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I Didn’t Hate South Dakota

I didn’t hate South Dakota.

In fact I never really thought about South Dakota. I knew it was the home of Mount Rushmore, and that was enough for me. Everything else I had ever learned or been told about the area led me to believe it was the most boring of boring places in the US. Not worth wasting a thought on, much less a trip.

But the other day I arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota, and my opinion of the place changed drastically.

After spending a few days in Minneapolis, visiting my brother and filling our hours with game after game of Egyptian Laser Chess and rounds of trampoline dodgeball with Joel Runyon, Jóna and I hopped a bus up to Fargo, North Dakota.

After six hours on the road, we arrived, only to be told that our planned path through ND and down into the western side of South Dakota wouldn’t be possible, as their routes have been changed (though there’s no indication of this change on their website). We would have to go back to Minneapolis first, and then catch another bus through to Rapid City, where we planned to stop at a hotel for the night, hop a free shuttle to Mount Rushmore, and proceed on our merry way.

Our stop in Rapid City could have been depressing. I’m not a big fan of tourist attractions, and the whole city, as advertised, seemed to be a vehicle for the famous President-encrusted mountain. Further, after enduring an extra 12 hours in a cramped Greyhound we needn’t have experienced (back and forth from Fargo), we were both close to the ends of our respective travel-tolerance ropes.

During a stop in Sioux Falls (five hours or so from Rapid City), I sat down in the Greyhound station and started chatting with another passenger, who turned out to be a roofer, looking for work in the area. Another man came up and joined the conversation, and he was involved in contractor work, essentially rebuilding towns after catastrophic disasters.

I learned a lot about roofing.

But the second gentleman and I (his name was Tom), continued our chat after we boarded the bus, and a few hours later, we had run the gamut from roofs to politics to science and technology. He went back to his seat and we both passed the last few hours reading.

When we arrived in Rapid City, I found that my phone wasn’t picking up a signal, and was unable to contact a hotel to make a reservation and to see if any of them would pick us up from the Greyhound station so late at night.

Tom asked me where I was headed, and when I told him about the phone problem I was trying to solve, he kindly offered to have the guy who was picking him up drop us at a hotel nearby. We gladly and thankfully accepted.

When Tom’s ride arrived, a pair of dogs exploded from the car and ran to greet him, followed by a fellow about Tom’s age (probably 50 or 60 years old) who smiled and shook his hand. We were introduced to Monte, and as we loaded up our bags in his car, he said, “Well why don’t you come out and stay with me?”

The automatic response most people would have in this situation is to assume the worst. Who was this guy? What did he want from us? Did he want to kill us, or just rob us?

This reflex has been sanded away by years of travel in me, so I quickly took stock, reassured myself that Monte wasn’t nefarious, and checked with Jóna to make sure she was comfortable with the arrangement. She nodded yes, and our South Dakota education began.

It started with a drive around the outskirts of town, leading to Mount Rushmore, which was closed for the night but still accessible if you ignored the signs telling you not to enter. We had a dramatic view of the rock-faces, unobstructed by weather or tourists and emphasized by the nighttime lighting.

I was impressed. It was actually a really dramatic view, and in the chilly, empty, quiet night, it was even more so.

We were then driven to a massive log cabin, which Monte had built. He showed us around and explained how he’s building these log castles because he likes the aesthetic, but also because they’re eco-friendly and perfect for the Dakotan environment. He also owns a log-cutting business, removing diseased trees so that healthy ones can continue to live, so the log cabin ventures fit well within his business portfolio.

After checking out the cabin, we went out in search of something warm to eat.

The restaurant we decided on offered up an interesting mix of standard American food, alongside regionals specialties and Mexican food. No one would man-up and order the Rocky Mountain Oysters, but Tom offered to buy Jóna a buffalo burger, in part because he wanted to make sure she tried it, and in part to welcome her to the United States. Warm fuzzies all around.

Jóna and I were having a good time, but were also exhausted. Thankfully, the next stop was another log cabin, and this one we would get to sleep in.

To say it was a rustic experience wouldn’t be quite accurate, even though the vibe was definitely woodsy and lumberjack-like. It was more like the place felt like home even though we had never been there before, and it was warm and cozy enough that we quickly fell asleep, luxuriating in the quiet sustained by the log walls, despite the blustery weather outside.

The next day we went for a hearty breakfast in a small restaurant that smelled of pancakes and looked like a hunting lodge. There were real moose, elk, and deer heads mounted on the walls, and a signed Nascar tire above our table. We ate all we could, then Monte and Tom took us to visit another cabin, this one out past the Black Hills. We stopped at a few frozen lakes to take photos and marvel at the pickup trucks pulled out onto the ice, each surrounded by clusters of fishermen.

We eventually drove back into town and were dropped off in the downtown area, right next to the Greyhound station. We all exchanged handshakes, hugs, and email addresses.

As Jóna and I sat in the bus and pulled away from the station, I said “You know, I didn’t hate South Dakota before, but now I kind of like it.”

February 16, 2017

I’ve had so many experiences like this, it’s ridiculous. People are generally good wherever you go, and given the opportunity, strangers will give you the shirt off their back to make sure you’re taken care of while in their hometown.

There are jerks out there who can make strangers seem threatening and generally horrible, but they are the exception, not the rule.

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Silly Question

I was sitting on the third flight of the day when the thought hit me. Or at least, I think it was the same day. The math got a little fuzzy after Hong Kong.

The thought? “I’ve lost track of time, or time has lost track of me. I’m somewhere in between the pages of a book, and I’m somehow cramming about 48 hours into a single day. I’m the sharp edge of the page of the book. If I turn sideways, I’ll disappear.”

Needless to say, I was quite sleep-deprived.

We left Kolkata unceremoniously, having enjoyed a going-away party several days before we actually took off. Jóna and I planned to hop a train for Mumbai, but our third attempt at doing so failed just as badly as the first two. We resigned ourselves to enjoying a few more days in the three-bedroom flat we had been renting in Kolkata, spending most of our newfound time indoors, working on our respective projects and gazing longingly toward a near-future when we would find ourselves back in the US.

Hot showers. I’ve been taking two a day since I got back. After 15 minutes of standing, perfectly content, under the endlessly-hot waterfall of steamy, clean water, I emerge from my reverie and tell myself that water isn’t free here, though it is awesome on a level I never noticed or appreciated before.

Honestly, I’ve gotten very little done in the few days I’ve been back in the States. I visited a friend from college after landing in Chicago, and he was kind enough to put us up for the night, buy us a meal, and not be offended that we just wanted to pass out after the stressful hullaballoo we went through trying to get back to American soil.

The whole thing was a jumbled mess from start to finish.

We found out, after landing in Mumbai for a five hour layover, that Jóna would need to fill out some kind of form (they call it ESTA, even though it has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be, non-permanent’ in Spanish) and pay $10 in order to enter the US. This is, I might add, a luxury citizens of certain special countries (read: countries who smile and nod wistfully instead of speaking up against us when we launch an ill-conceived ‘War Against Whomever’) are afforded, and is supposed to be better somehow than simply applying for a visa. As far as I can tell, though, the only benefit is that you have faster turnaround on them telling you whether or not you’re turned down pre-arrival (though they still reserve the right to send you home after you arrive).

From there, the friendly Cathay Pacific manager (who informed us about ESTA) also informed us that Jóna would need a return ticket from the US, leaving from her port of arrival (in this case, Chicago). The irrationality of this necessity is boggling, as it seems to assume that someone visiting the US, potentially for months, will not ever leave the city they fly into.

In our case, Jóna was planning to road-trip with me around the US until the end of April, at which point she would head back to Iceland. Turns out, however, that Iceland Air doesn’t fly out of Chicago. Furthermore, as helpful as Cathay Pacific was throughout all of this (they allowed us to occupy one of their office computers for a solid four hours while trying to sort everything out), their terminals were running an old version of Internet Explorer, so every time we tried to purchase a refundable ticket from Chicago to someplace international, the browser would crash and all of our hard-work would go unrewarded.

I’m not ashamed to say that by the time we finally just said ‘Fuck it!’ and bought a relatively cheap ($190), non-refundable ticket to Canada from Chicago, chalking it up as an unavoidable cost of travel to the US, I was a jittery, pissed-off, mentally-shredded human being, equal parts ready to punch an American policy-maker and break down into a sobbing, gasping lump of sleepy traveler.

It must have been something to behold.

But we finally got all the paperwork in order, and we hopped a six hour flight to Hong Kong, where we boarded a 15 hour flight over the Pacific to Chicago.

Upon arrival, I made it through customs faster than I thought possible, but Jóna was pulled out of line after waiting in it for about 30 minutes. She was taken to a back room.

I grabbed our bags from the conveyor belt and set them down in front of a pillar, leaning against it and facing the room where she was taken, making angry eyes (without seeming to be making angry eyes) at the security personnel. After 20 minutes of waiting, I asked one of the loitering guards when I could expect her to be done in back. He glared at me and said, “She’ll be out when she’s out.”

What a douchebag. I returned to my pillar.

After another 15 minutes she emerged. I asked her, “What did they do to you?” expecting to hear a tale of full-cavity searches and violent waterboarding.

“They questioned me for a bit. They wanted to know if we were planning to get married while I was in the country. You know, for a green card.”

We laughed in relief and at the ridiculousness of the prospect. “If they only knew how silly a question that was.” We kissed, picked up our bags, and walked toward customs.

Update: February 16, 2017

I’ve been fortunate to never have and truly horrendous immigration experiences, personally, but the entire system lacks oversight and regulations that would allow me to trust it. A lot of the people involved seem to be incredibly cynical, power-mad mini-tyrants, empowered to mistreat fellow human beings by vague regulations that prop up a system of security theater and abuse. I recognize the need for security, but I don’t think that’s what we have, much of the time.