Thursday, January 16, 2014

Your Old Faithful Travel Guide

I am generally known to be a level-headed, not-usually-hyper, rational person. But sometimes, only sometimes, I do things that befit this description. I do stupid things that befit my age, and maturity. I realize that I just wrote the concluding paragraph without even starting the post.

I was on my way to Seattle during the winter holidays. I was flying on Christmas eve, hoping to reach Seattle just in time for Christmas. When I was checking in at the airport and the machine at the kiosk asked me if I would like to board the next flight in return for a $200 travel voucher, I should have taken the hint and said yes. I did not. I was in a hurry to reach my most favorite place in the world. Which I did not.

There were weather related issues, and by the time I reached Denver, I had missed my connecting flight to Seattle. I could neither reach Seattle on Christmas eve, nor could get the $200 travel voucher. I spent the night at a hotel in Denver, and had to be up by 4 am to take the 5:20 am shuttle to be on time for the 6:00 am flight to Seattle. In the fear that I would oversleep and miss my flight, I mostly did not sleep at all. By the time the alarm went off, I had already showered, packed again, and was ready for the airport.

A few years ago, this lifestyle and not sleeping at night suited me fine. But I can see that I am reaching that age where I need my full 8 hours of sleep at night, need my bed, and cannot do red eye flights anymore. It spoils my entire next day, when all I do is sleep. So I boarded the flight to Seattle, texting my friend that I need some Ghoom 3 (Dhoom 3 had released that weekend, and ghoom is Bengali means sleep). Sometime during the flight, probably after I had my complimentary apple juice without ice (I always have that in flight), I put down my head on the serving tray and dozed off. I slept on and off, being very uncomfortable in that cramped space, and somehow managed to have a dream that I was visiting Yellowstone National Park.

Suddenly, I woke up with a jolt and looked outside the window. To my amazement, I saw that we were flying over the Yellowstone National Park. It was quite possible, since the route from Denver to Seattle goes through that area. Now how did I know that this is Yellowstone National Park? Because I saw the Old Faithful geyser erupting below. I have been to that national park once, 4 years ago, and loved it. How lucky one can be if one gets to see the bird’s-eye-view of such a world famous place, for free. I have traveled over Arizona, hoping to see the Grand Canyon from the airplane, but nothing I saw looked like the majestic Grand Canyon. And here, I could see the Old Faithful geyser right below my nose.

Ecstatic, and still a little groggy from sleep, I took out my camera quickly, changed lenses, and took some pictures. Barely able to contain my excitement, I told this to the neighboring two girls sitting by me. “Hey look, we are flying over the Old faithful geyser in Yellowstone”, I beamed. To my confusion, they looked initially surprised, and even tried craning their neck to see the view, but lost interest in the few seconds. I mean, how could one not be excited about the view? Maybe they have been there enough number of times to not be excited anymore? Maybe they had never been there, and did not know what they were missing? “Crazy people”, I said in my head, and looked outside, taking a few more pictures of the geyser that was slowing fading to my right now. But something about their reaction bothered me. Something in general bothered me. Why was the area around the geyser flat? I tried to remember what it looked like 4 years ago. I am pretty sure that I had seen many tall and rugged mountains during that trip. Something just did not seem right.

I kept wondering for the next fifteen-twenty minutes, when I saw the Cascade chain of mountains appear. Ten minutes later, I had landed in Seattle.

Given how quickly Seattle arrived after I saw the Old Faithful geyser, and given how flat it was around the geyser, the only rational explanation I can think of is this. Brace yourself, for I may be right, and it will shock you. We were flying above the Pullman area of eastern Washington, and what I mistook to be the world famous geyser, was a tall factory chimney which was billowing white smoke. We were hundreds of miles away from Yellowstone, both geographically, and figuratively. That explains why we landed so fast. That explained the first confused, and then irritated look those women gave me (as if they were saying to themselves, are we idiots?). And that explains how age is catching up with me, and how a groggy, half asleep state of mind makes my imagination go crazy. This is so embarrassing that sharing it in the anonymity of this blog makes me feel only marginally less stupid. I cannot imagine sharing this with my friends, who know me for my passion for travel.

For the rest of the plane trip, which was not a lot thankfully, I did not make eye contact with my fellow passengers. And you know what? Someone out there is laughing really hard with her friends, recounting how a sleepy woman mistook a factory chimney to be the Old Faithful geyser.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Food for thought

As a kid, I used to love peeling hot boiled potatoes because after I was done, I would be allowed to eat half a potato with salt. The taste was heavenly. No one told me that eating potatoes would make me fat, and I was never fat. If anything, I was active, always hungry for food, and loved eating whatever mom made, without counting calories.

There are some things I did not love so much though. But no one was given a concession. Everyone ate what was cooked. Alu sheddho deem sheddho dal sheddho bhaat was one of the things I did not like. It is a meal made of boiled and mashed eggs and potatoes, with boiled lentils (masoor dal) and boiled rice. The eggs and potatoes were mashed with finely chopped onions and green chilies, and the rice was served with ghee. People said that it tasted heavenly. I think the semi-solid consistency of the meal bothered me. You would have surely eaten this if you are Bengali.

I don’t remember the last time I ate it, since I didn’t like it anyway. It must be close to 8-9 years now. Yet today, out of nowhere, I started craving it at work. I craved it so much that it became distracting. I almost smelled it everywhere. So when I got home, I had to make it. Well, there is nothing to make actually, you boil everything and eat it while it is super hot. I got a little adventurous and put in a tadka of red chillies and finely chopped onions and garlic. The first morsel I had, I knew that I was in food Heaven.

Food is so much about childhood memories. The pizzas and the pastas will never be the same for me as Bengali food is, because I have no childhood associations with them. I grew up watching mom cook for years as I sat at my desk doing homework. I never worried about eating an extra potato, or eating that yolk in the egg. I never segregated food as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. I ate whatever mom cooked. She never served canned or processed food, and cooked everything from the scratch. For me, certain food will always be about strong childhood associations. The smell of garlic I peeled as she made goat meat curry for Sunday lunch, the smell of tomato soup made from scratch on wintry nights, and the smell of cheese pakoras being fried when guests visited us, being some of them.

In the 1990s, I grew up watching my mom hooked to Khana Khazana (a cookery show on Zee TV). Those were the days when Sanjeev Kapoor had a mustache, and wasn't as thin as he is today. In the evenings, she would get all her cooking and chores done, and would sit with a tray of raw vegetables, her eyes glued to the TV.

I didn't really understand her fascination for the show. Some days, we would be having simple rice and lentils for dinner, yet meat sizzlers and fancy Italian cuisine would be cooking on TV. Sometimes, Mr. Kapoor used sauces and wines which I am sure were not available in any middle class kitchens in India. It is a different story now. 

The TV was mounted high up, so every evening, she would sit on the sofa, peeling peas or banana blossoms, her neck craned and her eyes glued on Mr. Kapoor, just like a devotee would look at God in the temple. No one else was allowed to watch anything else. Thankfully, there were no distractions from the cell phone or internet then. I never really understood her fascination for the show. If I interrupted her, she would simply make a STOP gesture with her palms, saying, "dnaara, dnaara" (wait, wait!!). Those days, I neither knew how to cook, nor was interested in watching these shows.

This evening, I spent quite some time doing exactly what she used to do all those years ago. I was intrigued about a breakfast recipe, and that is how it started. Before I knew, I had watched 15-20 episodes back to back. And at some point, I was like, "God, I must look exactly like my mom right now!". The difference is that I was watching it on my laptop, and they were talking in English. I watched a few back from the 90s as well, and loved the show in Hindi. 

We grow up watching our parents do many things, shaking our heads and not understanding what attracts them to these things. Then, years roll by, and one fine evening, even before you realize, you are the exact replica of your mother, grown older to that age roughly, glasses on the nose, watching the same shows they were addicted to. If I had children around me right now, I know that they too would be shaking their heads and wondering the same thing, "What is wrong with her? Why is she hooked to the show?"


Friday, January 03, 2014

Skidding into the new year

Most people in this world started the new year making resolutions they will not keep, or traveling to exotic locales and showing off. Some did both.

For me, it was a day of miracles. I was traveling for the holidays, and was on my way back. The flight was delayed by a couple of hours, and by the time I landed at night, I saw that everything below was white. I checked the temperature to be minus 15 Celsius. This was going to be interesting.

While driving back home from the airport (60 miles away), my car skid on the ice, and spun out of control, not once, but twice. The first time was when I had just stepped out of the airport parking. I tried swerving to the left, but it swerved fully, and came to stop facing oncoming traffic. I was really surprised, as this was the first time it had happened. Quickly, I reversed the car on the shoulder and started driving. I could barely see the lanes, not just because it was dark, but because snow covered half the lanes. It was hard to tell if I was overstepping the lanes. I decided to drive slower.

The second time turned out to be almost fatal. I entered the freeway, and realizing that the speed was 60 mph and I wanted to go slower, I shifted to the rightmost lane. They had mostly cleared the snow, but not completely on the rightmost lane. During the day, snow melts, but at night, due to extreme temperatures, the cold water melts back to ice (ice offers less friction than snow). The moment I entered the rightmost lane, I felt my car spinning out of control. I made the mistake of braking, more instinctively than anything else. The car spun 360 degree a couple of times, barely missing a pole before stopping to face the oncoming traffic. It was like reliving an action movie in reality. A head on collision was inevitable.

Yet, both me, and my car had a miraculous escape, unscathed. Traffic was less, and the few cars coming in my direction quickly shifted lanes and zoomed past me. Thankfully, I was quick to gather my senses, move from the highway, and take the next exit. I was shattered. I had considerably slowed down and taken the exit, but the inner roads were worse. They had not really cleared the snow from the inner roads, and every time I tried taking a turn, my car skid. Finally, I found a parking lot, parked my car, and inspected the damage. The mudguard was caked with a thick layer of black colored snow (probably a mixture of snow and dirt). It was freezing and I could feel hypothermia setting in. I locked inside my car and howled for quite some time. I did not have the strength to drive back.

It is no use to think what could have happened when nothing happened. The skidding must have been for less than a minute, but it was the longest minute of my life. Sadly, after all this, I had to muster the courage to drive for 50 miles to get home. Emotionally, I was shattered. 

Today, I skipped work to skip driving, but tomorrow, and everyday after that, I have to drive. I do not drive rashly, do not drink and drive, do not text and drive, and do not even take phone calls while driving. I have driven for 4.5 years and more than 50k miles now, going all over the country, in busy cities and mountains. I was not even speeding yesterday. In fact, I was slower than the speed limit.

Driving is an enjoyable activity for me because I know how to confidently control and maneuver a heavy body moving at a great speed. Yet yesterday, I experienced firsthand what skidding and getting out of control feels like. Snow that has frozen into ice is dangerous, and trying to brake, even instinctively, caused my nemesis. This is the first time I have been in an accident. The rest of the 50 miles, I drove at 55 in a 75 mph zone, with my emergency lights on. It was a nightmare for me.

It's not an experience anyone should have to face, but now that I have done it, I am thankful to be alive and to be writing coherently, using correct English. Coming this close to a fatal accident and escaping unscathed makes you believe in miracles. Surely it was an interesting, although unexpected start to the new year. But like my friend says, now that you are done with it, there will not be any accidents for the next fifteen years.