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.
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.
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.