Thursday, October 27, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXIX (Last visit to America-III)

The most dramatic sight of Washington which I witnessed before my return to Baltimore was the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It is a very important annual event which takes place in March-April. The Festival has an interesting history. In 1912, an incredible gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees was bestowed on Washington, DC by Tokyo, Japan. Rooted strongly and surviving outside elements, the trees have withstood the test of time and are a treat for everyone, especially the Japanese who come in large numbers to see it. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is preparing for an unprecedented and once-in-a-lifetime celebration, the centenary event! The epic 5-week spectacular, from March 20 – April 27, 2012, will unify and electrify the city, Washington, DC and the region will be abuzz with excitement. I wished we too had an event like that! Our Badamwari Festival centred on the Almond Blossoms has been a good local event. We could also obtain few thousand Japanese ornamental cherry trees and create a similar festival! It would be more attractive than the Tulip one!
After witnessing the festival, Mumtaz and his wife dropped at Mushtaq's house in Baltimore. After resting for a couple of days, I decided to undertake the last leg of my tour which was a visit to New York to look up Muzaffar Chisti. Mushtaq dropped me at the Baltimore Greyhound Bus station. He advised me that on return I should remain within the station premises and phone him for being picked up. He advised me not to go out and roam as there were many chances of being mugged! This time Muzaffar had not come to pick me up but asked me to get a taxi. They were now living in a posh locality of New York, the Riverside Drive and it was easy to get there by a taxi. They were very glad to see me.
As I had been to New York a number of times, Muzaffar just wanted me to visit Brooklyn and have dinner on top of the World Trade Centre. Also he wanted to invite friends for lunch on weekend which was near. First we went to Brooklyn to buy food stuff for the weekend lunch. In the evening, Muzaffar took me to the top of the World Trade Centre for dinner. There was a Club and a Restaurant near the top of the Tower. Entry to the restaurant was very interesting. At the reception desk in the ground floor when we told them that we were going to the Club Restaurant, they asked me to put on a black jacket which they gave me. No one could enter the Club without a jacket. Even though now I had a jacket, I was wearing blue jeans. The receptionist told me he had no instructions about jeans so I could wear these! I looked funny in a black club jacket and jeans. Well, that is the American way! From the top we had fantastic views of New York. I remembered this visit nostalgically when I saw the crumbling towers on 9/11.
The weekend lunch was quite lively. Muzaffar had invited Aga Shahid, the author of "Country without a post office". Zahid Khan and his sister were also there. Helene had prepared a number of dishes and everyone relished these. It was my first and the only meeting with late Aga Shahid. We chatted for a long time. We spoke about Kashmir. We discussed the life in America and so on. This would be my last interaction with the Kashmiri origin Americans. Most of them had got well settled in different walks of life here. However, everyone was pinning for the home which was in dire trouble. Something had to be done for this tragic land! But Helene would say about this, "Ashraf, they do a lot of pinning but no productive work!
Next day I left for Baltimore. As advised by Mushtaq, I stayed inside the station and waited for him. He came in the nick of time when the station was about to close! I stayed a couple of more days in Baltimore and then left for home via London and Gibraltar. This time I had a longer stay in Gibraltar and we took a trip to Portugal which I have described in earlier episodes.
Back in Srinagar in middle of June, I applied for extension of my study leave. We were entitled to two years paid leave. I wanted to avail it in full. Ashok Jaitly, the then Chief Secretary called me to his office. He told me that I had done enough of travelling and should do some productive work now. I told him that if he posted me back as the Director General Tourism, I would straight away utilize the experience of my foreign travel to promote tourism to Kashmir. If this was not possible then my leave should be extended so that I could prepare a very good report for the Government. He smiled and asked me to wait for few days. Just after two days Farooq Abdullah reshuffled his cabinet and kept the tourism portfolio with him. Next day I received a government order stating that after return from the study leave I had been posted as the Director General Tourism. Farooq Abdullah had changed his minister to bring me back! After this I had a five year continuous tenure as the Director General Tourism of Jammu & Kashmir. In a number of instances during those days I found that if Farooq Abdullah was convinced about something being right, he would go to any extent to support it! The things seem to have changed now! Well, it is said that the time is a great leveller! Thus end my travel episodes in Europe and America. Next I will be writing about my journeys in Arab lands!

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