There’s no place…

Though I don’t do it enough, I love travelling. Walking from one place to another, ducking under trees, listening to walls, hiking steep hills, and gawking at great sights—that’s when I feel most at peace. Exploring, that’s where I feel like I belong.

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Decoding culture

One of the most prominent aspects of an Indian society is its lack of sociableness. Not that Indians aren’t approachable or jovial. On the contrary, Indians are some of the most hospitable folks in the world—but for someone travelling to India for the first time, our society throws more than a few culture shocks.

When walking on the streets, for instance, people never smile or acknowledge an unfamiliar face. They won’t maintain eye contact for more than three seconds, in fear of the other person misunderstanding. Most people I’ve come across on the streets, look straight ahead and then down as if focussed on avoiding potholes.

It’s not the fear of conflict that makes people avoid expressing themselves. Instead, it’s a habit that stems from childhood, when we learn to avoid speaking to strangers and accepting candy from them. We grow up with the same stigma, so much so that we don’t differentiate potential threats from unassuming people trying to be pleasant.

Most people you’d come across on the streets don’t see the point of smiling at someone they’ve never met before and will never again. When it makes no sense to grin at a wall, why should it make sense to grin at someone who’s as insignificant in their life as that wall?

That’s the reasoning I dabbled in for over twenty years before I landed in the United States. Where tables turned.

I walked into a restaurant, and the staff welcomed me with a gigantic smile and wide open arms. It was the first time we’d met and without a second thought, she made me feel as if I’d known her all my life. I didn’t even ask for her name, but we’re friends by recognition.

It’s her job to be social, a little voice in my head nagged. Not everyone would be the same.

Jet-lagged one morning, I awoke early for a walk around the neighbourhood I stayed at. It was a cold September morning and artificial pumpkins hung from behind locked stores. A single person lumbered on in the distance. When I got closer, I realised he was the garbage collector reporting on time for his duty. He smiled and waved at me for no reason. Without even knowing it, I was reciprocating his gestures. I didn’t think, and I didn’t debate with myself as to why I should wave. It was just nice, two people from such different backgrounds, with nothing in common, sharing a moment of warmth, each wrapped up in their own jackets trying to stay warm.

It’s not his job to be social, I realised. It wouldn’t have offended me at all if he’d had ignored me altogether. I would’ve gone my way and he would have gone his, both of us bracing the cold. Instead, we did go our own ways but with a cheery stride. And that made all the difference.

Later as I sat in the shuttle, a complimentary service my hotel offered, my driver—an employee of the hotel—asked me how I was. She didn’t have to. It was a ten-minute ride from my hotel to my workplace, but she took that time to share a conversation. We didn’t discuss global economy, but we did talk about how difficult it is to find employment nowadays. I left the shuttle a little wiser to the reality of the world, and I felt myself balloon with compassion and sincere respect for my driver. We weren’t venting to a stranger, but instead, we were riders in the same boat, sharing observations.

Throughout my stay in the US, I met with countless people who volunteered to make my day better. With a smile, a wave, a head bob, and even a small nod in the right direction, strangers all around me made me feel at home.

Perhaps it’s all because I was a tourist, my skeptical inner voice piped. No, I answered as I explored the streets further. More about that later.

Food, food everywhere

During my visit to the US, of the many things that stood out to me as weird, food was a major shock. Although I’m not one to eat in a gluttonous way, I make sure I eat every last morsel of food on my plate even if it means eating beyond my capacity. Food wastage is one of my biggest concerns and I have strong opinions about people who order too much and not eat what they got. And so the sheer amount of food in American restaurants I visited overwhelmed me. Not only were the portion sizes ridiculous but almost none of my fellow-diners managed to finish their meal. Perhaps it’s because American culture is so ingrained in sugary sodas and crunchy mid-meal snacks that no one has the stomach for a proper meal.

Regardless, the first time I was at a restaurant, it pained me to see my friends struggle to finish theirs while I ate my larger-than-necessary serving in the most polite way I could. My friends gave up while I was still eating. We had copious food left on the table and I was preparing myself to see all that food go to trash. Just then the waiter stopped by our table and asked my friends, “Would you like a box?”

The next five minutes threw unfamiliar scenes at me. Our waiter brought us a handful of of carry boxes. Leaving them at the table, he smiled at me while I stared in surprise. One by one, my friends scooped up the food on their plates into the boxes. They were taking the leftovers home.

Wow.

Nothing could’ve prepared me for that unexpected turn of events. Within minutes I had gone from mild irritation, to suppression, to unexpected joy, and then to growing shame.

It was only later that I realised how common it is at restaurants in the US. I felt nonplussed all of a sudden—happy, yes, but confused nonetheless. I felt proud of my American friends for their responsibility and candour. They didn’t care if the food had grown cold. For as long as it’s edible, they ate it.

In stark contrast, where I grew up, almost everyone who doesn’t finish their meal at a restaurant leaves it for the trash can. In all my life, only a handful of times have I seen someone asking the waiter to pack up leftovers. And even then, it was the waiter or the kitchen staff who’d pack it up. Even at home, my society has conditioned people to expect warm, fresh-cooked food three times a day. Left overs and cooking disasters often went to domestic helpers. It’s a disgusting habit, I admit, that my society cultivates along with other home and cultural traits.

That’s why, having grown up seeing and seething at such incidents, I felt a little better at eating out in America than I do at home. I knew that even if I couldn’t finish my serving, I wouldn’t have to choose between forcing myself and throwing away food. A habit we could borrow from our western friends.

Silencio

There are only a few things in life that silence you by their sheer magnitude. Without a doubt, nature is one of them. When my friend offered to take me to the Beacon Rock in Stevenson, I was thrilled, excited, and nervous all at the same time. And as it is with these emotions, I chatted away all the way up, eager to reach the peak. My patient friend with his experience in hiking with enthusiastic first timers, offered me advice and great conversation throughout the hike. When at last we reached the top, this sight descended upon me knocking my voice out of my throat. For much longer than a few minutes, we stood atop the rock looking down at the marvellousness that’s the Gorge of Columbia River. Despite the devastating loss it’d undergone mere weeks ago, the river flowed along serene as ever.

Beacon Rock State Park, Stevenson

Under unnatural circumstances

A self-professed nature lover, I adore wild trees with their branches untamed, flowers scattered about, and squirrel-bitten fruits ripening in various stages. Something about unpruned nature gets me excited every time I see it. Whenever I see manicured plants in the various housing apartments in my locality, I cringe and pass silent judgement at those who resort to a vain attempt at getting close to nature.

Regardless of my disdain, however, I realised that I appreciated the same practice when I saw it in the US. Not because it’s a foreign country and that I wouldn’t say anything against such a global leader—no. A dissenter, I can vent about the country at length. But that’s not for now. But the real reason I enjoyed organised nature in the US is because for the first time, I saw it done in style and in clear consideration. It was in Dublin, a small locality in the Pleasanton area of California.

Hacienda Drive, Dublin

The first thing that struck me about Dublin and the rest of Pleasanton is how clean the place is. I’d seen far shabbier localities in San Francisco city, so I knew Pleasanton did something different. It was when my colleague mentioned that Pleasanton is a planned city, that it dawned on me what an artificial place I was at.

Nothing about Pleasanton seemed natural. I began to notice the little things that came from elsewhere, planted and pieced together to form the city. From the trees that lined the footpaths to the pebbles that added beauty and glint, not a twig was out of its place. Shrubberies grew well within their borders, leaves stuck to their branches, and all fruits at the same stage of ripeness.

Pathways, Dublin

Regardless of all that, I still enjoyed walking around the neighbourhood. I didn’t know why at first, but the more I explored, the more I understood. Dublin is a rich neighbourhood. Most of its population has passed middle age and is considering settling down and retirement plans. Since a lot others are either business owners or high-level corporate employees, they don’t need to haggle to get through each day. They, unlike people in unplanned cities, can afford to demand perfection. They’re so accustomed to having things their way that improperness gets on their nerves. The whole town, for instance, shuts off at about 9:30 pm. Nightlife is almost non-existent in the streets and silence rings louder than a foghorn.

Houses in Dublin

All of this was new for me. I’d never before shared privileges that the Dublin folk takes for granted. And that’s why the perfection and drastic change of scenery impressed me. Walking by house after house, each competing with the other in terms of class and bigness, I gawked in surprise. Walkways were seamless, street signals on time, traffic rare, and drivers polite. While I admired in wonder at everything I saw, it was as if nothing could surprise the locals. They’re used to everything being the way it is—designed without a single flaw.

Did I cherish my time in Pleasanton? Of course, I did. I felt elite and rich. Although I don’t see myself living in such an environment (until perhaps I’m 60 and cranky about petty things) it was wonderful nevertheless.

Dublin trees

Oh, and though authorities count and account for each tree, the sunlight glittering through them is a sight worth beyond words.