Thursday, September 25, 2008

Travelogue: The journey ends...

I can't believe that it has been four months since I updated the travelogue; I wonder what kept me sooooo busy! Anyway, something is brewing up here - hope you will like it once it is up; And continuing with our travelogue - this would probably be the last edition of the US series; i'll come back with something new soon...
Upon my insistence, we decided that we’ll take a trip in an Amtrak train; destination was not decided. We considered a lot of options and finally realized that we really didn’t have too many options because we had to return back in one day! At the most we could spend 3 hours on a one-way journey. We zeroed in on Washington DC; travel time was around 3.5 hours. We decided to start early and take the return trip by 5 pm or so which effectively gave us 7 to 8 hours in Washington. I was tempted to try for the 5:45am train but my colleague assured me that there was no way we’d make it. I guess he was right. The train fares were variable – meaning the early morning train was around $30 cheaper than the other morning trains; anyway, money wasn't a matter - I was ready to spend extra money to travel on Amtrak. The next suitable train was at 7am and it would reach Washington DC, Union Station at around 10am.

I was very excited about the travel – like a kid who is eagerly awaiting his birthday present. Amtrak was one of my childhood fascinations. We both reached the station well ahead of time – we were in by 6:30am. I used the phone booth to make a call to India using a card, which had a few dollars of talk time balance, that another colleague had lent me – I guess I spoke for just three minutes and that made the balance dwindle into cents! Amtrak customers had a separate lounge – nothing grand but a separate area with comfortable seats. There were plenty of shops in Penn Station (New York) but early morning most were closed except for a shop staffed by an Indian – we hopped in to buy a map of Washington and my colleague picked up a photography magazine. He was an avid photographer and the banner on my website is credit to him; and he was the one who introduced me to the world of digital photography (we would take breaks in office to go on nature photography sessions – taking pictures of beetles and leaves which made many a stranger turn their heads to see what we were doing poking our heads inside plants).

Soon we were on our way to the platform. The train looked simple from the outside – a silver colour; nothing dashing – just bland with the Amtrak name and logo. When we stepped it felt special (the kid has got his birthday present!); the interiors were similar to an airplane and the seats were very comfortable. It was really cosy. The train ride was enjoyable – there wasn’t much of the typical rocking effect you get in trains; it was a pretty smooth ride. Still I guess the Japenese bullet trains were the best of the lot - they went at rocket speeds and you wouldn't know that the train was moving till you opened your window! There was a person who checked tickets when the train started. Our train was fairly empty unlike trains in India that were packed to the brim – there were a few people watching movies on portable DVD players while some were working on their laptops, some reading newspapers and some just sleeping! One coach functioned as a canteen – we had typical junk food in the train as well!

The first thing we did was to step down and take a few snaps posing with the Amtrak. And there we stood in the capital of the USA. My colleague booked the return tickets in one of the Amtrak kiosks in the station. The station was beautiful and outside it there was a huge bell, the freedom bell – a replica of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. We took a few snaps there and began treading across Washington. The weather was perfect – it was a bright and sunny day. First up was the Capitol Hill – the heart of the US government; the place where the Senate sessions are held. My colleague took a superb close up picture of a flower, using the macro function on his camera, with Capitol Hill in the background. As we walked further we came across the Smithsonian museums – this was a street with many museum buildings lined up one after the other. We spent only some time in the Air and Space museum – it had lots of informative things; from a small piece of the moon’s surface to a room filled with details about the Wright brothers – it even had the actual aeroplane that the Wright brothers used for their first successful flight. There were diary writings, newspaper clippings, videos, explanations of why the flight was designed the way it was, explanation of concepts like drag and lift and a lot more. Stepping into that museum I realized that it would be good to spend at least a week in Washington – you could learn so many things; and this was within a single room in one museum; there were many rooms like this and four or five more museums! We had our lunch in the Air and Space museum itself – again the typical junk food along with a healthy banana!

The Washington monument is a tall white obelisk – tickets to go to the observatory at the top were sold out for the day. There were many memorials in Washington DC – the Lincoln memorial, Jefferson memorial etc. We walked across to the Holocaust museum where we were taken in a elevator that had a brief introductory video about what was happening during the Hitler regime – the beginning. The elevator itself was made to give a feel of the holocaust; kind of slimy walls with a resemblance to prisons. No photography was permitted inside the dim halls. You can literally learn your history about what happened in the world war in those three floors. Everything (exhibits, photos, newspaper reports, speeches, some real items) were all arranged in chronological order. The focus was on Nazi Germany and holocaust – the extermination of specific groups in society, concentration camps, slave labour in those camps, extermination chambers and gas chambers. We had to speed through the exhibits though I would liked to have spent more time in going through each exhibit in detail – there was plenty of information to digest and you could empathize with those who suffered; made me feel that the petty problems we face in life are nothing compared to what those people went through.

Next up we walked past the famous White House – the area was actually cordoned off many metres away from the house; we could just catch a glimpse of the building. We went to the International Spy Museum – we were curious to see what was there in a spy museum. It was nice – different from the usual museums you’d come across; it had a lot of gadgets on display including pens that could take photographs! From the spy museum I wanted to go to the Washington Zoo but there was hardly any time left; we took a metro train back to Union Station. The metros in Washington had a more professional look compared to those in New York – everything appeared relatively new and the metro stations were very spacious. Back in Union Station I bought a sandwich and joined my colleague in a long queue waiting to board the train. We encountered an American who had married an Indian girl and recently visited Chennai. He belonged to the medical fraternity and was telling about his stay with his in-laws. The train had got delayed but the good thing was that everyone in the queue was patient. And so our trip had come to an end; or so I thought – we had actually walked almost the entire length of the main Washington city!

We settled into the train and after about 45 minutes, as darkness set outside, a loud thud was heard. The electrical systems went off for a while. There was some murmuring among the passengers but not a commotion; I’m not sure if people were frightened or not – we were in the middle of nowhere, just trees on either side of the train and the train had come to a halt with a huge thudding noise and all electrical systems shut down. A few minutes later the lights came on and an announcement was made saying that the damage is being assessed. An official came into our coach a couple of minutes later and said that the train had hit a deer and had suffered damage. He said we would move in the train slowly to the next station where we will board another train and head back to New York. I was curious to know what happened to the deer but before I could ask anything the man left the coach. The deers in US were pretty huge but it was amazing to hear the news that a deer had damaged a train running at full speed! We chugged along the next few kilometres at crawling speed and finally reached the nearest station; it was an open-air station like the small stations we have in India. So now we were already more than an hour behind schedule and though people were obviously frustrated no one lost their temper. We were told that we would be refunded for this trip! In 30 minutes we were in another train and on our way back to New York.

We reached New York well past 11pm and I didn’t have any bus to go back home; ended up going over to my colleague’s place – the night was chilly and the metros were empty; was a little spooky to see New York which is always bustling with people so eery quiet. The area where my colleague was staying had a large Indian population and it was unlike our home which was near a highway. Rents were pretty high and so many people crammed in together in small apartments; the apartment was really tiny – it was a two bedroom apartment but each room was hardly sufficient for even one person's bed! I slept in the main hall, where another person was already fast asleep. He warned me of bed bugs but I didn’t see them at night, had a sound sleep for 5 hours, and when I woke up early in the morning I could see the place infested with bed bugs. They were crawling just about everywhere – the walls, the bed, even on the face of the other person sleeping in my hall! My colleague had become friends with the bed bugs and they never bit him; at first glance it appeared I didn’t have any bites.

Early morning before the sun rose I was out in the streets of New Jersey, taking a train back to New York. The place was deserted and the station was also deserted except for a couple of Indians and an elderly couple. I reached home and my room mate told me that I would have to get sprayed with disinfectants to cleanse myself of the bed bugs! The reason we wanted to return within a day was to make a trip to Statue of Liberty – we made the trip late in the day, my colleague was tired with all the walking in Washington but I pulled him along. On the way, we learnt that the metro train to that route was under renovation and so we were all moved into some special buses (they were like trams). And when we reached the boarding point for ferries going to the Statue of Liberty, we learnt that there were no more tickets for the day. Instead of going to Ellis island (where the Statue of Liberty stands), we went to Staten Island (which is close by) – it just happened that there was a free ferry ride every 30 minutes to Staten Island and we hopped in! The ferry was cool - it had three storeys – two storeys were open with a balcony while the lowest one was a closed storey with only windows to look out through. We came close to the Statue of Liberty and I had to be satisfied with that – this was the second time I was in the US and I had missed the Statute again; the first time I had seen it from far off from the land, this time I was seeing it closer from the sea! And that pretty much wraps up my short trip in the US – hope you enjoyed travelling along with me through the blogs!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Travelogue: Missed becoming a millionaire!

I was awestruck by the sheer number of machines out there – hundreds of slots machines neatly stacked in an orderly manner in dazzling lights. It was such a pretty sight. But my first attempt in casinos was not that dazzling - another two machines produced the same luck – I was on a great losing streak. And suddenly my mind began calculating the Rupees I had just drowned into those machines in a matter of a few minutes; “Stop it; you’re in US; you can’t keep converting every dollar you spend or waste into a Rupee” I told myself.

I had set a limit on what I’d spend here (I didn’t have a choice – I didn’t have any more money in hand even if I wanted!). I had nearly reached my limit when I decided that I’d try out $10 slot machines instead of the $20 ones. We went in search of ten dollar machines and soon found plenty of them. A slot machine with 3 numbers caught my eye – the one where the same combination on all 3 positions wins you money. It seemed like the $10 would drain pretty quickly but surprisingly I won a few rounds just as it was about to get over. I continued on the same machine and soon I was making some money – it was like on every 5 spins I would win at least twice or thrice and that would send my money count higher – I more than doubled the money and decided to pull out of it. I picked another machine of the same type and again the first spin led to a loss but the next one made me win; finally my luck had changed but unfortunately for me time had also run out. The return bus back to New York was in 10 minutes and if we missed this one we would have to wait for another hour. I had to be content with what I won – at least I pared some of my losses. Should have gone for the ten dollar machines in the starting itself! I guess everyone who comes here would have that little dream in a corner of their heart to become a millionaire overnight in a casino!

When you decide to quit from a game the machine will print out the money it owes you. You need to collect the cash at a counter on producing this printed slip. We collected the money and dashed for the bus. It was 4am but I was wide awake – winning certainly does make you energetic! On our way back I calculated to see if I could make it to Atlantic city one more time before I departed from US but realized that I didn’t have time. I still had to go to the Statue of Liberty and still had to travel by Amtrak. Amtrak is a train about which I had been fascinated since childhood when we used to play Top Trumps train card game – each card would have a train on it along with a few specifications. You call out one of the specifications from your card and if no one else has a better spec then you take over all their cards and the call out from the next card. Amtrak used to be featured in those cards and I’ve also heard that it is a luxury train to travel in. So next up had to be Amtrak – destination we had yet to decide.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Travelogue: The drain in Atlantic city…

The problem is with setting a loss limit; our human nature is such that once we get optimistic we always keep hoping that our fortunes will change even when we are in deep loss. We hope that the next spin will yield a fortune only to end up losing the money. Those who are in the stock market would have learnt this lesson – especially those doing very short term trading; the prices fall but you believe even against all odds that something dramatic might happen to turn it all around. But here it was worse that the stock markets – hardly any logic and such a short time.

I observed the same phenomenon happen when we, or rather my colleague, played a few more rounds. He made a decent amount of profit in the first few machines (I won’t disclose amounts here! Golden rule: When you go to a casino you don’t tell anyone what you made or lost; everything that happens inside is buried inside).

Soon my colleague started losing; his fortunes reversed and he also didn’t feel his usual self – he was a regular slot player but today his mood wasn’t that enthusiastic. Maybe it was to do with his mood – the way you feel influences a lot of things. Roulette was interesting to watch since it had a colorful board with a colorful wheel and a bright LED display screen. My friend explained how roulette was played – you bet your money on what will happen (you actually stack a few coins but you pay for those coins). There is a large circular board on which a ball is placed and the board is spun; there are many numbered slots on the board and the ball will settle in one of them. You place a bet saying which number it will land on; or you can place a bet saying whether it will be even or odd. There will be a number of players playing each round. Ah; you might think that one can indefinitely keep playing the game by placing 50% coins on even and 50% on odd for each round. But you have to place a bet in odd numbers ensuring that no one plays indefinitely. It was fun to watch – but slot machine was more appealing to me – maybe because it was secretive J

I developed a liking for casinos – it seemed a good way to spend a day once in a while as long as you had control over your temptation (which is pretty hard)! It was past midnight and my colleague urged me to play and try my luck. I searched for the lower range slot machines - $20 to start with. And the start was perfect – started with a loss; my friend’s luck today was rubbing onto me as well. Played another machine and lost in that as well. We decided to take a break and switch casinos.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Travelogue: Atlantic city here I come...

It was around a 3 hours journey by bus from New York to Atlantic city. There are numerous bus services running right through the night back and forth between Atlantic city and the New York bus terminal. We booked a couple of tickets for the 9pm bus. We had a couple of hours to kill – thought of squeezing a movie but found it wouldn’t be possible. And so we just loitered around the streets near Times Square. There was a guy on the street showing off his skills in spray painting – the kind of stuff that you get in email forwards. In less than ten minutes he finished drawing a beautiful picture of New York at night. There were a lot of people watching him but unfortunately no one was willing to buy the painting for $20. He set it aside near the others he had made and continued on to the next one.

We had dinner in the bus terminal before hopping onto the bus. It wasn’t long before I was fast asleep. When I woke up I saw lights all around outside the bus. We had reached the city of night life. We were heading to a casino called Taj Mahal. There were many others like Caesar’s and so on. We got off at the Taj Mahal and my first disappointment was to discover that I couldn’t claim a $20 worth coupon because I didn’t have my passport or copy of it. The $20 coupon was part of the bus fare itself – you pay some $30 or so out of which $20 is given back to you in the form of a coupon; kind of like forcing you to play something. My colleague got his coupon.

The first few minutes were spent studying the place; it was fascinating – it was the middle of the night but inside it was lights everywhere – bright and colourful as if it were the middle of the day. People of all ages were to be found and most people seemed to play alone (probably to keep their winnings and losses a secret!). The tourist groups were in pairs laughing and having a good time. My colleague explained the different types of games that were around – slot machines were in plenty, then you had the board games like roulette and then the famous card games (like blackjack).

The slot machine was something where you spun a wheel and waited for the result. Wherever the wheel stopped, that combination would yield you something (or nothing) depending on the rules of the game (combination would be formed out of 3 or 5 columns depending on the game). All machines had a electronic spin button – you push a button to start and stop the spin. In each spin you can increase your odds of winning by asking the machine to consider more combinations as winning combinations – but for this you have to pay more for the round. My colleague asked me to play but I was a little hesitant and so he used his coupon on a slot machine. And voila, after spinning a few times he made around $100 in profit! Talk about making a quick buck! You could pull out your money from a slot machine whenever you wanted to; there was no mandatory number of rounds to be played; want to stop then stop. But wanting to stop was difficult!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Travelogue: An American theatre experience

Evenings I would do my best to catch up with the Simpson’s half hour episode on TV; it’s been a very long time since I saw the Simpsons. Then by 10pm or so it would be time for offshore communication which could go all the way past midnight as well. We’d squeeze in some dinner in between at home. That was pretty much how the typical day went at onsite.

Next up on my “to do” list was watching a movie in a US theatre. We went to the AMC theatre one evening and decided to go for Spiderman 3. I had seen most of part II on some US channel – it had already been repeated twice. Since many a days I was alone at home I would spend a few hours watching movies on TV at night. The theatre building looked small from the outside. In the ground floor there were a number of ATM style ticket vending machines. Pick your movie, swipe your credit card and the machine printed the ticket for you; completely self service – eliminate labor costs! All the screens were located on the upper floors and I soon realized that the theatre was much larger than expected. There were numerous floors and each floor had multiple screens. The escalators to each floor were very lengthy and steep. Once you entered the upper floors you could basically step into any screen – the ticket checking was only at the entrance of each floor; so if you were fed up with one movie and there was another running nearby you could walk into that and there seemed to be nothing in place to prevent you from doing that. My colleague said that he had in fact tried it out a couple of times! The popcorn bags were huge just like everything else – the family size was actually like a small bucket.

The movie was good though not typically American movies –it was more of emotions than a thriller. Add a few songs and you would have had an Indian Spiderman movie! There was no intermission – I wondered why because that would be a good time for the catering business. So it is a straight two hours for a movie; buy all the snacks and drinks you want at the start and then enjoy the movie without getting up from your seat. You could walk out and walk into the theatre any time as you wished – no restrictions. We wrapped off the day with a burger and some soda – you never got bored of eating burgers in US!

The next item on my “to do” list was going to Atlantic city – the little Las Vegas present in New Jersey. The city has a lot of history attached to it – Mike Tyson fought many of his fights here. Two of my colleagues visited the place frequently on weekends. And casinos were something I wanted to see – you see them in movies as posh places and dream of wanting to be there at least once!