Friday, November 25, 2005

A blustery day in Chicago

There was an intermittent whomping of the bushes outside my window through out the night. The wind was biting cold and furious, never letting up. It was so comforting to be sitting in the cozy room, and under the blankets, watching the wind play havoc outside.

I casually glanced at the clock. It was 6.30 am. It was a Wednesday, and I was in no particular hurry to get up (read get out of the oh-so-warm bed). And then there were temptations to stay in; there was a book on the bedside table, which also held my laptop with the internet connection. The TV remote was within reach and the curtains on the window were drawn. If that was not incentive enough, the menu lay open to the breakfast page. I could simply call room service. There I was, lying in bed, isolated, yet connected in so many ways.
I chose the book (But naturally!) The escape it offers is incomparable and this one was by a particularly favourite author. Dog Stories by James Herriot. The atypical country vet painting the myriad colours of his practice. I was soon lost in it. A steaming cup of black tea soon gave up on me and turned cold.

It was 10 am and didn’t seem like it. The storm had not abated a bit and the sky was as dark as ever. I had not seen the sun for some days now.
I was hungry but loathed dressing up to go to the café for chow. It may seem strange to some, but I have this feeling of ‘fullness’ after reading. The matter I have just gone through keeps me engrossed for a while. This same feeling surfaced after I had put down Dog Stories. This time my stomach disagreed. I put on my Saturday best and was off to drown my feelings of fullness in a cream topped waffle. (yeah yeah!).
As soon as I left the confines of the building to cross over to the café, the chill gripped me. The wind ripped off my heavy flannel lined wind cheater and treated my hair to an invigorating blow dry. The cold factor took some time to register. I decided to remain there. A pretty limestone seat had been installed among the shrubs. (They knew I’d come along someday J )The waffle could wait.
The agitating air had no particular direction to take. It whipped leaves about, it shook parked cars and it tossed wind cheaters. It was interesting to watch the dance of the leaves to the tunes of the wind. Sometimes they marched all in one direction, others they took a spin. Anyone who lagged behind was soon raked up in the flow. It was no use sweeping the driveways; Fall had left enough leaves behind to let the wind have his amusement.
If there is anything in the world that closely resembles feeling on top of the world, it is to feel the wind in my face and sense it rip through my hair, short as it is. Time and again, I have surrendered myself to this experience and it never fails to enthrall me. And so it did on that blustery day. I thought of Pooh Bear with all his honey jars, floating along with Piglet in the deluge to Christopher Robin’s house, wishing everyone a Happy Blustery Day!

When my ears did not feel mine anymore, I knew it was time to escape inside. The Maitre knew me and led me to my favourite place by the fire (a real fire with logs et al, mind you). A newspaper appeared soon after I had placed my order. France is burning, New Orleans is still wet and out of bounds, President Bush threatens to block the bill against ill treatment of POWs and all is well with the rest of the world. My breakfast arrived. I kept the paper away and was soon reduced the waffle to smithereens. Newspapers and breakfast don’t go well together anyway.

My hesitation about leaving the warmth of the bed for a visit to the café had caused time to fly. Perhaps it was out there flying when I was enjoying the weather. I cared not. I gazed at the fire some more. It seemed like a good thing to do till the Maitre got my check. Then it was back to the room for me, for Herriot beckoned. Herriot stories have the amazing ability to cheer up anyone and infuse a feel good spirit. Though, this is not the only reason I like his works.

But sometimes even the best of the books are no match for a stomach filled with a warm, maple syrup dipped waffles. I considered a siesta. I can’t remember the last time I had such an unhurried existence.

It had been gloomy and dark throughout and as I awoke, it seemed that the sun had finally broken through the clouds. I went to the window and peered out for a better look. This brightness was no sun, it was SNOWING!! The snowflakes replaced the leaves as the wind’s favourite toy. They were all over the place and on the roof, the trees, bushes, cards and the street. I had to go out, period!!

The wind cheater came on, so did the gloves this time. And I was prepared for the icy current outside if it tried to undo my armour. The flakes flew all around and I caught a few on my tongue. I did not know since when it had been snowing but now there was blanket of white all over. This was Chicago’s first snow of the season and it heralded the approach of the holiday season. Now thanksgiving was nearer than it seemed.

My lethargic disposition that day left me with a reduced appetite. I still had to give my packing a final look over. My flight was due later in the evening and I had to leave for the airport soon. I sauntered back in to the warmth looking back on this day.

A blustery day. A singularly fulfilling day.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Spoilt for choice

Whenever and wherever I cross the hallowed portals of the Magnificient Mile in Chicago, you can be sure I’ll waltz out with something; however humble my acquisition may be. And what is more, the selection of that item will have taken a substantial amount of time. And this when I’m not one of those dazed, crazed individuals who haunts the aisles of America’s retailing emporia with starry eyes and a drunken gait. Faux malls like Foodworld, Pyramid’s, Westside etc. pale in comparison. And anyway, they don’t dot the landscape with such regularity.I love you, Walmart, Target and Payless Shoe Source. When I’m flush with the good stuff, I love you too, Banana Republic, Guess, Gap, Bath and Body Works, Godiva, Sears, and J C Penney. When I am absolutely loaded, I love Hollister and the like(note the conditional nature of this love...also, note that I have only named places where I actually made a purchase :-P )Even Walgreens Pharmacy has a certain charm. Can I forget the artistic stacks of multipurpose milk varieties in Walgreens and the marvelous supply of icky things that you simply must have? The experience is radically different from ambling along to the local supermarket or neighborhood chemist. You don’t have to ask uncle/ bhaiyya/ kaka (or their feminine counterparts): "Do you have black bobby pins?" or "Do you have a length of silver bunting?" or "Do you have the Temptations bar high on carbs with roasted almonds in it?"It’s always there. Whatever you want. In profusion. Time after time after time. But this stupendous consistency is not at the root of my purple passion. It’s just that I love the abundance and the arrangement of this country’s GRP: Gross Retail Produce. (Of course, China et al have a massive contribution to make.) To me, the important thing is that American retail shelves are piled high with a varied and plentiful cornucopia of goods, whatever their murky origins. I like to look. I like to buy. In a nutshell; I like to shop. Greed lies in the eye of this beholder. I pursue my prey with incredible patience and a firm belief in eventual satisfaction. If not today, then another day. Just don’t get any more expensive than you already are; please!I don’t keep accurate accounts and hence cannot track the trail of profligacy in my wake. But I will say that shoes and sport goods are exempt. They would never qualify as ‘useless’ :-) The most useless thing that comes to mind is a 50 cent sticky pad from Walmart. But I guess you can hardly complain about something that costs less than a dollar! The best buy I’ve made this summer is the Brit perfume for my dad. It’s a Burberry. The less said the better though, one would think I am succumbing to this flush-with--choice experience. :)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

For want of a few onions

The Staybridge suites <>have become a congregation point for all project hopping Indians visiting Lincolnshire, Chicago. Its true diversity and some part unity. Some experiences with desi guests leave much to be desired for it to be harmonious unity. These experiences leave you trying to confirm in no uncertain terms that you don’t identify with the perpetrators. But that’s another story for some other time.
It is the other bearable half, which makes our own kind endearing on foreign shores.
It all started with a plan. Hot prawn ( read shrimp) curry was the perfect solution to whet our spice hungry appetites. Jaydeep qualified hands down to be head chef. The guy owns a restaurant in Pune called Faso’s. He had to know how to wield a saucepan and tell the bland from the hot. And plan ahead. But as plans go, the end results are always too tantalizing to spend time over details such as the right ingredients. That being said, we found ourselves at the end of the day, nowhere near the curry which we could already smell. L
Guess we waited for all the groceries to safely shut for the day, before we realized that turmeric and onions were missing. Blame partly lay with the girls for being gullible enough to trust a man who said he would cook, and for expecting him to be prepared with the right ingredients, in the right quantity. Our chef looked miffed for not being given the ingredients and cooks can kill :P. So they gallantly took up the responsibility to procure the missing items.
Our hopes at this hour were resting on the Indians staying at the hotel. We knew a couple of girls staying across from our rooms. Calls to their quarters were in vain because we met the ubiquitous answering machines. “Don’t these girls have decent curfew times?? Did their mothers know they were out frolicking at this late hour? Tsk tsk!! Girls these days!” Grandmotherly talk over, we were now trying to remember other Indian faces. There was a quiet south Indian couple who stayed in a room overlooking the courtyard. We did not know the exact location and as a result a call was placed to the front desk. The woman’s name is Shridevi and they have a little son, we told the reception girl. Now suddenly rooms overlooking the courtyard had no one but Indians in all of them. The poor girl was tongue tied pronouncing the entire list of Indian last names for us. We did not recognize a single name and the search came to an abrupt halt. The front desk girl could not talk for some days after this episode, we later heard.
The mocking and teasing that would follow such failure was too agonizing to imagine. It had all the makings of a street brawl. The girls began the search with increased fervor.
It seems a middle aged gentleman has checked in on the second floor. His room was next to Shadab’s. Now, Shadab being a guy who minds his own affairs had not made friends. If nothing else, he did notice the unmistakable smells of Indian cooking emanating from his neighbor’s room. That was our clue. Shadab was selected for the scouting mission. A critical intro call was necessary before hand. Prajakta’s convincing skills came in handy. Ever notice how little effort it takes to convince lonely souls hearing pleas of help from a pleasant voice, especially damsels? Get the drift? Suffice to say, availability of the turmeric and onions was confirmed and off went Shadab.
We asked our chef to get on with his preparations for the ingredients were on the way. Yum! :D
Shadab came with the precious items and was moving towards the door again. Something wrong, we asked? Quiet uncle ji, in return for the desirables, had bargained half an hour of Shadab’s time to sit and chat with him. So he would be back in time for the meal. Well, you win some, you lose some.
The golden hour had arrived!! Plates ready, eyes sparkling with glee and stomachs growling, we could not stay away any longer. We soon were high on the curry and parathas Prajakta heated for us. Divine!!
Says Jaydeep towards the end of the meal, "A
'rre yaar Prajkta, aur onions hote na to aur accha curry banta!!"

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Rodest is from Haiti

Rodest comes with a cell phone growing out of his ear. Rodest likes Indian girls. Rodest likes spicy food…your typical teenager right??

Wrong! Rodest is a taxi driver and he comes from Haiti.

In Chicago, if you are lucky, you find a taxi driver who speaks, then if you are really lucky, you find one who speaks something sounding like English and if you are the luckiest sod on earth, you find one who actually speaks English. That is how we met Rodest, or rather he met us.
When we called the taxi to take us to Devon Street for a Desi dinner, Rodest barely held his cell away from his ear, to ask where we wanted to go. We would have gone nowhere otherwise, anyway. The minute we drove off, he continued his yapping. We thought of the miserable person at the other end of the conversation, he was probably sleeping. Because only Rodest seemed to be doing the talking. He used some strange language. We caught some French words here and there, but could make no head or tail of it.
Then there was the fear that he would land us someplace else. He barely seemed to notice where we were going. Some other people from our team who were following us in another car had the same suspicion and pulled over to confer with him. Rodest was irritated at being separated for a second from his beloved toy. “Where are we going?”, they asked him with the intention of confirming. Fatal mistake! “The same place where you are”, was his reply. Smart man!! Blank stares all around. Finally Rodest broke the silence, “You follow me. We all go to Devon Street. Stop asking where we are going” he said.

We drove off again. His volume was so loud in that closed taxi that conversation amongst us was impossible. Devon had never seemed so far to us.

Finally we were there and on time too. Rodest finally shut himself up to receive the payment. I guess even much loved things can be put away when it is pay up time!!! He asked us if we needed a ride back. Even before we could answer, his card was in my hand and he asked us to call 10 minutes before we left. And just to ensure that we hired him for the ride home, he refused to take any payment. He would take the entire amount from us when we drove back to the hotel. Not only did we bear the constant yapping on the way here, we would have to suffer the same on the ride back???? Aaargh!!! This, definitely was not our day.

Dinner is always a merry affair at Sabri Nihari on Devon. It’s a Pakistani place, but then the taste of Frontier chicken beats the flavor of patriotism, especially in lands far off. The lassi is as good as what you get back home. The meat is tasty and well cooked. So is the mutton biriyani. And the Naans are as huge as bed spreads. We demolished them one by one. We are after all to the manner born.

Finally, it was time to call Rodest. One of us had a brain wave after all that food. With our man busy yapping, we were sure to get his cell engaged. If we could not reach him, there goes his money and there goes the ride. He He!!
We should not have counted on it. The man answered on the second ring and told us, much to our discomfort, that he was waiting right across the street to take us back. Any elation we felt after eating the Desi spread disappeared like bakarwadis at Chitales.
We were dreading listening to his chatter all 45 minutes of that ride back to the hotel. Grin it and bear it we told ourselves for god helps those who help themselves.

And talk he did right through out. But mercifully not on the cell, but with us. It was as close an insight as we would ever have into the life of this man, coming from an impoverished nation. Very much under the same circumstances our people come here.

He had come here in 1983 and had been driving a taxi ever since. The conversation took off when he asked us if we were Indians and if we liked spicy food. That was like asking a scot if he liked his scotch. He had made friends with an Indian taxi driver in his early days. He loved the complexion and the long hair the Indian girls sported, he told us and was waiting for his chance to marry one. He took tips from his friend without actually revealing his intentions to marry. One day he finally told his friend he was serious about marrying an Indian girl. Much to his surprise, the friend laughed at him. So much for you fascination with their hair he told Rodest. They will hate you for the same reason. Your curly top, he added. There went his chances of ever getting an Indian bride. But his love for our spicy food continues.

Rodest finally settled for a Jamaican girl to marry.

He has some relatives back in Haiti and he keeps going back every 2 to 3 years. The fields his forefathers ploughed are all under water now and he can’t bear to look at them. Obviously agriculture can no longer be a means of livelihood in his country.

As we got ready to go in the hotel Rodest told us it was fun having us on the ride. He handed us a stack of taxi receipts. He understood that we would want to share the fare for the ride. How intuitive!!

This is Rodest for you. And Rodest is a taxi driver.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On travel by Greyhound

A Greyhound Journey

If you want to know the true essence of the US of A, a journey by the Greyhound bus service is a must. Its like traveling by our ramshackle STs. You get to see the underbelly of the American way of life. You meet all sorts; from fiercely independent senior citizen fallen on bad times to loud mouthed bra burners; from medieval style traveling musicians to students going home from college. And then there was us, going on a trip to the Niagara Falls, looking forward to enduring a 14 hour bus ride through Toledo and Cleveland in Ohio to Buffalo in New York. They all had one thing in common with us though. Shoestring budgets!!

An hour’s journey by the local train, Metra took us downtown from where the Greyhounds start their journey. Report an hour earlier they told us, as if it were a plane ride. The reason for this became clear when we stepped into the station. There were baggage check in queues and since the best seat went to the early bird, they had queues in front of platforms. Funny, we thought, don’t they think of giving seat numbers here??

Anyway, we got of to a start at 5.20 pm sharp after much confusion over which queue led to which platform. The bus departure time was 5.00 pm as listed on the tickets. Ahem! This was certainly backward. The Chicago traffic slowed us down till we left the city at about 8.00 pm. The first stop was for dinner, little before Toledo. A surprise awaited us in Cleveland at about midnight. You need to change buses they said. ???? This was news!! Well, one more queue (which was already well populated) later we were on the bus to Buffalo. All this changing and queue business should have brought out the best of the Desi spirit in us. We ought to have crowded together in the line so that we all could rush into the bus at the same time. We should have misdirected other passengers so that there would be less people on our bus. (Cackle, cackle!)How enterprising, no? Yet the people are such that you want to be nice to them.

The town of Niagara Falls is about a 25 min. bus ride away from Buffalo. We reached there at 7.30 am, a bus change later. We had arrived!!!
You can finish having a dekko at all the sights Niagara has to offer in a day’s time. It makes sense to carry the lightest of luggage and return by the late night bus the same day. It saves you the hotel expenses which, at this time of the year, are quite high due to the holiday season. And you don’t need a guide to show you around. Just take the Niagara State Park Passport. It includes tickets to all the attractions, plus unlimited rides on the trolley which moves continuously around the park, and a map. It worked very well for us.

The boat ride in the Maid of the Mist has to be the highlight of the trip. This boat takes you right up to the Horseshoe Falls. This is where 90% of the water from the lakes deposits itself in the Niagara River. If you ever wanted to take a shortcut to the Atlantic Ocean, this would be it. Water droplets rise about a hundred meters into the air due to the sheer force with which the water hits the rocks below. This is the ‘mist’ that visitors see and it is visible miles away. And due to the mist, there is a permanent rainbow in the sky over the Falls. This entire view is best seen from the Canadian side. We were glad to do the Falls on the US side for this trip.
The other attraction there is the Cave of the Wind experience. A wooden ramp takes you right next to Falls. The water roars beside you and the agitated air throws you back. Khadakvasla anyone?

On both these attractions they give colored barsatis to keep visitors from getting wet. From an elevated view, people wearing these look like slave workers at an assembly line.
Besides the Falls themselves, there is an aquarium, a discovery exhibit and a bridge, half way into the Niagara River, to enjoy the rest of the day.
Our bus back to Chicago was at 10.00 pm that night. We made it well in time, so no standing in lines this time. (he he he!). But the best was yet to come. We arrived at Cleveland for our bus to Chicago at 2.30 am, only to stand in a queue again. The onward bus was to leave at 4.00 am. The prospect of spending 1.5 hrs in the line at this ungodly hour did not look appealing. To add to that, we had not slept the previous day. We consoled ourselves, the images of cozy beds and warm baths floating in front of our eyes.
Finally it was time to board; the ‘driver cum conductor’ was letting in passengers on the bus through a door leading to the platform. Whew!! Finally we were sure to be left in peace till we reached Chicago about 7 hours later. But wait, the driver, had closed the door in our faces saying the bus was full. We were still optimism personified. They could arrange for a new bus we thought. There were still many people in the queue. Just then the supervisor came. Without much emotion, she announced, “The bus to Chicago will leave at 7.00 am because there is no driver available till that time!” Who was she? The Supervisor cum devil? And where was this? USA cum Bihar? My friends had to keep me from attacking her. This is not happening I thought!!!
Used to fatalism as we Indians are, I squatted on the station floor till 7.00 am. Never mind, I thought, we could act as poor as we wanted here. Who was there to stand up to anyway? We were in the same bus (boat). I might as well have gotten drunk too. Who cared?
The driver of the 7.00 am bus turned out to be wise lady. Sensing our thin patience, she used wit and humor to get us all packed in and we drove off towards Chicago as the sun rose.

Friday, May 27, 2005


The pen is mightier than the sword..and the keyboard is Hercules in all his glory :-)

His twelve labours aren't enough for me though...I sure have a lot to say and a lot more chaos to exist in!!