Ithaca, Ithaca

 I woke up and looked at my watch and nodded to myself; the time was now 7 AM, time for me to get my lazy ass up. I stood up and stretched, yawned a little, and then adjusting my t-shirt, rolled my bag onto the nearest rest-room — which happened to be next to the gate — startling a woman who thought I was out for good. The couch in the DFW airport near the gate made for good sleeping, especially since the table next to it let me rest my feet on something as I curled up on the couch, trying to hug the cold from the AC away. Ironic. The temperature outside would hit 100 F soon.

I had woken up earlier that day at 2.45 AM in my warm bed, just in time to get ready for my shuttle to the airport, when I received the phone call. At first I was scared that the call may be from the shuttle company who had gotten here early — then I would have to squeeze 30 mins of activity into 5 minutes of rushed time. NeverthelessI picked up the phone to be informed by an automated voice that my Delta flight to Detroit at 5.40 AM (and then onward to Ithaca, New York) was cancelled and that I had been allocated a seat in another airline (called “Compass”) flying to Minneapolis at 8 AM, from where I would be ported to Detroit, and then finally to Ithaca, to arrive at my destination at 4.45 PM instead of the planned 11.45 AM.  I cursed my luck and ran to the machine. I pulled out the number of the shuttle company and asked them if I could reschedule my shuttle. I was told that rescheduling was possible only upto 4 hours before pickup. I cursed again and then went about doing things that I would have done, had Delta not called me and ruined my morning. I went in to the airport armed with two sandwiches, some strawberries and a fruit yogurt. I managed to print my boarding passes and before I hit security, found a DFW employee (a Malayalee with a typical accent btw) ready to part with her plastic spoon. I dug into my yogurt and then passed through security, only to settle on the couch that I would wake up from an hour later.

I walked out of the toilet, where I met my traveling-mate MJC — who had somehow managed to take a later shuttle and find some decent sleep at home. We walked in to the aircraft, where MJC was luckily allocated a seat in the Business class — he got oatmeal for breakfast, I got orange juice! We reached Ithaca without incident and as soon as I stepped out of the plane on to the airport, I said, ‘Damn, this is a small airport’.

Dallas was treating me well, with its super hot climate and its unbearably-concrete existence. I am not complaining. I was happy. The house I was living in was nice, the books I had been reading were interesting (more on that on another post), and I had been having a good time doing my thing! There was no reason to leave Dallas. I was happy. But then, duty calls right?

The airport was really small. Imagine the small houses that people somehow manage to eek out a living in — five people in a 100 sq. ft. box — that is pretty much what the airport felt like. The airport was so small, that the guy who attached the walkway to the plane was the same guy who scanned the boarding passes of people ready to board and picked out the luggage from the plane! Apparently Ithaca had a reputation for loosing luggage. If you are wondering how an airport as small as that could loose your luggage, the running joke was that the guy who pulled out the luggage was also the security incharge and drove people into town in his personal ‘cab’. So sometimes, when more than 10 people got out of the airport, he would stop pulling out the luggage and go drive his cab. After all the tips were better in the taxi business.

It was not that I had never been to the east coast. My first trip to the lands of the early settlers was in March 2010, when I visited NK in Indiana. I was terribly underwhelmed by Indianapolis — the city was dead and depressed and the people seemed to be terribly unpleasant. It may have been my imagination, but then I come from Austin and the people there are always ready to jump to your aid if you need it! I had a similar experience later that year when I visited Virginia. Was not too happy about that town either — and I never felt safe. It was as if the east coast, with its small streets and its green roads were hiding something squalid in their natural beauty. Don’t ask me to explain why — it is just that feeling you get, je ne sais quis! I did enjoy the drives through Virginia though; the roads were windy and wet and the weather during summer was at an ideal 70 F.

As I stepped out onto the small waiting area and called for a cab (using a red phone on which you do not dial anything — I felt like commissioner Gordon from Batman), I thought to myself that this trip was not going to be a pleasant one. The smelly cab which worked as a share taxi (the driver loaded up everybody who wanted to go anywhere and charged random amounts — no meter), did little to change my opinion. Our drive to our hotel did not help much too. The last straw was at the hotel — it was not in downtown, still, there was hardly anything around the place! We thanked our stars that we did not come in in the morning, as it had originally been planned. We got to our room, pulled out our laptops and used the (complimentary) wireless to search for good restaurants around town, and finally chose an Italian place that was highly recommended.

There are only a few places that I really like in the US, and Austin ranks right up there on the list. A little farther down is the Bay area in California — and that’s pretty much it. None of the east coast cities or states had made it on to my list. Maybe the east coast was not for me.

The trip to the Italian restaurant was uneventful, and nothing changed. But then, there is always a lull (albeit a really long one in this case) before the storm. The restaurant was top-notch — the service, the ambience, the food — all of it created a warm happy feeling that I seldom feel in a new town. I could get used to 20$ dinners! We walked out of the restaurant to what the owner/manager of the restaurant had described as the “Commons”. It was our walk back that completely changed my outlook. The houses were old and inelegant; however, each house had its own charm. The street was lined with green trees, the lawns were neatly mowed to keep the green grass at level and the houses jutted out on to the sidewalk, begging the pedestrians to take a step into their inviting foyers, and on to the chairs that were lazily thrown about on their white-colored patios. In some houses people sat smoking or drinking beer, staring out on to the empty street, and eyed us as we walked by — two strangers in what seemed like a pretty “white” town. The Ithaca commons was a set of blocks that allowed for only pedestrian access. The blocks were lined with local restaurants and bars, coffee shops and second-hand bookstores. We managed to quickly scan through one such bookstore before the guy working there kicked us out at 8.30 and pulled the shutters down. The glimpse was enough for me. I was in love. We walked through the commons, as we identified young couples in love watching a ragged band play a simple tune, and spotted a harp-playing woman who sat by herself at the corner of the street. We noticed happy people, we noticed the lack of restaurant-chains — local and small, the town of Ithaca had an old world charm. If it weren’t for the shitty weather during winter, I thought, I would not mind living here!

Things happen suddenly, as Chekov once noted. And my sudden change from intense-dislike to intense-like was not surprising to me at all. It is not that I am a fickle person, jumping from one position to another — in fact, I think I am pretty stubborn, it is very difficult to budge me when I have made a stand. However, nature has this sway over me that almost no other living person has. When I stare at nature, I am taken in by her wily charms. The way she seduces me with her green-tinged trees and her blue skies scattered with a smattering of the whitest clouds, is akin to a mating dance that a beautifully feathered peacock plays out in the rains to attract his female mate, and I fall for it every single time. As we drove back from the commons to the hotel (this time in a taxi that had a meter — the ONLY taxi service that did apparently), I started to appreciate the quaint sleepiness of this small green town. The single-lane highways with stop signs built between arching trees and the series of national/state parks and natural preserves that dotted the road called out to me. Nature was dancing and I was watching agape.

The conference (yes, that was why I was there — see the oblique reference to work in the earlier paragraphs!) was small and cozy, just like the town and was extremely well organized by Prof. SH — who managed to get everything right. The lunches were superb (they had my favorite orange-walnut salad!) and Cornell itself was wonderful. What I enjoyed more was the drive to dinner the first evening — again through the small roads, this time banked by a neat river/stream on one side and the green forests on the other. The dinner was SUPERB — a wonderful three-course meal that we partook in a vineyard that was situated right next to another blue body of water (where I tried to skip-stones — 2/3 was my max, I think I am growing old). The cool night welcomed us with her cold yet comforting embrace as we made our way back to the hotel. The next day passed quickly and I suddenly found myself back at the small airport that I had ridiculed when I landed. I looked at it and wondered what life would be life in Ithaca. Apart from my intolerance for cold, it seemed like a very nice place to live. No noise, beautiful landscapes, a small-town friendliness that I have only romanticized about, but never experienced; then I thought back to all the goals and aspirations that the human brain unforgivingly dumps on your back. I turned to the town and waved goodbye. I knew that settling here would be out of the question — I could dream however, could I not?

Anush