A journey to the past of America
Passage through New York
I start from New York City (NYC). All other cities of the World look up to New York and try to build high rise monuments to modernization like Manhattan. The sights and sounds of Manhattan indicate as if the city has already taken off to the 21st century. The high rise buildings still look very impressive and I have to hold my cap look to the top of these building. There is not one but a number of high rise buildings trying to touch the clouds. Everyone is in a hurry to go somewhere. The city has improved upon its recent past. It looks cleaner. I have come here to visit after five years and I am pleasantly surprised. The Avenue of Americas, Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building all look decent. Today I see a number of Desi people walking around. The yellow cabs in the city are now in the domain of Pakistani, Indian and other people from third world countries. The white taxi drivers have graduated and moved upwards or disappeared. I personally do not like to live in New York City (NYC) due to its perpetual noise and crowding. However, New Yorkers love the big apple and can not live anywhere else. New Yorkers believe that they are the smartest people on earth. I am surprised when I see very high tax, high tolls on all bridges and bad roads. Nobody seems to mind and looks like they even enjoy it. I know people who can not stay away from New York for more than one week. Some people miss the rush and noise so much that they can not sleep without the sounds of NYC. Then there is a Wall Street area where the companies are taken over, merged, broken up and the fellows in Oshkosh Wisconsin would not have clue as to what has hit them.
The people are connected to the World in NYC and can stay in any country in a state of mind like Chinese living China Town. Here they can speak Cantonese, Mandarin or other dialects. They work in Chinese factories or restaurants, read Chinese newspaper and eat Chinese food. A number of them do not know English and live their life without learning it. There is a little Italian neighborhood called little Italy. Similarly, there is a mini India and mini Pakistan. Almost all-Pakistani newspapers are available here. There are at least four Urdu local weekly newspapers, TV programs and countless Pakistani community mosques and organizations. A large section of Pakistanis in NYC have not migrated to USA on a mental level and continue to live in mini Pakistan. In NYC you can find Shia, Sunni, Brailvi and Tableghi Jamaat Islamic centers. Once I was flabbergasted to hear a friend who would not send his son to a camp organized by an offshoot of Jamaat Islami because his maslik was different. I still can not understand the presence of Pakistani political parties here in New York. Perhaps it takes a generation to migrate to another country.
Travel through New Jersey
I take the George Washington Bridge going out to New Jersey on the turnpike. Coming out from Manhattan presents the viewer with the sights of old bridges and buildings that point to the industrial past of New Jersey. There are old row houses, apartment buildings, and warehouses but still the tempo of New York is maintained. The turnpike is a jungle of cars neck to neck every morning and evening. As a matter of fact it never stops. The people are running towards and away from New York. A large number of people come to New York from surrounding suburbs. In my opinion, only two kinds of people can live in New York City. The first kind is very rich folks and the second are very poor people who are on welfare and government takes care of their health and housing. The middle class does not want their families to go through the hassle of living in cramped apartments and live sometimes 70 miles away from New York. These people come to the city by trains, buses, taxis or a combination of all means.
Continuing south and west of NYC on Interstate 95 (Turnpike), I glance around and see chemical plants, refineries, oil storage tanks indicating that the industrial base of New Jersey is still strong. New Jersey has now moved away from chemicals to pharmaceutical industry. The stretch of Interstate 95 from New York to Washington DC is perhaps is busiest road in the United States. I have traveled on this road countless times and on almost every time of the day. The turnpike is busy even on the weekends. After about 70 miles from NYC, the traffic is little bit lighter. The surroundings have changed on the highway. There are no high rise buildings visible from the turnpike. Both sides of the highway have cluster of trees. Some are evergreen pine trees but mostly maple and birch and oak.
A little far from the highway I can see new and old colonial and ranch style houses. In winter, the trees look like dark naked skeletons and you can see small towns or houses through them. In other seasons, no houses are visible from the turnpike due to closely planted trees. I pass through small towns of Jamesburg, Hightstown and Willingboro. A few miles west of this point is a town of Princeton that has a renowned university of Princeton. This is the same university where great scientist Einstein taught after his migration from Germany. The milestone sign says that the Delaware Memorial Bridge is 30 miles. I search my pocket for the turnpike ticket and change. Yes, there is a toll on the turnpike and the bridges everywhere in the North Eastern United states. You can end up paying 10 to 15 dollars in tolls while going from Washington DC to New York. As I approach the end of turnpike the highway lanes come down to four lanes from ten lanes. The turnpike has a number of service areas where you can stop and replenish the gasoline. These service areas are very well maintained but offer bland fast food and tasteless coffee. The children love high fat and high cholesterol hamburgers and french fries.
As I approach the end of turnpike a sign advises me to keep awake and announces the last service area of the turnpike. After the tollbooth, I continue towards the elegant rising bridge called Delaware Memorial Bridge. This bridge always welcomes me to home. I migrated from New York to the state of Delaware called a small wonder. The blue number plates on the cars says "The First State "above the tag numbers. This means that the Delaware was the first state to ratify the US constitution.
Midway between New York and Washington DC, I leave the Interstate 95 and take an exit in Delaware on to Route 41/ 141 north. As the interstate takes a brief turn to west I want to go north on a local route called 41. The people on Interstate 95 running at 70 mph may not have a clue that the American past comes alive only a small distance away from a crowded highway. The route 41 is a local country road that passes through Delaware and ends up in US route 30 in Pennsylvania. The route 41 North takes me on the western edge of the city of Wilmington DE and continues toward Pennsylvania. I pass the Wilmington Western railroad station on my right. The trains operate from this station on the weekends for a tour of Brandywine valley. There are churches of various denominations on both sides. A little west of route 41 a church celebrated two hundred years anniversary. But wait! It looks almost new. In the third world countries an old building means a crumbling structure. A few miles north I approach a small town of Hockessin that is my present hometown. But this time I want to continue on to Pennsylvania Dutch country in Lancaster PA. I don't have to wait very long. I drive only for ten minutes and the small wonder ends. (State of Delaware). The state of Pennsylvania welcomes me.
This is a spring season. There was a snowfall here only last month (March,'99). Then very silently the spring came. One bright morning when I looked out of window, I saw the white blossom on a small plum tree in my back yard. In one week the whole area has changed. There is color burst all over. White, pink and yellow dominate the landscape. The green leaves are trying to come out. The white and pink blossom on dogwood, pear and cherry trees looks like as if they are decorated to welcome the spring season. The Mid Atlantic region of USA has a very sharp change of seasons. In this area every season comes with a full force and then gradually moves on.
Amish country in Pennsylvania
The country road leading to Lancaster Pennsylvania has all the colors. The houses in this area are both old and new. The old houses have a front porch like southern towns and the new housing developments have all kinds of styles. The landscape has now changed. You can see far into the fields and something like a warehouse. This area called Avondale is adjacent to the mushroom capital (Kennett Square) of the USA. The warehouse like buildings have a big pile of spent mushroom soil. The people in this area came from southern Europe and still maintain the character of a farming community. Something in American character has a pioneering spirit. As city expands, the Americans like to move away from urban sprawl. After sometime, the national grocery chains follow the population and then Burger King and McDonalds push their way in. The same people who want calm, quiet and pollution free life drive 20-50 miles to work adding to pollution. Avondale is a small town that still maintains its country character. I can hear Latin music and a little ahead on the left side is a Mexican restaurant named El Sombrero. Few people are sitting outside. The Hispanic population in Avondale area started as migrant worker community. Gradually they have put down their roots in this area and most of them still work on farms. I stop at El Sombrero to pick up snacks and soda.
The pace of life is slow in this area. There are farms on both sides of the route 41. There is a Dutch Man super market. I stop and walk around the store. Everything looks familiar, however the store has quilts and a number small house hold items made by Amish families. The patterns are simple and design looks like early European. I have come to the intersection of route 30. The city of Philadelphia lies east and the Lancaster on the west. I make a left turn to go to Lancaster, PA. I have heard a lot about Amish villages in this area. Amish people living in this area do not use any modern machines. They do not have telephone or television in their homes. They still use horse driven carriages and plow their field with mules and horses. The Amish women still wear long dresses and cover their heads with scarves. The men do not trim their beards and shave their mustaches. Except for their early European style dresses these people have perfect so-called Islamic (Sharia) dresses.
As I continue on route 30 west, I pass a number of motels on both sides and country style restaurants. A sign beacons me to visit Amish village a few miles down the road. I decide immediately, that I must see this place. I park my car and I have to buy a ticket to get in. There is a lady tour guide who takes me through a make believe Amish village and narrates how Amish people live. I do not understand why I have to see a make believe Amish village when I can see the real people. A little distance away there is gift shop selling all kinds of small gift items. I take a small vase that has a logo saying "Buy American". At the bottom, it reveals that it is made in Korea. Further down I see a large shopping center that has all name brand outlet stores. At this point, I decide to take a small country road to see whether these Amish people still exist or everything has been commercialized. This road is small and the speed limit is down to 35 mph. I continue for few miles and I see a black horse driven carriage coming from a side road. I slow down and follow the carriage. The carriage goes a little distance and turns into a small alley leading to a small farmhouse. The Amish people do not encourage me to talk to them or watch them. They make a sign to me indicating to go away. Now I am in Amish country. I decide to go around the area and observe these people from a distance with disturbing them. I see simple houses with cloth lines. I see farmers plowing their fields with horses. I see women in their long dresses with white caps on their heads. I see children playing around dressed with suspenders. Now I can believe that yes these people do not use tractors, cars, electricity, phones or any modern amenities. The small villages in Lancaster area are not exclusively Amish. The other people also own farms in between Amish farmhouses. But Amish Christians always shun other people and maintain a simple living. The concept of home and family is very strong in Amish communities. The Amish men wear wide brimmed hats and trousers with suspenders. The women have a simple dress dating back to 17th and 18th century in Europe. Most of Amish people are farmers. Some members take up other professions such as carpenters or blacksmiths that cater to the needs of Amish community. All generations including parents, grandparents and children live together. There are Amish communities in 20 states including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Amish does not believe in receiving Federal aid. While they pay taxes they are exempt from social security.
The origin of Amish people has been traced to Christian reform movement in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525 called Anabaptism (second baptism). In 1536, a Dutch catholic Priest Menno Simmons joined this movement and his followers were called Mennonites. During next century Mennonites were persecuted in Switzerland and Germany by state run churches. The Mennonites settled in the Netherlands, Germany and moved down the Rhine River on the West Bank area called Palatinate. The Mennonites wanted to follow the bible and live a simple religious life not controlled by state. As the seventeenth century came to close, a Swiss elder in Mennonite church named Jacob Ammann emphasized social avoidance (Shunning) against the people who left the church or refused to confess their sins. In 1694, Jacob Ammann broke away from Mennonites and his followers came to be called Amish.
In 1681, the Englishman William Penn in Pennsylvania encouraged religious tolerance because he had seen religious persecution first hand as a Quaker. The Mennonites and the Amish people started to migrate to America to avoid religious persecution. In 1737, a few Amish families settled in the Lancaster county, PA. The Amish church does not seek new members. When the Amish children are in their teens or early twenties they have to decide whether or not join the church. The members who leave Amish church or marry an outsider get shunned. The other members are then not allowed to buy or sell things from that person. The ban is a powerful instrument for keeping the church intact. Amish people use a Swiss- German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch at home.
The Amish population continued to grow in this area and moved west to other states. There are about 125000 Amish living in the USA and no Amish community in Europe. The existing Amish community in Lancaster area has survived since that time.
After going around small villages of Vintage, Soudersburg, Lampeter I reach the village of Strasburg. In front of me there is a sign for Strasburg Rail Road. I park the car in the parking lot and watch steam engine pulling old style wooden carriages. They tell me that this train goes to Paradise. The Paradise is a small town a few miles away. I buy a ticket to Paradise and board the train. The train passes through farmland and I again see Amish families from a distance. I look out and see the barns, houses and fields, as they may have been 200 years ago. This is the way the American lived in the last century. It is remarkable that such communities can exist in America. Perhaps it is possible only in America. The train makes a brief stop in Paradise and returns to Strasburg.
The sun is about to go down. It is already dusk with a defused glow on the horizon over fertile fields in Lancaster County. I can now understand that human happiness does not depend on a big house, an expensive car or a huge bank balance. If Amish people can live and be happy in simple environments without any modern amenities then I can be happy with my life. My journey to the American past has come to end at Strasburg train station and it is time to go home.
The author lives in Delaware, USA, e-mail: nhassa@ yahoo.com