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Category: travels (Page 1 of 2)

Letter from America: LIBRARY LOVE

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on September 1, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
library
I work at a college. One morning talking books with a friend, I realize that although I read a lot of crime fiction – set everywhere from Laos to Iceland – I have yet to read Dashiell Hammett, the master of American noir. At lunch, I stop by the library and pick up Hammett’s Complete Novels. Within a week I devour three, including The Maltese Falcon. When the next reading whim arrives, satisfying it might be just as simple.

I appreciate my access to libraries. It’s easy to take for granted. Life reminds otherwise.

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Flâneuring around Calcutta

On a recent visit to Calcutta, I learned a new word to describe what I sometimes engage in: flânerie.
     I heard it at the Oxford Bookstore where they launched Memory’s Gold, a new anthology on Calcutta. Amit Chaudhuri, the editor, highlighted a section of the book titled ‘Flânerie’. It includes pieces on adda and the cityscape of puja pandals. Looking up the word later, I discovered that it has no precise English equivalent but suggests aimless strolling through city streets. Balzac insisted, “To stroll is to vegetate, to flâneur is to live.”
     Just the day before the book launch, I had taken another long walk through Calcutta. I had no great purpose in mind as I tramped from Hastings to Howrah, then over to Sealdah. But once I approached Sealdah, my loitering took on a goal: the search for an address from the past.

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Brushes with Faith, Sin, and the Weird

I’m in my car, driving. The cell phone pressed against my ear, I’m listening to a funny story about Muslim speed dating in Houston. The next minute, my eyes take over. Just ahead, to my right, is the tallest cross I’ve ever seen, its metal body gleaming in the morning sun. A few dozen people are gathered at the base. Some are praying on their knees.
     I return my attention to the highway, Interstate 40 headed east. On the third day of my drive from Los Angeles, I had just entered Texas. The desert landscapes of New Mexico had given way to ranching land, dotted here and there with trees. The exit sign says Groom. Thinking anything’s possible, I wonder if the next town will be Bride. 
     After my trip is over and I have time to look things up, I will discover that the Groom cross is 19 stories tall, the second highest in the western hemisphere. The tallest — by eight feet — can be found in Effingham, Illinois.

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A stormy greeting in Dhaka

The morning I flew into Dhaka after a 10-hour flight from London, rain drenched me as I dragged my bags outside the airport gates. Within hours, the rain would burst into a three-day storm, with wind howling through tree branches and sheets of water that I thought would never end. Though it would shut me in for my first days here, I must confess: I had long missed this kind of rain.
    A cyclone had hit the southern coast and the news was grim. More than a thousand fishermen were lost at sea, and bloated bodies began to float towards the coast. The official death toll hovered near a hundred before the news about the storm largely disappeared from the media. I remember a time when such storms would inspire a storm of human activity, as people mobilized for rescue and relief. What happened to that sort of response. Has the country simply become weary of disasters? Are people just focused on their own lives?

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A tale of two cities: New Orleans & Detroit

Two cities, separated by 21 hours of driving and stops in Atlanta and Cincinnati. What comes to your mind when you think of New Orleans? Perhaps jazz and jambalaya. What could you remember of Detroit? Cars and the rhythms of Motown, maybe? Two majority black, chocolate cities. One's a place tourists used to flock to, the other one where tourists go by accident.
    One city displays fresh, raw wounds. The other the scars of slow bloodletting. Though neither is ready to accept death, a pall hangs over both.

On a hazy, humid Saturday afternoon in Detroit, I was lunching with my friend Karen who works as a librarian in a city school. This summer she attended the American Library Association's conference in New Orleans. The librarians held it there as an act of solidarity.
    On my road trip I had stopped in New Orleans just a week earlier. So we compared notes. Karen didn't make it beyond downtown and the French Quarter, while I had a full tour from old friend Kalamu ya Salaam: the 7th, 8th, and 9th wards, St Bernard Parish, New Orleans East and Uptown. And I took time to visit a corner of the Quarter and walk around Audubon Park.
    To Karen I described the neighborhoods where I saw streets and blocks of abandoned houses. On some blocks, I saw a handful of people rebuilding while the rest of the houses were standing vacant.
    Karen and I nodded in a moment of recognition. We both know blocks like this — in the east side of Detroit. The mind tries to relate what the eyes see to what memory remembers. And when I was in New Orleans, it immediately reminded me of Detroit. The destruction was more raw and fresh, more widespread and just one year old, but in time, the city could look like parts of Detroit.
    New Orleans collapsed under the blow of hurricane Katrina. Detroit's death agonies were slower and framed by two major disasters: the 1967 riots and the collapse of the auto industry in the early 80s. In between came white flight, disinvestment by corporate money, organized neglect after the city had elected its first black administration in the early 70s.

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Canada, the Atlantic coast and looping back

The great North American road trip is officially over. I started in San Francisco on August 1 and finished in Cincinnati on September 7: thirty-eight days and 7132 miles, passing through some 20 American states and one Canadian province. Someone back in Oakland, listening to me describe my planned stops, had said, oh you're doing a W with a flair. And indeed, though it's a W in the hand of a child, quite zigzaggy, it was a W with a looped flair at the end. Here's photos from the climb up to the northernmost point and the flair.

On a hazy, drizzly Sunday morning, August 27, I crossed the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit into Canada. The Canadian border official asked me why I was so far from California. I said I was traveling across the continent, visiting friends and family, working on a novel. He wanted to know where I had stopped last and where I was headed after Canada. I told him, Detroit, then down to Rochester in New York state. "And all these people support what you're doing?" I assured him they did. He returned me my papers and wished me a safe trip. I was relieved. In present times, relaxed border crossings are no certainty, especially folks like us burdened with names like mine.

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From the Gulf to the Canadian border

I've crossed the continent. I went down to the Gulfcoast and drove through the South, into the Midwest, into Canada, and then across the Adirondacks to New England. Right now, I'm resting in Natick, Mass. I've been working on a post about my visit to New Orleans, but until it's done, here are some more photos.

swamp

Interstate 10 from Houston to New Orleans passed through 20 miles of the Henderson swamp. A year ago, this highway was the evacuation route from the Gulfcoast for those headed towards Texas.

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Down to the flatlands

Here's photos from the trip, driving from Green River, Utah through Oklahoma south towards Texas. I went above 10,000 feet in Colorado down to the flat flat lands of eastern Colorado and Kansas.

Cliffs

Just east of Green River, Utah, I passed by these majestic cliffs that looked like heavily-fortified castles.

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God has billboards in Oklahoma!

As I drove south through Oklahoma City, I saw the billboard again. On a stark black background, the message in white letters said "I love you" in English, Spanish, and Chinese. It was signed "God."
         Last month when I'd also been passing through here during a family reunion, I'd seen the same billboard. And another one that said, "One nation under me." It too was signed "God."
         Now Oklahoma is squarely in the middle of America's Bible Belt. When I lived in Tulsa in 1972, I remember you couldn't walk far without running into a church. One I remember had orange flames of hell painted outside, no doubt warning you what lay in store if you strayed or was some sort of heathen.
         Why does God need billboards in such a place?
         And did he go to Clear Channel or CBS or whoever owns the billboards, turn in an application, a design of his own choice, and submit a rental fee? Did he have to show a bank account or a credit card? Was he asked for his SSN? Did he pay month to month or for eternity?
         While he was filling out the forms, did he pause to consider alternative means of getting his message across, such as skywriting? But that would have required him to hire pilots and rent airplanes, and again, there would be pesky forms to fill out. He'd probably need clearance from Homeland Security.
        Would it not have been simpler for God to simply shape some cumulus clouds into letters and words? And if he'd done that, wouldn't people have marveled at it and found it more believable?

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Signs in the mountains

I kept seeing the signs. On Overland Avenue in L.A. near where I stopped to visit my sister and nephew, as I walked each morning towards Venice Boulevard to get my morning coffee, I passed three small houses with signs. Psychic. Readings by Maria. Palm readings. Tarot cards. During earlier visits, I'd passed by those houses many times, but this time a part of me wondered, "Should I enter one of these houses — just for the lark of it?
    I'm a hardcore skeptic, finding it hard to believe that lines in your hands or a random pick of cards from a deck can tell anything about your life.
    The skeptic in me prevailed. I kept walking.
    In Boulder I would make a different choice.

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