Thursday, August 11, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XVIII (Discovering America-I)

My first trip to America (USA) was a totally private affair. This happened in 1988. My late uncle in Pakistan had developed a serious heart problem. He had to undergo heart bye-pass surgery in Boston, USA. The surgeon was late Mian Ashraf of Kashmir settled in Boston. My sister and I decided to visit Boston for few weeks to give some moral support to my uncle's family. The first thing was to get a reasonably priced ticket. We wanted to visit some other relations in London and also see some part of Europe. I approached my travel agent friend late Avinash Kohli who used to be the General Sales Agent for the PanAm airlines. He worked out a very cheap business class ticket for two of us with the routing Delhi-London-New York-Boston-London-Geneva-Paris-Delhi. The flight to London was quite comfortable in the business class. We stopped in London for a couple of days and stayed with some of our cousins. From London we had a day flight to New York and a connecting flight to Boston. It was very interesting to cross the Atlantic. The day afforded us views of the ships moving below. The food especially the fruit salads were excellent. In fact, there was a marked difference between the in flight service from Delhi to London and the service on the flight from London to New York! We landed at the John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon. I was really excited to visit USA about which I had read so much and had seen hundreds of movies. New York is in a way the heart of America. The statue of liberty and the empire state building have been its land marks etched in the memories of people all over the world!
The immigration and customs was a lengthy affair. As we cleared the immigration and approached customs, we came to know that our connecting flight was taking off shortly. We pleaded with the customs authorities to clear us as we would miss our flight. They did clear us immediately and we ran towards the gate which was meant for boarding the flight. The girl at the gate told us that the flight was already moving out and we would not be able to board it. However, as our luggage had through check in tags up to Boston, the two suit cases had already been loaded on the plane and we would have to collect these on arrival in Boston. There were no seats in the next flight and we had no alternative but to take a shuttle flight from the other airport. Our arrival in America had not been so enjoyable. We faced difficulties from the very start. We were taken in a coach to the other airport (La Guardia) to catch the shuttle to Boston.
Most of the passengers in the bus had missed their flights! Finally, around 10 in the night we landed at the Boston airport. We went straight to the conveyor belts displaying the number of the flight we had missed. I immediately recognized my suit case and lifted it. However, there was no trace of my sister's suit case. I phoned my cousin about my arrival and he asked us to stay at the airport as he was coming to collect us. It took him almost half an hour and in the meantime, I contacted the airport authorities about the missing suit case. They told me to file a missing baggage claim and it would be located and delivered at our place of stay. My sister was very much upset. Not only was she without any clothes but she had lost a couple of very expensive pashmina shawls and some unique Kashmiri dresses.
My uncle and his family were staying with Dr. Mian Ashraf who lived in a suburb of Boston. He had a huge house set in a virtual estate. There were pine trees, a stream, and some small hillocks in his estate. There were many bed rooms, living and dinning rooms.
My uncle was very happy to see me and my sister. It somehow gave him courage. His surgery was scheduled two days after our arrival. Dr. Ashraf was married to an American who was not only very friendly lady but a very good host. We enjoyed our stay in their estate. My sister bought some new clothes as there was no trace or even news about her suit case. We rang the Pan Am office almost half a dozen times in a day! The surgery was very smooth and successful. We were allowed to visit my uncle in the hospital on the third day after the surgery. The hospital itself impressed me a lot. The reception of the hospital was more like a five star hotel. There was a sweet and gift shop. A flower shop and a small café. The patient wards were all upstairs and entry was through a lift where passes were checked. My uncle had just been shifted out of the recovery room and I was surprised to see him walking in the corridor with a nurse with a number of tubes and leads hanging from his body. I was told that the patients are made mobile at the earliest after surgery to allow them to recuperate quickly. It would take few more days of stay in the hospital before my uncle would be allowed to move to a house. He was also expected to stay for a couple of weeks in Boston before being allowed to fly back home!
My sister and I decided to use the time to visit New York and also some Kashmiri friends in Buffalo. We also planned a short visit to Toronto in Canada. In addition, I was keen to meet Gurumayi (Swami Chidvilsananda) whom I had met in Kashmir in December, 1987. However, the first thing was to trace the missing suit case of my sister. I decided to visit New York to contact the headquarter of Pan Am. I telephoned my lawyer friend Muzaffar Chisti who was staying in Manhattan in New York. He asked me to take a greyhound bus which was cheap and quick. It took me only four hours of a smooth and comfortable drive. Muzaffar was waiting at the greyhound terminal in the centre of Manhattan. He introduced me to a number of his friends over lunch. Next morning I took a bus to John Kennedy airport and contacted the Pan Am office. They directed me to their warehouse on the airport. It was a huge affair. There were hundreds of suitcases lined all over. I spent almost half an hour passing lines upon lines of suit cases but could not locate the missing suit case of my sister. The officials told me that I would have to file a compensation claim and would get the money in Delhi only where we had purchased our tickets. The compensation would be about $ 1,000 even though the shawls and clothes inside were worth over four to five thousand dollars! Next day I returned to Boston by greyhound bus after promising Muzaffar that we would come for few days of sight seeing after a week or so!

(To be continued….)

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