Monday, March 13, 2017

Yeh Hai Amrika

This was my first trip to America after almost 12 years - during which I made multiple wonderful trips to Europe, visiting Spain, France, Portugal, the Nederlands, Italy, Switzerland, and the UK. For the first time in over a dozen earlier visits to America, I did get a chance to really get out into the country, away from the they-all-look-alike downtowns. From the majestic snow-clad Yosemite National Park, to the beautiful Pacific coast, and the vineries of Napa Valley, this trip was really about seeing a much more palatable America.

However, some things haven't changed at all. A profusion of fast food chains have only deepened the obesity crisis, and you have to actually see it to believe it. It's like a different species of humans altogether, and I guess 300 Kgs no longer gets eyeballs in the US. Pull over at highway stops, or walk through downtown looking for some grub, and all you can see are Pizza Huts, Taco Bells, McDonald's, Burger Kings and Starbucks. Yes, there are the odd restaurants, of course, but I'm a foodie, and after 8 days in the US, I have only ONE meal to reminisce about. I miss the street side cafes, the mom and pop ice cream stores, and the wonderful and varied cuisine that's an absolute delight no matter what restaurant you walk into in Europe.

The small talk continues. Whether the receptionist at the hotel, or the lady at the spa, and it's not just the weather that's fair game. Not that I mind it, but when you are on a 350 km drive back after a long day, sometimes you really don't want to listen to incessant, irrelevant chatter between the tour bus driver and everyone else on the bus! Europeans are a lot more reserved (expect the wonderful Spanish!), Indians have no respect for peace and quiet in public spaces, and the Chinese never ever talk to you, but the Americans - well, they are a different breed right? :)

The cops. Where are they, America? I mean, in a whole week in the States, I must have seen like 5 or 6 cop cars on the streets (and 2 of them pulled over where I was having pizza to grab some grub)! In contrast, especially in continental Europe, major cities look like they are at war with heavily armed soldiers and armored vehicles at every nook and corner. Aah, the luxury of being surrounded by oceans, and the freedom to lecture the world without having to face it yourself. Jealous!

Some things have definitely changed. I saw a lot more gloom and negativity all around. Dozens of homeless men in the streets, something I never noticed in the US a decade before (also very rampant in mainland Europe now). And the TV ads. OMG. Even on news channels like CNN, half the ads are from legal services, encouraging you to sue someone or the other, on some pretext or the other! And the other half are equally depressing - mortgages, insurance, old age care - at low cost. No energy, no smiles, nothing about living your life! Compare it to Indian television, and the contrast is so amazing!

The news channels are the same, though. So many petty discussions on Trump, a distinct shift from reporting real news and analysis, and instead, pandering to their biases. CNN, for one, desperately needs a revamp to stay relevant as a news channel - it's starting to feel more like a anti-Trump tabloid! And we are talking about the legally elected President of the world's oldest democracy, not a dictator in a 3rd world country!

A decade back, I used to gawk at the 10 lane highways, the fast cars, the subway systems and the infrastructure in general. But that's another thing that has changed. India has seen a dramatic change in its infrastructure, and roads like the Pune Mumbai expressway (not to mention the Yamuna Eway) can beat many US highways for surface quality. Yes, a lot more needs to be done about road discipline, and pollution and smog is a serious problem (so obvious when you come back to India!) that will take at least a decade to tackle. But we are getting there!

And maybe it's just in my mind, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable when white men asked me where I was from. Maybe it was the Trump effect. But I have never felt as insecure and unsafe as I did this time in the US. Now that's a trend that desperately needs to change.

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