The below essay is an excerpt from “My Story” written by Vinod D. Mehta 1934-2005
The S.S. Sydney started sailing at 4pm on January 5, 1962 from Bombay Port. I continued waving farewell to my parents as long as I could see them. Suddenly, I found myself all alone. There was nothing around the ship except the sea. The loneliness and the gravity of the adventure I had embarked on weighed upon me, and I broke down, tears rolling from my eyes. I do not know if it was because of the fear of the coming unknown or because of my guilt over what I had left behind. The last few months had been so hectic that I had not had a chance to think thoroughly about anything, coming to conclusions and making decisions in a rush. But I had not really had an opportunity to reflect on them. Now, all those decision and my whole life danced before my eyes. With the remembrance of my two grandmothers, visions of my hometown of Nadiad came to my mind. Within a few days I had made friends with some fellow passengers traveling from Australia to England. They helped me buy my first winter coat and we became great friends. I would continue to correspond with them for many years to come.
My journey was circuitous. From Bombay we sailed to Genoa, Italy. I took a train from Genoa to Calais, France, and crossed the English Channel by ferry. After a sleepless night in London, I boarded the S. S. United States to New York.
Finally, we arrived in New York. A lot of people went up to the deck, but I was afraid of the cold and was also very nervous, so I did not. Years later I regretted that I had missed the opportunity to see the Statue of Liberty on my first arrival. The last couple of hours on the ship were very busy. An Immigration Officer came aboard to check our papers and a Customs Inspector asked us to fill in some forms and check our bags. I was lucky that I had only one bag. I was ready and in the line to disembark when I heard a port worker yelling “Any Vinod Mehta here?” I told him that I was he.
A friend of a friend, whom I had never met, came to greet me at the port. He was advised via aerogramme letter that I was arriving and was asked to assist me as needed. It felt great to have someone come to greet me, but I had already purchased bus tickets to take me to Iowa City later that day. My new friend suggested I come to his place for the 9 hours until my bus departure time.
During that time, my new friend tried to convince me that I shouldn’t continue to the University of Iowa to pursue my Master’s Degree in Engineering, and that it would make more financial sense to stay in New York City, attend City College at night and work during the day. I decided to explore this option, and postponed my bus journey for a few days, knowing that my bus fare would still be valid.
I spent the day hearing about alternative education options in NY versus attending the University of Iowa for a Master’s Degree in Engineering. I had traveled this entire way based on a scholarship I received from Iowa, along with the promise of reduced cost housing and an internship. My plan was to attend school, perhaps work for a few months (to earn enough to repay the debt I incurred to travel to the US) and then return to India. After much self-exploration, I decided to leave the bright lights of New York City for Iowa – a decision I have never regretted. I returned to NY years later, and my plans for a short term stay in the US clearly changed along the way.
It was late evening when I boarded a bus in New York City for Iowa. I had been told at the information window that I would have to change buses at the first stop, which would be Pittsburgh, about eight hours away. This was enough time to sleep but the thoughts of the past, present and the future kept running through my mind. Also the idea of the bus transfer to be made in the early morning kept me awake. I had selected a seat in the front of the bus so that I could talk to the driver. The driver was a tall black gentleman. He did not look very friendly. There was also a sign requesting not to talk to the driver. After some five hours of travel, I wanted to reassure myself, so I approached the driver and asked how far away Pittsburgh was. He answered that it was three more hours. I got more courage and asked about my connecting bus to Iowa. Either my accent was heavy, or I was unintelligible, or he did not know where the heck Iowa was, but he told me that the same bus was going to go through Iowa and that I need not transfer at Pittsburgh. The driver’s statement was good news for me. With this, Pittsburgh came and went, I did not get off of the bus. It was dark and cold, and I did not have the courage to ask someone else or annoy the driver again.
When the bus left Pittsburgh I noticed that there was a new driver at the wheel. Now it was morning. The sun was out. The bus was going through a mountainous area. It looked beautiful. I was reminded of the beauty of Shamlaji. That was the place where I had worked for a year on building the National Highway No. 8 in India. Shamlaji was also in mountainous terrain and looked very pretty after the monsoon. I kept looking out the window and trying to identify the passing trees in vain. They were all different than those back home. I was able to identify some geological names of the rocks.
I must have dozed of for some time because when I looked out of the moving bus again it was more plain country. The trees were denser and greener. Now that there was a new driver, I approached him and asked him to confirm that the he was going to Iowa City. He looked at me with amazement and told me that he was going to drive the bus only till Cincinnati, Ohio. The bus was going to Los Angeles, but a different driver will take over from Cincinnati and as far as he knew the bus was going through St. Louis, Missouri and not Iowa. He felt sorry for me that I had fallen asleep at Pittsburgh where I was supposed to change busses.
The news that I had missed my stop hit me like a ton of bricks. Now I was totally lost. I had always taken pride in my knowledge of geography and directions, but these were all new names for me and I had no idea of the relative locations of Ohio, Missouri and Iowa. I felt helpless. Now how would I make it to Iowa City? When would I make it and how would I pay the extra fare? I had a few extra days before school started but I had hardly two or three dollars in cash with me. I had a draft of $1,000 with me, but what good would it do to me? All these ideas flashed through my mind. I must have had tears in my eyes because the driver showed sympathy for me and told me not to worry. He was going to tell the next driver about my problem and he was sure that the next driver would put me on a bus to Iowa City from St. Louis. I asked him how far it was, and how much it would cost me. He did not know the distance but he assured me that if I had a ticket to Iowa City the Trailways Bus Company would take me there at no extra charge to me. His words were a great relief to me.
Morning turned into afternoon and afternoon turned into evening. By four o’clock everything was in darkness. I was on the edge of my seat. As soon as Cincinnati came I jumped out of the bus with the driver. Just as he had said, he introduced me to the new driver and explained my problem to him. The new driver was friendly and told me that if I wanted I could go to sleep and he would wake me when we arrived in St. Louis. I had a cup of coffee and a slice of toasted bread in Cincinnati and was feeling drowsy, so I took his advice and tried to sleep. But I was always a light sleeper and with so much anxiety in my mind I could not sleep. There were not many other passengers in the bus and the few that were there were fast asleep. It was much later that I came to know that mostly poorer people traveled by bus. And that at the time, there were not many poor people in the part of the country where I was traveling.
It was past midnight when the bus arrived in St. Louis. The driver told me to get off and ask for connecting information in the depot office. I got my leather bag from the bus storage rack and went inside the terminal. I kept on wondering why the driver did not get off –after all he had told me that he was driving only up to St. Louis. Anyway, I approached the information office and asked for connecting bus information for going to Iowa City. Once again I had to explain the whole situation. The station clerk fumbled through some timetables and told me that the first bus going to Iowa City would leave in the morning at seven o’clock. I had six hours to spend there. The terminal was big but there were not any comfortable seats to sit on and relax (there were a few wooden benches with iron side supports), the coffee shop was closed, and despite its size, there were only a dozen or so people in the hall.
I had not been to a restroom since leaving New York. It had been over twenty-four hours and I felt the pressure building. I saw the sign for the restroom, took my bag with me and went into a stall. To my surprise there was no door to close. In India we never went in the open, even if nobody was present! And there was this big guy standing in front of the stall looking on. Nature does not shy away. I put my bag in front of me near the entrance to the stall and hurried with what I had to do. Very embarrassing! I went back to the bench and kept a close watch on my bag. I was feeling uncomfortable but did not know why. Everything around me somehow looked unnerving. I remembered a Sanskrit verse that my mother had taught me. It was a prayer of Lord Hanuman. She had told me that whenever one is in trouble, one should recite this verse and all the troubles will go away. I recited the verse again and again. I do not know if the troubles ran away or not but the night certainly passed. It was in the morning when people started to filter into the station that I realized that everyone around me was a black person.
The bus came promptly at seven o’clock. This time I asked not only the driver but also the other passengers and made sure that the bus was going to Iowa City. I showed my ticket to the driver and explained how I had wound up in St. Louis. He made me feel comfortable and asked me why I got off at that bus station–I would have been more comfortable at the other bus station. I did not understand what he meant. It was only after a few months in Iowa City that I learned that there were two separate bus stations in St. Louis, and many other cities in the south, one for whites and one for blacks. It seemed one driver considered me to be black and the other driver considered me to be white!
It was on the bus trip to Iowa and in Iowa City where I learned the true generosity of the American people. I had called the foreign students’ advisor at the University from New York to let him know about my plans and request that he send someone to receive me at the bus stop, but now I was running late by a full day. I had not informed them about the delay. I should have, but I had not learned that etiquette in India. Also, it did not occur to me to make use of the telephone in St. Louis. Now I was worried. Where would I go? The advisor would no doubt be mad and make trouble for me – these ideas made me feel very uneasy. At eight PM a gentleman boarded the bus, I barely gave him time to settle in before I asked him whether we were in Iowa and how close we were to Iowa City. He was a very patient gentleman. Yes! We were in Iowa, he told me. He asked me where I was going. I told him the whole story of how I got to St. Louis and my plans in Iowa City at the University of Iowa.
The gentleman, Mr. Schmidt, asked me if I had a hotel room reservation. Of course I did not. He told me that it would be very difficult to get a room that late in the only hotel in downtown Iowa City, where he had a reservation. He then told me that he knew the manager and that if the manager did not have any other room available in the hotel, he would give me his room and sleep at one of his friend’s places. He promised to give me instructions on how to walk to the foreign student’s office in the morning. My mind eased. I thanked him a lot. I also thanked the Almighty in my mind for this timely help.
At midnight when we arrived in Iowa City, I got my suitcase and we started walking to the hotel. As soon as we stepped out of the bus depot, I felt helpless! My feet were knee-deep in snow! My suitcase was hanging from my hand and its bottom was in the snow. I tried to lift it and put it on my shoulder but it was cold and snowing. I had difficulty lifting it, at the time I weighed about 107 pounds, and the bag was about 40 pounds. I did not know what to do. Mr. Schmidt was ahead of me. He turned around, laughed, gave me his small briefcase and carried my suitcase. The hotel was only two blocks away but it took us ten long minutes to walk there.
Luckily for me, the hotel had a room available. Mr. Schmidt gave me his telephone number and asked me to call him with my address when I got settled or if I needed any help. He wished me good night and wished me well, saying that I would not see him in the morning because he was going to leave early. I did in fact call him a few days later with my telephone number. He was the president of the local chapter of the Rotary Club and later asked me to give a talk to the club members, which I did. It was a sheer delight to meet him again and talk to the local Rotarians about India over lunch.
I slept like a log. The morning was bright and crisp. By now I had forgotten about the heavily milked Indian tea and started getting accustomed to black coffee. After coffee at the hotel, I ventured out. It was bitterly cold. For a moment I remembered my friend from the boat and thanked her in my mind for the thick topcoat that I was wearing. The sidewalks were cleared of snow. Soon I found the house serving as the foreign student’s center and as the residence of the foreign students’ advisor. I asked for Mr. Opstead, my advisor, and the person I asked welcomed me by my name. He was Mr. Manner. Mr. Opstead had retired and Mr. Manner was the new foreign students’ advisor. He showed a great deal of understanding and expressed regret that I had such a rough journey. In less than five minutes Mr. Manner had put me at ease.