Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Wonders of Grand Canyon

25th March, 9.37 PM, Days Hotel Mesa Country Club, Phoenix

Back to writing after a long break of 11 days. In those last 11 days I travelled from Richmond to Portland, spent a great week in Portland before travelling to Phoenix. Now I am writing from my hotel room in Phoenix in the last evening in US soil, by tomorrow this time I will be flying for London and obviously the final destination is Bangalore which I will reach on 28th early morning.
The stay in Portland was really memorable. I went to Portland from Richmond through Atlanta. Atlanta airport is one the biggest and busiest airports I have seen till now. It is the main base of Delta airlines in US and has lot of terminals, gates and people.
In Portland, I stayed in an area called Washington square, around 4 miles from my office in Tigard. There was a huge shopping mall next to my hotel and I spent long hours in that mall. I did 80-85% of my shopping there, had good meals and tried cheesecakes from a Cheesecake Factory outlet there. It was a wonderful place with some interesting stores.
In Portland I also met Alison, my US team lead, someone with whom I am working for last 6 years but met face to face for the first time. Alison is a wonderful person, lots of fun and great to talk to. We had long chat sessions outside the office related topics and went for team lunch and dinner quite a few times. I met some other team members also, people with whom I am working for last 6 years and overall my stay was not as boring as in Richmond.
The big story in Portland was to meet Pavelda and visit Pok Pok, the traditional Thai street food restaurant! Meeting Pavelda in Portland was an item on the agenda and we spent a great evening together with good food followed by visit to couple of pubs and chat about Arsenal, Kanad and Boss (Not in exactly same order) over couple of drinks!
My stories with Taxi drivers grew in Portland too; here I met Pat, a man of 60 plus age, who drives his son-in-laws taxi when he is not giving lecture to MBA classes in a nearby university!! We used to have great chats about consumer behaviour, tax laws and other financial topics! He was a nice man and dropped me in the airport last Saturday.
From Portland I travelled to Phoenix through Seattle, a peculiar route thanks to my travel agents. In Phoenix my main plan was to meet Sekar, another of my team members in US and visit to Grand Canyon with him. Sekar is a much more senior member in the team but despite the age difference we two have a great rapport and visiting him here was a long standing plan.
Saturday night I had dinner in Sekar’s place. Proper Indian, home made food after 2 weeks and it felt nice. Returned as next morning we were supposed to start for Grand Canyon and Sedona tour at 6.15 in the morning.
The Sunday came; I was ready by 6.15, when a tour group was supposed to pick me and Sekar up for the trip. The guy came exactly on time; his name was Robin, a man in late 50s with gray hair. Sekar also came to my hotel on time and we two were the first ones to be picked up. After picking 8 more people in next hour (couple of Canadian couples, 2 ladies and an uncle & his niece) we started our journey.
It was a long journey of more than 5 hours, we gained height as we travel and that was clear from trees in both side of the road. When we started journey, it was mostly various cactuses, the huge ones which u see in those western movies and small ones like bushes with yellow flowers. As we travelled more it changes to pine and other trees which grow on the hill. Long rows of pine tree with a mountain range in the far were a great sight. To add to it there were small areas of snow where enough sunrays do not go.
The mountain range was volcanic mountain range with the peak being called Sun Francisco peaks and since it is still March I could see that peaks were covered with the snow. My first ever experience of seeing snow covered mountain peaks.
Since those Canadian couples wanted to have a helicopter ride we first headed to the helicopter base where we lfte them and then rest of us moved towards Grand Canyon National Park.
In the mean time I should write little bit more about Robin, our van driver and tour guide. Not only that he is a very good driver, from first to last he kept continuously talking about all the historical and geographical and political aspect about Grand Canyon and Sedona. Talking for so long is a skill itself and not only that, it was very informative and he clearly did his homework well. And to add to it, this guy may be doing this for years now and have to repeat himself couple of times every week!
My first view of the Canyon was breath taking. We were taken to a vantage point just in front of El Tovar, a hotel just on Grand Canyon since 1905. There are different layers of rocks, some of which were built billions of years ago and those different shapes and colours, which were created by movement of wind and water. It was to see to believe and I realized how much study I did on Grand Canyon nothing matches the experience of actually seeing it from your eyes and I clearly understood why more than 4.5 million people makes a visit to Grand Canyon every year. We roam around that area for some time, post which I did some shopping.
At 1 we moved to the desert view watch tower, a 70 feet high stone built structure near the canyon to have a view of the Canyon, the view was great as you can understand and I also could see the Colorado River at the bottom end of the canyon.
After a quick lunch we moved to the Painted Desert area where the native Indians used to live. Currently they have a huge shop of Indian related products like rags, small dolls, jewelries, bags, bow & arrow for decoration etc. Another great view there was the bridge on the Grand Canyon, especially the old wooden bridge and it’s a shame that they don’t allow even people to walk on the bridge.
After this we started our return journey through the desert. Long spaces of yellow and gray land till we reached Sedona and then dramatically the colour changed from yellow to red and then started a 2000 Feet trail down the roads through the red rock, pine trees and apple ranches through the Sedona hills. More and more as the sunset was approaching those red rocks became more vibrant and I will always remember some of the brilliant views in that part of the tour. We had dinner at Sedona in balcony of one of those restaurants with the Sedona Mountains in the back. These were the moments which you carry with you all your life.
We returned to Phoenix around 8 and when Robin finally dropped us in our hotel it was close to 9.30. A great day’s tour came to end. My first visit to one of world’s 7 natural wonders and I have to say it matched its reputation to the fullest.
Today was more of a Phoenix city tour.  Sekar took me to places like ASU, Tempe Public library and a Tirupati temple. This was followed by a meeting with dear Arunimadi (my old colleague from HSBC) and had lunch together. After a good couple of hour of ‘Adda’ with stories of Bichitra and others, we dropped Arunimadi to her place and did my final shopping of the tour, chocos for friends and bags for Ma and yes one 1 TB hard drive for me.
Now it is past midnight, my last night in this USA trip. It may sound cliché but this is truly a memorable trip for me. A trip where a experienced a different life, more disciplined, more independent but may be more self-centred way of life. Some of the myths were broken; some of the myths are proved right.
I am carrying the memory of the footbridge on James River and the Desert View watch tower in Grand Canyon but I am also carrying the memory of some very friendly people around, people I met in my hotel, in my office and in the restaurants. I am carrying the memory of Shabbir and his father Shamim who made my travel in Richmond absolutely easy and fun. I am carrying the memory of Aziz, the Pakistani guy who referred me as a ‘brother’, praised my Urdu and told me “Abar Dekha hobe!” (‘see you again’ in Bengali!)
Yeah… USA… I may be leaving tomorrow but I do hope and I am quite sure of it, that- Abar Dekha Hobe!!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The River, James River

14th March, 9 PM, waiting for Dinner

I am back after a break of 4 days! And man... these 4 days were hectic!
In India I generally wake up at 10 AM and go to office around 3 in the afternoon. But in Richmond, I am waking up at 6 in the morning, going to office at 7.15 and then after managing loads of projects return to hotel at 7.30 in the evening. But I am not writing this post to bore you with describing my work related update.
Today I am going to tell you the story of a river.
Before that, let me go back to Sunday, I had my breakfast and got ready for a whole day trip around Richmond. I asked for a taxi and the lady in the reception not only called the taxi, gave me tips for places to visit and where to eat lunch and so on. She is very friendly and whenever I see her in the lobby she gets into a discussion.
The taxi came pretty soon, the driver looked from sub continent and told me his name is Sabbir and he is from Kolkata, India! We were still talking in English, when he got a call from home and spoke in Bengali! And then what else! The rest of the journey to Belle isle passed quickly, we chatted about his family, his business, the scenario in US, the credit crunch… everything in Bengali! He is from Basirhat, living in US for last 17 years and yes, he gave me a $10 discount on the fare!!
Sabbir dropped me near James, the river, which is passing in between Richmond’s central district. On the river there is a foot bridge which takes one to the Belle isle, a 54 acre island in middle of the river. The walk on the footbridge above the river is one of my most memorable experiences on the trip, especially when the bridge was moving sidewise due to wind.

(Ok, my food is here… let me finish it and get back)
Belle Isle is a natural Island which is one of the biggest attractions in Richmond. Lots of people come here during the weekend, some with family, kids or with partners. I was alone, although I was given company by Shreya through whatsapp in my phone.
There were many people jogging, walking their dogs, rafting, cycling or even just plain relaxing under the Sun. the weather was good, it was sunny but nice wind was blowing and temperature must be there around 15-16 degree Celsius. I roam around, took pictures and enjoyed the walk around the island. It is a very nice place for lazy time pass around the river and I did exactly that.
After Belle Island, I visited the Richmond civil war centre and the war museum. They were like any other museums and nothing special. They played a movie in the war museum pretty much for me, again nothing special, just showed how those great American soldiers sacrificed their life and youth so  that their country can remain independent!
Remaining part of the day, I visited Richmond down town, walked on without any plan. Random stranger, drunk, old, black man asked for help (I refused!) Returned home in a taxi of an Iranian man, who said, “You are Indian?? I am from Iran, your neighbour!!”
This is the best part of my travel. Here I could meet with so many people from so many different countries, so many myths were broken, so many new things I learn. And yes, I realized there is no American taxi driver in Richmond. Till now, my daily taxi for office is driven by Shamim (Sabbir’s father) and I met taxi drivers from North Africa, Iran and Bangladesh (That man said, “I hate Pakistanis, I don’t even talk to them!”)
The trip to Richmond is going pretty good. It’s very cold though, most of the days when I woke up I found the temperature in the range of 0-2 degree Celsius and none of the days it goes beyond 15. I also talked to Swagatamda, in US on a business trip too and Arunimadi over the phone and hopefully will meet Arunimadi in Phoenix and listen to the 'Falling from the Auto' story once again.
The trip to Richmond is almost over. Just tomorrow and then Saturday afternoon I am leaving for Tigard. May be my next post will be from Tigard, where it is forecasted rain throughout the week with the expected maximum to be 11 degree C for all the days!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Bhai and The Thai

[... Till Now]

10th March, 9.00 AM, Richmond

The guy in that store was from sub continent. I asked for mobile recharge, he waited for another customer to left and then told me in Hindi, “Hna, aab batao kya karna hain?
There was confusion about the recharge which I explained. He was not very sure, then he called someone named Jitubhai and said, “Inha ek Bhai aya  hain…” and explained the issue. Finally he could not help and ask me to be sure before recharging as even if the recharge does not happen $70 will be anyway deducted and could not be refunded.
His accent was Gujrati but he later told me that his name was Aziz, and he is a Pakistani and his parents were Indian! He was surprised to know that I am a Bengali because apparently my Hindi/Urdu was very good and also said “Abar dekha hobe” when I was leaving.
[The evening skyline]
It felt wonderful. I may be wrong but even I had experienced this same thing in Sydney too. Outside India/Pakistan, generally Indians and Pakistanis just behave like they are from the same country! I absolutely loved that.
Just roam around a bit, watched the evening to grow in Innsbrooke and had dinner in this Thai Restaurant with chicken and shrimp. The evening was chilly so went inside pretty soon. Sekar called and talked to him for some time and then researched a lot for possible travel plan on Sunday.
Unfortunately, I can’t go to Washington DC now, as all suitable trains were full; I was too late to book the tickets. So alternatively I decided to roam around Richmond, go to Downtown and Belle Isle.
It was a cold night and even in the morning the temperature is pretty low. It’s around 2 degree now and expected to be around 14 post noon. This is the story till now; I hope to write another portion tonight before my office starts tomorrow.
From tomorrow the plan is to wake up around 6 and finish breakfast around 7 to reach the office by 7.30. Let see how it goes.


The first morning in Richmond

[... Till Now]

9th March 10.10PM, Hotel Hilton Garden Inn, Richmond
Ahhh… finally the third part is on… after a long day. Now I am under the blanket writing this blog and watching TV after a nice Thai dinner, but it did not start this well.
So, let me start from where I left last time, the time when I was in my flight from London to Chicago. The flight reached Chicago an hour late as expected and then I started running and that running continued.
First I need to take my connecting flight tickets followed by 10 minutes wasted in the baggage claim to get my 3 bags, next was immigration queue which actually passed pretty fast and not many question were asked. From there I had to use multiple escalators to get into transit for terminal 3 and then after dropping the bags and security check (which included taking off belt and shoe and jacket) I had to run to the farthest corner to get into gate G7 for my flight to be told that it is actually leaving from gate G19!! Chicago airport!!!
Finally got my flight like 5 minutes before the departure, thank God they were allowing people till then. The journey from Chicago to Richmond was eventless. I was tired, just sat through the flight waiting for my journey to end, without any idea that the fun just merely has started.
The flight reached Richmond on time and it was close to midnight and hardly any people were there in the airport. I went to the baggage claim, a group of luggage came and people picked their luggage up and left. Nothing to show for me and another guy!! Wonderful I thought and went to the baggage claim customer service desk and after giving my details was told that, my bags are still in Chicago. They got the info and I need not worry, the only catch was that the bags are going to arrive at Richmond in the next flight from Chicago and that flight is at 10.30 AM next morning!! So, they will only delivery my bag around 2 O’ clock in the afternoon.
After a journey of 30 hours, tired and dejected, and of course without any luggage except my laptops  I got a taxi and came to my hotel. The driver was a friendly man originally from North Africa, who had a nice chat with me in his broken English.
Hotel check in was smooth but none of my India SIM card was working (It was working in London though), so I just somewhat got fresh and logged in for 5 minutes to inform Shreya about my arrival and asked her to inform Ma.

… (slept last night, starting again around 7.32 in the morning)

So I slept and then woke up went to the service desk to get a toothbrush and toothpaste (It was complementary but for some reason not given in bathroom!!)
Wearing the same clothes for around 40 hours now, I got fresh and went to have my breakfast. I don’t know why but there were a lot of kids, mostly around 10-15 years old boys, were there.
After the breakfast, I just had to wait in my room for my bags; still I went out for 5 minutes to look at the locality, watched snow for the first time, it was sunny but the air was very cold and when I went out without a jacket I realized that was mistake pretty soon.
[Main entrance of Hilton Garden Inn]
Thankfully, my India SIM started working, what I realized that only one of my phones are working, the other one is not of the same frequency as required in US. I called the airlines and confirmed that my bags are on the way.
The US TV channels are Ok. There are 7-8 sports channels in the TV in my room, two of them are called ‘NFL’ and ‘Golf’ and they are showing that respective sports, everywhere else it was NBA or some form of basketball. It’s like watching ESPN in India, 15 years back!
So out of boredom and tiredness I just decided to sleep till my bags reach. And thankfully they reached me around 2, everything intact. Immediately I placed my laptop on charge and took a shower. And then I was all set to start my US adventure!!
After chatting, facebooking and a number of failed attempts to recharge the T-mobile phone online I went out around 5, heavily covering myself with sweater and jacket and it was comfortable. Outside temperature was around 15 degree C but felt much lesser.
And then I went to a stationary store in the Gas station… to see what?
(Next part after breakfast…)

Flying Over the Atlantic

[1st Part... Here]

8th March 4.30 PM EST, somewhere above US coast, around 36000 feet above the sky
Another 3 hours to go before this flight is scheduled to reach Chicago and After finishing couple of movies during the journey now I am fulfilling one of my long outstanding wish. For a long time (since I have written ‘From a moving train’) I wanted to write my blog from a moving aeroplane and yes finally it is achieved. I have switched on my computer and typing the 2nd part of my travel journal. I have also switched on my laptop because I want to listen to ‘GeetaGobinda’ by Chandrabindoo (The first song I dedicated to Shreya while coming back from Hampi) while flying above Atlantic Ocean!!
The battery does not have enough charge so let me write down a few things with GeetaGobinda in the background.
The scenario is improving slightly. Got the front row seat with better leg space and BA flight attendants confirmed  that I might still catch my next flight on time. The girl in my next seat, Laura, is sleeping heavily. Not to be even slightly disturbed in her sleep, she has put two layers of clothes above her eyes!!
The flight is like any other flight with good food and very polite behaviour. Although it is dark as lights are off and most of the people are sleeping with windows pulled down. Well this is 10.30 PM in UK and around 3 o’clock in the morning in India. But as you know I do not sleep much and I have actually slept a lot in my morning flight.
May be I should use this time to give you some background of my travel. So basically, I am visiting a few onshore sites of the company I work for, Capital One. First I am going to Richmond, VA. This is the head office and will spend a week there. Next I will move to North-West to be in Tigard, OR. This is one of the operations site, where I am going to meet people like Alison (my US team lead) and Scott (Sr. Director) and also some more people who are important for my current project. From Tigard I am going to Phoenix for a couple of days to meet Sekar, my business counterpart and then will take my return flight from Phoenix on 26th March to reach India on 28th morning.
26% charge left in the battery. Let me stop now. Hopefully I will reach Richmond tonight and can post these two parts before going to bed!

The Journey Started

8th March 3.14 PM, Heathrow Airport, London
Not a good start mate! Not at all a good start. May be I should have guessed it coming after getting the seat in the 13th row in my flight from Bangalore to London. But before reaching London let me start from the beginning!! 
The day started pretty early for me. In fact it started around 10 AM on 7th March in Bangalore. I did not sleep last night as my office work continued past midnight and I had to take a shower at 3.30 and leave my home for airport at 4.25 AM.
There was a good enough queue and when my chance finally came the guy in the counter had an issue with one of my hand luggage (Shala Suor!! Will explain later!) . For him it was too big to keep in the overhead box and he insisted and finally almost forced me to give that bag also in my cabin luggage. The problem is the only handbag I am carrying with me now has my two laptops and my camera, book etc. but no extra jacket and me wearing just a half sleeve shirt can do quite well with a jacket now.
The flight reached Heathrow on time in a typical Rainy London afternoon, in fact when I first show my ticket for the next destination (Chicago) in the counter, I was told I am too early. But the truth was revealed pretty soon and the fact is that my flight is going to be an hour late. Problem… Problem, because if my flight reaches Chicago exactly an hour late I will only have just more than an hour to do all my immigration check and baggage claim and customs before catching the flight to Richmond. I was nervous. Talked to couple of the attendants in British Airways desk, who gave me two bad news,
                    1.       My flight from Chicago to Richmond is in a different terminal
                    2.       If I miss my flight to Richmond, they can only provide me a flight on next morning.
Although she has confirmed that they would provide me hotel accommodation but still it looks like a bad start. And as many of you know many, if things are really bad and completely out of my control, I become brave. So I am not at all thinking about my delayed flight. I am just roaming around, had a sandwich and juice, the lady in the café called my name as ‘Tapaa…broaat….’and then she gave up, and her expression clearly stated that this must be one of the most difficult words she has ever pronounced!!
Now I am writing my travel journal, sad that Heathrow does not have any free wifi, even some of the computers kept in the food zone asked for money (a pound for every 10 minutes!! I tell u these British people; we just don’t call them ‘benias’ for nothing). So it looks like I will only be able to contact Shreya in Facebook or post this one in ‘The Rear Window’ only after reaching Richmond but still I decided to write it down now. Gates will be open in another 32 minutes, so I have some time.
Heathrow is a very BIG airport and a busy airport, people are moving all the time. Again after a long time I am seeing people of various countries, various races and various cultures! It’s awesome and I love it. The guy sitting beside me looks like an aged version of Brett Lee and some of the ladies roaming in the lounge are more beautiful than some of those actors. Obviously Indians also have their own presence. But yes the memory I am going to carry from Heathrow is from a store of musical tools like CD, MP3 player, headphone etc. That was the only store from which loud music was coming out and Which usic was that? Punjabi!! I have actually seen quite a few Sardars in the airport and most of them are staff here!
Hope I can reach Richmond on time and can post it from Richmond before going to sleep. Cheers!!