Sunday, January 16, 2005

Trekamerica

From 6th January 2005 to 15th January 2005, I traveled with a tour group called trekamerica. The group included 12 people (including me). 5 Koreans, 2 Britons, 1 Australian, 1 Estonian, 1 German, 1 Indian (me) and 1 American (tour leader).

More than anything else, interacting with this group for 10 days, made me conscious of my Indian origin, the fact that I do not have white skin (or yellow), my lack of knowledge about my own culture and religion, the fact that I know more about a foreign language than my own language, and that I am different. Though not as different as the others want me to be.

The tour started from a Hotel in Los Angeles early morning on the 6th. The German and the tour leader, being the only guys in the group, had a bad start. They had to load our entire luggage in the van. We tried helping, only to drop our bags on each other's heads. We head straight to San Diego.
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San Diego (6th and 7th)
The Sea World is huge. Pardon me comparing the Sea World to the Underwater world at Singapore. I suppose comparisons become imperative when you have seen two similar places. Even though the Sea World has many more shows, is much bigger, in my opinion the underwater world at Singapore showcases the marine animals in a much better way and has many more species there. Anyways, let's get back to the Sea World. There are some very good rides and shows. Especially the performances by the killer whales and the dolphins are spectacular. And from the top of the rides, we got a very good view of the entire Sea World.

By the time we finish enjoying the rides and shows at Sea World, its sunset time. So we hurry to the Crystal Pier at Pacific Beach to catch the sunset and the surfers. Not too good. Have had better view in other places. It was cloudy and drizzling. Still, got to see many surfers fighting against the waves.

At night, we did some of the craziest things in my life. Camped at a place called "Campland at Bay". It was cold and wet. Does anybody ever camp in such weather? It was fun putting up the tents and rolling out sleeping bags. The team leader, David, cooked bean burritos for us. Then the eleven of us got on top of the van, as David drove us to the beach, which was just five minutes from the camp. We had to struggle to avoid getting hit by palm trees on the road. For all of us on top, it was a good experience, with chilled air seeping through our skins. It reminded me of the trucks and buses full of people in Bihar, going to see a mela.

On the beach we burnt woods and sat around it. We were carrying folding chairs! Played beach volleyball and frisby.

The night was extremely cold with rain all through.

The next day was a free day in San Diego. It was a horrible day. There was so much rain that I just wanted to sit in a cafe, read and drink coffee. But forced myself to go to Balboa park, Gas Lamp
Quarters and Horton Plaza. Everything was wet and didn't enjoy anything. The only thing that I enjoyed was watching "Meet the Fockers" at Horton Plaza. Sitting in the theatre for 2 hours was a
relief from the wet weather outside.

San Diego is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in California. And it is. In spite of the weather.

Went for dinner at the Dick's near Gas Lamp Quarters. Now this was some experience. I have never seen a place like this before. The customer service is known to be really bad. The waiters throw the
tissues, menu, food, everything at you. Talk really harshly and rudely. The people keep fighting with each other for food, throwing balls of tissues at each other. I really enjoyed it. There was live
music, which was really live. If you don't applaud after a piece, the singers swear at you.
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Cowboy Camp, Sonoran Desert (8th and 9th)
It was a long drive from San Diego to the Cowboy Camp at Sonoran Desert. Spent the whole day in the van, sleeping. I volunteered to make dinner for everyone. Made my usual aloo gobi and tamatar ki
chutney. Everybody liked it. The food also brought with it discussion on vegetarianism. And questions like "why are you a vegetarian? is it because of religion?"....Am I a vegetarian because I am a Hindu? As far as I know, even Bengali's are Hindus. But they are not vegetarians. So why am I a vegetarian? Just because my family has always been vegetarian?....I have no satisfactory answer.

It was good sitting by the fire and enjoying the dry weather. Everybody started getting drunk and I went to sleep.

Next day was a beautiful day too. Very sunny. It was a treat to be riding the horse through the hills and the desert, with sunlight on my face and body, after days of rain. It was very scenic too. The
cactuses are huge and high in this place.

Also got a chance to have a tete-a-tete with Betty and Rusty. They are the owners of the cowboy camp at which we were camping. Rusty is one of the oldest cowboy's alive in the area. He is fit as a fiddle at 95. Says he feels like 16. He says that Betty has grown old as she doesnot smoke or drink. So, according to him, she is not able to cope with him. Betty herself must be 80 plus. Though she is very active and even pretty. They have lived in this place all their lives.

They asked me a lot of questions about India. About Hinduism. They had heard about the Tsunami. So were very curious about India. Tsunami has brought India on everybody'd lips for the time being. They also asked me what is the holy scipture for Hindu's called. Just like its Bible for the Christians. Which is our holy scripture? Is it the Bhagvad Gita? Is it the Vedas? Is it the Puranas? Which one is it? I do not know.

The toilets in the camp were a nightmare. The Americans call them pit toilets. There is a huge hole. You just sit on top of it and do whatever you have to. No need to flush. How convenient! And you could have a shower by the well in the open! No hot water!

In the evening, we shooted cans and bottles with real bullets and guns! Gosh! Its tough to shoot. The noise can blow your ear drums. After that- Lassoeing, also called roping. I am bad at it. Very bad.
Could not rope the horse even once.

At night we had a traditional cowboy dinner, cooked by Betty on the wood and coal fire. It was delicious. I especially loved the smell and the taste of smoke in my food. Dessert was once again cooked in the same fire- chocolate cake. Yummy again. After dessert, entertainment provided by Betty and Rusty again. Betty was great on the guitar, and has a very good voice as well. Rusty, I guess, would have been a good singer once upon a time. But I could not understand a word he sang
because of his old age. Overall a great experience.

The next day was traditional cowboy breakfast with homemade bread. As we packed our tents, Betty presented me with an old horseshoe as she was fascinated by my stories about India and kind of liked me.
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Grand Canyon (10th and 11th)
We drive to Montezuma Castle National Monument. Its a fraud. How can they call just pieces of bricks and rocks kept together a national monument? There is nothing to be seen. These are supposed to be the ruins of castles built by Indians. But they are really ruined. Drive some more and reach Grand Canyon. Bad Weather. Its almost dark, so there is no scope of seeing the canyon. We check into the hotel rooms. The rooms are really good. Soak into the bathtub. After spending two
days in the cowboy camp without shower, this feels like heaven. Spent the night talking to friends on the phone and playing cards with the Korean girls.

Next day the bad weather continues. So could not see the sunrise and the sunset on the canyon. But whatever little I could see of the canyon, was breathtaking. We were on the South rim of the Canyon
(Tusayan). Went on a short hike on the Bright Angel Trail. The trail was slippery and washed out in many places because of the rain and the snow.

Probably the best view of the Canyon that I had was in the IMAX Theatre (7 storeyed screen) in Tusayan. The images of the Colorado River and the Canyon looked very different from what we saw. Grand Canyon is certainly the greatest natural phenomenon that I have seen till date. Want to come back here some day in the summers and see the Canyon as was shown in the theatre.

On 12th morning, we were supposed to leave early for Vegas. But, the weather was unexpectedly good. So we decided to have another look at the Canyon, sans the fog. And if yesterday was breathtaking, the view today cannot be described. The sky was clear, no snow, no fog. We got
some great views of the Grand Canyon.
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Las Vegas (13th and 14th)
We reached Las Vegas around 3 in the afternoon, via the historic route 66. You have to experience Vegas to know what it is. The place has a totally different feel to it. Its different from any other city that I have seen, or heard about.

We did Vegas in style. Starting with a buffet at Luxor, which had more than 200 dishes. I myself tried more than 20 of them. It included all the different cuisine that you can think of....not exactly though. Sadly, there was no Indian food! Then a Limo was waiting to drive us through the strip and downtown Vegas. My first ride in a limo. It makes you feel grand. Watched the Fremont Street Experience show in downtown Vegas. Then hopped on to the Limo and off to Rio to catch the Masquerade in the sky show. Not only did we watch the show, we also participated in the show. I participated in a live Vegas show, dancing on a decorated trolley in the sky! Amazing experience. Hop on to the limo again and now to Bellagio hotel and casino. We watched the water fountain shows there. Its certainly the best water fountain show in the world! I was so enchanted by it that I watched three shows in a row. And I watched it from the arcade where the Ocean's eleven team had stood towards the end of the movie.

Then to MGM Grand. Nothing much. Then to New York New York. We danced till early morning hours in the Coyote Ugly Club and then off to our hotel where I gambled off $10, playing various stupid games and lost all the money!

Walked on the strip the whole of next day. Absorbing the grandeur of Las Vegas. From Bellagio to Flamingo, Luxor to Excalibur, New York New York to Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand to Stratosphere, Circus Circus to Treasure Island. On foot for more than six hours. Came to the hotel and now is the time to go Bungy jumping. Nervous. Excited. Go there. The tower from which I had to jump was 171 ft high. Saw the others jump. I can't do it. I just can't do it. I'll have a heart attack if I do. Back out. Didn't have the courage to jump inspite of everyone else trying to coax me into doing it.

Come back to the hotel. Gamble some more. Lose some more money. I am broke. Living on the edge again. Had Mexican dinner. Very good and different from anything I have had earlier.
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Death Valley National Park (14th Jan)
Desert can be so beautiful? I didn't know till I saw the Death Valley! We went from point to point, seeing different faces of the desert. Badwater Basin- The lowest point below sea level in the Western
Hemisphere. 85m below sea level. It had Sodium Chloride crusts formed on the sand, which shone like crystals in the sun.

The Golden Canyon. As the name suggests, canyons formed due to the flow of the river. And Golden in colour. Shines like newly polished gold in the sun.

Camped at Stovepipe Wells Campground. Dave cooked brownie for us in the fire. And the Korean girls made special Korean food. Both were good.

And yes, there were so many stars in the sky. I was seeing stars in the US for the first time!

Sitting by the fire, watching the stars, eating brownie and drinking coffee, Enelie and I started talking about our countries. She definitely did not know much about Estonia. But I was surprised at how
little I myself know about India! It was an eye opener. Will try to read more about India in the future!

Next day we spent the whole day in the van, travelling from Death Valley to Los Angeles. Dave dropped me at Anaheim, from where Micky picked me up. And my trip came to an end. Back to Irvine and then back to Syracuse. The End.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

My Journey through 3 States and 14 cities of the USA

December 24th, 2004, Syracuse to Irvine

 Let me start from the beginning. Syracuse Airport in retrospect, seemed like a very small town railway station where hardly one or two trains stop in a day. When I reached the airport, there was total chaos at the NorthWest counter. Only one attendant was present to issue boarding passes to what seemed like a mile long passengers, all in a hurry to get home to their loved ones for Christmas. People were worried that they would miss their flights at this rate. Luckily I had taken an electronic boarding pass so did not need to go through the ordeal of standing in the endless queue.

I had the time to explore the Detroit Airport, unlike the first time I was there on my way from India to Syracuse. Detroit Airport is huge and well maintained. I will not say very good or exceptionally good as I have seen the Changi Airport (Singapore) and also the John F. Kennedy Airport (New York). Nevertheless, Detroit Airport can boast of some good shopping and Eating places. Some good book stores too!

The flight to Irvine was boring. Too long. Longer than it takes to go from Singapore to India. Tried to sleep. Could not. Tried to read. Could not. Tried to look out. Dark. Tried to look right. Neighbors
kissing. Tried to look in front. All heads. No flight entertainment. Can't get up and go out. Sitting at the window seat and how could I disturb the love birds. Overall, very boring.

Once in a while, when the plane is probably going over some city, the surface below looks like a huge chip with criss-cross of orange and green. I had noticed the same thing on my flight from Newark to Syracuse in August this year. The cities in US are well planned with parallel and perpendicular roads and arrays of houses and buildings. Giving it the look of a chip when viewed from top.
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December 25th, Irvine
Got a mini round of the University of California, Irvine, on foot. The campus is beautiful. Very green. And the weather today was so sunny and pleasant. Its a treat to be walking around in such a weather after the snowy and dark days of Syracuse.

Lunch was at a Korean restaurant called Kaya. Micky recommended the only vegetarian dish that was available...Bibimbab...sounds like some African dance! Anyways, it was just a bowl full of raw salad vegetables like lettuce, onions, carrots, cabbage, etc....and plain rice to be eaten with it. Managed to eat the whole thing as was very hungry after the long walk around the campus and also there were some pretty neat side dishes like Kimchi salad, tofu fried and spiced (for the first time I liked something made of tofu), and the best was cucumber pieces, again spiced with some sauces. There were many more side dishes but I don't know or remember the names. Overall, the lunch was okay.

Evening was spent looking for some Hindi movies, couldn't find any that I had not already seen. So we ended up watching Monsters Ball....starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Liked the movie.
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December 26th, Irvine
Got up early in the morning and went to a Swap Meet. It is just like the Sanichar Bazaar I know of in Ramgarh. Lot of vendors selling things real cheap. A lot things seem to be either from the chor bazaar or second hand. The only difference is that this being America, the vendors have a fundu way of putting up the stalls and the market looks much cleaner.

Had breakfast at IKEA. The only vegetarian thing available was a pancake- just like atta ka chilla!

Went to a Gurudwara for lunch. Free lunch. Langar. The food was very homely and tasty. Dal Makhani, Chole, Aloo Paneer, Rice, Roti and Kheer.

Went shopping for groceries and then to a huge mall called South Coast plaza. Window shopping. No money. I am fascinated by something called a Papasan chair. Its a round cane huge chair with a comforter on top. It looks very funky and cool. I would like something like it in my home one day!

Ate Persimmon. Its an orange fruit, really good. I am hooked on to it now and can eat 7-8 pieces in a day.

Went for a Christmas Party at Micky's friends place. The couple Roop and Srilaja are good and interesting people. The small gathering was also interesting with a Japanese couple, a guy from Palestine, and a few other Indians. The best thing I liked about the house was the huge collection of artifacts that Roop and Srilaja had, all from their various treks and hikes across the globe. They also had a good collection of CD's, DVD's and books and good taste too.

Barbecue was an experience. We had corns, capsicums, brinjals, pita breads....and some non-veg. Most of the people were drunk after about two-three hours. After everyone left, Micky, Srilaja
and I started watching a Hindi movie...Diksha. But left soon as we were all sleepy by then. Borrowed the DVD.
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December 27th, Irvine
I am going to sleep, eat, watch TV, and movies today. No going out till the evening. Micky has gone to attend a wedding. Watched three movies. One is Dharavi. Its based on the life of a taxi driver in
Dharavi. His aspirations and struggle. I especially like the end. He loses everything in the end but continues to aspire and hope for a better life. Great performances by Shabana Azmi and Om Puri.

Next, completed Diksha. Its actually a very old movie by Doordarshan. Its about untouchability, life of a widow, the life of a young boy taking diksha from a famous pandit. Nana Patekar and a small boy (who is taking Diksha) have give superb performances. And the movie is very well made.

The last one is the one I like the most. Salim Langde Par Mat Ro. I was a bit skeptical about the movie after reading the title. But its a very good movie. And Pawan Malhotra has done a great job. It has a sad but very realistic ending. Its about the life of this guy on the streets of Bombay who wants to make it big. His journey through his aspirations, his search for his identity...I like the movie a lot.

Asha, Mukund and Juggi came at around 11 in the night. Chatted with them for sometime and slept with the program of going to Universal Studios the next day early in the morning.
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December 28th, Los Angeles, Santa Monica
When I got up in the morning, it was pouring. Mukund got up at around the same time and after some soch vichar, we decided to drop the idea of going to Universal Studios. We played Carrom for sometime. With weather getting a bit better, decided to leave for Los Angeles by noon.

Griffith Park, the Hollywood Observatory was closed. However, we were lucky to see the Hollywood sign from a location at Hollywood Boulevard. Then we went around the Hollywood Boulevard, checking out the various houses. Beautiful houses. Great cars. Rich People. However, we were not fortunate enough to see any movie stars!

Then we went to the Kodak Theatre where the Oscars are held every year. Next to it was the Chinese theatre. Walked on the Hollywood's Walk of Fame. It is the world's most famous sidewalk. Then drove through the Sunset boulevard (where Richard Gere picks up Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman) and Rodeo Drive (where Julia Roberts walks her famous walk in the song Pretty Woman Walking ...). Rodeo Drive seems familiar! Is Orchard Road in Singapore a replica or inspired by the Rodeo Drive?

Our drive continues through Bel Air and Beverly Hills areas. These are basically the very rich LA localities again, with residences of the rich and famous. Very posh. Very beautiful. Then went to the
University of California, LA (UCLA) hangout places. Had ice cream at a place called Diddy Reise. It was actually an Ice cream Sandwich. A dollop of ice cream between two cookies. The best cookies I have ever had. And all for just One Dollar!

Wait....the day is not over yet! Now we go to Santa Monica. Third Street. Its just an upscale shopping area. Very well decorated as its the New year's time. However, I always feel that nothing can beat the
Mall decorations during Christmas and New years in Singapore. They used to be just amazing! Had dinner at third street at a place called Thai Brothers. Very good food. After dinner, just walked over to the Laguna beach. Its in Santa Monica. Its night so didn't see much.

Then we head to the Balboa Island. Where we go on an auto ferry. The whole car goes on top of a ferry and the ferry then gives a ride in the ocean cool wind on tired bodies. Chilling in fact. But good. Liked it.

Long Day!
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December 29th, Universal Studios, LA
Now what do I say about the Universal Studios? Its a theme park. Have seen numerous theme parks before. But must admit that this is the original! Ramoji Film City does have many similarities but Universal Studios is a class apart in terms of quality and its shows. The Shrek Experience is worth mentioning with its 4D effects. Other shows like the Mummy returns and the journey to the future were very good too. But I am scared of rides and my eyes were mostly closed.
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December 30th, Pacific Coast Highway (Santa Barbara, Solvang, San Jose, San Francisco)
Very scenic drive. Beaches, Mountains, vineyards, orchards (strawberry and oranges mainly), and rain!

Breakfast at a French Bistro in Santa Barbara. The best french toasts I have eaten till date, with cinnamon syrup. Danish cookies and chocolates for lunch at a Danish village called Solvang. The whole village has Danish architecture, with wood paneling across the whole house.

We kept stopping at various vista points to take in the great view and also pictures. Came across lakes, seals on the beaches, hidden bridges, waterfalls. The view was breathtaking in a few places.

Crossed through San Jose, where we had to stay for the next couple of days, to go to San Francisco. Dinner at an Indo-Pak place called Chutney, in San Francisco. Good, spicy and cheap food. What else does one want in life?
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December 31st, Stanford, San Francisco
We go to Stanford University at Stanford early morning. Huge campus. Drive ways lined with Palm trees. Very good bookstore. Bought a t-shirt from there which I wear a lot of times now just to show off!

Lunch at the House of NanKing in China town, San Francisco. Best Chinese food I have ever had. So far the food has been the best that I have ever had, throughout the trip.

Now starts our journey through San Francisco. Its a very hilly city. We went on the crookedest street. As the name suggests....the street is very crooked. See the photos to know what I mean! Golden Gate
Bridge....the famous Golden Gate bridge....didn't look too impressive. And it was raining too much to spend time standing and trying to figure out what's so special about it. No body was interested in going and seeing the Alcatraz. So just saw it from far instead of taking a ferry and going all the way to the island.

Then we went to Muir Woods. Its a Red Wood forest. It was raining but I loved the very short hike through the forest. The trees are hundreds of years old, with very-very thick branches, very tall. Difficult to see the peak of most of them. It was my first visit to a red wood forest. And the trees looked imposing and grand.

Next stop was the Fishermen's Wharf. Again a lot of shops. And again it was raining so we could not go around much but all of us decided to have coffee in a coffee shop. Much needed after the long day and all that rain and wind chill.

At night we went to an Indian place called clay oven. And for the first time in the entire trip, that too on the New years eve, the food was really bad! At midnight, saw fireworks at the Fishermen's Wharf.
Beautiful fireworks.

Went home and watched the movie DON, while all the others slept.
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Jan 1st, 2005, San Francisco, Mountain View

Asha, Mukund, Juggi, Micky....they all opened a bottle of Champagne in the morning to welcome the new year. I obviously did not drink. Watched Kill Bill part 2. Went for Italian Lunch at Stanford. Watched Sholay. Asha and Mukund left for New York. Ritu came to pick me up. Went to her place in Mountainview.

Chef Motilal was ready with special dinner for me. Italian again. But ghar ka khana is always special. And I must say that he did a very good job, while Ritu pretended to help him! Yapped yapped and yapped. Although Ritu enjoyed all that I was saying, but pretended to get bored....Ritu hope you are reading this! They have a nice house and Ritu has done a good job of decorating it.

Watched Swades at night. I am sick of watching downloaded movies on the laptop. When will I get to watch hindi movies in the theatre? Guess six more months....seems like ages away!
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Jan 2nd, Mountainview, San Jose
Ritu took me to Shoreline lake and park in Mountainview. It was good but as has been the case throughout the trip, it was raining. So we did not get out of the car. The lake had a lot of ducks. Good view.

Saw the Google headoffice which is located in Mountainview too.

Ritu made superb uttapams. Haven't had such good uttapams earlier.

She dropped me back at Micky's friend's place at around two. We left for Irvine at around 3.30p.m. Long drive, seven hours!
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Jan 3rd, 4th, 5th, Irvine
Rest days. Decided to do nothing. Just watch movies, eat, sleep and relax before beginning the next round of my tour. Watched Teen Deviyaan-Dev Anand, Simi Garewal, Kalpana and Nanda. Nice movie. Good songs. Watched Hulchul and Kaante. Both were just okay okay. Watched Jerry Macguire (Tom Cruise).

5th was a day for beaches, as the sun was bright after a long time. Laguna Beach, Dana Point Beach and Corona Del Mar beach. All beautiful, all clean. And then time for movies again. The End of the
 Affair was the first one. Starring Ralph Fiennes. The next one in line was a Shelock Holmes thriller.
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