On the way to Athens we passed the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. The drive through Kentucky brought us right into the horse country. I loved to see the gently rolling horse farms.
In Tennessee we drove up the winding road to Smokey Mountain Park. The road was congested with cars, campers and buses carrying holidaymakers. We really had to crawl to get to Gatlinburg. It was really an attractive little city specially built for tourism.
We went up a hill in a cable car to a skiing resort. In the resort, they produced their own artificial snow to cover the hill slopes making it suitable for skiing throughout the year. There, the children were having their good time throwing snowballs at each other. Soon Syazwan befriended an American boy of his age and they soon were doing the same.
Smokey Mountain Park was the place where huge crowds gathered every autumn to appreciate the world of colours provided by the autumn leaves.
After a good night’s rest and a heavy breakfast, we left Gatlinburg for Athens. On our way down the Smokey Mountain road, we stopped besides a small river. In some parts of the river, the water was frozen. The children were enjoying themselves playing with the ice crystals hanging beautifully, as if being expertly carved by ice sculptors, on branches and twigs of trees along the river and hill slopes. We also met some Malaysian students busy taking photographs at the entrance of the park. They were from a university in Tennessee.
Our first holiday in US was over. Though not that properly planned, it had been a successful one. In one sense, we were lucky to have travelled that distance after a short time in US. Not many international students, or Georgian students for that matter, had done that. Many American students that I had met told me that they had never travelled out of Georgia, or the furthest they had travelled was only to Florida!
An American graduate student who used to play basketball with me in the evenings, told me that I was lucky to have the chance of travelling overseas. For him, the only overseas travel that he had was to the US Virgin Islands. That too was during his fully paid honeymoon! We had travelled through seven states and covered more than 3,000 miles in just a week! Surprisingly despite the long drive, we were still fresh as before when we arrived in Athens. I just could not imagine how such a long drive would have done to my body if I did it in Malaysia.
Winter in Athens could be very cold, but snow rarely fell. People in Athens were really looking forward for snowfall because schools and offices in Georgia would be closed if there were snow, even an inch on the road. People from northern states, where snow falls were common, would laugh at this but I was told that people in Georgia were not ready for snow, and to prevent any misfortune from happening during the rare snow fall, Georgia government decided that it was safer to declare a state holiday in the event of snow fall. However, there was no snow during our first winter in Athens. However, we still had to put on three layers of clothing whenever we ventured outside our warm apartment.
It was also in the first winter that I learned that car’s windshield needed to be scraped free of frost every morning before we could see where we were going. We were required to add Antifreeze in the car radiator to prevent water from freezing on us.
Syazwan was delighted with his discovery that a cup of water placed outside the apartment would be frozen within less than thirty minutes. With that simple discovery, so began his daily natural ice-making projects! Besides the simple ice, he also successfully produced a variety of products ranging from frozen orange juice, tea, and even our very own ‘air sirap’.
However, winter had many virtues too. First of all, the cold made us hungry all the time. My wife had to cook overtime just to satisfy our children’s good appetite.
Talking about food, halal food was easy to find in Athens, or at least in Georgia. We could find everything, from rice, glutinous rice, fish, lemon grass, all the spices, banana leaves, ‘daun pandan’, coconuts, durian, and the list went on provided we spent some time looking for them.
As far as halal chicken, we got it from the mosque. Halal beef and mutton were normally obtained from a Pakistani butcher shop in Atlanta. Beef price was cheap. The price of ribs (here ribs were sold together with all the quality meat attached) was just US$ 1.99 per pound.
For every trip, we normally bought a lot of beef that would last us for months! After every trip, we would have juicy steaks for our lunches and dinners! As for the supply of fresh fish, we normally went to two big fish and vegetable markets near Atlanta.
It was during these food hunts that we came across several oriental food stores that were mainly owned by Vietnamese, Koreans, or Filipinos. In such stores I found many exotic Asian foods. One day, I even found our own ‘sambal tumis’ there. On one occasion, an American family approached us asking us where to find the Malaysian ‘sambal tumis!’ According to them, they were introduced and later fell in love with our ‘sambal tumis’ when they were teaching in ITM.
All in all, we did enjoy the same kind of food that we normally have in Malaysia. Of course besides our normal Malaysian food, we had also added to our daily menu, a variety of American food including spaghetti, cheese, and pizza, just to name a few. We used spaghetti in place of our familiar yellow noodle. The result was we had fried spaghetti, tom yam spaghetti, laksa spaghetti, curry spaghetti, spaghetti soup and so on.
Cheese too was slowly becoming our children’s favourite. As far as fruits were concerned, grapes, apples, pears, peaches, and strawberry were much cheaper than in Malaysia. Talking about strawberries, I remembered how irritated was Diyana when Shamsuddin teased her for not liking the berries. At that time she still did not know how good strawberries were. Strawberries were too expensive and difficult to get in Malaysia.
After a while, all my children just fell in love with the fruits. Syazwan was lucky for during a field trip organized by his school, he was brought to a strawberry farm to have a try in harvesting the fruits. The fridge was always full of fruits, besides a variety of cereals and cookies. Katie, Diyana’s friend, really enjoyed herself with these fruits and cookies whenever she came visiting.
As far as tropical fruits were concerned, I did find durians during a few of my trips to Atlanta. They were expensive though. A frozen durian would cost around US$20.00! With other fruits, we had to make do with canned products. They had canned pineapples, rambutan and even mangosteens. However, watermelons, being an almost universally found fruit, were abundant and they were comparatively cheap.
It was also in our first winter that we performed our Ramadan fasting. Fasting in winter was easy because days were both shorter and cooler. We normally broke fast before six in the evening. Because of the cool weather, we seldom drank much water or fruit juices while breaking fast.
Our daily life went by as usual in winter. The children still went to school, but with a note from us telling their teachers that no food or drinks should be offered to them throughout the day. Diyana and Syafiq observed the fast diligently while in school and for that they were admired and appreciated by their friends and teachers.
For me, I had to explain to them what Ramadan was and after all that, they still wished that I could have a small drink during the day, especially when they saw me all exhausted after a necropsy session. They just could not understand why I had to torture myself fasting!
To many of them religion was not a serious thing. They would be referred to as religious freaks if they talked too much about religion. Once there was a big controversy when a school tried to implement a one-minute silence prayer session before the weekly school assembly. Many of them said that the school authority had no right to force certain religious beliefs onto their children. So, finally the idea was shelved.
No matter what many of them thought about religion, I always try my very best to give the true perspective of Islam to many, including my professors. Usually they would listen to our explanation with open minds, even after I told them that Jesus was never crucified and he was not the Son of God.
The greatest joy was when a newly converted Black American approached and asked me to teach him how to perform ablution and midday prayer at the mosque. During my stay in Athens, I saw a handful of Americans came to the mosque to say the Shahadah and became a Muslim. “Back home in Malaysia, how many non-Muslims have we ever converted?” I frequently asked myself.
We celebrated our first Hari Raya Idilfitri in US in a really modest way. The children, however, still got their new clothes. Idilfitri prayer was held in the vacant space in front of the Islamic Centre. Despite my ‘Baju Melayu’, it was cold in the parking lot. ‘Takbir raya’ was different. There was no melody to it like we normally had in Malaysia.
However, the sermon given by Hisham, a student from Egypt, was good and touching. It touched on our responsibilities towards our parents. Without realizing it, tears started streaming out of my eyes that morning. Though not declared as an official holiday, the children and I all were allowed a day off on Hari Raya.
After the prayers we, the Malaysian students, had a big party in the Family Housing Park, with satay, ‘nasi himpit’, and many more dishes. To get the Hari Raya feeling, we even played a few Hari Raya songs from tapes specially ordered from home. Though not as joyful as in Malaysia, Idilfitri was still something special to us. We missed home though.
To be continued...