Thursday, February 28, 2008

Living in USA - Part 4

A few weeks after settling down in US, I noticed that many people, be it Americans or people of other nationalities, did not know much about Malaysia. This irritated me a lot, especially in this information technology age, where you could get information about Malaysia by just touching a few keys of the computer.

They still thought that Malaysia was still so backwards that we did not have modern amenities like shopping malls and fast food chains, like KFC and A&W. I still remembered one day as we were coming back from a dinner at KFC, an Indian graduate student approached us and reminded me not to expose our children with too much KFC while we were here as they would find it difficult once we were back in Malaysia.

Calmly I explained to her that back home, we had KFC and many more American fast food chains everywhere, even in small towns. It was hard for them to believe what I had told him. Until now, I still think the government has to do a lot more to sell Malaysia to the world. A once-in-a-while campaign was just not enough. However, I think it has always been that way with the Americans. They just could not be bothered with the other parts of the world. To them, we were inferior to them in all aspects.

A few days before my first Christmas and New Year break, my friend, Nordin paid us a visit and suggested that we went on a holiday. Knowing that then was the best time for travel as I was still free, I agreed to his suggestion. We decided to go northwards.

Our first objective was to search for snow for the sake of the children. They had been begging us to take them to places with snow. We rented an automatic maroon Dodge Caravan for the trip. Driving in US roads was quite an experience. Besides driving on the opposite side of the road, there were minor differences in the way they drove and most important, they were generally better and more considerate drivers than we in Malaysia.

We left our apartment quite late in the afternoon. We decided to keep on driving north until we were too tired to drive. After about eight hours of driving and a speeding ticket (we were caught doing 75 in a 55-mph zone near Richmond City), we stopped for a night rest at Alexandria, a small city in Virginia.

The police here did not normally have roadblocks for catching speedsters. Instead, they normally blended in the traffic following closely behind the speeding car. The familiar short siren and the blue lights of the police car would only be switched on telling us to stop whenever the speeding offence was performed over certain time duration. Also we did not have to come out of the car, like we normally did in Malaysia. In fact our act of coming out of the car could be taken as an attempt to resist arrest, so I was told.

The police officer would then approach the car and a summons would then be issued. As for the compound, we agreed to share and each of us had to pay more than a hundred dollars for it! We stayed at Alexandria’s Day’s Inn, a quite decent motel. That night, we had grilled chicken for dinner in one small restaurant a block away from the hotel.

The next morning, after breakfast, we left Alexandria for Washington DC. As far as driving was concerned, we had a mutual agreement between the two of us. I would be driving on most highways (it was the easier drive) while Nordin, who was younger and had more experience driving in US, would be driving through cities, especially when we had to find the right way after getting lost! Without a detailed map of Washington DC, we had to go round and round most of the city in search of the city’s great tourist attraction areas.

With a spirit of never giving up, we did find what we were looking for, the Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Memorial, Veterans Memorial, Smithsonian Institute, and of course, the White House. The weather was getting very cold but still there was no snow.

While walking towards the White house, we noticed that Syazwan was unusually slow. He was walking so slowly that we always had to wait for him to catch up. Then we realized that the extreme cold had affected him. His legs and body were ice cold. I rushed him into the van and switched on the heater to warm up his freezing body.

On seeing this, a Chinese lady hawker offered a muffler and cotton ski mask to us at a relatively cheap price, out of sympathy perhaps. Only when his body temperature returned to normal, he became active again and so we continued walking towards the White House. We went into the White House’s beautifully landscaped compound and enjoyed the live Christmas trees.

Being too cold, Syazwan had to answer the call of nature behind some shrubs in the garden! Until now, whenever he sees the White House, be it on television or in newspapers, he would yell, “I was there! I was there! I peed there.” It was in Washington DC that we were mistaken for Cambodians by a group of Cambodian tourists!

A fact of life you had to reckon with living in a country like US was that, it was almost impossible to tell what nationality one was until and unless he or she opened his or her mouth and started talking. My wife had been mistaken for a Peruvian and for me with my kind of face I either had been mistaken for a Mexican, Egyptian, Indian, or even a Bangladeshi!

Diyana was always in an unforgiving mood every time she was mistaken for either a Filipina or an Indian. She was so proud of being a Malaysian! So engrossed was Diyana in playing around the real and well-decorated Christmas trees in the compound of the White House, she lost her favourite watch along the way.

The Museum of Natural History was the other favourite place for the children. Over there, they enjoyed the collection of dinosaurs’ skeleton on display. Syazwan could not believe it when I showed him the complete skeleton of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. It was after watching the movie Jurassic Park that he knew most of the dinosaurs by name.

Later at the park, Syazwan was busy chasing after the noisy sea gulls, playing catch-us-if-you-can with the beautiful birds. While walking through the big crowd in the park, for the first time we had salted Pretzels for lunch. From then on, we had Pretzels whenever we were out shopping. They were filling but not fattening! I was amazed every time I saw pretzels being made. The dough was thoroughly kneaded, accurately weighed, and expertly twisted by the pretzel-maker. My major professor even had a large container full of dried pretzels in her room. According to her, she could keep on nibbling them without fear of getting fat.

Satisfied with what Washington DC had to offer, we moved on to New York City. Nordin was doing most of the driving to New York. Approaching New York, we decided that it was wise to stop and have a nice sleep in a city just outside New York. We stopped at Newark for petrol and were advised by old man at the petrol station to find a motel near Newark Airport.

We followed his advice and stopped at quite a cozy hotel at the Airport. Newark was an eerie city at night, and you would not like to wander around it without a very good reason. At eight, the city was already deserted, not even a soul was seen walking the empty, garbage-strewn city. The deafening silence of the city was only occasionally broken by the sporadic sound of police sirens. The city reminded me of a scene from the Twilight Zone.

Fresh from the night’s rest, we continued our way towards New York. Just like driving to Washington DC, without a good map of New York, we just had to bulldoze our way into the city and hoped we found our way. It was not that difficult really. According to Nordin, New York drivers, especially their cab drivers, in many ways, were just like KL drivers. We passed the famous Empire State building and many bridges on our way to the jetty that would take us to the Statue of Liberty.

At a toll plaza somewhere just outside New York we were yelled at by a security guard for not having enough coins for the toll. There we just had to throw the right amount of coins in a kind of basket. The gate would be opened only when the exact amount of coins thrown in. There were signs everywhere along the road to the toll plaza warning drivers to be ready with the exact change of coins, but being first time in New York, we missed these messages.

After going around quite a big part of New York, we finally made it to the jetty. We took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. It was a joy ride all the way. At the Island, there was a long queue of people waiting to get up the Lady’s crown. We joined in the line and waited for about three hours before really getting into the Lady.

While in line, our Syazwan found time to befriend a boy by the name of Jeremiah. He and Syazwan were always playing together. Jeremiah’s father had to carry him on his back just to separate them when it was their turn to enter the lady. The extreme cold made the waiting really unbearable. We tried everything that we could think of to keep warm but failed.

According to one wise old lady at the back, no one could get used to that kind of cold, not even if he came from Alaska. After a snail-pace one-by-one walk inside the Lady’s spiraling staircases, we made it up the Lady’s crown. The feeling once you reached the topmost level made it worth all the suffering that you had gone through while waiting. We were reminded through the public address system to be considerate to others behind and stop there just long enough to appreciate the view of New York City and may be for one or two snapshots as a proof that we were the lucky few who had come, seen and conquered the Statue of Liberty.

From New York we proceeded to the famous Niagara Fall. Our quest for snow up to now was still unfruitful. Despite the bitter cold, still there was no snow anywhere. Niagara fall was a sight to behold. Its thundering white water and rainbows amazed us all. No wonder it was regarded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world! We were a bit frustrated for not being able to cross over to the Canadian side of the fall. They said that the fall was more awesome and majestic on the Canadian side. It was my fault for failing to get our I-20 form endorsed at the University’s International student’s centre. Without it being endorsed, we would not be allowed back into US. Clearly, it was a case of being too near and yet too far! It was also a case of me not paying attention to details.

Besides the waterfall, we also visited an aquarium in Niagara City. For the first time, the children came face to face with playing bottle-nosed dolphins and had trick photography sessions in cages with great white sharks. Forgetting that it was New Year’s Eve, we had great difficulty finding a place to sleep.

Most hotels and motels were fully booked. At last, after a long search, we found ourselves a cheap old motel. We did not really have a good sleep that night. Outside, peoples were drinking and getting themselves drunk. The sounds of broken bottles made my wife and me wide awake most of the night. Our motel room’s door was no help either. It was in a really bad shape. Anyone could just give it a slight push and he or she would be in the room in no time. While in Niagara City, Nordin made a telephone a call to his friends over in Purdue University, Indiana. He received some good news. Snow was falling furiously over there.

After a brief family discussion, we decided not to let down our children’s wish of playing with snow. So, we continued on towards Indiana. After a heavy breakfast, off we went to Indiana. It was in Ohio that for the first time in our life, we saw, felt, and touched real snowflakes. While stopping at a petrol station, it began to flurry. Snowflakes were falling from the sky and our children were scurrying all over the parking area trying to catch some snowflakes.

So, after a few hundred miles of travelling, our quest for snow was finally successful! At Purdue we saw a lot more snow. A few Malaysian undergraduates willingly brought us around campus so that our children could enjoy snow. They really enjoyed themselves. Syafiq and Syazwan were busy either throwing snowballs at each other or snow-sliding along hill slopes around campus. We put up a night in the city.

That night more snow fell. By morning the van was covered by two to three inches of snow. The children had the best time of their lives playing with the snow, making snowmen and again throwing snowballs at each other. They momentarily forgot about the cold! Then we thought that we had travelled long enough and my wallet was also getting thinner. So, we then decided to head back to Athens.

No comments: