Leaving America

August 1, 2012.

I arrived in the United States, wide-eyed and eager.

I entered a world of Fahrenheit’s, soft R’s, MM/DD formats, way too many choices in grocery stores, pounds, miles, gallons, miles per gallon (one of the first things the Indian in me did when I got my car was do a mileage conversion to km/l – 14, thank you very much), and toilet paper.

I hoped to learn new things and meet new people. I hoped to experience a new culture and make new friends. I hoped to get a good job and make money. I hoped to get a visa and settle down.

I’ve done most of those things.

It’s a known fact that the immigration system in the country is screwed up. To place the lives of thousands of potential immigrants who have not only studied here but have also worked and contributed as tax-paying members of society in the hands of a lottery with a grand prize of a work authorization visa, the chances of which are only marginally better than those of one actually winning a million dollar jackpot, is maddening.

I used to argue that the lottery system for picking H1B visas was probably the fairest, because a random number generator would be most unbiased in its selection of hopefuls to give them a chance in making a mark here.

What I said is probably true in terms of bias. The lottery system isn’t fair, however. It places the folks who’ve devoted years to study here in the same basket as those coming from other countries courtesy their companies that apply for visas in the tens of thousands, in effect gaming the system.

It doesn’t make sense. And it’s in need of a major overhaul.

Unfortunately though, that will have to be done without my lawful presence in the country.

July 4, 2017.

Independence Day in the United States.

It also happens to be exactly 3 years to the day that I came to Houston to work with my company. A happy coincidence.

It’s been a good five years in the country. But to quote Robert Plant in Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, “I’ve got to ramble.”

Tomorrow, I leave behind home, family, friends, and familiarity.

Tomorrow, I go back to home, family, friends, and familiarity.

It’s going to be scary. It’s going to be exciting.

It’s going to be worth it.

Goodbye for now, America.

Hello again, India.

Amster-damn

Disclaimer: This is a long account from the mind of a man with rambling thoughts who does not have an editor to clip things, so please bear with him.

Dag 1:

We enter Amsterdam grabbing frites (as is tradition) and having no cellular data, making us go old school and rely on maps and directions from people.

Amsterdam is one of the most interesting cities I have ever been to, if not the most interesting. It is the rock and roll capital of the world, without the rock and roll. There is ample sex to be had and ample drugs to partake in. The atmosphere is crisp, the canals are lovely, the buildings are old, the people are friendly. It is tailor made for tourism.

We arrive at our hotel a bit earlier than check-in time and drop off our bags without seeing the room. I happen to overhear the following exchange involving the desk clerk and a fellow guest:

Guest: “Do we get beer here?”

Desk clerk: “Of course you get beer here. This is Holland.”

The mood is set.

Upon checking in, we immediately head to the famed (notorious?) Red Light District, as is wont, where it is rumored that the prostitutes parading their wares in front of open windows throw urine at you if you happened to click a photograph of them parading their wares in front of open windows. I fortunately did not have the gumption to try this out so did not get to experience this.

We end the day with some good beer at a bar, more frites, jenever (a precursor to gin native to the Netherlands) tasting at the oldest liquor distillery in Amsterdam, and an amazing Sichuan meal close to the central public transport station aptly named Centraal. Shit was on fire, yo (words that will be repeated tomorrow morning I am sure).

Nacht 1:

An interesting development.

The bathroom in our hotel room does not have a door. Apparently this is common in Europe. This is hilarious.

Dag 2:

Survived the lack of a door to the bathroom! And as predicted, words that were said the previous night were repeated.

It’s December 31 already. Last day of the year. Damn how time has flown.

We decide to check out the Van Gogh Museum in the morning. The public transport of the city impresses us a great deal, as we realize that all we have to do is to take a tram which is literally a few hundred steps outside of our hotel to all the places which we want to visit during this trip.

The Van Gogh Museum is home to a fantastic collection of art by the painter, his inspirations and the people he inspired. It is located in the absolutely lovely Museum District of Amsterdam, along with a few other museums, the Rijksmuseum being the most popular among the lot. The line to enter the museum is a mile long and we wait it out to get tickets.

There is a specific neurological disorder known as Stendahl Syndrome, which says that if one were to be assaulted (I use this word lightly) by several beautiful works of art all at once, one experiences an intense physical reaction to what s/he has witnessed. This is absolutely true of the Van Gogh Museum. As I walk through the four floors I am accosted (this may be a better word) with so many intense pieces, which, coupled with the extremely sad story of Van Gogh’s life, leaves me speechless. Funnily enough there is an actual exhibit related specifically to the Stendahl Syndrome on one of the floors of the museum, where an artist has cleverly put up isolation booths which you can enter and take a moment to compose yourself before moving on to see the rest. The cherry on the ice cream that was this museum is their current special exhibit: a retrospective on both Edvard Munch and Van Gogh, both artists from the same period with vastly different artistic styles yet having a common thread of themes and subjects. Munch lived much longer than Van Gogh and so got to experience the recognition that Van Gogh so eagerly sought but which was awarded to him only posthumously. Better late than never, I guess.

Having spent a good part of four hours in the museum and also having bought a magnet at the gift shop, which is a tradition of sorts for me, we meet a friend and head back to our hotel to prepare for a night of unparalleled revelry.

Nacht 2:

7.30pm: Damn this public transport system. Who shuts off all transport from 8pm to 1.30am on New Years?!

8.15pm: No matter. We decide to work around this unexpected development and walk to a restaurant and bar close to the hotel.

8.30pm: They are closed. Who closes bars on New Years?!

9.15pm: Okay, the night is still young. We brave the surge pricing and take an Uber to Centraal, where we know all the revelry will be concentrated. The Uber guy, clearly afraid of going all the way in and getting caught on his way out, drops us off at a place where we think we are close to our destination. Turns out we are not and we walk for about a half hour to get there. 1 star rating.

10pm: We are ravenous at this point and are startled to see that all restaurants in the way, despite being open, are either charging inordinate amounts of money for food or have their kitchens closed. Who closes their kitchens… I could go on. In the midst of all this we lose my brother and sister-in-law to the crowd.

If you imagine our night to be a movie, this is probably the point where the heroes are at their lowest of the low, without any hope in sight. Unparalleled revelry, blah.

10.30pm: Thankfully my brother spots us from afar and catches up with us. We stumble upon a restaurant which serves burgers, which are cheap and pretty damn good. Things are looking up! This is the point of the movie where the heroes begin the process of redeeming themselves. We enter a bar on a street on which revelers are lighting crackers and throwing them into the air for them to burst, reminding us of Diwali back home. We head to the Amstel River nearby, closer to 12.

11.45pm: Fireworks everywhere. Colors everywhere. Quite a stunning spectacle. The climax of this movie is pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. A happy new year, indeed!

12.15am: We need a place to kill time until 1.30 (which is when the night buses start running) so we sneak into an Irish pub before the crowd starts dispersing and quickly grab some seats. You could do an analysis on Irish pub names as well, and you will find that ” Malone” is a name that would probably come up most often.

1.30am: Whoever decided to allow only a handful of buses at half hour intervals to take the party goers home is a massive troll. Finding it impossible to get a bus which isn’t packed like a can of sardines, we decide to yet again brave surge pricing and call for an Uber.

1.45am: A man drives up to us out of nowhere and says he will drop us at our hotel for 15 euros. Ecstatic and thanking our good fortune, but slightly wary of any serial killer tendencies, we jump in. He does not turn out to be a serial killer and we get to the hotel, 20 euros poorer but tired out of our minds and happy to get back in one piece.

End credits.

Dag 3:

Started the new year right. A fantastic brunch with easily the best omelette I’ve ever eaten, a walking tour of Amsterdam’s history with an extremely funny and personable guide (and it was free!), stumbling upon an excellent bar with great beer, discussions of national identity and language barriers, thulping ramen which is extremely soothing for a cold night, staying up to experience the famed (again, notorious?) coffee houses where the acquisition of the green is as easy as buying a Big Mac, walking through the Red Light District with a more appreciable bent of mind, consequently eating the most delicious fries, waffles and eclairs, and somehow managing to find our way back to the hotel and sleeping with the relaxing beats of good ol’ Thamizh gaanas.

Over the course of the tour, we learnt that prostitution has been around in Amsterdam for several hundreds of years as a means of income for the city courtesy tired sailors who have not seen their WAGs (or indeed, women) for months. It was legalized only in 2000 and today prostitutes get health benefits and pay taxes. Drugs on the other hand is more tricky. Apparently it is legal to sell marijuana over the counter but it is illegal to buy it from dealers, so coffee shops magically source their weed from the underground market and the cops turn a blind eye.

I tell you, if even a quarter of the major cities around the globe were half as tolerant as this one, the world would be a better place.

An amazing day.

Dag 4:

A disastrous day.

Leaving has never been a strong suit of mine. This was especially true today as we had to wait endlessly for transport, having missed trams and trains by a whisker. It feels like an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. We finally make it back to London and crash for the night, having watched a couple of episodes of House.

I wake up the next morning and take the train back from Kings Cross station, feeling like Harry Potter on his way to Hogwarts. I didn’t quite manage to see Platform 9 and three-quarters though, which was a mild disappointment.

It’s been a great trip, filled with new experiences, new surroundings and old friends. I’ve made memories that will last. Until next time.

London Diaries

Day 1:

“Very wet,” says my Uber driver from Nigeria, lamenting about the state of the weather. Succinctly put.

I took an Uber Pool from the airport, not expecting too many others to call for an Uber for me to share this rainy Christmas Day. I was wrong, and I’m glad I was. A Norwegian (?) guy got in the car with his girlfriend, and asked to be dropped close to my destination. This worked out well for me as we ended up taking a route I would not have taken otherwise, allowing us to get a semi-tour of London city. It was fantastic to say the least, I couldn’t avert my eyes off most of the buildings. London is a mix of the ancient and the modern, a juxtaposition of centuries old churches and modern glass-facaded sleek apartment buildings. We passed by the museum district, although I use this term very lightly as apparently there are museums all over the place. I also caught sight of a Banksy art piece, based on Rodin’s The Thinker, very coolly called The Drinker, which I later found out was recently stolen and returned to its position no less than ten days ago, with a few modifications made. Banksy’s original piece was the sculpture with a traffic cone on its head, the modified one after it was returned was the sculpture sitting on a toilet seat, aptly called The Stinker.

My brother and sister-in-law live in a nice apartment close to a quaintly named Delhi Street. I ended up spending most of the afternoon catching up on lost sleep thanks to my flight, something which I was comfortable doing as most of the places were closed on account of the Big Man’s birthday. We spent a good part of the night walking to Trafalgar Square, seeing Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, the London Eye and the Theater District (apparently the real one this time) at Covent Garden on our way there, and discussing (read: silently listening to his rant concerning) immigration and corruption within the U.K. Government with our Indo-South African Uber driver. I realized a couple of things along the way and back:

1) It’s unbelievably easy to get lost within the streets of this city.

2) There are three common tropes to the naming of pubs:

– “The <color> <animal>”

– “The <number> <Scotsmen, Irishmen, Englishmen>”

– “The <name> Arms”

3) There is as much a craze for Minions here as there is in the U.S., and my utter annoyance with them has not diminished irrespective of which side of the pond I’m at.

Day 2:

Was spent walking around town, going to several shopping areas, marveling at the purchasing power the city has on offer, consuming copious amounts of food, moving around in double decker buses (hey, when in London…), visiting Buckingham Palace and wondering what on earth the queen and other members of royalty really do on a regular basis, getting my first authentic British pub experience (no Richmond Arms in Houston, you don’t count) and gasping (in a bad way) about the prices which were also apparently authentically British, visiting a fantastic market area and wolfing down on crepes (hello, Cheeky Monkey), and returning home beat.

Day 3:

Food. Lots and lots of food.

Oh, and The Hateful Eight. Bless those souls who leaked a fine print of the film and saving me some money.

The walkability of this city impresses me (looking at you, Houston).

Day 4:

The lack of trash cans in this city impresses me too. In a negative way.

My fourth day in London was spent checking out what the British Museum has on offer. The museum was established well over two hundred and fifty years ago, a number which astounded me and made me appreciate the level of foresight of the former curators and donors of the several collections on display. I saw, among several other things, the Rosetta Stone, a key piece in the deciphering of hieroglyphs in Egypt, something which I have only ever heard of and had no idea was on display at a museum to be witnessed by all and sundry.

I spent the evening at a pub after which I had the good fortune of seeing an excellent music performance by the London Concertante, a chamber orchestra who performed works by Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Brahms among others, held at a church which was constructed several centuries ago (the exact number escapes me but seeing how several buildings in London are about three-four centuries years old, let’s consider this to be one among those as well). Classical music tends to put me to sleep, if I have to be honest. I don’t find it as appealing as most others, and ended up making comparisons to an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory when the ensemble played The Nutcracker Suite. Rather bourgeois I’m afraid. It was nonetheless an enchanting experience.

I also chanced upon a dormouse scurrying about on my path as I made my way to the theater, which coincidentally brings me to the next day…

Day 5:

The Mousetrap! We wrote ourselves into the history books as we watched performance number 26,310 of Agatha Christie’s acclaimed whodunit in the same theater it was first performed back in 1952. I shall not reveal any details in order to uphold my end of the bargain as a member of the audience.

This was in the evening though. My afternoon was occupied visiting the Tower of London (and the Tower Bridge, right next to it). I was led as part of a tour by a Yeoman Warder, who is a descendant of one of the original guarders of the tower, and who still performs the job carried out by his ancestors thus making him “NOT A UNIFORMED TOUR GUIDE” as he ironically shouted while clad in his uniform at the end of his tour. “My wife left me, she took the dog, the camera and the kids. I do miss that dog…”, he said morosely at one point along the way, making us simultaneously sympathize and laugh at his misfortune.

The Tower of London, contrary to what its singular name might suggest, is composed of a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall marked with several watchtowers along the way and a fortress at the centre, inappropriately named the White Tower. It is a fantastic location initially constructed over a thousand years ago which even by London standards is insane. The amount of history associated with this place is mind boggling. It is gory and magnificent, so much so that I feel like looking up whether Dan Carlin has done an episode of Hardcore History based on it. In its time, it has housed an armory, a barracks, a prison, a torture chamber, areas where public executions took place, quarters for the king, storehouse for the Crown Jewels (and that damn Kohinoor diamond, one of the top two contributors to the name of Indian restaurants abroad, the other being Taj Mahal), and all round badass defense stronghold for the city against attackers. It currently houses a museum, gift shop, restaurant and eight ravens. Despite this (or perhaps because of it?), it is without a doubt one of the coolest structures I have been to.

The Mousetrap was a fitting conclusion to my London sojourn. All that was missing was some tea, scones and a guy saying “Pip pip!”, but I’m not complaining.

It is with a heavy heart that I leave, but it is not too heavy as I travel to Amsterdam tomorrow. Pip pip and cheerio London! You have made a fan out of me. I shall return, if nothing else but to experience your fish and chips.

Or maybe not. That is one of the most fantastically boring dishes I’ve heard of.

Four Weddings and an Engagement

They’re falling like tenpins. Left, right, and center.

It has come to a point where a wedding or an engagement is the only reason I end up going home nowadays.

Not that I’m complaining, it gives me a reason to go back after all. Plus it allows me to write blog posts with epic titles.

Case in point.

Edit: The tags for this post are straight out of Caesar’s mouth in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

“Home… Family… Future….”

Aavani

This past weekend was Aavani Avittam, a yearly tradition in which the poonal is changed to welcome a new year, which I have partaken in ever since I had my Upanayanam 16 years ago. To date, I have no idea what these words mean and I have never had the curiosity to find out – all I know is that they are Sanskrit. It’s come to a point where I go through the motions of changing the poonal only to satisfy my mother’s request. I remember a point in my life where I used to unerringly perform sandhyavandhanam (another word I don’t know the meaning of) on a daily basis, reciting mantrams, following along to the voice of an old vaadhyar from a cassette recorder in the pooja room at home. I recall him having a rather soothing, comforting sort of voice. The feeling the voice evoked is probably similar to how one would feel on listening to MS’s voice as she sang the Suprabhatham, the listening of which was another daily tradition early in the morning at home courtesy my grandfather. During Aavani in those young years my brother and I would recite the Gayatri Jabam 1008 times. This activity would usually fall on a weekday. In retrospect I’m surprised that I loathed school so much that I actually looked forward to performing this menial task for a couple of hours, typically the time it would take to chant 1008 times, just so I would be able to bunk a half day. This was also around the same time when I was fiercely vegetarian, to the point of reprimanding my brother and father for eating chicken (the extent of my family’s adventures with meat).

This past Saturday, I woke up at around 10 and spoke to my parents, and my mother asked if I had changed my poonal. I ended up doing so late in the afternoon, after a perfunctory chant of the Gayatri 108 times (hey, what’s in a zero right?), which happened following an age of dilly-dallying during which I accomplished my regular weekend activities of lazing around in bed, going for a swim, cooking (with onions, uh oh) and what not. Later in the evening I went for a tribute show to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and ended the day with some terrible chicken biryani. Oh how times have changed.

Remember when we were young.. We shone like the sun…

Utah

Douglas Adams, during his travels for the book and radio series Last Chance to See, had this to say about the landscape of New Zealand:

“… (it) is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.”

I shall shamelessly use this same quote and apply it to the stunning vistas that adorn the glorious state of Utah. Or as my mom calls it, “ootah”.

One of the many breathtaking views of Bryce Canyon. There is one viewpoint known as Inspiration Point, however this name could well be applied to several locations here.
One of the many breathtaking views of Bryce Canyon. There is one viewpoint known as Inspiration Point, however this name could well be applied to several locations here.
Zion, on the road. Red gravel was used to pave the roads within the park which gave it an other-worldly experience. Now I know how Curiosity feels when he's traversing through Mars!
Zion, on the road. Red gravel was used to pave the roads within the park which only served to heighten the other-worldly feeling you get when you step into the area. Now I know how Curiosity feels when he’s traversing across Mars!
Hiking through the Virgin River in Zion. Notch one more up on the surreal experiences list.
Hiking through the Virgin River in Zion. Notch one more up on the must-do list.
Quick detour to Page, AZ to have our breaths taken away courtesy the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River.
Quick detour to Page, AZ to marvel at the visual spectacle that is the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River.
Somewhere near Monument Valley, UT - the site where countless Westerns were filmed. Back to black-top roads. Boo normalcy.
Somewhere near Monument Valley, UT – the site where countless Westerns were filmed. Back to black-top roads. Boo normalcy.
Sunset over one of the three massive natural bridge formations at the appropriately named Natural Bridges National Monument.
Sunset over one of the three massive natural bridge formations at the appropriately named Natural Bridges National Monument.
 Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. According to the Visitors Center it is the most famous natural arch formation in the world Formed by wind erosion, it is definitely one of the most recognizable landmarks of the state, having made its way to Utah's license plates, stamps and touristy things such as caps. Rather strenuous hike to reach the place but man was the payoff worth it.
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. According to the Visitors Center it is the most famous natural arch formation in the world. Formed by wind erosion, it is definitely one of the most recognizable landmarks of the state, having made its way to Utah’s license plates, stamps and touristy things such as caps. Rather strenuous hike to reach the place but man was the payoff worth it.

11/10, would visit again.

P.S.: To the group of Canadian ladies who were camped out in Bryce Canyon NP star-gazing underneath a pitch-black moonless night and who so graciously allowed us access of their telescope through which I caught my first glimpse of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn resplendent with its rings, I thank you for giving me one of my most surreal experiences ever. The fact that I could see something millions and millions of miles away yet could not see the faces of people standing a couple of feet in front of me is something I will never forget, and for that, merci beaucoup.

Familiar faces. Familiar places.

This required a fair bit of thought. Clearly, a poet I’m not.

Day 1: Lost bag. Jetlag. Badam cake and bakshanam. Beetroot sambar and “thachi mummam”. Singham Dance. Full trance. Excellent company. Sleep for hours three.
Day 2: Wedding #1. Little girl gave me bun. Spirits under the pretext of sore
throat medicine. Whiskey, not gin. First class on a train for the first time. Unsurprisingly,
still encountered some grime.
Day 3: Home. Thathi, dad and mom. Amma’s Madras eye. Dammit gais. Melbo. Feisty fellow. Fother oda sarakks. Kickass.
Day 4: Crazy driving in Kerala, on way to Cochin. When questioned would receive a “theek hai” and a grin. Barbecue and seafood. Pretty damn good. Pool. Sasi = bloody fool! Of friends and selfie sticks. Way too many clicks.
Day 5: Mullapandhal and kallu. Cheers to being mallu. Several meats. Driving to the tunes of Avicii and Hardwell – good beats.
Day 6: Wedding #2. More family, the full crew! Amazing saapad with Kerala rice.
It’s a para-para-paradise. Coimbatore reception with comedic poses. Only thing
missing was Goundamani romantic looks and roses.
Day 7: Opeth bajji kadai and serendipitous meetings. Coimbatore’s charm lies in
seeing known people on the road and greetings. Race Course. Oru chinna discourse.
Barbecue Nation. “Babu Ganesan”. Chicken, mutton, seafood and beer in front of
amma. Scandalous looks all around, yemma.
Day 8: Morning Annapoorna ghee roast. Afternoon lunch at dost’s. Evening mud soufflé and DVD of Dream Theater. Definitely missed Portnoy, though Mangini is
one mean creature.
Day 9: Melbo kooda walk. The guy is smart – it’s like he could almost talk!
Lunch with family. So much food, insanity. Three quizzes at CQC. Potato
puffs and tea at NMB. Last day in CBE.
Day 10: An evening with maami. Thendral is still happening?! Podhumada saamy! Early morning flight. Back to the grind – sad plight.

IMG_7327
Road. Sky.

Excellent time with friends, family and food. I hope the next turns out to be as good.