May 28, 2011

Journey into American Hinterlands

Recently I decided to visit my friend in South Dakota. To go to South Dakota, I would have to traverse miles of rural American backwaters, and I expected little excitement from the journey. First of all, I went to the nearby town of Galesburg to wait for the connecting train. There were nine hours before my next train came in, and I decided to explore Galesburg. I asked two people at the station which way I should go, and due to my excellent sense of direction, was lost as soon as I set foot outside the waiting room. But I decided to soldier on, and approached a pretty elderly lady with white curls. “I just want to pass the time until the next train arrives” I told her.

“Oh, there are a lot of things you could do in this wonderful city of Galesburg, you could…..” her tinkling, silvery voice trailed off. “Hmm, the bowling alley is closed”, she said after some thought. “You can come with me, I am going to work and I will show you the downtown” she offered. Soon I understood why she couldn’t think of anything else to do. The city of Galesburg was one street long and three streets wide.

My engaging guide still managed to find many things of interest. “Look at that shop, it’s actually the same shop but they pretend to be different” she giggled as she informed me. Both shops had the exact same color and décor, but one was a bakery and the other was a cheese and knick knack shop. “Over there we have a statue of Abraham Lincoln, I don’t know if you know who Lincoln was” she giggled again. I tried to politely inform her that I did know who Lincoln was, but she went on to tell me how Lincoln was born in some other (not mention-worthy) state but grew up here in Illinois. I kept quiet for fear of interrupting, but soon we came across another American icon that was truly unknown to me. “Do you know Carl Sandburg? He was a famous poet, and he was born here.” She pointed to a wall mural that bore his name. I vowed to go home and look up this local talent.

After thus exhausting the attractions of Galesburg, she turned towards me. “Where are you from?” she asked. “Nepal” I answered. “Oh I have never been there, but it sounds wonderful and mysterious, I would love to go there” she said with her eyes shining. I was flattered by her interest in my country. My own town of Macomb is teeming with foreign students, and no one gives a second glance to another brown girl. But foreigners seemed to be a novelty in Galesburg. My guide then introduced herself as Marlin Stone, and left for work with a smile and a wave.

I moodily walked into a bakery with the lingering feeling that this chance meeting should have gone longer, but the homemade croissants were a rare treat and cheered me up. My suspicions of few foreigners visiting Galesburg were heightened when an old couple came up to me and struck a conversation about Asian and European youth. But they were finally confirmed inside the train, when the conductor said to me loudly and not unkindly “Have you ever ridden an Amtrak train before?” His question surprised me and I barely managed to indicate a positive answer. “Oh, just checking” he said. I knew he didn’t believe me, because he went on to tell me in full detail where the restrooms, dining car and emergency exits were, and asked me to holler if I had any questions. All the while he spoke loudly and clearly, as if he was speaking to an 8 year old. He left me with a smile on my face as he moved on to other passengers.

Mile after mile of sparsely populated fields passed me, sometimes occupied by cows, horses or sheep. I settled down for a few hours of quiet reading. I had miraculously acquired new books that day. At my town’s train station, there was a book rack with novels which passengers could read and take home. The first time I saw this ‘take home’ book rack, I took a rubbishy book home simply because I couldn’t pass up free books. I stopped doing that once I found the books were always worn down, battered and unheard of. But the book rack at Galesburg train station was something else. It was full of brand new books, if they were clothes they would still have their tags on. And what’s more, there were even writers that I had heard of. Danielle Steele, who needs no introduction. Maeve Binchy, who I have gone hoarse recommending to anyone that can read. John leCarre, an 80 year old man whose picture graced my desktop for a long time until my sister got disgusted and replaced him with Sugam Pokhrel. When I found these gems, I blithely packed their books into my suitcase, determined to cram them in come what may. Little did I know what trouble they would cause me later.

I excitedly related the story of my finds to my sister, and my mother thought the incident important enough to make a rare phone call all the way from Nepal. “Greedy girl, why do you want to lug heavy books around for a thousand miles? Put them down immediately and travel light, what did I teach you in all the years of packing?” “You brought home your five year collection of outdated ‘Women’s Era’ magazines all the way from India” I mumbled.

I was about to carry on about how there were no wheels on our suitcases then and we had lugged the books around in cumbersome tin cases through dangerous Indian train stations. It was a good thing my father came in at that very moment and asked me to look out for books on post modernism. My mother’s wrath turned into incredulity. “How do you expect her to find theory books at a random waiting room? I’m sure there are only cheap entertainment type books there!” said she. “Well, she didn’t expect to find any ‘take home’ books at a waiting room in the first place, so what’s wrong with looking out when there’s a chance of finding knowledge?” retorted my father. His logic left me speechless as my mother went away muttering. “Like father, like daughter, none of them can keep their hands off books. One of these days this house is going to sink into the earth with all the book weight.”

On my return journey, I kept thinking of our house sinking from book weight. The conductor just announced that we were an hour late. I fervently prayed it wasn’t because my three books were dragging the train back (there is a different conductor who I fear might not be as accommodating as the last one). So here I am, quaking in my train seat, waiting to disembark and be free of fear. See you next week if I am not in jail for disrupting public transportation! A journey into the pastoral hinterlands turned out to be pretty adventurous after all!

P.S. All the above incidents are true. I am paying the concerned individuals a complement, I would be glad if they read and recognized themselves :)


Govinda Raj Bhattarai said...

I read twice
so powerfully so vividly you wrote sewa
I wish I have this precision and gift

never was I so delighted in my life
The small plant I grew yielding such great perennial fruits
Your degrees count nothing when compared

sewa said...

thank u buwa, i feel the same about my degree. Thanks for your complements, and of course you are a more experience writer than me with miles more precision and vividness. I was just worried that you might be displeased about your dialogues,

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