Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXVII (Last visit to America-I)

My last visit to America was in the spring of 1998. This visit too had an interesting background. After my reinstatement in the Tourism Department as the Director General Tourism, J & K, I started facing problems with the higher authorities. I had been to Sri Lanka to attend a Tourism Mart (SATTE) and while returning, I was informed at Delhi Airport that I had been transferred as Director General, Sports. It was a shock to me after the events of 1996 involving my incarceration during the Governor's Rule. However, I did not join my new place of posting and applied for one year's study leave which was due to me in terms of IAS rules. That winter I left for Dubai to spend some time with my brother. Peter Montagnon of BBC who had made the famous series of programmes on Zanskar, "The last place on the Earth", contacted me, and informed that Channel 4 was interested in making a programme about the Tibetan Manuscript about Jesus Christ supposed to be in the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh. He invited me to London to discuss various details and sent me a full fare ticket through Emirates on Dubai-London-Dubai routing. As it was a good opportunity to travel once again to Europe and America, I got the ticket re-issued on the routing Dubai-London-Washington-London-Dubai by paying some additional amount. I stayed in London with Peter for a week and we met Channel 4 people to discuss various possibilities. They were very keen about the documentary and Peter proposed to visit Ladakh accompanied by John Purdie of Channel 4 in July or August.
From London I flew to Baltimore (Washington BWI) airport where my cousin Mushtaq had come to receive me. He was running a store in Baltimore and I stayed with him. I had been very keen to visit Washington and also pay a visit to Muzaffar Chisti who was now married to Helene Laufer. Mushtaq also suggested a trip to Toronto by road to look up his friends in Buffalo and Portland. It was still cold and the central heating was on. In fact, we had light snowfall after my arrival. The plan was that we would go to Toronto, then I would spend a week in Washington with my friend Mumtaz, and finally, I would visit Muzaffar in New York for a couple of days before flying back. So after spending a couple days with Mushtaq and his family, we started one day very early in the morning for Buffalo and Portland. Before starting I had purchased a road map and plotted the shortest route on it. Mushtaq was driving while as I was navigating and giving him directions for taking specific routes. Driving in USA is very easy as most of the roads are clearly marked and there is no chance of getting lost. We travelled on motorways where ever these were available. Otherwise we took normal roads with incoming traffic.
As there was a drizzle, one had to be careful due to the slippery road surface. It is better to have rain than light drizzle! We stopped at one of the junctions to have a pizza. They serve all sizes. We took two pizzas sufficient for a person. It was quite tasty. We reached Portland in the evening. Dr. Gilkar and his wife were waiting for us. They have a large house in a virtual estate with huge trees and some hills. The view was quite enchanting and I was feeling as if I was back in Kashmir in some country house except it was equipped with the most modern gadgets. We had a comfortable night and next morning we woke up lazily. After a good breakfast we left for Toronto. Just after start it had started drizzling. However, by the time we crossed into Canada, it was really pouring. From the border we took the motorway to Toronto. There were sheets of water falling everywhere. I got a bit scared as Mushtaq was driving almost 100 kilometres per hour. He told me that the roads function better in pouring rain as the tyres have a good grip. Drizzle is dangerous as there are many chances of skidding. It was really difficult when we were behind a long vehicle especially a trailer. It would throw a continuous sheet of water over us! We reached Toronto in the afternoon and went straight to Farooq's house. He was happy to receive us. However, the day was washed away by the rain.
Next day it was much better. Farooq took us for lunch to an Indian restaurant. We had a good spicy meal! We also went for some sight seeing. As I had been to Toronto earlier also, so I preferred meeting people than seeing places. Next day we started back for Portland in the afternoon. It again started raining. After we crossed into USA sometime in the evening, it started snowing. First there were some flurries but soon it came down like a blizzard. The roads started becoming slippery and we were very much slowed down. It soon became dark and we lost all sense of direction.
The snow was accumulating fast everywhere. The road signs too disappeared. We were so much lost that we crossed a bridge twice and had to pay the toll each time! Ultimately, after stopping at open shops and asking directions, we finally reached the house of Dr. Gilkar. However, while entering the drive way our car got stuck in the accumulated snow. It took us half an hour with shovels to free it. The warm house with a hot meal was quite welcome. We had to start back next morning. Late in the night it stopped snowing. I got up very early, around six in the morning, woken up by the noise of a snow-machine. The roads had already been cleared. These people must have been working throughout the night unlike the ones in our part of the world! I was also surprised to see a man clearing the internal drive way with a small snow machine. We started back after breakfast. For some distance we had snow on both sides of the road but then it disappeared. The roads were clear and we could drive fast. We reached Baltimore late in the evening. It had been a real adventure!

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