Monday, April 8, 2013

Ambatbaaji in America - Part I

More on that later.  Now, to the essence of this blog.

The purpose

Prasanna’s posting to the US, rather the extension of the posting, necessitated Vasanthi’s visit to the US accompanying Preethi and Jeevthi, and also gave me an opportunity to visit the US which otherwise I would have never expected to happen any time soon.  So, thanks to Prasanna, Preethi and dearest Jeevthi.

In Phoenix

I was reading an article in one of the in-flight magazines in which the author, a contest winner, was answering to a query on what his travel advise would be to the younger generation in his family.  He had said ‘pack light’ would be his only advise, and had given a valid reason for that – that you can never expect several things which are almost taken for granted in the US,  to be available in other countries.  These included large size SUVs, disciplined road-traffic system, technology on-the-go such as GPS and ticket-vending machines, public facilities and stroller-friendly roads and platforms.  In fact, what strikes you on the face when you land in America is exactly that – the vast space, cleanliness and miles and miles of excellent roads on a very disciplined traffic system and neat pathways on which you can push or pull even heavy strollers (or wheel-chairs or prams) with ease. There is no need to have cash, as credit card is accepted at almost all places and even for very small purchases of less than a dollar too. 


My three weeks in America flew fast.  The first three or four days was spent at home with Jeevthi, with enough rest at odd times in between for adjusting to jetlag. Prasanna took me to the Desert Botanical Garden about an hour’s drive from Phoenix.  It was a nice place with beautiful plants and trees that you can see only in desert regions, cactus growing to more than 20 feet high.  With Jeevthi accompanying us, we had a good time particularly in the butterfly garden there.

Desert Botanical Garden  Desert Botanical Garden  


Grand Canyon

I knew the Grand Canyon was so near to Phoenix, but Prasanna was busy with office work that he had told us he could not accompany us.  We had therefore booked with a tour operator to visit Grand Canyon on a Thursday.  But we received a call from that company the previous day saying as there were not enough seats filled, they were cancelling the tour for that day.  Prasanna somehow made himself available the next day, and we made the trip, Prasanna driving all through the day.  I was happy to see him drive so well, more so when it was the first long distance drive for him.

I was astonished at the efficiency of America’s road infrastructure.  The road from Phoenix to Grand Canyon (via Flagstaff) is a beautiful one, with enough rest points on the way.  The weather was quite cold, but manageable.  Ice had formed all through the way, as you can see in the photographs.

Trip to Grand Canyon  Trip to Grand Canyon

It was quite a long drive of about four and a half hours from Phoenix.  The first point we reached was the IMAX theatre, where a picture about the Canyon’s history was being shown.  Believe it or not, we thought we would have a tough time with an infant like Jeevthi, but she was the one who most enjoyed the movie!

We had prepared food for lunch.  After the IMAX show, we took food sitting in the car itself and then proceeded to the South Entrance.  In America, you must be prepared for long walks everywhere you go, and the Grand Canyon is no exception at all.  From the car park, it takes about 15 minutes to get to the first view point.  The weather was very cold with chill wind blowing hard in the face, but it was nevertheless an enjoyable experience.  We were delighted by the presence of cute birds all along the way.

Trip to Grand Canyon  Trip to Grand Canyon

One must visit the Grand Canyon to believe the amazing beauty and sheer size of this national treasure.  The beautiful landscape created by the erosion of the soil by the flow of the Colorado river over a period of 4,000 years, winding its way along shapely bends all along, is a sight to behold.  If one is left speechless at the first sight of the Canyon from to top, imagine his amazement on reaching the bottom!  

As a nature lover, I would have loved to stay for a day or two and undertake treks to the bottom, but unfortunately I did not have time in this trip to do that.  If I am able to make another trip to Phoenix, a three-day trip to the Grand Canyon is surely on the cards.

We made our way from the Southern Entrance to the Eastern entrance, stopping at almost all the view points on the way.   Towards the evening, the cold air began to pierce our skin so we had to cut short the duration of our stops at the last few points and quickly get in the car on our way back to Phoenix.

How we struggled to get some veggy food on the way and how GPS fooled us around is a different story, better not told here!

Trip to Grand Canyon

more photos can be viewed at

Ambatbaaji in America - Part II

Las Vegas

That first week-end, we went to Las Vegas.  Pepu and Megha living in San Jose joined us at LV.  We stayed at a Best Western hotel near the LV Convention Hall and from there went sight-seeing LV, mostly by walk and the Monorail.  Prasanna wanted to get back at least the airfare from the Casinos, but that did not happen.  Jeevthi enjoyed the most, seeing places like she has never been out.  All the big buildings had huge areas marked for gambling at the ground level and shopping at the upper levels.  While the visiting public, including babies on pram, thronged through the smoky passageways of the casinos, babies’ presence at the casinos was generally avoided with the casino managers gently asking people to take the babies away.

In Las Vegas  In Las Vegas  In Las Vegas

There were thematic entertainment shows in the evening, which the public could view from the open.  If the musical fountain in front of Caesar’s Palace and the Volcano show at the Miracle tower entertained us adults, Jeevthi was awestruck by the beautiful big fish moving in the giant aquarium in the Venetia area.   I have never seen her so enthralled at anything before.  The weather was also very pleasant in LV when we were there. 

In Las Vegas  
In Las Vegas

Besides the sight-seeing and window-shopping, another area of much interest was the Stratosphere, a tall tower 110-storey high, from the top of which thrilling rides were offered.   It was ironic that it was only Vasanthi (50) and I (55) who took part in some of the rides while Preethi, Prasanna, Megha and Pepu stayed away.  The view of LV from that height was fantastic and Vasanthi and I really enjoyed the thrilling Bigshot ride, the highest thrill ride in the world, whereas I enjoyed the X-Scream, supposed to be the third highest thrill ride in the world, but much scarier than the Bigshot.  See pics. The ride on the monorail was also simple joy and good fun, especially for Jeevthi.

  In Las Vegas  In Las Vegas     In Las Vegas

Much to our relief, vegetarian food, though of different cuisine, was available.  So, long walks of sight-seeing and window shopping interspersed with sometimes nimble and sometimes adequate bites of various types of food kept us going all through the two days we were there.  Pepu’s stay of a few years in the US has helped him gain some knowledge of how to choose vegetarian food from the available choices, and it greatly helped us.   He introduced Thai, Mexican and Italian vegetarian food to us, some of which were quite delicious.

It is difficult to believe and digest how lavish LV is, particularly if it happens to be your first visit to US from a country like India.  Every building is decorated with the most expensive and glossy finish from footpath to the ceiling and even the roof.  Electricity is spent like water.  Hotels are very cheap, because the Casino barons want you to come, stay for a few days and empty your money here.   I found proof of the famous phrase here – “everybody wants only one thing – your money!”.  I don’t know how many really make money here.  We heard stories in the local neighbourhood – I made 500 last time, 700 the previous time, etc.  Even if it is true, I think that must only be a bait – to lure them again to take more out of them eventually.   I firmly believe that, as Pepu said, this place is built not to entertain you after a hard week’s work, but only to take all the money you earned in a hard week’s work! 

Back to home routine in Phoenix.  The daily routine ran something like this: after sending Prasanna to office, a leisurely breakfast; tidying up the house a bit; preparing lunch; a post-lunch nap, a walk with Jeevthi up to the nearby Walmart or a trip to the garden, back home and idle time till supper.

In Las Vegas

more photos can be viewed at

Ambatbaaji in America - Part III

Los Angeles

My next outing in the US was a week-long trip to Los Angeles and to California, this time only with Vasanthi, as Preethi opted not to travel all that distance and time with Jeevthi.

We went to Los Angeles by train from Phoenix, by the Sunset Express run by Amtrak.  Phoenix doesn’t have a railway station, and we had to board the train at the nearest Amtrak station called Maricopa, which was about 50 miles from our place.  It was a unique experience for me.  I had expected to see a big station with at least a few platforms.  I was really surprised when the taxi dropped us at a small building not even half the size of my house in Ambattur.  There was a reception hall with a few chairs, and a booking counter on one side where no one was there.  There was a bell to call the railway personnel.  I found that the station was manned by just one person, who verified the ticket, informed us that the train was on time and asked us to wait.   A few more chairs were laid in the open outside the hall.  A small platform by the side of the track was there, but it was fenced and closed.  We were given a small card bearing the coach number.

When the train arrived, passengers were called by the coach numbers.  I observed that the platform was just one coach length, and the train was made to move coach by coach at that station, and at each halt, after the alighting passengers cleared the platform, the boarding passengers were called and escorted in.  This was something new and unheard of for me!  It took a whole 10 minutes or more for the train to accommodate all the boarding passengers.  The cabins on the side of the coach, though compact, are spacious enough to sleep two passengers one above the other.   There are five or six such cabins on both sides of the aisle on each coach.   Fresh juice and coffee were available at a corner outside the cabins. The toilet is a little cramped, smaller than an aircraft toilet, but neat.  Unfortunately, I was not able to take photographs of the train.

We arrived in LA very early – by 4.45 am.  I was willing to explore the metro, but Vasanthi was more worried about safety at that hour and so we took a taxi to the hotel.  We called the hotel to enquire how much it would cost the taxi and were informed that it would be anywhere between $20 and $30.  When the taxi reached the hotel, I was amazed to note the fare - $25, exactly between 20 and 30 as told by the hotel!

Immediately on reaching Quality Inn hotel we went for a nap because it was too early to do anything, but overslept and woke up at 8.30.  Our plan of visiting the Universal Studios had to be altered because Pepu had alerted us that we should be there by 8 in the morning if we were to have a good trip.  We decided to make it to Disneyland instead and made our way through to the Metro Redline Hollywood Highland station and took train and bus to reach Disneyland by 11.  It was an enjoyable trip, but we were left with the feeling that it would have been more enjoyable with our kids around.  Vasanthi was happy to see so many families having a jolly time with their children.  We made some of the rides and skipped some, aiming to get out by 7 in order to catch the bus back to LA.   We even skipped a third of the most entertaining evening parade, but locating the bus-stop ended up a Herculean task, no one helping us there.  Finally, we managed to catch the bus and train to reach the Hollywood Highland station at around 10 pm.  Once we got to the main road from the station, we found the road busy even at that time and walked all the way to hotel, reaching there by 10.30 pm.   The restaurant had closed, so we ordered pizza, but even that was not delivered, so we went without food in America!

In Disneyland, LA  In Disneyland, LA  In Disneyland, LA

The next day we made it quickly on time in the morning and were there at the Universal Studios by 9-9.15, only to be told that we would be let in only at 10am!  We enjoyed Studio tour, the House of Horrors, the 4-D show and some of the other rides, but the much hyped WaterWorld turned out to be a bore for us.  We managed lunch time with a bowl of salad for me and a fruit cup for Vasanthi.  At the end of all this, Vasanthi quickly got bored of the rides and just wished to just see places with adequate rest in between.  So we got out of the Universal Studios, did some window shopping on the areas outside the Studios and came back to the hotel rather early that day.  We took rest for some time and by the time we got up, we were feeling really hungry.  I ordered a medium pizza and it was so hot and juicy and delicious with cheese and veggies and homemade tomato ketchup that we devoured the whole medium pizza in a jiffy before going to bed.

Universal Studios, LA  Universal Studios, LA  Universal Studios, LA

On the third day, we had to catch the flight for San Jose and had to be at the airport by 5.30pm.  So we decided to do the half-day sightseeing on open van in the morning.  It was an enjoyable trip, taking us round and round in LA down town and then to Hollywood and Beverley Hills drive, showing us the houses of rich and famous film stars.  Back at the hotel by 12:30, we took time to walk to the Indian restaurant about half a mile away and had some very tasty and filling Indian food after a long time.  We came back to the hotel, took a brief rest at the lobby (we had checked out in the morning itself) and left around 3.30pm, to take the train to the airport.  We had to take three trains – the redline, the blue line and the greenline trains to reach the nearest station to the airport, from where airport shuttles took us to our terminals.

Los Angeles  Los Angeles

Tapping their system

The Metro rail in LA astonished me in its efficiency.  Though it looked unfriendly at the beginning – there are only computer terminals at the station and no one to guide you how to use them – with a little time exploring the menus, you get to know what is what.

They have done away with paper tickets and have introduced a plastic card that is called, yes, right, the TAP card, which you need to buy for $1.  Once bought, you can keep it and use it again and again by adding value for each travel.  Each travel one way in each line (red, green or blue) costs $1.5 and once you know how much travel is involved, you can add value according to that.  Day passes and week passes at concessional rates are also available for multi-use on the same day/week.

Within the second day of our arrival in LA, we got the hang of the system and were happily using it until our departure. 

Our stay in LA was enjoyable on many counts.   We were on our own, giving us the opportunity to explore, exercise choice and learn, as against being escorted and spoonfed.  We had time at our disposal.  The city was cool and transport systems were very user-friendly.  Though some of the guides warned us about the ‘character guys’ on the pedestrian paths – those dressed like spiderman, robots, etc., - we did not encounter any problem or situation anywhere.  Flesh trade was very much there for those who seek it – after all, LA is the ‘entertainment capital’ of the world!  There were girls on the platform, wearing skimpy dresses with rifles attached to their jackets and jutting straight out of the breasts, and inviting in a husky voice, “care for some adventure?”, but they did not in any way block your way or force you to listen to them.

What made us remember India there while going around LA was probably a much less clean surrounding than in Phoenix (some places were dirty enough) and the presence of beggars (yes, we saw many of them – sitting on benches in the bus-stops, standing on the pedestrian paths at important cross-roads).  From her dress and complexion you could never guess she would be a beggar, but we even saw a young girl carrying an infant begging on the train!   Beware USA, poverty is catching up even with you, at the very doors of Entertainment Capital!

Los Angeles

more photos can be viewed at

Ambatbaaji in America - Part IV

San Jose / San Francisco

Pepu and Megha came to pick us up at the San Jose airport.  Their home is just 20 minutes from the airport.  Megha had hurt her little finger, and we started our sight-seeing the next morning a little late.

In San Jose, San Francisco

Two negatives make it positive, right?  To offset a start with an injured finger, we decided to make it to the Crooked Street in San Francisco first.   The streets of San Francisco are so cramped, steep and sudden that despite the lady constantly alerting us on the GPS, we lost way quite frequently and finally made it to the famous landmark.  I must say I have never seen anything so purposely made.  From there, we went to the Pier 39 area, parked our car, and started, again, the long walks of sight-seeing in the US.

In San Jose, San Francisco  In San Jose, San Francisco  In San Jose, San Francisco

The intention was to visit a warship there, but only on arrival did we find that the warship had been moved elsewhere.  So we had to contend with the other scenery and things available there.  A brief visit to the pier area, a distant view of the sea lions basking on the piers, the shopping areas, the swift and delicate art of preparing the desert crepes, the colourful paper kites and spinning wheels, a visit to the wax museum, a sweet visit to the Ghiradelli chocolate shop and some food there too, photograph with the beautiful tulips grown on the footpaths, a taste of bread-bowl soup at the famous Boudin bakery and back to car park, all in about four to five hours of walking amid colourful people, vintage and modern cars, fast sports cars such as Pepu’s Mustang and slow trams crisscrossing all through the roads.   Pepu and Megha did their best to not only entertain us, but also to show around the most important places in that area.

In San Jose, San Francisco  In San Jose, San Francisco

From the bay area, we left for a sunset view of the Golden Gate bridge.  The massive structure did impress me, but having caught a glimpse of better vista points along the curving roads up above the hills, I could not resist persuading Pepu to drive further up before nightfall, and he obliged with pleasure.  It was worth it.  The view I got not only of the bridge, but of the other side of the bay area, was lovely as you can see from the pictures below.   It was very cold out in the open, and even I was shivering as I took the pictures resting the camera on fence poles.  Still, quite a few came shaky. 

In San Jose, San Francisco  
In San Jose, San Francisco  In San Jose, San Francisco

It was a long drive from the Golden Bridge to Fremont to Vasanthi’s cousin’s place, along the beautifully illuminated Bay Bridge and out.  We had food at the Saravana Bhavan in Fremont.  The food was so-so, but what I could not digest was the wash area was awash with scattered paper towels that made us wonder why the Indians behave so shabbily when they get a chance.  Dropping us at Fremont, Pepu and Megha left for their home back in San Jose.

more photos can be viewed at

Ambatbaaji in America - Part V

Fremont, California

It is quite long since I met or spoke to Suresh, so it was nice seeing him again, at his place this time.  Having been in the US for almost two decades now, he now lives in Fremont with his wife Anusha and two kids, Aarthi and Shashank, doing their twelfth and sixth grades respectively.

In Phoenix, I could see a number of Indians along with Americans in my daughter’s residential area.  In California, all I could see was Indians, Indians, Indians!  The software industry has attracted (and retained) so much of the Indian techies that they form the sizeable community here, living in good harmony with the few natives living for long here.

I was amazed to hear that there is a sizeable community of Madhwas in Fremont, keeping in good touch with each other and meeting and socializing during all important festivals and occasions. 

Aarthi welcomed us with a beautiful rendering of a piano lesson she was practising for the examination next day.  After a long chat, we went to bed with the agenda set for the next day, which was to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the famous 17-mile drive along the California coast.


As the children had some class or the other and Anusha had to drop and pick them up, she could not join us for the trip.  After a delicious breakfast prepared with love by Anusha, Suresh took us in his Volt.  Only then I became aware of his energy consciousness.  He has installed solar panels on his roof top. In the American system, all energy generated on your roof top is absorbed into the grid, and you get a credit for the current produced at your end.  Unlike here in India, there is no necessity to have batteries to store the current produced and use it only for heating water or lighting lanterns.  Further, subsidy is given for the purchase of solar panels and tax rebate is given for installing solar panels.  His car gives about 80 miles per charge, and he takes the car only when his work requires him to skip the shuttle provide by his company (Apple).  Way to go, man!

The drive to Monterey Bay was long and uneventful.  After reaching the aquarium, we parked the car and went in.  I must say I was absolutely impressed by the sheer size of the aquarium, and the way they have created huge enclosures to house the various sea-living creatures in their own environment, beautifully lighting them up for us to have a very clear view.  As much as I enjoyed viewing the various big fish, rays, octopus, jelly fish, sea horses, sea dragons and other colourful fish and also the seaside birds including penguins, my joy was partially dampened as my camera began to show signs of malfunction.   I managed to click as much as possible and a good number came to be keepers too.  While it took us almost three and a half hours to see the aquarium, I feel for an interested person even a full day would only be just sufficient.  If I happen to visit California again, I will surely visit this place.

California  California  California

Hunger was pinching our stomachs as we came out, and much to our relief, we had excellent curd rice and pickle thoughtfully packed by Anusha.  Then we began the famous, picturesque 17-mile drive, with several vista points en route.  The drive was really scenic and since many of the vista points were similar, we did not stop at all points and skipped quite a few.   We took nice pictures along the way and after a pleasant and satisfying day out driving, returned home around 8pm.

California  California  California

The children were already there.  Aarthi had done her piano exam well.  After a few hours of chatting and exchanging stories, we had our dinner.  Having been told of our visit, Vasanthi’s cousin’s daughter Shalini who also lives in Fremont came to visit us and we spent some more time chatting. 

Much to our surprise, Pepu and Megha appeared all of a sudden, to gift me a huge tripod stand!  I had to politely decline, as I do not use the tripod much.  Carrying the big-zoom camera itself is bulky enough for me, and I am not a professional to carry a tripod all the time too!  Fortunately, Pepu is of a very understanding type and took it in his stride to take the tripod back.  I felt sad for him and Megha having had to drive all the way from San Jose to Fremont just for this purpose.  Sorry once again, Pepu and Megha!  I cherish your company more than any gift you wish to give us.

As the next day was a working day with Suresh having to go to work and the children their schools, we retired to bed.

Ambatbaaji in America

The last day in Fremont was a day of rest and leisurely sight-seeing and shopping if possible.  We had our flight at 7 in the evening, so Suresh had told us he would be home by 5.30 to take us to the airport.  After dropping Aarthi at her school, (Shashank’s school is just off the backyard fence), we had our breakfast and Anusha took us out in her Toyota MUV.

We went to Costco first.  I was amazed at the size of the shop.  A whole-saler, Costco offers bulk-goods at a very good price.  I was eyeing a camera, and my favourite brand Panasonic’s new model Lumix GF-5 was available with double lens offer, but I was not able to decide.  What we were quickly able to decide was things to take back home that are either very good here or are not easily available in India.  We exercised our choice on a few things and left satisfied. We then visited a garmet shop next door and picked up some dresses for Jeevthi.   Vasanthi was looking for some pearl/stone strings, but unfortunately, the Indian shops dealing these items were closed on that day, and so she had to miss them.  We visited a Balaji temple on the way.

Vasanthi’s disappointment with pearls was partly offset by the delicious spread Anusha had prepared for lunch, including the Madhwa special Ambatbaaji, with crisp vadams as side dish.  Who would have imagined we would have such fine Ambatbaaji in America?!

Post-lunch, Anusha had to drop Shashank at the school for his violin class. To kill time, we also accompanied and after dropping him in his school, we went to a nearby park, where I spent time taking photographs of the ducks as Vasanthi and Anusha were catching up with family stories.  When it came time, we returned home, picking up Shashank from his school.

California  In California

Suresh had already arrived by the time we reached home.  We had just enough time to pack.  Though quiet and soft, Shashank made an impression on us, so did Aarthi by her cheerfulness and piano play.  Anusha, of course, was the perfect host who made us feel completely at home.  Anusha and the children bade farewell and Suresh dropped us at San Jose to catch the flight back to Phoenix.


Happy Birthday

We arrived back in Phoenix just in time for Jeevthi’s first birthday.  I had waited for this day and had timed my trip to be there with her on this day.

As we did not get the community hall due to maintenance issues, we decided to have a small party at home itself.  Prasanna had invited his close friends which included his colleagues and Ashwin’s family, and Preethi, hers which included Preethi Beula and her father and then the two families from Ambattur – Vidya and Pavithra and their spouses.  In all, we had about 15 members present.  Vasanthi had prepared a simple but delicious working menu, and with the creamy birthday cake and snacks to add, the party went off well and we had a good time.

Happy B'day Jeevthi!  

The next few days were spent solely with the child, as we were leaving for India on the other side of the globe and who knows how long it would be before we see Prasanna, Preethi and Jeevthi again.  We went to the Old Town, just to have a look at the fine art and craft shops that are lined up beautifully in the market there.  Jeevthi liked the fountain so much that we had a tough time moving away from that place.  The day before departure, we made a visit to the Puthige Krishna Mutt in Temple, about an hour’s drive from home.

As one can observe, we have not seen much of Phoenix itself, except for the Desert Botanical Garden, the Temple in Tempe. and the Old Town.  However, we had a much enjoyable time within the premises of our home with dear Jeevthi providing us all the entertainment we needed.  How much we are going to miss her!  Thankfully, Skype offers some solace.

The photos presented here give a glimpse of our enjoyable trip to the USA and hopefully will serve as a refresher of memories of the good time we had with Jeevthi until we see her again.  My camera which showed signs of malfuction in California deteriorated further, with the shutter release getting rigid and rigid until I could not press it at all.  Therefore, I had to pack it neatly in my check-in luggage on the way back home, to have it repaired once I reach Chennai.

More photos can be viewed at  I will be happy to get your feedback.  Please feel free to comment.