A Leap of Faith to the Motherland

In the end, all I needed was a moment of high courage – something I had backed out of, half a dozen times over more than one year.

I bought my ticket. I was going to fly to India the next day.

It was uncertain out there, and that’s why it was scary. Three years since the last time I was there. How much of it had changed? How would I feel about the life I had built for myself in another country? Would I feel guilty about leaving everything I knew for it? Would I be pushed into marriage with someone I didn’t know or wasn’t attracted to? Would I face trouble getting back to my life? It was stressful. I had my doubts. The thought of running back home crossed my mind even in the security line at the airport. It was only after the plane finally took off that it sunk in.

This was happening. It was surreal, and unreal.

If almost every trip in recent memory was preceded by chaos, stress and eleventh hour errands, it was a smooth ride this time.  Ettihad Airways, it was. I was a fussy traveler, complaining about the way they processed my paperwork at their counters, their response, their inflight entertainment, to the freezing temperatures they maintained in the plane from “mechanical issues,” and the lack of directions at Abu Dhabi for India-bound flights.

It was going to be a total surprise to my family I would be visiting. I landed without hassle. I couldn’t wait to get to my place for the out-of-the-world surprise. I took the airport shuttle to get to home and each time I saw something I remembered in the city through the windows, the excitement only grew stronger.

The total chaos on the streets, a rapidly growing city with construction every two minutes, the stray dogs outside, the super-rich with their fancy cars jostling for space with motor-bikes and auto-rickshaws, the honking, swanky offices interspersed with houses, people selling coconut water by the roadside…all of it made my heart tingle. The suprabhatam played in the bus, kids walked on pavements hand in hand.  This was and would always be a home to me.

I showed up at their door, and knocked. The reaction, the disbelief and shock on their faces will forever be etched in my memory. Genuine happiness and love doesn’t need to be expressed. When someone begins to cry out of happiness at seeing you, you know you waited far too long to make this trip. I wished I had taken this leap earlier.

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An Identity, A Citizen of the World

 I had never believed in the notion of “nation.” To me, it was an artificial creation of the 12th century – a vague concept of dividing people up using artificial borders, creating “nations” on a map, and then getting people who happened to be within them to be loyal to the “nation” they were accidentally born in; or the ones’ that decided and managed to make another such “nation” their home.  Cultural diversity in people naturally separated by geography, and interaction between them had made the world a beautiful place that it still is. Exploring the world’s infinite cultures and places excited me.  Only my finances stopped me from doing what I loved –  to travel the world and experience it for myself.

Reflecting on my birthday recently, I realized something – I had even more reason to support my stance against nationalism. Only this time, it was more emotional than logical. I felt as if I didn’t belong to any “nation” even if I wanted to. I had to consider myself a citizen of God’s world.
I had lived my life so far in three different countries. The country of my birth didn’t recognize me – I couldn’t enter it without a visa.
I moved to the country my parents were born and raised in. I spent years here, growing and loving being part of it, fighting off those that mocked and ridiculed me for my religion, and said I, by account of my religion, had no place in it. I didn’t have much in common with the majority of society around me – not in food, dress, mode of thinking. I was a minority. A minority within a minority.

I moved again, to where I am, now.  I wasn’t born here, or even raised here. I came in and had a mountain of immediate challenges to surmount, which I did, on my own. I hardened and grew into a young man, all by myself, working away toward an education and a career. I was fairly successful, and won admiration and praise. Everyone with a dream, passion and hard work succeeded here, or so goes the legend, and while it still is a work in progress – I am on my way to realize my great American dream, provided I don’t give up.

But through this journey, I turned towards religion. I changed my circle of friends in a big way. I now had a circle of friends that I shared my religion with; the majority of whom were from my ethnicity – brown, and originating from the Indian subcontinent. It helped me grow in my religion.

But then something else happened –  the country I am in, lived in, loved to be in, proud to be in, was active in, volunteered in, and had begun to feel part of, had some of its own, from this section of society, look down upon me for what was theirs by accident – to them, I was inferior because I didn’t spend more of my formative years in the country. If it wasn’t snide remarks, it was rejection coming from someone I had invested my heart and soul in, and wanted to be with.  It hurt. A lot. I was heartbroken, at times. It was replaced by resentment and anger in some instances.

I interpreted it to come from, among other reasons, an insecurity of their own place in the country. Or that, it was a result of becoming “brown sahibs,” where Western culture had imbibed in them a shame of their heritage and antagonism towards the culture of their parents, similar to erstwhile feelings of backwardness  compared to the white man in a previous era – essential tools that the West used to keep up their hegemony in colonial pursuits.  Or that, this insecurity in a lot of them was because they themselves were born outside the country, spent a majority of their short lives outside the country, but immigrated when they were still younger, and wanted to feel more American themselves.

Facing heartbreak from some of these people who I loved the most, and not having it returned, I tried to fall back to where I moved from, the country of my family and my ancestors. I stepped back into this world emotionally, to see if I could find my place here. It didn’t take me long to see we were different enough that I couldn’t just slide in. We wanted to talk about different things, liked to do different things, had vastly different worldviews. It was becoming a pain to fit in – both for the companions I sought, and me. Before long, I was rebuffed – that I no longer fit in, that I had changed too much.

Where would I go? Where would I feel at home? Do I make changes to my circles of friends, again, to find my place? I couldn’t fit in, I knew, among people who indulged in practices that I had come to abhor, due to my religion. I was left ‘nationless,’ emotionally.
But before long, I changed, defined and carved for myself a place in society. The earlier troubled thought of how I didn’t exactly fit in anywhere, gave way to acceptance of every little thing that is part of me, my past and excitement about my future. It was now comforting for me to know that I was different, and with more unique experiences than most other people. I didn’t have to conform, or belong.
I am still changing;  changing the people who are part of my life, slowly, but surely, with more and more people who value me, that also recognize my traits and accomplishments that I am proud of and that God Himself would approve of; who accept me with all my attributes, and most importantly, that would return me the care and affection I shower them with.

Hiking at Great Falls, VA

I have always loved traveling and holidaying – and spring break was here.  This was sounding like another perfect opportunity for a get-away.  A bunch of friends had already been planning a four-day hiking and fun trip at Great Smoky Mountains in NC and TN, Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA since weeks and were insisting that I join them.  Another group of friends from a different place was planning a single day hiking trip at Great Falls, VA.

At any other point of time in my 20+ history (okay, at least from my high school days ),  these twin opportunities would have driven me crazy with excitement and would have been akin to me licking both chocolate and vanilla cone ice-creams alternately in the campus dining hall whenever I eat there.

But these were extraordinary times what with my graduation (for the second time) being months away. Desperate (well, not really desperate) times call for desperate measures. I had tons of work to complete to ensure that I meet deadlines and spring break was a nice opportunity to get up to speed.

I am usually the one planning all these trips but I was hesitating to even join either of them this time.  It was a constant battle between my holidaying desires and my common sense, but the former had a partial victory when I finally decided to go ahead only with the one-day hiking trip, much to the disappointment of my fellow hikers planning the four-day trip.

Most of us going hiking at Great Falls, VA were fellow “desis” (pronounced as they-see, for those who don’t know, and refers to Indians/Pakistanis in the west) – and we desis are legendary as far as being late  and disorganized is concerned.   So, we finally managed to START our four-car convoy towards our destination at 11:30 AM. At least the days were longer at this time of the year.

We took the River Trail that would give us a good view of the Potomac all through the hike. It was just 3.0 miles, and substantially less challenging and shorter than my previous hike at Shenandoah Valley late November/early December, 2010.   But we kept stopping at short intervals for those extensive photo sessions, pushing and shoving each other, and when possible, throwing water on each other and took hours to complete it.  Damn those cameras, every beautiful view and every step has become a potential picture for the photographic minds that some of us armed with cameras have.  This is similar to how every event in life is a potential Facebook status for those Facebook-addicted people.  How about just enjoying the scenery?

Sometimes, I find it quite peaceful and satisfying to just sit there at a rock in the middle of the forest with a blank mind all by myself, taking all the beauty in and observe the less conspicuous things around – there is so much detail that it makes you sit back and wonder in amazement what the world is about and why we are here in this world in the first place; and how disconnected we have become to this world thanks to our daily routine in an artificial world we have created for ourselves.   But when you’re going in a group, it is often hard to find this time alone.

After we completed the first hike, we decided to try another trail since there was some daylight left – we went further for fifteen minutes only to turn back when we realized that the second hike would take us way too far from where our cars were parked, and we obviously had to be back before it was dark.

All in all, we all had an awesome time and I was glad I joined in.  It is another matter that now being  the week after spring break, I still have work left-over from what I had planned to complete during the break.

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Snow brings holidays

We had the first legit snow of the season today, but that was (un)fortunately not enough to postpone the two exams that I had. The exams were not bad anyway, and I am glad to be  done with them. It’s never a good thing to have to suffer from postponed exams and an extended period of pre-exam tension.

We had an entire week off this February when we had three snowstorms in a week. Those who know me would point out that getting locked down at home for snow or whatever is among  the worst things that could happen to me. I just love getting out of the house, and go places.  This one time , I ventured out with my camera when there was a heavy snowstorm accompanied by 80kmph winds – it was indeed a crazy thing to do and people pleaded with me not to -but that was something that gave me the kick. At 125 lbs, there was a good chance that I could have been blown away, and be ‘gone with the wind’ !

Now that my winter break is about to commence, I am so looking forward to my trip abroad and continue challenging the snow and freezing temperatures, only this time in Europe. And then, to some warm weather !

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End of a whole year here!

Finally. My second semester in graduate school has ended with one last exam. It is a good feeling and I am looking forward to a good break for sometime. It’s not that I feel elated since I know it is going to be a busy summer for me with a lot of work.

I expect decent if not perfect grades this semester which was largely a breeze compared to the previous Fall semester which had me go through some of the most anxious days of my life.

I have had a  memorable time in the last six months or so, having had courses which seemed easier to handle, work that I enjoyed doing and interspersed with these, were other moments of joy –  having experienced  what Obama called the “Snowmageddon”, the wonderful  sightseeing trips, getting to spend time with my cousin, and a  trip to the west coast. The only negative factor, a major one at that, which managed to eat into the blissful life was my inability to find a scholarship that would pay for my huge tuition – I just did not want my parents to spend again on me but that was not to be. I am not taking that to heart now since it is convenient to ignore it.

I sign off now, off to enjoy the few days I have before the summer grind starts.

Leaving behind a few pictures from the last few months for your viewing pleasure.

Washington DC for Sixth time in Nine Months.

One of my friends recently  remarked, “Hey, do visit your hometown too once in a while” .

Reason ? Another trip to DC (can you believe it?)  on the 23rd of April, my sixth in less than nine months.

I had to leave a day’s work and money to go to DC this time but I just wanted to be there, inside the Capitol Hill, and attend the Friday prayer services. The program was supposed to start at 11 AM but with the desi standard time that we follow on our clocks, we started out from home quite late, got  lost along the way and by the time we reached the Capitol, it was nearly 2 PM and we could see people coming out from the Jummah. The staff made us run around for some time but reluctantly let us in even though there was no way we could make it to the Jummah event. All the excitement that I was filled with was about praying Jummah inside the Capitol Hill and with that opportunity missed, I felt extremely disappointed with myself and my trip-mates, making no secret of my anger and frustration at them for having been cause of the delay. Once in, we luckily ran into the host of the program who was taking the other students on a guided tour inside the capitol hill. He let us in into his group and gave us passes to the gallery of the House of Representatives.  I could hardly enjoy this part as I was filled with guilt for having missed the Friday prayers and was repenting about not having stayed put in my hometown instead to attend Jummah when I was going to be too late here anyway. We were showed around a few places quite important/significant and historical  in the Capitol Hill – not that I paid any attention to what was being said by our guide, since I just didn’t feel it necessary to ‘know’ those things. The old supreme court, the library of congress, the offices of the leaders of the representatives, and so on were good places to see but we weren’t allowed to click any pictures here. After we came down to near the entry for the house of representatives gallery, we weren’t allowed by the security to go back up despite trying twice – I wanted to go back up and make amends for not taking enough pictures there earlier.

We finally went in to the gallery after a heavy security check, roamed around in the capitol for some more time and then took a long walk towards the Washington monument and the world war memorials taking a few pictures along the way near the museums too.Since one of my travel mates didn’t want to splurge a princely sum of two and a hald dollars on a metro train back to the union station from where we had to catch a train back to my place, we had to walk for as much as an hour and wait another hour in the historic union station for the train to come.  The trains were more like planes with their interiors, microphone announcements and at the stations with all the boarding gates. All in all, it was a good memorable trip that we made I thought, which could have been much better had we made it on time in the morning.  Leaving some pictures as I sign off for your viewing pleasure :)

A plane journey I will never forget !!- A memorable trip to the west coast

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So there I was, after some of the most boring days of my life between Christmas and new year, I finally got the go ahead from my aunt I was supposed to visit at the other end of the continent to take the flight. This was when my holidays were getting over the day of my flight and when I was supposed to start my research work from the next day. I should have been back home by now from my visit I sighed, but  for starting now, I had only myself to blame given my reluctance to buy tickets for earlier dates  what with the high prices. I stood to lose one week of work and money but I had always wanted to make this trip for years and there was no way I was going to miss this chance.
To give you a sense of why this trip was so, erm, so absolutely memorable:

  1. On the way to the airport, I realized I forgot my tickets back home, something not unusual when I am going places. Luckily we had enough time to go back and get them.
  2. My connecting flight to Newark was delayed – I had to catch my flight to the west coast from Newark.  – They offered me an Amtrak train ticket to the Newark airport instead. I agreed, though I did feel sick for having to go in a train when I loved traveling in a plane and had paid for it, (or rather had my aunt pay for it). Turns out the train was heavily delayed too – I had to wait for quite some time before I boarded the train. My date with troubles was just starting off here.
  3. I MISSED my airport stop in the train to Newark and went further ahead.  I foolishly went to the restroom without realizing that my stop was so near – by the time I came back to my seat, my senior co-passenger had that totally worried look on his face and he had me scurrying towards the exit . I rushed out with my bags only to have the train door close on my face. I had missed the stop.
  4. At the next stop, I just didn’t know how to get back to the airport and was worried about splurging more money to do so, or rather, wanted to get back on track paying as little as I could.I finally found an information kiosk but they were of little help.
    I believe there was this obvious anxious look on my face seeing which a girl who was at the scene approached me and said she was going to the airport too and I can join her, and that she knows the train route. She  turned out to be friendly and helpful.  After helping me buy the train ticket back to the airport,  we went together in two trains and had a nice chat along the way. She was from Chicago and was catching the flight back home after spending Christmas and new year with her folks near where I live.  She was surprised I wasn’t from Oregon and I was actually starting my trip to Oregon when the holiday season was ending.
  5. Inside the Newark airport – Another round of confusion – where do I go now ?? I didn’t know where to go in the Newark airport, and was walking all around the airport trying to figure it out – We finally got to the terminal, and she rushed towards the queue for the security check, asking me to follow her but I went around the airport trying to confirm from people that I had to enter the same line for my destination too. I lost her here and then lost my way like a small child- I was misguided by some of the security personnel there who had me go to a different floor. I  finally found where I had to go, went through the security check  hoping I wasn’t treated differently thanks to my different appearance and Muslim faith. It was, by God’s grace nice and easy and I recited a prayer of thankfulness to God.
  6. Boarding CANCELLED ! – Just as I was  at the gate, in a queue, waiting impatiently to board the plane, quite tired as I was waiting for a long time – I got to the gate much quicker than I thought I would –and since it had been a long day already  journeying by train, a security officer came by and asked the flight staff to stop boarding, had people seated in the plane to come out. I was like, what in the world is going on???
  7. Airport EVACUATED !! It’s a SECURITY SCARE  !!

There was a massive crowd jostling to get out of the airport, from the secure area – I could never recall seeing such a crowd even in the Indian railway stations, leave alone an airport. There were television screens in the airport and some people, including me stood watching CNN to try to understand what was happening – CNN would only say it was a security breach and therefore a security scare that was the reason for the evacuation in the Newark airport.

The emergency siren was on for hours together in the airport – it was freezing cold outside, so there was no way anyone was going outside and people were seated on the floor all around, there was little space to even walk. People were even sitting and sleeping on the belts and the computers where they check-in bags. I myself finally sat down behind a computer used to check-in luggage, plugged in my mobile phone to charge and also plugged my laptop on to a power source there and started playing Fifa 2009 to kill time.  An Indian lady in a saree sought help to contact her daughter who had dropped her off here and also contact Continental to change her flight, so some time went off trying to get help for her and chatting with her. As is so usual with Indians, she was not satisfied with my first name, and went on asking for more information until she confirmed which religion I am from – I have always believed Indians tend to be extremely racist, and race, skin color, religion decide a lot about how they interact with people.

In the middle of the night, the siren finally went out , there was a general sense of relief and everyone applauded for nearly a whole minute. By now, thousands people were outside and all of us were made to go through a security screening again, but they were thoroughly professional here and made it real quick.

8. Flight CANCELLED ! Finally, after a long wait, I went near my gate to find that my flight was cancelled. With no idea where to go now, I had to call my aunt late night there – she had to pick me up when I reach there and I was concerned since she had to get to work early morning too. I found an information desk, but there was a line nearly a mile long here and by the time I reached my turn, I went through five calls from my aunt and three hours of wait. They gave me an UNCONFIRMED ticket for the next flight five hours later. I didn’t ask them to give me a hotel ticket since I was dead tired and didn’t want to give myself any chance of sleeping too much and missing the next flight. So, off I went, near my gate and slept on the floor for sometime. I hate eating non-desi food with the halal issues, but had to continously make do with that for nearly two days.
Luckily, I got a seat in the next flight and made it safe, sound and in one piece to Portland, to be received by my aunt’s sister.
I never told my parents anything about what I went through – even during my phone calls to them during all of this, I acted as normally as I could despite being half dead with hunger, lack of sleep and fatigue.
Looking back, I felt it only served to make my trip memorable and fun – I had a great time in Portland after that – went sight-seeing, ate outside, been to a theatre for the first time in my life(seriously) to see Avatar in an Imax, and had a real family feeling after a long time.

9. I lost a lot of pictures I took in the process of transferring  them to my laptop, forever!

Leaving behind a few of the not-really-good pictures I could retrieve from my simple mobile phone camera.

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Trip to New York City !

Just the second day after my last exam into the break and under intense pressure from friends, I got going for a trip to new york. The grades were yet to be announced and i was quite nervous, wanting to stick around at home until they are announced, lest there is something that comes up, but I finally fell in.
After 2 hours of total chaos (which is usually the case whenever I go anywhere :D ), I finally heaved a sigh of relief when the bus started.  To give you a sense, I hurried to finish work, ship a laptop by USPS -no, beg my friend to do it for me so I can get ready and catch the bus in time, friend finally agrees to do this for me, and then when this friend of mine calls me for the address to ship to- I am boarding the bus while the address is in my laptop locked in my bag-he called me earlier for the address than I thought he would-  it takes time to get on to the seat, open the laptop you know :P.  and as I am in the bus, can hear my friend constantly shouting at me for 10 minutes for wasting his time etc.. and then lo, there is no cash with any of us, so having to run to find an ATM. Yes, my trip started with an absolute bang :).
The journey of 4.5 hours was completed without we realizing it. Of course, there was the so- polite and the so-non-violent African American shouting barbs at my friend for constantly getting up from his seat behind him (!, wonder what his problem was ).
Soon, we found ourselves shivering outside JCPenny on 32nd and 11 right in Manhattan.
My friend from high school was there in 15 minutes, and then off we went to Times Square with one of us almost getting hit by the racing cabs there – no road rules seemed to apply in New York City, pedestrians cross roads at all points at will, the lights are just for a show  and cabs are driven wildly. After a munch at McDonalds there , I finally reach my friend’s house in NJ dead tired.
On Christmas day the next day, we started late, and went to all the free attractions nearby – the ferry to Stratten Island, the World trade center site, Macy’s, the Hudson, the Empire State, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, one of the public programs for christmas, chinatown, the rockefeller park, the rockfeller center and  roamed the streets of Manhattan taking pictures all along. It was a lot of walking but was worth it. The day ended with me  having a video chat on Skype with my family right from Times Square using the free Wifi connection there, it was a wonderful experience. But the day started and ended with a lot of tension, I read an email from my professor before I started from NJ that I had a problem with the project I had submitted, and by the end, also got to know of a low score in the finals in another course reading my mail in Times Square. Though the fun from the trip was certainly diluted with all of these things, with some of my fears coming true and me regretting making this trip before the grades were out for sometime, looking back, I still feel it was worth it.
Back to NJ for the night, I made the necessary corrections to my project and finally shut the case. The grade was out in a little while, thankfully, it was not bad, but wasn’t good either, but way better than my expectations.
The next day, I was left all alone high and dry by my other friends visiting their relatives. I walked for a long time to attend the Friday prayers in one of the mosques I found after a long search in Manhattan. I prayed Asr, ate at the Halal delis in the streets twice, spent some more time in times square – atruly awesome place, visited the Tausad’s museum before boarding the bus back to Baltimore.
On the trip overall, it was extremely cold and windy -so much that I  couldn’t even remove the gloves to see the map, which was a pain. And New york was really dirty due to the snowstorm a few days earlier; all the streets/pavements were filled with black snow and it was not a good sight. Plus, the fun was obviously diluted what with the trip being before the nervous days before the grades were out.
But still, I was happy i made this trip – I had always wanted to visit New york and I could hardly believe I actually fulfilled one of my long-standing wishes :) I even banged my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming . And NYC was awesome, the skyscrapers were a sight to watch, it was an awesome experience to roam the streets in Manhattan, the other places we visited were good too. I could see people from all over the world in the streets, a lot of them didn’t speak english.  It certainly was a great experience,but I don’t think I will make another trip here, as I am pretty much satiated  :)
Signing off, I am leaving a few pictures from the trip, and believe me, we took a lot of them :)