Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chi-Town Love!

RockBottom, Rockit, O’Callahans , Funky Buddha , Mothers , Mothers Too , Bootlegger, McFaddens , The Apartment , Bull & Bear , Kincade’s , Zella , District Bar , Hub 51 , Duffy’s , LaSalle Power Co, SpyBar , Martini Park

3 weeks..and I am already Loving the Windy City!!

Monday, August 31, 2009


My first memory of Chicago was that of walking down windswept Michigan Ave in January. Yes, I said January - there is no typo!! Only the bravest of the tourists would ever decide to visit Chicago in January. I guess, I was plain foolhardy! We must have been the only ones to be walking towards Navy Pier and Shedd Aquarium in -20F wind-chills. But despite this cold reception, I was pretty impressed by Chicago Downtown. Having spent a week in New York, immediately before my arrival to Chicago, I couldn't help comparing the two. Chicago Downtown clearly seemed more roomy, upscale and definitely cleaner. That was 5 years ago and never did I imagine that one day I would come back to actually live in downtown Chicago!

Although I have been to the windy city a few times before, I have never had the opportunity to spend time and explore the city. I have heard rave reviews about the city but all my brain could filter was the severe wind chills that hit the city for 4 months a year. Moving to a new place is always exciting. It gets even more exciting if the city is as big as Chicago. Having lived in the second largest (LA) and the fourth largest (Houston) city in US, I am excited to move to the third largest city in the Country. More importantly, I am exicted to live in the downtown of a city. I have always dreamt of working in a high-rise with sweeping views of the city. While that dream has never materialized, I have finally gotten an opportunity to live in a high rise, and most importantly with some amazing views of the lake, river, downtown and even as far as Soldier Field and the state of Indiana!!

Having never used public transportation in the last 4 years in Southern California and Houston, I am looking forward to the experience of living without a car. Having no car definitely seems like a handicap, but I am only focusing at the positives - No more car registration, insurance, parking and most importantly expensive gas!! With its El, Metra & CTA Buses, I hope to use plenty of quarters and monthly passes and pray I never get mugged in the city :) Moving from a V6 gas guzzler to no car will also help to significantly reduce my carbon footprint - a point which augurs well with my aspiration to contribute to the field of renewables techonology.

Every time I have moved, I have learnt something new about myself, and the people and the place around. I am sure Chicago will be no different. I have already decided to utilize my prime location in downtown to explore and devote more time to the arts scene in the city. With its plethora of museums and local theater Chicago should provide ample opportunities to this effect. I am also curios to explore and learn about the great architecture in the downtown. I am not sure if there is anything different about the Mid-Western culture, other than micro-breweries and tornadoes, but I definitely hope to explore the "City of Neighborhoods" to learn more about different cultures.

I am also looking forward to being a student again, but more importantly I am looking forward to being super-busy. Often times I have complained to friends that I have never been in a position to give an excuse, "I am too busy for that". Infact, I proudly claim that in 4 years of professional life, only twice have I actually worked on Saturdays. I have been very fortunate that last 6 years of my life have been at a very relaxed pace and yet things have fallen into place. However, I am craving for days when get to sleep less and actually fight to get what I want. I am sure the next 2 years will offer plenty such opportunities!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Leaving Houston

For the 3rd time in last 4 years, I had to prepare myself for another move (Leaving SCE, Leaving Los Angeles). Leaving a place behind always brings about mixed emotions. On one hand, it is disheartening to leave familiar surroundings & good friends behind; On the other hand, more often than not, a move always signals progress towards better things in life. Despite the reason for the move it is always a painful process to leave a place behind.

When I moved to Houston a little over 2 years ago, I was dejected. It took me months, if not a year, to overcome the pangs of separation from Los Angeles. I hated the city and the views of the people. In absence of beautiful mountains and ocean, the locals talked about church and food all the time. I yearned for the weather and the scenery of California and wished I would move out of this town as soon as possible. My liberal views were pitted against the ultra conservative views of this Republican Heartland. At most times, I kept my views to myself, lest I get shot in this NRA's paradise.

But political views aside, Houston began to grow on me. Coming from LA, the thing which appealed to me the most was the cost of living. I paid less than half the rent I paid in Los Angeles and still got a much bigger apartment in a much better neighbourhood. I even joked to my friends in LA that 'why should I pay and park when I can valet for free'. The gas is cheap, the food is cheaper and the drinks are the cheapest of all major cities. Unlike other big cities, there are no cover charges in the upscale clubs and lounges. In short, Houston offers all the comforts and attractions of a big city, but at half the price. In presence of the booming Energy and Medical industry, the city is super wealthy too. It boasts of some great landscaped neighborhoods and houses the size of mansions. Despite my hatred for the republican government, I couldn't stop liking the Texas style of governance. With zero state income taxes, the state boasts of one of the best infrastructure in the country. The wide open lanes of Katy Freeway were a farcry from the traffic logged congested lanes of 405 in West LA.

After living in the east coast and west coast, the gulf coast wrought in a totally new culture and lifestyle. Texas has a unique culture and the virtues of this culture could be understood and endeared only by experiencing it. The people in South are nice and never too busy to engage in a conversation with an outsider. The legendary "Southern Hospitality" can truly be experienced in Houston. Words like howdy, bubba, gumbo, bayou, crawfish boil, y'all would never have meant much to me if I had not lived in Houston....and its these words, the stories behind them and their experiences which have enriched my life and helped me add new dimensions to my personality.

Part of my Houston experience was shaped by my work. Houston boasts of some great restaurants and the perks of my job profile allowed me to make the most of these nice restaurants. Houston location as Continental Airline's hub coupled with my incessant travelling for work and pleasure earned me many upgrades and ensured that I would travel as an elite member for atleast a while. Also, the cheap cost of living in Houston helped me save enough to plan my vacations internationally!

I leave Houston today with a very heavy heart. Houston gave me some great friends - many of them, I hope to stay in touch for the rest of my life. With my bent towards a career in Energy Industry, I definitely hope to return to this city in the future.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mt. Whitney - The Summit

This post is a continuation of Mt.Whitney - Day 2

When I finally reached the summit, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. Without stopping to read signboards or exchange pleasantries with other hikers, I rushed straight to the rocky ledge at the extreme end of the summit to soak in the incredible vista. It is not very common to see a 360 degree panorama of snow clad peaks, but here in the Eastern Sierra, the view was simply magnificent. The air was still, there was not even a speck of cloud in the clear blue sky and visibility extended for miles. In some ways, I felt the weather was making up with me for being so harsh the previous night. Elevated above the mean world below, I felt I was in an ethereal world in the company of sublime rocky peaks.

However, after few minutes of this bliss, my excitement quickly evaporated. Firstly, I was not the only one on the summit; there were atleast 15 other people and quite a few with grey hair. This was a grim reminder that my achievement was in no way extraordinary. Secondly, there was cell phone coverage at the top of the mountain. This completely squashed my wilderness experience. On most trips like these, I pride myself on shutting myself completely out of the mundane world – news/email/phone and everything else. The constant chatter of people and the occasional ringing of phones was symbolic of how technology and humans have obliterated the concept of “wilderness”. I even overheard an idiot talking to his chiropractor about his appointment in LA.

Lastly, it dawned upon me that my task was only half done. I still had to descend 11 steep miles before daylight fades away. I tried to convince my friends to shorten the scheduled break at the summit and head back, but to no avail. After taking a few pictures of my friends, and gleefully posing in a few others, I resigned myself to an extended halt and settled on a rock to take a power nap. When my friends had satiated their eyes and camera lenses with the outstanding scenery, we all sat down for a lunch. Here, I regained my appetite on some really tasty cilantro jalapeno hummus, courtesy Trader Joe's. At 14,500’ even plain bread tasted great!

The 11 mile descent to the bottom was completed rather uneventfully and in a much hurried fashion. Our first major halt was at the trail camp to pack all our belongings and head further below. We were relieved to find that the marmots and chipmunks had left all our equipment untampered, and more importantly they did not pee on our sleeping bags :) Once packed, we made a swift descent to the finish. In all, it took us about 7 hours to descend the 6300 ft, but we were in town before sunset.

Looking back, the entire trip was very unique. I went in completely unprepared. For most part of the trip, I wasn’t super thrilled, worst at times, it was frustrating and very strenuous. At most times, I didn’t feel anything special about this trip at all! However, when the dust finally settled, and I started revisiting the moments, and the trip started growing on me. It was definitely more strenuous than my half marathon effort or the hike to the bottom of Grand Canyon in 100F. We had been on the trail trail for 34 hours, hiking for about 15 of those 34 hours!

Having visited the Sierras before, I was pleasantly surprised by the breathtaking scenery. As I look back at the pictures, I cherish this trip evenmore. By the time we had finally made our way to the humdrum of Los Angeles, everyone in the group acknowledged it to be a very memorable trip. Like an aging wine, this trip feels better with every passing day. Today, I no longer revisit the trip as a checkmark, but rather as a very special experience.

The END.

Mt. Whitney - Day 2

This post is a continuation of the previous post Mt. Whitney – Day 1

It was 4:00 AM on Monday morning, July 13th. I had slept only 2 hours the previous night. Needless to say, I woke up exhausted. The wind which was howling yesterday night had mellowed down a bit. It was still cold outside, and an extremely long day of hike awaited me. In the wee hours of the morning, the mountains glistened under the clear moonlight sky. I managed the morning chores courtesy this moonlight and my headlamp.

I tried to put the exhaustion and the nightmarish experience of yesterday evening behind and look forward to the long day ahead. At 5:30 am, laden with a backpack filled with water and food, we began on our final ascent of 5 miles (2500 ft) to the summit. Our first obstacle was the 97 switchbacks which weaved to the Trail Crest. After witnessing a beautiful sunrise, I kept marching forward, trying to minimize the breaks.

With fresh set of legs, I led the group for most of this part of the trail, while carefully keeping an eye on all my compatriots down below. We took periodic breaks to catch up with the entire group and ensure everyone is doing well. Group hiking teaches you valuable lessons in team dynamics. The most important I have learnt is that the group is only as strong as its weakest member. The best way to improve a group’s performance is to empower its weakest member. (Yeah, I am still in B-School essay application mode :)) )

The midnight freeze had left most of the trail icy. There was one treacherous turn where the narrow trail was completely icy and the railings were placed so far away as to be useless. The only way to climb these few steps where to find hand-holds in the hard snow on the right and try to get traction by digging into the ice below. This was also the first and probably the only time on the trail I realized that – One slip and I can die on this trail.

After ascending through these 97 switchbacks, we reached Trail Crest at 13,600’ and were quickly welcomed by some outstanding views of the Western sierra & Sequioa national park. There were snow clad peaks as far as my eyes could see. At the bottom, there were beautiful lake filled valleys. The view almost wiped out the strain of the last 2 hours of hiking and propelled us further. Soon we were walking on granite lined rocky trail to the summit.

The last 1 mile to the summit was the hardest. Above 14,000’ the altitude finally seemed to catch up with me. A mild headache, feeling of dizziness and lack of appetite slowed my progress. Ronnie suffered from similar symptoms, and we made it a point to make periodic stops and hydrate ourselves. Enroute to the summit, we would stop to talk to people descending the peak who would be kind enough to give words of encouragement. Atlast, we crossed the huge snowfield and made our way to the summit. 4-1/2 hours after we set hiking in the morning, and exactly 24 hours after we began the Mt. Whitney trail, I had finally reached the summit at 10 am. I was relieved…… be continued - Mt Whitney - The Summit.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mt. Whitney - Day 1

The whole trip had been ironical in some ways. Scaling the peak had been my dream ever since I came back from Alaska last summer. I had initiated the idea of applying for permits to camp and convinced a group of faithfuls to join the trip. Yet, in the months leading to the trip, I was the least prepared of all – no altitude acclimatization & no physical training. Worse, I had even been arrogant about my abilities and had adopted a callous stance towards the elaborate planning of my compatriots. With this background, I ventured into Mt. Whitney expecting to learn something new about myself.

37 lbs”, I exclaimed after placing my backpack on the weighing scale. For the better half of the day, I had planned to lug this heavy backpack up along a 6 mile trail ascending 3,700’ to our trailcamp at 12,000’. The first one hour was the probably the hardest. My heart was throbbing loud. I have never before felt a pain in my chest while doing strenuous activities, today was definitely different. We marched as a group and took breaks at regular intervals to unload our heavy backpacks and revitalize ourself. TrailMixes and nuts have never been my food of choice, but I forced myself to eat them while continually consuming water to prevent dehydration.

Our strategy was to cover 1 mile/hour and enjoy all the beautiful sights enroute. The trail soon ascended into higher Sierra’s and offered some outstanding vistas of Inyo Mountains in distance. Our first major break was at Lone Pine lake after 2.8 miles, where we had a quick lunch of apple, bread and some more trailmix bars. After the initial break-in period, I had gained a rhythm and was more comfortable with the ascent. By the time we had reached our next major stop at Mirror lake, we had run out of water. At this juncture we decided to put our purifier to test as we purified the clear lake waters to fill our drinking bottles.

Once we passed Mirror Lake at an altitude of 10,600’ ft, we bid the treeline good-bye. The trail now was rocky and the sun was directly shining on us. However, the cooler climes of the high altitude made for a comfortable hike. In anticipation of the trailcamp, the last 1 mile of the hike definitely seemed much longer than it should have been. When we finally reached the trailcamp – just a flat rocky patch next to a lake – I was relieved that the long day was finally over, and that I could have a relaxed evening and a good night’s sleep.

However, the relief was short-lived. Above the treeline, the wind howled unobstructed. With 35 mph winds, it took us more than 1 hour just to prop up the tents. Six carefully placed huge stones inside the tent prevented it from flying away. It was already cold, but now the wind made it unbearable. My two layers of clothing seemed hopelessly inadequate to face this weather. Sheltered by huge rocks and stones, we finally got the flame on our stove going and cooked a quick dinner. Normally the best part of the trip, dinner, today was hurried, courtesy the unrelenting wind gusts.

As I sat out in the open braving the cold and the wind, I wished I could somehow teleport myself to the warm confines of the motel from previous night. I was prepared for the steep climb, the cold but never had I foreseen wind to be a factor. Later that night, under the moonlight sky, we spent another half hour filtering water for our hike tomorrow. I finally went to bed at 10 pm, 2 hours behind our original schedule. The warmth of the tent was overshadowed by the noisy tent cover fluttering in the wind. It had been a brutal end to our tiring first day of the hike. As I tossed inside the tent, sleepless, I wish I had never been here in the first place. For the first time, I doubted my decision to climb Mt. Whitney.

To be continued........Mt. Whitney Day 2

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Keep Austin Wierd!

On my trip to Austin last month, I noticed the following:

"Pedal to Lunch. We deliver lunch in downtown on a bicycle" - Sign outside Whole Foods store in downtown Austin.
"Monsanto is preying for your soul" - Sign at a local juice store.

These signs, in many ways, symbolizes the contrasting lifestyle between Austin and rest of Texas. There is a reason why Austin has always been known as an island in Texas. Although, not the birth place of hippies, it is known to shelter a lot of them. I have lived in TX for a little more than 2 years, and I have had the privilege of visiting Austin close to 10 times during this stay. Each time I visit Austin, I come back with more appreciation and love for this small city. I sometimes joke with my friends that after my stint in Chicago, I would love to come back and work in Houston as it is only 2 hours away from Austin.

Most people remember Austin for its legendary nightlife - 6th Street. Having lived in State College (Penn State) and spent many a weekends jaywalking on the bar-lined College Ave, I was surprised to see the size and scale of 6th street nightlife. Unlike, most college towns, Austin's nightlife is not just fueled by college students but also by tourists and local citizens. This makes the 6th street experience fun even when the school is not in session. My favorite on the 6th street is the musical comedy show Esther Follies. With the road closed for traffic on weekend nights, 6th street transforms itself into a maze of drunk pedestrians after midnight. The small roadside stalls serving hot dogs/ kebabs/ fried rice etc serve the appetite of drunk and hungry revelers after last call.

The upscale joints along 4th street provide a laid back experience for the more mature crowd. However, nightlife is only one aspect of Austin. Austin boasts of a plethora of amazing restaurants. In absence of chains, the whole town boasts of a very local flavor and serve some of the best cuisine of all kind. The city is filled with mom and pop local stores which gives it a very quaint appearance. Shops lining Gaudulupe street near the campus or the Congress Street south of downtown provide the best examples of this diaspora. Any city which such a liberal view inevitably boasts of its coffee and coffee shops. Some of my favorites are JP Java (best coffee), Mozarts (best scenery), Halcyon (best mix of alcohol and coffee).

Most people' experience of Austin is primarily defined by the above three paragraphs. However, another important aspect to Austin's personality is the stunning scenery. In a flat arid Texas landscape, Austin breathes a fresh lease of life with its rolling hills, lakes and lush greenery. For water enthusiasts there are plenty of options to boat on the Travis lake and Town lake. The hills around the city provide some amazing drives through narrow winding roads overlooking the lake. There are natural springs which maintain water at certain spots at a very comfortable temperature and serve as great swimming holes. No wonder, Lance Amstrong was able to practise well on this terrain and win 7 Tour De France!

Amidst all these, it is easy to forget that Austin is also home to the most literate people in the country with its huge academic population (Top 10 university) and booming semi-conductor and hi-tech industry. This high level of education also begets a high level of wealth which is evident from the ubiquitous mansions lining the hills surround the city. Outside of downtown, its hard to find any homeless people or run-down homes! Austin also has the highest singles population and coupled with the fitness craze in the city, it boasts of a very attractive set of population. I think this is probably the biggest difference between Austin and Portland - The other Weird City!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Travel Wishlist II

Here is an update to Travel Wishlist I published before.

These places need to be visited before (I have) kids.

1) Backpacking in Eastern Europe - Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Turkey

2) Backpacking in Boundary Waters - 7 day in absolute wilderness of Minnesota!

3) Backpacking in Scandinavia - Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland

4) Backpacking in South America - Colombia, Venezuela & Ecuador

Oh Lord! Give me some Vacation & Money!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Check Mark

My instructor showed me his altimeter. It read a little over 14,000 ft. He signaled that it was time to walk towards the door. I was walking towards the open door of an aeroplane for the first time in my life; my instructor for the the 5,026th time! I glanced at the ground far below. I had dreaded this moment for a few days and expected it to be the scariest part of the jump. But today things were happening in a hurry and after seeing two of my colleagues jump in front of me without a whimper, I seemed composed. The instructor did a quick countdown and thrusted me into the open skies. Thank God, I didn't have to make a decision!

Barelling down at 120 miles per hour, the one thing I remember the most is the wind trying to fill my mouth and tear my cheeks apart. It was a very weird feeling. We were dropping approximately 1,000 ft every 6 seconds, and we were supposed to drop for about 7,000 ft. My instructor did a great job of showing me his altimeter every few seconds to tell me our exact distance to the ground. At some point during the 50 second free fall, the wind made it into my plastic goggles and knocked out one of my lenses. Thankfully, I was still able to witness the fall with the lens in my right eye. The weightlessness was definitely a very unique experience.

After a short but memorable free fall, the instructor signalled to me to prepare for the opening of the parachute. I was anticipating a severe pull on my shoulders, but the open parachute signaled a welcome relief. Slowed down, I could now soak in the beauty of this flat terrain. It being a very clear day, I could distinctly see the green fields, the oak trees and the automobiles on various roads. At some point my instructor encouraged me to yank the cords and do some spins. A few spins later, I was dizzy and ready to just fly gently and appreciate the beauty beneath. The landing was well rehearsed and definitely much softer than what I imagined. Overall the experience of skydiving was very memorable, and not even close to terrifying. If it were cheaper, I would do it over and over again, but for now it remains in my memory as 1 more Check Mark.

Everyone goes through their life with a bucket list - a series of Check Marks. These wish lists come in different forms. For some, they pertain to adventure, pushing the body to physical limit. For others it might be as simple as visiting an oft coveted place. Sometimes I wonder why people have such a list? Is it to prove to oneself that we can be successful in achieving our dreams? Or is it just another way to prove others of one's mettle? At the end of the day, if these Check Marks make you a better person and give you a better perspective in life, then it probably couldn't have been bad.

On a personal note, this year has been a series of some thick Check Marks for me - Half Marathon, Skydiving and in 3 weeks time, I plan to do another big Check Mark - hiking up Mt. Whitney over a 22 mile trek. I am not as concerned about the strenuous hike as I am of the altitude sickness and camping at 12,300 ft. The relentlessly flat landscape of Houston offers no opportunity for high altitude acclimatization. The closest preparation for this trip has been climbing 60 floors on the StairMaster at the local 24 Hour fitness. While not tiring myself to death, I would also have to watch out for black bears who might kill me for a granola bar.

But the biggest and most challenging Check Mark of the life will begin in a few months time, the Fall of 2009.

Friday, June 05, 2009

GM - Government Motors

I have been passionate about automobiles since I was a kid. With a special interest in vibration and dynamics, I landed six years ago in US to do a MS at Penn State which had close ties with "The Big3" in Detroit. I even overlooked a Fellowship offer from Ohio State to take up a Research Assistant offer at Penn State as I thought the latter would provide me best access to my career industry. Six years ago, I was dejected that I couldn't make it to Detroit. But after observing the automobile industry over the last few years, I am glad that my dream never came true!

On Monday, June 3rd, GM officially declared bankruptcy and in effect may have ended the glorious reign of one of the most popular companies worldwide. Kept alive on life support by the government for last few months, GM finally succumbed to the inevitable. It was unfortunate to see a company, which at one point held 46% of US market share, fold so abruptly. As it stands today about 3/4th of GM is now owned by the governments of US and Canada. It is the irony of Capitalism that allows paupers to become kings overnight and vice-versa. For almost a century, the US economy's crown jewels were the two Generals - General Motors and General Electric. With GM almost wiped out and GE stock flirting $6 few months ago, this might be the perfect time for a change in Guard. Welcome ExxonMobil & Walmart?

3 months from now, GM might still emerge strong, albeit leaner, from bankruptcy. It would however remain only a shadow of its prestigious past. It would be a miracle for this company to reach its glory days of mid 1950's. More importantly it would have to learn to compete with global market but not just the V8 savvy local truck markets. American car companies need to realize that cars (and trucks) cannot be sold on Patriotism alone. Patronizing the customers with advertisements like "This is my country", "American Revolution" etc can only get so much incremental revenues.

Some believe that cars would soon become a commodity. Just like the US no longer manufactures Televisions or Computers, similarly all cars would soon be made in India or China and probably assembled in Japan. The nice ones might still come from Italy and Germany, but most of the non-luxury, regular performance cars will come out of third world countries. In some ways this theory feeds on to the general trend that most manufacturing jobs will eventually gobbled up by developing economies. A few years ago, a person would have been ridiculed for suggesting that someday Jaguar would be owned by Tata and Hummer by a Chinese company. And its not surprising that the only profitable centers of GM today are GM Brazil, GM India and GM China!!

For over a century the American lifestyle has been defined by cars. The largest market in the world fed the automotive industry worldwide and at the same time employed millions at home. Its hard to imagine a similar scale of employment in this industry at home to continue any further. The only path forward for the US car companies would be to innovate and differentiate. I think that this might be the perfect time for the US to dump all its V8s and invest everything into electric cars. There is a whole new market to be tapped into and the country which jumps into it first will rule the industry worldwide for most of this century. Tesla anyone?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Food & Culture

Last spring, I had a chance to visit Seoul on business. My office colleague picked me up from my hotel and told me, "I am going to take you to an Indian restaurant for dinner". But, I immediately protested, "I get enough of that in Houston. I want to eat authentic Korean food. I'll eat anything except dog!". For the next 3 days, I had the most awesome local cuisine by way of some great kimchi, soju, Korean bbq and kalbi. More importantly, these local restaurants gave me a peek into the local culture and gave me opportunities to interact with local people and not tourists.

Over the last few years in US, I have sampled and feasted on cuisine from all different countries - Chinese, Korean, Thai, Malay, Ethiopian, Colombian, Greek etc. In most cases, my exposure to a particular country and its culture has been primarily through its cuisine. For instance, I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopia till I visited an Ethiopian restaurant many years ago. I was very surprised to find that their cuisine is spicy and delicious just like Indian curry. A little more research later (reading "Guns, Germs and Steels"), I learnt about how tropical countries evolved to make spicy food to compensate for high heat and humidity and lack of refrigerators. These spices acted as natural preservatives! I also learnt about the great Ethiopian coffee through these visits and my love for coffee. Similarly, I was surprised to learn that even the Chinese consume hot milk tea which is very similar to Indian masala chai. The other day I was at a Vietnam restaurant. The backside of the menu gave me a short lesson in Vietnam's geography and made for some interesting reading as I waited on some delicious Bo Luc Lac.

Most major cities in US have local neighborhoods devoted to a particular nationality. These neighborhoods which are full of ethnic restaurants also represent the best opportunity to showcase their respective cultures. Your odds of getting exposed to these neighborhoods is vastly increased if you like the restaurants in that neighborhood. Lets face it, you are not going to frequent China Town, if you are not a dim sun fan, or for that matter Little Tokyo if you are not a Sushi fanatic. These restaurants are a big doorway to these cultures. A curios mind would naturally learn more about a country beginning with the restaurants and the people there, and then in turn through the neighborhood!

The above three paragraphs brings me to an interesting conclusion. I think that people who don't experiment with their food choices miss out on a lot of opportunities to learn about different cultures. Being a vegetaranian presents one such hindrance to this exposure as your choices are very restricted. There are certain cultures whose gastronomic delights are meant only for carnivores. Non-meat eating people would thus be disinclined to try out these restaurants. I am not implying that vegetaranians are less culturally aware, but I do think that being one presents a big barrier to such learning opportunities as mentioned in this post. More importanly, it might represent a severe handicap while trying to assimilate with one of these cultures.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Good Bye Dear Friend

Last week, I bid adieu to my best friend for the last 4 years. A friend I would never see again. A friend who fell to the perils of a 'drink and drive' accident. Navigating through flooded waters, my Mustang's engine decided to drink in the high waters and ride, only to end with a broken crankshaft and a severely damaged engine. As I stood at the Body shop examining the undercarriage of my car I stood in disbelief. I had just returned from a great week long trip to India and this ending was definitely shocking and totally unscripted.

I remember the first time I laid my eyes on the Mustang. I liked him instantly, but he was definitely out of my price range. Although he packed a regular V6, the dual gas exhausts and the modified air intake gave him the growl of a V8. The hard clutch and the noisy gear-box gave it a feel of a true muscle car. Some hard nosed bargaining later, I was able to strike a deal with the dealership. However, our friendship started on a very sour note. Still a novice stick shift driver, I jumped a red light on the very first day I owned this car. Despite my strong plea, the ruthless cop handed me a stiff ticket and ruined this memorable day. In the next few months the car did attract a lot of attention in the poor graduate student community. Most guys wanted to ride it and I would reluctantly agree to them toying with my clutch. However, I was more interested in offering girls a nice long ride, atleast the ones who seemed to be impressed by the bling factor!

Three months later, me and my mustang had the trip of our life as we drove 3,000 miles from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles. However, the best laid plans of men and mice often go awry. While enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the rockies at 12,000+ ft altitude, my friend skid on ice on Interstate 70, only to be bruised badly. It took 7 days worth of labor in a small bodyshop in Boulder, CO to get my Mustang back on the road. With his health restored, the mustang was ready to hit the multi-laned highways of LA. The mountains surrounding Pasadena only gave further opportunity to put all the torque to test.

The 3,000 miles roadtrip only represented the start of a wanderlust life. Barring the expensive gasoline, the magnificient scenery of California fuelled my Mustang to various long roadtrips. In some ways, my car lived a very satisfying life as it visited some of the best scenery in the country. The 48,000 miles I lapped on the car was dominated by a lot of mountain and ocean views and best of all great weather of Southern California. In the absence of a claustrophobic garage, my car led most of its life breathing the fresh air and delivering great performance, However, despite the straight line horsepower and amazing torque to climb hills, the mustang did exhibit some shortcomings when it came to handling. On slippery roads and sharp curves, the rear wheel would not always cooperate. However, like we do with most of our friends, I learnt to live with this friend's shortcomings.

For a while, I was hoping the insurance company would resurrect him and give him a new lease of life on the road. However, economics normally rule emotions, and in the end they might have made the best decision for me. But I wonder where my friend is today. The last time I saw him, he seemed tranquil; parked under a tree at a nearby mechanic.'s shop. This week, I went back to the mechanic to have one last look, but I was too late. He was gone, towed away by my insurance company to a land unknown. I guess he is probably at a nearby scrapyard. At this juncture, I only pray that his parts Rust In Peace!

Friday, April 17, 2009

15 hours 45 minutes (BOM - EWR)

Most people view any flight of more than 10 hours as an ordeal. People complain about claustrophobia, boredom, leg cramps, noisy infants, smelly feet, rude stewardess and every other thing one could imagine. However, I have always enjoyed these long international flights more than the short 2-3 hour domestic flights. Its been only a few hours since I disembarked from the longest flight I have ever taken in my life - 15 hours 45 minutes from Mumbai to Newark and my belief has only been strengthened.

When I board one of these flights, I embark with a mindset that I am going to be here forever. I eye my seat as if it were my new apartment. I carefully choose my aids - book, I-Pod, Glasses etc and furnish my apartment. The remainder is neatly stowed away in my apartment's attic. Once ensconced in the seat, I survey my neighbors. I make it a point to break the ice with my neighbors before the flight takes off. If an interesting conversation is struck, I shall let my curiosity further the conversation. If the neighbor is cute, then its a bonus! If the neighbor is annoying, I just pretend to close my eyes and act exhausted.

Once the cabin door is closed, and I switch off my cellphone, I enter a zone of bliss. The blackberry no longer incessantly buzzes with emails. People can't reach me and I don't feel any guilty for the same. At 30,000 ft above sea-level, a different sense of freedom sets in. I feel I have cut all ties with the ground below and I am free to do anything I want. I can read, I can type (blogs like this!), I can watch crappy movies, I can eat or I can just do something more relaxing - sleep. Since I don't wear a wrist watch and as the plane flies across multiple timezones, I lose sight of time. I do not anticipate the trip's end. This seems like the perfect escape from planet earth. It seems like one endless journey suspended way up in the sky. In contrast, a 3 hour domestic flight seems like a painful countdown to destination.

These international flights are the only time that I turn into a strict vegetarian, as the veg food invariably turns out to be better than the dry airline chicken or beef. Thanks to the never expanding diaspora of desis and more importantly patel run hotels, the food in the flights nowadays are pretty delicious. In addition, there is unlimited wine. Nothing acts as a better sedative than a few glasses of merlot. I feel like a king as people serve me without me asking for it. International flights also tend to be the only times when I catch some good sleep on a plane. Except for one disastrous experience flying to Korea, I have mostly been fortunate enough to earn exit row seats with ample legroom to stretch and relax.

Its always a sad time when you near the destination and the stewardess request you to prepare for landing. The violent jerk of the plane rubber mating with the tarmac asphalt wakes me to reality. I switch on my phone, the flood of emails serves as a grim reminder that this was after all a dream! So ppl, next time you undertake a long flight, just approach it a tad different and I am sure you would attest to a whole new experience. Bon Voyage!

Sunday, April 12, 2009


"You are too fast for me, Maan. Slow down, Maan!"

Well, I had never been exposed to a place with Caribbean influence, hence at this island of Vieques, 1 hour off mainland Puerto Rico, I was having a fun time. Things were slow, as they say, I was on "Island Time". People here took life slow and no one seemed to be in a hurry.

We spent two fun filled days in the town of Esperenza in the southern coast of Vieques . The town boasts of a strip of few restaurants which the locals call Malecon. It took us only 5 meals to eat at every restaurant in the town:) But the Malecon was the place were all the locals hung out at night and just people-watching entertained us for hours the first night. Many locals were happy drinking from a hole-in-the-wall shack and avoiding the tourist traps. But most locals just strutted their jarring car stereos by making multiple rounds of the small 2 block downtown area. There were also people doing the same on horses, albeit without the stereos. There were old men gathering at sidewalk and talking loud, there were youngsters drinking and humoring (teasing) every lady that walked past them and all this was happening with the backdrop of the beautiful blue Atlantic ocean.

With limited vacation, I could not afford to relax for long. The morning of the first day we ended up going for snorkeling. A few practise session later, I had perfected my breathing technique and was observing multi-colored fishes underwater. On this trip, we met up with a very enthusiastic guide and 3 pretty ladies who happened to become our travel companion for the next 2 days on the island. After the snorkeling trip, we had lunch in a run down shack by the beach. With no more than 2 big pans, a few ladles and limited spices, this guy cooked up the best king fish I have ever eaten.

A huge part of the island is unpaved, so we decided to rent mountain bikes and bike to a secluded beach. After 6 miles of hard work we reached at the most beautiful stretch of beach I have ever seen - Blue beach. Although the beach stretched for about 3/4 mile, there were less than 10 people strolling on it. The clear blue waters, the white soft sand made for a magical combination. An hour later, while wading on this beach, my friend alerted me to the sight of some fins in the vicinity. For a minute the movie "Jaws" flashed in our mind, but we soon saw double fins and guessed it must be a stingray. With Steve Irvin's demise fresh in mind, we started backing away. Then we met a local who confirmed the stingray's presence and even volunteered to snorkel close to it.

The tiring bike ride back to the town was doused by a pitcher of fine Sangria. A little tipsy, we then went for the most magical experience I have ever had - Bioluminescent Bay tours. My initial take on this tour was that I might end up seeing a lot of glowing aquatic creatures like jelly fish etc. However, what I witnessed that night captivated me no end. This bay has microscopic creatures which emit light when they are agitated. So any time our paddle hits the water, or you touched the water the surface would glow. That night we paddled to the middle of the bay and jumped into the waters to soak this beauty. It was fitting that the sky was at its clearest that night too. I don't recollect the last time I saw so many stars in the sky. Between the innumerable stars and glowing water, the experience was incredible. There are only 3 places in the world which boast of this kind of activity, and Vieques boasts to be best among the best.

The next day, with some persuasion from our new found friends we decided to go horse-riding. This was my first time riding a horse and although I learnt the tricks of the trade quickly, I was still uncomfortable when the horse would start galloping. Things were made more interesting by the presence of our super hot instructor who definitely knew how to carry a low-rise Levi's. Spending time on the ranch, we also learnt about the interesting love life of horses which very closely parallels that of human being, including the philandering part!

We returned from our adventure packed weekend at Vieques to Puerto Rico refreshed. After spending some more time on the main island and getting a flavor of the Spanish/Caribbean influence, I returned to the humdrum of Houston. Island life is definitely fun, and Its a shame that it took me 27 years to experience this!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Its been over 5 quarters since the economy started its downward journey. A novice investor, I chose to invest my money at a very wrong time - Jan 2008. Having seen 50% of my direct stock investments evaporate, I have been following the market very closely. Economy rules the conversation whether it be TV or online forums or coffee shops. Last week, when I called my parents in India, even my grandmother struck a 2 minute conversation with me about the economy. She is 70 and she doesn't watch TV nor read newspaper! Although I have had strong feelings about the situation, I realized that I have not dedicated a single blog towards this Mega Disaster. So here it goes....

Growing up in India, I learnt the value of saving money. My dad rented our apartment for 39 years, and only on retiring did he use his lifelong savings to buy a house. People used the same philosophy to buy cars - save enough money and then pay in full. The concept of buying a house with only 10% down payment (or sometimes even less!) was thus very alien to me when I landed in US. Similarly, when I moved to LA, I got a big shock when I saw everyone in the city driving BMW & Mercedes. I thought people here are very rich, and without doubt they are definitely the richest in this country, but I soon found out that many just lived beyond their means. For $399 a month it was not difficult to lease a 3 series BMW. Why bother saving and buying, when you can finance and lease?

I found this credit driven economy fascinating. You could easily live 10 times richer than you would normally live, by borrowing. You can buy flat screen TVs, laptops, houses, cars, everything other than your family with borrowed money. You can use multiple credit cards and have a credit limit of $40,000 a month when you earn $4,000 a month! As the country's deficit continued to increase China, Germany and the rest of the world bought US bonds and financed this scheme. Surprisingly, this scheme worked very well. There were Harvard grad MBA's on wall street designing really complex models and keeping the economy steaming ahead. People kept getting richer and corporations kept making record profits. For the first 9 months last year, ExxonMobil made a net profit in excess of $1,500 per second!

The events of past year have left many questioning whether this was the greatest Ponzi scheme ever. Were people in this country really rich or were they were just made to believe so? I will leave the fine economists at various Ivy league schools to ponder over this conundrum. The recession has definitely showed that US economy rules the world and the world is definitely more closely connected than we imagine. Think it this way - A regression model devised by few high IQ individuals in Wall St caused such upheavals that even my 70 year old grandma sitting 10,000 miles away is concerned for me. But for now, the pain is real, the job loss, the loss of 401 K wealth, foreclosures etc is terrible. With recovery not foreseen in 2009, I hope early 2010 gets better news. 2008 has definitely been a historic year and when we are old, we all can reflect on the events and pass fiscal wisdom to our grandkids.

This is a historic year for US in other ways too. The country is now commanded by a resolute leader, one of finest orators amongst contemporary politicians and someone who easily has the potential to become the greatest president of all time. President Obama's great ideas in the field of Energy, Education, Healthcare and Foreign policy stands in stark contrast to the previous administrations single pronged agenda of bombing all Islam nations. This country has only a short date of 8 years with this President, and unfortunately this tottering economy is threatening to consume most of it.