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Spellbound In Charleston, West Virginia May 26, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Human Societies, Travel.
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Charleston, WV

Charleston, West Virginia (via Angie @ Flickr, by-nc license)

In the ebb & flow of those passing, special winter days, few things were as regular an occurrence as the local gyro place taking an equally special order by yours truly. By now, I was an addicted fixture at the place. At least once a week, come hailstorm or sleet. For they made what was in my opinion, the closest thing to authentic Shawarma I’ve EVER had in America. The experience is like trying to cope with what passes off as proper Idli or Dosa among blissfully ignorant crowds in Delhi. Or ‘kachche gosht ki’ Hyderabadi biryaani at some wannabe restaurant in Jackson Heights, New York City.

The order was standard just as it was unique. No french fries. It didn’t matter that they were for free and made absolutely no difference to the bill. Unusual for any place, America included, you agree? Before long, this side-serving was replaced by a generous box of free, healthier salad, made especially for me.

It wasn’t everyday that a doctor would pass by this corner of NJ‘s sprawling suburbia, right across the Hudson. But for me this was home.

“At least for now,”

as my inner voice would often remind. Oh how familiar! “Home” is something that I have always had a hard time defining. Nothing perhaps could exemplify this realization best than that classic, eventful moment when a piqued nurse at a hospital in South India inquired if I was Anglo-Indian. Of all people! But let’s set aside the extreme pleasures of that digression for later.

The Caucasian restaurant owner and I first ran into each other when I was busy scouting the area looking for Halal eateries. This was one of a handful in the vicinity and I explained what an enormous advantage going rogue Halal was for his business. “Your market reach is wider. Smart decision!”, I conferred. Like a lot of smaller restaurants during the rocky economic times, I could tell that his obviously sounder business instincts had also driven him to become a larger chain’s franchisee rather than start an independent business on his own and risk competing with the big dogs.

He had begun to understand that I was doing some heavy duty travel in relation to my work. And that for all intents and purposes, my “home” was like an airport terminal. Somewhere to stop, re-fuel and take off again to yet another destination. Between orders we’d often share what each of us knew of different places on my itinerary. Given my fluent Amerispeak, by now I realized that a lot of people in Umricaland found it easier to accept an answer like “Baltimore” than say a foreign South Asian locale to the oh-how-so-innocent question, “Where are you from?”. And he was no exception. And so it was. I was from Baltimore. Period. No elaborate migratory life histories.

It’s all actually sort of like that clip from The Pink Panther, where Inspector Jacques Clouseau is painstakingly informed by his sidekick, Gilbert Ponton, about the occupations of Ponton’s forefathers.

“And Before That?”

Clouseau: And you are?

Ponton: Gilbert Ponton. Detective, second class. I’ve been assigned to work with you.

Clouseau: And what qualifications do you have for police work?

Ponton: My family’s done police work in Paris for nine generations.

Clouseau: And before that?

Ponton: We were policemen in the surrounding areas for 200 years.

Clouseau: And before that?

Ponton: Immigrants from various countries in Europe all involving police work.

Clouseau: And before that?

Ponton: Farmers.

Clouseau: Hmm. So you are a little lamb who has come to Clouseau for to learn.

I tend to keep the threshold lower in cutting to the ‘Farmers’ stage.

“So where next?”

Charleston, West Virginia! You think the weather’s going to play ball? Look at all the snow & wind around. Flight leaves at noon via D.C.

“Well … they say the really rough weather is not coming until later in the evening. Looks like you’ll hopefully scrape through.”

“Phew! I just hope so! So what do you know about the town?”

“Small. Gorgeous. Great restaurants!”

I recalled reading something similar in the orientation material I’d received by email prior to the scheduled meeting. Promises of a “four season” climate and that great places to eat were always within near reach, no matter where in the city one was located. Of course, “near reach” to someone used to New York City meant walkable or a hop across by public transport. The rest of America, as I learned over time, had other ideas. Pervasive burb life was equivalent to living like a hermit in self-exile, where a car was necessary for even the most trivial of chores. Sometimes even for milk or bread. Talk about going rural.

So anyway, the meeting was scheduled for early morning. And I’d planned to get there the evening before. Given the uncertain weather, I now understood that matters were going to get a little close. There was an immutable deadline to meet. Even if it meant having to para-glide a la George Steinmetz or take the less intriguing but equally exhilarating bullock-cart, just in case the orthodox forms of transportation bailed. No compromises. Life. Or death.

As in Houston or Tabuk, taxis weren’t exactly ubiquitous like say in New York City or Bombay. Finding one to the airport involved making laborious phone calls well ahead of time. I was already beginning to miss the carefree spontaneity of waving hands and hailing cabs and autos off the streets of say Jeddah or Hyderabad. Oh how peculiar those honks of desperation from Jeddah’s Ujra (أجره) – drivers at the mere glance of a potential patron!

Ghar ki murghi, dal baraabar (گھر کی مرغی دال برابر) as they say.

La Guardia was approximately forty-five minutes away, the booking lady had explained on the phone. Was this the same airport from that trip I’d taken two years before I wondered, as the cab driver at long last deposited me on the curb, a good FOUR HOURS ahead of departure. TSA antics be damned. For whatever reason, my mind was re-learning the at-once, labyrinthine layout of the place. Perhaps it was the endorphin-soaked, mind-altering state that usually accompanies my journeying, beginning with the day I think “where next, what next, when next …” and lingering loooooooong thereafter.

Each airline, in general, had a different building allocated to check-in their customers. After the usual shenanigans, thankfully minus the officially sanctioned nude-scans or “junk”-groping, I picked a comfortable seat near the departure gate. In hand, as if by instinct, a 17 ounce (more on the Metric v. American naming related confusion in later posts inshaAllah) bottle of drinking water from a store beyond Security Check. Gone were those days of being able to carry drinking water across what can now be accurately described as the zone of the living dead. Not that the zombies didn’t exist then too. But things were still much less extreme back then.

The terminal was eerily at ease. Not the usual hustle-bustle from previous trips via LGA that came to mind. And oh yes, nothing at all compared to the frenetic crowds at JFK or O’Hare. Add a little lounge music and one could very well imagine oneself relaxing in a spa. The announcements were calm too. The voices at a measured pitch. Perhaps it was this ambiance that resulted in me escaping the announcement an hour before scheduled departure, that my flight was all of a sudden – CANCELED.

There was now a new departure gate. A new flight number.

Thankfully, strolling along and exploring airports between flights had been a favorite pastime from childhood. Bombay’s international terminal was special. As a toddler and compulsive drifter at the place, I had once actually strayed away and gotten lost from my parents. Only to be miraculously found again. Alhamdulillah. Mom still recollects the horror as if it was yesterday. I, of course, can’t recall the drama. I guess the other distractions used to keep me pre-occupied.

Anyhow, so later on an idle walk, I caught the announcement in text, displayed on an arrival/departure information screen. A Flight Information Display System or FIDS, to be exact. And realizing that not much time remained, darted towards the nearest airline official for a new boarding pass.

By now my carry-on was half filled with the thick paper of tickets & boarding passes from all my recent travel. The yielding shell had begun to feel like plywood.

As I boarded, all I could think of was relief. The weather wasn’t misbehaving, Alhamdulillah. But you see America’s climate can be tricky. So this satisfaction didn’t come out of some superficial reflection. One had to think deep in order to fully appreciate one’s destiny. In America, traveling often entails negotiating multiple storm systems, each governed by its own time table. Meeting my deadline meant that not only had I to take-off & evade the looming windfall in the Mid-Atlantic & Northeast, but also hope to God that any pre-existing storm system in the Mid-West died down by the time the connecting flight was scheduled to land. I’m always impressed by the hardiness of the travel enterprise in America in this regard. Airlines are pretty quick to reschedule and re-route passengers in case of inclement weather. Often by the side of the boarding gate. If this were India or Arabia, nothing would work. Not even fisticuffs and bodyblows with airport managers or airline supervisors.

D.C. was somewhere I was looking forward to. Just recently back from using BWI, I’d wondered what Dulles was like. They belong to the same metro area you see. And yet, D.C. with its proverbial “beltway“, was in a class of its own. The two hours before the connecting flight to Charleston should serve as ample time to explore I thought. So what if I couldn’t actually step out and examine the Library of Congress – the largest library in the world. This was the closest I was going to get to such stuff for now and I had planned to spend the time observing, reflecting and enjoying. But these hopes were dashed when I was informed upon arrival that my scheduled connecting flight too was suddenly now – CANCELLED!

Blimey! Two canceled flights in a row? That can’t be coincidence, can it?

Inner voice:

“No wait, it can. Given clustering in random systems. You know that, don’t you?”


An airline lady later informed me that ALL flights to Charleston from the airline were cancelled. You read that right. ALL flights. That can’t be good, I thought.

“That’s weird. All flights?”

“Yea. This IS weird. Really weird.”

“Is it a weather problem?”

“It sounds more like a mechanical failure problem. Don’t know.”

She frantically tried to find me SOME way to get to Charleston. And at last booked me for a flight via Chicago – on a DIFFERENT airline!

“The plane leaves in about 15 minutes and is waiting to depart from another terminal.”

Easy for you to say!

“Take this ticket. Run towards the shuttle waiting by that departure gate. Hopefully you’ll get there fast enough to check-in by the aerobridge, get a new boarding pass and board. Good luck!”

My endorphins and catecholamines were at their peak. Quadriceps and hamstrings braced to perform.

To my pleasant surprise, the shuttle operators turned out to be desis. Smiling Bengalis actually. I was in desi English mode now. Explaining the urgency of my situation. They whisked me right away describing how to find the departure gate.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get there alright,”

said one reassuringly.

Phew! My relief at reaching there on time was clearly apparent to the lady at the check-in counter. I couldn’t help wonder if the connecting flight to Charleston from Chicago would eventually get canceled too. What a worrisome streak that would turn out to be IF that happened.

I caught sight of an interesting encounter on the plane. To my front-right was a female desi from Umricaland. Aisle seat. Gaudy getup & immodest pompousness. I’d seen a similar one before, on a separate journey, absorbing herself in a recent issue of Cosmo.

What is it with mankind’s obsession with the urge to display I wondered, reminded of that lovely show from childhood, Keeping Up Appearances. I guess it comes with the wealth. When fragile statuses are painstakingly achieved and must not only be safeguarded but fortified at all costs. Although I had encountered a few women obsessed with the fashion phenomenon in the Subcontinent, the proportion was waaaay higher in Arabia and America. Tahliya (تحلية) street in Jeddah not only serves as a race track (often illegal) now and then, but is renowned for its elite shopping malls and their “high society” feminine clientèle. Theirs, a life DEFINED by the latest gossip on Oprah Winfrey and Stardust. And then on the other hand for some folks, it represents a way to stand out. Or to make a mark of some kind. But this can be done without the lavish spending too I think. I, for one, still smile at the bell-bottoms from family photo albums of the ’70s and ’80s. I think those outfits were SO cool. Wallahualam.

So along comes this visibly perturbed desi male. Now one could tell he was from Desiland. Dravidian, I thought. Oh, the uncomfortable, hesitant glances and avoidant, pressured speech. In Urdu, I’d express this as takraar (ٹکرار). He needed to get to the window seat. Between the pleas and counter-pleas, the spectacle was just too much! My sympathies were with the poor guy. I could sense his accomplishment as he found his way in. There seem to be BIG disparities in shyness levels between Arabian Arabs or Desiland desis and Arabs or desis who’ve been reared in Umricaland. Of course, when things aren’t face to face, there can be a lot of immodest tapori -pana (टपोरीपना). Surprisingly, on either side of the gender divide. A paradox that I’m always piqued by.

Touchdown. Chicago’s O’Hare was BIG. As I had imagined it would, based on earlier travel. And teeming with hordes. I needed to grab a bite. Those hunger pangs couldn’t be staved off for longer. All I’d had since early morning was an apple. Leaving my NJ abode at 7 AM combined with the hypomanic state associated with the intricate deadlines of travel meant that my stomach couldn’t handle more. I had decided to eat something fulfilling in Dulles. The sudden change of plans had now begun to have its toll.

Living out of a suitcase once, at a hotel opposite a Subway in Baltimore, had taught me something. Their tuna sub is absolutely heavenly for the Halal and fitness conscious. A bunch of friendly, Gujarati Brahman (ब्राह्मण) Hindus had taken up the franchised business.

“We don’t get too many customers interested in the vegetable patty …

You bet! Heck, just THINK for a second. Bacon AND eggs for BREAKFAST?! Sheesh … America probably has one of the highest meat consumption rates in the world.

… As you can imagine, we are all Shakahaari (शाकाहारी). Qasam se (क़सम से). We understand having to live with dietary codes and stuff.”

As the days had passed, I’d gradually begun taking to tuna rather than the vegetable patty. Much to their disappointment I’d imagine. But they were always forthcoming with their offering of cheese. When I would decline, mindful of the unneeded fat, one of them would say:

“What? No cheeJ?”

There is something peculiar about the Z sound in many parts of India. Jal Jeera (जल जीरा) in Hindi actually comes from Jal Zeera (جل زیرہ) in Urdu. But since shudh (शुद्ध) Hindi does not have these sounds in the alphabet, people accustomed to nothing but pure Hindi or Sanskrit get by, calling Zindagi (زندگی) – Jindagi (जिंदगी), Zabardast (زبردست) – Jabardast (जबरदस्त), Zulm (ظلم) – Julm (जुल्म), KHushi (خوشی) – Khushi (खुशी), Qalam (قلم) – Kalam (कलम), MurGHi (مرغی) – Murgi (मुर्गी) and the like. How Phool (پھول) – Fool (फूल), Phir (پھر) – Fir (फिर) come about is a different story. Be it an Arab calling PepsiBebsi (ببسی) or an Englishman calling ‘Uud (عود) – Uud, regardless of what people I’ve encountered, I have found that old habits die hard when it comes to speaking “foreign” sounds. I’m always fascinated by Punjabis who write in Shahmukhi in this respect, since they depict sounds like the ण of Hindi in the shape of the ن of Urdu. There are no diacritics as in French to distinguish various pronunciations. And whether to pronounce the ن like a ण or like a न really depends on learned context and practice.

So anyway, I was now a hunter in my own version of The Amazing Race. In search of a tuna sub. Thankfully O’Hare did have a Subway, unlike Philadelphia’s airport, where on a separate journey, I had to make do with vegetarian Chow with tofu at a Thai restaurant. This Subway was hidden in an alleyway. But I had at last discovered it.

As I savored the food I began to prepare for the meeting next morning. Skimming through papers and emails. Reading people’s bios. Anticipating mindsets. And mentally putting to practice all the tips on business behavior I could think of.

The time had arrived. Little did I realize that my flight to Charleston would be on a mini-jet that looked like a Cessna. I’ve actually been on a propeller-driven aircraft once in South India. At a time when Air Deccan was the new kid on the block, utterly revolutionizing air travel on the cheap. It had gradually become renowned among friends and family for apparently using end-of-life aircraft that would occasionally skid off of runways or randomly burst into flames on the tarmac. Its original reputation growing in unexpected ways. Of course things have changed radically since then. And the thrill & charm had never really faded.

The mini-jet was going to be a different, first-time experience. Extra carry-on luggage had to be checked-in “plane-side“, as was the term. You could tell that Charleston was really off the beaten track. Despite being a State capital. Infrequent flights. Mini-jets that carried around 20-30 passengers. And manned by 2-3 people at most, not excluding the lone flight attendant. It’s a strange feeling, to walk up a stair-case that’s been pushed open, precariously dangling by the carrier’s side. That feeling is somewhat hard to describe.

The approach towards Charleston, reminded me of the climb towards Ootacamund from many years before. Charleston tucked away in the exquisite Appalachians whereas Ooty nestled among the absolutely spectacular Neelgiris (नीलगिरी). In my life, any hill town would always come to be compared with Ooty, or Udagamandalam (ऊदगमंडलम) as it is now known in Tamil. Such was the indelible mark the lovely “hill station” had left upon me. Uff, the delicious mangosteen I had had from the place! That taste still lingers on my tongue.

The “Appalachians” were of course named after a Native American tribe. It still fascinates me how Turtle Islanders have gradually faded into the background in America. As many as 500 diverse tribes. Passing random towns you would easily find this or that memorial dedicated to random wars fought by Caucasians such as the War of Independence, Civil War, Spanish American War, WW1 or WW2 but rarely would you come across stuff commemorating Native American history. The battles that were fought against the colonizing peoples, the many inter-tribal skirmishes one gets to read about in books. All of that seems largely invisible today. On America’s streets, it’s as if history subconsciously begins with “Independence Day” in 1776. And this undercurrent psychologically feeds, to an enormous degree, ideas of what it means to be “American” and how “otherness” comes to be defined. Attitudes get subconsciously molded to congrue with skewed stories, artificial groupings and imaginary “facts” about peoples and cultures. Sort of like the fake “nationalities” that have grown out of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East, the bewildering offshoot that is Uruguay or the many tribals who’ve been forgotten by the urban middle-class of “India“.

The “Neelgiris” (नीलगिरी) as I had earlier learned were equally interesting. Named, as the locals explained, after the carpet of fragrant eucalyptuses that cover them end to end, their leaves lending the mountains a magical, bluish hue. Or so went one legend behind the name. Someday inshaAllah I’ll have a travelogue about this captivating experience in one of South Asia’s most important Biosphere Reserves.

As the plane descended across an ocean of breathtaking peaks, I realized the airport was on a hilltop! Cool! Picture a cone. With the tip chopped and leveled off. That in a phrase was Yeager airport. The runway looked more like a cliff, that would suddenly give way to hundreds of feet of vertical emptiness as planes seemed to take off right at the edge. The arrival lounge like a large dining hall with a single half-sized luggage carousel thrown in. No restaurants that I can recall. Just a couple of vending machines for snacks. The experience reminded me of Tabuk’s tiny airport back in the day. Size-wise, the similarities were quite glaring. My shuttle driver was on his way, the hotel informed.

Yeager Airport

Yeager Airport (via Sarah Cooper @ Flickr by-nc-sa license)

Our way down from the airport was filled with thrilling curves and electrifying hair-pin bends. It was Winter and long after sunset. I could only imagine how the scenes would be like during Spring. But even now, it seemed as if the elegant silhouettes of trees lining the slopes, bent down and reached out towards us as we maneuvered along the narrow moonlit streets. As if to welcome a wanderer’s arrival. I was for a moment lost in my own El Dorado.

The driver also explained how the Winters aren’t usually severe in Charleston. Surprising, given the mountainous terrain, I wondered. But he quickly pointed out that with the crazy blizzards blasting their way through much of America that year, the townsfolk had had their own share of heaps of snow to deal with. Which reminded me of the snowblower. A captivating piece of machinery that brings respite to no wonder how many couch potatoes who get stranded in snow every year in America. Extreme weather coupled with an inclination to live the temperate life 365 days a year, cost America untold sums in energy spent and environmental damage. Quite unlike the ice-dwelling Eskimo & Inuit people who’ve actually been able to go along with the weather as far as possible rather than battle it, thereby making a substantially lower ecologic footprint.

He mentioned a few interesting tidbits on what people can do for fun. Skiing was obviously high on the list, with places such as Snowshoe and Winterplace not very far away. Of course depending on the seasons, one could also raft, camp, hike, cycle or – trail run, which would be my idea of fun. The city lights reflecting off the  Kanawha river as he pointed out the singular Cultural Center & quaint Capitol building, seemed such a mystic sight. It would be amazing to loiter around its banks or take a dip for the heck of it I suggested to the driver. To which he said:

“Naa. With all the mining and stuff, that river is goddamn polluted.”

And so I had come upon a dirty secret. Like a wayfarer randomly stumbling upon the horrors of human sacrifice among the Mayan people inhabiting otherwise plush, serene ancient Central America. Very Apocalypto like indeed. If polyandry was the Todas‘ secret in the Neelgiris, Charleston’s secret was the present day surface and deep mountain mining. I had read and heard a lot about “mountain top removal” on the news before. But never actually paid close attention. That stuff was now all coming back. I was to later watch a moving personal life story on the environmental and health repercussions of this mining industry. How sad, I thought.

Despite being a little remote, Charleston did have its share of memorable concerts and “Broadway” shows, the driver explained.

Staying in America, by now I had understood that if cricket was the Subcontinent’s passion, here that position went to football (not soccer), the Superbowl being a DEFINING moment in the lives of millions of people, breaking records each year for being one of the most watched events on television screens. In either case though, I find the obsession with watching others stay fit while giving a damn about oneself quite paradoxical, providing an interesting model to study psychological defense mechanisms. Although there wasn’t a home team to root for at the NFL, he explained, people made do with college football.

Charleston, perfect for the outdoors

Charleston, perfect for the outdoor life (via Mike Beaumont @ Flickr by-nc-sa license)

He also mentioned how the entire town’s population was itself about 60,000 with roughly 200,000 who would commute in daily from outlying areas for work.

By the time we’d reached the hotel, it was already over 9 PM. In the fourteen hours journey, spanning five States, not including the ones I flew over, I had clocked 2000 odd kilometers. All I could think of was hitting the bed and being on time for the early morning meeting the next day. There was enormous power in that six inch tuna sub. Subsistence until the 7 AM meeting involved just a handful of snacks. Or perhaps it was the “fight or flight response” that had taken over. Allahualam.

I felt like doing some last minute mental preparation and so timed my alarm for around 5 am. Just to go over key points that might come up during conversations later. I was aiming to perform you see. The schedule of events was supposed to end at roughly 1 PM with lunch.

As we talked about the medical facility, the junior physicians-in-training & faculty informed that it was the largest tertiary care center in the area. Responsible for the welfare of hundreds of thousands people from far and wide. The cases one would come across were reflective of the diverse pathology of the region’s inhabitants. From infectious disease to cancer.

One of the really interesting facts learned during a presentation had to do with smoking and respiratory disorders. It turns out that West Virginia for some reason, has some of the most lax regulations on tobacco. Tax rates for cigarettes and cigars being some of the lowest in the country. And thus the dirt cheap costs to the end-user. Not surprisingly, smoking is of epidemic proportions in West Virginia compared to States like New York. Occasionally even influencing the migratory patterns of people, especially for smokers who live off of small savings and who might be scared to miss out on the dope for the higher maintenance elsewhere. Knowledge about health and fitness isn’t exactly prevalent in the region. Taboos associated with smoking are weak. And like the unscrupulous mining, lifestyle related health problems such as lung disorders from smoking and obesity from improper diets are a big challenge. Isn’t it something to have all this beautiful terrain perfect for fitness & outdoor activity and yet not be able to derive benefit, I thought.

Meeting with house staff, I was delighted to stumble upon an international physician-in-training from South Asia.


“Oh where are you from?!”


“Oh! Where in Pakistan?”

I could hardly contain myself. I’d come to learn a LOT of stuff about the Subcontinent over the last couple of months and was eager to absorb more.

“Up North.”

“Oh you mean the North West Frontier?”

“Actually I’m from the Kashmir area.”

“Wow. Awesome. So nice meeting you!”


I surmised that he came from Gilgit-Baltistan. An area that I’ve long been fascinated by. Flashes of Galen Rowells’ photography (amazing what the legendary husband-wife team managed to do during war-time), AJ’s recent special on artificial lakes & flash flooding, the relationship of the region to China & Central Asia with the Karakoram highway – a road trip along which still remains unfinished business to get to someday besides taking the TransSiberian from Kiev to Vladivostok that I’ve also been thinking about – , “FANA”s role in shaping the political posturings both within and between India and Pakistan as recent as the senseless war in 1998, the ethnic makeup of Muslims in the region with the Shias, etc. and MUCH MUCH more just kept coming back. And here I was. Face to face for the first time in my life with a gentle soul from the very region, that I’d only heard or read about!

My subconscious:

“Observe the behavior. So desi like!”

I’ve had encounters with lots of people who’re ethnically from the northern portions of South Asia. And it amazes me how desi even the Pathans or Balochis can be like. The attitudes. The tastes. The social mentality both in the private and public spheres. Take for example the propensity for politics & public life to be governed by internecine riots and the ever-looming threat of force & violence between social herds. In Urdu, I’d call this phenomenon dunge fasaad ki siyaasat (دنگے فساد کی سیاست). I find little of this proclivity among present-day Caucasian folk in America. Meeting different peoples, you really do get the feeling that there IS such a thing as mass psychology. Every herd governed on a macro level by its own peculiar set of poorly demarcated caprices and an easily distinguishable mind-set (ذہنیت). I’ll save more on this topic for a later post inshaAllah.

So yea. There really is just SO much similarity. Between Telugus, Bengalis, Punjabis, Pakhtun Pathans, Hindkowans and Kashmiris there are many enchanting differences (take for example, the Telugu’s peculiar fascination with thunderous foot-stomping dances or movie-stunts that defy laws of physics), but equally captivating overlaps too. If only people paid closer attention.

I guess there are many many flavors of desi-ness and matters can quickly get hazy. And it often becomes hard to put a finger on things. I’m always fascinated by this intriguing amalgamation. Like an ocean wave that cycles between coming forward and then suddenly receding out of reach, just when you THINK you’ve grasped something as FUNDAMENTAL as what it means to be desi, are you forced to confront the utter futility of man’s efforts to classify. Our meek efforts to organize, group and bin stuff that is at its core SO rich that it defies every clumsy scheme we keep coming up with, SubhanAllah. From Bengal to NWFP and beyond, to the farthest corners of the earth, the faces, the languages, the literary works, the cuisine and all of it seem to blend SO seamlessly across manufactured boundaries, SubhanAllah. Mankind’s mucking around is no match for Allah’s work. I’m frequently reminded of the ayaat:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ

And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. [Quran 30:22]

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [Quran 49:13]

And yet how frequent man’s sightlessness to the true purpose of these variations. How impassioned the delusions of grandeur. The quarrels. The hatred.

Coming back to Charleston, I realized that one of my fellow contestants was from Bengal or बंगाल . Specifically, Dhaka. Or Dacca. Or دکّا . Depending on who pronounced the word.

From East Bengal to East Pakistan to Bangladesh, the labels have changed so much. To me Bangladesh meant among other things, great sea food & the majestic Sundarbans (सुंदरबन) where the enchanting Bengal tiger from Valmik Thapar‘s Land of the Tiger roams. At the time, I had also recently learned of two interesting phenomena that even today huge swathes of thankless urbanites in the Subcontinent seem to be blissfully unaware of.

First, the annual flooding during the monsoons, at the Delta of the confluence of the Ganges/Ganga (गंगा) and Brahmaputra (which by the way, is called the Tsangpo by the Chinese. The naming controversy can still cause bad blood between the governments of India and China sometimes) and the cycles of mass-scale destruction that they bring along. Imagine. Just when you’ve barely survived one nightmare, the prospect of holding certain knowledge that your only piece of land for subsistence is doomed to take another hit, already on its way, just around the corner. People flee to face hopeless destitution. And have no choice but to return when it’s all “over”. Rinse. Repeat. The consequences of this endless cycle have been movingly portrayed in Pilger’s eye-opening film, An Unfashionable Tragedy and an equally heartrending short-documentary by Doctors Without Borders here. And of course, for one reason or another, Bengal’s inescapable bond with food crises is historic, with legendary accounts, such as that of the great Bengal Famines, that come to mind. There’s something to be learned about the human spirit & resilience from these stories. And cause for renewed thankfulness for Allah SWT’s many bounties, as reminded by this Hadith.

Second, would be the seldom talked about Bangladesh-India barrier, where some of the most despicable acts of xenophobic violence occur on a regular basis. I guess the caste-mentality is hard to break in this part of the world. ‘Come close, dear cheap workers, but never so much that you forget your low-life status.’ In a lot of upscale households in India’s growing cities, “Bangali” and “Bihari” have literally become cuss words. And events like the Nellie massacre go to show how fragile outward cordiality can really be in South Asia. Things boomerang at the drop of a hat. Deep love and fervent hate continuously oscillating with mind-numbing unpredictability. It’s like a severe case of Borderline Personality Disorder on a mass-scale. I’ll save more on this topic and Bengal for later inshaAllah.

So this guy told me how he was married with kids and had a family to support. Poor soul. Not being able to practice medicine yet, for lack of an American residency, he was making do by tutoring newly landed international physicians preparing to take licensure exams. I had actually seen cases where international doctors were forced to take up non-clinical work, once even coming across an ex-clinician who had now become a meat-shop owner and his tragic story. Such is the hard life a lot of international, fully qualified physicians go through in the pursuit of striking gold.

We talked about various aspects of desi-nesss, the rampant slyness among interviewers in America’s job market and the calibration this often requires on the part of interviewees who might not be used to the phenomenon. Compared to regions like the Middle East, promises carried faaaar lesser weight in a low context culture such as America. You soon begin to develop a newfound appreciation for the phrase, “a man of his words”. There’s something hopelessly depressing about the ease with which people flip on each other. From siblings, to spouses to whichever interpersonal relationship you can think of. Fidelity is paper thin. Not that such problems don’t exist in the Middle East or South Asia, but the proportions seem to be waaaay higher in Umricaland. And it’s all perfectly ego-syntonic.

It was roughly 2 PM and I had just finished a luncheon with a bunch of house staff at my hotel. Without taking the risk of having to veer off into a lengthy lecture on Halal dietary codes and stuff, I had decided to order French onion soup for myself. Little had I realized that with it would come a huge blob of cheese on top. Oh, the love story that is Cheese and America! It’s like one cannot exist without the other. America is cheese. Cheese is America. No grocery store is complete without a specially designated “cheese” section. It finds its way into all kinds of stuff, from snacks and sandwiches to fast food pizzas and burgers to even main course stuff such as Lasagna or Fondue. A Punjabi lady I had once met, remarked how she and her Caucasian colleagues would sometimes have heated arguments about which smelled worse in their unventilated office during lunchtime, her Indian masalas or their American cheese. Insulting either one was a sure-shot way of hurting that group’s tribal pride and honor. Achieving the same effect as hurling hard-to-remember profanities at each other.

I had gently pushed the blob towards one corner of the bowl as it still lay floating on top. Delicately scooping the rest of the soup from one side and finishing it up. I still recollect the acrobatics with smiles and feel glad that I didn’t end up making a fool of myself at the table.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup (via Wendy @ Flickr, by-nc-nd license)

During the lunch, the junior physicians mentioned how people preferred Charleston to Morgantown, which had been virtually overrun by boozing college party-animals and how the rougher terrain there caused irritating traffic problems. West Virginia, we discussed, was also regarded as “the  southernmost Northern State and the northernmost Southern State” given its relationship to the Mason-Dixon line and one physician suggested that there were elements of “Southern”-ness in its culture such as the characteristic accent a lot of people have. I was to later also learn of a highly peculiar system of public transport at the place known as the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit.

I’d had maybe five hours of sleep since my journey began in NJ the day before. Battling the drowsiness, I now realized that there was another deadline approaching. My return flight via Charlotte, North Carolina was departing at 4 PM. Two hours left! My Bengali co-traveler and I exchanged good-byes and went our ways.

Returning to Yeager, I realized how much it resembled a cardboard box or some kind of lost cabin in the woods. No queue at Security Check. The few TSA agents there loafing beside a single X-ray machine. Descending towards the departure lounge felt like walking into a basement. The number of boarding gates perhaps limited to five. Looking out the windows I marveled one last time at the sight of peaks jotting up from the horizon. The sun grazing their edges on its way down as the day was approaching its end. And I took notice of a couple of military aircraft in the vicinity. Wonder what they were about. The free internet was so refreshing! I’m still awed by it all.

The flight out to Charlotte was again on a mini-jet. As we approached, the peaks gradually gave way to flatter grasslands. A lot sunnier than America’s northern latitudes. Very beautiful and picturesque. All New York City had to promise was MORE chilly weather. Oh, the dread!

Charlotte’s airport was a lot bigger than I had imagined. And rolling with activity too. I spent a good three hours exploring, thinking about venturing out into the city someday. Perhaps for a photography assignment.

3500 odd kilometers (courtesty gcmap.com)

Thankfully there weren’t any more flight cancellations. And finding public transport after arriving at LGA was not hard. By the time I’d reached my “home” in NJ that day, it was already 10 PM. So far, I had done roughly 3500 kilometers, give or take a few. And was soon to hit the bed, satisfied over a job well done. Alhamdulillah.

The Appalachians of Charleston have now been etched into memory. And haunt as do the Asir & Hejaz ranges of Al-Baha or the Neelgiris of Ooty.

© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit



1. Ciphur - May 28, 2011

The experience is like trying to cope with what passes off as proper Idli or Dosa among blissfully ignorant crowds in Delhi. Or ‘kachche gosht ki’ Hyderabadi biryaani at some wannabe restaurant in Jackson Heights, New York City.

…An experience similar to mine while trying to cope with some concoctions, being passed off as similar dishes viz. Le ‘Masala Dosa’ or even plain old simple ‘biryani’, in KSA, ironically cooked by ‘authentic’ cooks from our zameeney-Hindustan.

Didn’t miss the reference to halaal (rogue) food.Very telling.

Would need to keep coming back to finish off reading the post (novelette).

ctwayfarer - May 28, 2011

[…] Le ‘Masala Dosa’ or even plain old simple ‘biryani’ […]

LOL @ the ‘Le’ bit! Classic marketing gimmick! LOL!

Just think of all the “Chinese” cart-food on India’s streets. That stuff could be anything BUT Chinese :-). Biryani BTW is never ‘simple’ IMHO. I’ve encountered tens of different styles of preparing it. There’s “Veg”-biryani, “kachche gosht ki”-biryani, biryani with tomatoes or potatoes, biryani with eggs, “Afghani biryani” aka “Ruz Bukhari” and so on! Every region has its own rendition of “biryani”. And पुलाव or پلاؤ comes from the Turkish pronunciation Pilaf.

If the Punjabis have Raajma, the Arabs have their Ful whereas in Umricaland there is Chili. SubhanAllah, the more I observe and think about such stuff, the more my mind goes back to the ayaat I mentioned.

Thanks for reading and please do keep coming back often! There’s a LOT more that I’ll be posting up soon inshaAllah.

2. Amraan - June 12, 2011

Assalam ALaykom, I really love your blog, learned so much. Please continue to post more posts inshaAllah. MashAllah Amazing stuff. And i will definitely continue to read more of your stuff.

Jazak Allah khayran, i’m glad i found this blog.
Wa salam alaykom

ctwayfarer - June 13, 2011

Walaikumassalam wrwb, wa iyyaak! Thanks for the kind words! Please do keep visiting as there’s a LOT more on the way, inshaAllah! As you can probably notice my FriendFeed and Twitter pages have a higher output rate than the main blog. So for shorter updates, please do follow me there as well! W’salam & Jazakallahu Khayran!

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