I wandered into a book store…

The day after I landed in Portland, I woke up to a cold, dull morning of about 11 degrees Celsius. For the first time in my trip, I felt scared to go out. Not only was the temperature colder than I’d ever been in, but experts predicted rains for an entire week—rains I wasn’t prepared for. I hadn’t even a raincoat with me and what I thought a sweater in India turned out to be a light jacket or a thick shrug in Portland terms. Perhaps Portland was a mistake, I thought to myself as I stood mulling over in the shower. I let the warmth of the water engulf over me, and watching the bathroom window fogging only made me feel worse about my decision.

Nevertheless, I was there. And there was nothing else to do but take what came. So shuddering to myself, I headed outdoors and felt the cold air sting my face. Although it wasn’t raining when I left my host’s house, I’d borrowed an umbrella anyway. And sure enough, as I approached the light rail station, it began to drizzle. A train arrived not long afterwards, and I rode to the infamous Powell’s Book Store.

I hadn’t researched the place, but I’d heard from my friends that it’s a book lover’s paradise. And so a little apprehensive of what I’d find there, I approached the store. It was quaint. It was as if I’d walked into the Gryffindor common room as described in the Harry Potter books. Not that the store brimmed with magic references and coloured scarves, but there was a mythical aura that emitted from the piles of books extending to the ceiling. It was a semi-wet day and the atmosphere within the store was calm and comfortable. People shuffled about in silence, some picking out weird covers, some leaning on shelves peering into parched pages, while most observed the display without comment.

I’d never seen so many books in one place. Aisle after aisle books rested stacked up in a neat order, enticing readers and antagonising me. I’d always thought of myself as a book enthusiast. I don’t read as much as most people I know, I know, but I do enjoy reading for the pleasure of it. However, as I looked at books I’d never heard of or had heard of but never read before, I felt like a fraud reader. Everyone around me seemed curious and excited to fill up their shopping carts (an old woman pushed a cart full of book worth $100), while I went back and forth like a pendulum trying to find one familiar book so that I—too—would feel as I belonged in a library of such grand scale.

Powell's Book Store 1

Drowning the self-hate that ballooned within me, I past the ten or so book shelves that stood in the area I entered the store. On one corner was the information desk and as I approached, a smiling woman behind the counter asked me if I was looking for anything specific. Reciprocating, I denied. She smiled back understanding—perhaps she’s seen a lot of indecisive folk in her time behind the counter. “Feel free to grab a map of the store and look around,” she advised before smiling again and turning to the next person in line.

Huh. So there’s a map for this place?

I opened the bookmark-like piece of paper, stunned to realise that the store contained nine colour-coded rooms, each hosting thousands of books in every category and industry imaginable. The building occupies about 1.6 acres of ground space and has over two million volumes. Though that information, and the visual representation of it, overwhelmed me, it also made me feel a lot better about myself. There’s no way that anyone in the world would feel like a know-it-all in this store. Everyone who entered would see how much there’s still to learn—maybe that’s why the store’s so popular. Every person I came across within the store had an excited gleam in their eyes. Not only are Portlanders well-educated folk, I observed, but they are also eager to explore and learn new things. As an outsider, I felt happy amidst a populace that was both intellectual and yet so ego-less and welcoming.

Powell's Book Store 2

While the though lifted my mood, my attitude shifted, too. All of a sudden, I felt curious and excited to see the rest of the store. I spent the next two hours combing through shelves in wonderment. It didn’t matter that I had no clue about the titles and the topics it covered. I felt pleased and humbled to exist in the presence of such knowledge. It made me crave reading more than ever. Everywhere I turned to, a book sat snug in a shelf, urging me to reach out. From deep astronomy to fantasy, from invasions to abrasions, from brush strokes to swimming stokes, the topics were endless. It amazed me how many undisclosed topics there are that more readers and writers should discuss.

Running into books, I hadn’t expected to run into so many conflicting emotions. Nonetheless, I walked out of Powell’s Books Store happy. Even though I had read almost none of the books on display, I’d learnt an invaluable lesson: You’re never too early or late to read.

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Known, but not enough

Seattle is a beautiful city for many reasons. Most people, however, think and know only about the Space Needle. I was no different. I, as any tourist visiting the city for the first time, had the big needle as a major pin in my agenda. But it was only when I got to Seattle that I realised there’s more to the city than just its most advertised monument. I walked along the waterfront park and went up the Pike Place Market. From a vantage point at the market, I caught a glimpse of this underrated beauty of Seattle. The Great Wheel is known well enough, but it often has to peek to garner attention.

Ferris Wheel, Seattle Waterfront

From the bay to port

My last day in Pleasanton, I went out for dinner with friends. I should’ve stayed back packing, instead. I don’t regret the dinner, though, because I had some of the best Italian food I had ever had. I did, however, return to my hotel late and spent another couple of hours preparing for the next leg of my trip to the US: Portland.

At 9:30 the next morning, I would fly to the great Oregon city. And I stayed awake until 12:30 am making sure I had everything I needed. Then I was just too excited to sleep. When I reached the Oakland International Airport well ahead of time (I get anxious if I’m late), I realised I didn’t know what to do. It was my first time in the US and I was about to fly a domestic airlines, which I had no idea works how. Nevertheless, I stepped right into the information counter of Alaska Air, the airlines I was flying. Expecting a decent reply, I asked the gentleman what to do. He took a look at my online checkin confirmation and boarding pass, and asked me to head right over to the security checks. Huh? I remember feeling. It was hard to believe that that was all I had to do—ask.

Although the lack of airport complexity surprised me, I was even more astonished at how easy things had become when I asked for help. In retrospect, if I hadn’t asked for information, I would’ve walked in circles like a lost child at the airport. Sure, I would’ve found my way some way or the other, but it would’ve been a more daunting experience. As a first time solo traveller, that was my first lesson: Ask, and people will help.

And so I asked again. This time, at the queue for security checks. As I headed for gate 10, I realised I had to join the only queue there was—regardless of gate number. I asked another passenger—in an incredulous voice—if there were no other queues. He shook his head in frustration, “Nope. It’s the only queue. Oakland’s a small airport, you know…” he trailed off with a vague shrug between resenting and understanding.

Smiling to myself, I joined the end of the queue. I had over an hour before boarding began and so I resorted to people watching—my favourite low-energy-exerting sport. A couple of women discussed an event they were attending, wondering if their clothes were appropriate. One of them mentioned she wore the light jacket to hide a hole in her t-shirt. They smiled at me, and I at them. After all, I know only too well the art of patch working my clothes. A little ahead of us stood another woman waving a bottle of water around asking if anyone would like some. It was still early in the day and as is the common scene, high-schoolers sipped sodas and coffees while scrolling through their mobile screens.

The lined moved and so did I.

Cleared, I headed to the waiting area and looked around more. Airports always fascinate me—massive winged beasts come and go, and no one even bats an eye. I, however, can’t take my eyes off them. When it was boarding time, it struck me how small the aircraft was. But when I found my seat, it was still a snug fit. The gentleman who sat next to me, slept through the entire hour of the flight, while I amused myself at the clouds below. We ascended and it struck me how beautiful the bay area is. San Francisco city came into view and as it went out of my view, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. California had been nice. I don’t know if I’d ever return, but I knew at that moment—hovering in the air above the city—that it had changed my perspective of life forever.

And with that, I turned forward.

Portland, ahoy! The adventure had just begun.

A lesson in pride

After a long walk around the infamous Lake Merritt, I wrote to a friend saying I was in town. When she replied that she needed another hour to get ready and walk up to where I was, I decided to walk to her place, instead. It was only then that I realised she lived on the other side of the lake, another half a mile away. Not wanting to go around the lake again—the sun had come out stronger than I expected—I took a path through the streets observing the buildings flanking the sidewalks.

Oakland was quiet even for a Sunday. Having experienced flabbergasting activity in the streets of San Francisco, Oakland was such a contrast. Walking down empty streets I realised that Oakland was more of a residential town. It helps that Oakland has far fewer attractions than San Francisco. Tourists don’t spend five days sightseeing Oakland. Although there’s plenty to see and do in Oakland—not much interests typical tourists. I was glad I was atypical that way. Spending hours on Oakland streets was great for me.

After a cinnamon coffee and a lengthy catching-up conversation, my friend suggested we hit the Oakland Pride Festival. It was the day after my visit to Castro and so I was all in for another such experience. What I wasn’t sure of, however, was the meaning of pride festivals.

Oakland Pride Franklin Street

It was mid September, and according to my friend, Oakland always has its pride festival in September or October, unlike the rest of the US does in June. I listened in polite silence. What she said meant nothing to me. I had no idea what a pride festival was, how it’d be, or what people would do there.

I was curious, though.

Perhaps that’s why she suggested it in the first place. She knew I wanted to learn and understand and visiting the festival would be a good way to start. And so we walked a little more. The festival took up two entire streets and traffic was re-routed. Even as we walked towards the end of a long line, we heard music and singing ring through the air. The queue moved fast enough and before long we had our own pride bracelets. Everywhere we turned were people sporting multicoloured clothes, waving flags, calling out hellos to each other, and drowning bottles of water and soda—it was a warm day.

I made a quick observation: Oakland has a massive LGBTQ community. The moment we walked in, high-energy music and excited voices hit us that it was hard not to join in. It wasn’t crowded, though, for which I am thankful. The pride festival of San Francisco, according to my friend, attracted thousands of people every year. Oakland contented with a few hundreds. There were stalls on every side and people walking from one to another buying pride merchandise or just saying hello to each other. Everything imaginable was shaded rainbow—bow ties, flags, t-shirts, scarves, jewellery, fancy costumes, and even eye masks. It was a congregation of all things bright and colourful. Pride festivals are for the allies and the LGBTQ community to flaunt their existence at the same time. Not only is it a way of declaring their rights, but also a celebration of it.

It wasn’t all happiness and laughter, though. Pride festivals bring out so many emotions, I learnt from my friend. Most LGBTQ people have a rough time coming out to the world. Parents shun children, and society gives ill treats them every where they go. This was even more dire during the 60s and 70s. That’s when pride festivals took root. That’s when all these people whom society disregarded came together to share their stories and to encourage each other to stay strong. Nowadays, though, pride festivals have transitioned as a more lighter gathering. Nevertheless, the price scene still invites everyone who’s been hurt or hurting and embraces them with encouragement. After all, everyone should be proud of who they are.

Oakland Pride was a lesson I’d cherish forever.

The choices we make

vanilla ice cream

Like group of bobbleheads

came men with vanilla sticks

wooing for her fair hand—

yet with eyes for none but one

she picked the outstanding,

preferring chocolate ice-cream