Almost eight years ago, I stood at the airport nervous about my first international flight ride to Costa Rica. The last time I took an international flight, I was immigrating to America from India. The trip was special because it was our official honeymoon. After making a list of destinations that included Bora Bora, Seychelles and the likes, we narrowed in on Costa Rica for financial reasons. I did not know then that it would be the beginning of a love affair with international destinations. After a long flight, we reached San Jose, Costa Rica. We spent the night there and were whisked off in a car to Arenal, our first destination in Costa Rica.
As our car cruised through the lush greenery of Costa Rica’s windy roads, I was reminded of Kerala, India. After few hours of traveling, we approached our hotel in Arenal area, about 6km from downtown La Fortuna. Tourism is one of the major industries in Costa Rica, especially the Arenal area which is known for the Arenal Volcano. The Arenal Volcano was one of the most active volcanoes in the area for 43 years. As we checked into our hotel, we could see the Arenal volcano from our backyard. The hotels in Costa Rica had us bowled over. The theme for our first hotel was rain forest which was evident all through our villa. Besides the volcano, Arenal attracts thousands of visitors each year because of the many adventure sports available. All around the area one sees signs for zip lining, ATVing, bungee jumping besides several other adrenaline activities.
We stayed in Arenal for ten days during which we took a night Safari to the Arenal Volcano. The stillness of the night against the erupting volcano made it one of the most memorable activities. We also hiked to the magnificent La Fortuna Waterfall. With several steep steps, the waterfall challenged us physically but the waterfall at the end made the trip worthwhile. I had never zip lined before in my life, and neither had I been on an aerial tram before. We took a sky tram to the ziplining area. I could feel adrenaline pumping through my body as I was petrified and excited at the same time. I have major fear of heights and ziplining meant putting all my height demons to rest. I quivered with fear as I did my first zipline and then the second. By the third one, I was enjoying the feeling although I have to admit I did not look around to enjoy the landscape or picturesque views. At the end of the eight long ziplines, I felt accomplished.
Arenal in Costa Rica converted a coy Indian girl into an adrenaline junkie. Since that trip, I have traveled to many places and done several crazy adventures. Costa Rica will always be special for several reasons besides it being our honeymoon- I fell in love with international travel in Costa Rica and for that I will forever be grateful.
As an immigrant in America, journeys have always fascinated me. As I have written about my various travels, I have always tried to make it more about my journey than the destination. I have strived to make my blog more than a travel guide. It has been my scrapbook that I have from time to time re-read and relived every moment. Today’s blog posting is personal because it is about my journey as a writer.
September 29, 1995 is my writer birthday. I remember sitting in front of my dad’s body and wondering how I was going to move on. I kissed him for the last time ever and felt the stillness of his body. His warmth that was my blanket on cold nights no longer existed. I was daddy’s little girl and I followed him around like a puppy. As I sat there contemplating the changes in my life little did I know I was becoming a writer. Few days later I wrote my first poem. I was still a closet writer and my poems were my deepest thoughts.
In 2001, I moved to America from India. In spite of being in college, I had lots of free time in comparison to my life in India which was filled with friends, school, basketball and studies. I began writing website content and other creative content in my spare time. Eventually I started freelancing as a writer which paid me pocket money. At that instant I was still focussed on becoming an engineer, which I eventually accomplished. Somewhere along the writer in me wanted more. My passion to travel the world collided with my writing thus giving birth to this blog.
In 2014, I wanted more and thus began my journey to be a novel writer. I have had the opportunity to meet amazing people who left their home for America in the 15 years that I have lived here. They shared their dreams, their embarrassments with mundane everyday tasks, their loneliness being away from family, and their endless desire to survive. Together with my friend I decided to write a book about sixteen amazing people who were willing to share their stories with us. There is humor, dreams, sacrifices, embarrassment and real experiences of people who made America home. Thus was born our little venture titled America Deconstructed. We are in process of getting our book published and we hope each and every one of you will support us in this endeavour. In the weeks and months leading to the release of our book, I will share snippets of our book. So if you are curious on what America Deconstructed is, stay tuned. America Deconstructed has romance, emotions, war, Taliban, prison, marriage, children and everything in between. Please follow the blog https://americadeconstructedblog.wordpress.com/
Taj Mahal stands tall being the face of India to the world but to Indian’s living in India no monument holds higher than the India Gate. Each year on January 26th as India celebrates her Republic Day, Indians watched the parade pass through the India Gate on our television sets. As a young girl growing up in India, India Gate was synonymous with everything India. It always evoked a sense of patriotism in my mind every time I watched the magnificent monument stand tall amidst the throngs of people at the parade. On a very warm June afternoon, we visited the India gate monument.
Our trip to Delhi was on a very strict agenda to complete our daughter’s adoption process. In between all the madness and her being sick, we managed squeeze in few monuments with India Gate being the first one. I remember as our car made its way through the streets of Delhi to our airport, India Gate loomed large. I was determined to see the monument that was staple to my growing years.
India Gate is a war monument to several soldiers who died during the First World War. The names of the soldiers are inscribed on the monument. The backdrop of India Gate includes the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the President of India. As I stood there marveling at the monument with Rashtrapati Bhavan, I felt immense pride. The inscriptions on the India Gate evoked national pride in me. There was chaos all around with people selling merchandise, children trying to sell handicrafts and later begging for food, but as I stood there at the foot of the monument I grew up watching on television, the noise drowned out as I stood there sensing a strange calmness in me. The dichotomy of India was so evident as I stood there at India Gate as I experienced calmness in the chaos.
While Taj Mahal looms large across Agra, another amazingly magnificent but less known monument is the Agra Fort or Red Fort. While it doesn’t have a romantic story like the Taj, the Red Fort or Agra Fort plays a prominent role in Indian history. Made out of red sandstone, the Red fort of Agra includes several palaces such as Jahangir’s Palace, Khas Mahal, two mosques and Diwan-i- Khas, an audience hall. On a humid Agra evening, we visited the fort amidst thousands of people.
The magnificence of the fort lies in its history. Contrary to what I believed that the fort was built by the Mughals when they were in India, the Red Fort existed since the 11th century. It was initially made of brick. The red sandstone for that currently exists was built by the Mughals, particularly Akbar. Akbar the great Mughal ruler realized the advantages of the central location of the fort and made it his capital. The height of the fort allows to monitor any invasions and the walkway entrance of the fort is designed such that it is at a slope. In the event of an invasion, big rock boulders were rolled down the walkway to hurt the enemy army. Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar is credited for making the Agra Fort what it is today. History says Shah Jahan was imprisoned at the fort during the end of his life and he died watching the Taj Mahal from the Fort. As we stood in the room where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son with a direct view of the Taj, I was taken back to the days I spent studying about this at school. I was no longer a tourist visiting a monument but one among the many children in India who is introduced to the abundance of history that India as a country represents.
As we walked through the exit gates of the Fort, I remembered the scenes from the movie Jodha Akbar that were shot at the Fort. With every foot step, I was in my own way reliving those images and the images I formed in my head as I memorized my history as a teenager. The distance and miles I had traveled to America, having lived here for fifteen years could not erase those lessons I learned as a child of the Akbar and Shah Jahan. In my own little way, visiting Agra Fort and Taj Mahal was my version of disneyland. I was living my fantasy world from my childhood.
There are few things that are synonymous with India than the scintillating Taj Mahal. Growing up in India as a child, Taj Mahal was in all my history books and we were often fed an overdose of the Taj. Yet, I never thought I would see the Taj Mahal in person. Having grown up on a staple of Indian movies where several romantic numbers in the 90’s were shot at the Taj Mahal, I always felt I had seen the monument in person. On a cloudy and humid July day, my husband, new daughter and I made our way to Taj Mahal. We were in New Delhi to finish the adoption formalities, and had the weekend when we decided to visit the magnificient Taj Mahal.
I will always remember seeing the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River banks and our cab driver telling us there is the Taj. The distance did not diminish the beauty or the magnificence of the Taj. As we walked through security, I felt a sense of overwhelming uneasiness at the presence of such magnificence. While it looked just like in the movies, the enormousness of the monument was undeniable. As we walked through the pathway amidst thousands of people, some tourists and many locals, we were briefed about the history of the Taj Mahal by our tour guide. Every word echoed the years I spent in school in India reading and marveling at the romance behind the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor for his most beautiful wife Mumtaz Mahal to profess his love for her. He wanted to build a monument that was as beautiful as her. It was built to house her tomb which along with Shah Jahan’s is still seen in the Taj. It took twenty one years and several thousands of people to build the monument. Upon building the monument, it is told he cut off their arms so they would not replicate the Taj. The art inside the Taj is made of real gem stones from different parts of the world and the white marble is unique to Agra where the Taj resides. The marble glows on a full moon night which was demonstrated when we took a tour of how the art is created.
As I walked through Taj in my booties, I marveled at the architecture of the monument. Amidst thousands of people thronging through the doors of Taj, I felt a strange serenity. The monument echoed the love between a man and a woman, and as a girl who grew up on Bollywood romances of the 90’s I could only wonder how someone could love another person so much that they built the iconic Taj Mahal in her honor. The Taj Mahal is beyond a monument. It is the symbol of love that is often seen hidden in the pages of a romance novel. I am proud that I belong to the land of the Taj Mahal, a symbol of love even more than I ever was.
Long before the travel bug could bite me, I was a travel novice. While I think the desire to travel was always there, I never liked the journey. I have battled motion sickness all my life, and traveling was no fun with it. While I enjoyed traveling by trains in India, buses were a nightmare. When we decided to move to America, I knew I would have to get on a flight. I was scared and nervous. I drugged myself with Indian version of dramamine, and pretty much slept through 24 hours of my flight ride barring the few hours in Taipei during our layover. I spoke English well, and wore jeans so I did not expect much of a culture shock. I took pride in following the backstreet boys and britney spears so I thought I was prepared.
My first culture shock happened at Taipei airport when we ordered noodles. We were starving and could not wait to get our hands on some real airport food. She handed us a bowl full of water and noodles. I was shocked and wondered why the noodles were swimming. I was never used to noodle soup up until that point. I was ready to dive into that bowl but did not have forks. I had never used chopsticks in my life, and we asked the lady for forks.She stared at us, and handed us spoons. We said forks again and this time she chose to ignore us. After grueling 10 minutes in what felt like forever, I walked over the counter and finally took a fork myself. She smiled at finally learning what a fork was. That was 2001.
I remember landing in America and being amazed at how beautiful everything looked. India is the second most populous country in the world, and our streets are a testament of that. We have people walking around, stray dogs and in some instances cows chilling on the street. We lived in Pleasanton, California for the first three years of our American stay. People hardly walked the streets here. I have gone for a week seeing maybe two or three people walk the street. I remember our friends telling us before we came here that people never walked on the street in America. It felt so true until we moved to Fremont. Fremont with her Little India and Afghanistan reminds me of home with the hustle and bustle.
There are several things I was warned about before I came here. I was told Americans don’t like people touching their children. Back home when we see a cute kid, we might try to get his/her attention, and if the kid is really cute we might pinch his/her cheeks. I was warned against it and I am glad I was. Today I know what a pervert means but back then I might have taken that as a complement. Initially when I came here, I was going to shop at Walmart. As we walked to Walmart, the 2-3 people I happened to see greeted me saying “How are you doing?”. I looked back and wondered who they were talking to, so I did the most logical thing ever- Ignore them. After few weeks here, I realized everyone asked me that. I decided to respond but people walked past me as I said I am doing good, could be better and explained my day. I wondered why they looked past me. They asked me a question and I was responding. It was all too baffling. It took me another few months before I noticed Hi, How are you doing was a greeting. I did not have to respond beyond the Hi.
I might have had several bumps along the way as I acquainted myself with America, but food ain’t one of it. I loved the burgers, pizza, cheese and chocolates. I gobbled it at every opportunity and In-n-Out still makes my heart flutter. I was going to start college in America, and on the day of my orientation I got lost not knowing how to exit the building. I did not really see the exit sign on the wall. A handsome and tall boy helped me get out of the building using the elevators. He held the elevator door open, and I felt my first American crush. If I had doubts on which college to choose, I made my choice in that elevator. Thank God San Jose State University turned out to be a good school because I never saw that handsome boy again.
Whenever people come here, they portray a rosy picture of life in America. It’s just like the movies. Sure it is, but when you are not experiencing those moments it feels lot easier than when you are center stage. I did not know when someone asked you for coffee it meant more than just coffee. It was a date, actually I did not know what date meant at that point. I remember being hugged by a guy in college and standing still like a rock. I wanted to kick him for touching me. Eventually I warmed up to the hug. In India quiz means an oral test, and when in college I was told we were having a quiz I was nervous. It was my second day in an American college. I was surprised to know if was a written test. Could have saved me a sleepless night had I known about it earlier.
It’s been 15 years since I came to America, but the culture shock continues. America enthralled me initially and I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I believed I could live this life, but with time I missed the chaos of India. I miss the cows on the street, the stray dogs, the familiar streets and family. America became the place I decided to settle down in, but my heart still beats for India. Home is always India. I began traveling for work with time, and the travel bug bit me bad. While most people think I travel for new experiences, I travel to experience a slice of home. I travel to places that are similar to India, and I am rejuvenated by it. I travel because I cannot afford to go back to my home, so I try to experience a slice of my home in places that are more affordable.