By GAYATREE SIDDHANTA
Our journey began in Denver, Colorado. We were on a 10- day long trip to the South Western USA. We are no strangers to city travels. Give us a map, and a list of good restaurants and any city becomes our oyster. But this was going to be a different trip. Here we were hoping to experience the unspoiled beauty and the grandeur of nature where Canyon lands and gorges tell the stories of the quests of the Spanish conquerors and the wind whispers the tales of the Native American tribes: the Navajos, the Apaches and the Hopis. Here we were going to see a landscape, dotted with the sandstone masterpieces and Mother Nature in her endless splendor. We could not wait.
It was a beautiful mid –May day in Denver when we left it, sunny and pleasant. As we drove up the mountains and approached Vail, a famous ski resort, snow began to fall. The mountains, steep and green with pineswere suddenly draped with a white blanket of snow. Once in a while the sun- kissed radiant peaks parted the cloud cover. Towering over the highway, they seemed to remind us about that splendor of nature that awaited us ahead. The green mountains of Colorado though did not set the stage for the eerie beauty of the South West that we enjoyed in the days that followed. As we entered Utah, the landscape gradually changed and redmountain ranges appeared in the distance. The Colorado River seemed red and the trees were beginning to get sparse.
We spent two days in Moab, Utah, hiking and trekking and at times invoking every God that we believed in as we took the serpentine turns around the mountains, looking down at the Colorado River hundreds of feet below. But throughout it all, the ethereal beauty of the landscape enthralled us, the dessert fauna mesmerized us and the sandstone sculptures, caught in the hues of the setting sun inspired us. The soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks left us speechless and humble. Our journey took us on a southwest direction to Arizona now.
The drive from Moab to Tusayan, AZ, was through the great Monument valley of Arizona. The fragile peaks of rocksstoodthere with pride, braving the desert wind for thousands of years.They were surrounded by mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees and windblown sand as far as the eyes could see.It was a painting that was fragile and robust at the same time.We stopped by the roadside to soak it all in. A car or two passed us by infrequently. At a distance, the walls of the makeshift jewelry store of a Native American woman fluttered in the wind. Once in a while a mild storm would sweep by, leaving behind a trail of dust. The monuments stood in the background, bathed in glorious sunlight. The striking landforms had such an irresistible appeal that wewere lost in our own worlds. There was no chatting, no joking- jut a sense of peace and serenity that hovered over the bewitched travelers.
Here in the southwest, the wind and the rain sculpted Mother Nature; gently eroding thestone layers of the mountains with persistence andnever ever robbing her of her dignity.The results are the ornate structures that hid behind it all. Sometimes they appeared as abandoned old castles, once filled with the joyous laughter of its residents. But in reality, the echoes of that joyful laughter did not resonate from a castle. They filled the air and the sky from Native American villagers. When “Manifest Destiny” gained momentum, their laughter turned into tears and cries of agony. That was the saga of westward expansion in American history. A sense of loss and yearning from the past seemed to weigh heavily on the air over the desserts.
That past is tainted with brutality and inhumanity and a blatant disregard for the indigenous people of the region. A fledgling nation, buoyed by the prospect of growth and wealth looked westward. They were determined to spread civilization as they perceived it, into the wilderness of the west. They wanted to purge that wildness of darkness, animals and of the Indians. In their zeal to spread western sophistication, they forgot the democratic value system the country was founded upon and uprooted thousands of people from their homes. In a hypocrisy laden moral argument, they justified their brutality by offering a benevolent argument. It was in the best interest of those “poor Indians” to send them to a reservation where they could preserve their simple and unsophisticated ways of life. One look at the reservations and one can see the long-lasting effects of that sudden displacement. Progress and wealth seemed to have stealthily passed them by.
We shook off the dust and the reverie and began driving towards Tussayan, AZ. Lunch was in order. As we drove closer to the rest area, aroma of what seemed like hot shortening filled up the air. In the middle of the Monument valley park, I could almost see with my mind’s eye, the make-shift kitchen of a wedding celebration in Assam where dozens of “lusis” were being fried. We walked into a stall ran by two Native American women. One of them was rolling thick frybread, a Native American staple, while the other stood over a simmering pot of stew. I chose to order fry bread and stew. Fifteen minutes later, which seemed like an eternity, I tore off a piece of the frybread, dipped it in the stew and put in my mouth with all anticipation. The fry bread tasted like bhatura, fluffy, salty and slightly tangy, a perfect pairing with the steaming bean and meat stew and the glass of coke. Never ever in my travels all over the world, I ate anything so uncannily familiar to my taste buds. I had seen frybread on TV; I imagined how the taste would be. But this was the real deal.
I went up to the counter and complimented the lady. In a strange way, I felt a connection to her. We exchanged recipes and stories. The struggles of her ancestors were writ large on her face. The frybread, to her, is the symbol of the narrative where Navajo Indians in Arizona who were forced to make the 300-mile journey known as the “Long Walk” and relocate to Bosque Redono, New Mexico in 1860s. The government supplies of lard, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder or yeast, and powdered milk to those Native Americans were often rancid. Fry bread recipe grew out of these few foods provided during the 4 years of captivity in an inhospitable land.
Frybread is also served at family get-togethers and festivities, she assured me. The sadness is masked by a faint smile at this point. The sky above me was bright and blue, the vast expanse of the dessert breathtakingly and eerily beautiful.Aamir Khoosroo’s poem came drifting through the air, adding to the poignancy of the moment:
Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameenast, Hameenast-o hameenast-o hameenast”.
If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!!!! How tragic it is that this heaven for the Native Americans was marred foreverby strangers. They now are the specimen in their own sacred land. The endless vista and the long road ahead beckoned us. The next stop on the trip, the Grand Canyon awaits.