"Love is an endless mystery, for it has nothing else to explain it" ~ Rabindranath Tagore


Indian's Odyssey across the US

Y. Radhika is a writer, photographer and an employee of the World Bank. Her dream is to live, love and work in India and travel everywhere else.

My American friends tell me that a coast to coast road trip across America is something one does once in a lifetime at least, like swimming, riding a bicycle, getting carried away with an idea, being a fool in love.

If you don't see the breadth of this land, it's like you don't see the range of experiences you can have and so you have less to chose from in life, or so I was told. So when Vanamma, my mother's best friend, who lives in Pittsburgh, invited me to join her and Ujju, her older daughter in their continental drive to safely leave Mooli, Vanamma's younger daughter at Berkeley, I jumped at the opportunity.

Land of Rising Sun
Holiday in Bhutan
South by Virginia

Vanamma and my parents have known each other since 1975. My earliest memories of her are of a slim young woman in white jeans and a swinging pony tail driving a white Volkswagen Beetle on Delhi's dusty roads. Not very long after, she made the transition to white/neutral color cotton sarees in my memory and adopted a thick boyish crop of curls. Vanamma and her family went to Canada returning when her quiet, brilliant husband died after coming out of teaching a class. She moved to Kodaikkanal to recoup and bring up her daughters and now she lives in the United States.
I turned to look behind me at these immense rocks, white in the moonlight, and sitting like enormous ghosts, their age laughing at me and their power defying me. And although these forms did not fill me with dread, they inspired respect for nature and her power.

My desire for new experiences led to us beginning the journey, seven hours later than scheduled, well stocked with curd rice, baingan bharta, and avakkai, driving towards Indiana.

Badlands, South Dakota
Early French settlers and explorers called these strange undulating, twisting, contorting, landforms in South Dakota, Les Mauvaises Terres. Earlier Lakota Indians also called it mako sica meaning land bad. I turned to look behind me at these immense rocks, white in the moonlight, and sitting like enormous ghosts, their age laughing at me and their power defying me. And although these forms did not fill me with dread, they inspired respect for nature and her power.

Are those mountains, ravines, valleys, shikharas or gopurams that we see? Its hard to say precisely what one is seeing, almost as though a giant hand seized the land in a frenzy of compression, depression, shoving and pushing, squeezing upwards and then let go suddenly so that the fingerprints of this enormous force is still visible. Milky pools of water collect everywhere; the liquid so thick that I saw cracks in it which reminded of the cream on top of my daily glass of milk in my childhood (luckily I liked these pools far more than the dreaded malai!).

Around 4 pm we finally found a place to park near Golden Gate bridge. When a place is so blessed by climate and natural beauty, who could help but smile? A place for dreams.
We drove to the campsite in the Badlands National Park where we had reserved a site for the night. Camping is an integral part of the American experience or so I have been led to believe in the six years that I have lived in the US. Well, this was my first shot at it. Ujju and Mooli, more experienced campers, led the charge, holding it on one side while I held the other and we all tried to pin it, give it a spine and help it stand. After much adjusting we finally looked at the hapless hut, Vanamma sighed and said that our tent was the most in harmony. Noticing the beige color of the tent echoing the beige of the surrounding rocks, we brightened and deemed our project to be a great success!

The Badlands are one of the last places on the North American continent that still have some original prairie land. After they cleared the grass, the settlers who came to America grew wheat and corn which are also grasses and grew very well on these soils.

From the Badlands, we moved toward Rapid City, the last city in South Dakota where we stopped and shopped at a local Safeway for groceries. Rapid City we dubbed the city of bad cliches : the city's entire commercial establishment appeared to be in cahoots to cash in on the 'Rapid' experience: Rapid Care, Rapid Wash, Rush Mart were some of the signs around the city! As we left Rapid City behind we came across a street called Disk Drive and this rather personal message from McDonalds that had us in splits about the corniness of Middle America Yellowstone.

In Wyoming, my intrepid aunt, suffered an episode of anxiety from the miles of bad land around. I was mystified, since my response was primarily one of boredom looking at the pasture land and feeling my sore backside. However, when Vanamma, who until that point had been driving at 100 miles per hour, began to fidget and grow pale, we decided to stop and find out what the matter was. "I am getting a bad feeling from the land", she said, trying to articulate her unease but being unable to fully explain it. This land here was taken from the American Indians and people were killed here -- said Mooli, who like us was trying to find a possible explanation. Ujju began to drive as though Vanamma's words were an omen. Soon enough, we were flagged down by a cop who promptly gave Ujju a ticket for $50 with an injunction to drive safely. Now, poor Ujju had been driving at 72 miles per hour, a perfectly respectable speed on the highway, but who wants to argue with the notorious cops of the midwest, where we had heard that traffic tickets are a major source of revenue on the interstate highways!

On an earlier visit to Yellowstone in 1984, my father brought my family through the southern route into the park which I recommend for a first visit. Northern Utah with skies fiery and peaceful at the same time, was the first place I saw where the horizon stretches endlessly. As we entered Wyoming, the playful, wilful, Snake river followed and dodged, ducked and doggedly pursued some unknown destination along with us. A silvery slip of a river, the Snake is also the scene of some of the most fierce whitewater rafting in the United States.

This time, we entered Yellowstone National Park through the east entrance. Reaching the bottom of the mountain, we passed lake Yellowstone-a volcanic basin that millions of years ago, cooled and filled to the brim with water. Huge, deep and blue - a deep purplish blue, like the stain of medicine over a bruise, still hinting at the turbulence and tearing at the surface of the earth.

Entering the park from the east, we took the single road loop connecting all the geysers, sulphurous pools and other manifestations of the volcanic activity which form the park's natural ecosystem.


We planned to experience the explosion at Old Faithful geyser, then go on to see some of the mineral pools, the subject of millions of postcards and pictures over the years.

Vacation is a time when we all relax. Sometimes it gives room for a deeper, intuitive intelligence to manifest itself. As we stood waiting for Old Faithful geyser to explode, Vanamma closed her eyes and observing her from behind, I felt some internal turbulence within her. Then she opened her eyes and told her daughters to learn everything they could from her soon. Knowing my own mother to be somewhat telepathic, I wondered if Vanamma had experienced a moment of clairvoyance.

We moved to the mineral pools: sapphire blue, emerald green, HB pencil black, charcoal, smoke, brick and coral are not mere words in Yellowstone. If there is a place in the United States where the word kohra has meaning it is here. The mist rises and if you look at it through the gaps in the wooden railing you can see a cinemascope vision of serene beauty covering the turbulence beneath. All these pools are violent and bubbling, if not at the surface then deeper inside, leaving the earth's crust scarred and almost liquid. These mineral pools are everywhere, pools of almost pure sulphuric acid, the odour of rotten eggs wafting up into clear blue skies.


Arches National Park

I had once received a postcard on the internet wishing me springtime's most delicate hopes from a German student visiting the Delicate Arch in Utah. Although my heart wasn't taken with the boy and my mind was delighted by technology, the stone, the skies and the desolation sent a silent message as though awaiting some undefined moment when we would be face to face. Arches in southern Utah near the south western part of Colorado is a favourite with students because of the opportunities for hiking, cycling and camping.

Here, it is not volcanic lava or water but wind that is the immortal hand that echoes in the castles, penguins, Egyptian gods and godesses, skyscrapers, caves, tunnels, windows, arches and whorls in the stone. Every rock carries the footprints of the wind. The wind is strangely silent, no billowing skirts ruffle the air, no flowing manes, nada, nothing to tell you that there is someone else here - a giant sculpture being prepared stealthily in the rock without anyone noticing until there is a patch of sky visible where the arch forms.

We undertook a quick 2 hour driving tour of the park. Students and other tourists often spend days here hiking up to all the arches, in the hot desert sun. The sun is merciless here. Had anyone ever lived here, I wonder. The wind burrows, tunnels and finds the secret, soft heart of rock and slowly but steadily erodes it, until one day an arch is formed. The most famous arch in this park, the Delicate Arch, is so named because it can collapse any moment . It is worn thin by time. And every moment, the other arches grow closer to resembling this arch. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers along an impossibly vertical slice of stone: stubble, prickly heat, ghostly eyes, nose and mouth, the imprint of waves of water, a veritable mural of nature's intentions. Even if I were blind here, in Arches National Park, I could tell a story of a million years ago but where is the end and where is the beginning?


Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde is a high cold place in the Colorado Plateau. Mesa, in Spanish describes the appearance of the land - flat and high (sometimes averaging 7,000 feet). Seven centuries ago the Indian tribes that lived here built their homes on the cliffs of this plateau. These homes that are still visible were built out of clay and are often called pit homes. First, a pit was dug and then a roof was built on this pit with a circular entrance left for entry. The result was a home that resembled a tandoor in its ability to warm the inhabitants - toasty indeed! These ingenious people had another opening in the house designed to release noxious gases and allow the entry of fresh air.

As a tourist, I have often observed how the greatness of any civilization is immediately apparent in what appeals to us across the centuries. What remains is the care of craftsmanship in the detail, color and symmetry of objects that depict both ideas and life styles. The Mesa Verde Indians created pots, and their magnum opus is the celebrated wedding jug-with two spouts so that both husband and wife drink life sustaining water from the same source.

Comparisons with patterns and designs in India are inevitable and I couldn't resist buying jodas, a pair of beautifully carved white and red diyas for myself and high white matkas decorated with black animal motifs for a friend in Washington.


Cn the Mesa Verde museum, I found this book on American Indian design & decoration, some of which had an amazing resemblance to Ikat motifs, south Indian temple sari motifs, and motifs found in north-eastern India's art and crafts. Like every potential immigrant, I tried to be as American as possible. But after 6 years of living in America, the only Americans whose work, art, and philosophy I find the least bit interesting are the mostly unacknowledged, native Americans. Take this design for example, a fierce bear fending off two equally ferocious sharks on each side-an eloquent depiction of wild nature! Or this simple, Araucanian Indian love poem:

Because they called you a good woman
I came for you,
little sister. I galloped
four days, aye,
little companion,
because of your good, shining face.

San Francisco, California In high school, I spent some years in Santa Barbara. Centred in my adolescent angst, I hardly noticed anything about the city - it's beauty passed me by, it's inhabitants charmed me less, and a subsequent visit in 1993 intensified my disappointment and dislike of southern California. A tawdry commercialism, glittery malls, lustful men and women, had left me with a distaste for California, until I discovered San Francisco.

Nothing in my previous experiences had quite prepared me for San Francisco. We entered the metropolitan area on US 580 going past Oakland, Berkeley and finally reaching a relative's house in San Jose, Silicon Valley. Ashraf, a friend I had not seen in 4 years, arrived within the hour to take me to his house. Hugs, animated discussions and much mutual admiration followed by dinner, led us to the question of what I wanted to do that evening.


Living in Washington without a car, I was starved of desi fare, so I begged a visit to a local temple of their choice, whereupon they took me to Bhadrik Ashram. Situated in a modest two level house with a charming Spanish red roof in the San Leandro hills, Bhadrik Ashram is the first temple in the United States I saw that was small and intimate. Winding steps lead to the open, central square courtyard from where we entered the room that served as the prayer hall. As I entered, I was pleasantly surprised at the mildness of the decor and the authentic details of the deities, their clothes, the incense and silver plates.

The priest was from Bangalore. Despite repeating Ashraf's name several times, this charming priest insisted on addressing him as Ashwin! Not wanting to cause any religious disharmony, I refrained from insisting after a few minutes, but couldn't help grinning at the conditioning of the priest who heard only Hindu names despite being given a Muslim one! The delight of the evening was our good fortune in receiving prasad from Satyanarayana puja.

The next morning we spent in Berkeley. Upon seeing the International House with its distinctive chapel I immediately knew that Mooli would have a great time. No doubt intellectual pursuits dominate but the leisure time pursuit at Berkeley is definitely people watching.

Hippies, new age clothing and jewellery, charms and hand-made objects are some of the novelties of this street. Walking down Telegraph Avenue, admiring and being admired is enjoyable.


We spent a good hour at the Berkeley book store looking at books on South Asia. Huge burritos followed at a Mexican place round the corner. The afternoon was spent strolling around, peeping occasionally into the numerous Indian stores that abound in the Berkeley area, with some very homely names like Krishna Copy store. The one place left to visit, which I hope to do again, is the Berkeley Film Archives building where one can while away many a pleasant hour watching silver screen gods from the 50's till today. I later found out that Telegraph Avenue itself is a happy hunting ground for directors when they need to film sequences showing life from the hedonistic 60's and 70's replete with mantra chanting, drug inhaling, long haired flower children!

Around 4 pm we finally found a place to park near Golden Gate bridge. When a place is so blessed by climate and natural beauty, who could help but smile? A place for dreams. Indeed - I would be less than truthful if I didn't admit thinking I should get married to one of those men that my father is constantly finding for me: only condition being a house in San Francisco!

New Beginnings

Well, from San Francisco, after we left Mooli where home would be for the next 4 years, we returned driving furiously, upto 800 miles a day, to reach home as soon as we could. Some decent photographs, my beautiful diyas and pots, a bright red bag with an Indian print, a wonderful design book, and some big bills from my aunt have come my way as reminders of this trip. But in the new spirit that I found on my way to San Francisco, I am learning to savour my adventures: taking the beautiful and the ugly, the east and the west, the bittersweet, all in my stride..

Photo Credit: Y. Radhika

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