As the flight attendant animated the act of survival, in case of an emergency landing of the aircraft on water, I fastened my dangling seatbelts. The honeymooning couple beside me sank into each other and I looked out of the window. Frankly, they had not left me an option out. The aircraft began to gain pace and I craned my neck to catch a last glimpse of the beauty which lay beneath me now. I was flying back to India. My memories rolled back to the day my manager had announced the official trip and I had boarded this aircraft for a journey of unknowns. Wanderlust is always inviting and when your destination is Chicago, just nothing like it. This was a business trip though. And yet, I expected it to be different, in a good way of course. This was my first trip to the USA and as some well read laureate has rightly stated, firsts are always special. As the remains of Chicago faded from my sight, experiences of last two weeks rolled in. Experiences, that will last for a lifetime.
There is no great difference in reality between one country and another, because it is always people you meet everywhere. They may look different or be dressed differently, they may have a different education or position; but they are all the same.
– The blessed Saint Teresa
Place : Woodfield Mall, Chicago
I am standing at the entrance of a huge mall near Chicago with a gazillion shopping bags. A few stray drops of rain splatter over my hair as I step out in the rain and flag down a black taxi. The vehicle stops in acknowledgement. My friends and I run towards it to grab the opportunity to get back to the hotel as fast as possible without getting wet which was a miraculous proposition. In a bid to achieve this mission impossible, I tug at at the handle of the door with force induced by impatience. It stays closed. The door is defiant but so am I. I tug harder. Velocity of the rains increase. My patience decreases. I keep pulling the handle but this time the door opens with a click. A sweet voice from the driver seat chirps in a hello. I expected a rough voice, flashing anger in response to my manly door crash attempts. Unexpectedly,the sweet voice apologies for the delay in unlocking the door. As we wipe ourselves wet, the sweet voice fills us with details of her native and asks us about ours. She has something about her which attracts people and urges you to talk to her. In a few minutes she gels up so nicely that one of my friends end up inviting her for dinner as we get off. As she turns around to decline our offer with utter politeness, I finally see her face. A wrinkled beauty with a few greys in the hair, this lady is close to 50. My Indian mind gets to work and I end up getting curious about why a lady at her age needs to drive in the evenings. Guesses pop up and financial issues gets the highest vote. All of these inside my Indian mind of course. She laughs and replies ” I drive because I love meeting strangers, listening to their stories and sometimes sharing mine.” And I thought Graham Bell and his successors invented a blinking screen to do this job. She drives heavy vehicles on lonely roads at odd times of a day to fuel up her passion for making new friends. A bonus few extra bucks are always welcome while you are at it. Friendly, free spirited, Absolute Studs! That was the first impression Americans had on me. I met close to 20 cabbies in a course of 13 days I was in the US and I have close to 50 enticing new stories collected from my encounters with these wonderful people. I met another such amazing lady the other day. She came to pick us up on our way back to hotel from office. I fastened my seat belts and wished her a good evening as I clambered in. What followed was a beautiful conversation. She told us all about Chicago, places to eat and all the touristy stuff, an average tourist would be dying to know. Extremely cheerful, she kept cracking jokes and made sure we laugh till we reach the hotel. Grinning at her supposedly last joke, as I jumped out of the door, I noticed something not so normal. She was specially abled. Her legs could barely reach the clutch and yet, there she was, manning huge vehicles. Or should I say, manning life! These were my daily dosage of inspiration which are gleefully glued on my mind and I know these will be there for a while. I tried all possible means of transport while there. An assortment of Land, air and water. But meeting new people on the driver’s seat and listening to their fascinating stories of life while crusading the freeways of Chicago still remains the most favorite part of my journey.
Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
– Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the make.
Weekend is here and I am dying to get out of the office. It’s a sultry Friday afternoon and I am typing away the last part of my work on my laptop frantically. All I want now, is to finish off quickly, jump into a taxi and rush to Chicago. In an hour, my wish is granted. We are in the cab and our chatterbox cabby decides to broadcast the micro details of his personal life, we are least bothered in. Admist our silent protests, he sets off like the local FM in full pelt. Boring, boring! I plug in my ear buds and am listening to some great music,and I spot a tall building, it’s head somewhere among the clouds. I am trying to figure out the roof and admiring the engineering, when I spot another beside it.And another. There is an entire neighborhood of these seemingly lego structures, all waiting to get wowed upon. In fact, there is one just in front of our hotel which is named after the famous (or infamous, can’t decide which) Donald Trump. That seemed to be the tallest one that evening, I reached Chicago. I stood outside my hotel staring at these dudes for a while wondering at the fact that how small they can make you feel.
As it grew dark, the view from my room window at the 36th floor of the hotel looked worth dying for. Lights woke up and the place looked like a bunch of stars have descended on earth with a mission to light up just this part of our planet. Lake Michigan cuts through these volley of skyscrapers and beautifully reflects the twinkling studded lights. It looked enticing.
Another interesting fact that I noticed about Chicago was that the city had flowering plants all over. Bougainville sitting pretty on the road dividers, White orchids peeking out from little shop windows, Crimson roses swaying off in front of dainty houses, lilies smiling at me from personal gradens. It’s very much a flowery affair. Also, this city is squeaky clean. Just like hundred other Indians, I am also a victim of massive hair fall. Chicago streets gave me such cleanliness goals that scared of the fact that my falling Tufts of hair can scar the shining streets, I made sure to look back on the streets every time I walked on one. If I found any of my tresses(only mine), I made sure I collected all of it in my pocket and flush them off at the hotel. Considering this intricate regime, I sometimes thank God, my trip ended in just 2 weeks. Phew!!
It’s easy to find a beautiful city where you intentionally want to go missing. But, what happens if your only source of survival in an unknown land decides to follow the suit?
I am dragging down my colleague, Mr. V, down the street towards Chicago’s oldest and the most popular restaurant, Giordano. I forgot to include ‘busiest’ to the list of adjectives that describe this restaurant best.
Mr. V is really tired and does not want to join the wait queue, that is spilling out of the restaurant door into the streets. But I am adamant and register our names in the wait queue. An hour later, I am lapping up the gorgeously stuffed deep dish pizza with as much gusto as I can. Mr. V thanks me for being adamant since he is able to taste this gourmet slice of heaven. This is a chicago special and I was not willing to leave a piece on the plate for the garbage bins. So, having stuffed up till throat, I decide to pay as the cheque arrives. I open my purse and search for my credit card. No card found! I remember stuffing it into my jeans pockets. Cursing my habits, I fumble in my pockets and blimey! No card found again! An alarm bell rang in my ears. I frisked my bag, turned it upside down and shook out all my stuff into the table. Now, there is a hair brush, two mac lip colors, a bottle of sunscreen, 2 small bags, a couple of quarters, mint and several hair pins sitting on the table. Mr. V seems shocked to see the mini world of make up inside my bag. But I am too preoccupied to explain him the reason why a girl needs to carry these tiny important things with her. I search for my card under the table, on the floor, go about searching trails in the restaurant on my fours, recheck and recheck my bag. Finally, I am convinced that I have lost my card. I am really worried, more because, it was my company credit card. A greater cause of worry arose out of the fact tat anyone can carry out transactions on my card without my consent because you don’t require to enter your pin while shopping in the USA. It’s auto approved. I get tense and start acting like an idiot. Mr. V calms me down and pays the bill. We head out of the restaurant but my sensible friend insists I leave my cell number at the reception so that the guy can contact me in case he finds it. I rush to the reception and with an expeditious rythm, ask him if he has found any lost credit card in the restaurant today. He flashes 12 credit cards at my face and very discreetly, asks my name. I am shocked. I cannot decide whether to be shocked at the fact how careless people can get or happy that I am not the lone nitwit in this city of unknowns. I spell out my name and he starts checking. My bad luck continues to be benevolent to me and we come to know that none of them is mine. I leave disappointed but finally the evil satisfaction gains over and I am happy that there are 12 other strangers who have lost their cards today and are somewhere out there, still scanning Chicago streets looking out for their precious. Teehee!! Anyway, we trace back to several places and finally reach the place we had just visited before entering the restaurant, thanks to the sensible suggestion by Mr.V . They are about to close down as I enter. The first person I meet, I jumble up my words and blabber out my question. The person gives me a look you give when you see someone who seems fit to get into a mental asylum. Mr. V again saves the situation, rearranges my words and our suited up guy understands the word ‘credit card’. He slides his hand into his rear pockets and flashes out a silver card. I snatch it from him and check it. It’s mine. I thank God and him equally. Looks like It fell off while I was taking out my phone from the same pocket where I had stuffed my card, hairpins and a couple of bills. Woops! Since I am hungry after all the search operation, very casually I suggest Mr. V that we should sink our teeth into another of those Giordano’s cheesey delights again. He picks up a lying stone and aims at me, while I clutch my card and run for my life.
I like the feeling of being anonymous in a big city. No one knows me, so it’s easy to remember who I am.
I am awake and try calling all my colleagues who promised to join me for a walk this morning. People are fast asleep. So I start off alone. One of the best features of Chicago is that it has bicycle stands at about every 500 metres all over the place. For a 10$ bill, you can have a bicycle to yourself for the day. I swiped my card (personal, this time) and picked up my ride. The next 2 hours were probably the best time I had in Chicago. Being alone, sometimes gives you a chance to see the world in a different shade. I plugged in my ear buds, synced my soul with my favourite playlist, switched on the GPS and just roamed about the city aimlessly. The kind of crowd differs in different parts of the day. I saw most of the women joggers in the morning, office goers and business people in the day time, pretty dressed party animals in the evening and tourists at all times. Everyone in a bid to get lost in this city. It’s a wonder, how exploring an unknown city with no ideas gives you so much idea about it.
Last in my must see list was the Sears Tower, which was supposedly the highest amongst the skyscraping community. Viewing point on Sears tower was at a whopping height of 1500 ft. It takes a combination of lifts and stairs to scale up the height. A lift no. 1 takes you to the 10th floor. You need to take the stairs to the next floor up and catch the lift no. 2 which takes you to the peak. Ears pop violently, as I ascend. The speed of the lift is such that it takes less than 30 seconds to scale to such a great height. The lift opens and a stream of sunshine filters in. I face multiple French windows all around. A few steps closer to these huge windows and I saw something like I had never seen before. An endless stretch of blue water body. I wondered which sea was it. It occurred to me a while later that it was in fact our good, old lake Michigan. The lake is so huge your eyes cannot reach the coast, even when you are standing at a place 1500 ft from the ground level. There’s a popular and unique viewing point here. It’s a glass gallery which is transparent on all sides. You can see the moving vehicles and rooftops of skyscrapers beneath your feet. What happens if a a loose screw of the glass gets off the hinges or a tiny crack scars the surface? For a fleeting second, this thought must have definitely crossed the mind of every person who stands there. It’s scary but the experience is amazing. I was able to see the top of the buildings whose roots were the only thing I had seen and admired when I was on the ground. The same tall dudes which made me feel so small. It’s a wonder, they looked small enough to be ignored this time. Time for a quick philosophical thought! These buildings are like our problems. No matter how huge and unsolvable they look initially, they are never as big as we perceive them to be. It’s just a matter of time and our viewing angles which can make them seem so small that they can in fact be ignored. *pats herself*
All good things must come to an end. But good experiences are too stubborn to give up. They dwell in our minds and slowly creep into our souls.
Although the experience of a staycation in a different country is great, a few days after you have seen the city and experienced all the good things, you cannot help missing your homeland, especially food, Not that I am alien to foreign food. Pizza, flatheads, omelettes and burgers are one of the best things to dig in, in the USA but after a few days one cannot help missing Aaloo ke paratha and butter chicken at lunch. So, when I received my kit of Indian dinner on my flight back to India after an eon-ish 14 days, I fell on it like a hungry wolf. Hot Puri and bhaaji seemed to have arrived like an elixir. I could finally understand the feelings of the two idiot brothers who act weird after chewing the bar in that five star ad, because I was feeling somewhat similar. When I paused and looked at my fellow passengers, I saw that all the other Indians in the flight seemed to be, in fact a part of the ‘Indian cuisine deprived’ fraternity. Everyone, old and young were busy lapping up the remains of Puri and Bhaaji from their Aluminium foil container.
Stuffed to brim and satiated, I slide up the window shades. A tiny light on the edge of the airplane wing twinkles out. The western sky had turned dark. Its too cloudy to see anything. I close my eyes but a view refuses to fade off. A vast stretch of the blue Michigan, the high rise buildings and an enchanting skyline which beckones to me from a clear sky.