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Postcard from West Coast

Foreign vacations are all about fun, but sometimes quirks and protocols can sap a traveller’s energy, writes Neelesh Misra.
Hindustan Times | By Neelesh Misra
UPDATED ON OCT 05, 2007 11:20 PM IST

Here is my postcard from California. I walked with my wallet into the ocean, wrote a Bollywood song while waiting for my wife to finish her shopping and attempted a Guinness Book record for the most number of times anyone has taken off his shoes at an American airport.

Despite those achievements, I had set myself up for trouble even before we left, by stoking a debate of epic proportions. My wife, who works very hard at NDTV and loves her dogs Calvin and Hobbes much more than me, had saved up and planned a compensation package for her dog-defeated shaayar husband in the form of the American holiday.

What got me into trouble 106 hours before the boarding announcement was the harmless expression of my views on the subject.

Holiday bonhomie

Well, I said, vacations are about companionship, not destinations. I am as happy going to New York as to Nainital (I said, quite thrilled with myself at the wonderful alliteration). Now she has no problems with Nainital, but I think the mistiming of my sixer sent it directly into the Naini Lake.

While this subversive view might have received a patient exchange of views two months ago, I think I had certainly erred by bringing it up when the proverbial countdown to the launch of the proverbial Insat satellite had, well proverbially, already started. And at that moment, just when I should have shut up, I sort of wondered aloud why women shop so much. Safe to say this was met with a glare of unprintable ferocity. When I regained consciousness, my seatbelt had been fastened. We landed at San Jose to be received by my wife’s cousin Renu, whose dog Chiku rolled over when I asked her to (her, being Chiku, of course), sat, even fetched nothing in particular. Even if briefly, the dog made me feel I was in control of my life again.

We went to San Francisco, drove down the mad bends of Orlando Street, went on the stunning Golden Gate bridge, watched the ocean, and went on the cable car — somewhat like the tram — which broke down on a steep slope and took a very long time to fix. Worse, as I sat in terrified suspension like the Leaning Tower of Wherever, my wife and the American lady next to her began chatting about how much they missed their Golden Retrievers.

But life would soon get better. We were off the next morning in a rented car, loaded with lots of fattening munchies and lots of Hindi music, driving through stunning vistas of American towns and countryside and the skies and the sunset. Since I write most of my Bollywood songs on the drive, the beautiful views were perfect for what was the most urgent matter before me: the deadline back in India for a song that I had to write for Shankar-Ehsan-Loy.

Poet on the sly

Not for my fellow traveller, of course.“Why can’t you ever relax?” my wife said, for the 14,563rd time in my life. I pretended to. Didn’t want to risk more glares of unprintable ferocity. Quietly kept taking pictures all the way to San Diego. And like the typical Lucknow guerrilla shaayar, I wrote the song on the sly while she shopped, and I pretended to be bedazzled by a California mall.

Saturday was a day away. Off we went to one of the heavily crowded beaches — my wife, her cousin Shubi and her husband Suraj, and Renu our valiant driver. All was well, but there was a small postscript: I don’t know how to swim. Now going near the ocean was bringing back memories of the swimming pool back at St. Joseph’s, Nainital, where Mr Palmer and Mr Gomes, the instructors, had derived Machiavellian pleasure a few times in pushing me into the pool.

Suraj was splashing and floating and lunging away in the waves in no time. But I was confident I would be spared — after all, I finally had the right alibi — I didn’t know how to swim. Err, Suraj did not know either. There sinks my alibi. “How does he do it?” I wondered, as I saw him lunging into the mighty waves.

However, he did it, there was no way I was going to, I reassured myself. I pretended to look at the sea like a stoic shaayar, inspecting the waves and the horizon, as if conjuring up my next ghazal for the annual California mushaira. If I looked detached, they wouldn’t bother me, I decided. I was above all this, above this frivolous American mahakumbh. I was above the ocean, I told myself. Um. Quite wrong. Soon I was in it. I walked with trepidation into the waves of the Pacific, watching them with horror as they came at me, then jumping just in time, shouting in amazement with the others, sometimes slipping, sometimes getting weeds entangled in my feet — and suddenly realising that my wallet was still in my shorts. Thankfully, not much was lost.

Out of California

Wallet safely retrieved, it was time to flee California before any more damage. By the time I boarded my plane to New York, I had to take off my shoes so many times on so many flights I briefly contemplated becoming a Buddhist bhikkhu or the barefoot M.F. Husain. Perhaps to ease the pain, as we were readying to take off for San Jose, the flight entertainment voice chirpily announced: “We know why you are flying today …”

One passenger weary after the long queues and tough frisking retorted: “Yes, because we love stripping at American airports!”

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