Saturday, October 22, 2005

Amtrakking Across America

We've run out of things to write home about. So we'll just regurgigate something written over a year back, and point at the blog and say, "Its alive!!". Also a chance to see if this photoblog thingumabob works in the specified manner. Notes on a Philadelphia-Chicago-Oakland trip. Thanks are due to
  1. Falstaff (who, we notice today, also writes of "Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax...") for the...ah...inspiration
  2. Veena, for effortlessly making us feel very inadequate vis a vis American experiences :).
June 13, 2004 - Concourse, 30th Street Station, Philadelphia

Me: Excuse me, but do you know if the Three Rivers Express starts from Philadelphia, or does it come from somewhere else?
Large, male [speaks very slowly and clearly]: This [expansive gesture here]
Me: Do you not understand the words that are a-coming out of my mouth?

Of course, I didn't say that. Wish I had. I am filled with a sense of foreboding that this is a taste of things to come. Heaven knows what he took me for. Is this to be expected from all Midwesterners? Living in Massachusetts for nearly seven years hasn't prepared me for dealing with homo sapiens midwesternus, I suddenly feel under-equipped.


There is a girl sitting next to me, writing a letter on a brown paper bag. Of course, I catch a glimpse. "I'll miss you very much..." etc. etc. References to the possibility that recipient of said letter may end up going to Iraq. An example of someone's life being touched by the occupation...

Her name is Maggie, and she wonders why someone would photograph rolling stock. How do you explain you're a train freak? She's a high school graduate, starting pre-med in Penn State in the fall. She doesn't seem to be very excited by the thought, although she did mention that she got a scholarship ("I'm supposed to be smart, I guess...") Her siblings all went to Penn State. She likes cheesy horror flicks. Cabin Fever, Aliens, Predator, Alien vs. Predator. Of course, I promptly recommended Jeepers Creepers. She is starting college in 2004, and we like the same cheesy movies. Maybe there is some hope after all!

Somewhere in Pennsylvania

Rolling green, copses in the distance. Gray afternoon to be leaving the east coast for good. As gray as it was on the Greyhound from South Station last week. Later on, we follow the bank of a river, traveling upstream. Hills, hills, hills. The occasional smokestack. Deer Hunter country?

Altoona, PA
A number of Amish get on the train. They are so different from everyone else, I feel a strange kinship with them. Minority-minority bhai-bhai. They speak American, when they speak English. And a kind of German (I guess) otherwise. We're traveling downhill now, towards Pittsburgh.

Next morning
Toss and turn fitfully in the seat all night, never really falling asleep. Doze off in the early hours, wake up to find that all semblance of hilly country has disappeared. We’re in Indiana, or Illinois. And it is flat flat flat as far as the eye can see. But it isn’t a desolate flat – there are farms, and grain silos, and trees, and the rising sun is just beginning to scatter the pools of mist...

June 14, 2004 - Union Station, Chicago
The train took forever to get to Chicago. An hour late.

Took the Metra to ____'s place. Shower, lunch with him and ____. Back to Union Station by Metra. The concourse in Union Station seems to be the most crowded in the world, next only to Madras Central! They announce the California Zephyr soon enough, and a small snake of passengers detaches itself from the throng and wends its way to the Zephyr, all two storeys of it, waiting quietly on Track 26 in the sepulchral bowels of Union Station.

We have to walk past several freight cars before the passenger half of the train begins. California bound people have to get on the last car, and I stow away the backpack, take out all the books and camera, kick off my shoes and sink into the comforting navy blue-brown of the seat. A few minutes later, two pretty girls get into the same car, the cake is now iced. A few more minutes elapse, and a strict matronly conductor comes in and asks us to "Find seats upstairs." Apparently we’re too fit, and the lower level is reserved for the not-so-fit. I debate whether to show her my delicately swollen ankle, and the extra post-marathon tyres around my waist, but give up, mostly because the girls begin to leave.

Upstairs, its brighter, more crowded, and there are no window seats. Out of frustration, I plonk myself into an aisle seat, next to a lady who is large and seems grumpy (in the manner of Midwesterners). Rambha and Urvasi aren't to be seen, they're in the back somewhere.

As we leave Chicago, a number of voices from the PA system tell us
  1. What train we're on
  2. Where the bathrooms are
  3. Where the dining car and lounge car are
  4. What the next stop is
  5. Where the bathrooms are
  6. When pillows will be handed out
  7. They're sorry for the number of announcements
  8. Where the bathrooms are
  9. What the next stop is
  10. The menu

Chicago,IL - Denver, CO
We're off. Sprinting (in the words of one Disembodied PA Voice) across Illinois. We stop at Galesburg, unremarkable except for being the birth of Carl Sandburg and a rail museum.

We cross the Mississippi (Verily, the Poet has said, "First Emma comes, then I come, then two asses, then I come again, and two more asses, and then I pee pee, and I come again.") near Burlington.

The food on board is wrapped in plastic, expensive and insipid. The lounge-cum-cafe car however, is worth the visit. The views are great. I sit and read in the fading light. Also manage to strike up conversation with the lady next to me. She's OK, returning to Omaha, Nebraska after visiting friends in Michigan. Works at the University of Nebraska, has desis in her hospital, wants to drive to Alaska, and is not as grumpy as I'd imagined!

"Dinner" is pizza and tuna salad sandwich. Yuck. There is a movie in the lounge car afterwards. Which is nice. Sitting with fellow satiated passengers, and a cup of coffee, as the sun plays a very short symphony with the hills of Iowa, watching Gene Hackman and Ray Romano in the gathering dusk.

In the middle of the night, we pull into Omaha, Nebraska. This one place I never expected to see in my life, but here we are. Not much of a city by the looks of it. My neighbour gets off, and I rejoice at having appropriated the window seat and try to fall asleep. Alack, this is not to be. A gigantic man, in a beard and dark glasses, with walking stick, plants himself next to me. Which event per se is not such a big problem. Other than leg space issues (Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar has something to say about the conceit of the long distance rail traveler that I can't remember).

Just as I begin to doze off, neighbour starts snoring, and keeps it up with impressive volume, periodicity and continuity for the rest of the night, and into the morning. I don't get a wink of sleep and wash up at the unearthly hour of 6 a.m. Next morning, Hagrid gets off at Denver, which is a blessing.

The scenery has become flatter and more arid, after we left the Mississippi behind, but far away to the west, there be mountains! With snow glimmering on the tops. Mountains...I get muchly excited by the thought of the train going through all that. My dreams are dashed.

June 15, 2004: Denver, CO
20 minute stop. A bunch of schoolchildren in T-shirts that say, "From Wyoming to San Francisco and Back!!". Were told by Disembodied PA Voice (Lugubrious) that the Moffet Tunnel is closed, and so we'll go through Wyoming on the Union Pacific line. What this turns out to mean is that we don't go through any mountains, gorges, tunnels. Instead, from dawn to dusk, there is trackless Wyoming.

With "smoking halts" at Laramie and Green River.

The day passes in reading, writing, and chatting with the others on board. By now it is clear that the novelty of the trip has worn off for most. The kids are antsy and even the grownups' patience is wearing thin. In the evening, we cross into Utah, and the scenery becomes more palatable. Beautiful sunset.

Not a whole lot to write about, and "The Great Railway Bazaar" to read means that not a lot of thinking gets done either. The entire question of what to do in the fall is still there, a gaping hole in the future. We are in the Great Basin now...

[Scheherezade saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent...]

NOTE: Remaining pictures are online. The train of thought, as it were, ran out of the steam of energy and inspiration at this point, and didn't pick up again till September 04, 2004, in Madras Egmore. But that tale will have to be told some other time.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Two movies, a book, and a quizzer's place

Come, come. Surely, even you can't come up with such a beautifully contrived title for a post. Cinema Paradiso is definitely one of the better things to happen to movie lovers in these parts. One is circumambulating Nagarjuna circle (clockwise) a la Ganymede around Jove, as one often does, and then one catches a glimpse of a store that calls itself "Cinema Paradiso". With heavy heart, and virtual certainty that this will be a gigantic letdown, one detaches oneself from Nagarjuna's beguiling centripetal charms and propagates rectilinearly into said establishment. " 'pon my word, what do we have here?" [This is the little rational choice idiot having fun. See here.] Shelves thickly stacked with all kinds of movies - there's your Kurosawa, your Ray, your Truffaut, your Godard, your Hitchcock, your Tarantino, my Emmanuelle Beart, your Schwarzn., your Wong Kar-Wai, my Meryl Streep, your Woody Allen and so on. Started by Santhosh, a cinematographer, "Cinema Paradiso" can now be found in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Hyderabad.

Veena (methinks) had a post at Yossarian Lives about the Tamil movie Autograph that had been in the pending list for a while. So, this becomes movie #1. And truly, it is as they say, thoda hatke hai. The director takes you on a romp through an autobiographical and autographical (as in everyone he knows signs his autograph book) journey through his past, mostly about the girls and women he fell for. #1 is a classmate from high school, this part was done rather nicely, one thought. #2 is a classmate from college. Turns out the bloke studied in Kerala, so this part of the movie is all backwaters and elephants and kai kotti kaLi, mohini attam, kathakaLi. The story though, isn't as credible. What with our 'hero' from Tamil Nadu de-boating a gang of slimy, oil-slick Mallus because they taunted him; the girl's pop being some kind of modern Capulet or Montague pater familias; and so on. #3 is not really a 'love interest'. This one is a colleague who inspires the hero/diro to pick himself up, 'become something in life' (aambleah aNaa vaazhkayilu vaazhapazham yada yada (The last bit is from Seinfeld, but its very confusing with the italics, isn't it? Tee hee...)). This tries to deal with the "we're just friends" aspect of man-woman relationships. Hmm. On the whole, the movie is decent. "A welcome change from the standard fare", as they quoth. But nothing spectacular, at all. The Tam chauvinism bit was played up a little bit too garishly (the interior Mallu speaketh). Hopefully, better stuff will emanate from the same crew soon.

Apparently, all self-respecting intellectual cinematic types are supposed to have seen many Truffaut works. Self had not seen even one. This was remedied, thanks to Cinema P. Les Quatre Cents Coups became flick #2 to be borrowed. Truffaut was a rather opinionated and vocal film critic, the "...enfant terrible of the Cahiers du Cinema and Arts..." Rather uncharacteristically (for a critic) and bravely, he decided to put his money where his mouth was, and with money borrowed from his father-in-law ("Eef zee feelm failz, Eye weel ave atleast ruined Papa..."), he plunged into the murky (how can it not be with the French) world of cinema. The result was The Four Hundred Blows. The story is autobiographical (do all first films have to be?), and deals with the growing up of young Antoine Doimel (Truffaut went on to make 4 other movies with the same chief character). The film is a landmark in the French New Wave cinema, and so on. Suspect that the modern day viewer will be left a little bit cold at the approach this movie takes, but apparently some features of modern cinema that we're accustomed to originate from this seminal work (the last shot 'freeze frame' for example). All said and done, a watchable movie for the acting, the photography, and the historical and conversation value. Doimel as an adult holds promise. At some point in a grown-up French movie, someone is bound to take off their clothes. Mmm...

Concurrently, one has been flipping through the latest collection of Satyajit Ray's writings/speeches (some in Bengali) on cinema. Can't quite remember the name of the damn book now, but definitely worth a gander. Or goose. If that's how you're inclined. Not sure all of what he says is clear, but you can't miss his almost 'measured passion' for cinema, in the way he talks about film makers and movies that inspired his work. There is even a chapter where he analyzes shot-by-shot the scene from Pather Panchali where Harihar is told about his daughter Durga's death. Thought seems to have gone into every facet of the shot (scene composition, lighting, camera angles, weather), and it does show, in the movie as a whole, even if you don't notice individual items. Read it.

TAILPIECE: Now we have to write about quizzing too? Two movies and a book weren't enough? Ostrogoths. Vandals. Visigoths. Anyway, the IIT Madras Open Quiz happened on Sunday last (October 2, 2005). 300 odd teams (of four people each). Usual IIT quiz, some really good questions, a decent amount of highly obscure stuff. The usual suspects won. The usual suspects came second. We came fourth.