I am an Amtrak girl!


Amtrak has a culture of its own. It’s not flashy or flamboyant, like a ramp-walk model. It’s sweet and subtle, like a cutie next door. It has a je ne sais quoi, that doesn’t reveal itself the first time you step in. But, you know you are close, when you begin to discern the boundaries of AmtrakLand: There’s the outside world festered with problems tracing furrows on your forehead. There’s the train station, luring you in, promising a respite.  And then, there’s Amtrak. Once you enter it, you forget you had a life outside.

I remember being skeptical of my first Amtrak trip from Toledo to DC—the burden of a really long trip without wifi connectivity pasted onto my face. But, it didn’t take too long to get over my ‘I-need-to-check-my-mail-every-minute‘ self and begin to enjoy the journey. It was perhaps due to my impassioned love for trains, as a kid. The idea that a train took ten times longer to reach a place doesn’t seem tedious as much as exciting when you have just been introduced to math. For one, it meant a longer vacation. The planning for the travel introduced a whole new element into the vacation: Home-packed lunches, ice coolers, a pack of playing cards, and tons of books to read. Plus, you could look ‘outside’ any time, all the time. As a child born before the internet boom, there wasn’t much more you could have wanted.

Triangle girl is Amtrak girl!

You may ask me—what is this special thing about Amtrak you need to use a french expression for?—to which I can only say, I don’t know. But, I do know this: To this day, it brings out the same effervescence I had as a child sitting on a train. It is familiar; it is comfortable. It rarely disappoints me. It doesn’t have the irksome, clumsy security check we all love to hate. It doesn’t have baggage fees the size of the baggage—it’s free for the first two checked-in bags per passenger. If a family of four traveled, they could actually carry their house.

But is that really it? Not even close. To truly appreciate the Amtrak experience, one must look closely at how it fares in some of the key aspects of any journey:

1. Sights and sounds

Whether you are inside a car, or an airplane, looking outside is probably the first thing you do, right? Unless it’s pitch dark, in which case, you look at the people around you, you are engrossed looking outside the first thirty minutes of the trip. Trees are an inextricable part of journeys. Something about them sets off the metaphor centers in the brain— they play out as a darting landscape with seemingly endless depth. It’s a sublime feeling.

Amtrak is spot on in this department. It might be a corporation seething with losses, but they don’t take it out on the size of the windows. There’s a sprawling viewing gallery with comfortable seats and tables, where you could just stare outside. If William H. Davies could see this, it would give him goosebumps.

Life is a river…..Oh! Shut up, will you?

2. The Grub

Amtrak has two dining options: the cafe car, and the dining car—the former being the hotspot for all the coffee and sundry junk food that makes out heart melt, and the latter offering a more sophisticated sit-down meal, tablecloth and all. The viewing gallery is right next to the cafe, which is convenient for gazers like me. But, I prefer to take my lunches and dinners sit-down style. It has the whole ‘going-out-to-eat’ feel of a restaurant. Reservations are made, even if not honored entirely. Tables are set out with fresh smelling linen. Menus are handed out by overworked, yet genial waiters. If you are lucky enough to travel alone, you are seated alongside fellow-alone passengers. Now, this could go either way, but I have always had the most effusive conversations with people while dining. When there is a lot of time to kill, and people have no option but to talk, it’s amazing what we are capable of. And what’s comforting is that the talks rarely get too political or divisive. It’s probably the vacation mood, but no one wants to debate the size of the government or talk about their views on religious freedom onboard. So be it. Does every discussion need to be intellectual? Should mindless babbling be reserved for drunken nights?  Amtrak made me ask these questions after a long time.

J’ai faim

3. Slumber

Just when you think you have nothing to complain, so you’d rather sleep, it hits you—the Arctic freeze that is commonplace on the Amtrak. It’s probably the relative inactivity but, you don’t realize how cold it is until you shut your eyes. Sleeping can be a real bummer on the train, if you are not equipped with the right gear. Especially when the person next to you is busy disengaging fart bombs in their sleep. Which brings me to the most important variable in any Amtrak ride—

What to wear on an Amtrak

4. The awkward-arm partner 

Nothing changes on the Amtrak except your partner. Unless there is a train-wreck.  Some don’t talk at all, which I prefer. Some restrict themselves to the stilted “Where are you from?” and “Is that the dining car?”, which is fine too. Some are outright annoying, and leave you with a bad taste of the whole journey. They ramble on about how mundane their jobs are. Worse, they make you explain what you do. Now, I don’t care if it sounds conceited, but I resent having to dumb down my research in neuroscience so that lay-men can understand. I don’t bug you with queries about radiator hose clamps for my car. So, shouldn’t you google ischemia if you don’t get it the first time?

There are some wise ones though, who hit the perfect balance between talking and not talking; between sense and nonsense. I am one of them.

I know I am the one who pushed for this surgical dissection of the travel experience, but in reality, Amtrak is more than the sum of its parts. It lets you enjoy life’s cliches—people, nature, warmth (the intangible kind), food—without a moment of guilt or haste. It’s a naughty mistress who amps you up for the vacation, and, a caring wife, who nurses the blues on the way back.

This account may sound bloated—coming from a broke graduate student who believes there will be time for everything—it most likely is. But, I leave just enough space to accept that, tomorrow I might not have the time to sit and stare. I might not like the idea of spending fifteen hours cooped up without wi-fi, and just endless shrubbery as company. Until then, this is the Amtrak girl signing off!

Photo creds:

trekearth.com

visitphilly.com

subdude-site.com

nymag.com

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The day I got a call from the cops


Everyone remembers their first day in a foreign country: the first view from the teensy aircraft window, the first meal, the first leak, the first place visited, the first foreigner who smiled.

This is the story of my second day in the United States. Like all Indian grad students who have relatives in this country, I visited them first. I went straight to their home and slept like a baby. That took care of the first day. The very next day, I had to leave for my graduate school as I had already missed the orientation. I woke up to a delicious home-cooked meal and a feeling of family warmth you experience particularly during the initial days of a visit. We had some essentials shopping to do before I flew. I bought an HP laptop the size and weight of a TV and a Verizon cell phone on a family plan (God bless relatives!). I would go on to regret the laptop decision within a matter of months. Ecstatic about the first purchase in the country and that I was all ‘teched-up’ for school, I said my goodbyes to my folks and promised to visit them during Christmas.

Toledo……I’m not impressed! (via google images, my doodle)

I had a stopover at Chicago, after which I would board the final flight to Toledo (It’s the home town of Katie Holmes). Blissfully unaware of the events about to transpire, just like everyone is, I looked around, studying the people in the flight like a bumpkin trying to make sense of an Opera. The language, I knew. The culture, I had no clue about. There was no free food, so I tried to read some John Grisham to kill time but—

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to severe storm conditions in Chicago, we have been re-routed to Milwaukee, and will be landing at the Mitchell International airport shortly. The local time there is 1:30 pm. We regret the inconvenience caused.”

There was a collective sigh of dejection throughout the cabin. Some were inquiring if they could get off at Wisconsin, since that’s where they were headed to, eventually. I was mildly excited though. Who wouldn’t want a different time zone squeezed into their first trip? Of course, my excitement turned to worry when the flight didn’t take off to Chicago for a good hour. When it finally landed in the windy city, it was already touch-and-go for my connecting flight. Now, my uncle had warned me about O’Hare but I wasn’t prepared for this Crystal maze of a place when I had a plane to catch in 10 min lugging around a bag that could dent the floor without much effort. Luckily, an Indian student happened to think so too, and helped me out with the gate. Apparently, I was in the wrong terminal. By the time I scurried across to my gate imagining they would be mispronouncing my name by then, I gathered that the flight had been cancelled due to severe weather. 

Ladies and gentlemen, if you can spot an eye shaped structure, please let me know (via ruthiedean.com)

Great! So, who’s gonna compensate me for the bone dislocation I am about to have due to incessant lugging around of luggage in an airport that didn’t have the common decency to inform that the flight had been cancelled. 

Well, if only I had stopped to read one of the scores of monitors announcing the same. Tiny mistake.

However, I was so drained out by then that I couldn’t summon genuine anger even at myself. As it would later be pointed out to me by a dear friend, I could have fished out five dollars, bought myself a nice meal, and simply ended the misery. To this day it escapes me why I didn’t do so. It was probably the guilty Indian in me, refusing to spend dollars on food, on the first second day in a country I had come to purely for academic purposes. Bah! It sounds fake even thinking about it, let alone writing it down. Let’s just leave it at that.

It was only when my name lit up on the stand-by list of the next flight to Toledo that I gained some semblance of cheer on my face.  My awkward arm partner on the flight was this woman wearing a leather jacket, a leather fedora hat and black lipstick. I have ‘Indian’ written all over my face; naturally, she launched on a verbal diarrhea of what she thought of the country, its people and its world famous culture. A kind word of advice—most Indians prefer absolute silence to talking/hearing about their colorful culture, the heritage and the diversity. It’s like bringing up the Ku Klux Klan to make small talk. 

As eloquent as she was about the goodness in Indian people, the woman walked right away as we landed at the Toledo Express airport at 12 midnight, without as much as a Bye. People often joke about how boarding and deplaning the flight from Chicago to Toledo often takes more time than the duration of the flight itself.

It seemed like another trip to India to me.

The school shuttle was supposed to pick me up at 6pm as per the scheduled time. I could have been dreaming about my NYT bestseller by now.

The whirr of the baggage carousel disrupted my pipe dream. There were a total of three bags on the carousel. None of them were mine. I was filing a baggage claim with the only airport official on duty that night, when my uncle called to check on me. He knew about the delay, so I didn’t have to brief him much, just that I had to survive on a single set of clothes and some documents until they tracked my baggage, if at all they did. And before I could talk to him about my transport options, my phone died.

So, there I was, at the phone charging port, one out of the four people in the airport that night: the official, two janitors and another passenger who was waiting for his ride. I was exhausted. I was famished. And utterly scared. Too scared to take a cab ride that late (I owe my pathological mistrust of cab drivers to my home country). Too scared to ask that guy waiting where he was going.

I was all prepared to spend the night at the airport—the serene silence gave me an odd sense of security. I picked up my John Grisham, again not concentrating, when the official walked up to me and asked if I needed a ride. All the people I have told this story to give me look of mixed horror and incredulity when they hear my reply “Yes, please” to a stranger, at midnight, and that too without as much as a thought.

“You thought hitching a ride from a stranger was less scary than taking a cab‽” is the unanimous reaction.

What can I say, instinct is a strange thing. And, how we choose to dive in blind, relying on them is even stranger. A year later I read Blink, and changed my narration to include the term ‘thin-slicing’ to describe my idiocy. Sounds a lot cooler.

Thin-slicing explains why I had no fear getting into a rusty jeep with him. It also explains why I spoke to my uncle from the car and casually mentioned (not in English, of course) that a man whose name I didn’t know was dropping me home for free. I felt nothing but overwhelming gratitude for the man until I reached home.

The cops called me when I was at the doorstep, about to crumble down but safe.

It was then that it hit me—‘the gravity of it all’ as my uncle later put it.