When I met a Mexican Vishy in a Texas Ghost Town

[Editor’s Note: On a musical day that started with Depeche Mode, moved on to Buena Vista Social Club, and continued with Omoro Portuondo and Getz/Gilberto in the evening, it wasn’t a surprise that I remembered this story and a 1993 road trip in West Texas.]

The man grinned widely, offered his hand and introduced himself.

“My name is Pablo. Is this your first visit to Terlingua?”

“Yes.” I said. “We are students at University of Houston. We came to checkout Big Bend National Park.”

He nodded approvingly.

“What did you say your name was?”

“Vishy,” I said.

Pablo’s eyes widened. He jerked back his head in astonishment, nearly knocking off his sombrero.

“No way! My friend’s name is Vishy too!” He pointed to a man across the room.

“You think I’m kidding, right?” I’ll go bring him here.

A minute later I was shaking hands with a short man in a full panoply Mexican attire. Grinning ear to ear, we shook hands and sized each other up. As my two friends and fellow journeymen (Soumya and Naveen) watched on with amusement, we did some polite small talk and eventually bid goodbye. Three Indians, two Mexicans and four first names. What were the odds of that happening in Terlingua, a small West Texas ghost town?

************

Our two years at the University of Houston were a simple blur of action.

  • Slog ass off from Monday to Friday (which usually meant a work day that started late and ended in the wee hours of the morning).
  • Do something different on weekends (don’t recall exactly what — maybe it was catching up on sleep and groceries)
  • Long weekends were special gifts. Gifts that couldn’t and wouldn’t be squandered away by staying within city limits. Simple three step formula: Rent car. Pick destination. Drive.

The destination didn’t matter (sooo.. many awesome destinations). The rental car didn’t matter (all of them easily touched 100 mph).

Pic courtesy wikimedia.org

Pic courtesy wikimedia.org

One such long weekend took us to Big Bend National Park. Here are some other memories from the trip.

  • The drive from Houston to Big Bend was negotiated with exactly one stop (in San Antonio) where we gorged ourselves on some Mexican burritos, tostadas, and chalupas. It was most likely Taco Bell. We were not the discerning gourmands that we claim ourselves to be (now).
  • Last 5-10 miles were rather nervous.. Ten meter visibility means, well, ten meter visibility.
  • Reaching the park welcome center around 2am and falling asleep in the car. Waking up at 6pm with a magnificent mountainous vista greeting us through the car windshield.
  • Dinner one evening at Alice’s Restaurant. It was a vegetarian restaurant! Yes – a vegetarian restaurant in West Texas.
  • Hiking along the banks of the Rio Grande river.. a boatman offering us to row us over to the Mexican side and we actually deliberated for several minutes before better sense prevailed.
  • A deer deciding to cross our path when we were cruising at 70 mph. Only Soumya’s deft reflexes and superb car control ensured that we stopped about two feet short. The deer calmly looked us in the eye (no ‘deer caught in the headlights’ look, no sir) and calmly crossed the highway while the three of us gulped down our hearts.

 

Memories of an American Life – First Two Years in Houston

University of Houston – Science & Engineering classroom complex (Pic: courtesy hayneswhaley.com)

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on my life in America spanning Houston, Chicago and SF Bay Area. Part 1 was Memories of an American Life – 4 years in Chicago. I arrived in Houston, Texas on August 16, 1992 with one friend (my friend & classmate from BIT Ranchi – Namita Raghavan). I left the city in October 1994 (headed to Chicago) with a Masters degree, several dozen good friends, and plenty of good memories. Below are some of my fond recollections:

  • Seeing Namita’s friendly face  at the airport.
  • My first experience of American freeways in Soumya’s tiny 1992 Dodge Colt with cars whizzing by on both sides.
  • Eating my first Pizza Hut pizza at Namita’s Cambridge Oaks apartment the evening I arrived.
  • Experiencing campus life at University of Houston during the first semester.
  • Starting my book collection via Houston Public Library’s annual book sale at the Astrodome. In Shiv’s words that day, I bought books like people buy potatoes.
  • Teaching Fortran Programming to a class of 45+ sophomores. Enuf said – I survived!
  • Interviewing at Compaq for an internship and learning that they had so many employee groups moving offices, they needed to build a system to optimize it.
  • Getting a summer internship at Grumman Technical Services and a brief exposure to a quaint 4GL called Peregrine Systems.
  • Buying my first car – a maroon 1984 manual transmission Volkswagen Jetta.
  • Tequila shots with Naveen, Shiv, Asmi, and a Mexican couple (pursuing Ph.D in Economics). Btw, no self-respecting Mexican does ‘shots’ – they drink their Tequila straight up.
  • Singlehandedly demolishing a large Pizza Hut pizza in under 30 minutes. My witness and co-glutton was my dear friend Naveen who, as I was his witness, also demolished a large pizza.
  • 36-hour Greyhound trip from Houston to Charlottesville, Virginia. Developed a fresh appreciation for vegetarian choices available in large cities (read “Houston”).
  • Exciting day at Astroworld – my first trip to a Six Flags theme park.
  • Continuing Soumya’s fine tradition of driving the 41 mile 610 Interstate loop in the wee hours of the morning as a ‘reward’ for completing assignments.
  • Driving Soumya’s Dodge Colt on 610E in the left lane and discovering that the brakes had stopped working. Thanks to my non-panicky copilot (was it Gorty?), managed to execute a sequence of nervy lane changes which eventually brought us safely to the shoulder.
  • Renting a Toyota Camry and driving nearly continuously (for 36 hours) to Minneapolis. My cousin Swarna (who was doing her MBA at Baylor University, Waco) was the fearless copilot. Getting my first ever speeding ticket at Huntsville (just 60 miles north of Houston) was the rite of passage. And to think that if Soumya hadn’t loaned me a fuzz-buster, I might have been clocked at 100mph!
  • Road trip to Tampa, Florida over a Labor Day Weekend with Soumya. Rental car: Pontiac Grand Prix with a moon-roof and fancy steering controls. We perfected the art of “zero stop” driving.
  • Awesome trip to the Big Bend National Park with Soumya & Naveen. We fell asleep in the car in front of the Visitor Center and woke up to see the majestic mountains up close. We dined in Alice’s Restaurant (a vegetarian restaurant to boot) in Terlingua – aka “Ghost Town”.

The road to Bangalore goes through Shasta, Portland, Cedar Falls, Chicago and New York

IMG_3122It’s official – we are moving to Bangalore. (Here’s more on Why Bangalore).

Before I made the 2-week scouting trip to India, Poonam had this idea for a road trip across US before our India move. It seemed like a pipe dream initially since there were so many things to finish before our move.

But slowly things fell into shape. We sold our house and had to move out on July 18 but we had at least 1-2 weeks of winding down tasks ahead of us. Instead of renting an apartment for a month, why not rent a car and drive across America, we reasoned. We could always do the address changes and other sundry tasks “on the road”.

We acted quickly. Booked our air tickets for a non-stop flight from New York to New Delhi on Aug 14 and set Jul 21 as the start date of our vacation. The goals of this trip were simple. It was our Farewell USA road trip and an opportunity to meet and bid farewell to as many of our friends and cousins as possible. Our trip consultant (Poonam) mapped out three different routes from San Francisco to Chicago.

The chosen route started from Pleasanton to Sacramento, went north via Redding and Shasta (in California) to Crater Lake & Portland (in Oregon), skirted Spokane (Washington) and then went due east and slightly south through Montana (Missoula), Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa before finally reaching Chicago. Return the Hertz rental at Naperville, spend 5 days in Chicago catching up with our friends and then hop onto an Amtrak train to Washington DC, spend 1 1/2 days with a cousin and two friends and complete the final leg (a short four hour drive to New Jersey) by road. This would give us about 8 days in NY/NJ area which was hopefully sufficient time to spend with the plethora of cousins and friends we have in that area.

It is Jul 28 and I’m writing this post from my friend’s house in Cedar Falls, Iowa. We started from Pleasanton at 13:00 on Jul 21 and reached Cedar Falls at 17:00 on Jul 27 covering a total distance of 3,000 miles. The only deviation from our plan was an extra day (in Oregon) since we started a bit late from Sacramento. Quick summary of our 7 days of driving:

  • Mon, Jul 21
    • Pleasanton to Redding. Highlight was the stop in Sacramento to say goodbye to BTV (a dear friend on a miraculous recovery path after a long stint in the ICU) – he actually said “Bye”.
  • Tue, Jul 22
    • Redding to Medford, Oregon. Highlight was Crater Lake (incredible and surreal).
  • Wed, Jul 23
    • Medford to Portland/Hillsboro. Spent the evening and night with my cousin & his family in Hillsboro. Kids had a great time playing with Nishaant and his toys. We were treated to a great home-cooked meal by Amber. We were pleasantly surprised and excited to learn that Amber is a budding fiction writer in the science/fantasy fiction genre. She has already published (read “sold”) her second piece to the Cosmos magazine. Check out Going Somewhere Else – neato! Poonam and I are trying to entice Amber to move to Bangalore to feed her writing muse.
  • Thu, Jul 24
    • Hillsboro, Oregon to Missoula, Montana
  • Fri, Jul 25
    • Missoula, Montana to Gillette, Wyoming
  • Sat, Jul 26
    • Gillette, Wyoming to Sioux Falls, South Dakato via Devil’s Tower and Mt Rushmore
  • Sun, Jul 27
    • Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Cedar Falls, Iowa

I’m having trouble embedding pictures so here’s the Flickr link: Farewell USA Trip in Pictures.

Update (Jul 2, 2012): Did some formatting tweaks and embedded one of the beautiful Crater Lake pictures.