Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nomad on the block

After close to eight weeks of continuous activity in the College hullabaloo, a 9-day Spring Break was a much needed getaway. I took this as an opportunity to see places, both big and small, as a guest, couch-surfer, and wannabe young tourist-y investor-y man.

First stop, suburban Baltimore.
This was a good relaxing start to the travel week. My roommate, Dave, is an eagle scout - a big deal in the United States. Its positive to observe how an entire community comes out encouraging its members. From President Obama, to the Governor of Maryland, to the local county administrator, everyone sent in a note of encouragement congratulating Dave. (While in Chicago, I saw parents volunteering at schools, taking time out to coach the community-kids in activities from sports to speech.)
The best of both, communism and democratic living, have been adopted in this culture. Something practiced successfully in Scandinavian Europe. 
Also, it was rather satirical to see the Caplans' average american lives being influenced by India. Here is a family that has been in Baltimore for generations, and has nothing to do with anything outside the United States of America. But, today, the mother's work is to coordinate with her colleagues in Bangalore. Her Son rooms with a guy from Pune. And their favorite TV show is "Outsourced" - a comedy show depicting a story of the impact of outsourcing of work to India. 
I also had the opportunity to interact with my roommate's grandfather who was involved in the world war II building American fighter planes. He added that he worked for another decade or so at General Electric, building microwaves, refrigerators and appliances of the like. It felt as if he was an ambassador to the lines in history books that tell us how America transformed industry and manufacturing in the 1950s.

Second stop, New York City.
After experiencing that carrying a bag with a laptop while travelling is a menace to the shoulders and back, I decided for better, this time. All I had on me were clothes (duh?), a blazer, a pen, and a map. I was supposed to meet a friend at her UNICEF office around the UN Plaza on 42nd Street. But She sent me an email a couple of days before my departure saying that she wouldn't be able to keep the meeting. But that wasn't going to deter any of the motivation, mate. 
As I got off the bus, the close-to-zero temperatures (and rain) made me shiver rather violently for someone well-layered. So I walked down a block, and decided to fill the empty stomach with warm food and hot tea. I entered this Indian-looking cafe run by a seemingly Indian lady. Therefore, I assumed that the "Herbal Tea" on the menu would be the familiar hot Indian masala chai, or at least somewhere close. Turns out it was a Turkish Cafe, and no one had anything to do with India in there. The herbal tea wasn't Indian after all, but good nonetheless. It warmed me up, and the cold wasn't an issue henceforth.
For the next four hours, I kept walking on these streets, from Penn Station, Times Square, Grand Central Station, NY Public Library, to the UN Plaza which I anyway wanted to see. From the 42nd street down to the 14th - ah, let me be honest, I took the metro on that last leg.
Honestly, I was disappointed with the City. Having always grown up with Utopian dreams of a big and beautiful New York, all it seemed like was an advanced version of Mumbai. The emotion of the people at Penn Station was the same as that of the people at VT or Churchgate. Everyone seemed to be in the same hurry. The air, strangely, smelt the same. The people looked the same. Only, the buildings were taller, traffic better controlled, and the Indians more courteous. 
Alas, I did want to walk on Wall Street most badly, and was only 7 blocks away, but I had to catch a bus sooner than what I had booked in order to catch the metro in DC. That shuts down at 1 am, and in retrospect it was good to have taken the earlier bus. Else, I would have had to sleep at the Union Station, DC, which probably wouldn't have been the best thing to do. 

Third stop, Baltimore. The City this time. (Its interesting to note the highly distinguishable difference between American cities and their suburbs - unlike in India)
I was supposed to meet with two friends in the country side but I missed the 11:30 am train to my destination. The next one was at 5.30 pm. Instead of waiting at the station, or going back to college, I thought of checking Baltimore City out. So I took the train to Baltimore's Penn Station (hey, whats with the fascination with Penn and trains?) and my word, it is one the most under appreciated cities. Its inner harbor gives a Gulf like - Abu Dhabi, Muscat like - feeling. Walk in a block, and find yourself in the standard American downtown with tall buildings. Walk in a few more blocks and its amazing how you're confused if you were in Baltimore or Barcelona. The roads, the architecture of the buildings, and the entire feel had something European about it. Indeed, the beautiful Charm City is terribly undervalued. Perhaps because of the crime rates and large number of ghettos; nonetheless, it looks like an opportunity-pot worth keeping an eye on.

Fourth stop, Bel Air.
The logic to visit the country side was to observe the contrast between the largest and smallest. Something an Uncle of mine advised after reading my childly blog on my winter-travel: "Chicago, NY, etc are fine", he said, "see the farms, see the rural side, see the real America."
My hosts, Puerto Rican-Americans, were most homely and in fact prepared a special Indian dinner that night. Chole Bhature (Chickpeas), Rajmah (Beans), Chawaal (Rice) and Pappad (I have no idea what the English word for this is.) Added was their traditional Guacamole (like our Indian Chatni) and the meal was blissfully satisfying. The good times.
Even though this doesn't specifically relate to my being in the country side, I drove a sports car. A two-seater real deal sports car. And I'm still pumped about it. :)
As far as the contrast that I wanted to observe: the buildings weren't there, the crowds weren't there, and all those other distinct differences were obviously evident. These were what I - or anyone else - would expect. But there wasn't any subtle realization as such. However, intuitively, I'm sure I have taken something out of the whole journey.

Fifth stop, Edmonston.
Another small town, I went to volunteer at a farm here. The farm, named 'Eco-farms', is run by alumni of the University of Maryland. Here are these two social entrepreneurs, whom I fondly referred to as the solution in my Peace and Politics blog post, who are trying to develop models for economically viable organic farming. Christian, the co owner, believes that organic farming has commercial potential and deserves a much greater market share. According to him a large number of small community based farms - where the people volunteer - can do the job of increasing that market share. Christian has just started out and in all likelihood there is a long way before he successfully creates a sustainable duplicable model. But meeting him, seeing his effort and visibility of work, was an experience of good learning in itself.

Alas, Catonsville.
I got together with my fellow-countrymen, Indians, to celebrate our festival of colors Holi. Best described as spiritual and childish, we all had a good time. By the end of the celebration, we were all drenched in powdered color from head to ..... shoe. My hair had a nice mix of yellow, green and purple which I must admit looked rather cool. 

And that was Spring break. At heart, I'm not the full-fledged adventure person. But I do hope to cover ground in the coming future, learning more about life, culture, and people as I progress.

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