“Life has given me a window to relish every moment. It offers not just interesting sights, but opportunities to participate in meaningful ways that excite me. I am a content developer, I write books and edit manuscripts for the publisher, a dancer, a mother of two children and a loving wife, I await, in all humility, for more surprises that life has to offer.” – Meera
The Land of Dreams
Though the US was never my land of dreams, I did dream of going on a visit there one day. Now I wonder what I am missing…
No trip is easy to plan. The one to the US took real long – just under five years! From the time the idea took grain in my mind to the time I could finally bully my husband into getting the visa and then decide on the ideal time – summer or winter – five eventful years. Discussions and debates highlighted June-July as summer trip seemed out of question and winter seemed too cold.
Finally, we settled on visiting only San Diego in California – where my brother lived – because in an enthusiastic spurt of emotional blackmail moment, I forwarded the argument, “He has been inviting us for so long! I am not so keen on the rest of USA.” My husband took me literally, so that when my brother proposed a trip to San Francisco, he was startled. “That’s an eight-hour drive! Do we need to do that?” The description, “San Francisco is considered one of the greatest cities in the world for many things, including five-star dining, a happening theatre scene, and gay and lesbian culture.”, not one reason appealed to him! We did enjoy San Francisco, though not for the reasons mentioned in the website.
The Unrelated Exciting Bits
Cold and cough are familiar sights for parents of young children, especially before a trip. Fates must have felt it was too tame for a trip that took so long to materialise and so, blessed us with a hairline fracture – my daughter, who had been cycling for several years without a single fall – slipped and broke her wrist. It was minor, but involved a cast.
Just as I thought we were done with our quota of disasters, my son developed infection in the eye! And to cap it, I slipped down the stairs. But that is the advantage of being well padded – the fall hurt but caused no damage.
This was not all. There was more excitement awaiting us – our luggage followed us four days later! And guess what, when we returned to India, our luggage took two extra days to travel the same distance! Must have been really heavy!
It’s Cold, It’s Hot
“Short sleeves should work,” my brother had assured me when I asked him about the weather there. The weather reports were saying a different story. The Mercury was touching 8 deg C, and that, to me, was cold. But assured by my brother’s confidence, I assumed temperatures worked differently abroad. Maybe some latitude thingy!
The day after reaching San Diego, we ventured out on the cloudy, windy day, for some grocery purchase. The heater in the car did not prepare us for the chilliness outside. Used to hot, hotter, hottest weather of Chennai, we had to grit our teeth to stop it from chattering. My cotton salwar was no match for the wintery morning. As I pulled my jacket tightly around me, I watched amazed as many locals entered the store in just t-shirt and shorts. The real test came when we neared the cold storage. Like a cat looking for a warm spot, I scuttled out of the way and watched a man come out in cotton trousers and t-shirt looking absolutely unfazed.
Imagine how I felt when I met people from further north who complained that San Diego was warm!!!
And then, on the other end of the spectrum was my father-in-law. On our return, when I went to visit him, I was startled to see him take out a sweater and a cap to protect him against the chilly evening of 23 deg C when he returned from a concert in Chennai!
There are no absolute truths, and there is no absolute cold. You are as cold as you feel! And my children, on entering our house from the airport, put it in a nutshell as they chorused: “We are used to the US now. Switch the A/C on, I am feeling hot!”
…erratic traffic! The long drives were so unadventurous that passengers can actually fall asleep without being disturbed by sudden brakes and abusive honking;
people actually stop at not just red, but even when it says ‘Stop and Go’;
you cannot pile into cars depending on how many can squeeze in! One person per seat, and each one to be belted. If you have more members than car seats, then get another car;
‘What a lovely sunset! Pull up to the side!’ No amount of beautiful scenery is an excuse to stop the car midway! Not unless there is a shoulder to park the car in! And mind which side you get down from;
effective utilization of the road, with every inch covered with vehicles. So much road space is wasted in the US because people actually leave 4 something (not inches, dumbo!) space between two cars. There is no bumper to bumper romance on US streets!
But a beautiful episode was a mini conversation that happened between two cars. A car on the right lane wanted to cut in left in front of us. The car’s left indicator was on. My brother flicked the lights and slowed, apparently it was a sign that the car could enter the lane. The car did and then its brake lights blinked once to say ‘Thank you!’ That scene is unforgettable for its cuteness and maturity on the road!
I can’t help contrasting this to a recent episode when I slowed to allow a cycle that cut across my lane unexpectedly in Chennai (what is unexpected, you ask?). The car behind me overtook me from the left and the driver gestured angrily – maybe because he saw a woman driver? What would he have me do – kill the cyclist to prove a point?
The landscape on freeways was breath-taking! Hills, dunes, farms, orchards, lakes stretched into nothingness. The silence around despite the high-speed traffic would make one feel alone amidst crowds.
The Season’s Navaratri
Though a private festival, where family gathers together to celebrate Christmas, it was lovely to see the elaborate decorations on the lawns of homes in several streets. From Santa on the reindeer to flying down the plane, to characters from different cartoons adorning the lawns, the themes varied and brought a sparkle. There was one house which had even programmed the lights to a music channel and the lights danced in sync.
People came in carloads to visit these streets where sometimes goodies like popcorn and other eateries were also on sale!
But, that sight was rare. More often, people just street hopped to see the lights. The houses behind remained shut and uninviting. Having experienced the Ram Leela of Delhi, Durga Puja of Kolkatta and Navaratri Kolu of Chennai, lights seemed to miss the spark. The noise that comes with such festivities, so common in India (even on non-festive days) would have added spark.
But then, considering the houses are all made of wood, maybe they don’t want the spark!
The Usual and the Unusual
Our sight-seeing officially kicked off with Legoland in San Diego. It is amazing what all is possible with those little building blocks and I wondered why I had never tried it with my kids. Maybe because I never bought them any!
But to replicate monuments using the blocks, even entire cities, have running miniature ambulance, parades and tramcars… now that’s something worth seeing. There were many sights for different age groups. But it is said that travel cannot take away who you are, and my back decided to prove this adage right. A catch in the back made walking around the Legoland difficult and we had to return without seeing all its wonders.
San Francisco was a highlight because I reconnected with two friends, one after almost 30 years! Fourteen of us teeming in Golden Gate, taking photo at every pillar and post! Naturally, there were some sights we had to miss…
The Golden Gate – neither a gate nor golden in colour – was awe inspiring with its high towers and the sea deep below. Ship, steamers, yatch in the blue sea under the blue sky kept us fascinated for a while when we suddenly spotted a lone otter, making the children shout out in glee. Cyclists went up and down, vying for space with the pedestrians. I seriously wondered if Alistair McLean would have thought of his novel, ‘The Golden Gate’, in the current century seeing how crowded it was!
We went up the hill nearby to get a view of the Pacific ocean on the one hand and the bay on the other, another breath-taking moment as the sun sparkled silver in the Pacific Ocean, visible between cliffs. My friend suggested we use the nearby hill as a backdrop for a photography session. My children fumbled at the foot and ventured just a little up; but my friend’s daughters, used to rock climbing, were suddenly beyond reach.
Just as we finished taking pictures, a police van pulled up and a policeman came to inspect the scene. To my utter dismay, the two adventurous kids were having difficulty climbing down at a speed suiting my discomfiture and the growling stomachs of our little party, not to mention the policeman who was itching to ‘rescue’ the two girls. Did that man smell trouble or was he just passing by! Such prompt presence of the police in alien country made me nervous and I was glad when my brother took matters – in this case, the girls – in his hands.
After a ‘country bumpkin’ moment when my husband and I read the Thai menu card dazed and ate the dishes with relish, we proceeded to enjoy the steep streets of San Francisco. Was I glad I was not the driver! I am sure my legs would have had trouble manoeuvring the accelerator and brake pedals in such a street!
The Crooked Street was beyond imagination. A small stretch where the entire street zig zags from top to bottom was a tourist’s delight and I am sure a driver’s nightmare! Even in India, we do zig zag when driving on level ground, not on a slope!
Mystery Spot was an exciting departure from traditional sight-seeing spots. Apart from the mystery of why 90 percent of the visitors there are Indians, the place itself did not seem to have much to offer when we reached the place. A hillside with tall trees – interesting, I thought generously, completely unprepared for the ‘change in perspective’.
The guide was suddenly standing at an angle without any effort. We were amused till she pointed out how all of us were tilted in that angle to balance the centre of gravity. Uphill was downhill – a ball clearly rolled uphill smoothly – and short became tall at unexpected places! Good for making the short people feel good about themselves – another case of relative truth? Next time someone mocks you about your height, or the lack thereof, take them to Mystery Spot. For some mysterious reason, what you see is not what you get!
I wish there were some place where fat looks thin and, more importantly, thin looks fat at the same time! I could do with feeling thin for sure!
Wikipedia, our Internet gyan guru, has to say this about the spot: “The operators of the small optical illusion site (which is about 150 feet in diameter) claim at that location the laws of physics and gravity do not apply and provide a number of illusions in support of these claims, where water seems to flow upwards, people seem to be standing in slanted positions etc.”
Did you understand that? No? Welcome to the club and make a personal trip to experience it.
Our next destination was 17 mile drive – I think that’s what it was called and we drove 40 miles to reach 17 miles drive. It was a long coastal stretch, but just as we reached the 17 mile drive point – which we were going to in a hurry so that we could catch the sunset in the ocean – wound up a hill!
The beach was just a mile long here probably, but the sunset made it worthwhile. Seagulls swimming over the waves, nesting in the rocks near the coastline, the setting sun, the clouds hanging low – it was worth watching despite the bone-chilling cold.
‘World’s Best Chocolates’ declared Ghiradeli Square. Am I not part of the world? I had never heard of these chocolates! But the dark chocolate seems quite a favourite among those who have travelled to the US, and the others don’t admit to not knowing about it before.
Ah, but if an all-American – and only American – sport baseball can have world cup, why can’t any chocolate call itself world’s best! On that note, I even saw the hand driers in toilets – rest rooms, if you will – being called World Dryers! Maybe that is the brand name, but that is definitely world’s ecologically scariest message!
Of course, I would willingly give the title ‘World’s Best’ to Disneyland, which was our next stop. One day isn’t enough, but the memories of the few things we did that day – meeting Mickey, Pied Piper Ride, Christmas Parade, Buzzlight ride – they will remain with us forever.
San Diego zoo was nice, but my vote is for Chennai’s Vandalur zoo and even Mysore zoo as the world’s best. There were a few unique attractions – the panda, which we didn’t see because there was a queue; and the polar bear, which we didn’t see because we realised that we were going in the opposite direction and it was getting dark. My eight-year-old, who had taken on the mantle of navigator and saw the map more than the animals, assured us that it had been his plan to take us through the longer route!
The Wildlife Safari is the other attraction in San Diego and the day passed by easily watching animals in a more natural habitat. We decided to give the Seaworld the miss because suddenly our days seemed very tightly packed and our body craved some rest.
But it was not as if we really rested. The Pacific ocean has so many attractions and each demands more than a few minutes of communing with the majestic water body. Pacific bay near downtown was a treat to the eyes during the day and at night as the lights sparkled in the distance. Then there was La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya!) cove that houses hundreds of seals barking and lazing on a rocky beach and cars packed to catch a glimpse.
We almost did not go to Mount Soledad because we had a dinner to attend. But oh, what a mistake that would have been! The mountain rises above the marine cloud that makes you think you are in heaven and can walk on clouds! We were there in time to watch the sun set. Like a fool, I was not prepared for the cold despite the 15 days we had spent there because I thought we would be home before evening. But though the windy evening made us shiver, we returned to level ground unwillingly. I have walked through clouds in Munnar hills, Kerala, but I think I will never get over the childhood excitement of seeing clouds in close quarters. I wish I could really scoop them up like snow…
I met more Indian families in 14 days than I have done in 14 years of my marriage! Old friends, new friends all welcomed us like lost kin. The Indian community lives like a close-knit unit in the western coast of the great land of dreams. Many of them first-generation immigrants, the holiday season sees them visiting each other and sharing more than a meal. Love for cricket and movies glues them together. Long discussions on which movies were good, which to watch and which hero was the best highlighting every dinner we went to – were we in India or San Diego? Dinners concluded sometimes with a movie session running well into the night.
We were showered with warmth and gifts. After being pampered by them throughout the vacation, my 14 years of experience in the kitchen came naught as I burnt rice and the idlis looked flat and weak!
“Which place has climate like Chennai?” I asked my brother. Florida, Phoenix in Arizona…
Why aim for a short trip? Why not the long haul? Jumping from one holiday spot to another, visiting people, being invited for lunch, dinner, stay-overs… I could do with such a life. The next sentence brought me crashing down… “Don’t think this is the way we live. Once school starts, life changes and we barely meet our friends,” cautioned my brother and sister-in-law, seeing my eyes glowing dreamily at the thought of the extended holiday these Indian Americans seemed to enjoy.
Sigh… in the land of the dreams, it is okay to dream. But the reality is, I have a life here, my kind of life. Where I can zoom on the Scooty, drive the car without worrying about number of seats versus passengers, keep awake even when I am the passenger for you never know which side the danger lurks. You never know if the maid will turn up, and if yes, when. Will the plumber honour his commitment? Will the toilets on the roadside be usable? Will the bus be on time? Did the gardener say the 12th of this month or the next, or four months down the line?
You live on the edge here. Everything is a nail-biting finish, with uncertainty keeping your adrenalin pumping. Who wants the calm routine of certainty?
The best weather is that of Chennai, the best city, Chennai. Florida and Arizona, even California, will have to wait another lifetime. For the time being, my exciting routine beckons me.
(Photo courtesy – Srikant Ranganathan)