Imagine this: You are lounging on a beach chair, basking in the sun on a warm day (not too hot either!), reading a good book - the rumble of the waves as they crash onto the sandy shore caresses your ears, - and from time to time, when you feel a bit too hot, you treat yourself to a refreshing dip in the cool water of the sea. Sounds idyllic, right? It was this picture I had in mind when I decided to go to the Virginia Beach at the end of a long and tiring second semester at graduate school. Luckily for me, my sister and brother-in-law were feeling as tired as I was and decided to accompany me. So on one fine morning, after a few days of planning and carefully watching the weather forecasts, the four of us – my sister, my brother-in-law, my niece and I – headed off towards Virginia Beach, which is about two hundred miles by road from my residence near Washington D.C.
It was almost afternoon when we arrived at the beach. The sun was beating down on the sandy shore with all its might and unfortunately it was quite hot. However, the sight that greeted us on the beach was a treat for the eyes – on one side was the mighty Atlantic Ocean with people bathing, surfing, body-boarding and even parasailing in the water – on the other side was the sandy beach where people lay bathing in the sun. There was a long boardwalk snaking along the feet of the numerous hotels and resorts that line the beach, and people of all ages strolled, jogged, biked or simply sat on the benches in the cool shade of the grand hotels looming over their heads. The beach was, in fact, quite crowded - indeed it seems to me that Americans come to the beach to bathe in the sun as much as to bathe in the water – sporting a bright red tanned skin is somewhat of a fashion here; the more pronounced the tan lines, the better. For a brown-skinned Indian like me, it strikes me as a strange irony – women (and sometimes even men!) in India spend money buying beauty products hoping that the creams and lotions would make them as fair as the ‘memshahebs’, here the ‘memshahebs’ spend money going to tan parlors (and beaches, of course) hoping for a nice tan! Anyway ironies aside, the day was hot and I decided to take a quick dip. The water was refreshingly cool, and the waves reminded me of Puri, except that the beach is much cleaner here than in Puri. Bodyboarding is very popular in the beaches here. Most people, even young kids love to ride the waves on these small rectangular boards made of hydrodynamic foam - the board is often strapped to the wrists of the boarder with a chord - so it is very safe, even for kids. Also, there are lifeguards on the beach for most part of the day. Refreshed after the bath, we thought it would be fun to ride along the boardwalk in a ‘family cart’, (which is basically a covered four-wheeled rickshaw, and all riders can pedal). We were wrong! Even with three of us pedaling (my niece is still too short!), it took far more effort than we had bargained for, and with the hot sun above our heads, big drops of sweat soon appeared on our foreheads. At that moment when we were all toiling very hard to keep our cart moving, my heart went out to all the poor rickshaw-wallahs in my country, whose must pull two to three people all by himself on much worse roads, in the sun and in the rain, day in and day out, just to barely survive. The thought haunted me even when we went to eat – we were famished after the tiring ‘joyride’ – but then, as is usual with my fickle mind, the smell of delicious lobsters soon chased these unhappy thoughts out of my head. At nightfall, there was a musical show featuring some local bands right at the foot of Neptune – I guess I have not spoken of the Neptune yet – well, there is a big statue of Neptune (the roman god of the sea, as you all know) right on the boardwalk. The statue is kind of a landmark in the beach and a favorite spot for family photo-shoot sessions – after all, who would not want to have oneself photographed with the god! We hung around for some time at the musical show, but then we were tired and retired to our hotel for the night. The next morning, after a short stay at the beach, we were ready to leave and we headed off for the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, which is also in Virginia.
The attraction of the Shenandoah National Park is the Skyline Drive, about 60 miles of road snaking along the hills. The hills are not really very high – about 3000 feet at the highest point. For the more adventurous, there are numerous hiking trails branching away from the main road; for the less enterprising, several campsites and picnic spots dot the area. All along the road are scenic outlooks, where one can park the car and enjoy the view. I wish there were such opportunities in the Himalayas in India – it would have been grand! We had many grand plans ourselves – camping there at night and hiking up to the highest peak in the range. Unfortunately, the weather gods did not approve of our plans and soon it was raining heavily. The mist descended like a veil shrouding the hills in its folds. We also learnt that bears are common at night and we decided that it would be unwise to test our faint hearts, especially when it was clear that the weather gods did not approve of our camping there either. So with heavy hearts, we contented ourselves with just the occasional deer that ventured close to the road as we drove across the Shenandoah National Park.
Determined not to let the rain ruin our day completely, we decided to pay a visit to the nearby Luray Caverns – the caves would be a perfect refuge in the rain. The Luray Caverns are limestone caves with the main attraction being the stalactites and stalagmites. The structures are very old – about four hundred fifty million years old. For those of you like me who find it hard to wrap their heads around such large numbers, suffice it to say that the dinosaurs ruled the earth between 230 and 65 million years ago – so we are talking of something twice as old as the oldest dinosaur! Amazingly, some parts of the caves are still growing. It was the first time I was visiting a cave and it was quite a novel experience for me. It was a guided tour along a paved path which meandered and looped around the tunnels and caves. Some of the stalactite and stalagmite formations were really beautiful, with rich and varied hues and colors imparted to them by different minerals in the rock. Some were unusual, being shaped like thin curtains rather than cones, or being completely white in color. And to top it all, they had beautiful names like Pluto’s Chasm, Titania’s veil and Saracen’s tent. I was especially impressed by the ‘Stalacpipe Organ’, the world’s largest musical instrument covering over three and a half acres of the surrounding caverns. Precisely located rubber tipped electronic mallets tap the stalactite structures in synchrony to produce music – the deep resonate tones reverberating through the giant structures touch deep chords in our own hearts.
The next day, we were back at the beach – not Virginia Beach, however – but Ocean City, Maryland. Like the Virginia Beach, it also has a boardwalk, but unlike the Virginia Beach, where the sandy beach itself is the center of attraction, here it is the boardwalk which attracts crowds while the beach remains relatively uncrowded. Besides a full-featured entertainment park with all sorts of thrill-rides, numerous food stalls, casinos, curio shops, and of course, the usual garments and souvenir stores adorn the boardwalk, making it a thriving marketplace. For me, the beach itself looked very similar to the Virginia Beach, only a bit dirtier maybe. However there were lifeguards here too and many people were enjoying a splash in the water. The day was warm, but the air was cool and we spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach. As the sun set and the darkness crept in, we left the beach and a 3-hour drive brought us home.
It was the last day of our vacation and we decided to visit George Washington’s residence – Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens before we went back to our work and daily lives. The estate, which stretches across an area of about five hundred acres by the bank of the Potomac River, was Washington’s home for most of his life. It is said that Washington loved to sit in the patio of his mansion and watch the boats sailing past on the Potomac. Well, one can still enjoy almost the same view from the backyard of the Washington mansion – thanks to the efforts of Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, modern civilization has not been allowed to encroach upon the neighborhood of the farm. The farm has also been restored to as it was during Washington’s time – with rolling meadows, sheep pens, stables complete with horses and mules and light woods. The mansion is decorated with many historical artifacts that belonged to Washington or pertained to his life – among them was a key to the Bastille – the key was sent to Washington as a gift from a friend after the French Revolution. What I really admire about Americans is how well they maintain, preserve and highlight their history. India has a much longer and richer history than USA; so there are many historical monuments, far grander and much more interesting in their antiquity than the oldest or the biggest monuments in the USA, and yet we fail to take proper care of those pieces of our history – we should really take a lesson or two from Americans about cleanliness, punctuality and maintaining decorum rather than trying to ape their eating and dressing habits mindlessly. And ah yes, this reminds me – during one of these trips, we made our acquaintance with a Bengali family that has been in the US for the last two or three years now and I was shocked to find that their seven year old son could speak Bengali only barely. Even more shocking to me was the realization that the parents were actually a bit proud that their son could speak English more or less fluently but could not speak half a sentence in Bengali. I hear that this trend is catching on in India too, especially among Bengalis. What a shame!
Anyway, Washington’s home was the last leg of our trip and at sundown we decided it was time to return – back to our home and work and the daily chores. The sun was setting, the sky was red and as we drove back home, I found myself wandering off to some desolate shore where I had once sat and watched the red sun set into the ocean...