I have been known to write some rather self indulgent posts out here.. about me and the honorable myself. And however hard it may be for me to admit it, some of the finest moments of my life have been ones that would have remained forever incomplete had it not been for the kindness and generosity of the people I have known. Let me tell you a story, a real one at that. It’s a story about a van filled with people from Vietnam, India and the USA. No, I am not about to narrate a thoroughly racist joke… promise.
This winter, I found myself in snow-swept Pennsylvania for 3 weeks for an assignment… and the living arrangements at my hotel included the use of a hotel shuttle for commuting to work. So each day early morning, a bunch of us homeless souls would trudge into the hotel lobby, powered solely by the excellent dark coffee that the hotel liberally plied on us. And there we stood, a rather sullen group. People did not talk much, preoccupied with the day at work that lay ahead, or just grumpy about being out in the cold when they hotel bed had been more than welcoming. So like kids waiting for a school bus by the road side, we waited in the hotel lobby waiting for Lonnie to bring the shuttle around.
Lonnie ! The driver of the shuttle; he instantly became our new best friend. Greeting us with a smile that seemed for a while to warm up the frigid winter cold. The shuttle, well it was a rather huge van. Large , comfortable, nice, warm.. much like Lonnie himself !
The shuttle was our oasis of warmth as we were driven through snow, sleet, rain, black ice or whatever else the Pennsylvania weather had to throw our way… making a stop every so often to drop someone at their destination before moving on to another. I would play loud music in my ear phones to while away the half hour or so that was my commute…. Lost in my own world of familiar notes and melodies…
Come to think of it, hotels like airports, form the backdrops of a million untold stories. People live a part of their lives in impersonal hotel rooms, perhaps come to decisions that alter their professional or personal lives, rejoice and celebrate… and as soon as they move on, every sign of their presence from the very space they occupied is removed diligently.
Empty glasses, crumpled bed sheets and sachets of coffee… cleaned, removed and replaced. The air refreshed and wilting flowers removed from cut glass vases…
Hotels… offer the most personalized service by removing every sign of the personalities of those who spend time in them ! Not that I would have it any differently ! Imagine spending time in a hotel room with the last occupant’s tooth brush still lying by the wash basin !
So there were some lucky people who visited Valley Forge Pennsylvania for a day or two in the middle of winters… some rather unfortunate souls who spent an entire weekend there. And there were those like me who were probably getting drunk somewhere when their quota of luck was being allocated… we stayed for weeks together. Each day I boarded the shuttle with a group of folks from Vietnam… exchanged sympathetic comments with each other and reminisced about our warm countries while Lonnie drove us through the snow. We were noticeably more cheerful and talkative when the shuttle did its rounds in the evenings picking us up once again to take us back to the hotel where food and drinks awaited us.
Tung was the first guy from Vietnam I made friends with. Meeting him made me realize rather guiltily how little I knew about Vietnam. Each evening, once we were back at the hotel, we had our dinner together, full of questions about the countries we were from. How strange it is, Vietnam is so close to India in terms of geography and culture, but I seem to know more about the US and Europe. I wonder why the collective eye of the Indian population seldom turns eastwards… it’s a world lot closer to home and equally fascinating. I spent many a night after having met my new friends from Vietnam reading up about their country… at least the next time I meet a guy from Vietnam I will have more to discuss with him other than music…
Tung is an accomplished musician. Perhaps the best guitarist I have had the pleasure of having heard in front of me. I wonder what is it with me and friends with guitars…. be it Dwarahat, Hyderabad, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York or now Valley Forge! In each city I have made friends with some one or the other who played the guitar. One day, late at night, Tung arrived at my hotel room with a guitar in hand… I mixed a few drinks and Tung played his music. It was by far one of the most enjoyable evenings in a long long time.
Come to think of it… a guy from India, mixing American Bourbons, for a guy from Vietnam playing an electric guitar manufactured in Japan, singing Simon & Garfunkel songs we had both heard at college !
Sometimes, the world seems so much smaller, and simpler…Thank You for the music Tung.
Our trips in the hotel shuttle were now full of chatter. We told each other of where were from, and what awaited us when we went back. To some it was family, or perhaps a girlfriend and a job or whatever else we had chosen to call home. Lonnie took the role of the grand old man (which he is ) and gently admonished the recklessness of some of us younger ones.
I never had to plug in my ear phones during my commutes again…
Thank you Lonnie, it was good to feel cared for in a foreign land.
And then, we all went back home eventually. I returned to India, and the folks from Vietnam left Valley Forge in the space of the next one month. Will we ever meet again? Who knows… it’s a funny world. We all stay in touch via the internet… and being in IT we will probably end up in the same spot on the globe again sooner or later. And Lonnie? Well he is still at Valley Forge… genially smiling as he usually does, sheparding folks from one place to another, being friendly the way he is…. that is when he is not writing on walls in Facebook !
Who says hotels are only home of the transient… memories of the friends I made at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania will probably last me a lifetime…