Friday, January 29, 2010

Chalo Amreeka - Part 2 (Fresno - Los Angeles - San Jose - San Francisco - Squaw Valley - Fresno - Montreal)

After Las Vegas it was time for that portion of the trip which was the main reason why this trip was planned - Meeting my Uncle/Aunt at Fresno & a mini VIT( alumni re-union. The Las Vegas leg of the trip had already given me the thrill that was reserved for this half.

After meeting my uncle and aunt at Fresno i head for Universal studios, Hollywood ( So, i set off on my journey to Los Angeles. The 3 hr drive is scenic especially the grapevine portion of the journey. (they call it the 'grapevine' probably because of the vineyards that California is famous for)

Sameer (a friend of my uncle - I was staying at his place in LA) tells me that LA has not had this kind of weather in the past quite some time. There were heavy rains forecast for the day I was supposed to be in Universal studios, Hollywood. That was certainly not going to be a reason for me to change my decision of visiting Universal. I had already purchased the pass and was in no mood to cancel it...
So, amongst heavy rains i head to Universal studios expecting it to be a thorough entertainer.
The universal studios pass costs about $70 for 2 days per person and each penny of it is worth it. (though may not be that appealing when you go the second time) There are a variety of rides like the Simpson's' family ride, Jurassic park, The studio tour, terminator 3d, shrek 4d, the horror show etc. You may not be able to cover all of them in a single day though. So, I decided to prioritise and get to the ones that i cannot afford to miss.

Shrek 4D was the first in the list. This was first of a kind experience which takes you right into the movie and gives you the feel of you being one of the characters in the movie. I can clearly remember the scene when Shrek rides a horse and my seat was resonating along with the horse. And then, there was this scene where Shrek spits on the donkey and you can feel something wet on your face. It is a gripping half an hour which,possibly, is not to be seen anywhere else.

Then it was the turn of Terminator 3D which has an amazing mix of real life and reel life characters. There is a scene when 'Arnold' rides his bike from the theatre and heads straight into the screen and then the real character comes in the screen and the perfect sync makes you feel as if the guy who was riding next to you is the one who is projected on the screen.. And then, there are these real robots in the theatre which are also part of some scenes and the timing again is perfect to give you the feel that these have actually come out of the screen.

The horror show is something which is not for the faint-hearted. There are real ghosts - ghost which are 6.5-7 ft+, which come out of nowhere and scare you to death... There are some rules to be followed - The 'ghosts' cannot touch you and neither can you touch them. As you walk around the maze, which is perfect for any thriller, you get the feel of being one of those characters in 'Dracula' or 'Evil dead'. Caution to be exercised - this certainly is NOT for the weak...

And then, there is this 'Studio tour' which takes you around Universal and you can see sets that you can clearly recollect in some movies. There are streets of France next to those of Italy and to those of India. It is amazing how these streets can be used to represent any country by just a few 'top of the line' changes.

Advanced robotics at play - For those bomb blasts in movies

There are also remains of some recent movies that were just shot there. I could see the debris from Stephen Spielberg's War of the worlds - Amongst them, a Boeing 737 which was purchased just for the movie.

There are also some preserved remains of Jurassic park which take us straight to the scenes of the movie - the cage where it breaks free, the car which is used for 'Jurassic Park' tour and some others.

The cage in Jurassic Park

And then, once in a while a dinosaur comes in from the sides and scares you. There is also a stage in this where you are standing in the way of a flood.

Not to forget - the complimentary hot chocolate and the entertainment between shows...

I head back to Fresno, to travel to San Jose where we VIT'ians decided to meet. And so we meet -
Pushkar - ex VIT'ian - the planner for all our trips - Networking champ from Cisco
Ali Sagar - ex VIT'ian - There is nothing great to tell about him
SV Rahul Raju - ex VIT'ian - He has a longer name than me if we open up all the initials (Yippee!!!)
Deepak Iyer - the iPod-iPad guy - we were having a tough time recollecting the last trek (Rajgad) we had done together in India - I didn't accept until Pushkar proved it with photographs of that trek - still could not recollect though...
Prakash 'Bangalore' Prabhakar - the graphics guy who works for nVidia - The ONLY Ski beginner with me !!!

We 'Six' were to drive to SQUAW valley ( over the weekend and ski there for 2 days. We had to rent 2 cars from the airport - There is a good logic here which was explained by Pushkar to me:
Even if you own a car - you should rent a car when you go for a long trip because (especially if you travel often)
- Your maintenance cost is embedded in the rent, else you would have to send your car for servicing because you have run quite a few miles
- Your car resale value is impacted with more miles

So, we were all set for SQUAW. However, we had one more plan for the day - San Francisco...

Ali, Prakash, Onkar (another VIT batch mate) n me drove through Freeway No 1 to San Francisco, all along the coast.

Ali n Prakash sharing a 'private' joke !!!

It is a lovely drive with outstanding beauty on either sides of the road and is something not to be missed at any cost. We did stop at one of the points where we were able to get a glimpse of sunset by standing just on the coast. This what they call 'California' and i was not surprised because i was ridiculed in Canada when i said i was going to California to SKI...
We drove for about 3 hrs and reached the dream city of San Francisco. With whatever limited exposure i have of this world, this is the ONLY city which does not have mixed reviews. It has something or the other for each one of us with different perspectives of life.

Well, there were some more VIT'ians meeting us at San Francisco and this makes me wonder if staying at remote locations does help in bonding people. I have never met as many VIT'ians together in the last five years in India.
We had a nice dinner at a Thai (was it Chinese??) place and we six of us headed back to San Jose to leave early the next day to SQUAW Valley.

It was well past midnight by the time we reached San Jose and we had just about 4 hrs of sleep ahead of us.

Unlike other treks in India, this time around we get delayed in the morning by about an hour and a half. Treks in India used to be mostly on time with Pushkar micromanaging stuff. To add on more agony to our souls, was the traffic jam that was awaiting us en route SQUAW.
It is like this: If you get late - the roads penalise you with more traffic on a Saturday morning on most of the routes in this geography.

But considering the exquisitenes of the route, the wait doesn't seem that long. Scenic beauty follows you on either sides of the road and turns the wait into a boon...

Here is how SQUAW Valley looks like...

So, we headed to the slopes without checking in to our hotel (Pushkar got a great deal with Hyatt). Me n Prakash 'Bangalore' Prabhakar were at the beginner slopes while the rest were headed to the advanced ones. One thing i noticed was that the beginner slopes @ SQUAW were equivalent of an intermediate slope at Mount St Bruno where i normally go when in Montreal. But, St Bruno is a great place for beginners and offers great deals too!!

We had a lovely time at the slopes. There was strong snowfall which made our experience even better.. Snowfall during SKI is better because it gives a surface of smooth snow to the slopes which make SKIing more enjoyable and 'falls' more bearable... However, it may cause visibility to be poor at higher slopes. The snow hits you right on your face when take the lift to head to the top of the slope. You normally don't realise it when coming down the slopes because you have thousand other things to think on...

After about 3 hrs of SKI,Prakash n Me headed back to our hotel after the day SKI. The advanced guys stayed back for a night SKI which seemed to be great but was open only for the advanced slopes. The advanced guys (Pushkar, Rahul, Ali n Deepak) enjoyed the night SKI before heading back to the hotel in one of the cars.

At the hotel, we are given an option of rooms opening into each other and we opt for them. Gave us a feel of those old Hindi movies where drug dealings used to happen in 'joined rooms' which open into each other. Me n Prakash have a nice dinner with Wine and great discussion too on wines & Corporate culture (they were two different topics though)...

We were looking up to the next day when we expected more hours of SKIing.

I was to return to Fresno that day to catch my return flight to Montreal. But, plans are made only to be changed later...

We started our journey to the slopes and we could not resist stopping at the picturesque lake Tahoe.

Here is how it looks: You have a vast expanse of water in front of you with snow capped mountains towards the end of your sight.

This cannot be captured in any image and has to be felt there. This was one of the best I have seen in my entire life of treks and travel. We spent some time there and took some photos but nothing could capture what we saw !

We head straight to the slopes and again we had good snow to make the entire experience even better. Me n Prakash, after SKIing on the beginner slopes for the entire day, decide to take one of the intermediate slopes on our way back - a decision which we felt had its pros and cons.
Pros: It was a great challenge for our technique - and this is the way you get better.
Cons: The timing was probably incorrect. Our legs were already tired and we could not help falling infinite times on this slope. Our legs just could not take it.

But this was a decision which made us more confident than ever despite those infinite falls.

Finally, we are done with two days of great fun. The advanced guys would have liked more hours of SKIing but the beginners were happy !!

We head back an hour before close to escape the traffic jam only to realise later that everybody was thinking like us.. A smooth journey is never that much fun when you look back at a trip. We had rented two 4X4 cars and I was in the 1st one driven by Pushkar. Since we had heavy snow, only 4X4 cars were allowed to ply without chains. At the checkpoint, we confidently claim to be on a 4X4 and clear the checkpoint. Our second car wasn't as lucky though. They were inspected and it turned out to be a 2X4. They were made to buy chains and tie them to the tires. This aroused some mixed feelings in us - We were swearing at the car dealer threatening to sue them for this; there was also a sense of insecurity which suddenly cropped up.
It is amazing how information can alter the way we react to situations. Had we not known about the fact that we were not on a 4X4, we would have driven like before and still reached safely. However, this 'enlightenment' caused a forced behavior in us - We drove much more safely now!!!
This reminds of the debate that ensues in Quebec (the province in which Montreal is located) on winter tyres being compulsory. These winter tyres give you a false sense of security which make you drive at higher than normal speeds for winter. Effectively, at an absolute scale - you are still at the same risk because you would have driven your car at X(normal tyres) rather than X+Y(with winter tyres). A good point to think on...

After a Chinese dinner, we reach San Jose just around midnight. Most of us were to leave for our destinations the next day. And so we do without any hiccups and all of us are able to catch our respective flights back 'home'.

As I take my return flight back to Montreal, I ponder over what I have gained in this trip. This being my first trip to the United States, it has been an eye opener in many respects. I am now exposed to the American culture - though in a limited manner; I have different benchmarks when i visit a new city - I have a broader set to compare it with; Las Vegas, Silicon city San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles - Each of these cities is so different from each other. This makes me realise that every culture is as diverse as any other - perspectives matter!!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chalo Amreeka - Part I - (Montreal-Philadelphia-Las Vegas)

And here comes my first vacation since i arrived here in Montreal.

This was the first time i am going to the US and that was clearly visible in the excitement for the entire trip. Learning from my past mistakes at Skydiving, did a thorough plan of travel along with all the associated arrangements.


Here was the plan:

Montreal-Philadelphia-Las Vegas-Fresno-Los Angeles-Fresno-San Jose-San Francisco-Squaw Valley-Fresno-Montreal

Everything was set, right from matching flight timings along with a buffer to hotel arrangements to bus tickets to universal studios passes... Everything was ready beforehand.

Received a setback before i could leave Montreal. There is no fun in travel without any hiccups.

"No carry on bags allowed on flights from Canada to US. "

Paid $25 at the airport for no reason. Oh, there certainly was a reason - some fellow had tried something at Detroit airport and there is widespread panic around. And as if these measures are going to stop 'those' from attempting such acts. Well, had no option but to pay them and 'carry on' with my trip...


Arrived in Philadelphia after a bumpy flight due to bad weather near Philly. Well, this trip was getting better and better. Met a friend (BabbanRao aka Ashish) at Philly amidst heavy rains.

The weather gods were issuing a warning which i completely comfortably ignored...

I resumed my journey and was looking forward to Las Vegas, which i felt would possibly be the highlight of this 10 day trip...


The exquisite view from top when the flight descends into Las Vegas raises your expectations of this beautiful, lively, 'light'ly city... Since the airport itself is located on one of the ends of the 'Strip', it is able offer a spectacular view at both take-off as well as landing. The 'Strip' is the stretch which Las Vegas is famous for and you could see this lined up with Casinos, hotels, strip clubs and anything that you may refer to as glamorous.

Keeping the rains in Philly behind, i decide to concentrate on this portion of the trip not knowing what was about to come..


I take the shuttle, which operates from airport to any of the hotels, to reach my hotel. This is pretty much like any other shared transport in any part of the world. The shuttle stops at about 10-12 hotels before reaching mine - 'The Stratosphere' - The tallest hotel in the city with an observation tower on floor 107.

I get down the shuttle and go back to collect my bag - There is NO bag...
I call the driver who is as helpless as me. Somebody had, by mistake, taken my bag and left theirs in the shuttle. Jenny, the shuttle driver, innocently asks me to take the other black bag and be happy. I refuse and tell her to take it back to the airport and give her my number to inform me whenever the owner comes - so that we could exchange bags at the airport.

I was taking a risk knowing the fact that I had some cash in my bag apart from clothes and other stuff.
I made a decision. I am NOT going to waste my time behind the bag and spoil the night at Vegas and inform the driver that i would call her back the next day morning for the status.

And i check in and immediately leave for the observation deck. It was about 11 PM and the view from 107th floor would have been bright and lovely. I reach up (it was free as i was staying in the same hotel) and look down at Vegas as i enjoy my Budweiser...

The images are as hazy as my vision at that point of time !!!

It was time to get a feel of the city on the roads. Had a good 2 hr walk on the 'Strip' amidst glittering lights. It was well past 12 when i decided to do what people do in Vegas - Gambling. There were two temptations : Poker and Roulette. I go for the latter as i atleast had some chance of winning there !!!

I try to apply some logic to the game and bet on even and odd for quite some time. The strategy was working well. I was winning...
I had won as much as i had bet. But then, greed took over logic, and i started betting on set of 6 nos and then onto 1 number. Lost the entire amount. Fortunately, logic had found its way back and made me realise that if i bet more i stand the risk of going back to Canada with some debt !!

By then it was 2 AM and i realsied that i had forgotten my dinner in all the excitement...

I have a sumptuous dinner at a 24hr restaurant, which i am not able to complete. By the time i went to bed it was around 3 AM and i decide to call it 'EOD' knowing very well that i am going to have an equally exciting day tomorrow searching for my bag !!!

I get up at 9AM - Immediately call Jenny and she tells me that she has found my bag and starts cribbing about the impatient guy at the other end who had taken my bag. She tells me i was very patient - Well, she didnt know that i had other priorities.

I feel relieved and call up the airport to get the bags exchanged. There is NO bag at the airport. Looks like we still have some more fun left...

I call up Jenny again and tell her politely about the situation. She calls me back in half an hour to collect my bag from a hotel about 2 miles away. I am not excited this time - I would not be satisfied until i see the bag for myself !!!

Luckily for me, my bag was right there in the hotel Jenny mentioned. I call Jenny and thank for the swift action which made me get my bag just hours before my departure from Vegas. Actually, the bag too was not mine - i had borrowed it from my room mate !!!

After all this excitement in the past 24 hrs, I finally leave Las Vegas and head for Fresno to meet my Uncle and Aunt...

(To be Contd - Fresno-Los Angeles-Fresno-San Jose-San Francisco) )

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mont St Bruno - Ski Part 2

And the weekend travails continue...

This time it was with our Irish snowboard champ Fionan. I can feel improvement in my technique and am beginning to enjoy it !!

I was tempted to count the number of times i fell on the slopes.. Have memories of counting till 15, but then eventually i lost count !! The reason for these many falls is the attempt i made at conquering a blue slope without much experience on green ones.. (Green is for beginners, blue for intermediate and black/double black for advanced). Well, learnt a lessson and a valuable one too.

Looking forward to Skiing at Squaw valley (California) with our fellow VIT'ians...