“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
I had an adventure. Scratch that. I had a series of adventures.
I started off on Friday last, with travel bags hastily and poorly packed, and rushed to catch the Amtrak Coast Starlight at San Jose. I decided to eat something (I had skipped breakfast and lunch) and I was directed to a location not the most safe. After the excitement of that little misadventure, wondering if I weren’t starting my adventure on the wrongest footing, I voyaged south on my poor feet to wait for Navin. I met him and he pointed out to me a couple of new mistakes I had committed since our last meeting. Spirit rejuvenated by his sarcasm, I entered the station to find out that the train was two hours late. I called my mother and spoke to her for a while. Then Sibelius turned up, all excited about his new vegan avatar, and saw me off at 11:00 PM. I had been tired, hungry, miserable and quite angry with my mapping advice. Sibelius talked me down to relative calm and gave me a bar of Snickers.
Every adventure must start with a bar of Snickers.
I hadn’t, before this week, in the two years I’ve been here, had a chance to see the country. I had flown into Atlanta, Frisco and San Diego, for study, for work and for visiting family. I had never, beyond little car trips with Sibelius and Mike, seen what made up the rest of the country that Silicon Valley and Ivory Towers hadn’t made. I had seen pieces, in Newark and in the ghettos of San Francisco, in the port of Oakland and on the ranches of San Diego, and in the suburbs of Atlanta. Little glimpses had I seen and I knew they hid leagues of more.
I wanted to see.
So I got on the train, rosary beads brushed my skin, my co-passenger murmured a polite welcome, and we were off.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Oregon is a land that takes your prejudices, twists them once, stamps fiercely on them, and sets them to fire for good measure.
The land of roses.
It is increasingly hard to stick to doing things the fair way in a world determined to head in the other direction. Most of the inhabitants of fair Portland that I met seemed to be set on sticking to the fair way despite all. Their lives aren’t easy. Their lives aren’t easily understood or sympathised with. I am glad I saw them. I am glad that I chanced to journey through and linger for a while in their beautiful land.
It must have been what Bilbo felt the first time he ventured into the Last Homely Home of the West.
I don’t exaggerate. I had rarely felt my desire to be fair rekindled after I had left teenage. I felt that when I wandered in Portland’s green pockets, talking to and meeting women and men who called it home.
I am not very patient with women and men who can’t hold their own with me emotionally and intellectually. I find myself inept at dealing with them. I met a woman whom I had the pleasure of working with two years ago. After the brilliance of the hyacinth, this lady was the closest I had come to in terms of intelligence, beauty and compassion all. It was joyous to meet her again after a long parting. We walked on the waterfront of Seattle, sharing tales of life, love and grief. She held me tight as I broke down in her arms after watching the waves eat away the remnants of an evening that marked an anniversary of death. I ate her curd-rice, confided in her my hopes and losses, and let her see me off on the train.
I saw Seattle too. I saw the waterfront, the harbour, the locks, Puget Sound and the fisherman’s port. I saw Mount Rainier looming over the city through the little gaps left by the White Building and the other skyscrapers, with the Space Needle a futuristic and alien bookmark on the face of the mountain. I walked in Fremont and marvelled. I walked the alleys of Pike Place and nearly fainted at the smell of fish (I could never take that). I walked up Queen Anne’s. I walked down to Lake Union to see the fireworks for July 4.
I remember all that.
I remember more clearly my conversations with the young woman whose pragmatism and compassion reminds me so of my mother.
De Libertas Quirkas
There’s a Lenin Statue in Fremont, imported from the erstwhile Soviet Raj. They also have a Troll. And a rocket. I think they are jolly fellows. If at all, in some alternate universe, I am to live in a land where it is cloudy and rainy most of the time, I’d pick Fremont. The coffee houses have not biased my judgement, I swear. The freedom to be peculiar might have.
They claim to be the centre of the universe. I must admit that has me biased in their favour. I have always loved artists with guts.
They also have the coolest signpost I’ve seen. Fremont, I am told, is an artist’s nation. It is not bounded by geography, but by imagination. Imagine that! An ImagiNation.
It was a memorable week.
There were any number of people, from Amtrak conductors to co-passengers, from baristas to fishermen, from writers to strangers, whom I need to thank for making my journey safe and worry-free.
Now I want to travel again, soon, and again. I long for a hatful of the free skies.
My friend, the artist, had spoken of Chihuly and his glass. I had been curious enough to ask questions, but not curious enough to take initiative and find out more. Now that things have changed irreparably, now that every day is a free-fall without the steady reassurance of his safety net, I found myself walking towards the Chihuly exhibit to find out what the artist had been so fascinated by.
I was enthralled too.
I did not need the tour guides or the pamphlets to identify each installation. I remembered. I remembered with pain the words and exclamations from many a month ago. As I meandered through the installations, my heart wrenching a little more as I recognised this or that from descriptions in an IM, I wondered about the circles of life. The ring on my finger shone eerily in the reflected light from the glass exhibits, my companion spoke of her life’s struggles, I thought of my mother, of my family, of an artist, of the hyacinth, of every word I had written to paper, of Sibelius and of all the others who had broken me in their own ways and made me.
“Does it never end?” I had asked the artist during a cold January, when family drama had gone up from merely dramatic to deeply tragic.
He had then spoken about the glass installations he had seen at Kew to distract me.
“Sometimes, I feel as if it will never improve,” my companion tells me as we walk through the gallery.
I redirect her attention to the installations, trying to describe each to her in words tailored to catch and keep her interest. I might have failed. I don’t think I’ve ever been half as charismatic as the artist was. After all, he spoke beautiful words to me of a world that enraptured me enough to leave everything I had known behind, and to cross an ocean and come alone to a new country, to live alone, to work alone, to try to find my place in a society that was alien to the one I had been born and raised in.
I returned today afternoon, weary to the bone, and my heart burdened by all that I had seen.
“Wow, you look worse than you did when you set off! Maybe you shouldn’t have travelled!” exclaimed young Sibelius when he met me at the station.
“No,” I told him. “I left because I wanted to return, and to see old places and people with new colours from other lands.”
“You aren’t making sense,” he told me. We drove to Castro, where there was gaiety, Google, moneyed men wooing moneyed women, and summer in the air.
Over wine and pasta, over a long discussion of veganism and religion, Sibelius asked me what had prompted me to travel.
In the beginning, the idea was an escape. I could travel. And I would. It was not that first time I had travelled alone, from home to here, afraid and without resources. I was still struggling to make ends meet, but I knew more about this country, and I felt braver. Stepping out would take me away from all the events of that week which I remembered with pain. It would take me to different places and people, and loss would be less vivid. Then I realised I was an idiot. Loss doesn’t let you be. It stalks you through alleys and coffee-shops until you turn and acknowledge it. Travel taught me to embrace it, to walk with it, and to not be stunted by it as much as I would otherwise be.
I let Sibelius’s conversation lull me into comfort. I think of women and men who have loved and lost more than me (I met a lot of them during my travels). I think of women and men who have loved and lost less than me (I met a lot of them too). I think of the artist, of his art, of the hyacinth, of my mother, of my family, of Yoda, of Sibelius, of a man who plays Skyrim, of a young woman in Seattle who tries to keep everything from going to hell, and of the brave women and men I met in Portland. I think of all the years long and stretched out before me, when I will have to silence my pen, because of a broken immigration system. I think of the silent pain I bear each time I write and can’t send it out to the world, and it is hard enough now, and dear God, how will it be in the coming years?
“Where will you go next?” Sibelius asks.
I wonder that too.