March 24, 2008

Adventures in US (Part 1) : The arrival

Prafulla was trembling like a miserable old lady. I could almost feel the lines that were going through his mind.. "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna". His eyes were blinking very fast, and I am sure, so was his heart. There was no reason for me to be worried from Praful's situation, except that he was driving the car on 101 highway, first time, and I was the backseat passenger. I was holding my breath. My hands were over my eyes and every few minutes I was making a small opening between my fingers to peep out on the road. Only to get scared and close it again.

About an hour back the world appeared to be a very safe place. My flight dropped me, safely, in SFO airport at sharp 6 pm. First time I landed in United States of America. First time I landed in a foreign land to be more specific. Everything appeared surprisingly easy. An Indian helped me to make a phone call to my dear friend Prafulla who immediately confirmed me from Sunnyvale that he will reach the airport in half an hour to pick me up. I successfully passed the exit interview and came out of the airport with an I94 stamping on my passport. Climate was cold and windy. Few minutes later Prafulla arrived with his big welcome smile and buddy Chetan. We happily started towards Praful's car which was parked in the airport parking area. Adventure started..

First we got confused with the elevators. We took the wrong one and landed in the basement. It took us few trial-and-errors to take the right elevator and arrive at the correct floor where Praful's Honda Civic was parked. It was here that I came to know about few not-so-encouraging facts of our trip home.

  • This trip, which was going to be my first highway experience in US, was also going be the first highway experience of my friend Prafulla, and as a driver.
  • Chetan was the only one having valid driving license among three of us, but he wont take the driving seat.
  • Prafulla appeared four times for the California driving license test only to fail each time.
  • If we were caught by "mama", red handed, my two friends will pay heavy fine and I would be deported back to my home country, not very respectfully.
I am a kind of optimistic guy so even the above facts could not move me much. I hoped a smooth and comfortable journey and relied on Prafulla's smartness to handle the situation.

No parking area ever looked so complex. There were multiple exits going to multiple directions from each floor with complicated description written on top of every exit about where it takes to. Again trial-and-error. To my surprise, and fear, I noticed that two cars were actually following us. They depended on us to take them out of this maze. Prafulla got some more people to rely on his smartness. Poor Praful! I can't write the words the drivers of those cars would have uttered for him, after they found that we guided them back to the same floor after making few rounds, up and down, in the building. It took us around half and hour to solve the puzzle and come out under the starry sky.

Hah! Finally we were on road. I felt relaxed, but not for long. In few minutes the hand-held GPS device on Chetan's hand took us to the 101 highway.

I never experience an adrenaline rush like this before. A huge highway with 7.. 8.. 9.. god knows how many lanes. Each lane carrying extremely fast moving cars, each one running for their life. I saw our meter showing 80 miles/hr. My Indian mind calculated it to be around 128 km/hr. Oops! My heart started beating faster. Speed of the cars surrounding us also added to my uneasiness. Specially the ones overtaking us making it look as if we were driving at 10 miles/hr. The only question that was circulating in my mind was.. "What iff..?" I repeatedly tried to imagine the situation after some "What iff..?", and every time I ended up with results more than escape velocity of earth.

Things didn't improve when my driver friend confidently announced his correct feelings about the situation.. "Mujhe dar lag raha hai yaar!". I clearly remember, my heart stopped for few seconds. I remember Chetan trying to console and encourage Prafulla for about fifteen minutes.. but none of his words entered my heart. All his words grew wings and were flying over my mind, I was already in a dream world.. beyond comprehension.

I woke up with a sudden scream from Chetan, "Breaaaak!". Praful did correctly. And our car just missed hugging another car coming from the right lane, by few inches. Apparently, the car did not show indicators while changing lane. Whose fault was it? How does it matter. There could have been no one alive from either car to tell that anyway. Thus, we narrowly escaped one "What iff?".

Somehow, the sudden incident worked in a very positive way on Praful. Taking few minutes from his driving, Praful patiently elaborated the genealogical ancestral chart of the rival driver's family with unmentionable words and he got unanimous support from his passengers. Once done, he appeared relaxed. He appeared bold. He slowed down his speed. I too felt better.

Soon after, the GPS indicated the approaching home. Home, never felt so safe.