I originally penned this post in my notebook just days after returning to the US on the second day of May. Since then I've continued making observations about my home country with childlike eyes, as if this place was now foreign to me. My original post is thus embellished with the things I have been experiencing daily for the past month.
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My first steps back on American soil after ten months in India were at the Newark airport in New Jersey. Our plane landed around 4:30 AM. Waiting in line to go through immigration took a lot longer than did the actual encounter with the immigration officer, which was a fairly quick stamp in the passport. Welcome back.
This airport wasn't much different than Indira Gandhi International in New Delhi. Actually, much to my surprise, I think the bathrooms at IGI were cleaner. Anyway, shortly after we got through immigration I met up with Julie again, a fellow ETA who happened to be on the same flight as me, and we made our way to the baggage claim area, and looked around for trolleys to throw our stuff on. But imagine this--all of the trolleys are locked up and connected to a machine which you have to feed money in order to release them for use.
I should have been skeptical when I read the sticker "machine accepts $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills" without listing the actual price. Koi baat nahi, I thought. No problem. It must be like some of the supermarkets that charge you a quarter to take a shopping cart, but then return the quarter when you return the cart.
So I pulled my suitcases off the conveyor belt and set them aside while I went to obtain myself a trolley. There was an employee standing at the closest machine, obviously employed for times of confusion such as these, since the machines must have been intended to be self-servicing. One Sikh man from my flight was explaining emphatically that he could not get the trolley out. The woman accompanying the otherwise self-servicing machine somewhat coldly told him, and then the rest of us waiting in line, that we'd have to try a different machine. The Sikh man continued to explain that the machine took his $5 but he still didn't have a trolley.
Then the four or five of us that had gathered around the self-service machine marched down to another one. The Sikh man finally got his trolley. Success! As I was waiting patiently (though not un-irritated) in a linear fashion for my union with a much sought after trolley, one Indian man ever so casually came and stood in front of me. Oh no you didn't, I said to myself. Then I put on my polite voice and said simply, Excuse me, I was waiting here, and he quickly apologized and retreated to the back of the somewhat line that had formed. I had dealt with enough crowds and pushing and shoving for the past ten months. I was in America now! When in the United States...
Now, don't ask me why, after all this hassle, I gave a $5 bill to a machine that also accepts $1 bills, of which I had plenty. I guess I was still of the (false) belief that I would get my money back when I returned the trolley. If I could have done without a trolley, I certainly would have. But there was no way I could manage three suitcases. So, I paid the $5, loaded it with my suitcases and reunited with Julie. Smartly, she had traveled with backpacks and one suitcase on wheels and thus was able to bypass the trolley.
We walked no more than five minutes to where we had to re-check our luggage onto our next flights. We did that, then I gave my trolley to the man (in uniform) who was standing there with a bunch of them, and waited briefly, expectantly, for a refund. When none was offered, I began to walk away, dumbfounded.
"Ma'am, don't forget your bang," said the trolley man. Clearly I was too tired for just about anything right now, but I knew I would explore this trolley rip-off issue once I was well-rested and cognizant.
I recounted the incident and my irritation to Julie, who replied dully, "Welcome back to capitalism." I wonder what happened to those who gave the trolley machine a $20 bill. They were out $20 for using a trolley for 5 minutes??? That's more than 1,000 rupees!
At the airport I splurged on an everything bagel with cream cheese and a cup of hot chocolate from Dunkin Donuts. Maybe not the best choice since by now I was already having severe diarrhea and dizzy spells; I'm convinced it was from something I ate on the plane, or maybe the paneer pakora we shared with my in-laws and nephew before boarding. My core was also sore beyond belief; something I'd never experienced while flying long distances before.
After about a three-hour layover I, along with fifteen other passengers, boarded a puddle-jumper back to Harrisburg. Thank goodness Gautam packed my woolen shawl in my carry-on suitcase. The short walk from the gate door to the plane felt like the Arctic!
I fell soundly asleep, all curled up in my woolen shawl from Mussoorie -- where 10 of us had begun to study Hindi 9 months ago -- and woke up above Harrisburg. I saw ginormous houses (my eyes had become accustomed to Indian-size homes) and a sign for 84 Lumber. I was almost home.
Among the things that immediately struck me upon returning to the US:
- The lack of Hindi; there is so much English! I was a little overwhelmed by hearing so many conversations I could understand with ease.
- The lack of Devanagari on signs; most of the airport signs are bilingual, in English and Spanish. And there's a lot more Spanish than I remember.
- We don't have a caste system in the US, but we do have major equality issues. Race is a big, persistent one.
- There are so many CARS! (As opposed to motorcycles.) And cars in good condition!
- The relative absence of motorcycles and mosquitoes. Oh, and DUST.
- Vehicles are parked straight, parallel to the lines.
- The absence of honking when the driver in front pauses, briefly, to decide which way to go in... a PARKING LOT!
- Lane driving!
I was met at the baggage claim area by my choti bahin who now seemed taller than me and is sporting a ring on her left hand. Outside Mom waited with the car. Both of them looked just about the same as when I'd left. And my sister being taller than me was later disproved :)
I spent the rest of that day, and part of the next, being sicker than a dog with a disabling fever and the runs, of which I'm now going on my third straight day (remember, I wrote this post long before I'm not posting it!). It would happen that I lived in India of all places for 10 months with virtually no illness. Yet returning to the first world knocks me out like a bowling ball.
But, I'm getting better. The diarrhea's hangin' around but the fever's gone. And there are a lot of people in this world, and some who are very close to me, who are going through much worse than this as I write. Despite it all, it feels pretty darn good to be on American soil again.
Of course, it will be much better when Mr. Ashley, as Nick calls him, can join us here as well. Hopefully that will be much sooner rather than later.
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More posts (or a new blog?) to come about things about being home that have since delighted or disappointed me. Among the delighted: our mailbox, the ease with which a person can send and receive paper mail; green green grass; bright blue skies; white white whispy clouds; starry skies; fresh, clean air. Among the disappointed: processed food; lack of sabzi-walas (vegetable sellers); vegetables on steroids from the grocery store.