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A Journey to Santa Barbara: A Land of Dreams

By Ketaki Datta

The journey through the nimbus clouds, the fluffy, cotton-ball-like clear clouds, and the rainless variety was an exciting one. From the international terminal of Netaji Subhas Bose Airport, Kolkata, India, when I started off my journey on a Hong Kong-bound plane, I was yet to believe that I was to reach Los Angeles and from there to Santa Barbara. Paper-reading in a Conference to me seemed to be just a ruse to get in touch with the flora and fauna of the place, which Tagore had visited, years ago in 1916-17. The journey during night had its own charm, the light reflecting from the rims of the bluish water-bearing clouds in the darkness was enough to stir my imagination. I sat firm in my seat, the seatbelt had to be tied again as the announcement ran, “We are passing through bad weather, please fasten your seat belt!” Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella – all visited me in my dreams, which I hardly miss even in a forty-wink-spell! At last, after a night-long journey, spattered with occasional visits to the washroom, small servings of cup noodles and drinks on demand, and an indefatigable thrill to take a quick look at the nocturnal sky, I reached Hong Kong. I was so thrilled that while sitting at the lounge of Hong Kong airport, I fished out Joseph Lister Dees’s monograph, “Tagore and America” from my handbag and finished reading the whole essay in just one and a half hour. Time seemed to have wings and I was waiting for the journey to come to an end. Another avion, another snatch of sky, another wait for a new land, another thrill getting the better of me!

While the aircraft was lowering itself for final destination, I was beside myself in joy. I strained my eyes and craned my neck to take a look at the surroundings and was soothingly greeted with a water-body, a blue stretch of sea, the Pacific Ocean! I had come to your shores in my dreams, perhaps! Now, yes, it was in reality! As I alighted at the Tom Bradley Airport, Los Angeles, California and came out of the airport to the Cab Waiting Zone outside, I found a number of shuttle vehicles, asking for passengers who would be visiting Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, so forth. One such bus took me to the hotel I had booked at Goleta, Santa Barbara. As the car revved up and kept rushing towards Santa Barbara, the sleek road that slipped by on both sides of the vehicle went on casting shadows of trees and tall buildings on the windshield in front. The blue sky had a few deeper shades to it with intersections of grey and white. Within a couple of hours, we drew up to the Goleta bus bay. While approaching Goleta, my eyes were greeted with the tenuous lines of horizon, which hid the rims of the Pacific Ocean. I promised myself to take a drive to the seas once I reached Goleta.

Santa Barbara has a different character of its own. The flora, the fauna, the less-peopled streets, the swimming pool in the hotel, and the room on the first floor, overlooking the hills around, held a mesmerizing appeal to me. I was being taken into its enchanting folds with each passing moment, inch by inch. Though it was a sort of academic tour, I wished to make the most of it. Who knows if I never ever get a chance to come to Santa Barbara in my life again?

In the evening, I joined a walking tour, headed towards the Old Mission Church of Santa Barbara, located in Laguna Street. Tucked at one corner of the main hub of the city, the missionaries had put up an Anglican Church almost a century-old against a serene verdant background. The Church housed old pamphlets and ancient knickknacks, the pewters of the cavernous hall, all in a row and old pottery. Helena Maria Sobek, Professor of English at University of California, served us with a vital information, that, the Church upstairs usually closed its doors for public view after 5 p.m. The curio shop downstairs stayed open for longer hours and I bought a replica of the Church in miniature from this store. Asked about the future of the pamphlets, the Church authorities opined, “They are being preserved properly.” The primitive communities around California have their own affinity to this Church as their language and literature are also a part of it. Prof. Sobek emphasized our visit to this church for its antique importance as well as its exquisiteness. After the walking tour, we went downtown and I was dying to pay a visit to the sea, which beckoned me. I took the road that stretched long, leading straight to the sea. It was almost a 45-minute-walk from the bus-bay, downtown. While walking down to meet the sea, sweet pipes and violins greeted my ears. I could not but join the roadside audience, who stood mesmerized by the Kalinka band performance. Being regaled by the numbers, I resumed my walk towards the sea, while a Turkish shop-owner won me by his spiel. I entered his shop fraught with Turkish soaps, towels, souvenirs and tempting fridge-magnets. I could not resist the temptation of taking a few soaps of different fragrances [rose, jasmine] along with Kefir Sabunu and Olive Oil Soap. The fridge-magnets depicting their queens: Huma Khatun, Mihrisa Sultana caught my attention and I took a few of them. Evening was about to wear on and the firmament above drew a slate-blue cover on its face. The cool blue water of the ocean, the sandy shore that stretched furlongs beyond, the pelicans which were capering on the shore, the tree that stood with a topiary cut, the ships that dotted the horizon where the blue of the ocean mingled with that of the sky – all held me speechless for a few minutes. I sat on the shore captivated by its beauty, the welcoming look of the placid surface of the Ocean and the evening which was yielding to a silent night gradually. The little kid who was gambolling near me and the swashbuckling gentleman in blue denim jeans who was gallivanting with a mascara-eyed, woman in her mid-forties were there no more. I got up, clicked a few snapshots and hopped onto a carriage, downtown-bound.

Next morning, paper-reading at the University of California, Santa Barbara, took much of my time. The University had much to offer too. The seminar venue, the Student’s lounge, the general Lecture Hall, the Engineering Block canteen, the library which remains open till late into the night, the carrels, the nocturnal reading-section, the bicycle pathways, the bus-bay, the musical programmes at Campbell Hall, Pardall Center where students sit, study and get print-outs of their files in computers, and the handy kiosks of Wells Fargo, which was of real help. After the casual wandering in the campus, I took a bus to the Goleta beach again to have a look at the sea. I was thinking of Tagore, who visited Santa Barbara, in 1916, when in New York a news went viral, that Tagore had been maltreated by the people of Ghadar Party. Tagore, perhaps, had come to Santa Barbara to seek peace and tranquility in the lap of the greenery and the Sea. A happy feeling enveloped me for quite some time.

The seminar being over, we, a few participants, decided to take a wine country tour in a tour-van. On a sunny morning, it was lovely to pay visits to ten such vineyards, in and around Santa Barbara and taste all sort of wines to our hearts’ content! Some vineyards were specialists in red wine, others’ forte had been white wine. Prof. Raab was so thrilled that he climbed the ladder to take a look from the top how the grapes were being crushed and the ultimate brewing. The spiel of the wine-dealers carried us away that we kept swigging glasses after glasses and feeling numb and silent. However, I avoided having more swigs in the following visits to other vineyards. Roaming around the vineyards, turning our heads up to see the branches of the grapevines was a sheer delight.

I next decided to explore Solvang, a Danish village, quite close to Santa Barbara. On a fine morning, when the hired cab negotiated a bend at the southern gate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was greeted by a range of hillocks, unmanned land, for quite a long stretch during the drive, small trees and shrubs, various types of foliage and herbs and flowers, less seen in our country. When after an-hour-long drive we reached Solvang, it was a real magnificence of a Danish town that I seemed to have come across. It might easily be called a “Little Denmark” in the lap of America. From the information bureau at Visitors’ Centre on Copenhagen Drive, I learnt that, two museums are a must-see: Hans Christian Andersen Museum and Elverhoj Museum. I walked all the way down through Mission Drive to be greeted by the alluring fragrance of fresh-baked cakes and biscuits and candies of never-tasted-before kind, strong blends of coffee and beer-garden fare. I was impressed by the old-world charm of architecture, blended with flower-pot-lined thoroughfares of this hamlet, the Danish Capital of America, which could easily be covered by a day-long walk. I hopped in and out of well-decorated shops enticing clientele with a line of European wares on offer: porcelain collectibles, linens, wrought iron, ceramics, and a horde of hand-made items. I bought a few of them but took numerous snapshots beside the array of the displayed items. The Solvang shop-owners enjoyed my no-nonsense cavorting and capering in their stalls.

Elverhoj Museum of History and Art has such a friendly, low-profile look that , initially, I took it to be just a village-hut housing a number of humble rustic residents. But pushing the cute, metal-buttoned door as I entered, a world of wonder kept unravelling before my eyes. It was really helpful for understanding the history of Solvang, where pictures depicting how the early settlers came here to settle, their lifestyle was, days in early Solvang were on display. I was readily transported to the portals of history as I was journeying from one level to the other, where the plates and boards and the paintings were exhibited. The paintings and the artifacts spoke volumes of the difficult days of the Danes in early Solvang. However, the Danish spirit was invincible to submit to any ordeal, howsoever, intractable that might seem. I also learnt that the annual festival held over a couple of days in September [usually September 16-18] is really an occasion, when the Danish culture and art get a lively representation through a massive rally, in which a Danish Maid [selected for that particular year] makes a spectacular presentation of the history of Solvang.

On my way to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, I stopped to take a look at the windmill on the left end of the quiet road. No doubt, the Danish-Americans are still reverent of their own culture and heritage. I learnt from the local settlers that, quite a few Danish and Danish-American fraternal and social organizations are functional and active in Solvang till date: Danish Brotherhood and Sisterhood Lodges, Dania Men’s and Ladies’ Lodges, and a chapter of Royal Order of Dannebrog, who work incessantly towards strengthening the bonds between the United States and Denmark.

I was directed to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum by a passerby. It is a small museum which has thousand shades of magic interwoven in it. There stands the bust of the famous writer, without whom a single night’s sleep seemed meaningless to me as a child in her early teens. Hans Christian Andersen [1805-1875] left his hometown Odense at fourteen to make it big at Copenhagen. Trying his hand at different literary forms, Andersen began to publish his fairy tales in 1835. Andersen’s fairy tales were no straight narratives; they encased a deeper meaning, lying underneath. Andersen is still a favourite among children who love to read and surprisingly enough no Blyton or present-day Rowling can shove him into oblivion. Andersen’s lonely life dotted with his occasional romantic infatuations has been brought to life through paintings. This Museum displays Andersen’s Life and Works, Andersen’s unrequited love for Jenny, model of Andersen’s home at Odense, antique tools for making wooden shoes as worn by Andersen’s father, handmade Andersen doll, complete with a miniature book, designed and made by Danish doll-maker, Kirsten Gynther Eriksen. Many early editions of Andersen books are lined up on the first floor collection, and the logo of this Museum is also taken from his famous classic pantomime character, Pierrot. Andersen’s poetry and correspondence written in his spidery script are on display and the photographs depicting each turn of his life are a spectacle always to be cherished in our mind. This Museum is operated by Ugly Duckling Foundation, a nonprofit organization, to foster public understanding of Andersen’s works, which have already stood the test of time. What a brilliant idea to make a writer’s work immortal.

As the cab revved up and I was waving at the person standing in front of Centennial Plaza, I thought I left a slice of my heart there, with Andersen and the Danes, who came to scoop a little of America, to settle. As the tall colonnades of trees bobbed up in front of my eyes, I asked myself, “Hey, Where was the Prince of Denmark’s Museum? Hamlet’s?” I called the man at the Information Bureau to be slapped to silence with a “No, we don’t have Hamlet on our list”. Coming back to India, I only recount the days spent in a dream in Santa Barbara – so serene yet vivacious, so ‘cool’ yet so warm, so charming yet laid back in its own style! Sayonara Solvang, au revoir Santa Barbara!

Ketaki Datta is Associate Professor of English, Bidhannagar College, Kolkata. She is a novelist, reviewer, poet, translator, and editor of academic journals. Her book on Tennessee Williams has been well appreciated abroad. Her two novels have earned considerable attention. She is actively involved in research and has presented papers in India and abroad.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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