Livin' the American Dream - Cruising Along the Coasts

16th Oct 2019
Photo of Livin' the American Dream - Cruising Along the Coasts by Adita PS

Imagine being cooped up in your house for more than two decades of your life. Not being big on traveling. Having debilitating spells of headache and a plethora of other "aches" when you have to be on the road for anything more than two hours. That's me.

And then a couple days ago, I packed my bags and was on a flight to the United States of America. Just like that. This is huge for me, and I had never been away from home for more than a week. This is huge for me, and I don't cope up well with the vagaries of the world at large. This is huge for me, because I have never been to the national capital of my home country, to begin with.

Daunting as it is, I have my best friend by my side who does a good job of putting a "un" before daunted. My husband. Having his company has taken the fear out of the equation. All that's left now is for me to jump on the States bandwagon and enjoy a thrilling ride of a lifetime.

We are on a budget and had to pull out as many stops as we could to gather our funds. On the other hand, we have a packed itinerary, which means we are trying to hit as many hot-spots as we can in the span of a month while also trying to savor the flavor of the regions.

So we had to find the best bargain on our flights. Initially, Suresh wasn't ready to compromise on the flights and was holding on strongly to the notion that flight journey is the most integral part of any trip and that it ought to be as comfortable as it could possibly get. He was gung-ho about middle-east carriers, as they provide the best in-flight service. However, after careful consideration, I chose Air France, which turned out to be mediocre as we had already guessed. Besides, I had a sentimental connect to Paris and therefore stood my ground. He had to relent, eventually. Even though I couldn't get even forty winks through 20 plus hours of flying across continents (an eight hour layover in Paris) and was worried I might end up feeling sick or cranky, I fared reasonably well. My legs were stiff and I looked disheveled both on the inside and outside, but by the time we had landed and gone through immigration, all pain was forgotten.

As a bonus, we almost brushed against Patrick Dempsey at JFK, and it was the best welcome a tenderfoot could have hoped for, in the States.

Day 2

Having a packed itinerary always calls for a thorough planning. It also paves way for a double whammy. Do we book everything beforehand and play safe or do we make plans as we go, to experience the thrill of spontaneity? Either way, you're bound to face some challenges. Book the tickets ahead of time, you end up with a rigid schedule and no place for adjustments. Even little slip-ups like missing a bus could prove fatal to your plan. The domino effect of one missed item on the agenda could ruin your entire trip. On the other hand, if you book everything at the last minute, you will end up paying double the price and going bankrupt midway through the trip.

So we had to settle for a compromise between the two. We drew up an itinerary first and once we had a rough plan, we booked the inland flights first. Because, once you book the flights, it gets easier for you to modify everything else according to the flight schedule. After days of going back and forth over the conundrum of whether or not we needed a couple of days off after a tiring long-haul flight, we decided that we didn't need to hide behind the duvet and fake jet-lag (read somewhere that jet-lag hits harder on the way back).

And this morning, just as planned, we packed our over-nighters and were ready to go by as early as seven, even though we had landed only yesterday night. After a short drive to the NJ Transit station, we boarded the metro which took us into the New York city.

Before the trip began, out of curiosity, we had booked a few services like our bus to Washington DC. One of the things that you should never do when you land in a new country is deciding that local sim cards could wait another day. Since the stores in NY don't open for business until 9, we decided that we would buy the sim cards as soon as we alight in DC. But without internet and navigation, we were blindsided. Even though we arrived at the location fifteen minutes early, we couldn't find the Greyhound terminal. We went round and round and asked around a few times, and at last when we found out where the station was, our bus had left. We were now left with no choice but to get new tickets and wait for a couple extra hours during which time we ate our first burgers at a quaint Burger King at the Times Square.

Sure enough, our first bus trip was a memorable one with a gorgeous overlook out the window. Fall colors in America are every bit as beautiful as I'd always imagined they would be. Although it was raining for the most part, the trees had their resplendent moments in the sun which peeked from behind the clouds intermittently.

Day 1

Fortunately, we have family in New Jersey and my husband's uncle was waiting for us with a big smile plastered on his face. We didn't have to worry about finding a place to stay and once we got home, there were steaming idlis and piping hot thakkaali kolambu (tomato soup), and our aunt and adorable cousins welcomed us with fanfare and glee. I don't remember hitting the hay but when I woke up today, I felt fresh as a daisy from having slept through the night spread-eagled.

Day 2

It was late in the afternoon when we reached Washington DC. The rain had stopped but the constant drizzle added up to the chill in the air, making it impossible for us to stay out. As visitors, we also didn't know where to go, since Union station is located bang in the middle of world's most formidable capital city, and there were no shops as far as eyes could see. We lost all hopes of buying a new sim card after having walked a couple of blocks, as 'en face de vous' was the Capitol building itself.

Stranded in a new city and unable to bear the unusual cold despite having bundled ourselves up in layers of clothing, we asked our Airbnb host, Eric, to come and pick us up. Eric turned out to be a great host as he stopped his car at a provisions store on the way to Temple Hills, where we are staying the night. We have our sim cards and a semblance of connection to the world since our internet is back at long last. Eric has a cosy room upstairs and the amenities that he provides, for the price we paid, are unbelievably great.

We have a long day tomorrow and a much-awaited one too. Besides, our Washington DC tour starts tomorrow, so I better head back and help Suresh finalize the itinerary.

Day 3

I have hobbies. Some mainstream. Some unique. Traveling is a hip hobby. Most wannabe globetrotters get to become one with ease today. But there are a few hobbies that have fewer takers these days. Like shortwave radio. Shortwave radio was what gave me company through a better part of my teenage years and my 20s too. It also connected me to the world outside when I was wary of real journeys and shut myself off in my room for years.

The world outside knows of all the historic and monumental milestones that DC has to offer. But very few have any knowledge of the hidden gems like this one, which has been the primary voice of the nation to the rest of the world for almost a century. My interest in radio as a hobby had grown phenomenally over the years, thanks to my dad's endless reminiscing about his time as a radio hobbyist. And it is no wonder that Voice of America was also the first station that got me hooked to the world of radio. I have been an ardent listener of one show in particular for ten years straight. It was on the recommendation of this show's host did I get a speedy, no-holds-barred US visa, after that Schengen Visa debacle. (Sorry, I am just good at making a mountain out of a molehill.) Visa rejection is an entire adventure in itself, it is for another time.

So Suresh and I donned our best clothes and reached the studio. My favorite host of all time, Larry London, was waiting for us outside to sign us in. As we walked around the enormous looking VOA building to the visitor's entrance which was located at the back of the building, facing away from Independence avenue, I could see a figure in an orange jumper looming in the distance. I took hasty steps and as I got closer, I couldn't believe I was seeing what I was seeing. It was Larry himself, in flesh and blood. I remember waving back with glee, being in a daze for a bit, exchanging warm embraces and handshakes, but most of it is one big blur now.

After we were signed in, Larry took us to his cosy little office and showed us around. In the meantime, my brain fog had cleared a bit and I had found words to say. We exchanged pleasantries and then I was talking nineteen to the dozen. He showed us his scrapbook of all the memories from his days as a radio presenter in Japan and all across the globe in the years that followed, until he got to VOA, where he has held the same post as our favorite radio show host for two decades now. We had an extraordinary experience, to say the least. There are certain things in life that you won't believe they exist until you see them with your own two eyes. Larry was one such rarity. Even as I was basking in this sense of awe and wonder, it was already time for his show. Just when I thought it was too soon to say goodbye, Larry ushered us into the recording studio. It struck me, then. We were going to be on the show too. If you had heard how loudly my heart was beating, you would have wondered if I wasn't having an infarction. We went on air shortly and were live around the world just like that. To be on the other/cordoned-off side of the radio was a truly rewarding experience. During the one hour show, Larry played some music like he always does and talked to us so casually, we forgot people out there were listening to us. If you had asked me in that very moment, I would have told you that one hour isn't enough time at all for the things we admire in life. Larry's air time was over in a jiffy and we were taken on a studio tour soon after, where we learned about the history of this broadcasting giant and some interesting tid-bits.

Afterwards we wound up in Larry's office again to let him know we didn't want to keep him from his work, but he insisted on having lunch together. He took us to this amazing buffet place just two blocks from the VOA building, and there was so much, we couldn't even count the dishes. Our chatter continued over lunch too and then some more. After all, we had years worth of things to catch up with. There was "positive vibes" written all over Larry. We stayed with him well until the time he clocked out that day and the three of us walked out of the studio like that is the routine. He walked us down to the National Mall from where we could see the Capitol building and the National monument on our either sides. He gave us a general overview of the place and which attraction lay where, and then it was time to go different ways. I told myself that this was definitely not the last time we are seeing this wonderful person. It certainly couldn't be. We stood there for a while watching him go and then started walking in the opposite direction. On a whim, I turned around to see if I could still spot that neon orange jumper, but he was already lost in the crowd.

If you're traveling to DC by bus, the first image that greets you when you alight at the Union station is this seminal building - seat of legislature - United States Capitol. When we arrived, the visitor center had this long queue of people waiting to get in, even though they were about to close. So after a photo stop, we found ourselves a bench in the park, to relish the image of the white marble structure glowing a fiery red in the setting sun, from afar.

It was late in the afternoon already, so we decided to do a little museum hop and see what we could. Most of the museums usually close around 5, so all we could afford was a quick zip-through. The Air and Space Museum is a sleek building which has an air of modernity that is associated with the space era. It houses an array of contraptions right from decommissioned satellites to rockets and missiles from the past decades. The crowd that visits this museum is surprisingly young - an eclectic mix of adults and kids. Most parents bring kids as small as five and they are already taught the difference between the engines that are used on airplanes and rockets. There is also a separate section dedicated to the school children which doubles up as an unofficial physics lab. You could see why kids in the west love science projects the way kids back home don't.

If you are on a trip to DC with your kids and don't know what to do with their unbridled energy, you know just the place to go.

This museum is dedicated solely to the American Indian society. The exterior is uniquely designed and from the outside this place has an aura of mystery. The entrance is nestled away from the bustle of Independence Avenue and there is an ample walkway if you enter from the Jefferson Driveway. From this walkway, you're afforded a better view of the façades, designed to look ancient. You get the feeling that you're committing sacrilege by entering into a sacred territory. But contrary to what you feel, this museum is open to all. Once inside, you get to go through four levels, and each level houses information on customs and practices of all the different tribes that are ever documented. In some way, the careful consideration with which each aspect of this museum is designed, feels like a fitting tribute and an act of penitence for all acts of savagery unleashed upon the unsuspecting tribes by the invaders all those centuries ago.

By the time we came out of this museum, the temperature had dropped drastically and the sun was nowhere to be seen. It was only 6 pm, but we had already started craving the warmth and comfort of our bed. We didn't have the luxury of time since we only had one half day left to explore the entire city. But the cold was too harsh even though it was not winter yet, and we had to give in to the demands of our unwieldy legs, which screamed 'warmth'. So we are back at Eric's house in Temple Hills, finally having conceded defeat to the bad weather and deciding to see the best we could tomorrow, before our bus to New York leaves in the afternoon.

Day 4

We set our alarms very early and were up on our feet before we knew. This was going to be a hectic day with fast paced exploration of what I considered the world's most happening capital city. DC is 20 minutes away from Temple hills by car, but more than an hour if you took public transport. Uber is an easy fix wherever you go, but the rates are just a little beyond affordability. Fortunately, we found another ride-sharing service that goes by the name of Lyft, and even though it isn't the best bet, it so happened to fall just within our budget. While metros cost about 2 bucks to take you into the city, ride sharing costs ten times that. But as I said earlier, we didn't have the luxury of time. We bid goodbye to Eric's cute little room and were on our way.

Our ride was a woman who was chatting non-stop with another passenger that we picked up on the way. After she got off, the driver directed her attention towards us and soon enough we were drawn into what I think is one of the most heart-rending conversations I have ever had with a stranger. She told us about how every day is a struggle for her, even though she had lived in the suburbs of DC for many decades now. There is considerable black population living in the suburbs and not all of them have enviable financial positions, despite DC being a wealthy locale. The lady was in her 60s and had a barrage of health issues, starting with bad knee. But working at Lyft and driving cars wasn't a choice for her, since she was facing eviction and she had to hold on to what job she had, for basic sustenance. Who said life is rosy just because you lived in America? We reassured her that everything was going to be fine, even though we didn't know if everything was indeed going to be fine.

She dropped us off at Lincoln Memorial and we could see that her eyes were brimming with tears. We wished her good luck and walked away with a heavy heart.

The hardest part for Suresh of this whole trip was visiting the same places twice, as he had already been to most of the places we were visiting in our current itinerary. So he had begrudgingly agreed to be my personal photographer and made himself content with seeing the places from distance, in an effort to save up some energy for the cities he had yet to visit.

The day was bright and cheerful in contrast to the 'sombre and overcast' we had encountered on our first day here. From the steps of the memorial, we could see all the way across the mall, Washington Monument, National World War II Memorial to the Capitol building looming large against the heavens in the distance. It was a busy day as there was considerable crowd and I climbed the very stairs from where Martin Luther King gave his iconic speech, up-to where Lincoln sat in his marble glory.

After a short walk along the reflecting pool that stretches from Lincoln memorial, we came upon the World War Memorial. You have to give it to the Americans when it comes to the meticulous detail with which they design their monuments. The memorial is a gorgeous medley of arches and pillars and mural walls built around what was formerly known as the rainbow pool and fountain. The names of the states are inscribed on each pillar and the mural walls depicts scenes from the war, from start to finish.

We had hardly a couple of hours left, so we decided to skip the other war memorials along the mall like Vietnam War and Korean War memorials and headed straight to Washington Monument.

Washington monument is a giant obelisk standing on the other side of Lincoln memorial, built as a tribute to the first president of the United States and the commander of the Continental army. Since entry is limited and the lengthy waiting time threatened to derail our itinerary, all we could do was marvel at the architecture from the outside.

There is an elevator that takes you all the way up to the observation deck located below the pyramid at the top, but the view is not so panoramic and you're not missing out on anything if you don't get to go inside.

Across the road from Washington monument is the black glass structure of the museum and the black tint of the glass makes it look like the whole building is painted in black. There are four levels and a plethora of information on how the African Americans came to where they are today, despite the disparities and abuse they face at every level of their lives. This museum features all of the icons and trailblazers from the black community.

We had only an hour at this point and had to decide between Arlington Cemetery and White House. After a hot discussion, we settled on White House, because we couldn't leave Washington DC without having seen the White House. It was a calculated risk, so we decided to walk, instead of take a cab. Walking turned out to be a wise choice, because we came upon many noteworthy buildings on the way - Department of Commerce, Department of Treasury and a few others. Our map lead us to the Visitor's Center, which is an almost-museum located a few blocks away from the actual place.

We weaved our way through the crowd and had to almost run. But to our dismay, when we arrived, the world famous residence was closed for public for renovation and we were lucky enough to find a spot from where we could see the White House just as good as if it was open. After a short stroll in the Rose garden, it was time to bid adieu to this city forever or until next time, who knows.

After a five hour journey back, we were dropped off at Penn station and the chill in the New York air was bone-freezing. Our first night in New York was nothing spectacular like we imagined because we were not adequately prepared for the kind of cold that pervaded the entire city and all I remember now is rushing into the restroom, away from the blinding lights of the city, for some comfort and warmth. Having decided that New York could wait until we were ready, we caught the next available NJ Transit and are home away from home now at Edison.

Day 5

We woke up without any plans and decided to call it a day. Just for the day, though. We needed a day to adjust ourselves to the new place and to get to know the host family. There is more than just memorials and sights to the country - one of which is its growing Indian diaspora. Despite being one of our own, they are both familiar and alien at the same time. They have different work ethics, they spend more time with family contrary to what we all believe back home, the two generations communicate with one another in different languages and yet are totally at ease with the way of things that I was awestruck to witness.

We loitered around the house in PJs all day and followed the kids around everywhere they went. They went busily about their weekend routine which involved little humdrum and a lot of fun learning while I made a fool of myself by trying to mimic their native accent every now and then. It was easier to fall into their rhythm and I think that I could get used to this laid-back ambiance if it's for a lifetime. However something unexpected has come up and tomorrow might mess with our itinerary. Blame it on Suresh's iPhone. He was supposed to go to Delaware to swap his old phone for new, but it wouldn't back-up and is now going to cost us a day.

Day 6

Although this day was meant for Niagara, we had to stay in until we could get this new phone up and running which wasn't until this evening. While Suresh and mama were gone, akka and the kids kept me company with board games and word games. The kids warmed up to me a little but while they may look and eat Indian, the NRI kids have come so far from India in every sense. Whatever identity we are struggling to establish here, that comes to them without jabs or judgment. They are the perfect amalgam of old and new and better. We were able to book a two day trip to Niagara and it scares me a little to realize that we have used up our allowance of rest we had afforded ourselves for the entire trip. I am just going to pray that nothing untoward happens, making us wish we had an extra day to spare.

Day 7

We drove to New York City to catch our ride to Niagara and it was one of the most beautiful journeys I have ever had the pleasure of undertaking. The bus ride lasted a whopping nine hours and most of the time my legs had fallen asleep because I am usually the one that doesn't leave the bus even for recess. Do you all relate to the paranoia that makes you believe that if you got off the bus even for a minute, they would somehow forget that you ever existed and leave you behind in the wilderness, or is it just me? The entire stretch ft. the scenic fall colors made for some memorable pit-stops along the way. We stopped briefly by the Corning glass museum for a quick glance and a light lunch. Since this was a guided tour, we could only see the course of Seneca and the cities that lined the coast from afar, but we stopped at Watkins Glen State Park bordering the south of Seneca Lake to gawk at some of the breathtaking natural wonders along the many trails - a small creek, and a cold gorge cut through rock formations by a stream. After stretching our legs for a bit and getting drenched slightly from a series of cascades, we were on our way to catch the main attraction at Niagara by nightfall.

Our first stop was Niagara itself, because we were on schedule to see the light works that lit up the whole area like a humongous Christmas tree, this time only in so many different colors. It is a daily ritual along the natural wonder that forms the US Canada border. After basking in the light show and the night view of the Niagara roaring in the dark and Canada over yonder, we were taken to our hotel for dinner and nightcap. One of the first things that I noticed upon arrival in this remote corner is the profusion of Indian restaurants. Makes me wonder how many Indians visit Niagara on average for these restaurants to run successfully. Apart from the sizeable foreign population that like Indian food, I am awed by the sheer number of Indian tourists that go here and that these restaurants cater to and as a case in point, I have at least half a dozen Indian couples/families that have come on this tour with us to witness Niagara's glory.

Day 8

This morning we woke up to a glorious breakfast (in-hotel) and a steady drizzle from October showers. We were then taken to the Old Fort located on the banks of Niagara river. It looked exactly like what it used to be - a line of wartime defence from the bygone century - and had an air of European elegance. All the artefacts ranging from a giant cannon to barracks, artillery and even some personal belongings of the soldiers are well preserved and the whole ambiance takes us back in time to a place rife with war and uncertainty. We were also treated to an exhibitive oeuvre by a soldier in red coat after which we clicked some pictures with him mainly to remember how striking the scarlet tunic usually is in the midst of well-manicured verdant lawns.

It was a dismally cold day and looked like our visit to the falls was going to be marred by a dismal sky. The sun was not out yet and there was a pall of gloom hanging over us over the consideration that this could play spoilsport. Fortunately, the sky cleared up a little by the time we punched in with our tickets to get to the main attraction. The falls itself is surrounded by a state park which is lush with vegetation, unlike the Canadian side which is a completely different experience. It is a couple of levels down on a elevator ride to get to the Cave of the Winds and subsequently to the ferry dock for the Maid of the Mist tour. Unfortunately the Cave of the Winds was not in operation and we had to make do with a view from afar. But it prepared us for what was coming next. We made a beeline to board and judging by the crowd, while we donned our pretty pink ponchos, it looked like it was going to be atleast an hour before we got on the ferry. But the crowd before us thinned swiftly and I realised that I shouldn't judge the ferry by its facade - it has a hold big enough for atleast 300 people at any given time.

Soon afterwards the ferry ride was underway and it was pure exhilaration from the get-go. The guided tour meant the PA system would launch into an impassioned description of the rich legacy of the MoTM tours over the years and the incredible history and geopolitical significance of the Niagara falls itself, but my eyes and entire being was so intently trained upon the breathtaking view that was unveiling right in front of me. I was soaking in the experience, both literally and metaphorically. The American falls and the Bridal Veil falls are only a sample of the enormous sensory overload that a short detour into the Canadian waters and subsequently the tête-à-tête with the true wonder - the Horse Shoe falls section of Niagara - would unleash upon you. It felt like an entirely different world for a minute, our minds contending with a sight that's definitely out of the world, but by the time we got off the sensory high, we were already headed back to the dock.

We had spent some time on the observation deck, catching glimpse of the hiking trails down below that snaked around the falls -- diminutives against the leviathan of a waterfall that nestled these secret little paths to the secret magical places in its underbelly. The observation deck is also the most famous photo op with the roaring waters of Niagara as the backdrop. It was already late in the afternoon when we came out to grab a quick lunch and board the bus back to NY, and my ears were still ringing (albeit in a good way) with the soul-stirring thunder of the torrent, the entire time.

Day 9

New York is supposed to be a walk in the park, quite literally, for us, because I went ahead and purchased a NYC pass for the both of us, way ahead of our trip, without paying any heed to the protests from my darling husband. We had a hard time agreeing on whether we should do museum hopping at all like I want to, but I had won the argument eventually. The pass grants us free access to most attractions in the city, including the museums and the hop-on, hop-off bus tours, but the question whether we will be able to cover all the places in three days, making the most of the pass, needs to be answered.

So after a tiring journey back from the Niagara yesterday, we woke ourselves up surprisingly early and hitched a hike with our uncle to Newark Penn station and then he proceeded to show us the workings of the NJ Transit rail that went all the way into Central Manhattan. As soon as we came out of NY Penn station, we got our Google maps on and set out to explore.

I have absolutely no idea why I'm drawn to museums (much less art museums) everywhere I go, even though I have no knack for art and aesthetic. I like to let my mind wander around stuff that are less mundane but more arcane, I guess. The MoMA has an unassuming entry, but once inside, you'll be greeted with stunning works of art, ranging from abstract to photorealistic, old and new.

It houses some of the most revered works in the history of art -- of Van Gogh, Dali, Picasso, Rousseau, Kahlo, Monet, Warhol, to name a few. The starry night was in splendid display and everywhere we turned there were students and art connoisseurs setting up rumination shop only to stare intensely at the walls laden with profundity. But we had to rush through the halls in search of the most famous, like in a treasure hunt while other installations were merely a passing blur.

Central Park is just a few minutes by walk from the MoMA and we decided to drop by. Some of the popular museums in the city are dotted along its periphery, so we had planned on taking a walk around the park. A few minutes in, we came upon Bethesda terrace and fountain and an afro jazz band crooning to the swaying crowd. We rested our feet a little - sat on a bench and gawked at a few parlor tricks and stunts, while munching on hot dogs and pretzels.

We made a quick exit a little north of Bethesda to get a sneak peek at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - it's grand facade and its opulent foyer. Since we had to decide between exploring its niches and seeing other places around, we doubled back across the park having decided to come back to the MET at a later date.