Category Archives: Travel

5 Months in New York City: The People

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.

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Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.

To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.

diversity

So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.

The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.

The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.

For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.

In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck  for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.

It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.

The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.

And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.

And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.

I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.

 

 

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Winter Diaries from Work Travels

I am writing this post sitting in my car and watching a bunch of workers install a drilled shaft foundation for a bridge in western Iowa by the Missouri river. I am about 120 miles away from home and have been here for the past couple of cold and windy months. I stay at a hotel, drive a rental car and eat out every day. I get to go back home for a couple of nights on the weekends but I am always back here Monday mornings. I don’t even bother to check out of my hotel when I go home because I know I am coming back there in a couple of days. And every time I come back to the room, it is exactly how I left it – empty and desolate. I have lived this lifestyle for long stretches before, and I shall be doing so once again till the end of this winter.

Traveling is an inevitability for a civil engineer. And in the initial stages of my career, these visits typically last several months at a stretch. It means being away from home for long periods of time. It means I don’t get to eat home cooked food, sleep in my own bed, listen to my records, hang out at the neighborhood bar, or even see familiar faces for a while. Yes once a week or two, I get to do most of the things above. But the lack of continuity makes it that much harder to fully dwell in its satisfaction. And in the end, I usually find myself unable to build on the connections back home, and being short on time, opportunity and desire to forge new ones on my travels.

The hotel room is one of the loneliest places on the planet. It is not a prison, yet I feel trapped in the inevitability of my own solitude in it. The hotel may even be filled with such people – each in their own rooms – people who have nothing but the silence of the inanimate furniture to return to in the evenings. And I am one of them. I return to a newly made bed, emptied trash can, new set of towels, vacuumed floor, new soaps and shampoo – all done by nameless, faceless people I never get to meet or thank. Expectations of the paid orderliness has become a part of my everyday lifestyle. But it has always failed to offset the glaring absence of anything living or breathing to come back to. Instead, the hotel room has only provided the comforts that were absolutely necessary – those that would have been noticed only in their absence.

hotel

A Desolate Room with a Bleak View

I have always cherished the privacy offered in the hotel room. But I have also sought for something that is one step ahead of privacy – anonymity. Nobody bothers me once I am in my room, and I truly like that. But for whatever reason, I wish to be not noticed at all when I am in the hotel but outside my room. Perhaps I get a little self-conscious coming back from the field with my boots and clothes caked in mud. So over the course of my stay, I have found a very convenient work around for this. I simply choose hotels that have a side/back entrance with an elevator close to that entrance, and I ask the hotel to assign me a room close to that side/back entrance. With this, I can simply park my car next to the side/back entrance and quietly slip into my room unnoticed. And this one small thing has provided me with a great sense of fulfillment – a satisfaction for a need that I still, however, cannot clearly define.

And once I am in, the reality of the hotel room – in all its limitations and absences – begins to sink in – which is why I have almost always tried to stay away from my room once I am back. The only sustainable activity for me inside a hotel room would be reading a book. And since I can only read so many books, I try to get out and explore – seeking out new restaurants, coffee shops, record stores and watching a lot of movies. Which brings me to my next point of discussion – eating out by myself.

Eating out alone ranks only slightly lower than going back to an empty hotel room in the list of loneliest things I can do. And it is almost as depressing as cooking food and having to eat it all by myself. It was only a couple of weeks ago when my friend asked me a question did I realize something fundamental in the choice of restaurants that I frequent. Her question was simple: “Do you usually sit in a booth/table or do you sit by the bar counter?” I answered, “Usually by the bar counter, unless the place doesn’t have one.” And when I thought about it a little more, I realized that not only do I prefer to sit at the bar counter, but also that I tend to stick with/revisit those restaurants that have the bar counter. But, the question was, why?

I have come to believe that the booth/table includes a certain expectation of occupancy that does not apply to the bar counter. There is a sense of zoning and clearly defined capacity that goes with the booths – a separation of groups, with each group occupying part of or the full table/booth. The larger space available in a booth, I believe, is meant to be occupied, and not to be left alone. So when I see a single person in a booth, the absence of additional people filling the empty seats turns out to be more conspicuous than the guy/girl actually sitting there and eating. And at that point, the perceived expectancy of occupation is not met and I feel that there is something out of place there. Which is what I try to avoid with myself by instead sitting at the bar counter.

The bar counter, on the other hand, has none of these features. It is a continuous zone which does not have a beginning or an end, and definitely no pre-defined capacity associated with it. People of different group sizes can sit at the bar counter with absolutely no perceived expectancy of occupation. People eating alone can sit at the bar counter and the empty stools around them will not appear conspicuous in their non-occupancy. And this suits me just fine. My mind will not worry about the empty seats around me and I can instead just focus on the food.

So yes, I prefer restaurants that have a bar counter and I feel comfortable and not incongruous with my surroundings. But as much as that may provide a slightly satisfactory platform to have my meal, the fact that I am performing the activity by myself is what I seem to carry with me on my way out of the restaurant and into my hotel room.

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Sometimes I just miss being home. I think about kneeling down on the floor, going through my record collection, picking out one of my recent acquisitions and placing it on my record player. As the record starts spinning, I go back to sit on my couch and get comfortable, waiting for the music to take me places. The needle lands on the record setting off a few pops and crackles before the music fades in and slowly takes over my apartment and my world. And just as I am about to give in and go on this highly anticipated journey, I open my eyes – instead making the trip back to the less desirable universe of me sitting on my bed and trying to read my Kindle in my hotel room. I sigh, quickly try to shake off the memory like it was a bad dream and go back to my book.

But it is not long before I make another journey to the more desirable universe. This time I am at my neighborhood bar with my gin and soda, looking at my phone and trying to decide which song to play on the jukebox. I make a selection and look around the bar to see if anyone else I know has showed up. I have already said hi to the regulars and am now talking with one of my close friends who just got a new job. Somebody in the crowd around me then decides to buy a round of shots to celebrate something – or nothing. I call for a Butter Crown. The bartender brings everyone their shots and we say cheers and bring our glasses together. I can already smell the Crown Royal in my shot as I bring the glass to my lips to drink it. And just as I am about to do my shot, I am unceremoniously ushered back to the less desirable universe by a new text on my phone. The Kindle in my hand then makes me aware of my temporal travels to a better place. And the moment of return and the associated disappointment work together to tarnish the memory of the more desirable set of circumstances.

I look at the clock and decide to call it a night. I turn off the lights and slip under the blanket telling myself that I will be traveling to a lot of different universes in the next 6-7 hours – most of which are likely to be more desirable than the one I currently find myself in. And as I close my eyes and let the sleep drift into me, I can still smell the Crown Royal in my shot – and this time I drink it.

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I suppose it isn’t fair to portray my experience traveling for work purely in such a morose, bleak and gloomy manner. I do get some perks as part of it – I get to see a lot of different places in the state; I make significant dough working long hours in the field; all my loyalty programs get a big boost – hotel stays, car rentals, etc – which I have redeemed for great satisfaction in the past; I have even seen plenty of concerts during my travels.

So whether to look at the whole experience as a painful one which comes with its own perks, or as too high a price to pay for getting something that may not be absolutely necessary is up for debate. I am acutely aware of how many things I am missing out on, and how many times I have questioned myself if I’d rather be somewhere else. But I am largely tempted to rationalize my choices and circumstances to make myself feel better, so I will probably pick the former.

I am still sitting in the front seat of my rental car. It has been a few days since I started writing this piece. The sun is out today on a rare clear and slightly warm day. And I am enjoying it pretending to be completely oblivious to the snowstorm due to hit the city in a few days. I am scheduled to work late night tonight and will continue to be on site till the end of this month. At the end of it all, I hope to go home to sleeping in my own bed, cooking my own food, familiar neighborhood and familiar faces, a bigger bank balance, and plenty of free hotel stays and car rental days. And till then I have my desolate hotel room to go back to, the bar counter to feel inconspicuous in, and weekend trips back home to remind myself of what awaits me at the end of my stay here.

PS: A couple of hours after I finished writing this in my car, I learnt that I would be staying here, working through the weekend. So much for looking forward to being reminded of what I do not have – even if it was just for a couple of days.

A Wild and Exhausting Summer

I am exhausted. And I may even be writing this just to get that point across. I am also writing this on my 30th birthday – which is apparently a significant thing. Apparently, I am now old, can be officially called an ‘Uncle’, and as my parents and relatives subtly remind me – my prospects in the arranged marriage market have now taken a deep hit. I am also writing this 2 days after my birthday celebration which involved the highest rate of alcohol consumption and (rather short lived) general feelings of invincibility I have experienced in the last 5-6 years – a combination that culminated in my very own “I AM A GOLDEN GOD!” moment (OK maybe not that dramatic). I am also writing this after a full day and a half of (completely necessary) recovery. But more importantly, I am writing this at the end of a wild, wild summer.

I AM A GOLDEN GOD!!

The idea of seasons took its time for me to get used to. It was at least 2-3 years after my arrival in the US that I realized that I cannot be as active in the winter as I am in the summer. And more importantly, that it was OK not to be going out and traveling all the time in the winter. At the other end of that realization was my effort to be as active as possible during the months of April to October. It is a change in my lifestyle that I have come to accommodate over the past few years, and am now actually quite content with the new mental states that I find myself in at various times of the year.

For the past few years, ever since I started working, I have tried to reach a particular point in my mental state around late October/early November. It is a state of mind wherein I can honestly tell myself, “I have done everything I possibly could this summer, and now I am ready for the winter.” I have been largely successful these past few years in achieving that state of mind around October/November – just in time for the winter to set in.

This year, I reached that state of mind in the first week of August.

This summer has been one long continuum punctuated with concerts, music festivals, weekend travels, night-outs at bars, work, poker, games of Settlers of Catan, games of bags (a.k.a Cornhole), lots of records and CD shopping and of working out. It has had its moments – from very intense and stressful to very peaceful and relaxing. 4 trips to Chicago, 4 to Kansas City, twice to Wisconsin (including my 4th visit to House on The Rock is as many years), 3 music festivals, 3 night-outs at an establishment that I’d rather not specify (one of which culminated in my rather memorable 530 AM question “Is that the fuckin’ sun?“), 30+ bands seen live, a month long stay in a resort at Storm Lake (for work), God only knows how many gallons of alcohol consumed, late late nights (more like early mornings) at the neighborhood bar, God only knows how many new friends made, and all this while working on a high profile highway project in the state of Iowa.

This is probably the point I post a meme summing it all up:

Yes. It was really exhausting. And I would do it all over again.

In all seriousness, I reached a point of complete exhaustion the first week of August. I had been on a non-stop schedule of weekend travel/concerts/general fun for over 3 months. And after my trip to Milwaukee the first weekend of August, I just felt I was done – which was really understandable. But the fact that I did not have any concerts/travel scheduled for the next 3 weeks made the timing just spot on. So the break was most welcome, which I spent doing exactly nothing. (OK I will admit I continued my obsession with Japanese crime novels during that time.) And towards the end of August, I got my energy back and was traveling around all over again.

In the end, I look back at these past 6 months with a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t felt in a while. This satisfaction came with a new found appreciation for just being fortunate enough to have the time, resources and physical ability to do all the things I did. It also came with a sense of pride for realizing that my passion and curiosity for exploring what’s out there are not going away. It came with the true understanding that I am really only as old as I want to be. It also came with the realization that I have a group of friends that I can truly depend on, and a neighborhood that I can call my own. This is the closest I have come to feeling like I am home here in the US, and I truly feel fortunate that I have all this.

My 30th birthday celebration was probably the last ‘exhausting’ activity this year. My concert calendar is now empty till January, and I am going sober for the next 4-5 weeks. But perhaps, more importantly, my parents are going to be here a week from today for a month. What better way to do the cool down lap this year than just feasting on mom’s food? There may yet be one final weekend trip this year where I get to take my parents out.

But all in all, I can confidently say that yes, I am indeed ready for the winter.

No Decision Weekend

As part of my continuing effort to lead a stress free lifestyle, I decided to try something new. I decided that I would not make any decisions for a full weekend*. This was largely inspired and based on the ideas of ‘Decision Fatigue‘ and ‘Ego Depletion‘. In a nutshell, those two ideas convey the fact that the human mind only has a limited pool of energy or resources that can be drawn to evaluate options and make decisions on a day to day basis. It also follows that after a long session of decision making, our ability to make correct (or any) decisions decreases significantly because of this mental fatigue. I guess in a way, this is a fairly elaborate academic way to explain the seemingly banal idea of ‘getting stressed out’. But you get the point. Making more decisions takes away more and more energy from your mind leaving you tired at the end of the day. Activities such as doing nothing or sleeping help replenish that source of energy for use at a later time.

Minimizing the number of decisions we make is a fairly popular approach to reduce stress levels. Steve Jobs and President Obama both implemented this idea in their everyday lives. And so do professional poker players. I just decided to take it one step further. I decided to make absolutely zero decisions for a full weekend. On Friday morning, my plans for the weekend consisted of me driving to Chicago that afternoon to see Mark Knopfler at the Chicago Theater, stay over at my friend’s place that night, meet another friend Saturday evening, and drive back home Sunday afternoon. Apart from this, I had no additional ‘plans’ to do anything at all. So it was then that I decided to make absolutely zero decisions from the time I left home till the time I got back. To be more specific, I decided to not think about the options in front of me when confronted with a decision. Just pick something and go with it if I really have to make a decision.

So that was how my No-Decision-Weekend started. I listened to BBC or NPR for the whole drive, switching between them only when I got really bored with one of them. Never bothered to explore the dozens of other music channels that Sirius XM had to offer. Reached Chicago and went to see the concert. Mark Knopfler was great, though I wish he had put in some effort – any effort – to actually sing the lyrics to Sultans of Swing instead of just speaking into the mic. But he more than made up for it by singing (and singing well) Your Latest Trick, Romeo & Juliet and my personal favorite On Every Street. So I left on a high, went to my friend’s place, had a beer, did small talk and went to bed at 130 AM. NDW Friday was a success.

NDW Saturday started with my friends asking me if I would be interested in an Apple festival that was taking place in Lincoln Square that morning. Clearly, there was a decision being asked of me. And I firmly declined to make it. I would go wherever it was they wanted to go. So, I found myself in Lincoln Square in a farmer’s market styled festival with lots of apples and apple related dishes – everything from apple pies, apple donuts, apple sauce, apple on stick, caramelized apples, and a bunch of other appley things that I had no idea about. Now I like apples myself but was never a fan of the sweet stuff that Americans tend to make out of it – like pies for instance. Never liked them. But all that changed because my friend declared that it was time to eat apple pie and drink coffee. Clearly I was not going to be objecting to that as that would require me to suggest an alternative and that involved making decisions. So I got an apple pie with some whipped cream and took a bite of it.

Holy fuck!

You know, there are some times when just the act of eating something makes you feel like all is well with mankind and that everything will be OK in the end. And that at that moment, all that mattered was that you were eating and enjoying that thing. I don’t particularly remember thinking of the war in Syria and believing that it was all going to be OK in the end. What I do remember, however, was how that piece of apple pie just melted in my mouth and made me fall in love with a dish that I had actively avoided for a long time. Of course, there was still the coffee to be had, so we went into a coffee shop/bakery and got a coffee. I also found something that looked interesting. It was called a ‘Savory Tart’. I had never seen anything like it before, so I bought it. It was essentially a piece of bread/bun with some small amount of cheese along with some caramelized onions and red peppers on top of it. I took a bite of this ‘Savory Tart’.

Holy fuck!

It tasted just like the mega-super-awesome-all-award-winning-epic-unparalleled-phenomenon ‘Bread Toast’ that I used to eat at all the Bakeries back home in Bangalore. 6 years on, this was the first time I had found something even remotely resembling the Bread Toast from back home. Apple festival was clearly a great success!

But we still had an hour to kill after the festival. So we walked into a record store nearby. That record store was clearly planted right next to the festival just so I did not have to make another decision on where to go next. It is known. I had never been to this record store previously. It was a decent sized store with neatly organized records along with CDs, cassettes, movie DVDs and video games. I started filing through the records with absolutely no idea of what I wanted (which is how I usually go about buying records anyway). An hour later, I had a problem on my hands. I had 4 albums and had to pick 3 to stay under a ‘reasonably exceeded budget’. I had to make a decision. So I just totaled up 2 different combinations and went with the one that cost me more. Ended up getting Illmatic by Nas, Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and Songs in A&E by Spiritualized. Problem solved! (Sorry Slowdive!) But it was only when I went to the counter to pay for them that I had perhaps the most interesting conversation that whole weekend.

There was a guy and a girl at the counter who were managing the transactions. The girl (who was around my age) called me over and I handed her my records. She started punching numbers into the computer.

Girl: It is going to be $80.

Me: OK. Here is my card.

Girl (running my card): Do you want a copy of your receipt?

Me: No

Girl: Please sign this for me.

Me (signing): Here you go.

Girl: Do you want paper or plastic?

Me (still not making any decisions): Anything is fine.

Girl is now picking out a paper bag.

Me: I am not making any decisions today.

Girl (putting the records in the paper bag): Then who is going to make them for you?

Me (pointing at the paper bag): Well apparently, you just did!

We all laugh (including the guy waiting behind me in line).

Girl: If you come back later, I will help you make some more!

I have to admit. That last comment by the girl caught me completely off guard. It took me a few seconds to process what she had actually said and evaluate its potential implications. And it didn’t help that there were a bunch of people waiting in line behind me to make their payments. And by the time I realized I still hadn’t responded to it, she was already processing the next guy’s transaction. I guess I should have asked her her number or something. Or perhaps when she was getting out that day. But oh well, maybe next time.

We then went to Devon St, where the Indian settlement was, for lunch. I already knew where I was going (Udupi Palace) and what I was eating (Bisi Bele Bath). I also knew what I was going to order for my friends (who are American) – Lunch Thali. Once the lunch thalis showed up, I had half a mind to just sit back and watch my friends eat all the different dishes in no particular order or combination – hoping to see them eat HapLa dipped in Paaysa, or mixing the chapathi with all the other items there to make a big fat burrito. But I ended up explaining to them about all the items and what should be eaten with what and in what preferred order. They were able to appreciate it and enjoy it.

That evening, I met up with a friend who was clearly told from the beginning that I would not be making any decisions that night. She suggested we go to a particular bar and met up there. There she asked me if I wanted to go to a different bar, and I simply followed her. At the new bar, she asked me if I wanted to go to another bar and I said OK. I knew a few spots that I would have preferred myself in Chicago but I was clearly not making any decisions that day. So we ended up at the Liars Club on the edges of Lincoln Park. Before we went in, she described the place as a ‘divey night club’. I knew what a dive bar was (one of them is my home away from home away from home), and I knew what a night club was (though it had been over 2 years since I had been to one). But a ‘divey night club’? That sounded curious.

And when I went in there, it was exactly just that – a divey night club! I would not have put it any differently myself. Great place with people of all walks of life – from bikers to hot college girls to a couple where the guy was old enough to be the girl’s father (Hey! Fuck you if you are judging!). And all the people just seemed real. Just like a good dive bar! A place where you could have a good conversation, where the bartenders did shots with you, and here you could even go to the dance floor at the end of the bar to dance to 80’s music being played by the DJ! (Special shout out to that mega-awesome Hispanic guy in his late 40’s with a dress shirt, dress pant and formal boots dancing all night long, making up his own moves and not giving one single fuck to other’s opinions about his dancing. If anything, a bunch of girls went next to him to imitate his dance moves and some went one step ahead and began grinding with him! What a man!)

Great place overall! Thoroughly enjoyed it and stayed there till bar close. I ultimately returned home to my friend’s place at 330 in the morning and went straight to sleep. NDW Saturday was an unequivocal success!

Sunday started with me waking up at 7 AM with no hangover. (Smug face!) I had to leave at around noon, so my friend and I went to get some coffee and breakfast at a nearby cafe. Had a great conversation for the next couple of hours and then I left Chicago. Reached home in Des Moines at around 6 and was thoroughly satisfied with my No-Decision-Weekend trip.

I suppose I achieved my overall objective of not allowing any form of stress to develop over the weekend. This was my second attempt at such a ‘break’, with the first one being done in the company of His Holiness as he elevated his enlightened self to Dr. His Holiness. Stress free vacations are very rare and extremely underrated. Deciding to not make any decisions during a vacation can be very liberating. It does not mean that you are not in control. It means that you have no expectations and nothing at stake. And if you have nothing at stake, nothing can possibly go wrong. In a way, my weekend worked out like the first half of that Jim Carrey movie ‘Yes Man’. I pretty much just said Yes to everything my friends suggested, and it made me experience new and awesome things I otherwise would never have come across. So maybe there is some truth in that movie after all!

Screw all the decision making and the unfulfilled expectations that come with it! As The Dude would say,

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* Well, technically I suppose that was a decision, but fuck you if you are going to get all technical about it.

Going Back Home After 3 Years

I finally went back home to Bangalore after a gap of almost exactly 3 years. I had never been so long away from home prior to that. Even with my parents visiting me in between, that long gap didn’t lose its significance on me. I stayed there for 4 weeks, visiting friends and family and spending time with myself at home. I had no real agenda apart from that and the 4 day trip that my parents had planned. Mostly, I just wanted to sit at home, eat my mom’s food and not worry about work or any of the many other aspects of my existence. But there was perhaps one thing that I was indeed looking forward to.

I just wanted to talk to people around me in my own language. I just wanted to talk in Kannada.

Perhaps the biggest handicap I have faced after moving to the US – and especially Iowa – is the complete and absolute absence of my ability to converse in Kannada with the people around me. Simply put, there isn’t a single person I have met in all of Des Moines who speaks my mother tongue. I am sure they exist, but the probability of them being someone I get to meet, develop a friendship with, and have conversations with them in Kannada on a regular basis is minuscule. Maybe if I lived in a big city, I would have stood a much better chance, but not in a city the size of Des Moines. And as a result, I have had to accept and live with the handicap of being unable to talk in my own mother tongue. It has never been problematic – considering my command over the English language – but it is something that I have constantly missed.

I have mostly dealt with it through secondary means. I speak to my parents, my relatives and a couple of my friends over the phone in Kannada on a regular basis. I also watch Kannada movies on Youtube or Videogirmit, listen to old Kannada songs, and read Kannada books. But none of this has ever come even remotely close to giving me the fulfillment I get from talking to someone in Kannada in person. Which is why when I went back home, the thing I was most excited about was just being able to talk to the people around me in the language that is my mother tongue.

Everybody from the immigration officer at the Bangalore airport (who began questioning me in English and happily changed to Kannada once I gave my responses in Kannada), the local grocery store guy who was trying to find me a pack of cards, the owner of the local medical shop (whom I have known since I was in high school), the guy serving me extra sambhar for my Idly at the fast food Darshini next to the bus stop, all the neighbor aunties who had differing opinions on the changes in my body mass, the old man at the small clothing shop where I bought part of my new wardrobe, the waiter at Vidyarthibhavan, all the nice folks of North Karnataka who made my vacation-within-a-vacation a memorable one, the guy who helped me get a Vodafone cell number on my Verizon Galaxy S5, the BMTC bus conductor who gave me a free ride to the next stop when he realized I was on the wrong bus, the auto driver who had Ambarish pictures all over his vehicle, the guy who cut open an extra coconut (eLaniru, or coconut water) for free because he felt he had given me a smaller-than-average coconut the first time around, the guy selling liquor on credit at the local shady bar, the bartender at Arbor Brewing Company (to whom I bragged about having visited the original one at Ann Arbor in Michigan), the guy who gave me all the snack goodies at Subbamma Store, the local gym owner who had a hard time understanding why I needed the membership only for 3 weeks, my friends from Undergrad and before, my family members of all ages and degrees of separation, and before I forget, Blackie – the creatively named black colored dog of the Black Dog fame –  I took great pleasure in speaking to every one of them in Kannada (including Blackie).

It was something that I had taken for granted all the time I was in Bangalore, and something – whose absence – I refused to acknowledge after moving to the US. During my visit, I sometimes almost forgot that this ‘return to how it used to be’ was only a temporary thing and something that I would very soon not have in my daily life. But I suppose that is what happens with the things I took for granted. I tend to trick myself into thinking it was all going to be OK every time I got to experience what I had missed for long. But the eventual and inevitable return – from nothing more than a vacation to the true consequences of my choices – never fails to expose the glaring deception my mind has me in. And I find myself looking to the past or to possibilities in the future when I get to experience first hand all the things I grew up taking for granted, and whose absence I am yet to come to terms with.

I am now back to talking to people over the phone in Kannada, watching Kannada movies, listening to SPB and S.Janaki’s old classics, and reading a Kannada translation of Kalidasa’s Meghadhootha when I get the chance. I do not know when I will get my next chance to converse in person in Kannada, but when it does happen, I will very likely just trick myself again into thinking it’s all back to the way it used to be – at least for the duration of that conversation.

And then I will go back to reality.

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The irony of choosing to write this in English is not lost on me. But such is the circumstances I chose and find myself in.

2 Months with My Parents in America

It is now a little more than 4 years since I set foot in America. The last 2 of them have been under far more financial freedom and stability than ever before in my life. It was during this time that I traveled significantly – taking in new experiences and dwelling in the wonder of what I saw. I went to dozens and dozens of concerts, visited big cities, explored national parks, discovered places that even none of my American friends knew about. At no point in time did I forget to appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to do all those things that I did and to visit all the places I wanted to. Yes I had to work hard and go through significant troubles and bear through uncertain times to get to where I am now – like so many of my friends who chose the same path. But behind all of that was this one constant, unchanging thing: the  support, encouragement and trust of my parents. Having always been very close to them since as long as I can think of, they gave me a sense of belonging and a platform I always knew I could fall back on in times of need. I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring that I would not be where I am today without their effort over the past 25 years or so. And so, during my travels in America, everywhere I went and felt the wonder of having discovered something beautiful, I ALWAYS imagined myself sharing that same experience with my parents – to bring them there and show them what they had helped me to do.

I finally got the opportunity when my parents’ visa got approved (in what ended up becoming a 1 minute interview with exactly one question asked). They arrived in the second week of July and I immediately absolved myself of all responsibilities related even remotely to the kitchen and other household stuff- including but not limited to the maintenance and upkeep of the house, laundry, dishes etc. My mom was more than happy to take over for the duration of her stay and I just let her run the house – like she has done for the past 27 years or so.

I was more than happy to have them at my place. But there is no denying my apprehension about how my lifestyle would be affected with their arrival – especially with having lived by myself for over 2 1/2 years. Fortunately, I was able to work my way around it and my parents were understanding of my evening disappearances to see my friends. And I have to admit, just the food almost made it worth it. I had long forgotten about the idea of a proper breakfast during weekdays. There was also the whole thing about someone actually serving me food – that felt like a long forgotten experience. My mom’s cooking also reminded me about the existence of so many different dishes that I immediately decided that I would simply over eat at every single opportunity and not care one bit about potential weight gain. And today, I am extremely happy to have over eaten (to the point of feeling gluttonous) at least 3 times a day continuously for about 2 months straight.

There were exactly 4 places I wanted to take my parents to. And I am very happy that I was able to accomplish all of that and under very pleasant circumstances. I got my parents to ‘hangout’ at the Old Market district in Omaha – something they never got tired of. It was and still is one of the most beautiful few blocks of downtown I have ever seen, and my parents clearly shared my view. The 3 days we spent in Chicago was extremely fulfilling too. More than the downtown boat ride, Navy Pier or the Shedd Aquarium, I had one specific thing in my mind that I wanted to do. On the second night, I took my parents to the Observatory on top of Hancock tower. A mind blowing night view of the captivating Chicago skyline – especially when you get to look down upon it. But it was not just the view that I had in mind. Yes, both my parents were thrilled beyond words at the sight in front of them. But it was only when I got my dad a glass of Jameson, right there in the Observatory, did I feel the experience complete. Sharing a drink with my dad at the Observatory was the first thing that had come to my mind when I had visited the place previously. And finally being able to do it felt like a landmark moment and a perfect celebration of my relationship with him.

As far back as I can remember, my dad has always wanted to see the Niagara Falls. My mom too. So I took them there in the Maid of the Mist. For about 5 minutes, we were completely transported to a different world – one where all you could see was this gigantic rushing mass of water. It really is one of those out-of-this-world experiences when you are at the foot of the falls in that small boat and looking up at this massive sea of water falling with an incomparable intensity. It was there at that moment that I asked them to remind themselves of where they came from, how and where they spent their childhood, and all the things they went through. And with that as the context, I asked them to look around and see where they were at that moment. The contrast dawned on them immediately and with that, a strong sense of fulfillment took me over.

Our trip to New York City happened mainly because my parents wanted to go there. I had no intention to visit the place as a big city experience has never been my idea of travelling somewhere. If you want a tip, here it is: Don’t go to NYC unless what you want to see is swarms of tourists every step of the way, a big gaping hole in your pocket and generally nothing to admire. (I will admit the Museum of Modern Art was a clear exception. I saw Starry Night and THIS painting which I now have on my wall).  But my parents wanted to do the tourist’s trip which inevitably included the Empire State Building (and the mandatory 2 hour waiting period), the Statue of Liberty (an eyesore that is to be avoided under all circumstances), a drive through Wall Street (the only place where it is OK to openly admire the testicles of a bull) and the Brooklyn Bridge (good engineering, no aesthetic offering). So clearly, I did not enjoy it (and I would definitely not be going back) but I was fully aware that this trip was not for me – it was for my parents. And so it never occurred to me to complain at all.

But perhaps the best was really kept for the last. I took my parents to Wisconsin over Labor Day Weekend. Arguing against my parents’ wishes to see another big city in Minneapolis, I took them to House on the Rock, Madison, New Glarus (including the Brewery there) and Lake Geneva. The House on the Rock was where I really wanted to take them. It is a place which nobody can ever satisfactorily describe. It is a celebration of humans going beyond the limits of imagination. It is a reward for those who seek something beyond the mainstream offerings of tourism. And my parents were left in complete awe and wonder – and rightly so. Trips to New Glarus, New Glarus Brewing company and Lake Geneva was really an eye opener for my parents with regard to the other side of America – the one with the small town, antique shop and record store feel to it. My dad was particularly pleased with the New Glarus Brewery – a place which felt more like some ruins in an old Mediterranean city than a brewery where you could sample some of the best beer in the Midwest. Lake Geneva was perhaps the best portrayal of a small town American city which had maintained its small town feel in spite of the popularity of the place among tourists. Both my parents enjoyed it and the whole trip was an extremely satisfactory end to their travels here.

In addition to the travels, I was particularly happy that my parents just took in what the American Midwest – and specifically Des Moines – had to offer with great satisfaction. The extremely good nature of the people, the laid back lifestyle, a complete lack of noise or air pollution and a beautiful and safe suburb experience – all served as the perfect getaway from the stress of working life. My mom declared her love for Dunkin’ Donuts, making that her first go to place for breakfast in Chicago and NYC. My dad had never been spoilt for choice in beer before he came here (For one, he was not even aware that there were options beyond Lager). So I took him to the El Bait Shop on his birthday and he was clearly overwhelmed at their selection of beer. But perhaps my dad’s biggest achievement during his stay here was his discovery of Pink Floyd and his strong desire to see The Wire. Clearly, my dad is going in the right direction.

They left a couple of days after the Wisconsin trip. My mom made sure I did not have to cook for the following 2 weeks and I still have quite a bit of her cooking in the fridge. They took back with them bags loaded with goodies for all my family back home (including what is perhaps the best of the lot –  a ‘Better Call Saul’ shirt for my cousin) along with some memorabilia from every one of their trips. But to me, their trip was more about all the things that they had always wanted to do, all the places I wanted to show them and all the experiences I wanted to share with them. It was also an opportunity for me to connect with them after a long time. And I can happily say that I was able achieve all of them.

All in all, very satisfying experience for my parents and me. Now I am back to living my old lifestyle and still savoring my mom’s cooking.

Remembering THAT Weekend in Chicago: Part I – Roger Waters Live

NOTE: This post (and the next) is easily more than 2 months late. But figured it was something that had to be said before I forget. All pics courtesy my good friend who got conned into coming to the concert through a text message! 🙂 Anyway, here goes: 

At the risk of jinxing myself in the future, allow me to share with you a recent realization. It goes thus:

When I want to go to a concert, the universe conspires with me in helping me achieve that aim.

And so it has been for the past so many months, when I had the opportunity to watch a number of bands live.  And so it was again a couple of months ago, when I was blessed to see two of the biggest acts  in a span of 3 days: Roger Waters and Radiohead. Yes, you read that right – Roger Waters AND Radiohead, within 3 days.

I do not intend for this post to be a review of the concerts at all. Instead, I want to write down what this meant to me and how it made me feel. The Radiohead experience will be documented in the next post.

ROGER WATERS – THE WALL LIVE @ The Wrigley Stadium, Chicago

I had seen Roger Waters Live before, when he had come to Bangalore, India way back in 2002 – and when the music of Floyd had just begun to grow on me. I do remember that experience quite well but not vividly enough. That concert was good, but it was completely devoid of all the reasons a Floyd concert is known for – lighting, multimedia, props, the ‘wall’ et al. And so when I found out that Waters was planning to do the highly acclaimed The Wall tour for the second time  all around the world, my plans just got made for me. (I also used my chicanery to convince a friend of mine to cough up $300 and to drive  2 hrs to give me company for this event! Turned out I could have easily conned her of that money!)

The Wall is really an album. Irrespective of how much more popular certain singles may have become over the decades, the complete essence of the work is revealed only when listened to as a complete single unit – not as a collection of discrete singles. And for those of you who know a little more of the history of this album, you will be aware of how Roger Waters initially did NOT prefer to play this album in stadiums. The irony, of course, was that The Wall sounded like it had been specifically made to be played Live in large stadiums. Over time, Waters did embrace the stadium experience and went back to them over and over again. And so it was, that he brought The Wall show to Wrigley Field in Chicago on the 8th of June 2012.

Me at Wrigley Field for the Roger Waters Concert

A lot of musicians – past and present- are capable of filling in entire stadiums and arenas during the peak of their careers. But so very few are capable of repeating that act 45 years into their music career – and very much in their twilight. Roger Waters is one of those few. And Wrigley field was indeed sold out with people of ALL ages –  young and old – paying big bucks (I paid close to $300) to watch this one man play his magnum opus for possibly the last time ever. Waters has publicly stated that this could very well be his last tour, describing it as his ‘swan song’. And I was never going to miss that for anything in the world.

And like the album, my experience was something that can only be described as a whole, single unit – not as a collection of how I felt when each song was played. This happens only when a number of factors come together to take the whole experience to a whole new level: a place where you haven’t been before. And they were ALL there that night for sure. The huge and gigantic wall, the hypnotizing and jaw dropping art and multimedia  projected on the wall, the massive surround sound speakers in full effect, Roger Water’s (surprisingly) crisp clear vocals singing with all the venom and purpose in the world, and not to forget the music itself – ALL came together in the right proportions and combinations to make this concert into an experience like none other.

But every such an experience has to have a peak –  a point during which you transcend everything around you and break that invisible barrier into the realm of that higher state of mind; something that will make you look back at that experience one day and mark it as a reference point in your life. During the show, that point came with the words:

“Is there anybody out there?”

Comfortably Numb

Sure, I might have heard it a thousand times before, and I for sure know every single note and bar on the song. But watching Roger Waters sing that same song live in that haunting setting, and watching one of the 3 stand-in guitarists (for Gilmour obviously) standing on top of the wall rip through that captivating guitar solo with note to note perfection, I realized that this song still has the ability to give me the jitters and make my hair stand on its end.

Special note on the stand-in guitarist at the top of the wall: he really did play the full solo NOTE for NOTE. No attempts at improvisations and no mess ups. And as far as I was concerned, I didn’t attempt to sing along to the song, and I realized not many around me were trying to either. I guess there are few songs you just don’t sing along to (and a few guitar solos you don’t improvise)  – at a concert. You just shut the fuck up and  experience it – and then feel blessed.

But in all seriousness, watching him perform on stage with the energy and passion of a 25 year old, I realized that all this had to mean something more to him than just a way to remind people around the world of the legacy that he leaves. And he did have something to say for sure. Interpreting The Wall album through a contemporary looking glass replete with references to today’s problems – the government, capitalism, religion and war- was always the idea and motivation behind this tour. (Waters himself has said this). And I have to admit, I was also thoroughly impressed with the clarity in his voice at this age (68?), and even while singing at a high pitch.

At the end of the day, I left Wrigley Field happy and thoroughly satisfied that I had experienced The Wall album the way it was meant to be – in a stadium, with surround sound, a massive wall, hypnotizing multimedia and the man who created it all.

Blessed I am indeed.

Updates: One Year after Des Moines 101

Turns out, I have completed more than a year living in Des Moines, Iowa. Well, since my initial ramblings about Des Moines in my Des Moines 101 post about a year ago, I would say it has been an eventful time. For the most part, things have become progressively better and continue to do so. And without my own knowledge, I appear to have created some really beautiful memories to look back upon and smile about. Let’s see. Where do I start now?

1. How about Omaha? The city I grew to love and cherish. Turns out, within a few weeks after coming to Des Moines and setting up house in early March, I was sent to live in a hotel for the next 9 months till the end of the year! Well, thats pretty much how it worked out. I was sent out to work in the field and as a result, ended up staying at a hotel for 10-14 day stretches. My field work was at Council Bluffs, a small city in Iowa known for its casinos on the banks of the Missouri river. On the other side of the river is this city that really grew on me: Omaha, Nebraska.

Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge

It was a beautiful place indeed. Slightly larger than Des Moines, but still equally peaceful. A lot more places to visit and a lot more things to do – not the least of which is one of America’s largest zoos and a fairly impressive pedestrian bridge across the Missouri river. It was always a pleasure to walk the downtown area too- specifically in and around the Old Market square, a small area of a few blocks radiating a distinct European feel. Old records stores, microbreweries, handicraft shops, coffee stalls lining the sidewalk everywhere.

I had a fairly good time while I was out there. But perhaps, the best was saved for the last, when I had a truly wonderful time in the closing weeks with a friend I just happened to have met then. It was a memorable 11 days that we got to spend together, working in -15 deg C temperature outside during the day, and then having dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking downtown Omaha across the Missouri river. Those long conversations about books over coffee, jokes on geotech over beer, and walking the snow-laden roads of the Old Market Square when it was still snowing – these are perhaps the things that I will remember when someone asks me about my time out in the field. Great way to wind up my field work.

2. But perhaps my time out in the field will be remembered more for the gamut of cars that I had the opportunity to drive. I pretty much exhausted all that Hertz and Enterprise had to offer over the 9 months. The most memorable of those was driving the bright red Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and the 2011 Dodge Charger. I am pretty sure I have almost every full size car I can probably think of. And for all that renting that my company did, I now have more than 2 weeks of free rentals with Hertz. Talk about a double edged sword (or its opposite!).

3. All the concerts I attended the past year. I don’t know where to start. Started with Jeff Beck at Minneapolis; Deep Purple (2nd time) in Chicago; Black Keys, Goo Goo Dolls, Michelle Branch, Korn and Disturbed in Council Bluffs; A Perfect Circle, STS9, Black Keys (again) and Muse at Kansrocksas in Kansas City; the Doobie Brothers at Elk County, WI; and Guns N Roses and Puscifer at Omaha. Those who know me very well are fully aware of my obsession with the whole concert experience. To me, it can appear that everything I do in life ultimately serves as a means to an end – the end being the concert experience. The past year’s concerts have been truly remarkable and I have been thoroughly satisfied. I now have a whole bunch of them lined up for the next few months!

Axl Rose at Omaha

4. All my travels. Perhaps THE most memorable times I have had in the past year – easily. I wasn’t even aware of the travel bug in me until I got my lazy ass out of the bed and decided to drive close to a 1000 miles in less than 24 hours! ( I am not sure I could do it again, but I maybe wrong). My vacations have been quite regular and remarkable.

It started off with me wanting to watch Jeff Beck live in Minneapolis on a Sunday. I bought tickets on Friday and set out on a long, roundabout trip to Minneapolis early Sunday morning – just by myself. Ended up going to La Crosse, Lake City, Red Wing and a whole bunch of other places I had absolutely no plan to visit – all on my way to Minneapolis. Reached the city at around 6 pm, watched the concert till 1030, headed back to Des Moines and reached home at 315 AM, and drove to Council Bluffs at 6AM! Close to 1000 miles it was and like I said, I am not sure if I could do that again! Great time nevertheless!

Then there was this trip to Missouri – again by myself. I had a week off at work and decided I needed a vacation. A truly beautiful and attractive state. I wrote about my trip in detail here. 4 days or so I spent there.

My trip to Wisconsin – that was really an on the fly vacation. Found out the Doobie Brothers were playing a concert in nearby Wisconsin. I decided to use that as an excuse to take another vacation. This time I had some company. A 3 day trip covering Madison, House on the Rocks, Lake Geneva and the concert itself. I could write pages about each place – seriously. Especially the House on the Rocks –  a remarkable and surreal experience, you actually feel you are bending both space and time in there (AMERICAN GODS – ring a bell?). That last line is really not an exaggeration. The more your ignorance and unawareness about the place, the more you allow yourself to be captivated in the strangest way possible!

Speed and Tranquility

And then there was my trip to Yellowstone National Park, the Beartooth Highway and the Grand Tetons. I should shoot myself before I attempt to convey all that I felt and experienced during those 5 days in a small part of a post. I had been there in October last year. And today it stands as one of my proudest experiences in all my life! That is right. Note that I didn’t just say memorable or remarkable. I was left so much in awe of the whole experience, that I truly feel proud of it. Hard to think of anything else I could have possibly done that could have made me feel better than this. Maybe it had something to do with the exquisite and jaw dropping scenery; maybe it had something to do with racing a Chevrolet Camaro at 120 mph through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons; maybe it had something to do with the joy of discovering a barely known gem of a drive – the Beartooth Highway; or maybe it was a bit of everything. But damn me if I don’t get my lazy ass down to writing a whole post (or a bunch of posts) about those phenomenal few days in Montana and Wyoming!

5. My Vinyl collection. This has come as a real surprise to myself. I was never much of a collector of anything. But now I own and totally admire my still growing collection of about a 100 vinyl records. This is something I have come to have some real passion for and I take a lot of pleasure in buying and listening to these old records on my record player. How I came about this and my thoughts on the very idea of the vinyl really needs a more elaborate treatment but that really is another post in itself.

6. The Moment. It was maybe sometime in November last year. I was sitting in my home on my couch with a beer in hand, watching a movie. I paused the movie for a bit. Still sitting on the couch and still with the beer in my hand, I looked around. I saw that I had an apartment all for myself; I looked at my projector beaming a 10′ by 15′ image on the wall; I looked at the  JBL 5.1 Home theater audio system; I saw my vinyl player and my sizeable collection; I saw my bass guitar and amp; then I looked at my camera and tripod lying in the corner;  I saw my car parked outside my house; and then I thought:

Fuck me! I have everything I had EVER wanted to own in my entire life!

And right then, at that moment, was the strong feeling of having arrived somewhere. As much as I am not a believer in fate or destiny, I just knew, that at that very moment, I was perhaps exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt right in place.

And that was awesome.

Beautiful Missouri: A 3 Day Photography Journey

Note: This (really long) blog post is about my trip to Missouri and the writing is primarily centered around my photography with a fair bit about my experience there as well. All photos here are not modified in any way. I personally consider it unethical to do so. You can see all my photos from the vacation in high res here

So I went on a vacation. I had worked for 15 days straight without a break – partly by choice and partly by force. And I was looking forward to some travelling and photography. Fortunately or unfortunately, nobody I know of shares my flexible work schedule – which meant that I had to go on my vacation alone. I had done it once before on a 1 day 800 mile trip to Minneapolis (and back) via a long detour on Highway 61. And I did not mind doing it again. Also, I needed complete freedom to spend any amount of time to my liking taking photographs. So I packed my gear and set off. My equipment involved a Nikon D3100 camera, 18-55mm and 55-200mm VR lenses, Omega Tripod, 1 UV filter, 1 ND filter and 1 Polarizing filter.

I was initially deciding between North western Nebraska (and surrounding) – which housed The Jewel Caves, the Devil’s Tower, Mt. Rushmore and the Chimney Tower- and Missouri – which housed Lake of the Ozarks, Mark Twain National Forest, Ozarks National Scenic Riverways and Meramec Caverns. I realized I only had resources for a 3 day and 2 night trip. So I chose the latter.

DAY 1:

I left Des Moines, Iowa at about 0730 hrs. My GPS was set to the Lake of the Ozarks as the first day destination and immediately, it suggested the fastest route to be taking the Interstate. But that was not my intention. An alternate route suggestion on the GPS involved going through US highways and some county roads down right through the center of Missouri. That sounded good and I hit the gas.

The drive was initially non descript. The sun was already getting on its bright yellow and heading into the white. And for those unfamiliar with the Iowa landscape, this meant that there was absolutely nothing to admire on the flatlands that zipped by endlessly on either side of the road. The road took me east for a while till Ottumwa and through it I turned South to Missouri.

 Following US 63 S into MO, the contrast in the landscape between Iowa and Missouri was hard to miss. I am not exaggerating here. But there was about maybe 10-15 miles of grey area on either side of the border. But apart from that, it was all flat and completely barren on the Iowa side and rolling green hills on the Missouri side! My guess is the topography was the deciding factor while drawing the border!

The road took me through a few Amish settlements. Spotted quite a few Amish horse drawn carts and the stereotypical long bearded Amish men.  The road also made me narrowly avoid a totally drunk red neck who was trying extremely hard to figure out which side of the road he was supposed to be driving on.

I cannot term the road to be scenic. It was peaceful and easy at best. I was on cruise control for the most part and the traffic was light. I reached Lake of the Ozarks by about 1330 hrs and headed straight to the welcome center where an old man showed me all the places to go to find a good view. The sun was beating down at that time and though the welcome center offered a neat panoramic view of the lake, I did not fancy getting any great shots in that light. It was definitely more than 1000 F in heat index but in spite of it, I spent about half an hour trying to get a few good compositions to make up for the bad light. I changed my lens from the 18-55mm to the 55-200mm and presently, a bunch of people started parasailing and boating in my direction. That, with the buildings on the other side of the lake serving as the backdrop, did the trick. In the end, I did get a few half decent shots and a couple of good ones as well (thanks partly to my new polarizing filter).

Parasailing on the Ozarks: f/20, 1/20 s , ISO-100

I drove around a few places there for about an hour or two and did find a few good spots to get good views of the lake and the few buildings adorning its shoreline. But at 1530, the light was at its worst and no subject would have looked good in that light. So I found a small bar and downed a couple of Sam Adams beers with my lunch.

I had a map of the lake which showed all the tourist and scenic points. The Lake of the Ozarks is a significantly large lake which snakes its way through a few cities generating more than a few bends and turns. There were a couple of public beaches that got me interested and so I decided to check them out. One of them, (in the photo) offered a good swimming area and lay between 2 forests/hills. The sun was setting in the direction directly facing the beach which meant I could not take any useful photos of the other side. So I went for a swim and just hung around in the water for a while till the light started showing signs of the rich golden yellow every photographer yearns for. So I quickly got setup and took a few shots of the beach side with the sun angling its golden rays on the beach and the trees. Unfortunately, I still could not shoot the other side and I knew I had to come back early in the morning to do it.

Beach at the Lake of Ozarks: f/7.1, 1/30 s, ISO-100

By about 0800, I knew it was time to get to a good spot to shoot the sunset. The sun was already getting into its orange self and I was running out of time. I was frantically searching for a half decent spot to setup my camera and I eventually turned to a parking lot and got setup just in time to take a few good shots of the sun setting. I suppose I could have done a better job if I had gotten setup a bit early but I was fairly satisfied with the result. However, it was only after the sun had set that I found that I had got my tripod setup right next to garbage bin!

Sunset over the Lake of Ozarks : f/14, 1/25 s

DAY 2:

I narrowly missed capturing the sunrise the following morning, thanks largely to not waking up early enough. I immediately headed out to the public beach I had been to the previous evening and found a welcome sight of the sun angling its golden beam on the other side of the beach. I was able to get a few good shots, but I have to admit it was only the light that made the photos look good in the absence of any useful subject. So I headed out to some of the view points of the lake which I had missed out the previous day and found a few nice compositions. The photo below seemed to perfectly capture the quiet of the early morning at a nearby boating center.

Quiet of the Early Morning: f/11, 1/30s, ISO-100

I headed out to Big Springs at about 1000 and reached it in about 3 hrs time. Big Springs is a place near Van Bruner in central Missouri. It houses Big Spring, which as the name suggests, is a big spring. Not in terms of area of the spring waters, but in terms of the rate of water gushing out. It ranks as one of the largest in the world in this aspect. It is situated right next to the Current river (which it eventually flows into) which is more popular as part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway. What this means is that this river flows through some very scenic spots (usually between two tree covered hills) and flows at a very slow pace and is largely shallow. And by shallow I mean anywhere between 0.5’-5’. All this makes it very conducive for activities such as kayaking, tubing, canoeing and boating. So I decided to go tubing along the Current river for about 3 hrs.

The route took me through some really scenic and picturesque views. The water was bluish green all the way through and you could see the river bed all along the way. Unfortunately, I could not take my camera with me as it was not water proof. I missed out on a few very good shots in the process. Sitting in my tube and drifting along the river while taking in the beautiful scenery passing by for about 3 hours, however, pretty much gave me all the relaxation I needed. I suppose it could have been a better experience doing that with some good company but it was not to be.

Also, be aware. Alcohol consumption during the 3 hr drifting can sound like an appropriate thing to do. But do think of the part wherein you are stuck in a tube all the time without any opportunity to access a restroom. (Do I speak from experience?) Also of note is one lesson I learnt about the waters the almost hard way. Never under estimate the current of the water. It may look like it is just floating harmlessly but trust me when I say that you simply CANNOT assume you are going to be safe.

The only disappointing part about the tubing was that it ate into the sunset time. I was told of a really good spot to capture the sunset and I quickly set out to find it. After a bit of driving roundabout, I reached the spot. The spot was everything one can hope for to capture a good sunset or sunrise. Mountains and hills rolling all the way to the horizon with no trees or other obstacles blocking the view. A couple of houses below the viewing area that could serve as foreground subjects. And directly facing west. And I was too late.

I honest to god, had a strong urge to take a gun and blow my brains out to have missed what could have been the most beautiful sunset. I kept cursing myself to no end for having gone tubing the past few hours. I just could not believe I had missed it. The light was already fading and was almost gone. I could see the faint orange of the sky barely hanging over the horizon and I knew I had very little time to do anything at all. So I tried to capture a silhouette of my car with the twilight sky over the horizon as the backdrop. However, there was a lot of reflected light coming from behind me which made it impossible to get a perfect silhouette, irrespective of how much I tuned down my exposure. In the end, this was what I was able to get. Not a bad shot I would say, but could have been so much better.

Post sunset over Mark Twain National Forest: f/11, 1/4 s, ISO-100

I headed back to my cabin in the middle of the forest. Spending the night in a cabin amidst the wilderness of the forest was an experience I had missed for a very long time. So was reading a good book. And so I finished half of Fahrenheit 451 that night sitting in that cabin in the middle of nowhere. I was particularly happy that there was no internet service in that cabin. Else, I would have found a strong urge to post to my Facebook and Twitter accounts about my whereabouts and plans, all the while missing out on just enjoying the peace of the forest.

Cabin in the middle of nowhere: f/4, 2.5 s, ISO-400

DAY 3

I woke up pretty early the next day to ensure I didn’t miss out on another sunrise. A map of the forest area indicated that there were a few hiking trails which led to a few viewpoints. So I decided to check out the ones which faced east. After a not so long and not so hard hike, I settled on 2-3 viewing spots with the Current river running below me. I setup my tripod and camera and waited for the sun to come out. Unfortunately, the viewpoint was not as elevated as I had hoped it would be. It made me miss the mellow orange of the sun emerging out of the distant horizon. Instead, I caught the sun coming out of the hills in front of me during its transition to the delicate yellow. It was still beautiful and I set about capturing the sunrise from different viewpoints. I caught a few silhouettes this time – mainly of trees and leaves. This one shot made me stop and think for a while. The leaves appear to be tendering to the sun in its innocuous infancy, nurturing it to rise further in the sky, blissfully oblivious to how harsh and ravaging the sun was to become in just a few hours time.

Sunrise over Mark Twain National Forest: f/11, 1/800 s, ISO-100

I took a few more shots of the place, one of them capturing the waters arising out of the Big Spring joining and losing its identity to the waters of the Current river. After being satisfied with the quality of shots of the sunrise, I headed to the Big Spring itself. I had no idea how it would be and how good the light would be there.  I had not seen any pictures of it online and did not know what to expect. But when I did arrive at the Big Spring, what I saw simply took my breath away.

The water was pristine blue. The spring was gushing out water relentlessly as if it was on a never ending mission. The sun bestowed its golden rays angled directly on the spring. Beautiful color, a captive subject and golden light. It was a photographer’s paradise!

I do not know how many photos I ended up taking but it must have been about 150. I know I spent close to 2 hours there and I do not remember pausing from taking photos of the place. So much so, I never really just sat and enjoyed the view.

Big Spring, the First Sight: f/10, 1/6 s, ISO-100

I was all alone, and for those 2 hours, the entire world outside of me, my camera and the spring ceased to exist. The light and the color was so overwhelming that I took photographs from all possible angles with all reasonable combinations of exposure. The first shot I took was that of the sight that greeted me. The water was gushing out of the spring extremely rapidly and in large volumes. And I knew THAT was what sparked the life in that scene. And so I did a slightly longer exposure of the scene in order to capture the motion of the water gushing out of the spring. The sun beams were angling in on the spring waters, lighting it up even more. The result was one of the best photographs I have taken so far.

But perhaps the best photograph of my entire trip was still to come. I went around the spring, now with the sunlight coming from behind me. And what I saw, was not only simply unbelievable but also completely invisible from my previous spot. Maybe it was the direction of the light or the direction in which I was viewing the light that made the difference. But standing on the other side of the spring and viewing it in the direction of the light, I was convinced that the light was playing some kind of a trick on my eyes. It was no mirage or illusion. It was just too good to be just another sunlight pattern. What I saw was a well of sunlight angling in from both ends of the spring, circling (or was it an ellipse) the spring waters and converging exactly at the point where the water was coming out. The sun light was dancing on the waters, without moving an inch. That sight was, for the lack of a better word, orgasmic.

Tricks of the Light: The most beautiful thing I had ever seen: f/14, 1/5 s, ISO-100

A few years back, I might have been able to come up with a mathematical term for the exact shape the sun rays formed.  Do leave a comment if you can now. I must have spent some half an hour taking photographs of that sight. And trust me when I say I just couldn’t get enough of it.

I eventually came around to take some self portraits. If I ever have to put up a profile pic on a matrimonial website in the future, I think I know which one is going up there. The spring water behind me makes me look a thousand times better. (I am betting on the girl falling for it).

Me at Big Springs: f/13, 1/4 s, ISO-100

In due time, the sun had risen far up in the sky and in spite of the spring still looking beautiful, I knew I had to leave. Next on the agenda was a drive through Mark Twain National forest to Meramec Caverns near St. Louis.

It must have taken me all of 3 hours. But how those hours zipped by. It felt like the shortest 3 hr drive I had ever done. And I thoroughly enjoyed it for more than one reason. First up, I switched off my GPS. I had decided to use a map. I actually sat down and marked my route to the caves through a pen on the map and wrote down the roads on a sheet of paper. My objective was to maximize the drive through the forest area. So I avoided all US highways and deliberately chose county roads going through the forests. And eventually, when I started driving, I realized I was enjoying it more than ever primarily because I was a lot more involved in what I was doing. I was taking in the scenery without glancing every 3 mins at the GPS to see how far was the next turn. I was more observant of the road and the drive as I was making sure I did not miss any turns. And it was a really satisfying feeling doing that. It was the same feeling I get when I read a book holding it in my hand instead of reading it on the computer, or when I go play football outside with my friends instead of on my computer.

The drive was scenic to say the least. It was filled with twists and turns and was by no means easy. It was not a drive you could do on cruise control. A two lane road for the most part, it cut through the dense forest areas, climbing and descending alternately. It is not a drive where you stop at a scenic view point and take photographs. There are no such viewpoints all along the way, even though the whole drive was set in beautiful surroundings. If anything, the route was particularly lacking in that department. But it was not meant to be that drive anyway. So I drove through it, without stopping once. I didn’t need to. With Pink Floyd’s Echoes playing in the car, driving through Mark Twain National forest was a surreal experience just in itself. And I hope to do it once more in the fall.

When I eventually got to Meramec caverns, the sun was blazing. I went to the caves with high expectations from what people told me about it. But in the end, it turned out to be the  biggest disappointment of the entire tour. For the most part, the caves was nothing out of the ordinary. Actually, there really wasn’t ANYTHING out of the ordinary there. I took just one shot of note, and that was almost by accident too. Do you spot a face in this photograph? I am thinking Iron Maiden’s Eddie in one of its various forms.

Eddie at the Meramec : f /7.1, 1.3 s, ISO-400

And then at around 1600 I headed back to Des Moines, this time making deliberate effort to take the interstate and US highways. I drove through the city of Hannibal in MO, and if I had more time then, I would have stopped and looked around. I was told it was a beautiful small city. Perhaps some other time. When I eventually entered Iowa, it was just about time for sunset. With the sun’s golden rays peeking through the storm clouds that were rapidly building up, the flatlands that zipped by endlessly, again, looked particularly enchanting. I realized I was headed straight into what appeared to be a massive storm. But the best part about it was that I got to see the most spectacular lightning ever all the way to Des Moines. I had half a mind to stop the car on the freeway and setup my tripod to capture the lightning. It would have been an easy shot, with a simple long exposure, and it would have been a spectacular one too. But alas, I guess I just didn’t do it. Some other time for sure.

I eventually reached Des Moines at around 1030 and was pretty tired. And so after 3 days of awesome vacationing in the beautiful state of Missouri, I was convinced once more of the strategic position Iowa was in the United States. A lot of places to see and visit around it. Just nothing IN it!