My brother Jayaraman and I toured the USA in July-August 2015. Mostly we visited our relatives, and met some friends. We visited some museums – and a memorial : what I’d like to call a Science Yatra. But we also had some fun. When we visited Ramanujam, our cousin’s son, in Rockville, Maryland, which is near the US capital Washington, DC, we went with him to Harper’s Ferry in the neighboring state of West Virginia, for a day of zip-line adventure.
A zip-line is literally a rope between two trees (or perhaps, in more adventurous versions, two cliffs with a canyon between them). Ziplines seem to have become a popular daytime activity recently. I don’t remember any in the 1990s, which I mostly spent in the US. I spent three years in College Station, TX, where my adventures were mostly exams, homework and occassionally playing basketball. Then I spent three months in Phoenix, Arizona – and had two wonderful vacations.
Once to Yellowstone National Park, 1200 miles from Phoenix; I rented a car and drove most of that distance back and forth, and since most of my earlier car trips were twenty miles or less, driving was the major adventure. The second time was a trip to Las Vegas where I kept my money, and to the Grand Canyon, where I kept my footing - I hiked a mile down the canyon in very slipppery shoes, cheerfully reassuring my friend Anil Annadatta that it was less dangerous than it looked, and avoided all talk of insurance or last wills.
I moved to Seattle in September 1994, and in the five years there, I developed a love of nature and outdoor sports and activities – whitewater rafting and skydiving were perhaps the two most adventurous things I did. I tried skiing a couple of times, but the cold put me off, even more than the several falls on hard concrete when I tried roller blading in Texas. At various times, I tried water skiing, kayaking, rock climbing (indoors only), paragliding once. The one activity that never appealed is bungee jumping. I wanted to go scuba diving, but never overcame the inertia. Someday. I’ll never forgive myself for not yet whitewater rafting either on the Brahmaputra, or in the much nearer Coorg part of Karnataka.
The zipline was new. While in California a fortnight earlier, I saw an ad for zipline through the canopies of the Sequoia forest, but I had some logistical difficulty renting a car, so reluctantly didn’t try it. When Ramanujam suggested we zipline when we visited him, I jumped at the chance and roped (sorry) my brother in.
Ramanujam had already been on other zipline tours in more scenic places apparently. He wanted to zipline over deep ravines or rapids with the occassional crocodile snapping at his heels. That morning at Harper’s Ferry, even the mosquitos were taking it easy.
So he was a little disappointed. But Jayaram and I were quite excited. And the whole trip was totally enhanced because of the constant chit chat and banter of our guides, Patrick and Dakota. Guides in America, especially on outdoor activities, are often a delight. Most of them have a terrific sense of humor (their school teachers and family members may disagree vehemently), and are trying to liven up the situation. During this visit, I found quite a few docents in museums quite informative and delightful. Our bus driver, in LA, from our hotel in Anaheim to Universal Studios in Hollywood, would have been a successful standup comedian in the 1980s or 1990s. (Today’s standup comedians seem far more vulgar and politically partisan).
Patrick and Dakota knew their jobs, but they were intent on jokes from the start. And they kicked off with self deprecating sardarji type jokes popular in India, but about West Virginia – which is not far from the capital Washington DC, but has a reputation as a rustic rural state. The popular silly stereotypes about West Virginians is that they are poor, uneducated, not sophisiticated, ungrammatical, casual about hygiene,etc. In Texas, they talk about Louisiana and Arkansas thus, in Louisiana (and perhaps Arkansas) they mock Alabama, and in Alabama they mock Mississipi. In Seattle, they mocked small towns like Enumclaw and Bothell. No different from the bhadralok of Calcutta mocking Biharis ; or Bangaloreans and Bombaywallas snobbing over the rest of India. No doubt the people of Mississipi and Bothell pine away in their beds, lamenting their inability to learn from the morality of Hollywood or the gentle civility of New York.
So Patrick shoots: “How do we know that a West Viriginan invented the toothbrush?” Dakota answers, “Anyone else would have called it a teethbrush.”
“Why are the fences in West Virginia like the US Congress?” “Because they are all crooked and pointing at each other.”
|Patrick, Gopu and Dakota|
|Fences in West Viriginia|
And on and on. On the bus, on the walk from the bus to the trees, on the treeposts, while we waited for each person to zip off to the next tree, all the way. Jayaram and I cracked a few jokes we knew too, and they had a few chuckles. It’s amazing how much care they took to suit up each person, make sure all their straps and buckles are in place, went through a back and forth protocol over walkie talkies, and ensured that every safety precaution was followed. For anyone who grew up traveling on bus footboards in India, and see the utter chaos of our traffic, the disregard for safety among construction workers, drivers, pedestrians, electricians, even parents for their children, American safety standards are amazing. Patrick repeatedly warned Ramanujan from mindlessly fiddling with his buckle – “That’s the only thing keeping you from falling off the rope . Fiddle once more and I will let you off the group, and you will have to walk back from here,” he warned. It worked. Jayaram said there were people at Niagara falls who simply refunded your money and wouldn’t let you on the boat if you didn’t wear a life jacket. At Kanyakumari, on the ferry from the mainland to Viveknanda Rock, they barely have enough life jackets for each person, and half the passengers wont put them on. No one cares.
|A beautiful spot, from the tree top platform - |
Virigina, Maryland and West Virginia meet here
Here are some videos of us ziplining at Harper's Ferry
The diligence and the sense of humor go well beyond adventure tours. I visited quite a few museums in the US, in what I’d like to call a Science Yatra and the docents who guided us around were quite excellent too. On Sunday, I guided some school teachers from Trichy around the Bronze and Amaravati and Sculpture galleries of the Egmore museum, on Badri Seshadri’s recommendation. They enjoyed it, though they could only see a selection of exhibits, in the two hours that I wandered around with them. Only the Tamil and History teachers stayed with me, the Science teachers were interested in other things. I will write about docents separately.
My other adventure essays
You might enjoy these other essays on my American tour also
- Science Yatra
- Sophie Wilson - at the Computer History Museum
- San Francisco Botanical Gardens
- At Stanford Universtiy - The first Google Computer
- At the Library of Congress - ஞானதேவதைகள்