Friday, September 9, 2011

Week 1 USA: Many Things New

Fulbright Scholar Stany Thomas and his wife Shanty arrived safely to Portland on August 25th after 22 hours of flying from Kochi to Mumbai and through Amsterdam! Our reunion was heartfelt as these are family to us and it has been 16 months since we last shared. Pictured here near Timberline Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Hood, we can see the excitement in the eyes of Shanty at having seen and touched her first snow! This was their favorite photo from week one of their time in the U.S.. Stany is keeping a detailed journal from which he intends to compose an account of his own impressions of the experiences coming at him fast and furious. We are agreed that I will continue to relay my impressions of what we experience, at least until he adds his own commentary.

Many things new for Stany and Shanty is an extreme understatement. Even if we had not arranged such a busy schedule of activities for them, the list of what has been new this first week would go far beyond enjoying the remnant of snow on Mt. Hood. In terms of food alone, new tastes would include a first time for strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries; cantaloupe, pears, and nectarines; crepes, waffles, and dutch babies for breakfast as well as Mexican, Italian, and Middle Eastern meals. Knowing Stany quite well, I had expected him to fully welcome every opportunity to experience new things, Shanty surprised me by do the same – and with gusto! Wide-eyed at the life that was coming at her, she embraced it all, honesty assessing everything according to her preferences: strawberries, waffles, and spicy enchiladas were all definite winners!

A recurring theme was established even from the short trip from the airport to our home: ``Everything is so very clean, Uncle, and so organized!`` It is odd that this was not much in my consciousness before. Having seen the rubbish typically to be found on the sides of roads in Kerala and experienced the normal chaos that is involved in traveling there, it occurred to me: they are right. Our streets in Portland are pristine by comparison – and so well paved and managed by stop lights as to be no adventure to us! Yet for Stany and Shanty that first evening, circling the downtown area of our city on a freeway with three or more lanes on each direction (and in only minutes at 55 miles per hour (about 90 km/hour), must have been nearly miraculous.

We finished their first full day ever outside of India with a trip to a video rental store (Movie Madness) which doubles as a small museum (including Julie Andrew`s dress from The Sound of Music) and some pie at a neighborhood café (The Bipartisan), where coconut cream was preferred by both of them over Marionberry. ``Clean and organized`` was also the impression left by this counterculture café with the rough timbered floors, when Shanty was observed by me starring at the tattooed waitress with the colorful hair who was sweeping the floor. As I asked her what she thought of the waitress`s appearance, Shanty replied that it was the broom that had been the focus of her attention. ``It is very different from what we use back home.`` Both she and Stany seem to be completely accepting of the diversity of cultural expressions that are found here and are most astonished by things like the freeways and brooms! Upon reflection, I wonder why that should be surprising? In the multicultural environment of India, a wide variety of appearances is not unusual, but seeing radically new physical environments is cause for wide eyes.

Oregon is known for the great beauty of the natural environments we take great care to preserve. On day two of their time here (and after resting to begin recovering from jet lag), my wife Kris and I took our guests on a 30 minute drive from our home to Vista House at Crown Point, a structure built in 1825 to provide a panoramic view of the Columbia River Gorge. This and nearby waterfalls remain breathtaking even to those of us who have seen them many times. We hiked halfway up to the top of Multnomah Falls, with waters crashing into a pool 620 feet (over 200 meters) below where gravity begins the descent. Blessed with a gloriously beautiful sunny day also on day three, we drove out to see the blueberry farm where I had picked my fill two days before, enjoyed a picnic at Wildwood Park on the Salmon River, and completed the nearly 2 hour trek up to Mt. Hood. All events associated with this lovely Sunday to see snow were enjoyed with in the company of Reynaldo Jr. (8 year old step son to our foster daughter Margarita). He also had never been to Mt. Hood, so he and I had a short snowball fight there (until my sandaled feet became numb with cold).

Before returning Reynaldo to his home (where Shanty was most pleased to hold our granddaughter Hanilyn), there was the traditional stop at the Dairy Queen for ice cream. I mention this only because it illustrates how small things that are often taken for granted become worthy of becoming photographed! Inside and out Shanty was taking pictures, including one of Stany coming out of the bathroom! When I laughed and asked why she did this, she simply replied ``So clean and organized, Uncle``. Again, should I be surprised? There are no such restaurants (if we can call them that) in Palai, Kerala. Not even in Kottayam, and hardly in Cochi. No McDonalds, Olive Gardens, or Thai restaurants. It is all so new. Being with Stany and Shanty helps Kris and I become more aware of small pleasures that abound in the environment we now share with them. It is like seeing life anew through childlike eyes. Hopefully they will not become too accustomed to everything too quickly, as this is a most enjoyable experience to be with them as they explore all that which is so new.

My wife and Shanty visited The Dollar Tree (a store filled with cheap stuff which all costs one dollar). We also went shopping to Target, to WinCo (a worker-owned grocery store where we buy most of our food), and to Fred Meyer (part of a chain now owned by Kroger Foods). Each of these stores are in size far beyond anything that has been seen by them before. As Shanty was taking photos inside the Fred Meyer store, I found myself remembering with fondness the small markets where we would purchase produce in Palai. Few of the corner grocery stores I knew in my youth remain in the U.S. now. Is big really better? Certainly more stuff is readily available – but does that stuff make us happier? Does the bigness of our stores today do much to build relationships? I think not.

Relationships are much more tight in Kerala. Stany and Shanti brought gifts with them from home, including my request for toothpaste! Five tubes of Meswak (a non-fluoridated mix of ingredients including a rare herb combined with a licorice-like fennel taste)! The funny thing is that I could only describe the color of the tube to Stany before he departed from India. He got the proper brand by going to a small store which we had gone to (maybe five times) – and the cashier there remembered what I had purchased (over a year and a half ago)! Even the fairly superficial relationship I had with that cashier, half a world away, allowed Stany to find it. What are the odds of such a thing happening in the U.S.? Traditional, rural, societies where businesses are small and people know one another – have much to be said in their favor. My wife hopes that this may encourage me to brush my teeth more. It probably will! I like licorice! This toothpaste is like candy!

The remainder of our first week together was all about building relationships here. Shanty and Kris attended church several times (a daily practice they both share), with Stany and I tagging along once. The Mass at Ascencion Parish was far less formal than they are used to, but was enjoyed by both of them with the same grace with which they embrace other new experiences. On day four we were invited to the home of T.K. and Cathy (for a pot-luck associated with the homeless program at the church), where Stany and Shanty were also able to share with other volunteers including a refugee from Vietnam and his wife, as well as a person of Italian heritage who came with her daughter and husband (who has advanced Alzheimer`s). As if talking with the church crowd were not enough, the following day we were all at Kris` sister Maria`s home for a dessert extravaganza/party for Elise (a niece who is relocating to Hawaii). It was there Stany and Shanty were able to meet a portion of the Pierie Clan: my wife`s family) as well as see our son (Shaman), two daughters (Sonrisa and Mira), as well as Mira`s friend Naomi all in the same place at the same time.

Shaman, Sonrisa, Mira, and Naomi had all enjoyed the hospitality of Stany and Shanty` extended family during their time in India with us. The reunion of all here was heartwarming for me to witness. It was wonderful to see how the former hosts (Stany and Shanti) can now be so well hosted! Needless to say, our two guests have been staying up late into the night processing photographs, writing emails, and talking together (in Malayalam) using excited tones. Excited tones go off the scale during the daily Skype sessions they have each morning on their laptop computer with their three young children (back in Kerala) as well as several other households of family members who have downloaded the free communications program. Kris and I are also invited into some of these sessions (giving all an opportunity to practice understanding our difficult, for them, American English accents). We really are ``Uncle`` Michael and ``Aunt`` Kris!

In short, this first week was a whirlwind of things new. So much fun. Details were easily taken care of with regards to setting a bank account up for our guests, arranging for cell phone service, and applying for a Social Security Card (required of Stany). Each day was another adventure for them as well as for us!

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