Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Travels Travails

A Cousin in Canada

Out of the clear blue sky, I remembered a trip I once made to Canada in 1970. I flew out of JFK by Air Canada to Toronto, where I met friends I had made in Moscow. Ken and Penny Lantz spent a year at Moscow State University, as Ken was working towards his PhD in Russian Literature with Chekhov as his concentration. I can’t recall how or where I first met him and Penny, but some vague memory tells me that we met purely by chance, either at a dining hall or in a line at a university provision store.  The two of them were good friends, and I enjoyed the chance to speak to them in English during those months when I knew them.  They invited me to visit them in Canada when they learned that I was planning a trip to the US over the summer of 1970.

Off I went to see them and they were wonderful hosts. I mentioned to them that I had a distant cousin living there near Toronto, someone I had never met, but whose phone number and address my father had sent me. This distant cousin was in fact my father’s first cousin on his mother’s side. Venkiteswaran and his wife welcomed me with much delight when I phoned them, and Ken and Penny drove me to their place to meet them. The trip was good, the get-together very pleasant, and there was warmth of friendship all around. Of course someone took a picture, and I wrote a letter to my parents about the trip.

That was the only time I met Venkiteswaran and his wife (whose name I can’t remember). I know I wrote to him and his wife a few times from Moscow, and then we lost contact, as is the way with many one-off meetings. And then, in 1985, Venkiteswaran’s name appeared in a long list in a newspaper—he was one of those killed in the Kanishka bombing: the terror attack on the passenger aircraft of Air India from Canada that crashed off the Irish coast.

Strange and odd things we remember.

Indians Abroad

On my first trip to the US in 1970, when I was on holiday there by myself from Moscow, I went to Wappinger Falls for a couple of days, to visit a cousin who had been a a timid and gentle companion of mine when we were both 8 and 9. She lived there with her husband, whom I was going to meet for the first time.

This brother-in-law was a fun guy and a sport. He decided that the three of us would go to the Niagara Falls, and before that he gave us a tour of the Indian stores in Queens, where he bought us sarees as his gift. These sarees were identical—black, yellow and green triangles on a striking red background.  My cousin and I were amused and delighted, and draped ourselves in our new finery and got on the way to Niagara.

He sang old songs from Tamil movies in an admirable likeness of A.M.Raja, a playback singer’s voice much of the time, as he drove. This was my first ride on US highways. My cousin smiled a lot as I sang along.  We crossed the border and entered Canada, another exciting moment in my life. Maple leaves and new currency. Wow.

We found a B and B, and rang the bell. Out came a middle-aged North American woman with curled hair and light make-up, smiling. She had rooms available and offered us two rooms. “A double and a single?” she asked. Oh no, said my wonderful host, just one double room.

We slept that night , the three of us on a large double bed, with my cousin in the middle.

It took me years of living in the US and other parts of the world to understand why the owner of the B and B blanched when we took just one room.

I wonder if the owner of the B and B ever got over the shock of the threesome we were —a small Indian man who took one double room, accompanied by two very young petite women, both vertically somewhat challenged, dressed in identical bright red sarees, happy as silly schoolgirls, on their first time visit to the Niagara Falls.

Across the Continental USA

I’ve had many lucky breaks.

When I was young, thanks to my father, our family of six had many opportunities to travel within India. When we meet, my siblings and I still recall the odd and peculiar things that we saw on our journeys—for example, the first turbaned and bearded Sikh gentleman at whom I couldn’t stop gawking at a train station in Indore. Or an extremely large carpenter in Gurgaon, who was sharpening a stub of lead pencil with a knife that looked like a meat cleaver to our childish eyes. 

My luck continued when I was a graduate student in the US.

It must have been in 1974—which month, I don’t quite recall—when the Chair of our department invited two of my Slavic department friends and me into his office to tell us that the Director of the Marine Water Quality laboratory in Rhode Island was urgently looking for Russian-English translators. Our Chair, Victor Terras, thought that the three of us—Elaine, Nancy, and I—might  fit the bill.

Off we went to Narragansett where Eric Schneider, the Director of the lab met us. He was a man in a hurry, because we were needed to begin work in a matter of days.  He had put together a collaborative team of marine biologists from the Soviet Union and the USA to undertake a detailed study of marine water pollution along the coasts of the USA and the USSR.

This was a pioneering first step in scientific collaboration between the USA and USSR, occasioned by the political détente of the Nixon-Kissinger era.  Three Soviet scientists were due to arrive in the USA to travel along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, accompanied by Eric Schneider and his team, including the translators...who in reality were going to be simultaneous interpretors.

With no previous training and armed with just one set of a two volume English-Russian dictionary of scientific terms and our Chair’s complete confidence in our ability to rise to the occasion, we set off with the US-USSR delegation of environmental scientists and marine biologists on a dream trip. The two week trip took us to Woods Hole at Cape Cod, Yale University in New Haven, the National Marine Water Quality Laboratory in Pensacola, Florida, and then on to Houston and Galveston Bay in Texas. From there we took off for Seattle, and finished our journey in La Jolla, California, at the Scripps Institute, where the bi-lateral group signed an agreement for future joint ventures.

Eric’s budget was small and we couldn’t be paid but for us the experience was reward enough.   He took care to give us single rooms at every hotel so that we could rest, and of course he picked up all the bills, including for the sightseeing trips that he had put together for the visitors. We got to enjoy Disney World with three happy Russians in formal suits, saw a baseball game at the Astrodome in Houston, and dined in the novel  surroundings  of the Space Needle in Seattle.

On the many flights between cities, one of the Soviet scientists, Fyodorov, told me things about Russian literature in anecdotes that kept me spellbound.  And, in the days before we had heard of six degrees of separation, he and I discovered that he knew my mentor, Gromov.  He knew all the Russian émigré publishers in France and the USA, and owned copies of censored works. His undisguised dissident persona rather impressed me. 

Fyodorov had a prodigious memory, and I remember how he gathered the three of us, the translators, around himself on our long flight from Miami to Houston, and recited Pushkin’s naughty narrative poem “Czar Nikita and his Forty Daughters.” I didn’t know until then that the great tradition of ribald literature was alive and well in Russia, and that its long tradition included Pushkin.  The Soviet Union of my time was puritanical and I had never heard of erotic or racy works. Even the obviously sexual implications in some of Gogol’s works were completely ignored in our study of literature at Moscow State University.

I remember feeling exhilarated and overwhelmed one morning when I was walking on the beach in La Jolla that I was looking at the Pacific Ocean, a body of water that had until then been an abstract entity on world maps for me. I would feel similar feelings of disbelief when I went to Colorado and saw the Rockies. Those geographical features of our earth were too distant when we were children in school, learning their names; when they became locations around which fictional lives turned in books we read, they seemed mysterious and enchanting. I had never seen rocky shores of oceans and seas until I travelled to the US and saw the Cliff walk in Newport, Rhode Island.  At that time, I didn’t know that I still had moments of magic ahead of me… that one day I was going to live in Africa.

That fantastic trip from coast to coast in the US came about thanks to my Russian. Truly a lucky break.

Cowboys Eating Steak for Breakfast

When you travel to places really way out, even way beyond your fantasy orbit, as Wyoming was for me when I first found myself there, I was with a younger cousin and his girlfriend, both graduate students at Utah State University in Salt Lake City.

He had a beat up car and great enthusiasm for showing the beauty of Utah’s lakes and woods to anyone who took the trouble to actually make it to Salt Lake City to see him. He took me all the way to Yellow Stone National Park. It was a long drive, and we needed to rest a bit that night, when we got into Wyoming.  We parked by an all-night diner and decided to have a shut eye—obviously not a very smart thing to do if the place is patrolled by cops. But then, we were young, on shoe-string budgets, and rather casual.  We didn’t get hauled up or anything, but we certainly sensed that the local sheriff was keeping a watchful eye on our car.

We decided not to push our luck. We had to be on our way as well, and breakfast at the diner seemed like a good idea, besides giving us a chance to freshen up.

What a jaw-dropping ambience it was inside. I thought I had stepped into a movie set for a western. You’ve  seen those places thanks to Universal Studios. I saw moose heads on the walls. I was struck dumb by a sign that said that Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid had been there.  At the diner, at that early hour, there were real cowboys with plates stacked high with pancakes, with a slab of steak next to it. Their voices were a low hum and their attention was completely on the food in front of them.  Big hats, big boots, big shoulders, big breakfast platters.

I guess I should be holding close to my heart the sights I saw at the Yellowstone National Park—the spurt of the Old Faithful, for example. But those sights you see on NatGeo. My big moment on that trip has forever been seeing real-life cowboys eating steak at dawn.

To be continued

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