Crossing an Ocean of Dreams

Gayathri Santhosh

© Copyright 2018 by Gayathri Santhosh


Photo of a space shuttle launch.

This is an account of how a 15-year-old came to understand the truth behind Gustave Flaubert’s wise words, “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” In a way, traveling teaches you a lot more than that.

Either it’s a dream, or something terribly wrong is going to happen during this short twenty-minute journey to the airport. After all, HOW IN THE WORLD am I going there alone? I am fifteen, I have never been away from my family, yet, here I am. Alone (not exactly). That can't be happening. Either a dream, or an obstacle is going to cut short our trip.” My thoughts ran faster than our bus. I let my imagination run wild, because I knew for sure that such a big phenomenon cannot be happening in my life, and I should be prepared for the worst. Life can be unexpected, but, it’s a hard blow when you expect the unexpected, and nothing happens. I think of all obstacles that might come on the way to the airport. “The bus might get a flat tire, the flight can be delayed, my ticket can catch fire…” Yes. Something should happen. Because, this journey is a dream about to come true. Can it be this easy?

I cannot believe we are actually going!”, my friend beamed at me. Wait. Everyone was having a hard time accepting it. Except, maybe, my parents who are far away from me now and the teachers, who are very close to me (just two seats away) now. It is night, and I vow to myself not to trust my senses until I reach there. “Yeah”, I said, “a thirteen-hour flight is a first-time for me.” That was one reason to be excited. “And, on top of it, we are going to the US! Look, how cool can that be?” OK. Now that’s something to be surprised about. That we ‘are going’. We were on a school trip, to the mighty United States of America. Well, by ‘we’, I mean a group of 7 girls and 2 teachers from a school in the United Arab Emirates, which is a small country lying comfortably in the Arabian Peninsula. Now that the reality is sinking in, I thought about how it all began.

Just another ordinary assembly at school. The principal announced a trip to NASA, and trust me, it was pretty expensive. Everyone laughed--I mean, who will go to a distant unknown land to tour a space agency? Without your family? But I remember I didn’t laugh at the idea. If I ever had an ambition, it was to be a space scientist. To me, NASA was dreamland. I sincerely pined to go. But the travel expenses warned me to bury the wish deep within me. My parents wouldn’t allow.

Oh! How I wish I understood my mum and dad better! They coolly said, “Since you are interested in space research and all that, you should take this opportunity.” And so, the trip was on! The days raced forward, I got my visa, all other travel documents…. And ended up in the bus. If I sound like I was forced to come on this trip, let me clear myself. NO. I wanted to see NASA, I wanted to see a real rocket, I wanted to experience a life that wasn’t my own. It is just my childish excitement that made me think of this as a dream. I knew I needed to grow up!

Everything went smooth at the airport, and soon, we were clicking selfies with our boarding passes and chatting. For the next 10 days, this is family. Lot of bonding to be done. This is a connecting flight; the first a 45-minute ride, and the second, the 13-hour voyage. The physicist in me fancied about jet-lag and time travelling. Finally, we were mid-air. I tried befriending my neighbour, a 3-year-old, and immediately regretted it as she started wailing. I looked around and saw my friends smiling pitifully at me. Apart from that, the flight was normal. I saw a movie, read a book (I carried two for some reason), and slept well. Finally, the aeroplane touched down on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. I have arrived!

The JFK airport was intimidating; I haven’t travelled anywhere except between The UAE and India, my birthplace, and nowhere have I seen E-Gates. I took 5 minutes to figure it out, which was thankfully much less time than my companions, and within no time, I had claimed my baggage (very fancy) and waited to breathe in the NY air. I am a HUGE Taylor Swift fan, and I played her song “Welcome to New York” in my mind as I took my first step outside… and shuddered. Chilly winds prevailed, and the sky was gloomy with clouds. We got into a bus that took us to a hotel for the night’s stay. I was alert with my professional camera throughout. But I captured shots with my eyes only. I found myself comparing the NY trees to what I see at home. In fact, I was comparing everything to home.

Trouble was on. The hotel had no lift service, which meant I had to haul my 30-kilo luggage up two flights of stairs by myself. We had to walk about 10 minutes to reach a restaurant. Not even one day in this foreign place, but I was awfully worried about my lack of friends. Others seemed to be well aware of each other, and I found myself alienated. I somehow had to change that. But not that night, as my tiredness had alienated my social skills. After the ordeal (of eating food I did not appreciate), jet-lag switched me off.

Day 1 was a beautiful, windy one. We ecstatically took pictures in front of a cherry blossom, and then ran off for a frenzied breakfast. I had coaxed my roommate to be by my side throughout, and thankfully, we shared the same ideas about food. I still drool over the tasty wedges. Our first destination was New York harbour. The bus rides were a great opportunity to enjoy the scenery. The ferry took us to Ellis Island, The Battery, and finally, The Liberty Island. “The copper statue, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States…….”, our guide went on. But, my mind was whirling around the symbolic meaning of the Statue of Liberty: Freedom enlightens humanity. If we try to restrain ourselves, we can never learn the truth about ourselves or our life’s purpose. We need to use every opportunity. Suddenly, I was profoundly happy at having been courageous enough to embark on this journey. We clicked pictures with Liberty, but the trip was cut short by heavy rains. Our next destination, the 9/11 memorial, with its inscriptions of the names of every soul who perished in the terror attacks, had an aura of remembrance. We all prayed silently for those warriors. The grove of oak trees was mesmerising.

The next remarkable event was visiting the World War II memorial at Washington D.C. The Freedom Wall fascinated me, with a view of the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial behind it. The wall has 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war! In front of the wall lies the message "Here we mark the price of freedom". How poignant! We had the golden chance to interview a WW2 veteran and to get his autograph and photograph. He had unnerving stories of the war-time to be told. Some of us dared to take photos with the guards. The friendliness and hospitality were downright heart-warming. The fountains and 56 pillars were all marked in glory. Then we set off for our next stop: The White House.

The statues at Lafayette Park are exemplary examples of craftsmanship. Our guide explained what each one meant, and the history behind the Andrew Jackson equestrian statue. All of us scribbled notes into our books, asked questions, and then wished to go inside the White House. Obviously, it wasn’t possible, but we all wanted to, extremely lured by its grand appearance. Even the U.S Capitol building was pompous, and you can imagine the pride and the chills we felt as we traced the path of the inaugural parade of the U.S President. One of the major merit of this trip was that I got to learn a lot about architecture. Neoclassical architecture, which encompasses the styles of Federal and Greek Revival architecture which were a major influence during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was most prominent and its greatest example is the Capitol building. As we walked along the streets searching for restaurants, several such marvels of history were awaiting us. As we said goodbye to our wonderful guide cum mentor, me and my roommate asked for a chance to touch his signalling stick (he held that up every time he wanted us to gather somewhere). I did not know how to address it; so, I named it ‘The Staff’. He gleefully let us fulfil that wish, though he could not understand why we considered it interesting. We too did not know that for sure.

On my fourth day in US began the second leg of adventures; the flight to Miami, Florida to tour the Universal Studio, J.F.K space centre and Disney World. I fly frequently, and I am not phobic about heights or airplanes, but this one was special. The turbulence had been terrifying. Therefore, the flight, however long it was, felt more like a desert safari. And I hate desert safaris. So, I had resorted to sleeping throughout, to ignore the nausea caused by the plane’s sudden jumps. I was more than pleased when there was land under my feet again.

But by now, I had started to get homesick; the 8-hour time difference meant that my family would be asleep by the time I get to my room. There was no communication between us for about 2 days. I remember the frustration I felt as I messaged them, “GET UP AND TALK TO ME” and got no reply. I made it a point to send non-sense messages (like, ‘hdggcdguhd jhsdywiljvn’) to wake them up. But hey, it worked at times! What more, I missed my mum’s cooking, because surely, eating bread and corn flakes on a daily basis is torture, for anyone hailing from the land of spices. One embarrassing truth: I had a taco and felt sick in the stomach for the whole day. I had always been enthusiastic to try out new cuisines, and Mexican food is renowned for its versatility and flavour, but I never knew that my curiosity could have side effects. I sensed instantly that I needed better food. Maybe Italian is the best for me (I am crazy when it comes to Pasta). All this time, my friends were a great help, and four of us grew close and hung out together everywhere.

Though I have seen pictures, I never expected the globe at Universal Studio to be so GIGANTIC! The place was magical, with Minions and Men in Black and Harry Potter all coming to life. I am not a fan of speeds, but my buddies kindly ensured that I skipped no roller coasters. One of my friends, a ‘Men In Black’ fanatic had to be dragged away from its theme ride as we could not afford a 30 minute wait.

We saw the Knight Bus, the Leaky Cauldron etc in the Diagon Alley. Though I was not a blind fan of the Harry Potter series, it still was marvellous to see what I had only imagined through reading. I still do not understand how the “Self-stitching needle” at Harry Potter world worked. We entered a store (Ollivander’s, as per the book) and tried wands. I regret not being able to lay hands on butterbeer though.

At one point, we were strolling aimlessly when I turned around to see JOHNY DEPP. Okay, not him, but someone with the Jack Sparrow costume on. But the masquerade was utterly amazing and on-point that we all mistook the man to be right out of the screen. Due to lack of time, we couldn’t explore the whole place in one go. We roamed around until we were famished, and then rewarded ourselves with Mac n cheese, which was another first-experience. But we left it with a suitcase full of memories. I waited anxiously for the next day, which would take me to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre.

That morning, I literally gobbled up my breakfast. I dressed comfortably for an astronaut training programme and was in high spirits for the trip that others called “boring” or “unnecessary”. I was flabbergasted at the sight of the Space shuttle stack that towered in front of us at the Visitor’s Complex. On subsequent research, I found that I had witnessed the ‘only’ vertical shuttle stack display ‘in the world’! Everyone had to give an introduction to our trainee, and I remember announcing, “I wanna be a research scientist at NASA”, and she replied, much to my elation, “You are welcome here anytime!”. That was enough to get me a lot of attention from fellow students. At first, we had to go through the process of getting our trainee T-shirts, which is one of my most valued possessions even now.

The bus-sized model of the Hubble telescope and the sight of real-life Space shuttle Atlantis nearly knocked my socks off. What I appreciate here is that they have placed them with an approximate 43-degree tilt to match what astronauts behold in space. Interactive sessions proceeded about the development of the ISS and the Hubble space telescope, and then we had various team competitions, and, no way to withhold the fact, my team won nothing. All the embarrassment of that moment was forgotten during our anti-gravity simulation and the shuttle launch simulation (SLE). We walked up the gantry and were given a pre-launch briefing and strapped in ourselves to discover what astronauts do during a vertical launch to the lower orbit of our Earth. The originality was fascinating. The sounds of launching and the beeping of machines led to a mysterious quiet when the spacecraft reached the orbit and the payload bay doors opened to reveal our planet beneath us. After this wholesome experience, the IMAX 3D movie went by in a blur.

Our exploration of the Apollo/Saturn V Centre was complete with an explanation about the functional parts of a rocket. We learnt about space-suits and literally touched the moon. There was a sample of rock from the moon for public viewing; the overwhelming feelings I experienced while touching it is unexplainable. I am not embarrassed to say that I nearly dissolved into tears at the Lunar Theatre where they re-created the first manned lunar landing. OK, I cry watching rocket launches, but that’s not an issue. I do not remember the exact order of events as it was a three day stay and I write about it a couple of years after, but I can still sense the excitement brewing inside me as we toured some of the confidential areas of the space centre. Unluckily, no rocket-launching was to be seen.

An unexpected surprise that NASA held for us was to meet the astronaut Jon A. McBride and have him answer our questions while we had our lunch. Questions ranged from how he managed the zero-gravity environment to how working-out in space works. He said his most ecstatic moment in space was viewing the earth from there. I could imagine that too, though I don’t really wish to go up there. He kindly allowed us to take photographs with him, and even signed for us. Those memorable days soon led to the point where we took autographs from our trainees and said a final goodbye. By the way, we received certificates that recognized us as future ‘explorers’, a medallion and had done a bit of souvenir shopping to remember NASA (not like I would ever need it, but still, I can do with a small rocket). I can tell you I hadn’t seen enough, it was more of a hands-on treatment that I had desired for. I was shocked on the way back to my room, when I remembered I had forgotten to ask for the chance to look through a telescope. I carry the grief to this day. Nevertheless, I now had a strong group of friends who admired my ambition, and all my homesickness had abandoned me. Finally I was really ready for this adventure. Too late. I had 24 hours left before this dream comes to an end. So, I decided to make the most out of it.

The same day, we did some shopping in Florida. After countless unsuccessful attempts to learn the American denominations of money (I thought of this only when I entered the shop), I vowed to give notes and no coins wherever I purchased as I was wasting time trying to figure out dimes and nickels. At one point, I had so many coins with me that I had to ask the guy at the counter to count and take ‘what he wanted’. Now I cannot stop laughing as I think I could have been terribly cheated. Anyway, I managed to learn the currency before I went for a grand purchase at Orlando International Premium Outlets. I got dresses, mugs, souvenirs etc only to remember later on that I had only a single bag to carry everything home. I envisioned me with a broken back already. Never forget, I had one more day here; only one more to be on my own and enjoy with friends: and what better place can I ask for that than the Walt Disney World, FL?

The elegant Cinderella palace represented a fairy tale come true. We heard that inside lay a chance to dine with princesses and a Bibbidi Bobbidi boutique where we can get transformed into princesses. None of us were inclined towards such makeovers. Obviously, high schoolers want something more adventurous than that, don’t they? Maybe some off-season Halloween costumes or make-up (it was not October). So, we drank in the beauty of the castle from a distance and then went off for more adrenaline-involved attractions.

The Seven Dwarfs Mine train at Fantasyland was one of our stops. I like glittering things. So, I was more than enraptured by the sight of dwarfs with their jewel bags as I passed by them on the ride. It was sort of a calm ride without any vertical falls or breath-taking speeds. When others complained about that, I murmured, “THANKFULLY”. One thing I love about theme parks is their haunted houses. So, as we located one on our guide maps, I was entitled the task of dragging my group into it. They liked speeds but not horror! But obviously, tit for tat, they were obliged to come with me, just as I had pushed myself unwillingly into all the roller coasters in there. Trust me, the queue was scarier than the mansion itself! I prided in my capability to give others the willies by screaming hysterically and pushing them from behind. After this, we had some cake, and set off in search of more adventurous rides, this time me whining about how much ‘scarier’ I had expected it to be.

The second seemingly-horror-land turned out to be an utter failure. We anticipated that the Enchanted Tiki room would be something like live horror. As it turned out, we were to listen to some tropical birds singing and tikis talking. We teased our own over-expectations. After umpteen rides, the evening approached and it was time to gather for the light-show, a famous masterpiece of the Disney World. Before that, we collected at a candy shop and did some staring. Then, the Cinderella palace lit up in purple, green and many splendid shades. Then came the fireworks. To this day, I don’t know how to jot down what I saw there; spectacular is an understatement. I photographed every single pattern that came up in the sky, because I knew my family would love to see all this. Heart-shaped fireworks were the best! Like I said, I like sparkling stuff. And the sight of multiple fireworks in the sky is made just for my eyes. After that came the actual light-show. Do not even ask me how I felt. More and more sparkling. Though I had grown out of the fairy-tale-age, Disney characters parading in front of me in enthralling lights and suitable music did make me a little child for the moment. Summing up that experience in one word? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I cannot find a better, shorter adjective, however transient the event was. We did not find a store that gave a Halloween makeover though.

As we sped back to our rooms, everyone remained exceptionally quiet; maybe reminiscing the last 10 days and thinking about leaving tomorrow. That night went by in a jiffy: eating, packing, and arranging travel documents. Also, we had some work: our travel coordinator has asked us to write anonymous notes to her describing our opinions of the journey and about any improvements needed. I wrote her I wished to visit the Times Square. Only in pictures have I seen the billboards and the alluring night-time lights of this great neighbourhood in Manhattan. I wanted to know why it was nick-named ‘The crossroads of the world’. I know that they fulfilled my wish with the batch that went there the next year after us. Though I was not one of them, I can feel that sense of fulness. I will one day go there by myself and fill in those details to this colourful journey.

And thus ends my journey. THE END ALREADY? NO WAY. It seemed so to me too, until I realised that the return journey had some very clever tricks for me as well. We purchased souvenirs from the FL international airport, got bars of chocolate and waited comfortably. That day, for once I knew my parents would not sleep. They called every now and then, willing to be updated about every movement we made. At last, I had traced my path back home, to my family, but with one single deprivation: my luggage. Everyone got their bags and had already headed home. My bags had decided to play hide and seek it seems. Remember me talking about expecting the unexpected and nothing happening? Well this time, I was not really expecting anything unexpected, and it happened. After all, it was an epic conclusion to one epic journey. That is exactly why I went paranoid with fear.

We contacted the help desk that tracked my bag back in its departure-airport. That was funny. For some reason, my luggage did not want to come back. We all laughed at the strange turn of events and went home with no baggage. Life has its own ways of getting us nonplussed. Eventually, the bags were delivered and my life fell into the hands of normal routine once again.

With classes starting while I was enjoying life the American way, I had to talk about the journey numerous times for my classmates and retelling the tale (or should I say fairy-tale) had flooded me with strong emotions every time, even now, 2 years later. Maybe I am not talented enough to put my emotions in words, because I guess no one would ever catch up on my reflections about it, mainly because it was my experience. I learnt from it and will cherish it. This trip was so vitally important in my life as it expanded my thoughts beyond academics and home. For the first time, I wished to travel the world and explore cultures. For the first time, I experienced what ‘managing me’ felt like. It had been the first time I was away from home, and also the first time I learnt to confide in friends. I understood that there were cuisines and manners very different from mine and they too ought to be appreciated. I am a representative of my own culture that I am supposed to assert and get people to acknowledge. Moreover, the whole world is a giant school; opening doorways to learning wherever you are. Now, all I need to do is to introduce my family to all these marvels. I want to be the one to take them to the US, not only because they gave me a chance to scale my dream, even though that meant letting me go alone, but also because I love them and I am grateful to them, immensely.

Since then, I had immersed myself into the final two years of school. The dream to pursue a career in astrophysics is rooted deeper in me than ever before. I have not travelled to any more far away places. But the desire never dies, and I thank the Statue of Liberty for that.

I am a 17 year old student from India. Apart from academics and a bit of reading, I take writing as another way of self-exploration. I have not got any of my works published, though I have entered numerous contests for essay and poetry writing. I wish to pursue a career in astrophysics, and is still working on that.

Contact Gayathri

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher