Iftekhar Ahsan pens a diary on his three-week adventure trip to the US
My friends at the US Consulate have been trying to send me on an exchange programme to the US of A for the longest time but just couldn’t come up with the right programme that would fit. Finally, last year, an elated Greg Pardo (former deputy director of the American Center in Calcutta) calls me from Delhi and says that he fended off many nominees and managed to get me on an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
The theme for the programme this year was Tourism: Sustainable Development and Economics, just up my street, and there were 17 of us selected from 17 different countries to go on this three-week adventure. After my briefing at the American Center and a quick exchange visa process, I was off to represent my country and more importantly, my city, at this eclectic global forum.
I arrived in Washington DC after a super-long flight covering about 13,000km over more than 24 hours and had a government representative waiting outside the flight to get us smoothly out of the immigration process. I met a couple of fellow IVLPers at the airport and shared my ride to the hotel with Christel from Lebanon and Mohammad Al Sheikh from Saudi Arabia. These two were certainly much more comfortable conversing with each other in Arabic than they were conversing with me in English. Once we reached our very centrally-located hotel, we started meeting the other IVLPers as well as the liaison officers who would be the coordinators between us and the State department. An aptly-timed introductory session was planned where we met everyone who was going to be our fellow companions for the next three weeks.
Before we were to go on our professional adventure we had a city tour planned through all the landmarks of Washington DC. It was a rainy day and some of us managed to borrow umbrellas from our hotel but we learned wonderful facts while going through the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington monument, the White House, The Smithsonian and such. Among them my favourite had to be the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, which was cut from stone and had the proud inscription: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”.
Next day onwards we had a series of meetings planned with a professor of federal history, the national parks management, a social media company and many more.
In the following days we were to visit several US cities and meet with tourism stakeholders in each destination, both public and private.
Among the cities we covered were Washington DC, Rochester and Buffalo in New York, San Antonio in Texas, Phoenix and Scottsdale in Arizona and lastly, Charleston in South Carolina. It was an amazing mix of places and I’m glad they steered away from the usual large cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and NYC and showed us the real American that most people don’t get to see.
Some of the highlights of the travel experiences included riding the Maid of the Mist at the Niagara Falls, visiting the old granaries at Silo City, eating super-sized beefsteaks at quintessential American diners, reading my Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Rochester where the Imam gave a very cool speech on the importance of travel in Islam and watching a baseball match at the Rochester stadium.
(Iftekhar Ahsan is the founder of Calcutta Walks)