New Year’s Eve, 1982. A 23-year old. Quite ignorant of the world except for what he had read in newspapers, comic books, and seen in movies. A Boeing-747 “Jumbo Jet.” A bath tub. A shower curtain. An international journey to a far-off country, an “other country.”

What do you get when you put all this together in a certain way?

Cultural near-disasters that form comedy material in the future.

Paradesha – another country – is a very interesting geography concept. It denotes among many things, unfamiliar terrain, where one may confront differences. Sometimes it may be hostile, at other times it may be touchingly humane. It is often a mix of both. What exactly the mixture is, depends on the circumstances surrounding the process of migration – the characteristics of the origin, destination, the reasons for the migration, etc.

The night of 31 December 1981 – 1 January 1982, I embarked on a journey in life that took me to a paradesha, USA. I was to join a Master of Science program in Environmental Studies at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. The boarding of the flight from Bengaluru (then Bangalore) for the first time ever was a … well, it scared the living daylights out of me! That take-off from the HAL airport was quite something!

Anyhow, boarding the jumbo jet in Delhi, en route to New York’s John F Kennedy airport (aviation call letters: JFK), via Amsterdam’s Schiphol (“skee-pol”) airport, was a weird experience. I entered through the front door and looked towards the back of the aircraft. My first thought was, “This thing can’t FLY!” How can something so huge FLY??

It did.

What’s more, there were very few passengers in the flight – New Year’s day, so not many travelers, I guess. So, I pretty much had the run of the place. I decided to take a window seat so I could see out into the darkness. First time in my life. It was amazing to look down from  more than 30,000 feet up in the air and see small blotches of light and realize they were cities. Occasionally, the captain would announce that we were flying over this or that particular city on our left or right and I would look out the window and marvel at the sight.

First of many stops was at Abu Dhabi. We were not allowed to get out of the plane. Forgetting all the geography lessons I had had in school, I pompously decided that I would stand just at the door on the stairway to the ground, and “look at the desert.” Except, there was no desert visible at that hour of the night. The time difference meant that it was middle of the night there. The longitude saw to that! Further, I was in a simple shirt and trousers. I stepped out of the aircraft and started shivering! Desert areas are quite cool at night! I ran back inside, put on my heavier jacket, and returned to see the sights. Not much. Just the airport at a distance and various very nice looking vehicles moving about. Soon, I returned to my seat.

We had one more stop at Athens (the one in Greece), then Schiphol. Here, we had a long wait and then another jumbo jet to JFK – hardly any passengers. Up we went. By now, we were rather high in latitude also, so there was quite a lot of heavy cloud cover. It was also daylight when we took off for JFK. How DO they fly this monster through the clouds? What if there is another aircraft in the way? I decided not to think about these things.

They kept feeding us all the time. Different things at different times. Lots of food, very few passengers. I didn’t quite know what I was eating, much of the time.

Among the items was a small plastic box with 4 squares. Dutch chocolate, obviously (this was a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight). One of the squares had a beautiful thin blue-line drawing of a ship with sails and whatnot. I decided that I would eat that chocolate first.

As I write this, I can feel the sensation as if it is happening to me just now! I bit into it. It was ceramic square! Not at all a square of chocolate. The pain that shot through my jaw into my skull! Later, I found out that that square was a particular artifact of the Netherlands called a Delft ceramic; this was a paper weight! The OTHER three were chocolates.

Eventually, landing in Columbus, Ohio, I took a taxi to a motel (motor hotel) where, having been flying for nearly 36 hours, I was exhausted. I desperately wanted to take a shower. Went to the bathtub. Super clean, gleaming white. I pushed the shower curtain out, drew it shut, and took a fantastic 20-minute hot shower. How soothing it was!

Showering done, I open the shower curtain and put my foot out on the floor only to find half-an-inch of cold water all over the bathroom floor! I was convinced that the bathtub was leaking. But, investigation showed no leak. What a mystery!

The next morning, I rode a bus to Athens. By that evening, I had found a room on the 1st floor of a big old house, with wooden floors. Time for another shower. But no shower curtain here. It was a sliding glass door.

Fast forward to two months later. I am at the library to study. Taking a short break, I leafed through an issue of the Readers’ Digest magazine, reading the jokes in it. One of them caught my eye.

At a convention of the national association of hotel and motel owners of America, its president was asked, “What is your advice to the traveling American public?” He looked straight into the camera and said, “Please! Leave the shower curtain INSIDE the tub!”

It was then that I realized how close I had come to a disaster in that old house when I took that first shower after reaching Athens! What luck that it was a sliding glass door!

I felt somewhat like Archimedes.

Such are the kinds of elements that one confronts when one migrates to a paradesha!

Learning about these things is a part of the process of migration that we call acculturation. Later, I will share with you some other aspects of acculturation and the two other parts of the process, called acclimation and assimilation.

Things you can do:

  1. What are the airport call letters for some of the cities that you can think of (provided they have airports, of course)? You could start with Bengaluru. Search online.
  2. Going from Bengaluru on this route: Delhi, Abu Dhabi, Athens (Greece), Amsterdam, New York City, Columbus (Ohio), and Athens (Ohio) there were changes in latitudes and longitudes. Plot them on a map. When it was 12:01 am on 1 January 1982 in Delhi, when I boarded the flight out of India, what was the time and date at each of the airports? (Remember that in some cities, the time is set ahead or behind for winter.)
  3. In traveling from Bengaluru to Athens, Ohio, did I lose or gain time? How much? Why?
  4. When I reached Athens, OH, I was very tired. There is a term for this kind of fatigue. What is it? What are its characteristics? What are its causes?
  5. Based on your general awareness, make a list of 10 things that would be noticeably different between Bengaluru and Athens, Ohio.

A version of this article appears in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 22 January 2015.


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