Editor’s note: Anup Pai is an entrepreneur based in Bangalore, India. Pai is the co-founder, head of US operations, and COO of the financial technology company Fintellix, formerly known as iCreate. He recently completed an adventurous journey even most Americans have never attempted: a road trip across the contiguous United States from the East Coast to the West Coast, in 9 days, with his wife and daughter. Below is the story of their experience during this bizarre and important election year of 2016 in the United States.
Following in the great tradition of France’s Alexis de Tocqueveille and others, Pai has captured this special moment in time in the United States from a uniquely foreign perspective. He also shared some of his favorite picks for sights, food, wine, beer, and lodging below.
Unlike most Indian IT folks who started their careers in the 1990’s, my first trip to the USA didn’t happen until April 2015. Boy, did I have a lot of catching up to do. Till that point, I had travelled to over 40 countries in the Asia Pacific, Africa, Europe and the Middle East building and selling software using technologies developed in this country. Most of the countries I had been to before (barring Australia) had cultures rooted in their traditional medieval or even earlier histories, whereas the USA had rapidly developed a unique culture through the pioneering tradition of its people. We’re talking about a culture which was unmistakably a part of me just as I was unavoidably a part of that culture.
Over the next 12 months, I spent close to 90 days over 8 separate trips to the US and travelled to many of the great cities on the East coast – New York, DC, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami. I even did a short touristy gig on the West coast – Las Vegas and the Highway 1 drive (LA to SF). My business also took me to some smaller places like the lively Nashville, the “developing again” St. Louis and the “dying” Atlantic City. The people I met were mostly bankers from various parts of the country and sometimes, if I got lucky, I participated in a drunken conversation with a 20 something National Rifle Association (NRA) supporting event manager in Nashville, who was pleasantly inquisitive about other cultures.
Now for my naughty confession. I have been a fan of US politics ever since I spent a month watching the 2000 Bush-Gore election and the “pregnant and/or hanging chads of Florida” on BBC and CNN. From that fiasco my attention stayed true through the triumph of Barack Obama being elected in 2008 in spite of having a name that sounded like Osama and the middle name Hussein. In 2008, I concluded that maybe the USA was ready to lead the new, non-violent, earth-caring world, but the events of 2015 shook that belief thanks to the support earned by Donald Trump’s vitriol. Obviously, parts of the country are angry because of the social imbalances in the economy and I feel those folks are not able to understand Bernie enough to appreciate his message.
I wanted to understand the anger and the frustration a bit more – where was it coming from and what might quell it? If this or something similar manifested in the rest of the world, many parts of which suffer much larger injustices, I fear we might be in for a very violent world. Obviously, I had to answer my questions in a time-bound manner while getting some work done as well. So, I convinced my wife and 5 year old daughter to do a 9 day cross-country drive from New York to San Francisco. Given that it was only 9 days and we had to travel through Omaha, Nebraska and Salt Lake City, Utah for work reasons, we chose to drive the I-80 from end to end.
Our first stop took us to Ellwood City, PA on school graduation day. This town of 8,000 people 40 minutes from Pittsburgh was once a booming coal mining town of European immigrants. Now a sleepy hamlet that shops at Dollar Rite, Ellwood City has only one restaurant other than a branch of the chain Applebee’s. Shakespeare’s Restaurant & Pub is built like a kitschy 18th century English castle and the kitchen closes at 9PM. The motto of the town – “Changing Lives, Living Change” was embodied by the couple who ran the B&B Chapel Valley Estate we stayed in. They were hard working, compassionate folks with good taste. While they just might vote Hillary, all the kids in the Shakespeare’s Restaurant and Pub seemed like they will vote Trump.
Next stop – Middlebury, Indiana, a town of around 3,000 people 130 miles from Chicago and deep in the heart of Amish country. The kind couple who ran the Mckenzie House B&B were staunch Christians and the conversation around the breakfast table over multiple home-cooked dishes was about their relationship with the Bible. The town itself had a very good restaurant and a craft brewery, also quite good, next door. Driving through Amish country after dinner, and passing horse-drawn buggies was a thrill for my daughter. For me, the “tweaks” the Amish are making to their lifestyle to reconcile with and profit from the modern world has a lesson for the rest of us. Maybe I am “semi-Amish” in my thinking given that I don’t have a Facebook account. While the Amish might not vote, I got the feeling that this town will probably go for Trump. There were quite a few Trump signs on the front yards. Indeed, it was Indiana where Trump crushed his last two primary competitors, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, once and for all.
From there our travels took us to the university town of Ames, Iowa. Not totally representative of the rest of the state, I would tend to believe. I would have loved to go to school in this well-laid out town, but I’m not sure what that would have done to my career in today’s skills market given that the university is known more for its liberal arts and not Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math (STEM) education. The cross-country track of the university was lush green and my daughter and I had a fabulous morning stroll. The Iowa House is in a building which used to be a frat house, breakfast was good and in general Ames had a nice vibe and nice local businesses including some very good restaurants. To me this place resembled the ideal vision of a small midwestern town with cerebral inclinations.
Omaha was on my route because of the large banking industry in that town and for most Indians (South Asians, I am told is what we should call ourselves these days in the USA) widely known as the hometown of Mr. Warren Buffet. We decided to stay in a hotel in the downtown area which was deserted given that it was the weekend.
I met with a local fintech entrepreneur who was bringing Bitcoin to the Midwest! We also met with a relative who had made Omaha his home for over 10 years, and was pleased because his teenage son’s friends were mostly Indian and even the couple of American friends he had were “good.” Post the cultural invasion that has happened in India (and most of the developing world), “good” has more to do with upbringing and less with race, nationality and place of residence, I told him. But, most Indian IT professionals who have made the USA their home in the 90’s are particularly unaware of the rapid cultural changes that have happened with the urban youth in India. Given that my relatives and this other entrepreneur were the only “locals” I met, there was no anger I picked up on. But after observing the number of NRA posters throughout downtown, I got the feeling that Nebraska would end up voting Trump come November.
The next place I needed to go to for business was Salt Lake City. However, between Omaha and Salt Lake city was a 13 hour drive, a stretch not possible to do in one day with a 5 year old in the back seat. So, we made a stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming. While Cheyenne might not be representative of the beautiful state of Wyoming, I would guess it is representative of the new “industrial” nature of the state. The smell of oil and the many trains passing through are the new sights, sounds, and smells of the state. We had a decent meal and some local brews in town, slept in a Hampton Inn, and started on our drive early the next day. We would like to go back to Wyoming’s national parks but Cheyenne won’t be a town that we would stay in again. The views during the drive were absolutely spectacular throughout though.
Salt Lake City Downtown was made up of buildings surrounded by grand views of snow-capped mountains. It might be a culturally incongruous comparison to say that downtown Salt Lake City looks like downtown Tehran, but it’s surprisingly true. We visited the grand Mormon temple and were given a tour by two 20-something nuns from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. While we were taken by the fervor with which they explained the concept of Baptism and souls and heaven, I was strongly tempted to bring up the Hindu beliefs of reincarnation and moksha. But I kept my mouth shut given that one-life and heaven-after believers might not be ready for the “merry-go-round” of after-life philosophy. It might have killed their fervor, which was not my intention (*Editor’s note: I wish it was your intention so we could find out how they reacted).
Salt Lake City is also the new city of residence for my well-travelled cousin and her Oncologist husband who have mostly been living in the US since 1972. We met them for dinner one evening and for lunch the next day. While most of that generation of Indians (South Asians) who have settled in here for 40+ years are theoretically aware of the economic boom in India and the free flow of goods and services across borders, the real impact on the lives, thinking and tastes of my generation are so radically different from those of the India that they left behind that it must be a challenge to reconcile. We enjoyed my cousin’s good cooking and excellent conversation. It is always good to meet family when on the road- that too after 20 years since our last meeting in Udupi, India.
Driving through Utah and then Nevada, the landscapes were truly out of this world. After several stops for photo sessions, we bedded down for the night in the “ghost town” of Unionville, Nevada. A town that existed for 12 years from 1860-1872 during the prospecting boom in the region, it became deserted forever thereafter. Mark Twain is rumored to have spent a few months in this town during that period. The Old Pioneer Garden where we stayed is run by the 93-year-old widow of a WWII veteran and her son. While my daughter enjoyed the farm animals, I appreciated a picturesque walk through the mountains in the morning and also the property of a 74-year-old dude living completely off the grid. Over 20 years, this man built a 5 acre park on his property complete with a pebble-bottom stream, all of it with his bare hands. The determination and concentration with which he conducted even the simple task of trimming the weeds was amazing.
After a touristy stop in South Lake Tahoe that night, we reached the great city of San Francisco which would be our home for the next 6 days staying at a townhouse in Daly City rented through Airbnb. Another large city to reflect on the few days through the middle of America, and the final bookend to our family road trip, especially on…
Why is this most abundant in riches and resources country so angry that they have to go around threatening the rest of the world with Donald Trump as POTUS? While the answer might be a bit more complex than the answers that I shall offer, I think it is the same reason why so many countries elect and re-elect despots and proven corrupt politicians to office all over the place.
The world is fast being split between people with “relevant and lucrative” skills and those without. The old division between the haves and the have-nots still exists only because of the strong correlation between wealth and “relevant and lucrative skills.” Given the right opportunities, some hard work and some time, anyone anywhere can acquire the skills needed to make a decent living (*Editor’s note: Indians are constantly made into an unfair scapegoat in US politics for this). Unfortunately, several factors are driving people away from hard work and good old patience. The worthy leaders of nations need to see themselves as leaders of the whole world and not just one nation. They need to define a path for an equitable future for everything on this planet and not keep wallowing in “past glory.” Trump’s campaign “Making America great again” is playing on the simple wish of simple people for a better life without putting in the work to acquire the new skills needed in the new world or to push for their children to acquire those skills. With Obama, I thought America had an opportunity to become the leader of a just, equitable, sustainable Earth. But that opportunity seems to be slipping away because of the 2016 campaign. Maybe there is now an opportunity for a younger leader from somewhere else to fill that void?
In the meanwhile, let’s brace ourselves for the difficult times ahead.
Pai’s Picks from Cross-Country US Road Trip:
What your daughter enjoyed best Mahikaa enjoyed staying in the B&Bs. She loved living with and talking to the folks who ran the place. Especially the ones in Ellwood City, Middleburg, and Unionville. She still remembers the pets and the people.
Best beer Great Basin’s Icky India Pale Ale of Sparks, NV is #1.
Best wine A blend called Oracle from Miner Wines
Best food Best restaurant food on this trip was Coqueta in San Francisco. There’s also the home of Muktha Joishy in Salt Lake City (the Vietnamese spring rolls were to die for).
Sights The mountains around downtown Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Nevada, Amish life around downtown Middleburg.
To learn more about Pai’s company, check out this video: