USA in turmoil : 1969 to 1971
It pleased me to think that I was going back to Los Banos again because I really liked the place. I also liked the Filipino people who seemed to be very friendly and were very easy to get to know. Of course I was dealing with the educated Filipinos in the university town who were different from the ordinary folks but my later experience with the ordinary people also proved to be just as enjoyable.
I stayed at the international house on campus and soon became very busy with the volunteers who came for training in the rice production that I was to organize . Again the Farm and Home Development office of the UPLB took over the training of these young people some of whom were to go to Laos and others to Vietnam.
I had earlier met with the scientist from IRRI in the IVS office in Saigon. It was he who helped with the practical training of the volunteers at the IRRI farm where they learned to plough the fields with carabaos pulling the instruments or plant the rice seedlings using the dapog method.
The Americans had never even seen the rice plant before let alone a carabao and had absolutely no idea what was involved in the production of rice but they learned and got dirty in the mud .
I met many people at IRRI but had no idea that this institute will one day play a very crucial role in my life . My fate was drawing me closer and closer to this country in an irrevocable way but I was not aware of it then.
After the training was over and volunteers left the country , I decided to stay on in Los Banos for a while. The cafeteria was next door to the international house where I took my meals so soon came to know Nellie and her gang . She was a very fair and pretty girl who was friendly and smiled at me from time to time.
After a few days of smiling one day she came over and sat down with her food tray next to me and asked my name . I felt a new beginning. Soon I was introduced to Teresita , Ling Ling and many others and we formed what the Filipinos called a bercada or gang of friends.
This new found friendship would last a long time .We used to from then on always eat together and go out together. Often we would sit on the steps of the Women’s dorm or the International House and strum guitars and learn to sing Tagalog songs together . The songs I liked best were Sarung Bangui and Silayan . We sang together and clapped our hands and thought tomorrow would never come . There were also a few boys in our group and they were the nicest Filipino boys I would ever meet .
Nellie and I would draw to each other like moth to a lamp. Who was the lamp was obvious . She even named one of her newly born nephews Anilito which in Tagalog meant baby Anil and she always waited for me everywhere when I was not waiting for her everywhere. This was not romance or at least I did not think of it that way but she was a very pleasant company and I think she and her bercada genuinely liked me.
Teresita and Ling Ling were also a lot of fun. Then there was Arlene who invited me to her home in Baguio up in the highlands where her younger sister took me around to show me the spots and her parents welcomed me . Back in Los Banos we continued our pleasant days but we all knew that soon I was to leave for the United States and perhaps never see them again which made all of us sad.
I still had one month of vacation before September when the Calpoly classes began so I decided to go to Japan and visit my exIVS friend Tadeo Hayashi who lived in Tokyo . My Filipino friends were sad but so was I .This was developing into a pattern. I had left many friends in Vietnam whom I would never see again but I had to move on so one day I flew into Haneda .
I easily made friends everywhere and was not shy .I tried new things and new places or new food just for the fun of it .There was a daredevil streak in me that I had perhaps picked up in Vietnam .
Tokyo in August of 1969 was very different from January .It was warm and sunny. Tadeo came to Haneda to pick me up so I stayed with his family for a few days and got to know his sisters who said I should call them imotosan .
The mother Hayashi soon sent me to the bathroom to disinfect .That is the proper word after all the grime of Vietnam but the Japanese are a very clean people so a bath was a must.
The bath room was tiny but so was everything in Japan. People lived in small but very functional apartments that were decorated plainly with tatami mats. In one corner of the bathroom stood a cubicle about 3 feet by 3 and about 4 feet tall covered with a rubber flap on top. This was filled with very hot water. I was supposed to get into that cubicle and roast so I washed my face and elbows and came out.
This of course did not fool the old lady who dragged me back to the bathroom and indicated that I must get into the cubicle to have a proper bath. Tadeo explained that I must put a foot slowly down and get used to the heat and then gradually get into it . It took me some time to get used to that inferno but slowly I began to relax.
I was soon given a small cup of hot sake to gulp down when I came out weak and sweating but very clean . I choked not realizing how strong the rice wine was but it felt good . I was learning the merits of Japanese bath and sake first hand . The warmth spread throughout my body and I felt as if I had been given a new life. The truth was not too far from it.
My stay with the Hayashi family was full of fun. I learned a few words like konnichiwa, kombanwa ,imotosan, arigato kozaimasu, chutte mate kurasai etc. that I practiced a lot later on my own. They took me to many places of interest in Tokyo like the Ginza, the Ueno park and the Imperial palace. We once went to an immense swimming pool where 10000 people gathered so just imagine the size of it . There were many pools and waterjets so it was great fun.
One day they took to me see a grand spectacle in Asakusa where I saw the dazzling performance of dancers and actors on vast stage. The settings, decorations ,the glitter, lights and stereophonic sound was like nothing I had ever seen anywhere and was very impressed. The manager of the theater asked me if I liked the show .The word like was the understatement .
Then Tadeo took me to a festival called Bongodori where people in yokattas danced around a platform where huge drums were giving the beat. There were paper lanterns everywhere and people wore traditional Japanese clothing that I found quite attractive.
It takes some time to get used to the crowd in Japan though .In the subway trains , at the Ikebukuro station , on the streets and in fact everywhere one saw the elbow to elbow crowd . Once I went to see a movie but that was a big mistake. They always sold more tickets than the number of seats so there were always a lot of people who stood at the back and made a mad dash at a seat when anyone got up .I could not fight such crowd .
The crowd were on the street one day mourning the death of Ho Chi Minh whom they admired . This frail old man had the lion’s courage to stand up to the might of French and later the Americans but died before his homeland could be free.
In the trains you had to inch your way toward the door a few stations ahead of time otherwise you could never get off during the short time the train stopped . The Japanese were a friendly people and always gave you their cards that they always carried .
But the trains in Japan are fast and punctual .I took the bullet train to Kyoto one day and was amazed how fast the train really was. Outside was just a blur but a glass of water on the window sill could not spill . I also noticed how mountainous the country was .There were a few patches of green here and there intensely cultivated but the rest was sheer rocks and endless tunnels through which we passed at a very high speed . Kyoto was far but the train was not called a bullet train for nothing .
At the railway station I asked some people if they could suggest a place to stay but no one understood me . It was getting dark and I was eager to find a place to stay but the problem was the language . English was far from becoming a world language at least in this part of the world . The Japanese people at the Kyoto station were having fun gawking and endlessly chattering but finally a kind soul arrived and in a few broken words told me that indeed there was a place just near the station that he could recommend.
I walked to the inn and found it to be a delightful place. There were some ex Peace Corps volunteers staying there as well so I was in good company because no one knew a town better than a Peace Corps volunteer. The rent per day for a bed space on the tatami floor was 500 yen which was not much. I remember the Japanese girl with big glasses who knew only one word in English. ” You stay? ” To which we nodded and handed over the 500 yen for the day. It was a routine every morning .
The TV was always on whether some one watched or not and mostly not and the bath time was a mad rush because unlike in the west the Japanese baths were a communal affair where 10 or 12 naked Japanese would get in so the water was not very clean afterwards so to speak hence the rush to be the first in and out . What took time to get used to was the sight of the naked Japanese in the bath tub casually chatting . I could never get totally naked which they just thought funny and laughed.
The Japanese food is excellent .I found that all the restaurants displayed their dishes outside in a showcase with their names and price tags so it was easy to just point to it when the waitress came to take the order. The display was made of plastic but looked very real . My favorite dish was Unadon which was steamed eel with rice. I also tried sushi in Tokyo once.
At this time the Japan government was getting ready for the Expo in Osaka so learning English to cope with the international visitors was given a priority and many Americans staying at the inn got jobs there but I went out everyday to look at the shrines and temples .Some of the most famous shrines were in Kyoto like the Ginkakuzi and Shinkakuzi temples.
I do not know why but girls in most countries are friendlier than boys to foreigners and Japan was no exception. All you had to do was to smile at them and ask them for directions. Then they will be all over you chattering in English because seldom they get the chance to practice what they learn. I mean you have to be very old and ugly to be left alone and I was neither very old nor very mmm. Often they followed me around for blocks insisting that they accompany me to some place. It got to be embarrassing because I did not mean to distract them from whatever they were going to do before we met.
Once I went into a big store where I asked for a hand painted Japanese scroll but I did not know the word for scroll . The manager did not understand and shook his head although I tried my best with pantomime, toilet paper etc. but nothing worked so he called for more help that soon arrived. They all chattered incessantly but could not decipher what this foreigner wanted . I finally left when I noticed that they were calling for more people.
One night I went out with a Peace Corps volunteer for a stroll downtown and found a beer pub in a dark alley where the Japanese were gulping down beer like water. The place was full of acrid smoke of cigarette . The Japanese took immediate notice and swarmed around chattering but we just smiled because we did not understand a word. Soon tall bottles of Asahi beer appeared and they urged us to gulp it down although it was not my style.
As soon as we finished the first bottle, new ones arrived and they would not let us pay for them. The Japanese were having a whale of a good time but we were in trouble so we left after a while to their disappointment.
Further down the lane we watched with fascination an old Japanese metal craftsman bent over a piece of brass and engraving it . He invited us into his shop which was also his house. Soon many women and children arrived and sat around us talking at the same time and brought in bowls of noodles and chopsticks . They urged us to eat and kept on offering more food.
I had never known such hospitality to total strangers anywhere .It was so nice. Finally we got up to leave saying arigato a number of times. But the old man was not finished with us yet. He gave us each a piece of engraved brasswork as a parting gift to our utter surprise.
Japanese people are full of delightful surprises as we were learning. I met a Japanese fisherman who invited me to go night fishing with him in the sea where he used his trained cormorants to catch the fish but I was advised by some that it was a risky adventure so I missed my chance of a lifetime to see how a cormorant caught a fish without swallowing it . The trick I was told was in the ring around the neck of the bird. The fishermen were very smart indeed. This was a land of contrast where there was bullet train as well as kimono . Men wore yokatta with a black sash . In fact the mother of Hayashi made me a lovely yokatta .
I liked Kyoto very much where there are so many peaceful shrines. One shrine had a rock garden where one could sit whole day in meditation looking at the while pebbles that the monks raked very artistically around big rocks . If you looked at them for some time, the rocks disappeared and looked like waves lapping against the mountains .The temples were splendid with shiny pillars and grass roof .The stone lanterns leading up to the temples through greenery was uniquely Japanese.These people did nothing half heartedly.
I spent many days in Kyoto not wanting to go back to the crowded Tokyo but one day had to leave. The bus ride to Nagoya and on to Tokyo was quite nice but what surprised me was that the bus driver stopped in many places just to tell the waiting passengers that it was full. In India the buses never stopped to show such courtesy.
Back in Tokyo Tadeo said that one of his uncles wanted to meet me so one day I had a nice talk with him over delightful Japanese food. He was a very curious person and found in me a goldmine of information about India and Vietnam. I asked if he had ever heard of our national hero Bose who had come to Japan to seek help from emperor Hirohito to fight the British.
He shook his head and said that the name did not mean anything to him until I wrote it down. Then his eyes lit up. Oh yes, he said . Everyone knew and admired Bosei for his courage . The emperor gave him a lot of support during the world war but sadly Bosei died in a plane crash somewhere.
I surprised the Hayashi sisters one day when I said that Hideko Takamine was known to Indian intellectuals and movie fans . They were delighted that I knew about their idols . In India Bengalis are not as isolated as they appear to be because they are voracious readers of anything in print. Often we read about foreign countries ,their art or literature or personalities. Gogol, Dostoevsky or Pushkin were widely read albeit in translation .
Soon the wonderful vacation in Japan was over and the time came to say goodbye to these friendly and hospitable people. I will never forget the Hayashis as long as I live.
This time I arrived in San Francisco from where I took the bus to San Luis Obispo . The classes were to start soon . Passing through San Jose, Salinas, the Steinbeck country, Paso Robles , Atascadero etc. I could see the scrub oaks and pastures full of cows until we came to the hills of San Luis Obispo.
The oil rigs in the northern part bobbed up and down everywhere and the wide highway full of speeding vehicles reminded you that you are in the United States where almost everyone drives a car.
You also noticed the Howard Johnson or KFC signs everywhere . People here gobbled up fast food as if it was the only thing to do . Everyone seemed to be in a hurry going somewhere . There were huge trucks with trailers loaded with new cars for delivery but every town had an used car lot .
The state of California is the premier agricultural state but the south is drier. It is also a very long state. It took me more than 7 hours just to reach San Luis Obispo which is halfway down on the coast but I finally I arrived at Calpoly and was put up in the most modern newly built dormitory called the Yosemite Hall . I had been to San Luis Obispo earlier on my way to Minnesota in January so I was somewhat familiar with the campus.
I had arrived in the United States at a crucial time when the entire country was going through the soul searching for answers to the war in Vietnam .There were massive protests all over the country against the war and the pro and anti war protesters often clashed with dire consequences . Many young people fled to Canada or elsewhere to avoid the compulsory draft and some went to jail in protest.
But the mood of the government was ugly .It kept up the pressure on Vietnam by increasing the bombings that now included Cambodia while negotiating for peace in Paris but peace was still many years away. Almost everyone had an opinion pro or con on the issue.I stayed out of controversy although some people knew that I had just come from Vietnam and knew first hand the situation there.
My room mate was from Oklahoma who was a nice chap and chased girls all the time when they were not chasing him . The infernal telephone rang sans cesse because his numerous girlfriends would not leave him alone.
At last I was once again a graduate student after that hopeless stint at the College in India. I wish the arrogant principal of the College could see me now but I did not gloat. I had long hard studies ahead of me but my professors and adviser were really great . They helped me out with my study plan and gave many valuable advices .
Here the graduate students were mostly left alone to decide what they wanted to study although they assigned a professor to guide you. I made steady progress towards a MS degree but the only problem now was money. I did not have enough to cover all my expenses so I took a part time job in the cafeteria cleaning tables and later a night job to clean classrooms.
I also tried my hands as a short order cook and a tire repair man but did not last long. The night job earned me just enough to pay for some expenses.
The dormitory living was fun but at times the fun got out of hand like the time my room mate was seen collecting pennies although would not say what for. We were to soon find out. He was a very naughty fellow and always up to some mischief.
Our dorm had so called towers because it had a unique architecture. It was built on a mountain slope so all the towers were at various levels. We were in tower 7 . The next day the tower 8 boys were frantically banging on their doors that they could not open from inside and all got locked in.
Soon the manager was called for help who trotted up to find pennies wedged between the door and the jamb so no one could turn the knob. It took a long time to pry out the pennies one by one and let people out some of whom were late for exams or other classes. They were indeed very furious and started to hunt for the culprit . It did not take them long to find out.
I came back to find that the reprisal was swift. Our room was full of shaving cream that stank for weeks even after cleaning up. Not only they had identified my roommate who had wedged the pennies ,they thought I was in it too. It was useless to say that I was innocent although I did give some pennies.
I had never seen such a terrible mess. When I wondered how they had gotten into our locked room, someone explained that they did not have to. All they needed was a paper bag full of shaving cream, stick it under the door and bang the bag. That did the job and did it well.
Then there was a fellow who had the habit of singing aloud with his microphone that disturbed everybody. This fellow was very afraid of tarantulas . Sure enough one day some big nasty looking tarantulas were found in his bed that freaked the fellow out .The hills behind the dorm were full of them. This time the culprit was not found but my roommate had a knowing smile on his face.
I was getting used to the American campus and specially the dorm life. All kids of pranks were the order of the day here. One half of the dorm was for the girls and there was a common lounge but the visiting hours were lax.
Then there were the nights when boys raided the panties of girls . I was amazed to see the girls dangling their underwear and boys chasing to get them .Whatever made them do such foolish things was beyond me but I was told that these were college traditions here.
One night there was a water balloon fight. We filled up balloons with water and dropped them on unsuspecting people below from our windows. They even drenched the security police one night with a hose. The engineering students were probably the most mischievous. When one student asked them how to make a blinking light in his window, they advised him to put a penny in the socket and then put the bulb on. Soon the entire dorm plunged into darkness that led to more mischief.
The dorm organized many parties when students munched pop corn, danced or watched movies . I usually stood aside awkwardly because I did not feel comfortable dancing with girls but a freshman called Debbie took it upon herself to teach me some lesson. Here holding hands or kissing was common and I will not go into details about what else they did but this sort of thing was common in a mixed dorm like ours. The manager was an old woman with owl rim glasses and dangling chains who ignored most of the shenanigans until things got out of hand once in a while .
In our dorm lived a Vietnamese girl I will call Tuyen who was small like most Vietnamese girls but cute . She said that she was from Cantho where she had lived near the IVS office . We became friends and often we went to a Chinese restaurant and talked endlessly about I can not recall what amid the tremendous din the Chinese made . I never understood why the Chinese restaurants were so noisy and why they had to shout to order food .
Anyway Tuyen and I were often seen together because we could not escape unnoticed from our dorm. There were always some students sitting on the front porch brushing their hair or just sitting and noticed everything especially when two people were seen together more than once. This led to gossip among them but we ignored.
Another thing was that the Americans went on dates in blue jeans and tee shirts but Tuyen and I always put on our best clothes. This was a spectacle they never missed and often we could hear their comments. Nevertheless Tuyen was a pleasant company and I think she enjoyed talking to me as much as I enjoyed her company but one day she said that she had a boyfriend all along . I did not know this so I stopped abruptly . I am sure the hair brushing students noticed but making and breaking was nothing unusual on an American campus .It happened all the time.
Many years later Tuyen would flee Vietnam and pass through the refugee center in the Philippines on her way to the United States again where she would be granted residency, marry her boyfriend and live somewhere in California . I have lost contact with her.
In the dorm I had no less than 3 room mates in one year. The Oklahoman moved out one day when he declared that he was getting married. Now I had known his love affairs a bit but he really surprised me by that announcement because he was marrying a girl he had met a week earlier.
The second fellow used to sit with his feet into a hot bath every night wearing some sort of welder’s goggles holding an arc lamp to his eyes. When I asked what it was all about , he said it helped clear his brain which I believe was foggy most of the time.
During Christmas of 1969 the dorm was vacated so all the American students went home and the foreign students like me were sent to foster home in various places. I was sent to stay with a kind lady in Lompoc who also took me to Santa Barbara .
There I joined a group singing carols and “we shall overcome” protesting the injustices and war in a peaceful manner. I saw the anguish of parents whose sons had become hippies in protest.
The Calpoly campus was considered a conservative campus where aggies in Stetson and blue denims and cowboy boots menaced anyone with long hair or protesting the war but one day I wore a black armband that students were passing out and got a lot of nasty stares. I was an aggie so what was I doing wearing the armband ? I often spoke about the war in churches where old women would listen to me very attentively and pressed on some coins in my hands to my utter embarrassment . I was not doing it for money.
During the Thanksgiving holidays I was surprised when an American came out of his house and invited me to dinner proving that there were many kind and generous people in this country. The children were absolutely charming and they loved my story telling. I got on well with kids in any country except perhaps Algeria but I will tell you about them later.
Now the time had come for me to find a cheaper place to live so a friend of mine found me a room in the Wesley House just off campus.
But Wesley house was not any better. It was cheap living but I never got to know any of the 9 Americans who lived there .They were small town boys who did not show any curiosity about me . One of them asked what I was listening to on my short wave radio . It was BBC but he had never heard of it so I said I could also get VOA and many other stations. He had never heard of VOA either . The only radio they knew was the AM/FM radio that people had in their cars. These were college students.
At first my roommate seemed like a nice fellow who liked to walk with me in the moonlight and chatter but one day he fell off his bunk bed on my study desk and shattered the beautiful porcelain eagle that I had received as a gift from someone in Hong Kong. Only then I came to know that he was on drugs and had other mental problems.
Luckily he moved out but in came another weird fellow who one night insisted on bringing me up to a mountain top in his jalopy to show me the lights of San Luis Obispo. I was really annoyed because it was 2 am and the lights of San Luis Obispo were nothing to rave about.
I found them to be very mediocre and strange but I had my night job and daytime studies so I was very busy or tired to mind them. I painted the house, fixed the lawn and even found an old carpet for the living room but they did not care and often cleaned their motorbikes on the carpet.
The stupid telephone constantly rang and it was always girls because between them they must have had a platoon of girls chasing them.
They would bring in dogs who felt free to chew up my brand new and expensive boots . In short I did not enjoy staying there a bit and was bidding my time when I would graduate and leave.
I did not have many friends after Tuyen and I parted ways. My Vietnam friends lived far from the campus so I rarely saw them. Then in one my classes I met Alice who had very blond hair and brown eyes. She was very friendly and said that she liked me a great deal. I came to appreciate her as she was always ready to come to my aid when ever I needed it.
Once we went on a field trip to Yosemite National Park. Americans pronounce it Yosemiti I do not know why. Anyway Alice and I became good friends and talked about Oh I do not know what . She would show up at 2 am to pick me up and bring me to the Greyhound bus station when I could have taken a taxi easily but she said that she liked to. We had a lot in common .We were both outgoing and curious about the world.
I was at this time invited to speak to a distinguished gathering of scientists in Cape Cod , Massachusetts where the topic was the abuse of defoliants and its effect on people in Vietnam because I had some first hand knowledge of the 2,4,5-T called agent orange . The Americans sprayed it on the rubber plantations in Tayninh to flush out the Vietcongs .The spray often drifted onto banana plantations and killed the plants.
I showed some slides and spoke about how devastating the effect of defoliation was in Vietnam .Others spoke about its effect on soil poisoning and mixing with the food chain that led to deformed babies or abortion. I met some very prominent scientists there and one of them a Cambridge professor kept contact with me for over thirty years .
Then in December , the executive director of the IVS in Washington DC asked if I would join him at a conference of voluntary organizations in Varna, Bulgaria so I took some time off from my studies and went to Bulgaria. Alice was very impressed and brought me to the bus station .
My Bulgaria trip got off almost on a wrong footing when someone put my luggage on the belt bound for London .The poor Pan Am agent ran to retrieve it and put the correct tags. A disaster was thus avoided and I was on my way to Paris where I stayed a few days before going to Sofia. The airport in Sofia was practically deserted when I arrived one evening but I waited because I was told that someone will receive me and fix me up somewhere for the night so I waited what seemed like a long time.
Finally a girl arrived and said that I must wait some more because she had some other business to take care of and will return soon but she did not. So I took a taxi and asked to be brought to the Tourist Bureau .It was late at night but they were open and friendly .They asked if I wanted a hotel room or a private home . I opted for a private home so they gave me a chit of paper and told the driver to bring me there.
The driver finally found the house in question in a narrow lane but the lady of the house first wanted the chit of paper before she would open the door an inch . After these formalities I was shown to a room where a wood burning stove stood in one corner giving some heat and not much else. Although the language was a problem, I tried to break the ice by trying to explain that I was going to Varna etc. but they remained impassive.
Finally I had an idea. I pulled out some slides of New York and showed them with a view finder. They were truly amazed. Remember this was 1970 and Bulgaria was a virtually closed country at that time. I was lucky to get a visa to visit the hermit kingdom . Anyway the hunger pangs started to hit me but the lady made it clear that the agreement was just for a bed so I ventured out in the cold dreary night of Sofia looking for a restaurant.
The wide boulevards were empty and I saw no sign of any restaurant although I had some basic knowledge of the Russian alphabets and could read signboards. I had no luck so I wandered for quite some time until I saw a place where people were eating so I went in and ordered some food.
Soon I was surrounded by the noisy Bulgarians who wanted to talk to me and know where I was from etc just like in Kyoto. I explained as best as I could but the conversation was not going anywhere with pantomime. Soon a plate of omelet, thick slices of bread and a huge bowl of yogurt arrived.
The bread was a bit rough but I was not about to complain so I chewed as best as I could .Soon more bread and omelet arrived but I had enough and wanted to pay and get out. Now I was in for a great surprise. They told me that it was not a restaurant at all but a canteen for the factory worker and the food was mostly free . I was very embarrassed and wanted to pay and get out quickly but they were having a great time and would not let me go. They did not accept any payment and kept on asking me all sorts of questions.Some offered me their foul smelling cigarette but I declined and finally extricated myself from that mess .
The next day I found a crowd at the airport all going to Varna to attend the same meeting but the snow was heavy and the runway coated with it so the Varna flight was cancelled . There were many nationalities .The Italians had obviously come well prepared for the cold weather judging from the bulge in their great coats from which they imbibed liberally and offered me to partake as well . Finally it was announced that a flight to a place called Turgovische or something like that was leaving so we could all take it and take a bus from there to Varna.
This was good news so we all got on before they could change their mind or the weather got worse. This was no time to be choosy although the propellers reminded me of that awful plane from Sri Ram Pur to Kolkata long ago. It was cramped and the fat Bulgarian stewardess kept on bumping my shoulder with her behind which was doubly annoying. She passed on some tough candy that tore up my mouth but at least we were going someplace.
Now in Turgovische which was a very small airport we looked in vain for something to eat and raided the small cafeteria that had nothing so a fellow was sent on a bicycle to fetch some bread and cheese and some wine.
My companion and seatmate was a six foot tall German girl called Heidi who shared some food with me but it was not enough.The Italians drank their dinner but the problem now was how to get to Varna. This problem was solved when a lone rickety bus made of wood and belching smoke showed up.
A crowd of farmers or town folks was waiting for this bus for a long time but they were told that the foreigners had the priority and would get on first. They did not like this one bit and I am glad I did not understand their language to know what they were saying. I am sure it was not praises. Not knowing a language can sometime come in handy . Anyway the bus that was shaped more like a boat than a bus took off through the country road.
Now the Bulgarian bus is unlike any other bus I have ever been on. I mean I did not mind the hard seats and the poor shock absorbers but they continuously played some sort of marshal music that began to grate on my nerves and nearly empty stomach. So I looked outside the window to notice the peasants working, chicken free foraging and all manners of farm equipment ,tractors, trailers,carts, horses etc. The buildings were sturdy and farms large. Obviously we were passing through a very agricultural area.The road was narrow and the driver a bit too fast to my liking but we finally arrived in Varna in one piece which was good.
Varna is on the black sea and a beautiful resort city . It was modern and had interesting architectural designs although I admit I am no expert in designs.The beach is proudly called by the Bulgarians Zlatni Piasatzi or the golden sands . The town looked empty this being not the tourist season . We were lodged in a nice hotel right near the beach . One could see many ships with Russian markings reminding you that you were in their backwaters. North of Varna was the border of Rumania and Odessa was not too far. I had studied my geography well.
The meetings were endless where everyone wanted to make a speech as if speech making was going out of style. At the end of the meeting the Bulgarians hosted a grand champagne party and a high ranking official came to address the gathering. I was very impressed when after a long speech, a Bulgarian interpreter translated it verbatim without notes. Afterwards there was dancing and a lot of champagne but no one danced with poor Heidi. She was over six feet tall but I did not mind .She was only 4 inches taller.
There was one evening when we were invited to the ballet downtown that was very well done. One woman tersely asked me not to take photos but on the whole the Bulgarians were formidable host and did everything possible to make our stay enjoyable. An excellent pianist played during dinner and the food was very good.
I was ready to leave after the delightful stay in Varna but an unexpected problem arose .There was a cholera outbreak in Turkey so all the flights to Istanbul were cancelled stranding me in Bulgaria. The Pan Am New York did not respond to many telexes I sent to reroute me so someone suggested that I take the train to Istanbul.
There was another surprise waiting for me at the hotel but a pleasant one this time. They said that my bill was paid by the Government because I was a state guest. The Bulgarians also enjoyed such privileges in India so I thanked my Indian passport silently and asked the driver to bring me to the airport. This he did ignoring all the red lights as we were a bit late already but I found out that I had left my coat in the hotel.
So the poor chap made a rapid u turn to fetch the lousy coat and brought me to the airport up to the plane that had already started the engines . A frantic waving of hands and rapid fire Bulgarian worked miracles and the pilot opened the hatch to let me in . But my troubles were not over yet so read on.
In Sofia I went to the train station and asked the help of a Polish fellow from Poznan to find me a ticket and a sleeping berth on the night train. Now some kids saw me with a camera and asked me to take their photo and insisted on taking my photo as well so grabbed the camera from my hand. They were a bit overly playful but the result was that they dropped my camera on the cobble stone and soon disappeared to my dismay.
In Sofia I went to see the famous cathedral where long robed monks were singing in a delightful way that echoed in the high vaulted dome but the basement was full of marvelous religious paintings of Madonna with baby Jesus and various other themes. I saw icons there that were hundreds of years old and most wonderful. There were crucifixes and chalices as well.
The train left promptly at 9 PM bound for Istanbul and I found my seat. So far so good but the night was not over yet. At around midnight we had crossed the border to the Turkish side when two policemen knocked on the door and asked to see my visa . But I did not have a visa which made them nasty and they asked me to get off at the next stop and go back to Bulgaria to get one. I looked outside and saw a dim kerosene lamp flickering at a lone empty station so I decided that I was not going to get off that train unless they threw me off like Gandhi .
When the policemen saw my resolve, they changed their tune and said that they could give me a visa for twenty dollars worth of Turkish liras. This was however, easier said than done because no one gave me liras in exchange for my traveler’s cheques on that train although I knocked on every door pleading. Finally I returned to my seat and locked the door from inside so the policemen could not bother me again that night.
The next morning there was a knock on the door again but this time it was a different policeman . I explained that his colleagues were really nasty although I thought the Turkish people were really very nice and he himself looked like a nice chap. A little bit of buttering works miracles at time.
He apologized and said that he will give me a visa for three dollars but he could only take Liras. I then came up with the idea that I could pay at the airport because it all goes to the same treasury , right? He agreed and stamped my passport.
At the airport in Istanbul I vented my frustrations at the Pan Am agent and said that it was their responsibility to look after their passengers and did a very poor job of it. He said that he will try his best to put me on a flight to Delhi and called me later to inform that a seat had been found on flight to Beirut from where I will connect to a BOAC flight to Delhi.
At that point I was willing to be routed through Timbuktu if that helped so I went to Beirut . But my ordeal was not over yet . In Beirut they put me up in a hotel by the sea front but forgot to pick me up for the flight .I called many times to no avail .Finally a taximan showed up and said that he had trouble finding me because the airline gave him the name of a wrong hotel so I was to hurry up because we were late.
When I arrived at the airport, I found the place empty and no agent anywhere so I pounded on their door to get some attention. Finally a fellow emerged and said that I was too late .The flight had been closed and taxiing out . This was absolutely the last straw. I had gone through a lot trouble to get here and it was not my fault that I was not picked up on time .
I asked the agent to call the tower and the tower to the pilot who was still on the runway .Maybe he will open the hatch and take me on board. The chances were slim but I had to try. It so turned out that the pilot was in a good mood and decided to take me on board . So the hatch opened , stairs brought in and I got on.
Remember that those were the days before the three hour check in and endless body searches. Now try to get on a flight that has left the parking and you will know what I mean.
Then we sat on the runway for an hour. The reason was that there were more than 50 unaccompanied kids on that plane and one kid was missing. The pilot absolutely refused to take off until the kid was located so a tedious process of roll call began .The kid was later found. He was just being a kid and having a bit of fun playing hide and seek.
I of course went to Sri Ram Pur and after a few weeks there decided to stop by Manila and Los Banos again to see if some of my friends were still there. I found that many had graduated and left Los Banos but Teresita was still there and it was she who took me to Lucena to look for Nellie . There the trail led to Manila where Nellie lived in a place called Gagalangin Tondo . This place is notorious for crimes and thievery but I went anyway.
Nellie was very surprised to see me but we went to ride in the bus that the tourists took to see the famous sunset in the Manila Bay and while we were enjoying the sunset, she said that she was engaged to be married to a Moslem fellow from Mindanao. The sunset looked so ordinary after that. I do not know why I was so upset . She was definitely not my girlfriend so why was I upset? I do not know. But I do know that nothing was the same afterwards and I soon left for Hong Kong on my way back to the United States.
However, something very interesting happened while I was in Los Banos this time . One day I was talking to a scientist at IRRI who seemed to be very interested in what I did in Vietnam when the deputy director general walked in .I was introduced so he asked a few questions and was about to leave when I blurted out that I liked IRRI very much and would someday like to come back here to learn about rice research given half a chance . Could he by any means consider me for a scholarship ?
He was a real gentleman and said that the first thing to do was to apply and then IRRI will decide whether or not I qualified and even brought me an application form . I thanked him and took the form with a promise to send it to him with supporting documents later. This would in the distant future develop into an extraordinary story that I will write about soon.
So I returned to San Luis Obispo after spending few nights in HongKong. I went to Macau by boat from HongKong but the Portuguese officers there would not let me off the boat .India had taken over their colonies of Goa, Daman and Dieu so I was the victim of this geopolitics.
I had just made my second round the world trip not in 80 days but just as adventurous as that of David Niven but now the time had come for me to write my theses and finish up the graduate studies at Calpoly
My professor and adviser was a very kind and helpful person who gave me a lot of help , his labs to work in and his instruments to draw my illustrations so one day in June I graduated ,wore my toga to listen to S.I.Hayakawa who made a long and boring speech.
At this time a wonderful news came from IRRI that took me completely by surprise. They offered me a one year full scholarship to do rice research there and said in their letter that they had found my qualifications very good.
But I had by this time committed myself to go to Algeria for two years as a volunteer agronomist with the IVS so I could not accept the IRRI offer. They were very gracious and said that if I was interested in the future to go there then I should at that time re apply and they will reconsider my case.
The Calpoly chapter was closing but not before I mention that there were many who helped me. Friends like Alice, Tuyen and my professors made it worth the hard work that was required to graduate. Dr.Fisher had not forgotten me and inquired about me from time to time. He was a very kind person.
There were many joyous occasions like the Poly Royal carnival, various concerts, music bands, football games, kite flying, Christmas parties in Lompoc ,with my foster families in town and later in Atascadero, the trip to Rosamond in the Mojave desert, up the highway to Big Sur, San Simeon and the Hearst castle etc. The rodeo games and the county fairs were really interesting and truly American.
Alice one day brought me to the bus station at night and we said goodbye never to see each other again . She would later get married to a forester and live somewhere in California .Her gift of a native American charm with a strand of her golden hair tied to it to ward off evil still decorates our home although sweet Alice has disappeared forever from my life. I do miss her.
The long road to Washington state was tedious but I wanted to see Lauren and Roger there before leaving the west coast for good. She now had a baby called John and Roger was still trying hard to get into the Veterinary school . It was really good to see them . I recall the time we spent on Mt.Hood last spring throwing snowballs at each other and having such a good time.
We reminisced a lot about Vietnam and our mutual friends.They had visited with my family back in Sri Ram Pur and I had visited the mother of Roger in Connecticut . Now I was going away not knowing when or if I will ever see them again .They were very good people and good friends.
Now I had to go back to Washington, D.C. where they had arranged for me to take intensive lessons in French. I needed to speak French in Algeria. The old friend Hubert was waiting for me in Washingon and gave me a tight hug. Remember Hubert of Ba Xuyen who lived like a pig ? He had fixed me up to stay at a dormitory near the Dupont Circle and take my lessons at the Sanz laguague school down town.
The Sanz language school in downtown Washington was a shabby place where they gave me a very cold room and a blackboard. There I met a very beautiful and young girl waiting for me. She was obviously French and spoke English in a lilting French accent that bowled me over right away.
She said that she was Nicole Gautier and I was her only student and she expected me to learn to speak French in two month’s time . I said that I was an old goat and learning a tough language like French was a bit too much to expect but she smiled and said we will see . She was determined to make me learn the language.
So we started the routine of je vais , tu vas , Il va etc. and the difficult French grammar and conjugation. The rules were so complicated. I soon started getting into French because after 8 hours a day ,6 days a week one had little choice in the matter . She had said that I will speak French or her name is not Nicole . But another matter soon came up. I was getting a bit tired of the Sanz because the airconditioner malfunctioned. One day I asked her how much Sanz was paying her per hour to which she was reluctant to reply but I insisted to know. I had a very good reason.
She said they were paying her 3 dollars an hour. I was surprised. The Sanz was charging 6 dollars an hour and making 3 on her and giving us a lousy cold room to boot so I promptly told them that I was no longer interested in taking lessons there. Then I convinced the IVS to pay her 4 dollars per hour so everyone was happy except Sanz. But who cared about Sanz ?
From then on Nicole and I became best of friends. We could now take lessons anywhere so we went to the zoo to learn about animals or Georgetown market to learn the names of vegetable and fruits etc or often we sat in the park near Dupont circle to took lessons there. I also made rapid progress to her delight but I was not fluent yet.
One day my old Vietnam friends invited me to a get together where a pleasant surprise was waiting for me . It was Suzanne. I could not believe this and did not know that she was in town . Remember how I felt about her in Saigon? Here she was ,the same and even more beautiful Suzanne.
When she came up to say goodbye, I blurted out that I had often thought what it would have been like had I known her more .I had kept it to myself because she was going with some one but she was incredulous and kept on looking at me. Finally she said that she had no idea that I would be interested in a plain girl like her . She was just being modest .She also said that she had broken up with her partner a long time ago and was working in D.C.
I did not know what to say or do because I never thought I will ever see her again but here she was in Washington, D.C. in June of 1971 . I could call it fate or something. The days passed rather quickly . We had so much to talk about and so much remained unsaid.
If Nicole noticed anything ,she did not say but one day she said that she would like to meet this girl who had cast such a spell on me. They got on splendidly as soon as they met but Hubert was in the dark and we kept him so. Suzanne was always late for appointment or it seemed so because I was always waiting for her somewhere.
She brought me to a place called Monticello in Virginia where a former president lived and kept slaves in his basement . The house was ordinary but a stern old woman kept on yelling at kids who touched anything. She also brought me to the Shenandoah park and many other places. A concert near the Potomac river or a movie in the open air somewhere were many events I enjoyed . I remember the movie. It was the “The Man called horse” and the “Little big man”.
We even talked about our future together and wrote to Nirmal about her. He was very happy that at last I had met someone I could live with and welcomed her to the family . This was very gallant of him because I could sense the storm this news must have been causing back home. I came from a very traditional family where a marriage outside the caste or religion was unthinkable .
Our time passed quickly but I also made steady progress in French. One day I went to a store where Nicole admired a necklace so I had it secretly packed for her and gave it as a surprise at my farewell party . My time in the United States had come to an end and I was soon to leave for Paris. Hubert and many other friends came to the party where I talked to Hubert for a long time that annoyed Suzanne and she said so later.
Nicole was a wonderful girl .I will never forget her. She was also very French and crossed streets anywhere she pleased red light or not. Once I saw the red light and asked her to stop but she went ahead anyway and found a policeman waiting on the other side. I had not seen him standing there so he must have hid himself . Now he asked Nicole for an ID and fined her 5 dollars which took her by surprise. I too got a ticket so a lesson was learned.
Nicole said that I should visit her parents in Compiegne .
But something had already gone wrong with Suzanne and I could feel it. She drove me to Dulles one day where I gave her a pair of earrings. We were saying goodbye again but this time I could feel that it was more than that. I think she was more mature than I and knew at that time that nothing would come out of our new found relationship. I was born to be a wanderer and she was not. She had told me one day that she did not care to live anywhere except in the States but for me living in the States was out of the question .I did not belong there.
I was going where I wanted to go , out to Africa where I would work with farmers like in Vietnam. Suzanne knew this and believed that I was a determined person but so was she. We parted as friends but I never saw her again and do not know to this day where she is and what she does.
In the air I spent a lot of time thinking about it and felt sad. She had come into my life like a hurricane but that is what she exactly was, a hurricane. As you know hurricanes never last. They always move on leaving behind devastation . I am not a weak person and do not feel downcast easily but she had an effect that was hard to overcome. Perhaps time would cure it as it usually does. I looked forward to landing in Paris once again.
In France I was to visit the Gautier family in Compiegne as I had promised Nicole so one day I took the train from the Gare du Nord. Nicole had drilled me well so getting to Compiegne was not difficult. The Gautier family was delighted to receive me and went out of their way to make my short stay very enjoyable. They brought me to Pierrefond castle, Napoleon’s palace, the foret de Compiegne where Marichal Foch had signed the armistice with Hitler and many other places of interest .
Mme Gautier brought me to Chantilly and the musee there that had excellent paintings of Rembrandt and others so the few days passed rapidly. I would have a chance to visit with this wonderful family again but now I had to leave France because Algeria beckoned .
Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography: