Hello.. Anybody there?

I can’t believe it’s been more than a year and a half since I came in here to write. What I’ve been up to all these days – pretty much the usual and I really did think I had given up blogging for good, but then, some folks persisted.

A few days ago, I exchanged some emails after quite some time with a friend from my past, and even though we hadn’t been talking or emailing for a while, he had been checking my blog for updates. When I told him that perhaps all the incessant talking for about 30 years had left me with little more to say, he insisted I try again, and even followed up with another email a couple of days later saying

Hellllloooooooo… I’m checking daily and yet to the see the blog. Is it taking so long to write one?

So, to my friend and his persistence and to others like him who may (I hope) still  be checking in every now and then, I think I owe another attempt.

So, to start off I must write about our weekend trip to Munising in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. This is our second trip there, and I think I like the place even more. It is probably one of the few places in the country (at least the ones I have been to) that are devoid of McDonalds. Small little town, by Lake Superior offers much in terms of beauty and time-pass. Here are some pictures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The beautiful scenery aside, I made a few observations while on the trip.

I realized that I am slowly beginning to like vacationing the American way. I prefer the smaller, un-crowded, less touristy towns that are calm and beautiful. That said, I haven’t reached the point of taking a vacation, just so I can read a book – I think that’s probably never going to happen and yes I would definitely prefer a Taco Bell in the vicinity.

The Munising area is popular for it’s many beautiful waterfalls. I couldn’t help imagine that if it was in India, people would not only make a beeline to visit, they would also make sure they showed up in colorful lungis and with their lifebuoy soaps. I don’t know what it is with guys under waterfalls – they bathe like they haven’t had a chance to bathe all their life. Here in the US, I’ve never seen people show any interest in bathing under waterfalls or may be I am looking in the wrong place. Let’s face it, water up in Michigan rarely gets warm enough for that.

On this trip unlike our previous one, we ventured into some of the local restaurants hunting for vegetarian food and were pleasantly surprised to find some options. When my husband commented how devoid of desis Munising was, I suggested that we’d know for sure only if we looked at Pizza hut. So, sure enough the next day at Pizza hut, 6 out of 8 tables were occupied by desis working on their pizzas. I guess it takes a couple of trips to venture beyond the familiar spots.

For the first time, we saw a July 4th parade. Apparently it is quite common for the different floats to throw out candy and for kids to pick it up. I have to admit as fun as it seemed to my 5 year old, I was a bit concerned about picking up (porikifying) candy off the road, but I was still egging my daughter to be competitive and collect as much candy as she could. I know – two very Indian traits at odds with each other. I am yet to decide if I should hide away the candy and pretend it disappeared. 😐

Then, I ate a vegetarian pasty. For those of you who don’t know what that is, its a U.P. speciality. Basically, its a saltless, spice-less samosa filling inside what tastes like pie crust dough. It could have been awesome, if it had some salt, chilli powder and garam masala thrown into it.

In all, it was an awesome vacation. Something that got us to unwind completely, enjoy the sights and provide ample fun for my daughter.  Hope you all are making the most of the lovely summer weather.

Advertisements

India trip

Happy New Year everybody! I promise to improve the quality and quantity of posts that I make this year.

Last year ended with a visit back home to India, where needless to say I had a ton of fun, did loads of shopping and ate an unimaginable quantity of yummy food thus adding to my already heavy weight.

If I started writing about all the stuff I did, I could go on and on and so to spare everyone the misery of a mile-long post, I will aim to make is short and sweet thus:

  • Visited Bangalore, Chennai and Ahmedabad (first time).
  • Took a few minutes to get accustomed to the number of people who looked like me once I got off at the Bengaluru international airport.
  • Weather was just perfect!
  • Traffic in Bangalore was horrible horrible and more horrible!
  • Cornered several times by my non-existent Kannada skills.
  • Enjoyed pre-wedding get-togethers with my cousins and wedding celebrations of my cousin to the maximum possible extent.
  • Loved mehendi, pattu podavais, malli poo and dressing up my daughter for all three sessions.
  • Watched (and almost relished, I dare say) my husband get a typical madras bashai dose from a taxi driver as he tried his hand driving in nungambakkam after 4 years.
  • My daughter loved the attention from the thathas, patis, kollu thatha-patis and innumerable uncles, aunts and cousins.
  • Suprised that I enjoyed my Saravana stores shopping experience – I had a personal shopper and all that. Apparently there is a group of folks there who watch out for NRIs and the like and assign shopping assistants. Wondered how they identified me as an NRI when I was in a salwar and had malli poo in my hair. May be too much English to a 3 year old.
  • Scared by the utter lack of time to enjoy life by my IT counterparts in India.
  • Bought a small baby oil bottle, one mysore sandal soap and a bottle of shringar “chaandhu” at a Naadar kadai for Rs.97 and felt stupid for pulling out Rs.50 note.
  • Celebrated a very traditional Karthikai at my in-laws in Madisar and everything. Ate a lot of kadalai urundais – don’t really care for the pori urundais.
  • Went bonkers shopping for handicrafts in Ahmedabad.
  • Ahmedabad is a nice city – no crowds, bearable traffic and easy parking.
  • Shamelessly bought a lovely hand-embroidered diwan set for Rs. 500, then bought cushions, and now hunting for a diwan on the Ikea website. All “thalai keezhai”.. ya I know.
  • Provided daily menus (not healthy ones, only tasty ones) and made my mother dish out everything I wanted to eat, thus adding several pounds 😦
  • Changed an unbearable number of yucky diapers because my daughter got a Rotavirus infection.
  • Found a new hobby – playdough!
  • Made sure I packed all 4 bags to the maximum possible extent and now struggling with trying to find a place for everything I bought.
  • Bid reluctant bye-byes to everyone back home.
  • Successfully answered the question – “I see a lot of H1Bs adjusting their status to Green card. Why do you think they do that?” asked by the immigration officer by saying “Everyone has their own reasons!”
  • Happy to be back home and still have a job!
  • Damn it’s cold!

Here are a few pics..

Update:

And how did I forget this??  I spoke to Maami quite a few times and felt like I had known her all my life!

Penny wise pound foolish

I have been waiting for quite some time now to blog about this, but I didn’t want to jinx myself by saying something before I had my passport back in my safe hands.

Some of you might have read before (over here) about how much of a pain it was to get my tickets booked to go to India. Obviously I did not know at that time, what the “real” definition of travel-pain was. Happy to have gotten a good deal on my tickets to Bangalore from Chicago for $1100 on British Airways via London, I whiled away some time before I started working on putting together my papers for the U.K. transit visa.

So the British consulate has this esteemed opinion, that if you are an American citizen or permanent resident, or a person on a valid American visa, you can be considered safe to roam the waiting areas of Heathrow airport. However if you are one of those sorry souls, who lurk in between those two statuses, and are on your way from becoming a visa holder to a permanent resident, then somehow you are automatically not considered allowable on airport premises unless you hold this farce that is called a transit visa.

I started with googling (wow, that’s not a word yet?) the local British consulate, to see what I needed to do. After linking me to another site and another and another, I got to the site where I could start filling out my 8 page application. That used to be the first step, before getting an appointment with the UK consulate in Chicago. So, I started filling it up on weekday morning while at work. Then, it started asking me questions I had no answer for. So, I gave up, saved it and went back to work. Once my husband got me the answers to those questions, I went back to finish it. Of course, I didn’t finish it because, then they started asking me for my entire history, my families’ history, geography etc etc. So I gave up again and decided this was not something I could finish during lunch. So, I finally waited until the end of the day before I could complete answering all the questions they had for me and I clicked ‘Next’. So, it asked me to get an appointment, and gave me the option of picking a place that was much closer to home, not to get my visa, but to get my biometrics taken. Not knowing what to do, I picked the option. The next screen asked me if I wanted to mail my documents or take them over to the Chicago British consulate. Again, because that’s what we used to do, I chose the second option, and then that’s it, it gave me the links to download the application, the appointment letter for the biometrics and then said I should mail my documents to the British consulate general in Chicago. I was totally confused. So, I looked up the phone number for the British consulate in Chicago and called them. The message for those who are looking for information on visas was “go to the website”. After scanning the website from top to bottom, I found that the only number one could call to get any information was a 1-900 number that apparently went to the UK, and was charged at $3 a minute. My dear friend Fa, who was also in the same predicament as me, and who could no longer take this uncertainty, decided to make a trip to the British consulate where she was stopped by security who she confused into putting her on the phone with another guy inside the consulate. She was then told, that we needed to get our biometrics taken if the website asked us to, and drop off the application and the original passport, EAD, advance parole, photograph and itinerary at the drop-box outside the consulate. They would then process it in about 5 to 10 working days and send us an email once it was ready. We could then come back to pick it up. All originals! What were they thinking? No option now, because it was too late to cancel tickets and re-route. So we had to go through the torture.

I telecommuted one day and got my fingerprints taken. I wasted another half day driving to Chicago and dropping off my papers (they only accept them between 9 and 10 in the morning). After about 6 days, I got an email that said my visa was approved and my papers were ready to picked up any weekday between 3 and 4 p.m. Last Friday, my husband wasted 2 and half hours on I-90 trying to get into Chicago, while the clock ticked past 4 and took a U-turn back home. Yesterday, I wasted half a day taking a train to Chicago and picking up my papers. In all, I’ve lost about a day’s worth of billing at work, 86$ for the visa, and another 50 something on travel expenses etc. That money would have spared me the pain and torture of the process had I spent it on a more comfortable ticket on some other airline.

I’ve absolutely been “penny wise pound foolish” like the British say!

Payanigal Gavanathukku..

Warning : Major rant ahead!!!

My daughter says.. “Go to Indeeya.. in Big Airplane.. in Big Helicopter”. Wish it were that easy!

I am finally at a point where I can plan a trip to India after one and a half years. It felt like eternity before I got here (to the planning stage I mean), but it seems like eternity twice over before I can get an air ticket.

So, I tried to buy a ticket. Agreed I have a bunch of restrictions and conditions. I want the cheapest fare possible, I want a convenient itinerary, I need to be able to cancel or reschedule if I don’t get my travel document in time, I don’t want to fly through Heathrow because they need me to get a visa so that I can stand in their never-ending unapologetic security lines plus I want to travel during the busiest holiday season of the year. So I called this travel agent guy S, who seems to be the only one all my acquaintances know about. S who spoke sweetly and was quite helpful one and half years ago, was least interested in getting us a ticket. It seems that he has more than enough regular customers whom he needs to keep happy. Obviously I cannot travel to India 4 times a year, just so the travel agent returns my calls. So after calling him half a dozen times trying to get quotes and never receiving any information, I gave up on him. Then, I found this other guy P who is the only other guy in my extended circle of acquaintances who can get me a cheap ticket to India. I called him and he gave me decent rates if I travelled Air India (which I admit I have something against) or British Airways (which I want to avoid because of Heathrow). I asked him again and again if he could get me tickets via Jet Airways which I’ve heard is very comfortable, plus it goes through Brussels which is an unknown pain and is hence much better.  But he insisted that it was not convenient and that there was no such itinerary possible. I found it for him on Orbitz.com and Expedia.com and told him, that it is possible to get those tickets, but he relented. So I gave up on him (or so I thought) and moved on to the third guy who was recommended by my Telugu friend (my husband always commends their choice because they have a huge network and are capable of fishing for good deals on anything). This guy was friendly and prompt and was prepared to find the Jet Airways itinerary, but I found that it was not as cheap as I would have liked. So back I went to the second guy P, and asked him to get me tickets for British Airways (the inconvenience at Heathrow is not worth $900). After repeated phone calls he finally told me that the excellent deal he offered was no longer available, and if I stay one day lesser in India, he could get me a better deal. So again, since a day in India is not worth $400, I decided to change my schedule to suit my fare. He then told me, he cannot book my tickets because “some” other agent had already booked in my name!! What the hell!! How can somebody book tickets when all I’ve done is shopped for rates? “No, Ma’am they will usually do that”, he said. So, the only way he can book my tickets is if the other guy stays a nice guy and says “It’s ok if you don’t buy tickets from me, I will be so nice as to cancel your booking so that you can buy them from some other agent”, which obviously is not going to happen. But since I have no option, I call him and beseech him to please cancel all bookings in my name, which he instantly agrees to and pretty much hangs up on me. Two days after that, I spent making calls to the two agents – trying to see if the agent who was to book my tickets had been able to do it yet or not, and the other agent to confirm if he had indeed cancelled the booking he claimed to have cancelled.

Having finally gotten through all that, I find :

Final cost of my British Airways ticket

+ Expected cost of UK visa

–  Cost of my Jet Airways tickets

————————–

= $100 approx.

————————–

But enough is enough, I do not have the emotional strength or minutes on my cell phone to talk to any more agents or haggle with them. So I will fly British airways, endure Heathrow and hopefully have a short but enjoyable stay in India, provided USCIS woud be so nice as to send me my advance parole in under 5 months. Phew!!

Sorry about the rant…. but no option..  I had to get it out of my system!

Castles in the sand

The last long weekend for this season is coming to a close. While we didn’t entirely use it, we didn’t entirely waste it either. We thought about travelling to Traverse City, MI, but were told that it had sand dunes and some adventurous sports, and if we were not going to be doing any of the adventurous stuff, it was probably not worth the trouble. So, we ditched the plan at the last minute and decided to make a half-day or one-day trip to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. We were informed that the crowd there would be less than the crowd at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore 25 miles south.  So we had a heavy brunch and left for Michigan. Two hours later, we reached the place, and were shocked to find that it was full of people. Every inch on the water front seemed to be occupied.  We slowly made our way to the water and found a spot that hadn’t been taken yet.

Since the last trip to Saulte Ste Marie, my husband and I have been very disappointed that my daughter shuns both water and sand like the plague. We had to carry her the entire time we were at the beach. This time, we hoped for a better reaction, but unfortunately, it was just as bad. She didn’t want to touch the sand or the water. She was ok with us fetching water from the lake and pouring it on her feet though. We also bought her beach toys which we thought she might be interested in, but little did we know that she would call sand ‘yuckie’ and three of us adults would derive great pleasure out of playing with sand. So, while my bil V tried to get my daughter to touch the water, V, my husband and myself started playing with it.  We made a sand castle – it was great fun. V and I realized we had missed doing this as a child. The first one we started building was destroyed within a few minutes by waves from the lake. So we decided to start fresh on a much grander scale a few feet inland. Just as were completing, the waves threatned to get near this one too. V immediately built a dam, and in a great hurry we finished our fort and clicked pictures. After playing the water for a little while longer, I wrote at the fort – “Fort Pagalvatthi – 2008” (Pagalvatthi is my husband’s family name) and packed our bags to leave.

After the fun day at the beach, we reached home around 11 and crashed. All that was fine, until the next morning on I felt under the weather a bit and haven’t yet fully recovered. That would explain the how the rest of the weekend went. Tomorrow is Avani Avittam for us – I doubt I can make idli and appams or some sweet even. Let’s see.

Hope all you other folks in the US enjoyed your long weekend.

Less tourists more fun!

Since, it has been decided that of late I’ve been capable of writing only about going to India, going to other places or about movies that attract painfully long comments, it’s now time to write about the latest vacation I had. Yeah, yeah… all you folks in India are saying not again! But you see, we hard working desis in the land of america, are not lucky enough to get unexpected bandh holidays, or unknown and uncelebrated festival holidays. We get one long weekend per season, and since we do not have to catch a kovai express or a dadar express back home, we usually fill up our gas tanks with a sigh and go in search of some waterbody that has a semblance of a beach.

This time, we went to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It is a quiet place in the upper peninsula (UP) of Michigan on the border with Canada. Even though upper michigan, more specifically Mackinac Island is a place well frequented by desis, this part of UP is probably not as well known or well visited by tourists. Saulte Ste. Marie’s claim to fame is the Soo Locks. Ships of all sizes that travelled from Lake Superior to the lower great lakes had to unload all their goods at Sault Ste. Marie. They were then transported around and loaded into other ships on the other side, until they decided to build the Soo Locks. The Soo Locks then helped ships move across from one side to the other in spite of the 21 ft drop. After a 2 hours boat trip on the Soo Locks, we caught up some sleep and then headed to the local beach at Sherman Park. Sherman park is the town’s only public beach and even though it is not any where in the league of ‘namma Marina beach’, it was a fun place, mainly because it was clean and not crowded. The water here was really shallow, about knee length for about a quarter mile in. So, needless to say we enjoyed ourselves a lot just pushing around each other in the water and wading all the way to a tiny strip of sand some distance in. We also witnessed a beautiful sunset from Sherman park.

Sunset at Sault Ste. Marie
Sunset at Sault Ste. Marie

On our way back from Sault Ste. Marie to Chicago, we decided to take part of the scenic Lake Michigan Circle tour through Wisconsin. We drove along Lake Michigan and had a view of the lake for most of the journey. On the way, we stopped at the sight of a beautiful beach and lighthouse at Manistique, MI. If at Sault Ste. Marie, we had not bothered to take pictures, because we were too busy getting wet in the beach, this place was waiting to be photographed. It was such a peaceful and calm feeling, just looking at the vast expanse of water, the lone red lighthouse and the waves crashing on the rocks.

Manistique Lighthouse
Manistique Lighthouse

In all it was an ideal vacation. We had a good drive, enjoyed the journey, just did what we felt like without having to stand for hours in queues, enjoyed good old nature and came back happy to be home. Definitely makes me believe, that we should look for places like this rather than rushing to the usual NYC or Niagara falls.

A trip to India – almost!

We were in India for the weekend – well almost! We were in Niagara falls for memorial day weekend, and I had to see it to believe it – there were more desis there, than all of Pallagoundapalayam put together. One friend had told us, that on memorial day weekend, there would be so many desis that it would be difficult to find a good patch of grass that was not already covered by a jamakaalam and desis sitting on it. A combination of telugus, tamilians, maharashtrians, hindi speaking and IndiEnglish speaking crowd, some of whom were the typical TCS, Infy, CTS, Covansys groups talking in typical ‘Yes ya No ya’ lingo. Others were young families with parents from India – typical vaira thoddu maamis and maamas wearing layers of over-sized jackets and shoes and mufflers on a what we would consider a fairly warm day and trying to push along sleeping babies in strollers. Some of those were a bit more adventurous, wrapping up few month olds in blankets and ponchos, standing in line for more than an hour to see the cave of the winds, and then eventually making the trip down with wailing babies in hand.

The falls themselves were totally worth it. Huge volumes of water pouring over cliffs. The American falls, looked a little bit threatening and powerful. The horse shoe falls on the other hand were so graceful in their fall. The maid of the mist and the cave of the winds were both a unique experience. I would love to go there again, just this time, I would try to stay in a hotel with view of the falls.

It made me wonder, what it was that we desis saw that the locals apparently didn’t care for that much. A person at work who is probably in her 50s now, said she visited Niagara once when she was 2 and had no recollection of it. Perhaps, it is the idea that they cannot really camp out there and that Niagara falls cannot really be considered a spot for adventurous white water rafting, or skiing or quiet fishing. But we as an Indian population, really try to visit places that are a pleasure mainly to the eye, not necessarily something that requires physical interaction with nature or any kind of adventure. Perhaps, it is the lack of finding similar such spots (in South India) back home. Perhaps, it is the need for us to find a place that is friendly to people of all ages, us, our parents and our wailing babies, a place where vegetarian food is at least a possibility and the restrooms physically stay in the same place all the time.

It is no wonder then, that I spotted atleast 3 or 4 Indian restaurants within a few blocks (though they served shoddy food for the price, and were way too overcrowded).

All in all, I would have to say I had an enjoyable road trip (my first one in this country), and a memorable experience at the falls. Those of you, who haven’t yet been there, be sure to make a trip to this desi hot spot of America.

Now.. enjoy some pictures..