly impressed with the glimpses we get of our first western city, but soon we arrive in a stark little town an hour from Boston. We stop at a small building on a small street where V. wants to introduce us to some of his mates. We park the car and get out. I push the door a bit harder than I should have and it makes a noise louder than it should have. "VW Rocks!!", my friend says sternly. I take that as a warning and follow him into the building. Both I and A.R. are a bit disturbed by the state of the living quarters we find ourselves in, if that is truly what it can be called. The stairs are creaking and there are gaps in the floorboards. The paint, if existing, is peeling. Not only does it seem as if the place has never been cleaned, but it seems as if it was built from the grimy discards of an old house. We gingerly step into a passageway, like two not-so-intrepid explorers. V. is further ahead, skipping merrily as if in a
park. Apparently his friend isn't home, but we go ahead and peek into his room anyway. The room contains one lamp and a beat up old mattress with a few clothes lying around. Otherwise it is in no better condition than what has gone before it. A.R. looks at V. and puts into words what I have been thinking, "Why is he living like this?"

"He's a student. That's how students live"

"What? Isn't this the richest country in the world? Where did the high standard of living go?"

"It didn't go to the students. I lived like this when I was a student too. Don't worry, I have a better place now." He opens his mouth to add something else suspiciously like "VW Rocks," but thinks better of it and stays quiet.

"Fat lot of good that does for us. You mean to say we're going to live like rats for the next two years?"

A shrug is our only answer. I begin to wonder if coming here had been such a good idea. We gingerly make our way out. "Let's eat Chinese. There's a place a bit down the street," says V. Just as we are about to head to the restaurant, an SUV passing us on the road breaks suddenly. A lady in a small car behind it is too slow to react and crashes into the SUV. The SUV doesn't even budge. The driver of the SUV gets out and walks to the back. I glance around furtively hoping there are no crazy people looking to pick a fight with one of the drivers, but notice that everyone's going about their business without too much of a pause. The driver of the SUV gets back in his car and lumbers to the side of the road. There's not even a scratch on the back.

The smaller car also limps to the side, but its front end is fairly beaten up and crumpled. The lady behind the wheel is still staring out her windshield in a daze. Suddenly three cop cars and an ambulance come wailing down the street.

"Why did they call the entire cavalry? Do they think it's a bank robbery?" I whisper to A.R. I don't know why I am whispering.

"Wait here, I'll go tell the cops what I saw," says V.

"Talk to the cops??? Why would you do that? Whoever talks to cops anyway?"

"Don't worry, it's not like India."

So he walks over to the cop cars and A.R. and I stare at the lady in the small car. She's still in there in a daze, refusing to get out. "She's a goner," he says cynically. I nod just as cynically. Meanwhile V. is back from his little talk and is beaming with the satisfaction of having been a good citizen.

"You are not a citizen though," I say emphatically and they both look at me as if I am not all there.

"The cops seem nice," A.R. ventures, ignoring my outburst."Yeah, they're quite polite actually. They treat you with respect."

Both A.R. and I are amazed to know that the police don't go about acting as if it was their God given right to bully everyone. By and by we saunter off to the Chinese restaurant for dinner. After dinner we make our way in the fading light to V.'s house. He is right, it is a better place and we are satisfied that we'll be spending the next 15 days in comfort. We decide to take showers before hitting the sack and V. makes us follow him into the bathroom so he can explain proper bathroom etiquette.

"Okay, most importantly, the shower curtain goes on the inside of the tub and NOT the outside." He proceeds to give a demonstration with the flair of a magician. I resist an urge to applaud.

"Why is the 'shower' curtain in the tub?" I venture.

"Because the shower is in the tub."

We stare at him quizzically, waiting expectantly for him to start laughing. But instead he moves the shower curtain and points to the shower-head.

"You have your shower in the tub," A.R. says matter-of-factly.

"Everyone does. That's the way it is."

"You mean everyone in this country showers in the...bath tub?"

"They're Americans."

We begin to realise the power of this term and its immense capacity of reassuring panicky minds. Glancing around I suddenly notice a plethora of sundry deodorants and body sprays. Giddy with delight, I immediately begin to assign each one a day of the week. V. realises from my expression what I must be thinking and preempts me.

"You can't use this, this, this, this.." and he might have continued but I interrupt to ask him why.

"Its my housemate's stuff."


"We just don't do that here."

"How un-Indian," I remark and decide to use them anyway.

A nice warm shower and a change of clothes later, we decide that its time for beer. I figure this is as good a time as any to chuck out my Mom's rules about not drinking alcohol. V. hands us a bottle of Corona each. I raise the bottle to my mouth in anticipation.

"Wait! Don't drink it," says V.

"What else do you expect me to do? Take a bath in it?" It's been a long journey.

"No, no. We need to add lime."

"I think he has handed us iced tea," I grumble as he proceeds to cut up a lime. I am miffed that he didn't do it before but wait obediently for my piece. I get even angrier that he didn't cut smaller pieces as I try to stuff the overlarge piece into my bottle. After a few attempts I manage to squeeze it in, but the beer is riled enough by now that it immediately squirts in my face when I remove my thumb.

I refuse to participate in the ensuing hilarity and instead take a swig of my beer. Disticntly unimpressed, I decide that alcohol is not really my cup of iced tea. We chat about old times and new times and slowly move to the bedroom, where the conversation comes to a sudden halt when we realise all at the same time that one of us is going to have to occupy the mattress on the floor. A scuffle breaks out but ends abruptly as V. sends A.R. tumbling into me and squats on the bed. I take advantage of A.R.'s confusion and jump onto the bed myself. A.R. grumpily weaves towards the mattress.

"Just don't tell any Americans you shared a bed with your friend."

"Why what's the big deal? It's big enough for the two of us. It's not like we are snuggling or anything. Hell, its big enough for all three of us even."

"Exactly," we hear from somewhere below us, but A.R. is too tired to put up an argument.

"Trust me. You'll know after a few weeks here that no bed's big enough for two guys to share."

So saying he turns away from me and I turn away from him like estranged spouses.

The summer night in Boston is getting too cool for me and I pull the comforter lying at my feet.

My last thought as I drift off to sleep is, "VW Rocks..."