Friday, June 03, 2005

USA, U Dont Need your Ambassadors!

USA is a 3 letter word which brings in a myriad of emotions to Indians ranging from awe or respect, to love or hate all at the same time.If at all there is anythin that can shake up India like no nuke from Pakistan can ever do,it would be nothing but the lowly F1 visa. What may seem to most people around the world as a mere travel document and a inconsequential piece of paper is a potent weapon which can bring the entire Indian middle class to its knees and stir up a debate in the country like nothing else can.So what goes behind this annual visa pilgrimage which any Indian, more so a south Indian has to take once in his life so as to prove that he is atleast worth his salt!!
If there is one topic which figures in any conversation in the numerous mariages or functions that dot Madras ,this should be it. Dont be surpsised to see endless, animated discussions among the gentry / womenfolk of Madras reeling out figures from the INS or Justice Department on visa subtelities which i am sure very few americans can even comprehend. It is not very rare to see our maami's(aunties!) proclaiming their son's feat in pulling off an admission to Stanford or Berkeley and looking condescendingly at the opposite mother so as to say that her son does not have a reason to exist!!.(though he may earn 40000 rupees !!).To take a trip down to the Temple of south Indian meritocracy, the US COnsulate Office in Mount Road, Madras is an experience in itself.
The F1 visa to many indian college guys is nothing but a natural extension of their existence on this planet, or thats what is drilled into them right from their childhood.For the lucky (rich) few who can pay up at Stanford for their undergrads, India exists only on the map. To the majority of the janta the trip to the Promised Land comes only after their undergrad in India.After coming up with some colorful SOP's and recommendation letters, they know their time of reckoning is just about to come. After cracking the GRE and romping home past TOEFL(which is a mere formality to many Indians) , the only thing that comes betwen them and their ultimate goal is the iron gates of US consulate, and its presiding deity, the Visa Officer!
The months leading to the actual application of visa can be traumatic, nerve wracking to the applicant , but to an outside observer it could be nothing but plain humor.For the student, the options could be no less tragic.If he were to ever be counted upon as a worthy soul good enof even to exist he needs to have the US visa stamped on his passport atleast once.The US Consulate officers from the US of A are shocked beyond words when they first see the frenzy outside their offices and buildings. Poor guys.. they give info sessions,seminars, hold group discussions, write in newspapers, but what perplexes them is however detailed an info they may provide, the visa frenzy never seems to subside. They come up with every scheme in the book, drop box, slotted interview schedules, no interviews, pre payment of fees, but nothing ever seems to lessen the serpentine queues outside their offices, or prevent its officers from being mobbed when they meet the public.
AN entire economy in the city thrives on this yatra for their existence. From baggage manufacturers, to sly leather coat manufacturers, from banks to financiers, to even the lowly notaries evrybody have their place in the sun during this season. What is never lacking during this 'festive' season, is the tons of rumors clad as advice, news clippets and information.The touts and the police officals outside the visa offices have their share of fun too, with bulk booking and blocking of positions in the queue outside the visa office.The sight of the nervous students and their more nervous parents is something that mite resemble the French waiting their turn at the guillotine during the Revolution.What strikes most is the preen and the unadulaterated look of accomplishment at the faces of the people who come out of the visa offices after having darshan of the visa offcier whose blessings have resulted in the prashad of the visa on their passport !!!.
Hmm.. now only if the policy wonks in Washington knew, that their visa had such a power they should have known by now that it doesnt require the heavily built Armitage to make India listen, but just the small stamp on the passport of millions of Indians !!!

Is Another World Possible?

Bombay was recently awash with angry young/old, men/women spewing vitriol, holding placards, staging demonstrations/ protests and doing everything that was possible to answer the simple question "is another world possible". Present among them was that interminable leftist gad fly's called Arundathi Roy, world bank economists, noble prize winners all trying to answer this question.The very problem with such a congregation is that apart from being a noisy colorful protest challenging the status quo they seem to do nothing. So typical of the leftist protests that they are so buzzy asking questions that they fail to answer even one of them.Well if the present system is wrong, then wats the alternative? Anarchy as seen in the grounds of Goregaon is not the answer to the problems facing billions of individuals.
There is absolutely no question that globalisation is not the definitive answer to the problems facing the world, that capitalism has its problems, and marginalised people get hurt in the process. Well, we know all this, so wats the solution socalists? Mindless bluster against USA will do no good, sowill dreaming of an equal world where every body is happy and joyous and no body suffers.Previous expreiments in communism and its repercussions is well known to all of us.As much as one may abuse America and its values, its the american way of life that the world tries to ape, its the american degrees we all try to get and the american/british prizes that we all covet (Mrs Roy should know that well). If everything is so bad about it then why do people yearn after that. Globalisation is an irreversible process. After all if India's economy is on a roll its the result of globalisation process. Fifty years of socialism left India a poor country, leading a hand to mouth existence as opposed the confident proud and resurgent India the world now sees after just a decade of liberalisation/globalistion. If one looks at history, capitalism in one form or the other has been the dominant economic force. However as much as globalisation is an economic imperative, the social costs have to be handled with the help of a strong judiciary, free media and strong systems in place. That is the way to the future. Not mindless raving and ranting about everything American. The mindless hypocricy becomes so evident that these rich people who live at Chanakyapuri, fly first class, stay at the Taj have a vested interest in the continuation of poverty(because if there is no poverty where would these people go?). So its high time we leave these people to scream aloud at Goregoan and leave the rest of the world in their pursuit of prosperity and happiness.

The Miami Musings!

Stepping out of the Miami International Airport on a heavy Friday evening, this was my Memorial Day Weekend 2005. I was waiting for the dawn of Friday, May the 27 2005 like no other day. Months of work had taken its toll on the spirit of this inviterate young man :-)!!( so to say..). Waiting for me at the airport was my college buddy whom I had last seen 4 years ago hoping that she would recognise me enough to pick me up. I soon find myself in a well lit, spankingly clean apartment gorging on great home made pao bhaji, gossipping about the world and watching Swades. Wow wasnt that the dream start!!

Day 1 :- Frisky Alligators and the PDiddy Show

Miami has a different feel to it. For one the air is heavier and the sun hotter as compared to Bay area where I descended from. And hei, where are the ubiquitous desis?? I was hard pressed to find them here having used to seeing a bunch of them in Silicon Valley. The buildings have a different feel to it, with huge rows of them painted in yellow, orange and other seemingly 'Mexican' shades. And English aint that common here as every other person seem more comfortable saying 'Hola' to each other than a 'Hi'. Exploring Miami, we were off driving to experience the quintessential South Floridan ecoscape - the Everglades; a vast swath of marshes teeming with crocs, aligators, turtles and a whole bunch of species, I am not aware of. We were soon propelling at more than 30 miles/hour, on outrageously loud 'air boats' with our ears stuffed hoping to get a glimpse of the gators. After poring at the waters for more than an hour, the air boats were filled with occasional shrieks of happiness from tourists sighting a gator/turtle. Surprised as why some one would get so happy at seeing one of these reptiles, we next took what was termed as an 'Alligator Show'. I was not too sure at the end of the show whose show it was!!!

We had this lady who got herself into an enclosure, feeding a bunch of gators and describing the animal's prowess including its ability at biting the hands and legs off of a careless onlooker. If that was not enough she took out a 'baby gator' for tourists like us to feel, for a small charge of $3.Certain that I would not fall for that, I was goaded into the trap of holding these scaly ugly looking creatures. Never a man to shirk from a challenge, I went about doing the decidedly easy
thing of holding this gator in my hand for a picture. What ensued later was as my friend termed it a truly 'Kodak' moment. The silent, sobre looking gator, which till then was preening and sometimes even pissing at the camera suddenly seemed to think that it had found its 'kill' for the day. In one swoop it started moving its head towards it tail where it smelt a pair of awkward hands touching it.May be the gator thought my touch was less caressing than the ones before it, but that swift motion got me for a brief moment jumping out of its way leading to everybody out there having a laugh of their lives. For a brief moment I had taken the spotlight away from the gators in their native land and became a part of the Floridan folklore!!! I am sure my friends had now one more tale to recount and regale others for life.

Afer an eventful morning, the evening was decidely more Miami :-) a.k.a more of the hot spots and night clubs that Miami was famous for. Miami has a truly brilliant harbor drive and some of the most picteresque sea fronts u can see, dotted with private beaches and expensive villas. we got to hit the scenic Bay front, which certainly has a more romantic air to it.Filled with well dressed couples shaking their legs, teeming restaurants, salty air, cosy was hard not to feel great in such a locale. I believe no Miami trip is complete without the visit to South Beach, the party district of Miami and that was where he headed next. Reaching there we found ourselves to be the only desis in a sea of African Americans. We had no idea as to what was going on as the entire place was choc a bloc with a crowd that seemed more in a hurry and much less ready for a Memorial Day night out like us. It turned out later that PDiddy and Co had planned a massive party, out there without informing any of us!! Markedly, the crowd was hip-hop and the bars were overflowing and obscenely expensive.We also had this uniquely odd feeling of simultaneously being "overdressed and underdressed" for somebody at South Beach, jampacked with hip hop crazy fans. A lil dissapointed for having missed the real South Beach scene the junta turned back.Since we already had a few people yawning, we wound down an eventful day after a trip to the upmarket and trendy Coconut Grove. Left in the day's description are trips to Dennys,tropical food restaurants, gelato ice cream shops, road stunts, jam packed freeways and mandatory chai, naashtha and the constant chit chat :-)!!!

Day 2 - Duvall Street and the Beer - Cruise

After an expectedly late morning wake up, we were off to one of Miami's most famous 'neighborhoods' Key West. A 150 mile drive from Miami, the US-1 highway turns out into a beautiful 2 lane road flanked by seas on both sides. It seems like a must do drive for every die - hard romantic. The short 150 mile drive took us nearly 6 hours since everybody in US seemed to be driving towards the Keys that day, leading to packed roadways..We had a great time sitting inside the car killing the 6 hours of driving time, hearing music, fending off threats to drop me off at the Keys leaving me to swim to Cuba and talking about the world. By the time we reached the Keys it was late in the evening and the only 'attraction' left was a glass bottomed boat ride to view the reefs. Since the boat was to leave in another 5 minutes we had this feel of athletes on a 100 metre dash as we raced our car towards the harbor. As luck would have it we raced in the wrong direction :-)(thanks to some unique navigation) and we just reached in time to hear the boat had left us.

Never the ones to lose heart we next trekked to the heart of the Keys, Duvall Street. Its simply an awesome street, full of life, music, fun, food and beautiful people. Having missed the glass bottomed boat we decided on what seemed the next best thing, a Sunset Cruise. The cruise had all the trappings of romance laden evening for couples young and old, live music, free
beer and the chance to watch the sun go down on one of the most beautiful coasts in continental US.But what they had not accounted was for a group of desis to turn the party upside down.Filled with free beer, I let lose a torrent of desi moves on the unsuspecting tourists turning that romantic cruise into a desi party. Soon the cruise was full of people dancing their hearts off as the waves gently rocked the boat and the cruise owner was unsure as to what struck them ! Giving me company in this uniquely desi beer night out was my 'beer buddy' who
seemed to grow younger with every glass of beer. I was just on a complete high as photographs later proved, i had found friends in everybody whom I met on the cruise.It was one lovely evening and soon we found ourselves caught in every camera and camcorder on the cruise. I thus found myself as a part of Floridian folklore for the second successive day!. The night was complete with pizzas, mandatory shopping, photos at the southernmost point in US, and a trudge back to our cars.The drive back to Miami was markedly shorter, yet full of fun recounting the tales of the last 2 days.

Day 3- All good things come to an end

We did not sleep that nite as I had an early morning flight to catch. I had this very odd feeling come over me. It was worse than the thought of having to confront office and my manager the next day. During this short 2 day trip, I had a whale of time, was a part of so much fun and met some amazing people many of whom I had met for the first time in my life. It felt like home and it all seemed like one big family jamboree and it seemed to end too soon for my comfort :-(.. Guess if I had stayed a little longer my hosts would have kicked me out anyway!!! :-) This day was just about catching the flight back to SFO,
getting some sleep on-board, starving, and reminiscing about all the great things..At the end of the trip, i made up my mind... "Miami here I come again " :-) :-) :-)..(my hosts beware!!!)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Canadian Odyssey

My travelogue touches the northern parts of the North American continent, Canada to be specific. As poor Indian students, me and my friends would have loved to be the Coleen and Gantzer checking out the exotic places and describe them to our readers, but we could hardly afford them! It was a rather sudden decision, but in hindsight, a very memorable one. Before this journey, I was very much under the impression that Canada was just a natural extension of the USA, or rather USA with a different name! This journey went a long way in changing that.
After visiting every travel website checking out everything from the cheapest air-tickets to accommodation, we set out on our trudge to a 'New World'. We were seven adventure seekers trying to explore the next door neighbor called Canada! We flew from Milwaukee to Toronto. We reached Toronto International airport sometime in the night. The first shocker was the airport, the number of desis at the arrival lounge was stunning. It could have been some pavilion at Meenambakkam or Sahar in India, so full of Indians. At first sight, that didn't impress me much because I had gone to Canada to see something Canadian, not a resettlement of desis in some faraway land! Anyway, we picked up a Dodge Caravan, a big seven-seater van, and drove ourselves to the Best Western where we had booked ourselves. We stayed at Best Western, one of the high-end motels one can find in this part of the world. The good thing about lodging in North America is that, it is never that expensive for all its luxuries that I am sure are of five-star quality by India standards.
Anyway, after the mandatory sleep, we were all set to hit Toronto the next morning. A very important thing about driving in this part of the world is navigation. Driving here is no where same as driving in India. To make things a little clear, if one were to travel from Madras to Bangalore, a person would not need much of directions. Just take the lone road to the 'highway', drive straight, and one reaches Bangalore, God willing! Out here, the system is a lot more complicated (or easy) as one sees it. Due to the great many number of expressways and highways criss-crossing, the exits you take from the highway can make a crucial differerence to whether you are traveling north or south. To our dismay, we took the wrong turn that morning and instead of going to Toronto downtown, we ended up driving the opposite direction and lost a couple of precious hours!
Anyway, we found our way back to Toronto downtown. It is just like any other western city. Tall sky scrapers, glass walled buildings, eating joints and stuff. The place that we were heading was the CN tower, world's tallest tower which runs half a kilometer up in the sky. The view from the top of the tower was great, but we were used to seeing cities from such tall towers by now. However, the tallest floor out there is made of glass. Just imagine standing 500 meters up in the sky on a glass floor with the entire world seemingly on your floor. The idea that the glass might give way leads to a lot of screams, but that is what adds up to the fun!
And, after that we were back again driving towards Niagara, the must see for any desi worth his salt! Niagara is an awesome sight. Around 168 million gallon of water flows down the rocks every minute! Would you want to take bath in that! (Try that).To be honest, what struck me was how this place has been packaged across the world. Niagara is beautiful and awesome, no doubt, but is it what it is made out to be? I do not think so. Niagara has everything from the jazziest of casinos to the best hotels in the world, Hilton, Sheraton, Marriot and what not. To think it is just a waterfall that sustains a place and such a thriving economy shows the importance of packaging things so as to sell, something which India sorely lacks.
Anyway, there is a host of rides you can take there. 'Spanish aero car' that takes you across the falls, `Maid of the Mist' that takes you so near the falls on a boat, 'Journey Behind the Falls' that lets you feel the massive power of the gushing water, you can experience every aspect of nature's bounty. To add to this, we also had the July 4th fireworks that though good were not great. A very noticeable feature here is the abundance of desis. Sons with their parents taking them out. It seems Niagara has become the third must see place of India's karma land after Kashi and Rameshwaram.
After experiencing the bountiful water, we were off to Montreal, a city about which I had no idea except some passing reference in the history books of class IX. But this city really struck me by its beauty. Well, the day started by visiting the Olympic stadium at Montreal where the 1976 Olympics were held. There was this mandatory group tour trumpeting about the stadium and its features such as the tons of concrete used, kilograms of plastic used and all such idiosyncrasies. You also had this must see cable car that takes you to the top and lets you see the Montreal skyline. I guess by that time I had had enough of this skyline business!
But that evening, I had the time of my life. We also had a rather funny hunt for some authentic 'French cuisine' and ended up with the same boring bland Italian food including pastas and spaghettis. The nightlife of Montreal is just unbelievable. The city throbs with life, music festivals, food festivals and the streets literally rocking with the latest fashions. The city has a great mix of the 'modernity' associated with tall skyscrapers along with the bohemian life of European cities, with really classy architecture and some stunning harbor drive. To add to this, we had some really lively fireworks, which literally lightened the sky as it did the hearts of the onlookers.
The next must see place in Montreal is the Casino de Montréal, one of North America's leading casinos. Well, if you are wondering what really a casino is as we were, well it is a place where you trust your money with Lady Luck. That is how a seasoned guy would look at it. We were just travelers inquisitive about how a casino looks, and we were awe struck by the fantasy woven by it on the minds of the people. People come there, win and lose millions without even a smirk on their face! If you thought we poor desi students would not mind a million dollar the easy way, then you must be living in some other planet! I did stake in five bucks and, lo and behold, I won $8.00. I guess the astro predictions for Virgos for that week did work out after all, as I ended with "untold fortune"!
After a really tired but heart fulfilling day in Montreal, we were off to Quebec City. This city seems to be just taken out of France. One of North America's earliest cities, it was eagerly contested by the British and the French, but as in the rest of the world, the French lost it. However, unlike other places, the French left a lasting impression on this place, which continues till day. The primary tongue there is French and you shouldn't be surprised if people stare at you if you speak English! So much for an English Canada that I thought it was. Well, there was the historic fort and the mandatory group tour extolling its 'importance'. The city was beautiful and had a lot in store; however, what it couldn't provide us was some extra time! We were running short of time and had to catch a flight next day from Toronto. We just had a quick peek at the beautiful Montmorency falls and a quick bite at the famous strawberries before we packed our bags back to the 'boring US'!
US looked boring and lifeless to us. Life there was without the extra zip! To think that a year ago I had come to the US thinking it held everything 'cool' in the world made me laugh at myself! But then, you always learn from your experiences and your facts of yesterday become your fallacies of today! Well, I was poorer by $350, but I was richer by the experience, the immense fun I had and the tons of photos that were worth more than anything money could buy!