White Water Rafting

With sunny summer days around in the month of June, a friend of mine decided to arrange for white water rafting trip.  Having never done it before, it seemed like a really swell idea and I agreed to do it on a Saturday morning.

We drove to Lotus camp near Placerville, CA early in the morning from San Jose.  The company that provided us services for the day was Action Whitewater Adventures.  Our guide was a cheerful Costa Rican named Marcello.  We had opted for a full day river and that meant rowing for nearly 3 hours at a stretch.  The water was really pleasant and the second part of the river contains some really cool Level 3 rapids.  We had fun the whole day with shoting and screaming and made some friends for the duration of the day who were on another raft but with the same company.  Groupon keeps giving deals for rafting and do keep an eye out for it as a full day of rafting, also including lunch, was about 90$.

At the end of the trip, Action Whitewater Adventures allows you to purchase pictures from the rapids for around 50$ for 1 rapid, 75 for 2 rapids and 100$ if you want to purchase all pictures.  There are some independent photographers around who charge a bit less than AWA, one example being Sierra Nevada Pictures.  Make sure to apply tons of waterproof sunscreen when you go because you will be mostly under the UV rays of sun and I had a severe case of sunburn on my knees.

We were super sore from the whole day activity and went over to Punjabi Dhaba, an authentic punjabi dinner place near I-80 of Sacramento.  We munched on the dinner buffet before heading back home and directly to bed to sleep.

 

North Yellowstone: Winter 2015

 

We were discussing where to travel during the thanksgiving break.  We were already late for making reservations and given that it was November first week, most of the famous tourist destinations were either booked or super expensive.  Four of my friends decided to fly over to Phoenix airport and then drive to Albuqurque White Sands national monument for the thanksgiving break.  However, on looking up the state in tripadvisor, it seemed like there was not much to do apart from white sands and given that it would be freezing, camping or staying in tent was not in the option.  While discussing other options, one of my friends suggested Yellowstone… again!

We visited Yellowstone park in 2012 during our christmas break and it was an awesome trip.  Instead of reminiscing about the trip, we decided let’s do the trip again.  Most of the park stays closed for cleaning during thanksgiving break and only part open is a route between Gardiner, MT and Cooke City, MT that passes through Lamar valley.  We called up the West Yellowstone snowmobile company we used the last time named Two Top snowmobile and they confirmed that the park didn’t allow for snowmobiles to go in either.

Finally, the day of the trip arrived and I was super sick with cough and cold and it seemed at a point that I might not go on the trip but I was too thrilled to miss out on it.  We went to pick up our car but the Avis at San Jose airport was out of AWD suv, the kind we needed to drive through the snow storm Cara fast approaching the northern US states.  Moving around from counter to counter at the rental car centre, we finally got a nice AWD SUV with full coverage for ~500$ from Firefly rental.  We started our drive to Yellowstone from San Jose at around 7 pm on 25th November and reached West Yellowstone at around 5 pm on the 26th.  Do make sure to carry food with you as most of the places along the route stay closed for thanksgiving break.  We grabbed lunch at an IHOP in Pocatello, ID and bought some snow tubes from Walmart there.

_DSC0062The drive is a bit longer from West Yellowstone to Gardiner, MT because the internal road from within the park is shut off and that causes us to take a detour via Bozeman.  We had booked a room at Super 8 motel in Gardiner, MT and checking in our stuff, we went right to the North entrance at around 10 PM.  The weather had dropped to a chilly -9 degree F.  However, we got to see a few Bisons and elks resting around a patch of river that had lukewarm water from the volcanic activity in the park.  Tired and stank up from the long drive, we went back to the motel to relax.

The next day we woke up and had a dip at the heated pool in the motel.  They also serve a good breakfast of cereals, toast, yoghurt, coffee, apple and orange juice and boiled eggs.  Many of the places in Gardiner close out early during winter and once you enter the park, it is difficult to find anything to eat unless you cross over the Cooke City.

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Having had a good breakfast, we left the motel and stopped at mammoth hot springs first.  It is a small spring of hot water that melts the snow and creates nice steam on its way down.  There is a hike that takes you on top of the mountain to get a better view of the valley.  We were able to catch a herd of deers on the park entrance itself.  The whole area had received fresh snowfall and was covered in a white sheet!  It is mesmerizing and beautiful to drive through the open road within the park.  We drove through the Lamar Valley to witness huge bisons just eating through the snow, Elks and deers stopping on the warm street and the hordes of scientists and tourists trying to figure where the wolves are at.  Yellowstone has several packs of wolves and many people visit the park in winter to take a class on the habits of wolves.  We met with a couple from Ireland who showed us how to setup our tripod and shared information with us to visit the park early at around 7 AM the next day to witness packs of wolves in the valley.

We crossed over to Cooke city for lunch at Soda butte lodge.  They had a veggie sandwich for vegetarians and it is possible to rent snow mobiles/skis from Cooke city.  However, we just had our lunch and turned back to Gardiner.  The drive between the two cities takes around 2 hours.  On our way back, we met another group of scientists who showed us Mountain goats on their telescopes.  By the time we returned to Gardiner, the only place open for dinner was K-bar.  I have added information for the restaurants at the bottom of the page.

The next morning, I stayed back as wasn’t feeling well but the others left at around 6 am to catch the wolf packs.  They were able to catch Mollie’s pack and Lamar pack with their telescopes.  It is amazing to watch these wolves walk around the vast valley in early morning.  Everybody was exchanging information about the habits and behavior of the wolves.  Oddly enough my friends also caught a bison mating ritual and it was funny because the male would keep eating, suddenly try to mate with the female and on her rejection, start eating the grass again.

Once the group returned from the wolf chase, we visited Boiling river.  Boiling river is a small natural pool where scalding hot water from the park mixes up with the icy cold river water to provide a lukewarm reservoir for people to bathe in.  There is a small hike to get to the place and in winter the place is not much crowded.  The day we were visiting boiling river, the temperature was -21F.  We took off our clothing and dipped into the warm water.  However, the problem is the water at surface is warm and you still get a icy current at the bottom causing you to scream with cold.  It is a fun activity though and we met a bunch of tourists there.  Getting out of the water is the real ordeal as you are suddenly hit with the force of winter and as soon as I stepped out of the water, my hair turned into solid ice, I stopped feeling my hands and feet for the time I was dressing up.  The walk back to the car from this pool was horrendous with shivers ran through the spine within the large snow jacket and pants.

Places to eat in Gardiner for Vegetarians:

K-BAR

K-Bar is a pizza place that also serves half glasses of beers.  The owner of the place is also a San Franciscan and so we hit it off really well.  He gave us suggestions on the pizzas and we ended up ordering garlic bread with marinara sauce (Their alfredo sauce was watery and tasteless), tostada pizza and a make our own with pesto sauce.  K-bar has really good Pesto sauce and the pizzas were delicious.  Given that we were super hungry after a day filled with snow tubing, waddling snow and running around, we devoured the pizza in no time at all.  We ended up eating twice at K-bar on this trip as this was the only place open till 10 PM.

Yellowstone grill

Yellowstone grill had several veggie options.  We tried their Thai style burrito and black bean burger and both were good.  Their french fries were not that good however but do try out the soup of the day with their grilled cheese which is also delish.  The grill is warm and cozy and is right opposite K-bar.

Tumbleweed bookstore and cafe

Tumbleweed bookstore and Cafe is a small shop with lot of informative books on yellowstone area.  We were lucky to have the owner make warm soup as we entered.  They also had some hummus sandwiches.

Wokking Panda chinese

Wokking panda is a very small chinese place that has a very few vegetarian options.  In case you are bored of the american fare, you can try this place out.  It closes really early at around 8 though so do plan to be here early.  Also, the place can not sit large groups so take out would be your best bet.

Finally, if nothing works there is a subway in a gas station near the park entrance.

Many people claim that Yellowstone is best in summer but we have found it is simply astounding with its wildlife, snow covered peaks, hot water springs and frozen lakes to be a sight to behold in winter.  In case you have time, do stop by at Chico hot springs or Janitzio mexican restaurant in Twin Falls, ID.  A winter wonderland, a heaven on earth; Yellowstone in winter is one of the best places I’ve ever visited.

Motorcycle DL389 in US

I’ve always loved riding a bike.  In India, it provides the advantage of finding easy parking, faster maneuverability and it takes up less space in the garage.  I owned a 100cc Splendor in India and it served it’s purpose but I always envied friends with faster and larger bikes.  I wanted to get a CBZ as my first bike but why I didn’t end up getting one is an entirely different story (Stupid salesman and his thoughts on speeding!!!).

When I came to Texas for grad school, I noticed a large number of people driving on I-20 using cruiser bikes and I always felt that when I grow old, this is something I can see myself doing as well and don’t get my started on my love of sports bikes!!  The zippy machines that zoom past you during the morning traffic on 101 do generate some envious glares from the car drivers.  And then one of my friend ended up getting a bike in Texas and that meant I should at the very least get a head start in pursuing this dream to cruise around at old age.  The first step is to get a driving license from DMV.  Now, there are two ways to do this

  1. Get a learning permit, drive a bike around for few months and finally give your driving test at DMV
  2. Join a Basic Rider Course, attend classroom sessions and at the end of the course, get the DL389 (waiver to give riding test)

For the approach 1, you need to have a motorcycle or know someone who has one to clear the driving test.  I opted for option 2 as the classes arrange for the bike, give you practice and then finally test you on the skills acquired during the course.

Bike Smart – Basic Rider Course

First off, please start looking for a class way in advance… these classes are always full and it was very difficult to get into one for me.  I booked a class for September labor day weekend almost a month in advance.  The classes are divided into classroom sessions and riding sessions.  The class I took had following schedule:
Classroom 6:30 PM to 10 PM on Thursday, Riding session 1:00 PM to 6 PM on Saturday followed by 6:30 pm to 10 PM classroom and finally one more riding session on Sunday from 1:00 to 6 PM.  PLEASE BE ON TIME as they are not kidding about the timing policy and I actually had 2 people sent away just because they were a minute late.

The first classroom session was with Chris (The professor) and he was really fun.  The classroom chairs are such that it starts hurting after sitting continuously for 4+hours but the session was informative and fun and Chris encouraged asking questions and spoke about his bike, his driving experiences and such.  The second classroom was taken by Chris which was kind of slow and I got a seat in a corner and he was seating most of the time so I didn’t have as much fun as the professor’s class.  Both the classroom sessions simply went over a prepared presentation but the information from the instructor’s driving experience was good.

The riding sessions were HOT!!!  Temperatures went up to about 90 degrees and so please bring water, dollar bills for food or carry something with you.  Clifton and Chris (Lean older guy who is super lean and wears cowboy hat) took the riding sessions.  They seemed a little patronizing and I was super nervous reading the reviews beforehand on yelp.  At first, I didn’t understand if the guys were joking with us or seriously scolding someone.  However, they were really helpful in getting rid of our bad habits and Cliff was super helpful once I survived the first day.  I can totally imagine hanging out with these two instructors and learning about bikes.  Just drive as best as you can and hang on to each of their words and you should be good.  They make you practice all the stuff prior to riding test and so you are well prepared.  I deducted one start because I felt that they could have provided more help/insights and were sometimes not paying as much attention even when we were making mistakes.

The riding test was 5 rounds of different tasks.  It was easy if you paid attention but the last test is kinda difficult to understand where they ask you to mimic real life driving situation.  They give you feedback and test results on the very same day so that was cool to know that I passed with the highest score in my class 🙂  I got my DL389 in mail in about 4 days and then you simple need to schedule a written test with DMV and get your M1 license.  Overall, I recommend this class to catch up on your riding skills but it might be slightly difficult for totally new beginners.

Lindt: Intense Orange

For quite some time I was a huge fan of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – Fruit and Nut flavor, then I ate Lindt Intense Orange.  Awesome is the only thing that I can think of to describe this bar of chocolate.  Lindt’s Intense Orange Excellence Bar is by far the best chocolate I’ve tasted in the USA.  It is a dark chocolate bar consisting of Orange zest, almond slivers and hint of pineapple.  It combines the intense flavor of dark, silky smooth chocolate with the tangy and zesty orange.  It has superb after taste and I am addicted to it!!  In this month alone I ate about 4 bars and I really have to control myself everytime I go grocery shopping to not get more.  It does pack some high calories but its worth each single bite.

Every once a while, people get asked what would be the last meal you would like before you die and for me I don’t know what the meal would be but I know for sure that dessert is gonna include this piece of chocolate 🙂

Highly recommended piece of chocolate and the best out there.

Long flight: No worries!

I was in transit over thanksgiving and reached India yesterday night.  It was fun as well as really tiring to make the long journey.  I had accumulated some miles using Chase UnitedPlus card and so spent it on getting a free ticket to India.  The itinerary was really crazy with United flying me from SFO -> Chicago O’hare -> Munich -> Mumbai (Lufthansa), meaning a total of more than 22 hours of flight time and more than 5-6 hours of layover time in between.  I am going to keep writing about places I visit and restaurants that I check out while in India but some pointers on tackling such long flight below:

1. Always try and book Economy Plus if available.
Lucky enough for me, my flight until Munich was a united flight and they offer to provide Economy Plus seats for about 90$ more compared to the economy seats.  Unless you are rich and famous and can either afford a Business class/First class seat or charted planes, the rest are cramped into these small seats known to mankind as economy class.  I have always had problem travelling in these seats because being 6 feet tall and a bit heavy, there is no room for any kind of movement for me.  My knees start hurting after rubbing continuously against the seat in front of me and very rarely I had the chance to get onto the exit row seating.  However, this time round, I paid in advance for the Economy plus seating and OMG it is really a plus!!!  The seats seem much more spacious and there is enough legroom left even after stuffing my carry on backpack below the seat in front of mine.  I would never travel on regular economy again on these longer flights if Economy Plus is offered on them.  Right after enjoying these seats, my flight on Lufthansa airlines from Munich to Mumbai had no such separate class and I had to endure the hell for 8:30 hours before my legs could breathe again.

2. Please try and wear comfortable clothes on long flights.
I know this is always implied and why would you not wear comfortable clothes you might ask.  However, I have seen many people dress up for their travels.  A person sitting next to me was wearing jeans and formal shirt on a fricking 9 hour journey!!!  Dude’s gonna have some serious rash issue when he lands.  I would really recommend simply shorts/trackpants/pj, a T-shirt which is loose enough, flipflops and a jacket.  The reason I say flipflops is because a. they are easy to take off and wear back during TSA screenings and b. your legs will thank you and smell much better than being stuffed inside socks for a long duration of time.  I for some reason feel really cold within an airplane and so a jacket/hoodie helps me to stay comfy and also I can bring down the hood over my eyes when I want to sleep.

3. Carry a hand sanitizer if possible.
Airlines are getting clumsy with their cleanliness and I wonder if the person travelling in my seat before me left germs around.  I really like the idea to use it before meals get served.

4. Walk around or stretch every few hours.
I normally prefer travelling on an aisle seat so as to be able to stretch my legs and walk around every few hours.  Nowadays, almost all major airlines provide some sort of video which goes over stretching and exercising while on the aircraft for long duration.  Trust me, DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) is no laughing matter and especially older people should take care and avoid sitting in the same position for longer durations.  Also, if you are flying a middle eastern airline, normally they have juices/drinks/sandwiches at the back for you to grab after that short walk 😉

5. Stop watching movies a month or two before you depart.
I know this idea might sound really crazy but when you have a flight for more than 18 hours and with restricted mobility, the best options are either to sleep or to watch the in-flight entertainment.  I am not able to get proper sleep because of the hum of the plane’s engines and because I had not been watching movies, I had tonnes of movies to pick from.  Normally, its boring to watch the same movie again and the movies that United/Lufthansa had were fairly recent hits.

6. Invest in a good noise cancelling headphone
I would highly recommend purchasing a good noise cancelling headphone with airline adapter.  The headphones that some airlines offer really suck big time and might be broken as well.  I had to hold on to my cord in a specific position for the left side of the United provided headphone to make any sound.  It was really frustrating and irritating!!

7. Try to avoid caffeine and drink water.  Also I would say don’t grab alcoholic drinks while in flight.

8. Grab a neck pillow available at some airport stores or online so as to not hurt your neck while sleeping.  The pillow that the airline offers are not at all good for prolonged usage.

9. Smile and be courteous to others around you
Seriously to make a flight enjoyable for yourself and to others around, smile and be courteous.  If you want to switch seats or ask someone not to push back their seats or want more water/fluids, etc try to be reasonable because shouting and screaming will get you nothing.  Sometimes, smile gets things done!

10. Get WiFi if available on your flight.  Provides more entertainment options and the speeds are not that bad.  I had to pause for it to finish buffering videos on youtube and then watch those but trust me accessing WiFi while on flight is really worth the money spent.

On an unrelated topic, I had Air India flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad and oh boy the aircraft sucked.  The engines made this huge noise for the entire duration of the flight (50 minutes seemed like ages) and also the tray tables were broken and so were some of the seats!!!  The interior of the aircraft seemed like some third grade cheap motel room.  However, what struck me the most was how helpful and kind the air hostesses were.  I mean with the cheap airline tickets it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry in India flies instead of taking train or buses.  I saw some really annoying and stupid people on that one flight but the air hostesses were really patient and handled the customers well.  In one case, one of the hostess went out of her way and helped an old lady walk up to the restroom holding her hand and comforting her.  I truly believe that Air India is really functional because of people like this cause their aircraft really is the lamest one I’ve ever been on.

Will keep posting from India but for now Alvida!

Traffic School

I was driving to Los Angeles, CA from Las Vegas, NV recently when it happened.  I was driving along a lonely patch of road on some stupid deserted highway, gossiping and chatting with my cousins who had flown down to visit Vegas.  The speed limit on the road was 55 and unfortunately the Enterprise Rental car people don’t hand out cars with cruise control if you pick a compact car.  I mean who orders a car without cruise control in today’s times??  That is pretty stupid if you ask me on Enterprise’s part.  However, I suddenly saw a flash of red and blue on the opposite side of the road and the first instinct was to check the speedometer.  SHIT!!!!  I was going 76 in a 55 MPH zone which is pretty bad.  The cop came behind us and pulled us over.

People in the back seat that were sleeping until now jumped up and everyone starts throwing their ideas around.  Example “I knew it… this always happens on road trips!” to “One of my friend also got a ticket recently” n so on.  Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the cop walked up to the window and asked “Sir, you were going 77 in a 55 zone.  Is there a reason for your speeding tonight?”  Now, every time a cop asks this (I’ve had 2 other tickets before for speeding) I don’t know what to answer… “Yes, I just bought this new pair of wheels and wanted to see how fast it goes” or “I left my dog at home and suddenly he phoned me asking me to get home asap as he is not feeling well”.  I get dead scared when he asks this and the only sane response that I always mutter is “No reason :)” hoping that some day a cop will be impressed by my honesty and let me off with a warning.

So, he writes a ticket and we have a sad drive home with all the way people discussing how to drive better and when did I actually go over the limit and so on.  Captain Hindsight would have been a great help in situations like this.

Hindsight from South Park

“You shouldn’t have paid attention on the gossip but should instead be monitoring your speed” – Captain Hindsight from South Park

So, the ticket came out to be close to 400 bucks but luckily in the state of California you can attend traffic school and get the ticket off your record.  It was the first time I was going to attend the traffic school.  There are several DMV approved websites that allow you to take the test from the convenience of your couch and cost about 18-20$.  Once you clear the test at the end, they would mail the certificate to the court where you were issued the ticket.  I picked a website named autotrafficschool.com.  So basically, you have to go through about 12 chapters of general information on driving defensively and at the end of each chapter there is a quiz with about 5-6 questions wherein, you have to score 80% to proceed to the next chapter.  However, some of these questions on the quiz are plain common sense and the questions don’t change even if you have to retake these interim tests.  So, without even reading the chapters I was able to clear some of the tests and for the rest, you know which question you answered wrong, go back to the chapter read the answer and retake the test.  Finally, there is a final exam that needs to be cleared in 2 takes and is essentially a recap of all the previous tests and so if you know the answers to the questions in the chapters between, chances are you will clear the final test (I scored a 100% score on the final one in the first take)

It took me about 30-45 minutes to finish the school and get certificate of passing.  However, it made me wonder why does the government even have to administer these schools?  I mean there are several flaws with this system.  For starters, there is no way to monitor who is taking the test and so I can attend the school for others and the school can not verify if that is the case.  Secondly, with the amount of retakes it allows, anybody can clear the school even if they did or didn’t pay any attention to the chapters.  I mean the first instinct would simply be to guess the answers and then if you fail the section then go back and read the part of the chapter which would help answer the question.  Lastly, there is no guarantee that the school would then send over the certificate to the DMV and they “recommend” you get back to the court and verify that the certificate was delivered and the ticket has been dropped.  It is a better option to simply  collect the fine but drop the ticket from record if an individual has not had any tickets in the recent 18 months.

To me it seems that just the hefty fine amount is sufficient to stop me from speeding in the near future and the traffic school is just a hassle.

The Golden Gate Relay: A Run for Cause

It all began on the fine evening of February 28, 2012 at 4:50 PM with a simple note from Sriram, the VP of Engineering at my company asking a few of us if we wanted to take part in “The Relay”.

The Golden Gate Relay

The start line of the Golden Gate Relay

The Start line

The relay is about 191 mile relay race that begins in Calistoga, CA covering 36 cities and ends in SantaCruz, CA.  The race covers scenic trails across Napa Valley, Golden Gate bridge, Sausalito, San Francisco, etc.  Each member on a team of 12 has to run 3 legs of the race in rotation.  The legs range from easy to hard and could be between 3.5 to 8 miles in length.  The proceedings from the run benefit a Non-profit organization called Organs ‘R’ US and we were supposed to run for another Non-Profit organization called ILP (India Literacy Project) that promotes education in India.  As the relay is organized in the Bay Area, teams from different companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, etc all compete for the win.  The famed runner Dean Karnazes also runs the relay (Apparently, that guy has only one motive in life to keep running as written in this article on Cracked).  The relay was scheduled for May 4-5, 2013 this year, which gave us about 2 months to train.

I was really hesitant at first to commit myself to the relay.  I used to play Soccer in school and had a severe fracture in 2006.  I had to rest for about 4 months and had to undergo a surgery where the doctor had to join the bone using a titanium plate and got about 12 stitches in my leg.  I have totally given up on running or playing soccer since and am currently at a 200 pound weight mark.  However, in his note Sriram mentioned that you don’t have to be a runner for doing the relay and I fell for the trap 🙂

The Nomis Team

We were not able to get 12 people to sign up for the event and hence, the 12 people team consisted of 6 Nomis runners and 6 from Xilinx.  I don’t have enough information about the team from Xilinx but am outlining my team mates from Nomis here.

Sriram Kumar: The Leader
Like I mentioned before, Sriram is the head of Engineering and had done the relay quite a few times before with other people.  He had the most information about the relay among our team members and he was our team captain to handle Van 1.  He would be the one making sure all of us reached the handoff points on time, making sure to motivate each of us along the way, handing out Gatorade / water / snacks to the runners and took part in driving the van.  Basically, the leader at Nomis was the leader of our team

Shashin Chokshi: The Youngster
A fellow Gujjubhai, Shashin is the lean mean running machine.  He was the youngest in our team and the most dedicated.  Coming from the product team @ Nomis, Shashin really helped in co-ordinating the practice runs and to check on people when they miss it.  He has done several different runs for charity over the past few years.

Krishna Ramamurthi: The Lord of Running
Krishna is the fastest in our Nomis team.  He was our go-to guy who was best equipped at the run with different kinds of socks, anti-inflammatory medicines, some awesome cream that just relaxed the aching muscles and a Lumia 920 that we used the most for navigation purposes.  He also fixed the headlamps and blinkers to use at night.  I think he did some sub-8 minute practice sprints in and around the city.  He told me to cut my toe nails before the long run, a simple step that I didn’t take and which is still causing pain 😦

Niranjan Shetty: The Motivational Runner
He is from the Analytics team, and did some good runs.  He never attended any practice runs and I didn’t expect him to be so good and he was the best person that motivated the team.  He ran with Sriram and me even after his strenuous legs to simply push the runner.  He also maintained a sub-9 minute pace that was really awesome as well.

Anand Ramasubramaniam: The SandBagger
Seriously, Anand ran the most in the relay for our team.  He did some 19 miles in total alone over the 2 days.  He swapped turns with me so that he had to run more instead of his regular run.  This guy showed no expression of fatigue or tiredness and would just plug his iPhone in his ears and keep running.  He had to take up the longest of legs in the worst weather conditions and still didn’t complain about it… Terrific job!!!

And lastly Me, myself: The Snail
Seriously, the running pace that these guys achieved I couldn’t even do it on a straight downhill road!!!  I was the slowest and the largest in the group, a very bad combination to begin with.  For me it was simply an achievement that I finished all my legs and didn’t back out (I did try to back out but thanks to the support and loud cheering of my teammates, I was able to finish all legs successfully).

 

The Experience

The relay is really awesome if I think of it now and was a great team building exercise.  Before the run we were supposed to pick up the van a day earlier from San Jose.  I totally messed up and ended up in a residential place @ Mountain view instead of the address in San Jose.  The street address was the same and that got me really confused and everyone else angry on my stupidity.  However, I drove crazily through the evening traffic on 101 and reached the rental place in the nick of time.  The first day started with all of us driving up to Calistoga and Niranjan starting his leg at 10:30 am in 89 degree F temperatures from there.  It was a really hot run and pretty strenuous with some uphill patches and yet he finished it quickly.  God bless the makers of Gatorade as without the awesome stuff, it would’ve been really difficult to stay hydrated in the heat.  I was the second runner and was already ready having done my stretches and was nervous with anticipation.  When the baton finally came to me, I did really dismal and just after running about 20 minutes, I was all exhausted and sweating profusely.  I was ready to throw in the towel and just drive to the next exchange point, but my teammates were so awesome that they kept cheering me on.  I finished at the end with a 15 minutes per mile pace.  I was really disheartened and even though no one showed any signs of anger, I just felt boy I brought the team down!  But then we had the lord of running take over and he finished the leg in the fastest time outpacing the other teams that went ahead.  Anand did a terrific job after of running 7 miles in the extreme heat!!

Nighttime was much better.  We had an awesome meal at Azzurro pizzeria.  The temperature dropped down a bit and was way more fun to run.  I had a 5 mile run at night and I did a better average of 13 min/mile.  Not at all something to be proud of but I was glad that I finished it and actually ran it instead of simply walking it.  The leg was through a deserted trail and hence, no support from the teammates was available for a larger distance.  I actually lost my way in between that brought down my pace a bit more 😦

After finishing the Leg at night

After finishing the Leg at night

The best part of the trip for me was driving the van.  I did most of the driving and I really loved that huge van with capacity to seat 12.  Even with sore muscles, driving always ends up giving pleasure.  The second best part of the race is the feeling you get when you finally end your legs.

After finishing all of my runs

After finishing all of my runs

As soon as you see the exchange point, it injects a new lease into your legs and you sprint towards the finish line.  Also, the camaraderie was good between all the runners and everyone would look out for others.  We would not only cheer our team but all the runners that would go by and we saw the same sort of encouragement coming from the other teams.  Lastly, before my last leg, A couple, Ajay and his wife, volunteering for the ILP project, brought all ILP teams awesome Samosas, Tea and upma with jalebi.  It was the best snack at the end of an arduous run.  We finished strong with Shashin and Sriram doing an all uphill run with approximately 9 minute pace.  Sriram’s sprint in the last 5 minutes on his final leg was terrific and Shashin’s support was commendable.  I mean after running uphill for even 0.5 miles, I would be dead and this guy ran his 5 miles uphill and then ran alongside Sriram to motivate him… Unbelievable!!  After the relay, we went to Madras Cafe for some hearty South Indian meal, dropped off extra stuff at Sriram’s place and boarded a train home.  BTW, a big thank you to Sriram’s family for having us dirty, stinky people into their place and serving us awesome cookies and tea 🙂

After the relay, I got some bengay and advil and just slept for about 12 hours!!  We actually didn’t do bad and ended up being the 135th rank out of 180 teams that participated.  Next year, if I improve my performance we can do even better and hopefully, I will be running again unlike my claim that this is the first and last time that I am volunteering for such a run 🙂  The donation page is still up @ http://www.ilpnet.org/ILPRelayFundRaising/169  Please donate for promoting literacy in India and help feed and educate children.

MiO Liquid: Water Enhancer

I have been watching the television ads for the MiO liquid enhancer for quite some time but never felt the need to try it out.  However, the ads are pretty cool with people adding MiO to water after a workout or just for taste.  Recently, on my visit to Safeway for grocery shopping, I saw the small bottle tucked away in the corner and I just wanted to try it out.  The front claims that this small pack consists of Vitamins as well and so no harm in trying it out.  There were many flavors available but to be safe, I picked Orange Tangerine.  I have realized that Orange flavor is something that people hardly screw up and it is a safe bet.

The Packaging

The MiO comes in a plastic bottle that allows for easy squeezes of the liquid onto the glass.  It seems like a water droplet at first glance and the small size allows to easily carry it around in your pockets or gym bags.  The package is cute and sexy simultaneously   The lid on top is also very tight and doesn’t flip open by mistake.  This prevents occasional unwanted drips that I have experienced with several other products.  Also, carrying this small pouch is preferable to carrying a full bottle of vitamin water or Gatorade kind of liquid.  The labels are very vibrant and stylish and you can easily guess some of the flavors by looking at the color of the M on the front.

The Taste

I personally squirt one squeeze into my water bottle of about 500ml.  The taste is very similar to TANG Orange available in the market.  However, the advantage this has is it is liquid and it dissolves very fast and easily.  The drink is uniformly flavored and I also love the colors when it is still dissolving.  The pattern of colors is very nice. I also like adding a few drops in my green tea and sipping it at leisure.  However, I did notice that adding more of it causes the taste to degrade and throat starts feeling itchy.  After a few practice drinks, you will find the taste that best suites your buds.  I am gonna try the Mango-Peach next.

I would really recommend this product and am gonna try out more flavors soon.  The taste is much better than powdered flavors and it dissolves easily with just one shake of the bottle.  So, Grab a MiO for $3.99 flip it, tip it and sip it  😀

Taco Bell: My Favorite

In the spring of 2007, I first laid my feet on the American soil.  I was young, fresh out of undergrad college and dreaming of a bright future in the field of Computers.  It was right at that time that my love affair with Taco Bell started.  I still remember the first time I went there.  Arlington, TX was really cold that year and people reported that it had snowed in Texas after ages.  I had 3 roommates that shared a small apartment with me in Forest Glen, the housing unit of college itself.  It was the first time I was away from home and nobody to look after me.  My roommates cooked some good food everyday but I had always been a foodie and after munching on the same lentils and rice, I desperately wanted to go out and eat.  I gathered my roomies, we put on our bulky jackets and started walking in the snow to get to the nearest Taco Bell that was a mere 0.5 miles from our residence.  I had heard from my cousin that it was the cheapest food that a college student with limited bucks could gorge on.  We were excited and nervous about what we would order and talked about the faint knowledge that each of us had about mexican food.

This Taco bell on 1316 S Cooper St was pretty huge with a large parking lot in the front.  We walked in and were greeted by the person at the cash register.  I fumbled with the cash in my pocket, trying to decide what to pick from the list of combos.  Finally, I decided on a combo with chalupa, large drink and ordered a side on Cheesy Fiesta Potato.  It was funny as I walked to the cash register and the person is like “For here or To go?” and I was like “Yes”.  He again asked the question and finally gave up thinking it is better to just hand us the trays as I’ll never be able to understand what those terms are.

We filled our drink cups and that was the first time I was alone with a large cup of soda.  The notion of free Refills was difficult to digest as a small glass of soda in India seemed really costly with no refills at that time.  I applied Fire sauce on the insides of my Chalupa and boy was it good… After a week of eating the same food again and again or cooking up some dismal dishes at home, this was such a welcome relief.  The cheesy fiesta potatoes were so good and just a buck!!  Needless to say, I also filled up my drink on the way back and had to keep switching hands because the cold would freeze my fingers holding the cold container.

Later on, Taco Bell was my retreat from boring home cooked meal, taking my to-be wife for the first time on a date at 8:00 am after playing cards all night or when I just craved some good hot mexican food.  One fine day, Taco Bell introduced Volcano sauce and man that volcano burrito is the coolest thing on the Taco Bell menu.  I have tried almost all of the veggie offerings on the menu and some are interesting where as some are just plain torture… I love the volcano burrito, Crunchwrap supreme, Nacho Cheese Chalupa, Mexican Pizza, Apple Empanada or their cheese Quesadillas… I keep switching between them but I still love to go there once a week or more often.  People drift away from Taco Bell once they start earning or just stop loving it, however I am still a loyal fan of the joint.  They keep amazing me with stuff e.g. cheesy gordito wrap which consists of a thick chalupa wrapped outside a hard taco shell… I have never been good at eating Tacos as once you take a bite, it would start breaking, spilling stuff all around and ending with messy fingers.  However, this soft but thick shell outside the taco meant  less spills and no breakage in the taco within… EUREKA!!!!

I do have noticed that Taco Bell is pretty inconsistent with their quality unlike the other big chains… I ordered a volcano burrito 2 weeks ago in San Bruno and there was no crunchy chips nor proper volcano sauce and the tortilla just felt empty.  I had one at the same joint and today it was a completely different story, tasted much better, seemed fresh and was filled really well with the ingredients.  Also, when Taco Bell and KFC are at the same outlet, it is usually a mess and I avoid going to that Taco Bell… It would be stinky, dirty and overall a dirty place but like I mentioned earlier they do tend to be really crappy in enforcing proper franchise rules and regulations.  I hope they keep coming up with more spicy and tasty mexican treats ending up with better look and feel of the franchise stores 🙂

West Yellowstone National Park

 

Yellowstone park

Yellowstone park

 

Snow ghosts at Yellowstone

Snow ghosts at Yellowstone

After returning from my Christmas break 2012, I was lazy to get on to wordpress and type in my next entry.  Finally, I got time today to pen the blog.  I went out to Yellowstone national park in winter 2012 and to tell the truth that was the best time I had travelling.  I am going to post pictures and hope this entry is really useful for someone planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Winter.  We decided on driving from San Francisco, CA to Los Angeles, CA as rental cars were cheaper in LA in the month of December.  The drive from Los Angeles to West Yellowstone Park, MT is about 1009 Miles and a journey of 15 hours.

Phase 1: Drive to West Yellowstone, MT

Enterprise Rental Car: We were supposed to get a 5 seater SUV from Enterprise Rental car at 12 noon on Saturday, December 22, 2012 from 21118 Ventura Boulevard, Woodland Hills, CA.  My friend and I reached there a bit early at 9 A.M. hoping to get a car early so that we could get a headstart in the traffic.  The person at the front desk was really nice asking us to wait and accommodated our request for early pickup.  However, a lady named Monica who came out to hand the car keys over to us was pretty rude and annoying.  She would just not let us drive without getting the Liability insurance (which is 20 bucks a day i.e. more than the cost of the rental per day).  I never purchase the liability from rental car company as most of the credit cards today act as the primary rental insurance.  I was pretty pissed by the behavior of that particular employee and it was really not good customer service.  I finally got behind the wheels of our Jeep Patriot after about 30 minutes of Monica’s annoying chatter and drove out deciding never ever to rent a car from this particular Enterprise ever in the future.

We stopped at two LA locations namely Halal Gyro Pizza House, which serves awesome Aloo Paranthas that are the size of a XXL pizza with spicy masala scattered on top served with yogurt and coriander chutney and Tawakal which serves pretty good Veg. Biryani that is spicy and the portion size is also pretty good here.  After devouring the food, we started driving for the journey ahead and made some stops in between for snow shoes, gloves, etc.  We went north from LA, covering the full width of Nevada and crossing over Idaho to finally reach West Yellowstone, MT on 23rd December right for lunch.

I would like to mention that the drive through Nevada was gorgeous.  It seemed like we were the only people driving out that night as the roads were pretty much empty except for our car.  We went through the death valley at night and it was covered with snow as far as the eye could see.  The moonlight shone brightly on the roads lighting up our path and because there are no human lights to distort the night sky, the twinkling stars are visible in a manner that is never possible in San Francisco.  One issue that we faced was that the gas stations in death valley are spaced far apart and so you should get your car filled up whenever you see one just to be safe.  You might also need snow chains if the roads are not cleared (lucky for us, the roads were always cleared and we didn’t have to use ours) or get a 4 wheel drive for the ice covered roads.

Phase 2: West Yellowstone, MT

The Gusher Pizza at Yellowstone

The Gusher Pizza at Yellowstone

 

The first thing we wanted to do after reaching here was to grab something to eat.  However, because it is winter time and there aren’t many tourists most of the places are shut off for the season.  We found a place called The Gusher which seemed decent and was the only place open at 2 PM.  The waitress was very nice and welcoming and we ordered tons of food.  The Taco special pizza was not great but wasn’t bad either and resembled the CPK tostada pizza.  They had some real good garlic bread though and nothing seemed to be extraordinary from what we ordered.  Once we finished lunch, we were all tired from the exhaustive drive and so next destination was the hotel room.  We booked rooms at the Best Western and the room was pretty cheap and decent (69$ for 2 double beds per night).  The kid at the front desk was very helpful and the awesome thing is that they have a jacuzzi and heated indoor pool!!!  As there was not much rush, we got our room right next to the pool and headed out for a dip straightaway after checking our luggage into the rooms.  It is awesome to see snow falling down outside while you are relaxing in the heated jacuzzi.  However, the walk from the pool area to our rooms was freezing as we were down in our shorts and had to run through about knee deep snow to get to our room.  Also, the hotel was right next to the park entrance making it a viable choice.  Lodging options within the park are really costly but would be a better option as the Old Faithful lodge is right next to the Geyser and if you are staying in the park then you can roam around without a guide to help you out (which is mandatory for people staying outside the park!).  I took out my newly purchased Nikon, got dressed up in about 4-5 layers of clothing and went out to take a few snaps while the rest of the gang hit the bed.  I met some locals, took some great pictures and then drove back to sleep before we go out and grab dinner.  REMEMBER it is freezing here and so always wear several layers of clothing, gloves, some sort of head wear to warm you up as the weather can really drop to 0Fs in no time at all.

We woke up and walked up to a place called Wild West Pizzeria.  They have divided the place into pub and restaurant and we went to the restaurant area.  My friend mentioned that the Pub is also good and they have some very cheap drinks to offer.  I ended up ordering a macaroni and cheese which was really bad.  My friends also ordered some chicken wings which they mentioned were disgusting too, a spaghetti that was mediocre and so we were pretty much all disappointed with the food.  We enjoyed a lot in the snow after that… we took along a snow tube and so played with it first, there was a parking behind the hotel that was not cleared and covered with snow that was almost waist high.  I tried to be an athlete from X-games trying to run and then jump onto the snow sliding plate, falling down hard in the process and injuring my wrist that hurts to this day 😦  It gets dark in this season at about 4:30 PM itself so at about 10 PM we were done for the day and went to sleep.

Phase 3: Snowmobile ride in West Yellowstone, MT

Snow Mobiles

Snow Mobiles

 

We had booked snowmobile rides from before for 24th December, 2012 at Two Top Snowmobiles for a guided tour of the park until Old Faithful geyser.  As we did last minute reservations, we didn’t get the full day adventure that covers more areas of the park.  There are also options to rent snowmobiles for the day and drive outside the park.  We rented out helmets, overalls and gloves from the rental office for 16$ per person.  After getting all suited up, we were given primary driving instructions and safety orientation by our guide.  Handling the snowmobile was a bit tricky at first but once you get the hang of it, it is awesome.  I sort of imagined myself to be James Bond driving through the snow peaked mountains chasing the bad guys all over the place.  We got to see coyotes, Elks, Bisons, etc wild animals in their natural habitat and I cannot describe the experience in words.  The park looks simply marvellous with Aspen trees everywhere, snow covered mountains and steam from the hot water geysers rising up intermittently.  We drove all the way to Old Faithful geyser, saw it erupt against the white backdrop provided by the snow.  We ate at the park fast food joint run by Xantarra Parks and Resorts.  We ordered some french fries, Veggie burgers, black bean burgers, ministrone soup and some hot drinks.  The food was good and some of it was tasty.  I actually had no expectations from the place in the middle of this much snow but vegetarians will seriously have no problem.  We drove back out of the park. making stops at some geysers, a hot waterfall in midst of snow and was close to 5 PM when we left the park for the day.  We had dinner at a chinese place called Red Lotus where a single old chinese man did all the work.  We were the only customers there at night for dinner and the place had some good hot soup, nice chow mein and friend rice.  We also ordered the Lo Mein but I like spicy food and the noodles were very bland for my taste.

Although I want to continue writing and finish the rest of the journey too, I am feeling sleepy and am craving the Beard Papa’s chocolate filled bun at my place so will continue the thread tomorrow with part 2 of the trip and probably post some pictures here and also in the next post.  Sorry to keep you waiting!!