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1970s America: An Indian Student's Journey - 3
|by Dr. Anil Rajvanshi|
Continued from Previous Page
There have been quite a number of happy incidents in my life for which I have no explanation, but have always considered them as gifts of God and so have felt blessed. Meeting my future wife in UF was one of them.
I first saw Nandini sometime in fall of 1975 in front of McCarty Hall which houses the Agriculture Science departments. I saw her from quite a distance and she being very tall, fair and with black hair I thought she was from South America. After that I did not see her for almost 10-15 days. Then one day I went to the Reitz student union cafeteria to eat and she was sitting alone and eating on one of the tables.
I asked her permission to join her and found out that she was an Indian and a Maharashtrian and her name was Nandini Nimbkar. She had come to do her graduate work in the department of Agronomy. She was quite reserved so I did most of the talking. After that meeting we would occasionally meet in the cafeteria and became friends.
I found out later on that Nandini came from a very distinguished Maharashtrian family. From her mother's side she was the great granddaughter of Maharshi Karve (the first Bharat Ratna of India) and a granddaughter of Shrimati Iravati Karve (a very well-known anthropologist). From her father's side her grandfather Shri Vishnu Nimbkar was a well-known industrialist of Mumbai and her grandmother was an American (Elizabeth Lundy who changed her name to Kamala Nimbkar after her marriage to Vishnu Nimbkar) and also a daughter of revolution. She was a direct descendent of Robert Morris the Secretary of Treasury in George Washington's Cabinet.
There were only two or three Indian female students at UF and at least 10 times more male students so obviously the females were subjected to intense wooing. This led sometimes to a number of heartaches and fits of depression. In any case we both were attracted to each other and hence in April 1976 we decided to get married.
Since Nandini was nearly five foot ten inches tall and thin, most of my Indian friends used to call her single dimensional! Nevertheless she was very attractive and graceful. Quite a number of my American friends were amazed that I was going to marry a girl who was nearly four inches taller than me! Some of them even tried to dissuade me from marrying her. It came as a great surprise to me to see such backward thinking of American males.
In fact the difference in our heights led to some hilarious episodes. Just after our marriage we went to a photo studio for a portrait. The lady photographer would not allow us to stand together. Nandini had to sit down on a stool and I had to stand next to her so that one could not see the height difference. The photographer explained to me that in portraits a wife can never be taller than her husband!
After both of us decided to get married, I immediately called my parents in Lucknow. In those times calling to India was not very easy and so one had to go through the international operator in New York, the operator in New Delhi and finally the one at Lucknow. The operator in New York who seemed to be up-to-date on news started asking me about what was happening in India with Indira Gandhi's emergency and dictatorship. I was really surprised by the knowledge of this lady.
The first question my mother asked me was whether she was an Indian or an American. When I told her that she was Indian and a Maharashtrian, she was thrilled because she felt that an Indian daughter-in-law from any state is better any day than a foreign one. In those days quite a number of Indian students married Americans and my mother was always afraid that I might also do so. My parents also knew my opposition to arranged marriage because I was against dowry and in my bania caste dowry was a big thing. So I had told them that if I marry it will be without dowry and to a person whom I like.
After telling my parents about my decision to marry Nandini, I wrote a six-page letter to my future father-in-law asking his formal permission to marry his daughter and also telling him about myself and my family etc. I never got a reply to that letter from my in-laws, but Nandini told me that even if they refused it did not matter. Nevertheless my in-laws accepted our decision happily later on.
Since Nandini was very thin, during our courtship period, I used to take her regularly to Baskin Robbins ice cream shops to fatten her! However her metabolism was so good that such acts of generosity never made a dent in her single dimensionality!
I had peculiar notions about marriage which were dictated by my male ego that I should marry only when I was able to support my wife. Since I was still a student I thought we should wait till I finish my Ph.D. and get a job. However living separately in the same town and just across the road somehow did not make much sense.
We used to meet every evening for dinner in Reid Coop where I used to cook for her. Lots of times we also went out to eat, but being busy in our studies and as students living on shoestring budgets, I found it cheaper and simpler to cook the dinner for both of us.
This went on for 3-4 months and since we were spending most of our free time with each other we thought it would be better to get married and move out into the on-campus married student housing. This would have also been cheaper for both of us since we would be saving on double housing. Thus I applied for the married student housing and was asked to occupy it in the last week of December 1976. So we fixed the most convenient date for our marriage on 12th December 1976 which was a Sunday and just after the fall quarter.
I was also vehemently opposed to the idea of going to India to get married since I believed that the whole thing should be a simple and elegant affair. Nandini also did not mind since her parents did not believe in wedding ceremonies, so we decided to get married in Gainesville. Obviously my parents were not very happy about it since they wanted our marriage to be held in India. Being the eldest son they wanted the first marriage in the family to be a grand affair. Somehow I could not fulfill their desires.
When Nandini had come to UF in the fall of 1975 she had stayed with an American family the Webbs. Tom and Dot Webb had been to India and stayed in Pune as Tom was a USAID consultant. They had become friends with Nimbkars. Both of them were extremely nice people and lived in Gainesville where Tom was associated with UF Agronomy department where Nandini came for her graduate studies.
Thus the Webbs were foster parents to her in Gainesville. So they told me that they would give her away during the marriage ceremony and hence would be very happy if the marriage took place in their house. They also found a nice priest cum lawyer to conduct the ceremony. The gentleman who was a padre in the local church told me that he would have me and Nandini exchange Christian vows during the ceremony.
Though I was all for a simple marriage, exchanging Christian vows was not acceptable. So I asked him whether it would be all right if we exchange vows from Vedic texts. He agreed to it.
So for next two days I went to the UF library and studied thoroughly all the material regarding Indian marriages and vows written up in our ancient Indian texts. I also found that a majority of times Sanskrit shlokas exchanged in traditional marriages had no relevance to modern life. Thus in one shloka both husband and wife ask for 10 sons and 20 cows. I thought the modern translation of the shloka should be to ask for 10 factories and 20 Mercedes cars!
During this research I also discovered that Mahatma Gandhi had tremendously simplified the Hindu marriage vows since he was also pained to see the unnecessary ritualization of the marriage ceremony. His marriage vows lasted for only 15 minutes.
In any case after a good deal of research I chose some beautiful vows from the Vedic literature which in effect said that we were both equal partners in the new matrimonial alliance that we were entering.
I then went over these vows with the priest since he had to rehearse the pronunciations of the Sanskrit names in them. The priest was highly impressed with the whole process and suggested that we should invite the local TV to record this ceremony. Both of us politely declined his suggestion.
So on 12th December 1976 we were married in Webb's home in front of a few of our close friends. I was 26 and Nandini was 22 years old. We were the first Indian students in UF to get married in Gainesville. We have been happily married since then and last year in 2006 celebrated our 30th marriage anniversary.
My parents had booked a phone call much in advance to wish us on our marriage, but calling from India to US in 1976 was like calling the moon. They could not get the call through on that day and were only able to call me after a couple of days. My mother always regretted that incident.
For the next 10 days after our marriage we still lived in our respective dorms till we got the on campus married student housing in Diamond Village.
Living together as a married couple required a good deal of adjustment on our parts. Quite a number of times there would be tiffs which I believe every young couple goes through in their early married life. The Indian milieu provides for an extended family support structure which helps in ironing out the differences. However when one lives alone in a foreign land then this support system is not available. In any case we adjusted very well and I always felt that it was one of the best decisions of my life to get married and live together. Marriage provided a tremendous emotional support and helped against loneliness that one sometimes feels in US.
I also did not ask Nandini to change her maiden name because I thought that a name is an important part of one's personality and hence should remain with the person throughout their life. In those times it was quite a revolutionary thing. More so since in Maharashtrian custom the wife not only takes her husband's last name but her first name is also changed! Therefore the identity of women after a Maharashtrian marriage is totally changed. I thought that was a barbaric custom. Nowadays there are many Indian married couples where the woman retains her maiden name.
Nandini did not know any cooking at all. During her first year's stay in Beaty Towers she used to eat out in the Reitz Union Cafeteria where we had met. When we started dating we used to have lunch in the cafeteria and for nearly six months before our marriage I used to invite her in Reid Coop for dinner. So after marriage I taught her some cooking.
In any case she did learn quite fast and used to occasionally dish out delicious fare. Being students we both shared all the housework including cooking. So for 3 days I would cook dinner and next 3 days of the week she did it. Very soon it got to the point that when my turn came I would propose to take her out for dinner. So a number of times she ended up cooking for 6 days in a week!
Since both of us liked American food, we ate out quite a lot. In fact every Friday or Saturday we would go and see a movie either at the Reitz Union or in outside theaters and have a nice dinner in one of the various new restaurants that were opening up in Gainesville as it expanded. In those times there were no Internet or DVD movies and there were only 4 channels that one could get in TV. Hence a theatre movie was one of the main entertainment sources.
Nandini was also an excellent student and consistently got A's in her courses. Her professors were very fond of her. She must have made a lasting impression on them and her peers since in 1997 she was honored by UF as one of the most distinguished alumna. Since 1997 was the 50th anniversary of co-education in UF it was decided by the UF administration to honor 47 female graduates from all over the world who have excelled in their chosen field.
They were chosen out of about 85,000 female students who had passed from the university since 1947. Nandini was the only Indian and a non-US citizen chosen for this award.
In a glittering ceremony at UF in September 1997, she was honored with 46 other graduates which included President Clinton's cabinet member, Hollywood actress, Olympic gold medalist, Chief Justice of Florida, etc. etc. Her name with that of others is engraved in a plaque in the center of University and her photograph adorns the Reitz Union wall in the main lobby and where we had met for the first time!
Another thing that bound us together was our desire to go back to India. Nandini was even firmer than I was. Though she was born in Tucson, Arizona and hence a US citizen she had renounced her citizenship before coming to US. It is a very rare act and I have never met another person who has done it. Both of us were quite determined to start our careers in India. Where in India it would be we were not sure. In fact during my stay in US I interacted with lots of my Indian friends who wanted to come back to India, but their wives were not keen on doing so. It was therefore a rare phenomenon in those times to see student couple in US who wanted to come back to India.
Since we wanted to go back, we did not want to raise our children in US. Almost all our Indian friends and other married students in Diamond village thought we were crazy since having children in US was a sure shot passport to staying in US and also beneficial for the children's higher education. I always thought that if our children were bright enough they would come to US on their own just like us. Besides we were both students and also wanted to travel all over US, and maybe to other countries, and hence having the burden of children would not have been conducive to carrying out these plans without the usual family support system.
Looking for Better School?
When I arrived in UF at the end of 1974 the situation on the campus was pretty grim according to US standards. There was no electricity in the departments during the weekends and due to cost cutting measures phones were also disconnected from graduate student's offices. Luckily I was given a good room in the main Mechanical Engineering building which I had to share with three other American graduate students. Two of them hardly ever came to the office so basically I had only one other graduate student in that room.
The students I encountered in the courses I took in my first quarter were much below the quality of my classmates at IITK. Besides the first course that I took under Dr. Farber was on Direct Energy Conversion and was quite a fiasco. I found out that he had little knowledge of theoretical material and presented no new insights other than what was written in the textbook. I questioned him one day in the class about it and he went on a tangent about how he was a great man and how dare a foreign graduate student question him. In fact my questioning must have rattled him quite a lot because he spent two full lectures berating me rather than answering the question. The 25-30 students who attended the class were also horrified and they told me that nobody questions the great Dr. Farber. Nevertheless they were happy that somebody had the guts to poke holes in what Farber was teaching.
This was my first real interaction with Dr. Farber for whom I had come all the way from India. This episode together with the quality of graduate students and the run down condition of Mechanical Engineering department suddenly made me aware that I may have come to the wrong place. Now I remembered the words of Mr. Sharma - the clerk in the Education ministry in New Delhi who had warned me that I was making a mistake in going to University of Florida. Thus I decided to leave UF and go to some other university at the earliest opportunity.
So I called the professor in Mechanical Engineering at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (UM) ' the one whom I had befriended in IITK and told him about my predicament at UF. He was delighted to hear from me and immediately offered me admission in the graduate program since I already had Government of India (GOI) fellowship. He also said that he will match that fellowship with the department funds. Then he asked me my office phone number so he could call me back. I told him that because of cost cutting measures we do not have phones in our offices to which he replied 'Not only we will take you in our department, but will give you an office with you own phone! All our graduate students have phones in their offices'. The offer was very tempting and hence I decided to go and visit UM and some of the other well known schools at the first opportunity. This was my first motivation to travel in US.
Dr. Farber being a sharp person must have seen something in me during the classroom exchange and so he became quite friendly towards me and started talking to me more often and discussing various issues on solar energy. He being a very knowledgeable person in solar energy, his insights on that subject was very illuminating and I started liking him. Still I thought it might be worthwhile to visit other universities and see the grass on the other side!
Since winter and spring quarters were nearly back to back it was not possible to go sight seeing in US for any length of time. I therefore decided to see America during the summer break.
A golden opportunity to do so arrived in the form of friendship with one Alok Krishen who was a graduate student in Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. Alok had come to Gainesville to meet his friend and that is how I met him. We liked each other and so when he told me that he would be traveling to northeast US during summer break and was looking for a traveling companion, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. Naturally we had to decide on a mutually acceptable timetable.
Alok had a very small car called SIMCA. I think it was one of the smallest cars available in US and barely seated 4 people. He had also bought it second hand for $ 250 but he assured me that it worked well and there would be no problem during the long trip. In order to share the cost of traveling we decided to have 4 people. So Alok got a Chinese student from FSU who wanted to go to Detroit for his brother's wedding and I located another Indian student in UF who also wanted to travel in America. Out of the four of us only I did not know driving so my job was that of a navigator and to entertain others by singing and telling jokes etc.!
Our plan was to visit only those cities and places where we could stay with friends and relatives so as to avoid the hotel expenses. Alok who had come to US one year earlier than me had quite a few friends and relatives in different cities. In north-eastern university towns I had quite a number of my classmates, so we made the program of staying with as many of them. We had arranged the trip for about 20-days but had kept it flexible so that we could change our itinerary in case we liked a place.
We drove straight to Detroit to leave the Chinese student. After leaving him we traveled to major universities like Cornell, N.Y.; Princeton, N.J.; SUNY, Buffalo; Case Western University, Cleveland; University of Toronto; Michigan State University (MSU), East Lansing; University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor; and University of Pittsburg. Since I was interested in Cornell, UM and Princeton, I spent time discussing with students there about the well-known professors in solar energy or thermal science. I always felt that the best judge of a professor are the students who can tell both his strong and the weak points.
In majority of cases I found out that since the professor was very famous he was traveling most of the times on lecture trips and the students hardly had any opportunity to interact with him. They interacted with each other more often and being a good school there were many bright students around who helped each other. Besides in the big universities like Cornell, UM, etc. getting a Ph.D. was like going through a factory assembly line. Publish 3-4 papers in 3-4 years of research time and you are out of the university with a Ph.D. Besides the type of projects that the students worked on were dictated very much by the professor and were focused and on narrow subject areas.
I on the other hand by now (more than 6 months had passed in UF) had found out that I was able to meet Farber at least once a day when he was in town, had total freedom to pursue whatever my interests were and could discuss with whichever professor I wanted in other departments. Since I was a very independent minded student with varying interests, I realized that the best course of action would be for me to pursue my Ph.D. at UF and try to learn as much as possible from the opportunities available. I never regretted this decision because I really learnt tremendously at UF under Farber and besides I also found a nice wife at UF!
This was summer and yet in some cities like Ithaca, N.Y. where Cornell is located it was still quite cold. I suddenly realized that besides education, nice outdoor weather is also a necessity for enjoyable campus life. So this was a very chastising experience and I never again had any doubts about my UF education.
I stayed with an American family in Dearborn Michigan. They were parents of my Reid Coop friend. His father was a senior manager in General Motors (GM), so this was also an opportunity to see the GM engine plant near Dearborn. Visiting this plant I saw first hand the powerhouse of American industrial might which was a great educational experience. During one of the evening dinners at their house somehow the discussion turned towards the responsibility of children towards their parents. When I told them that in Indian culture the children have the responsibility of taking care of their aged parents, my friend was immediately chided by his father that he should learn this lesson from me!
I have always believed that on the whole families in almost all countries are quite decent. It is the governments that bring in hatred. I therefore used to tell the foreign student administrators in UF that besides giving university education to foreign students provision should also be made for students to spend some time with an American host family.
The summer trip to Northeast was thoroughly enjoyable and was full of interesting episodes.
As we were passing through Georgia on our way to Detroit we ran out of gas. This was nearly midnight and we found ourselves in a small town called Macon, Georgia. As we were going round and round in this small town looking for a gas station a cop appeared flashing his car lights. When we told him our predicament he was very helpful and took us to the gas station. He and his colleagues started talking with us asking us where we were from so we told him that we were from India. 'You came all the way from India in this small car?' he remarked.
Since we were students we tried to drive the whole night without stopping. This was partly to save on hotel bills and partly to take the Chinese student to Detroit as quickly as possible. All three of my travel mates took turns in driving and since I was the navigator I had to keep awake. As we were reaching Atlanta it must have been nearly 3 a.m. when I must have dozed off and was suddenly woken up by a loud noise of somebody honking feverishly.
The driver also slept on the wheel and our car was dangerously swerving on the highway at high speed. The car driver behind us was therefore honking. I woke up and slapped our driver and told him to pull over to the curb. I think we came closest to death on that particular night and were saved by shear stroke of providence. I then forced everybody to go to the nearest hotel and sleep and only in the morning we left for our onward journey.
Similarly in Canada when we were approaching Toronto we were passed by a car full of University girls who were probably traveling like us during summer vacation. Alok who was driving wanted to race them. These girls were in a brand new car whereas our old SIMCA was not upto the occasion. In any case Alok must have raced them for 5-10 minutes before we heard a loud noise from our car and it broke down. The accelerator wire had broken. Alok got under the car and fixed it since he seemed to have done it many times before! After this he drove very nicely till the car completely broke down during the last leg of our journey near North Carolina. Alok wanted to sell it to a used-car garage but the garage owner said that he would charge us hundred dollars just to take the car since it was pure junk! In any case after a great amount of haggling we just dumped the car in the garage and took the Greyhound bus back home.
I also saw wonderful natural beauty of American landscape like Niagara Falls, Thousand Islands in New York and great countryside as we drove from Gainesville to Toronto and back. We also spent one week in Washington D.C. visiting Smithsonian Institute, White House, Library of Congress etc. In Washington we stayed with a lovely family of Jim and Estellene Baarda with whom we have still remained in touch.
I was really awed by the gigantic size of the Library of Congress (LOC). The libraries in UF in those times were not really great and so visiting LOC was like seeing a treasure trove. I could not get away from the LOC as there was so much to read. Similarly Smithsonian Institute was something else. This was my first visit to a world class museum and I was really taken aback by the world treasures that I saw there.
Besides the great things, we also saw the ugly side of American cities and way of life. We were in Ann Arbor visiting some of my IITK friends in UM when in the evening we decided to go to Detroit to eat some good Chinese food. In 1975 Ann Arbor, just like Gainesville, did not have a good Chinese restaurant and hence we decided to go to Detroit. Since my friend at UM did not know the address of any good Chinese restaurant we decided to go to downtown and search in yellow pages in one of the hotels. We arrived at Holiday Inn in downtown Detroit around 6:30 p.m. and I went in the lobby to look at the yellow pages for the restaurant. Alok in the meantime went to the rest room. After 5 minutes he came out ashen faced. I could not believe the look on his face. So I immediately asked him what happened.
He said a black man tried to rape him in the bathroom. We immediately left the hotel and headed back to Ann Arbor and ate our dinner in a nearby McDonalds restaurant.
In fact almost all the downtown areas of major cities in US in 1970s were in very bad shape, being full of crime and prostitution. In contrast downtown Toronto was beautiful, clean and fun to walk even late at night. The difference between US and Canadian cities was amazing. We also saw the rundown condition of cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland. Somehow the southern part of US like Florida seemed much cleaner than the northeastern USA. Nevertheless in late 1980s and 90s there was a dramatic revival of down towns in all major cities of US.
Most of my American travel was work-related. However when I could, I took time out and used to take side trips to see that great country.
During one summer break I and Nandini decided to travel to the southwestern states and then to California to see solar energy work being done in various universities and organizations and also to visit Grand Canyon, Carlsbad caves and see cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles etc.
I had just finished my qualifying exam and nearly finalized the topic I would be working on for my Ph.D. Nevertheless I thought it would be wonderful to go and see what major labs and universities were doing in solar energy and maybe to get some inspiration from their work. There were a lot of activities in energy R&D in US during President Carter's era (1976-80). He called creating national energy security as moral equivalent of war. Hence not only universities but national defense labs like Sandia labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico had started working in solar energy.
In those times there was Ameripass of Greyhound Bus Company which allowed unlimited travel in $100 to any city in US for one month! Thus we felt this would be a great way to see America. We also decided to save on hotel bills since we did not have friends at many of the places that we wanted to visit. Hence we used to travel mostly at night and visit the labs during day time. Later on in 1978 I gave the same Greyhound pass to my parents when they were visiting me. This allowed them to travel all over US and enjoy America.
Our first stop was Albuquerque to see Sandia labs. An interesting incident happened at the New Orleans bus stop. Our bus from Gainesville reached there around 4 in the morning. There was a half an hour stop so we started getting down still groggy and sleepy. At the bus exit door an immigration officer stopped me, flashed his immigration badge and asked for my passport. I was half-asleep but felt affronted by this sudden confrontation. So I asked him to show his badge properly! He was slightly taken aback but showed it and told me not to touch it. Once I was convinced that he was a genuine immigration officer I said 'Why do you need my passport? I do not carry it with me all the time'. 'Sir you should carry it always with you. We are looking for illegal Mexican immigrants' he replied. After I showed him my UF photo ID he left. It is unimaginable in the post 9/11 scenario to have an exchange like this. I would have been in real trouble for questioning an immigration official !
Sandia labs in those days was doing pioneering work in solar power. In 1975 they had set up the world's first 5 MW solar power plant. The concept was called Solar Tower Power in which hundreds of mirrors placed on the ground reflected the sunlight to the top of the tower where the concentrated solar beam heated a material (generally some inorganic salts) which in turn heated water to produce steam and hence power. The sight of the mirrors focusing the beam on a single tower was very impressive and heralded a space age solution to energy crisis.
Still I remember that when I came back from my California visit, Farber kidded me by saying that he would like to know beforehand where his students were going. 'I got phone calls from Washington asking me who is this Indian student of yours. Is he a terrorist or a genuine scholar?' Farber said. I was not aware that anybody going to Sandia labs had to have a background check done on him. Later on I found out that since the lab made atomic weapons all visitors had to be subjected to such checks. So this background check was provided by my department at UF after I had left for my trip. Those were simple days when a few phone calls were enough to do these checks.
However slightly later on in 1980 when I took about 40 participants of the course on Training in Alternative Energy Technologies (TAET) from our lab to Sandia we had to give a detailed biodata of each participant to the State Department in Washington D.C. and then only got permission to visit. Even after getting the permission one was not sure about what might happen in the lab. For example as we were on our way to visit the Solar Tower site, a convoy of trucks carrying atomic weapons was being taken from the manufacturing facility to the storage facility in Albuquerque mountains and hence our bus was stopped. Somehow this information reached Washington that a bus load of foreigners were witness to the atomic weapon transport. Immediately our future trips to Albuquerque were stopped. In 1980 just after the Iran crisis the security to most of these labs was increased. Today one has to do a lot of paper work before a foreigner is allowed into these labs.
In any case Dr. Stromberg welcomed both me and Nandini to his lab and took us on the tour of Solar Tower in an electric car! This was probably the first electric car in the US. It was a rudimentary vehicle with hardly any great electronics but was very functional and traveled at 40-50 miles per hour. Once it reached the solar site it was plugged into the solar charger for battery charging. I thought it was a great idea to showcase the solar economy!
The Solar Tower facility was very impressive and was basically a research lab where dozens of doctoral and postdoctoral students were conducting research on various aspects of electricity generation by solar thermal process.
There was a pleasant surprise in store for us during our travel from Albuquerque to Tucson-our next stop. At the bus station there was quite a rush and hence we could not get into the first bus. But immediately Greyhound Bus Company got a second bus only for the two of us! We could have never believed that the bus service would be so efficient. We were therefore the only passengers on the bus all the way from Albuquerque to Tucson. The Greyhound bus service was extremely efficient and prompt in those times and it was a pleasure riding the buses. Unfortunately today the story is very different and the service has deteriorated drastically.
Besides the Sandia facility I also visited during this trip the solar work being done at the University of Houston (solar concentrator work); Arizona State University, Tempe (Dr. John Yellot's work on solar passive cooling); University of California, Los Angles (UCLA) (high efficiency solar collector work at Dr. Edward's lab); U. of California, Berkeley (Sea Water Conversion lab which was doing pioneering work in desalination); Colorado State University, Fort Collins (Dr. George Lof who was one of the pioneers in solar energy utilization); University of Arizona, Tucson (Green house lab which was the forerunner to the world famous Biosphere project in 1990s).
Visiting these labs was a great learning experience and brought me up-to-date on all the major work going on in US in solar thermal applications. At most of these places I was referred to as Dr. Rajvanshi and some of the professors were surprised that a graduate student who had just passed the qualifying exam would undertake such a journey on his own. In fact in those times it was rare for a student to go around the country visiting labs.
After my summer visit I gave a one-hour seminar in our department on the solar energy work being done across the country. It was probably the first such seminar based on a student's trip and later on Farber suggested that other students, whenever they went for lab visits, should come back and give a seminar. After the seminar the departmental secretary told me that the mechanical engineering department could reimburse my travel and staying expenses for such trips. I never took any money from the department for such trips even later on since in those times travel was very cheap and I mostly stayed with my friends. Besides I enjoyed the travel and meeting people. In any case I became goods friends with most of the researchers and faculty I met specially Dr. George Lof and Dr. Yellot. Besides I also made unexpectedly some new friends in Tempe.
We reached Tempe, Arizona in the morning by the Greyhound bus which deposited us at a nondescript bus station. In those days Tempe-the home of Arizona State University (ASU) was a small university town. So after getting down we were walking on the street near the bus station and debating on how to go to ASU to meet Dr. Yellot and see his lab. Should we take a bus or hire a taxi. We had no place to stay but thought once we reach ASU campus then we would find something. In those days quite a number of US universities allowed free stay in dorms during summer break to students visiting from other universities. Nandini that day had worn a sari and both of us were looking quite disheveled since we had spent the night in the bus traveling from Tucson, Arizona.
Suddenly a car stopped by at the corner of the street and an Indian gentleman asked us whether we needed a ride. He was Nimish Patel who was also a student at ASU. He and his wife Parul Jhaveri were architects and were spending one year as apprentices at ASU. We were delighted at this god sent opportunity and both of us thoroughly enjoyed our stay for 2 days in their small apartment. In those days ASU did not have too many Indian students and hence Nimish was also delighted to meet us. Since then we have remained good friends and today the Patels are very successful architects of Ahmedabad.
In those days Nimish Patel's mother was also staying with them. Hence with two of us as guests, their small apartment became very crowded. But we were subjected to very gracious hospitality by the Patels. I still remember an amusing episode. Nimish was quite plump when we met him. Yet his mother complained to us that her daughter-in-law did not feed her son properly and did not give him enough milk. Nimish mildly objected by telling her that instead of milk he ate ice cream! 'Milk is milk and ice cream can never replace it', said his mother. Both of us could not hide our amusement at how a mother's fixation for milk continued even after the children had grown up!
The Carlsbad caves and Grand Canyon were really fantastic sites. America is really blessed with beautiful landscapes and national parks. Besides they have been maintained well so visitors can see and appreciate the natural beauty. This was quite a contrast to what I had seen in India. In fact some places in India have unsurpassed natural beauty like beaches of Maharashtra, Himalayan mountains or rain forests of Kerala. Yet we do not keep these places clean or visitor-friendly.
In the Grand Canyon we met a Japanese family or group which had 10-15 members. They were not interested in seeing the beauty of the Canyon but only in taking photographs. At every scenic spot they would get down from the shuttle bus, quickly take photographs and again get back on the bus. When I suggested to them that they should sit and enjoy the beauty of the landscape, the head of the delegation said, 'We will sit in our living room and watch all these slides'! Japanese have been known to be great photograph-takers. Once when I was leaving the Japanese delegation which had been visiting our solar lab at the Gainesville airport, the head of the delegation even took a photo of my car number plate!
I crisscrossed the country later on many times and tried to see as many of the national parks and landscapes as possible. Thus I saw the Rocky mountain range at Yosemite National Park where we stayed in a log cabin for a week. Similarly we traveled to Smokey mountain ranges where I did some trekking etc. Besides this there were many opportunities for camping. I have always believed that US is a great place for tourists to see its natural landscapes and not its big cities which are nearly similar with same type of shopping malls, eating places etc. Nevertheless too often the foreign students do not go to these places of natural beauty but like to visit only cities.
Our first trip to Berkeley was quite memorable. After getting down at Oakland Greyhound bus terminal we took the local bus to Berkeley campus. We were given a free dorm at Berkeley for 3 days. As we got on the bus, Nandini looked for her purse to pay the fare. Suddenly we realized that the purse had been left at the bus stop! It contained all our money and important papers. Since we were carrying 3 bags and pillows somehow in the hurry to get in the bus Nandini left the purse on the bench at the bus stop.
I requested the bus conductor to stop the bus but he said that it will stop only at the next station. We got down at the next station which was a good half a mile from the bus stop where we had boarded the bus. I have never run so fast in my life as I ran that day for half a mile. On reaching the bus stop I found that the purse was not there. Suddenly in the distance I saw a man carrying it. I ran after him without saying a word fearing that he might run away if I shouted. When I reached him I told him that it was my purse. He immediately gave it to me saying that he was taking it to the Post office so that it could be returned to me. I thanked
After checking into the dorm we went to take bath. The dorm had common bathrooms and toilets. The women's bathroom though was on a separate floor. So when Nandini went to the shower she saw a couple taking bath together in the next cubicle! Berkeley was even more liberal than UF!
I went to the Mechanical Engineering department to meet the Professor whom I had befriended in IIT Kanpur. The secretary asked me whether I was from IITK? I was surprised by her clairvoyance but she clarified by telling me that all the Indian's in the department are from IITK and so she presumed that I must also be from IITK! In 1976 IIT had not become a brand name but at least in some top schools like Berkeley, IITK was very well known.
Besides the university campuses we also visited the big cities like Houston, San Francisco, Los Angles, San Diego, Tucson and St. Louis. Both of us enjoyed visiting museums and sampling good local ethnic food. In Tucson we went looking for the hospital where Nandini was born in 1954. However to our dismay we found that it was demolished and in its place stood a shopping mall.
Later on during our many travels in the US there were quite a few amusing incidents. I was once driving through Kansas State when we decided to stop for the night at a very small town called Oakley. If I remember correctly in 1979 the town population was probably 500. There was only one hotel and one decent restaurant. So when we went to eat in the restaurant almost the whole town came to see us since Nandini was wearing a saree! I guess in those days very few Indians passed through such conservative small American towns.
Similarly I had gone to Fort Collins for a conference in 1980. One evening we together with our friends, decided to go out to a nice restaurant for dinner. I drove on a particular road where no U turns were allowed and since the restaurant was on the other side of the road I had to take a turn. After driving for a couple of miles I became impatient and decided to take a U turn after checking that there was no cop around. However within seconds a cop materialized and started flashing his car lights.
In my 7 years' stay in the US I never got a traffic ticket and I was very proud of my record. Couple of times I did get parking tickets at UF campus but they were never for speeding or driving related offenses. This would therefore have been my first traffic violation. So I was very afraid that my record will be tarnished. I got out of the car and told the cop 'Sir I am totally guilty of wrong conduct and will accept whatever ticket you give me'. Normally there is a tendency in the drivers to argue with the cops in such situations. So this cop sensed my feeling of guilt and was very surprised at my frank admission. 'Sir where are you coming from'? he asked. I told him from Gainesville so he replied 'Yes sometimes these U turns are pretty bad and get on the nerves of out-of-town drivers. Please drive carefully next time', and left me off without a ticket!
Another travel related incident was not very memorable. I used to take the TAET participants to New Mexico and Arizona to show them large scale solar related projects. Once we were returning to Gainesville via Atlanta. The Atlanta airport was the hub of all flights going to or from Gainesville. Our flight to Gainesville was supposed to come from New York but because of bad weather in New York it was delayed. So every half an hour the flight timing at Eastern Airlines counter would be changed. This went on from 5:30 p.m. to 9.00 p.m. Meanwhile our request to meet a manager of Eastern Airlines (EA) was turned down.
Finally in a fit of desperation we informed the Eastern Airlines (EA) staff politely that in the morning they would see a story in the Atlanta Journal (local paper) about how 40 foreign dignitaries were stranded at the Atlanta airport because of the stupidity of Eastern Airlines. That made the EA promptly give us a hotel for night and book us on the morning flight. This crass commercialization of airlines industry has become even worse today where in case of weather related delays the airlines do not offer anything to the passengers - not even food.
Just before leaving US in 1981 we had bought a $ 300 airline ticket on Eastern Airlines. This ticket allowed us unlimited travel anywhere in the country for one month. We utilized this ticket fully and visited all our friends around US. Those were the golden days of air travel in US with excellent service and good food. Today the airlines are just like a glorified bus service with no food, hardly any service and quite often late and not on time.
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