Alphabetical tour of USA - I

'How will you spend the time there?' 'Will you not be bored?' - A lot of people asked me these questions before my departure to San Jose in California, USA for a 75-day trip. How wrong they were. In the last 11 weeks, I rarely read newspapers and did not solve any crossword (activities that take me more than 3 hours every day in Chennai). Yet time has just flown and here I am back in Chennai. When you have people who are willing to take extra efforts to keep you busy and happy, how can you be bored? Shubha - our granddaughter, was the main reason for our visit and she kept us busy throughout with something new every day. It is often said that grandparents are put on earth to personify unselfish love. But I'd differ and say that grandchildren, particularly till they are five, personify unselfish love. All that Shubha wanted from us were love and attention and in return she gave us immeasurable love and happiness. Harish not only walked but drove many extra miles. He had made excellent arrangements (flight, hotel, conducted tours etc.) for our two 5-day trips to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, had taken me to the library several times and his services were always available as chauffeur, odd-job man, even as a cook. As I have written later, California has no public transport worth the name and the only suitable way to go around is by car. This dependance on others for your mobility is perhaps the only discordant note for living in California. But with a caring son, it ceases to be much of a problem. Archana walked the extra mile and took great care of us. God bless Vasumathi (my cousin) who took Amritha and me in her car and showed us many places in and around San Jose. She and her husband also took all of us on a very memorable trip to Lake Tahoe for a Swiss Alpine experience. Shoba (my niece), Anand, Sriram, Pushpa (my sister-in-law) and her husband also contributed to our happy time in San Jose. How busy I was in San Jose can be seen from the following activities.
         -- Playing with Shubha and taking her out every morning
         -- Visiting places of interest (about 25 days)
         -- Visiting people (about 6 days)
         -- shopping (about 15 days)
         -- eating out (7 days)
         -- Visiting library (7 days)
         -- reading (4 novels of Dick Francis, 2 by John Grisham, 2 Tamil novels and a few Tamil magazines)
         -- solving Sudokus (I had made a 134-page (1 page for each day of her stay) booklet for my wife, each page containing 1 easy, 2 medium and 1 hard Sudokus. While she solved the easy & medium ones, I attempted the Hard ones. We have covered only about 110 pages so far.)
         -- watching TV/films
         -- Surfing the Net, playing computer games, downloading music and making this Newsletter
         -- washing and drying clothes (in machines), helping Amritha & Archana feed Shubha etc.

Of course some of these activities were concurrent. Even then I was out of the house for more than 5 days every week in the 11 weeks that I spent in USA. No wonder I was not bored.

I thought hard and long about writing my impressions. Should it be chronological or with quotations or a photologue? Finally I thought I'd write it with a combination of quotations and topics and arrange them alphabetically. While some photographs are here, most of the photos have been presented separately. This article would hopefully be in two parts.

Most air operating companies are called airlines because you spend half the time in air and half the time in lines. In domestic travels within the USA, Southwest and a few other airlines do not allocate seats. You have to therefore ensure that you check in on-line early and then stand in the line early. We got priority boarding since Shubha was with us. I travelled by 3 airlines in the last 75 days - Cathay Pacific (Chennai-Hong Kong-San Francisco-Hong Kong-Chennai), Virgin America (San Francisco-Las Vegas-San Francisco) and South West (San Jose-Los Angeles-San Jose). As an international carrier, Cathay Pacific is good and scored very high marks on service, food and punctuality for our my onward trip. But in the return trip, I'd only give average marks as
1. the rice served in dinner was not cooked properly
2. no coffee/tea was served between 1.00 PM and 9.00 PM (American time) unless you asked for it
3. the menu for rice and dinner was the same and was quite bland
4. one of our suit-cases was lost in transit and we had to waste an hour in Chennai in the early hours of 5th March. (It was delivered at home the next day)

But we were in for a very pleasant surprise during our journey from Hong Kong to Chennai when the voice on the intercom started saying'Anbulla thaimargale, anbargale...'. I have travelled a lot by air, but this was the first time that I heard an in-flight announcement in Tamil. Nandri and Keep it up, Cathay Pacific.

Between Virgin America and South West, South West was without doubt the better one scoring a perfect 10 on punctuality. On our return trip, the flight was announced only at 1.10 PM and yet it took off on the dot at 1.25 PM. Both ways, the flight reached the destination before time. Harish said that the variable pay of the pilots of South West Airline is linked to their take off and landing punctuality. He said that one of his friends saw the pilot running with the baggage of a passenger who was slightly late. We were also given peanuts and soft/hot drinks free. Virgin America's plane was more posh with individual TVs. But they served only soft drinks free and everything else was on payment. All customers would prefer their flights take off and land on time to watching a film on payment. So if you want to travel within the US go by South West (No, I'm not getting any commission from South West).

'I always find landing at Hong Kong International airport to be spectacular ' was a comment by a blogger. And spectacular it was. Both Hong Kong and San Francisco airports are near the sea, but in Hong Kong you do not see the runway till you are almost above it which is what makes it special. In the last 75 days, I saw six international airports - Chennai, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Las Vegas, San Jose and Los Angeles. If I rate them on the basis of size, passenger amenities, cleanliness and baggage handling. Chennai ranks way behind all the others. Perhaps the only area where Chennai scores high marks is the availability of drinking water. We had to spend about 15$ in San Francisco and Los Angeles for drinking water. Hong Kong and Las Vegas airports are at the top followed by San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose. Security in all the US airports appears very tough. You are required to remove your coat/jacket, shoes (this was made compulsory well before President Bush had a shoe thrown at him), laptop from its bag and all metallic items in the tray for X-Ray along with your hand-luggage. Driving licence issued in US or passport is necessary for domestic travels also. In Hong Kong, even though one moves from Arrival to Departure (both within the security zone), the security check was more stringent for US-bound passengers compared to others.

Hong Kong Airport - Click on each photo to enlarge

An interesting feature of all airports in US is the parking spaces around them and the number of shuttle buses. Apart from the normal parking lots for cars and taxis, all of them have several long-term parking facilities that can accommodate hundreds of cars and all the rental car agencies have their own facilities around the airport. Long-term parking where you park your car for a daily fee of 10 - 15$ seems to be a profitable business. Harish had parked his car in long-term parking facilities in San Francisco as well as San Jose as he said that it was cheaper than taking a taxi both ways. As a result of all these parking facilities, every airport has a large number of shuttle buses. In addition, almost every hotel has its own shuttle bus.

Baggage, Bags and Plastic bags
The standard baggage rules for US-bound passengers are 2 checked-in pieces with a maximum of 23 kgs each and one cabin luggage of 7 kgs and one laptop. If you check in early enough, you can get away with 25 kgs (though I did find both in Chennai & San Francisco, people removing items and handing them over to those who accompanied them).For pieces above 23 kgs, you have to pay 25$ per bag. In any case, the weight of one piece cannot exceed 32 kgs. I had carried two pieces of about 31 kgs each and paid Rs. 2560/- as excess bag charges. Since every Indian item is available in US, you should take only those items that are either not available or cost more than 7$ per kg (cost of the item in India plus excess baggage charges, if any). Coffee powder, Sesame oil, toor dal, idly rava and Cerelac were the main items that I carried. I had printed stickers of Harish's and my names/addresses on all sides of the checked-in luggage. So there was no problem in identifying our pieces. Since every piece looks alike in the conveyor belt, some uniqueness should be there on the suit-case to identify it. Of course these steps help only if your luggage gets loaded into the aircraft and comes on the conveyor belt at the destination. I found that both South West and Virgin America had the same baggage rules for domestic travel. Since US believes in the comfort of all, particularly parents with young kids, a baby-stroller and a car-seat for babies are allowed over and above these allowances.

Since our food habits are hard to change and since we also had a small baby, we had carried to Las Vegas and Los Angeles a rice-cooker and a kettle as well as instant coffee (Bru from India), tea bags (also from India), sugar, rice, pickles, jam, idlis,mendhiya/vathal kuzhambu rice and a lot of ready-to-eat items (chapathis, pongal, upma, subjis etc.). We used to buy bread, yoghurt, wafers, peanuts, drinking water etc. outside and thus were fully prepared to go on tours. Our day in the hotel would start with making coffee, breakfast, curd rice to supplement whatever lunch we would have and boiling water for Shubha's thermos. I was reminded of how in 1976, we carried kerosene stoves and provisions to Gaya and Varanasi when my parents visited us in Chittaranjan. From kerosene stoves in India in 1976, we have graduated in 2009 to electric rice cooker and kettle in USA. Maybe in 2040, Shubha may be needed to take only MMM (Molecule Manipulating Machine that can manipulate molecules to make rice, milk, curds etc.) when she takes her parents to the moon for a tour.

As a result of all these, we were like baa baa black sheep, carrying 3 full bags on all our tours - one for Shubha, one containing lunch/water and the third containing snacks/cold drinks. In Las Vegas, Harish carried his laptop also with him as he was not sure of the security in the hotel. One lesson that we ought to have learnt (but did not) was to ensure that each of us was responsible for Shubha plus the three bags. And we had the worst nightmare when at 10.00 PM on 5th January as we were coming out of Circus (in Las Vegas), we noticed that Shubha's bag was missing. we were to leave for Grand Canyon the next day at 6.00 AM. The thermos and baby foods/diapers were absolutely essential. I then remembered to have kept it near a stall while taking a snap. We searched for it everywhere (including the litter bins) and told the security staff who assured us that if it was handed over to Lost & Found, we could collect it at 11.00 AM the next day. As we were resigning ourselves to cancel the Grand Canyon trip, a Gujarati shopkeeper opposite the stall where I had left the bag called me and asked,'Aap bag doond rahe ho? (Are you searching for a bag?') When I nodded my head, he said,'Aap kaa bag safe hai' (your bag is safe). Harish and I were immensely relieved and offered him money as he handed over the precious bag to us. He refused it and said,'No money please. But you can play in my stall'. His stall was the one where you tossed a ring and if it fell right over the peg, you won a toy. Harish played for 5$ and won two toys. We thanked Mr. Patel from Vadodara (the stall-owner) profusely and left. I did not learn the lesson and again misplaced a bag (not Shubha's which was guarded protectively by Archana after Las Vegas) in Seaworld, San Diego and got it back after a few minutes of tension.

I'd now talk about plastic bags. There is a war on India on thin plastic bags as they are supposed to choke our drainage system and are said to have caused the flooding in Mumbai, Chennai and many other places. So I was a bit shocked when I saw every shop in USA using thin and big plastic bags. At the same time, I rarely saw any plastic bag on streets. It was then that I realised that plastic bags are not the culprits, but mangement of waste disposal is the basic issue. The housing complex that Harish stays in has over 700 flats in 25 blocks. Each storey in each block has a trash room which is very neat and smells nicely of room fresheners. Every item of trash is bundled up in garbage bags and dropped in the chute in the trash room. The garbage disposal personnel compacts them before the compacted trash is taken away. Almost every one of the 11 crore households in US follows this practice. So one doesn't see any trash anywhere on the roads. The same practice is followed in every shop, restaurant and commercial establishment. And there are more than adequate litter bins everywhere. In all my travels, I did not see even once an overflowing litter bin. Since there is practically no recycling (no raddiwala), the amount of waste generated is tremendous. Yet they haven't felt the need to wage a war on plastic bags as trash is handled at source and there is hardly any manual handling of trash. We in India are great believers in recycling things and would not easily trash anything that is reusable. Thus we have a lot of manual handling of trash which causes waste to fly around and settle everywhere.

Cars, Driving and Roads
President Obama claimed in his budget speech to Congress that car was invented by an American. CNN later said this was wrong as automobile was invented by a German. But since Ford was the first mass producer of cars, an impression has gained that America invented cars. Though they were not invented in America, 25 % of the world's cars are owned by Americans. 105 million families of USA have 190 million cars which means that an average American family owns two cars. And an average American spends more than 20% of his waking hours in his car. California had a good railroad system in the 40s which was systematically destroyed by the automobile and oil companies. Today California has no public transport worth the name and one has to depend on cars to move around. For example, if I had to go to my niece's place (which was 25 miles away) by public transportation , it would have taken me more than 1 and 1/2 hours to reach a place 2 miles from her house and then I'd have to walk. By driving, it would take just 30 minutes. So Amritha and I were totally dependant on Harish for our mobility. Harish's company provides him with a rented car which is on a monthly lease. On the 9th of every month, he would either continue with his old car or take a new one. During our stay, he changed the car only once and has so far driven three cars in the last six months. Seat-belts are compulsory for every one in the car. Babies have to be strapped in a car-seat. The car-seat is like a cradle for small babies and like a chair for bigger babies. Shubha uses the cradle-like seat which does become uncomfortable for long drives. So we had to keep toys in the car to keep her attention away from the discomfort. If she became very fidgetty, Amritha would sing. After Harish purchased the GPS, it became easirer as GPS has a MP3 player and Harish had loaded all the favourite songs of Shubha into that.

All of us measure distance in miles or kilometres. But Americans measure distance in driving time. When I asked my cousin how far was Stanford, she said it was just 20 minutes away. And they think that any place which is within an hour's drive is near even though an hour's drive may mean about 100 kms. Of course driving in America is much easier than in India as everyone follows the rules and the roads are generally good. There is a hierarchy of roads in USA. At the top are freeways followed by expressways, boulewards, avenues and streets. Freeways have no signals, are known by numbers (I-10, I-280, I-680, I-880 etc.) and generally provide for 3 lanes of traffic each way. The maximum speed on most freeways is 65 miles per hour but people generally drive at 70-75 mph. The leftmost lane is usually ear-marked as carpool lane and only cars with two or more occupants are allowed in that lane. Freeways have exits spaced between 1 to 3 miles. If one misses an exit, it means one has to drive a few miles to get back. While most Americans drive well, Chinese-American women are considered by many to be unsafe drivers (Be sure to pull over to the side when an ambulance or a police car or a car driven by a Chinese woman is behind you). Petrol (called gas) is cheap even in absolute terms. An interesting feature (which would make the communists of India see red) is the variation in price almost every day. During my stay, I saw the price of petrol varying from $1.89 to $2.19 per gallon. Harish said it had gone up to 4$ per gallon earlier. The price varies from gas station to gas station also.

Though we saw quite a few pot-holes in Los Angeles, I understand the roads in USA are quite good. But you'll be surprised when I tell you that we had travelled 14 miles on a dirt road which was on an important route. A stretch of the route from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon has still not been paved and the whole bus shouted 'Yeah' when the driver asked, 'Ain't you glad we're off it?'

When we said we were going to Las Vegas, Ramanan said,' Do you know that Las Vegas and Great wall are the only two man-made structures that can be seen from space?' When we reached Vegas, we realised why. It is a city of dazzling lights. Since our flight was late, we had a good aerial view of the lights of Las Vegas. You may not believe this, but the first name that came to my mind when I saw Las Vegas was Arcot Veeraasami, the power minister of Tamil Nadu who became famous for power-cuts. Perhaps Las Vegas could do with someone like him as a lot of sane people are worried about the quantity of water and electricity guzzled in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is a city of entertainment. Initially it had only casinos and cabarets which attracted the men. But since they wanted families as well, a lot of attractions - Madam Tussauds' Wax Museum (famous London landmark), Eiffel Tower (famous Paris landmark), Pyramids and Sphinx, volcano that erupts every hour, musical fountains, huge shopping malls, zoo, aquarium, giant rides, shows and so on - were added. It is also an important gateway to Grand canyon and Hoover Dam (both of which we visited on conducted tours). Today Las Vegas is perhaps the single biggest tourist destination in the world and boasts of over 1,25,000 hotel rooms (3-star or above). But with all its attractions, I fully agree with a blogger who said, 'Everyone must visit Las Vegas - exactly once'. I'd not like to visit Las Vegas again since it is like an artificial jewel under the floodlights. When I asked a taxi driver in Vegas whether he gambles, he said,'No, I don't, since this is a city for losers.' For every person who wins substantial money in the casino, there are thousands who lose (We lost about 75$).

In Las Vegas, I found Japanese tourists to be the most daring. Stratosphere, the hotel where we stayed has a 900-feet tower and on top of the tower, they have rides. Even the mere sight of a person who was sitting in the ride made me giddy. But I found many Japanese riding again and again.

The other city that we visited, Los Angeles (popularly known as LA), has an old-world charm about it. It also has a lot of places to see. Apart from local sight-seeing in LA, We could only visit Griffith Observatory and Planetarium (excellent show), Universal studios (we had been impressed by Ramoji Rao Filmcity in Hyderabad, but Universal studios is in a different class altogether) and Seaworld in San Diego (excellent shows of trained Dolphins, Seals, Dogs, Cats and even pigs. How did they manage to train cats and pigs?). I have separately written about Hollywood Boulevard. Next time I visit the city, I'd like to go to the Automobile Museum, Paul Getty museum and Legoland.

The only other cities in USA that we saw were San Francisco and San Jose (pronounced as San Ose. (Tamil word for sound. But there was hardly any sound in the city). San Jose is a nice place and is supposed to have a population of over 600000. But we hardly saw anyone on the roads though there were a lot of cars. San Jose and its surroundings have a number of interesting places to see. Thanks to Harish, Vasu and Ramanan, we saw many of them. But the most memorable visit was to Lake Tahoe (altitude of 7000 feet) which is about 220 miles from San Jose where we had a wonderful Swiss Alpine experience. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Santa Cruz beach, Stanford University and the Tech Museum of innovation (with its IMax theatre) also left a favourable impression on us.

Edutainment, Entertainment & Entrance fees
Americans know how to sugarcoat education as part of entertainment. And they also know how to keep chidren interested and creative. Wherever we went (except perhaps in Las Vegas), there was always edutainment rather than pure entertainment. A few examples would make my point clear. In Tech museum, San Jose you could design your own building either on a computer or with physical blocks and subject it to earthquake (both Amritha's and my computer-designed towers collapsed in the earthquake). In Museum of art, San Jose they have kept square pieces of coloured papers and laces and instruct you how to make paper butterflies and take away with you. In Monterey Bay Aquarium, the hugely-popular sessions on feeding otters and seals and other animals are mostly educative. Even in Seaworld, they slip in education about feeding pets or fishes during the show.

And of course Americans are great at combining technology and human interest. Studio tour, Special effects show, Shrek 4-D (all in Universal Studios) were shows that kept you spellbound due to a combination of human interest and technology. Add a liberal dose of clean humour and you come away thoroughly satisfied. (Ladies, please raise your hands.Many hands went up. Gentlemen, please raise your hands. Many hands went up. Others, please raise your hands. A few hands went up much to the merriment of the audience.)

The infrastructure costs money. So the entrance fees are generally high (when you convert to rupees). But my simple advice to ascertain the value for money is to assume a $ to be Rs. 10 and see whether it is worthwhile. By this calculation, most places provided value for money. But Skywalk (in Grand Canyon West Rim) and Winchester Mystery House in San Jose did not qualify though they were good. In Lake Tahoe, I quibbled about the 30$ fee for cable-car (called gondola), but I quickly changed my view once we started climbing and had a spectacular view and a memorable experience.

Games & Puzzles
My favourite time-passing games/puzzles are Spider solitaire in my laptop and Cryptic crosswords and Sudoku on paper. I was happy that just before leaving for US, I achieved my personal best score in Spider solitaire (Medium diffculty) of 1207 (which equals Amritha's record). I promptly photographed the computer screen and here it is.


Click on each photo to enlarge

Two more computer games got added during my stay in USA. The first is Flood It, which was recomended by Prasad and which can be added to your Google page. The goal of the game is to fill the playing area with a single colour in less than 25 attempts. You control the colour of the top left most cube by selecting one of the different coloured circles. When you choose a new colour, it consumes adjacent cubes of the same colour. As you consume more and more cubes, your control expands. Confused? It only means my explanation is inadequate. Just try the game and you'll understand it quickly. It's addictive and you won't stop until you win every time. After winning a lot (7 times out of 10), I'm now trying to end the game on a particular colour that I choose before starting the game. Scramble (which was recommended by me to Prasad) is available on Facebook and is same as Scrabble with a time limit of 3 minutes. You have to make words of 3 letters or more using adjacent letters. The disadvantage with Flood it and Scramble is that they can be played only on-line whereas Spider solitaire can be played any time.

I have always wondered why there are no good Cryptic crossword composers in Tamil who can match the skills of their English counterparts. For the first time, I came across a Tamil cryptic crossword that is as good as an English one. This was in a Tamil magazine Thendral which is published in California.Thendral My cousin and her husband gave us this magazine (which is avaialable in South Indian shops/restaurants free). Amritha and I were very pleasantly surprised to see the quality of the crossword and completed it. Her name has appeared in the next issue as a successful solver. We picked up the March issue before we left San Hose and successfully completed the crossword in the flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong. I am giving two clues to show the quality.

The first is an anagram of pudhirum and the second is a charade and has equivalent for thoonga po which is combined with madam and 'it'. The solutions are

Mr.VanchinathanHats off to Mr.Vanchinathan, the composer who is a professor in Maths at the Madras Institute of Mathematics. He is also classmate and friend of Ramanan (my cousin Vasu's husband).

What do you do when you are driving and are lost? Simple - stop, lower your window and ask for directions. This will work in India, but in US, this will not work since there are hardly any people on the roads. If you miss a turn in India, you can just reverse your car and go back on most roads. There is no way you can reverse on US roads and even if you manage to do it, you should be prepared to face the police and pay hefty fines. So what do you do in US if you are new to a place? Buy a portable GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) Navigation system and let the faceless voice of the lady (a voice with which all five of us are very familiar) guide you. The first English word that Shubha spoke was aif.. when she tried to imitate I-280 as spoken by the voice. I think it was the most useful item that Harish bought as we travelled in Los Angeles and to many other places only with its help. If you miss a turn or take a wrong road, it will recalculate and guide you via a new route. And if Shubha started crying, GPS was there with its MP3 player and all the songs liked by Shubha to soothe her.

Hollywood Boulevard
The famous Hollywood sign on Hollywood Hills (with its 50 feet tall letters) can be seen from most points in LA and even from the aircraft. But if you really want to see stars (lots of them), go to Hollywood Boulevard. In an unique initiative, the producers have put up brass stars (over 1500 of them) on the pavement for every famous actor, director and even characters like Mickey, Donald Duck etc. So both sidewalks (pavements) of the long Hollywood Boulevard are dotted with stars. Tourists try to find their favourite idol and take a snap of that. I located Hitchcock, Roger Moore and a few others.

Click on each photo to enlarge

Where were you on the day of the Oscars? Well, I was in Holywood Boulevard and just 500 metres away from Kodak theater, the venue of the Oscar ceremony from 2002 onwards. We were there on the previous day also when we were given about 45 minutes on Hollywood Boulevard in our LA sight-seeing tour. Since the offices of Starline Tours which we took to go to Universal Studios and Seaworld are located on Hollywood Boulevard, we were there on the day of the Oscars as well as the next day. Only on Monday, Harish and I could go near Kodak theater and take photographs of the dismantling of structures put up for the show as well as the theater itself. We watched the Oscars in the comfort of our hotel room and were very happy when A.R.Rahman spoke in Tamil.

(To be continued)

March 2009

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