Saturday, May 28, 2011

Part 9 - Good Friday in Baltimore

The flight

After crossing the security screening I was in the boarding gates area. There was still 30 minutes to go for the flight. I saw a lady buying a $2 headphone from a machine kept near the boarding counter. Interesting - you either bring your own headphones to enjoy the inflight entertainment or you buy the headphones. That way the airlines don’t need to worry about distributing and collecting the headphones. As usual there were a few people busy with their laptops. A guy next to me had a MacBook pro that looked cool. An Indian dad sitting beside him had a Dell and another guy on my right had a HP. I had all the brands around me! The MacBook guy was enjoying some tv show and the Indian dad was busy with some Excel spreadsheet. His son, sitting next to him, was really bored.

As usual when they announced that it was time for

boarding, many people crowded around the boarding gate; even though they were calling for people based on their seat numbers. JetBlue flights had a few seats in Economy class with extra leg room that cost $10 more - it was good that I didn’t opt for it because all my neighboring seats were vacant! I wonder if they give last minute seats at a cheaper rate - but that would create the problem of everyone waiting for the last minute price drops!

The inflight entertainment system had a lot of tv channels. They provided us with water and chips or cookies. The potato chips was not the normal one - it was blue potato chips! The flight was pleasant and Boston in lights looked beautiful. The flight was just about an hour.

In my friend’s home

I came out of the airport and found a lengthy footpath beside the road - at a gap of every ten meters or so you had boards with the names of different airline carriers; that was the pick up point for each airline - I liked this system of different pickup points and drop off points depending on the carrier; it made things a lot easier - easier to locate people

and easier to spread out the crowd. I was a bit skeptical about stepping out of the airport so late in the night but looking at the people around I felt comfortable - Baltimore featured among the top cities in US when it came to crime and my friend had also told me a few stories about crimes that happened here. The blue car was nowhere to be seen; I went up and down the entire footpath stretch to see whether there was a JetBlue board anywhere else; there wasn’t and I went up and down a second time. I was thinking of heading back to the airport and giving a ring (I didn’t have a mobile and had to rely on the public phone booths), but just then my friend arrived.

There was this idea that maybe I could take a rental car and drive over to Luray caverns on Friday - since Friday my friend would be in office and I would not have anything to do. The problem was that it was a 3 hour drive and for some reaso

n I don’t think my friend was comfortable with the thought of me driving around in US highways; maybe because he hand’t seen me drive. Considering the 6 hour journey and considering the cost of a rental car - it might seem like the car costs just $15 or $20 per day, but adding the insurance it would become a lot more than that - maybe $40 and there is also the non-monetary cost of worry (the longest I had driven was about 2.5 hours and I also wasn’t keen on driving alone - I felt I’ll doze away at the wheel driving alone!); so we dropped the Luray caves idea - I’d spend the Friday writing my blog and researching on the places to visit on the weekend. My friend booked a rental car to pick up on Friday night; it was well past midnight. He said, “People here tend to take rental cars for long drives on the weekend - kind of makes you feel light because you don’t have to worry about your car.”

“And you also get to try out different vehicles.”

I tasted blueberries for the very first time before hitting bed - it tasted like grapes but didn’t have much sweetness. They are said to be very good for health.


In the morning I just felt like exercising because there was nothing else to do anyway! And again, just like in Dubai, I felt good exercising - somehow you felt you could stretch better here than back home in India - was it to do with the humidity or maybe something to do with the mind? I searched for how to get my milk heated - he had some teflon vessels and I wasn’t sure if it is okay to heat milk in teflon; we usually just use stainless steel vessels; his microwave came to my rescue and so I avoided using the stove itself. I mixed two varieties of cornflakes and had a couple of slices of toasted bread. He called me once to check how I was doing.

He came home for lunch - we had the biryani which he had bought yesterday night; things usually didn’t get spoilt that easily here; the fridge certainly helped but I guess even it had to do with the weather - you could cook something and keep it for 5 days and it would still be fine to eat. My friend said the biryani wasn’t as good as it usually is but I didn’t mind; it still tasted fine because it was quite a while since I had biryani. I think the Indian catering business would flourish well in the US; you had a lot of demand and I don’t think there was enough supply.

“You’ll need a greencard to start a business,” he added.

By evening we were done with the planning - we had a list of places to see but our weather channels forecast bad weather for the weekend; 100% chance of rains they said! We didn’t really have any options and so we rearranged the order of places to visit - rain or snow we were going on our road trip.

We must’ve spent 30 minutes thinking of what to do in the evening - finally we drove over to a mall in Annapolis. On the way, we stopped at an ATM - I owed my friend money for the flight tickets; ATMs here are located outside - we are so used to having ATMs within a closed shed or a building but here they were just out in the open. So people would queue up on the footpath - fortunately t

he machine dispensed money when I tried my pin (this was the first time that I was using the card in an ATM). In the 20 minute drive to the mall we talked about a variety of things and one of the topics that cropped up was girls. Life sometimes is pretty weird - there were these guys who loved so much that they went to crazy limits just for the sake of pursuing the girl they loved; in movies you can be sure that such an effort would be rewarded with a happy love story ending but sadly that didn’t happen in real life.

In the mall we stepped into a bookshop and then into a Portuguese restaurant. You go to the counter and place your order and they would deliver to your table. They had different levels of spiciness - I initially opted for low spice and my friend mocked me saying, “You are an Indian and you are going for low spice!” I then upgraded to medium while he opted for high spice. After placing your order you can pick up the sauce bottles that you want before heading back to your seat. I didn’t order any drink because I can never finish a big cup of soda juices. It was the first time I attempted eating a chicken leg with a fork and knife - I always used to wonder how it is possible; well, it is! Medium spice was just about right for me - my friend’s high spice was a bit too much for him itself! In Portuguese cooking they used some different sauces and spices on their food - I enjoyed the taste.

Night drive

We had a problem for picking up the rental car - my friend would drive in his car to the rental place (in the airport) to pick up the rental car; now we’d have two cars and so on return, I’ll have to drive one of the cars! I opted to drive my friend’s car rather than the rental car since the rental agreement was only for one driver - if you wanted to include another driver you had to pay extra since insurance cost increases.

I practiced a couple of rounds in the parking lot in my friend’s car - the risky part in all this was that I didn’t know what was my insurance cover for the car I had back in New Hampshire; did it cover me only for using that car or did it cover me for any car that I drove in the US? We didn’t have a choice - and so we drove up to the airport and picked our rental car. It was a small Toyota though they called it a mid-size car; I felt my friend’s car which was not considered as a mid-size was bigger than this Toyota! In the airport parking lot I jumped into the driver seat of my friend’s car - this would be fun! I had to follow him without letting anyone come in between us because I didn’t know the route back home. I started the car and followed the red Toyota - it was around 10:45pm and as we exited onto the highway the car started beeping; ‘What was wrong?’

Damn, my seatbelt - I was driving without the seatbelt and a cop car was on the other side of the road! I tried handling the steering wheel in one hand while I fumbled with the seatbelt - the car wavered and almost went off the road before I slowed down; there was no one else behind me anyway. I buckled up and raced up to catch up with the Toyota. There were a couple of places where I was almost tail gating the Toyota to prevent anyone from coming between us. There were at least 3 or 4 cop cars that passed by. After about 15 minutes we were back home... without any incidents! Yipee.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Part 8 - 2nd trip to Baltimore...

I’m back home in India and it’s been a crazy two days! First day itself I took the car and I’m surprised how come I didn’t bump any other vehicle or get bumped myself; we really do drive crazy here - cutting lanes at will, without using indicators and overtaking on both the left and right sides; all of these are traffic violations in the US. And 2nd day I’ve had to use the public bus which was so crowded that I missed my stop and had to walk back for 10 minutes drenched in sweat.

Alright; now we’ll go back into the parallel mode of cinema since... Ah, reasons for parallel stream later... The snaps in this blog relate to a future edition but since they looked very pretty am positing some here (credit goes to my Baltimore friend for the pics).

Trip to Baltimore

Here I am in a good old friend’s home - was kind of home alone actually for the morning. This was my second trip to Baltimore - again traveling alone. It’s a holiday for us but not for many other companies. Kind of nice feeling typing on his Macbook Pro - like everyone would say, the laptop just feels so sturdy and smooth; you don’t feel it moving around or jerking as you type. Keys feel great but the edge of the laptop is a little sharp; would have been nice if it was curved rather than sharp right angle cut... anyway, this is supposed to be a blog and not a review article.... so let’s get back to how I landed in Baltimore...

It was 16:27 when I left home and my bus was at 16:45 to Boston; I should be able to make it within 10 minutes; hopefully there are no hiccups on the way. It took me exactly 5 minutes to drive to the bus station. Using the net on the bus seems kind of natural to me nowadays though I initially found it odd - it is a little uncomfortable keeping the laptop on your lap but still manageable. Since I didn’t have a mobile phone I emailed my friend that i had started. In a group of 20 people you can surely see around 4 or 5 people pulling out their laptops. In fact now in the 20 you would even see 1 or 2 have an ipad or some tablet as well.

Boston Logan airport

The airport had different drop off points based on the airline - it helped avoid traffic congestion in the airport. And this airport was among the top in terms of domestic traffic. I was on a direct JetBlue flight to Baltimore and had nearly 3 hours to kill. The airport was busy; I headed to the JetBlue self help kiosk, followed the touch screen instructions, selected my seat on the screen (I found only 1 window seat) and printed the boarding pass. Since I didn’t have any luggage to check-in I didn’t need to go and drop my luggage on the conveyor belt. I enquired with an employee whether that was it and he confirmed, “That’s it. You can go for boarding at 8.” That was quite easy!

I loitered around looking to see how I could spend a couple of hours here. A few minutes in the restroom - it was pretty clean, a few minutes doing one circle around the terminal.
I was in terminal C and was tempted to walk to Terminal A but because of my heavy backpack (it had my laptop plus clothes for the 3 day stay) I decided against it. There were a good number of eateries - Dunkin donuts was there and I’m sure my friend, who stayed back, would have been missing Dunkin! Find a Dunkin and he will have his breakfast, lunch and dinner there! There was a Burger King, a chinese restaurant, a japanese one and a few more.

Scenes at the airport

I saw an old lady on a motorized wheelchair - it seems more common to see these motorized vehicles in the US nowadays; the person sitting can operate the wheelchair using buttons without having to strain their hands in moving the vehicle and didn’t need to depend on anyone for mobility. She was moving around the airport looking at options for eating. There was an elderly man, probably her husband, by her side who was also peering at the dishes displayed while discussing with her. Something was touching in that scene when I saw her; I don’t know what struck me - maybe the joy in seeing that her mobility wasn’t curtailed and that many of the places here are accessible to people on wheelchairs; or maybe the joy in seeing her inquisitively looking at each dish and taking a moment to assess them.

Worry worry everywhere!

The next thing my mind jumped to was about how unpredictable things can be in life; there was this person staying in a serviced apartment like us who was charged a fine of $750 because she had damaged the kitchen table top - she kept boiling hot coffee on the table and the thin plywood type material got burnt. But the repair would require complete replacement of the top and that was around $750 - a big chunk when compared to the allowance she would get every month.

And then I wondered whether it is good to save money - we try our best to be miserly in spending, worry about saving and give up some luxuries. And then one fine day whatever you’ve saved gets wiped out suddenly and now you again worry! Yeah you might argue that since the person has money they are able to handle the disaster - but maybe if it was spent elsewhere the disaster might not have occurred itself; life might have gone on a different mode! Oh well, whatever... worries always...

A serial on death

Being alone in the airport and just looking at different people made different things pop up in my mind. Thinking of unpredictability, my mind switched to this tv serial that comes here titled “A 1000 ways to die” which shows how people doing the most trivial things die doing them!

So you had a person who wanted to escape from his family for a
while who got killed by getting ejected into the ceiling when sitting on a used aircraft’s pilot seat. Then there was a person who died because of anger - a lab technician threw a bottle in anger and the fumes from the acid killed her. A guy dies because of a prank that he plays on people who are driving; the prank worked - the driver lost control when blinded by the redirected sun rays and crashed into a street-side water hydrant. So far so good but the metallic water hydrant, in the force of the impact, popped out and hit the prankster killing him! One guy dies while doing a magic show on stage and another while he is walking in the forest. A little whacky but brainy kid gets killed in his quest to make a perfect robot cutter - the cutter ends up cutting the inventor. A couple of people die while trying to steal from a place where there is not even one human around (perhaps the ghosts were watching). Who knows what next.... the topic is saddening you’d think but the way they present it makes you feel a little lighter.

And then you might pause for a moment to think, “What if we weren’t here? What if there was no life in the world? Where would we be? Or would there even be a ‘we’?”

I grabbed a couple of donuts, and found that 2 chocolate donuts and with one having cream was just a bit too much - at one point you feel it is so sweet that you feel like puking! I opened my laptop in Dunkin to send another email to my friend. I initially thought it was Dunkin providing wi-fi but it was actually a free service from the airport. I then read a free local newsletter and settled down on a cushioned chair near an airport screen. I noted down some points for my blog and was trying to kill time till 7:30.

Do your work

I had the typical junk food - everyone around was also having similar junk food. I estimated that i’d take 30 minutes to finish the food and then it would be time to go to the gate for boarding. And near me was a customer who cleaned his table after he finished eating - that’s something i noticed happening more commonly here than back home. Even a person I talked with was saying, “Even though we have someone cleaning the place it’s just that you kind of don’t feel nice with someone having to clean the mess you made. At least with the little things when we are able to do it, why expect someone else to do it.” It’s not that everything here is great - there are things in this culture good and bad; in fact the way things have evolved here, it seems a lot easier for a person to get influenced in the wrong way - look around at the type of clubs you have and you’ll realize. There was a person telling me how during his times his parents were strict and conservative but how much freedom his daughter has in the current age - the Internet has just opened things up. he’d say.

I’ve heard a few of my friends who studied in US talk about the culture shock that many students experience when they come here - it’s like you suddenly get exposed to an open world. And some succumb to the temptations around as well. The Indian way is also changing - you can see a lot of similarities between what is happening in India now to some of the things in the US. And though we keep saying we should take only the good parts of Western culture into ours, it is tough to be selective - you don’t have a filter through which you pass these things.

It's 8pm; time to move...

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Part 7 – Shopping, cooking and crying...

Well, we rewind back to the beginning now – this is a continuation from part 2 (the day we arrived at our apartment) in case you haven’t been following this blog.

  The place seemed perfect; carpet everywhere except the kitchen and bathroom; not too spacious but not small either. A fridge, oven, cooker, some stainless steel vessels, an electric stove with four burners and a grill, iron box and board, dining table, writing table, tv with a few cable channels, internet connection and a couple of sofas. There was a little gift box as well which contained coca cola, some straw shaped jellies and M&Ms chocolate pack (like smarties and gems). It seemed just about perfect. A nice cozy place to stay.

  I didn’t feel that tired from the travel – I think the little nap I had before starting from home really helped. We headed late in the evening to a supermarket that was nearby – Market Basket. We picked some milk, bread, cornflakes, noodles, onion, potato and carrots. This was a pretty large supermarket with plenty of variety. There was one full section (with plenty of shelves) for bread. Similarly there was plenty of choice in cornflakes - with hyper markets cropping up in India we were also slowly starting to see multiple varieties in many items back home, but we still have some way to go. Carrying the bags from the shop was a challenge because we didn’t have any gloves – so within a few seconds our hands would get chill and then we’d have to alternate the bags in our hands while we kept the other hand in our pocket. My friend didn't have a jacket yet and was managing with the extra sweater I had. Even the jacket didn't seem sufficient because the breeze would go through your loose trousers and make you shiver - it's the breeze that makes low temperatures uncomfortable.

Shopping in the US

  We even had a little TV in the bedroom – that kind of felt like a luxury item! It was noodles for the night; just plain with whatever masala packet was there in the cover – we didn’t add anything else; I would have liked to have put ketchup and veggies but my friend wanted it plain. He was a fan of noodles and he wanted to give a Nobel Prize to whoever created noodles.

I slept well; my friend overslept – he had the strawberry jelly and that upset his stomach. There was another person from our office staying in the same apartment complex (the complex was divided into blocks - each block had a set of apartments); we caught up with him in his place and he gave us a big bag of items; that was the surplus indian spices that he had accumulated over the past few months – he was leaving in a week and gave us everything he had; so we had rice, a couple of dals (lentils), some masalas, lot of turmeric packets, mustard seeds and slabs of tamarind. The apartment had a nice system for visitors - right at the entrace to each block, you had a little mail boxes for each apartment along with a button. You push the button and a buzzer rings in the respective home. The tenant could either press a button to open the door to the block or could press a button to talk to the visitor - just to make sure you know who you are opening the door to. Only when the door to the block opens can a vistor come up to the individual apartment.

  He took us in his car in the evening to a wholesale shop called BJs. Only members could buy stuff from here – it was like a supermarket except that everything here was extra large; cornflakes packets were double the usual size; noodles was available in a box of 36 packets; in fact everything was available as boxes – not as single items. Ideal for families - you could save a few dollars. We just picked a cornflakes box and a noodles box – my friend was trying to be a veggie but they didn’t have any veg flavor in noodles. Being the fan he was, he was fine with picking the chicken flavor; a true fan indeed!
We headed to a clothing store where my friend picked up a jacket and we went to another supermarket called Shaw’s where we bought a few more items like eggs and a big packet of onions - yellow onions.

Cooking and Crying!

  I hadn’t done much cooking before except helping mom in the kitchen; moms are great – they don’t let their sons cook; but in the case of a daughter it is different – they’d say, “You have to cook in your in-laws place; when will you learn?” My friend was no better than me – he could cook noodles! I spent some time figuring out how to use the electric cooker – was the water quantity any different? Apprently not – 1 cup of rice and 2 cups of water. A simple switch to flick it to the “cook” mode. No whistles like our usual pressure cooker we use at home. That was the rice. Since we forgot to buy salt, I borrowed some from our colleague’s home.

  I thought I'd try my hand at cooking something simple. I peeled the carrots (they had even kept a peeler in the drawer – seemed like they had thought of everything!) and then chopped half an onion. I had hardly cut a couple of slices when I started to cry – the onion was pretty strong here. I continued chopping and then headed to the bathroom to pass some cool water on my eyes and take a break! Electric stoves were a little different from the gas stoves. When unsure of something, Google it – I checked online for what people said about electric stoves; “it takes time to heat, but once it does then it stays. Even if you lower the knob the heat won’t go down immediately because the heat lingers on the metal rings of the burner.” Another thing was that all the vessels we had were flat bottom – not curved ones. I placed a vessel and turned the knob. Then went the oil, waited for a while and put the mustard seeds and a few lentils. I struggled to get the lentils brown in the flat-bottomed vessel (browning it is something that should be done before the onions go in). The onions went next, then the carrots and then the lid to cover it. I kept checking frequently – I’d stir it a little and for fear that it might not get cooked properly I added a little water; maybe I should have put more oil to start with. Everytime I lifted the lid I’d pick a carrot piece and try to cut it to see if it was cooked - it should become soft. I finally dumped some masala and turmeric on it along with salt. I’m used to having very little salt at home and I put just a pinch of it. My first dish was ready! My friend would surely find it short on salt but that’s okay – carrots had a natural taste!

  So we had rice, buttermilk made using American yogurt and carrots – curd rice was after all was one of my favourite dishes; not bad for a start.