Agree with me or not, I had my own reasons for being superstitious at the time, which was the reason that I confided to only a few close friends and well-wishers prior to my trip to the United States, because I did not want jinx to play spoilsport over the proposed trip to my childhood dreamland.
My year-long wait was over the moment I stepped onto American Airlines, a New York John F Kennedy (JFK) International Airport bound plane, at the IGI Airport in Delhi to be part of the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) on the theme ‘A Global Moment in Time: Photojournalists Document the Challenges and Opportunities in the Covid Era’.
Overjoyed, my guts hollered: Uncle Sam, here I come! Finally, I am coming to your home. I did not realise that I was travelling with only 50 dollars in my pocket. It was probably a dumb thing to do, but it was not intentional. I found myself in a fix as I could not withdraw cash on the way to the airport in New Delhi.
After 17 long hours, the airplane touched down at JFK airport. I squinted through the airplane’s porthole to catch a glimpse of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Beyond them, the silver-lined horizons were signs of a developed nation.
The majestic boulevards designed by French soldier and engineer Pierre L’Enfant in late 1790 can still be seen in the federal city.
Just after checking into Hotel Washington Plaza on 10 Thomas Circle, Northwest Washington, Meghan Simpson, senior global exchange programme officer at the World Learning, handed me a leaflet containing information on the IVLP and the department of state.
With it was a welcome note from the Director of International Visitors, Anne E Grimes: “Welcome to the United States of America. We at the United States Department of States are pleased and honoured that you have accepted the invitation to participate in the IVLP.”
Who would decline an invitation from the state department to visit the US?
In Washington, the exchange programme was designed in a manner focusing more on formal proceedings of the inaugural session. However, ample time was given to the global visitors to explore landmarks, historical structures and places such as the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Arlington war memorial, the Capitol, George Town, etc, in Washington city. At the same time, it emphasised on informal meetings and convened networking and sharing sessions, so that the visitors could acquaint themselves with the place and exchange ideas and stories.
Whitney C Johnson, the vice president of the visual and immersive experiences of the National Geographic’s deliberation on ‘The power of photography in Times and tumult’ and Global Journalist Security founder Frank Smyth’s session on reporting, safety and security in hostile environments were the best takeaways from the Washington session.
Smyth’s words, “If I want to be a journalist, I must behave like a journalist, not like a protestor. Journalism is what you do. If you are abusing the privilege of being a journalist, you should leave the profession,” still ring in my ears.
Minneapolis or St Paul (Minnesota)
We bade farewell to Washington, DC, though our hearts were longing to stay back a few more days. Our group, ‘Team Orange’, flew to the twin cities of St Paul or Minneapolis, the capital city of Minnesota, which took the world by storm over systematic racism with widespread global protest called the ‘Black Lives Matter’ after a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin on 25 May, 2020. The twin cities greeted us with the season’s first snow at night on 13 October, as the temperature dropped below -4 degree Celsius.
The four days in Minneapolis were eventful, including meeting distinct personalities, ranging from professional photojournalists, media professors to psychiatrists who deal with people undergoing trauma. Noted Polish political refugee-turned-professional healer, Bogdan Borkowski gave spiritual and logical perspectives to tackle trauma and pressure in one’s professional life.
We braved the morning’s freezing temperature to visit the George Floyd murder site. The larger-than-life wall murals and the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ conveyed a message regarding the deep-rooted racism against Black people in the American society.
Our visit to Bruce Dehn’s pumpkin field in Kayton county and experience of home hospitality with Matt Lindstorm and Jennifer Weinberg was a soothing experience.
St Petersburg, Florida
We were nearing the last leg of our trip down south to St Petersburg, a coastal city in Florida, my American dream getting clearer. If someone asks about the highlights of the 14-day IVLP in the USA, my honest answer would be that it was beyond a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to get acquainted with the states; it was more about global conversations on shared values, beliefs, exchange of ideas and culture, and the common challenges we faced during the pandemic, with the aim to develop a lasting relationship and collaboration with the Americans.
To me, the greatness of America lies in its citizens’ behaviour and their deep sense of responsibility towards humankind, in which human resources play a major role. That might be the reason that the state department has been focusing on human resources through the IVLP for the last 80 years.