(This is a report written two decades ago after the author returned from his first trip to America)
It was the longest day in my life. In fact, August 1, 2002 for me was exactly 34 hours long. Traveling east to west half way around the world, chasing earth’s shadow as it rotates west to east in a Boeing 747 jet capable of doing close to 1000 km per hour, meant daylight hour extending as you move. I took off on the KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) flight to Washington DC via Amsterdam from News Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport in the wee hours of August 1 (nearly 2 am to be precise). The flight to Amsterdam was for about 8 hours, and when we touched down at the airport, my watch still tuned to Indian Standard Time, IST, showed ten minutes to ten a.m. But it was still early morning, just after daybreak. The time difference between India and Amsterdam is about 4 hours, and initially I decided to not turn back my watch but on second thought I did otherwise fearing I may miss the connecting flight to Washington DC which was to be five hours later at 11 a.m. local time. I however kept IST on the clock in my pocket calculator in case it I needed to refer to it to re-orient myself. At 11 a.m. local time, we took off from Amsterdam for Washington DC. The time difference between the two places is about six hours and distance was to be covered in a little over eight hours. The plane flew over central England over the Atlantic near the Arctic Circle as on the globe this was the shortest distance unlike what it seems on the flat map. This was easy to find out as most international airlines, including the KLM, have equipped their aircrafts with the new wonder of technology, Global Position System, g.p.s., which is an instrument that latches on to three or more geostationary satellites and with them as the coordinates calculates using its inbuilt computer chip, its position, altitude and velocity, accurate to a fault. The readings from the instrument is projected on the in-flight screens letting you know exactly where you are, how high and fast you are flying, etc.. (Many foreign correspondents who come to Manipur occasionally also carry pocket versions of these instruments, and they indeed are a wonder). When we reached Washington DC’s Dulles Airport, my watch which had been adjusted to Amsterdam time, showed 7 p.m., but it was high noon, (1 p.m. by US eastern time). I was not tired in the sense of fatigue, but was a little confused. The much talked about Jet Lag, I suppose is a conflict between your biological clock which you cannot turn down or up, and your wrist watch which you have to adjust and readjust all the time when you travel at jet speed for long distances. My body’s natural response was to drop off and sleep like a log soon after dark.
There were other surprises. When I got off at Dulles, there was a person waiting for me with a placard that had my name on it. There were three other participants coming in by other flights at about the same time too, and after introduction we decided to ride the same car together although there were two. I being the most heavily set, was to take the front seat. After loading our luggage into the car, I went around the huge Chevrolet to take my seat, but when I opened the door, I found the driver’s seat. Our driver, a genial black American gentleman, who had just managed to lock up the luggage compartment of the car, saw me and exclaimed in obvious alarm, “No Sir, I can’t let you drive.” The man really thought I was going to drive. It was then I recalled it was a right-handed country. There were to be many more reminder of this in the three weeks ahead, the most dramatic was towards the end of our tour in San Francisco. This city on the Pacific coast is not laid on flat ground and is rather like a hill station with many sloped streets. It is also cool even in summer, because of the cold Alaska current that flows by its shores at this time. Skateboards are very popular amongst the kids here. One day I was taking a walk in town alone down the pedestrian side of a sloping street when I heard the familiar roar of a speeding skateboard behind me. I imagined a human missile hurtling down at me from behind and quite by instinct jumped to the left side of the pavement to make way. That was my mistake, for the boy’s instinct told him to pass me from the left. His reflect was good and he braked, tilting his skateboard backwards but still we collided although the force of the impact was not enough to throw either of us off balance. Realising my mistake, I offered my apology. The boy gave me an annoyed look, lifted his skateboard and placing it under his arms walked away for some distance before he decided to ride it again. In your conscious moments this cannot happen for you keep telling yourself that this is a right-handed nation. It is however when you act unconsciously and out of instinct that you can be in real big trouble. As for instance, sometimes when you decide to cross the road not at the pedestrian crossing area, (which normally nobody does in the US), your instinct is to look right to see if any car is approaching before descending into the road. Unfortunately here, you expose yourself to the danger of being run over from the left, possibly by a 24-wheel monster truck.
Washington DC is not too different from Indian cities, so there were no cultural shocks of any significance waiting. It is a beautiful city, spread out, well-planned with straight streets running parallel or else at 90 degrees with each other. The city is not crowded nor are there any skyscrapers unlike in other American cities, and hence not intimidating. It was two days after we arrived that I found out the reason why the buildings here are not too tall during a guided tour of the city. The US Capitol, the seat of power of the US democracy, is only 13 storeys high, and “perhaps” not to overshadow its dignity, a government regulation stipulates that no building in Washington DC can be more than 13 storeys. The guide explained the qualification “perhaps” saying nobody is actually sure if the government regulation has to do with the height of the Capitol, but it is everybody’s assumption.
But Washington DC is not a typical American city. Not only in terms of the absence of skyscrapers but in terms of its peopling pattern. Here, like in most of the US’s East Coast cities, such as New York, Boston, New England, and also the older US cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, people live in the city. This is not the case in the newer cities inland where the cities come alive only during business hours, which is normally 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. At 5 p.m. these cities begin draining out and in a matter of a few hours, they become almost totally empty. Minneapolis was the first city I encountered this phenomenon. It is a glittering new city, with skyscrapers everywhere. The average height of buildings must be 50 storeys, with some shooting up much higher. Almost without exception all of these skyscrapers have a glass and steel visage. At nightfall, the city is a ghost town, with all its streets, except for a few where there are night clubs, deserted. The buildings become empty too. For whatever the reason, the lights in these empty buildings are left on at night allowing you to see everything inside. There are seldom steel shutters to protect the glass showroom facades from burglars. It cannot be that there is nobody with criminal instinct or intent in these cities. It has to be the strong but little visible presence of the law enforcers. But it was strange. Tall transparent buildings with lights on at night, computers, showroom cars, shopping malls with all their neatly displayed wares clearly visible behind the glass walls and panes, but absolutely no people. They do not live in the city, but in the residential suburban areas, as far away as 50-60 km from the city from where they drive to work during the day. And yes, it is almost always one man one car ratio in these cities, so it is very important for the newspapers here to have traffic news every morning like we have the LPG gas news. If a certain freeway or highway is blocked off for repair on any given day, (and these things are happening everyday) and a morning paper fails to report it, the newspaper office is going to be bombarded with angry calls through the day, we were told.
I had some knowledge about this phenomenon of the newer US cities years ago. A BBC documentary serial on city architecture did a beautiful comparison between cities that “grew” and cities that were “built”. Basically a comparison between European cities that generally have centuries of history behind them and US cities that were built with liberal corporate money almost overnight, where any structure more than 50 years old is pulled down and replaced by spanking new skyscrapers. Very modern, very technologically sophisticated but lacking the inner life typical of cities around the old world. In Meannapolis and Raliegh, so also in Detroit, St Luis… even children parks were empty on holidays. In Raliegh where we arrived on a weekend, for a four day stay, we were greeted by a city with no people. It was rather disturbing, and I felt a strange loneliness I have never felt before in my life. But as the BBC documentary concluded, maybe these are the future cities. Maybe we are staring at the brave new world of efficient, clean, utility cities, of the future.
Effient they are definitely. Everything works with clockwork precision. Everything has the stamp of the confidence of having no peers in the competition. The cities are also a manifestation of an aspect of American life. Everything is large and open about the country. The highways, the cars, the buildings… even food. Order a steak or a honey glazed ham and do not expect a plate with a few morsel of meat to smell and savour. Expect a lion’s meal. Ask for a green vegetable salad and there will be a huge bowl of it in front of you. (When you order a steak they ask you how you want it, rare, medium or well done. Don’t ever say rare, unless you eat raw meat.) Enter any supermarket and go to any section. The fruits for instance. The range and size of America’s own produces are phenomenal, after all it is a huge country with practically every climatic latitude within it. But even if there are fruits that do not grow in the country, do not worry, all the best from the rest of the world will be there. Apricots from Turkey, banana from the tropical islands, papayas from the far east… Americans grow up with this confidence that all the best in the world is within their reach. And this exuberant spirit will have to be, and in fact is, reflected in the American personality.
There is a joke of old I heard from college days. I bring it up here because it reflects this American character somewhat.
Question: What are the best things you can have in life?
Answer: An American salary, an English country house, a Japanese wife and a Chinese cook.
Question: What are the worst things you can have in life?
Answer: An American wife, a Japanese house, a Chinese salary and an English cook.
I do not know about the rest, but the fabled American salary is indeed good. In the Washington Post, so also the Knight Ridder Digital, Star Tribune, News Observer, San Antonio Express News, etc.. newspapers and news services whose editors we interacted with, the salaries for first entrants can be anywhere between 45,000 to 60,000 dollars a year. Seniors get much more. (dollar is about Rs 50). In what is considered low salary by US standard, an owner of a printing shop in Texas said employees get 18,000 dollars a year.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author