Sunday, July 02, 2006

USA trip April 29 - May 16 2006 - Part 2

After the frozen Yellowstone Lake had been photographed by everybody to their heart's content, we headed off in the RV to

THE GRAND TETONS, another range of mountains, grand as their name says but IMHO not a patch on Yellowstone. However, getting there was probably the most exciting and breath-taking part of the experience. It involved going through Wyoming, the Cowboy State. I LOVE that name, and all that it connotes - wide open skies, high mountains, clean air, etcetc - thanks to the various books I've read, but main thanks owed to Louis l'Amour and his always-honourable, brave, 6'2"-in-their-socks heroes with strong manly names like Logan, Callahan, Flint and not to mention the Sacketts. (But I digress - unlike the strong, manly, short-on-words-but-long-on-action cowboys mentioned!)

Anyway, getting to Jackson Hole (the last frontier of the true Wild West) which is situated in a valley surrounded by hugely high mountains, was quite an adventure in itself. Radha was driving and although she is a very good, very confident driver, the twisting, turning mountain roads that seemed to rise to terrifying heights really quickly, taxed even her driving skills. The size of the RV was probably the biggest difficulty, as I'm sure she could have managed a smaller vehicle quite comfortably.

At the highest point of the pass, there was a big clearing where vehicles could park and people could look down into the valley - and man, it was dizzying to see just how far down Jackson Hole really was. There were also warnings to check the brakes on the vehicles, as the drive down had extremely steep gradients. So Pete took over driving the RV at that point.

Jackson Hole is probably THE place for skiers of all kinds, and as a town I found it extremely picturesque and pretty, with lovely wooden buildings. It had atmosphere and character - or maybe I was just seeing it through Louis l'Amour eyes. (It really was a pretty town, though.) We didnt stop there, though, except to fuel up and take much needed loo breaks. Once the RV had been fed, we drove through the town towards the Grand Tetons. The mountains were jagged and snow-covered, but somehow they we found them lacking in the majesty of the Yellowstone Mountains. We'd probably have appreciated the Grand Tetons more if we'd seen them first!

Not to be disparaging about these mountains, though... no doubt about it, they were beautiful too. But I guess it was their setting that was lacking a little something - flat boring plains. We did stop by a lake called Lake Jenny - another picture-perfect, large, placid lake that faithfully reflected the surrounding mountains in its waters. There wasnt much of a shore to this lake, just rocks and stones. We went down to the water scrambled about the stones for a bit, taking photos. (I threw a few stones into the water, just so as to give them something to exist for. Thanks to me, they could now spend the next few hundred years making their way back to shore. It HAD to be done, see?)

We took in the sights of Jackson Hole Reservoir on the way out - nothing spectacular about the reservoir because it was the usual mirror-still huge lake (yawn) bordered by picturesque snow-covered mountains (yawwwwn) rising high into the clear blue sky (yaaaawwwwwwwn). How much of a good thing can you take in, after all? Even spectacular views become boring when you get them all the time, wherever you go. (OXYGEN_DEPLETING YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWN).... I'm KIDDING, of course! It was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. What CAN get boring for readers, though, is coming across the description "beautiful" all the time...

The next stop was Idaho Falls, in Idaho (duh). The drive there took about 4 hours or so, and Kumar did the honours this time. Back up through the pass, through lots of flat country (with the mountains tantalisingly surrounding us) and some more mountains, we reached the RV camp where we stayed the night. This wasnt as cosy and small as the one near Yellowstone Park, but it served its purpose. All you can really ask for at camps like this are clean toilets and shower areas - and this park provided both.

The next morning, we were back on the road to Salt Lake City, to return the RV and take a taxi to the airport. Our next destination was

SAN FRANCISCO, via Las Vegas airport. I think I disliked the airport on sight, not the least because it was unpleasantly warm inside. I dont even want to think about how hot it was outside! Plus there were slot machines EVERYWHERE! Ok, Vegas is a gambler's paradise, but does it have to start right at the airport? Honestly, after we had walked what seemed like miles inside the airport, trying to get to the terminal to get our connecting flight, and going through yet another security check, I was quite certain that the airport was secondary to the slot machines and casinos. It's like they built the airport as an afterthought around the gambling areas. My friend assures me that Vegas is worth a trip, just for a day, just to see how amazing the casinos are... well, I dunno about that. Maybe one day, when I have time and money to spare. But until then it's gonna be un-tacky, worthwhile travelling!

We were visiting San Francisco mainly (possibly only) because I'd so wanted to go there. I had a few reasons for this (in no particular order): One, I'd been wanting to visit the city, having heard so much about it. Two, I wanted to meet up with an old school friend, a very good pal whom I hadnt seen in years, and his wife as well. And three, we also wanted to catch up with a cousin of ours who's settled there.

It was quite late at night by the time we got out of the airport, thanks to the flying time + the time difference. (It was either an hour ahead or an hour behind Vegas.) Anyway, Bhanu's husband Shiv came to pick us up, along with their 9-year-old daughter Janani, who was wildly excited about our arrival. Luckily their house is quite close to the airport - just a 15-minute drive or so - as Shiv had to go back to the airport a short while later to pick up Bhanu, who was coming back from Boston after a conference! She would have arrived at more or less the same time as us, except that her flight was delayed by a few hours.

Bhanu and Shivakumar live in the most gorgeous house I've ever seen. And their hospitality was even more heart-warming. Shiv had actually cooked a four-course meal for us, catering to all our various dietary and medical requirements (makes us sound like a bunch of octogenarians, I know) - it was absolutely delicious and absolutely welcome. Nothing like home-made food cooked and served with so much care!

Weather-wise, San Francisco is probably the best sort of place in which to live. Not too hot, not too cold - just right (said Baby Bear). The advantage of that being that jasmines, lemon trees, orange trees, curry leaf plants etc, all grow without trouble. Would that I could grow curry leaves here...

The next day, (after a rather heavenly breakfast of idlis), Shiv dropped us off at the railway station, so that we could get the train into the city. It was not the most pleasant of experiences, the train being really crowded. If it had been India, there would have been footboarders for sure. But it wasnt India, so the would-be footboarders were all crushed in with us less intrepid travellers when the doors closed. I guess it's safer that way, but it's also not comfortable!

We got off the train at the other end, wondering: 1. How to get to where we wanted to go and 2. Where we wanted to go. We had of course asked Bhanu and Shiv what to see and where to go. But, as usually happens, we segued practically seamlessly from floundering in a pool of ignorance to drowning in an ocean of information. "Depends on what you want to do", they'd say, and then reel off a list of things that ALL sounded like we wanted to do, and rightaway! Of course, we'd have needed a few days of relentless touring to do it all.

Finally the decision was made when we saw a bus come past that mentioned "Fisherman's Wharf". Since it was a name that had been mentioned, we all got onto the bus. It was probably the best decision because as it meandered its way all around town, we got to see quite a lot of what was covered on the official open-top or pseudo-tram tours. (But of course we didnt realise that until we'd got onto a pseudo-tram for their one-hour hop-on hop-off trip, and discovered that we'd already been to most of their halts!)

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. We got off at Fisherman's Wharf and stood around for a bit, looking out at the sea and wondering in a vague sort of way what to do next. I took a few photographs of seagulls with Radha's camera, just to have something to do. The pseudo-car (looked like the authentic cable car but wasnt because it ran on tyres) tour seemed a good idea, so we opted for the one-hour one. And then, since we had some time on our hands before the tour started, we went to look at a genuine WWII submarine moored at Pier 45, the USS Pampanito, that had seen action and was open for tourists. Actually "seen action" doesnt quite do it justice, because she sank 6 Japanese ships and damaged 4 others, AND rescued some 85 odd seamen whose ship had been sunk (by the Japanese, presumably).

It was a very interesting tour because we got to see for ourselves how cramped the space was for 79-odd men to live in for days, underwater, with a steadily diminishing quality of air to make things even more difficult. And then to think that they rescued some 85 other seamen - it simply boggled the mind. How DID 150-plus human beings manage to survive in that cramped, minimalist space with probably minimum food as well, without killing each other or themselves??

I have to admit here that I was probably conned by a streetside trickster. There was this guy who had three cups and a coin, moving them around rapidly and asking people to guess under which cup the coin was. There were a few other guys around him, giving him money ($60 a pop!!!) and guessing right (or wrong). I was watching in idle fascination and guessed correctly a couple of times. But of course the "magician" said I couldnt win unless I parted with my money. I wouldnt have done it except that Pete encouraged me! And just like that, in the blink of an eye (and a wrong guess), I'd lost sixty dollars!

Shellshocked wouldnt begin to describe my state - okay, $60 is not exactly a huge amount but it was the speed with which it happened that was the shock. Now that I think of it, I'm sure that at least two of the guys who were "playing" were probably in the pay of the trickster to lure dimwits like me! Boy did I ever learn a lesson - and quicker than a wink, too. I'm not cut out for gambling, me. Losing money for no reason other than greed is just not my style. (Although losing money because of stupidity apparently is.)

Anyway, by the time we had dawdled our way to the faux tram tour, there were only 5 places left - just right for us! Had we come even a few seconds later, we would have missed that tour! Our driver/guide was a nice enough guy, obligingly explaining everything about each place of interest... but I'm afraid I wasnt a particularly good listener. American history just seems so insular and not connected with "history" as I understand it (as in affecting the rest of the world). But the ride was good for some lovely views of San Francisco.

We didnt get off at any of the stops - one, because we would have had to wait an hour for the next car and two, because there were no guarantees of getting a seat anyway. It was amazingly chilly because of the wind (it was an open car, as in no windows) even though the sun was shining. Especially in the shade. Brrr. So we missed out on the Ghirardelli Icecream and Chocolate Shop, the Boudin bread museum (which I was sorry about because I LOVE sourdough bread and would have loved to have visited the museum/bakery where it all started), the Union Square and sundry other places of tourist interest - and didnt care one bit, I might add!

It's been documented before, but my god, this is a city full of steep, steep roads. At some points, from the top of a road, the view was like that obtained from the top of really high rollercoasters. Despite knowing that the trams would NOT be reaching any kind of thrilling speed (in fact they were a few hundred mph short of it), I still couldnt help feeling a little rush of adrenalin, looking down at the drop. But the trams were very sedate and the illusion of a roller-coaster was very quickly shattered.

After the tour, we decided we'd walk to the "crookedest street in the world" - Lombard Street. It's actually NOT the crookedest street in the world, or even in San Francisco, or actually even the steepest, but hey, why be accurate about anything, right? It turned out to be quite a long walk from Fisherman's Wharf to Lombard Street, and poor amma was suffering a bit from a painful knee. It was a fairly steep rise to even get to the bottom of Lombard Street - we did it in stages. The steepest roads are usually "broken" by flat areas of roads perpendicular to the vertical rise, so they provide convenient rest areas of sorts. I dont know about the others, but I motivated myself by thinking of the lovely flat area where I would not be walking or standing at a 60-degree angle.

There was a bit of hesitation when we came to the bottom of Lombard Street... should we climb up that or not? In the event the hesitation was only minor - it would have been pretty darned stupid NOT to walk up to the top after having come such a long way up. But first we stood and watched all the cars zig-zag their way slowly down - quite a sight. There's no zig-zagging up this street because it's strictly one-way.

Once at the top of Lombard Street, we hopped on to the first cable car that came along - and this time it was the authentic kind, with people actually allowed to stand on the footboard. It was crowded but fun. We hadnt the least idea where it was going but when we realised that it was going to stop at Chinatown, we hopped off. First thing to do was get some icecream and cold drinks, so we did, at a little Indian sell-everything-under-the-sun corner shop. Then we walked down the little streets in Chinatown - it was like being in Singapore, except a lot more vertical.

The next thing on the agenda was, of course, the famous San Francisco bridge - the Golden Gate. Nothing to do but go and look at it. We could see it from where we were, so we just started walking in its general direction, hoping to get down eventually to some Pier or other and thence see our way there. What we didnt know at this point was that was NOT the Golden Gate, but the Bay Bridge. Not that we ever got there - we were far too tired by then to bother. The map we had didnt seem to make sense as far as tram or bus stops were concerned, and finally we just hailed a taxi that had stopped conveniently near us to disgorge its passengers.

That was the best decision we'd made yet, as the taxi driver was a very friendly, very amiable chap who set us right on the bridge we thought was the Golden Gate and cheerfully drove us to the Golden Gate entrance area. He turned out to be an excellent guide as well, pointing out the various things he thought we should be interested in, and explaining their history. He was happy to wait for us while we walked across the Golden Gate but the thought of a minimum two-mile walk across and back simply did not appeal to any of us. So we just took a few photographs of the bridge - which by the way is not golden, but red, and was also wreathed in mist because it was not a clear day - and asked the taxi driver to drop us back at the railway station. The total fare was a lot less than I'd expected and would have been cheap at twice the price. The taxi driver got a nice fat tip - again, well worth every penny. Or cent.

The annoying part thereafter - we could actually SEE the train that we should have been in time for, but we were a minute too late to catch it. All we could do was watch helplessly as it pulled away, nice and empty. Bah. We had a 40-minute wait for the next one, and it seemed like a good idea to Pete to find the nearest Starbucks and have a coffee (Have I said he's a Starbucks fan?). Unfortunately the nearest Starbucks was closed. Double bah. We mooched along the road until I saw a Borders, which perked us all up considerably. Pete thought I would end up getting every book I saw, but I gamely restrained myself because I was already having visions of being over the luggage limit for the flight back home. In the event it was Pete who loaded up with a good dozen computer books, all about a thousand pages fat, because they were cheaper than in the UK. All I got was one cookbook book - and even that was a present from Radha!

The next day Pete and I were supposed to be picked up for around 9.30am by my friend Rags and his wife Vasavi (isnt that just the most beautiful name?), to go to a winery in Napa Valley. But they discovered that the winery only opened at noon, so our departure was postponed slightly. Just as well, because then we could say goodbye to Kumar, who was flying back to Erie that morning. We would be flying back to Seattle the next day, early. The holiday was coming to an end.

But before that we had the day to spend at the winery. The drive was about an hour or so, and the day got steadily hotter as we reached the Napa Valley area. The change in temperature was nothing short of amazing - in San Francisco, it was bright and sunny but not unduly hot... but in Napa Valley, my god, it felt like Hyderabad. Not humid but very, very hot! It was quite crowded at that winery, mainly because the tasting was free of charge. The picnic areas outside were full of people with hampers of food and bottles of wine. We didnt waste any time in finding a wine that we all liked, got a couple of bottles, and went outside to find a bit of shade in which to sit. Vasavi, being designated driver, did not have very much wine. Me, not being much of a drinker, didnt have half as much as Pete and Rags put away. But it was a time of lots of talk, laughter and reminiscing about school days (for Rags and me, that is) and old friends and places in Chennai, and setting the world to rights.

We stayed at the winery till we were nearly kicked out, then went back with Rags and Vasavi to their lovely new home for more wine, martinis and chatter. (Rags makes the most sensational martinis - his specialty. I dunno if they were stirred or shaken, but the martinis were just wow.) The hours flew by and before we knew it, it was 1 in the morning. We just HAD to get back home, as our flight was at 6am (or some such godawful early hour) and we hadnt even packed. Vasavi and Rags drove us back to Bhanu's place, where we had to say our reluctant goodbyes. If only we'd had more time to spend in San Francisco...

Back in Seattle, we had only a day before we flew back to the UK. That was spent pretty much in
last-minute shopping and packing.

But even the drive to the airport wasnt without its share of drama. Radha had to borrow her friend's car (as it was bigger and more powerful than hers) to take us and our luggage. Halfway there, the electrics in the car began to act up. It was a bit of touch and go whether we would actually get to the airport before a breakdown occurred, but we made it. (As it happened, the car DID break down when amma and Radha were on their way back home!)

We were good and early at the airport, but finally we had to say our goodbyes and check in, with heavy hearts. I really didnt want to go, but all holidays have to come to an end - unfortunately. Pete and I sat around at the airport until our flights were called. And then we discovered that the terminal we should have been at was a train trip away! We could see the terminal out of the window, but it was a separate building, only connected by a shuttle.

We had not known this until then, so after that it was a frantic run to the train shuttle station , which seemed like a few miles away inside the airport. We had to wait two minutes for the train to arrive, and believe me, the four-minute ride to the correct terminal seemed endless. We were 10 minutes over the final security call for boarding, and it seemed certain that we had missed our flight. It would have been an extreme irony had we missed it, considering how early we'd arrived at the airport - but luckily the flight had been delayed 10 minutes and the passengers had only just begun to board. Phew! Made it by the skin of our teeth.
All the way back, all we could talk about was how much fun it had been. Pete had started the trip not really wanting to go to the States, but even he had to admit that it was well worth making a return trip - or trips. That's a promise I have in hand.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

USA trip April 29-May 16 2006 - Part 1

Wow, it sure has been a long time since I wrote any travel posts… not because I haven’t been anywhere but because there doesn’t seem to be enough time to sit down and write. Don’t get me wrong, there’s time to sit down but then I end up doing other stuff – embroidery or watching TV or just reading. It takes some serious self-discipline to actually write – or type, as the case may be.

The US trip – first one for both me and Pete – was absolutely fantastic, if really hectic. Actually, the very fact that we went to so many places, saw so much, did so much AND took so many photos is the major deterrent when it comes to writing it all down (“oh man, it’s going to take AGES to write all this” – and then I end up doing something else just so I don’t have to think about writing). It’s a vicious circle.

But I’ve decided to breach the circle. This travelogue is not going to be a word-for-word, scene-by-scene description of events – I leave that to my brother, who’s doing an excellent, very funny job of it (look up Mine’s going to be more a city-by-city jobbie. Or experience by experience.

Anyway, on with it. The travails I went through before my travels (I kill myself with my laborious wordplay sometimes) are documented here: Luckily it all worked out, and we left Heathrow on 29th April, touching down at

NEW YORK, at the John F Kennedy Airport the same day. There’s something to be said for time zones when you gain a few hours extra of daylight. On the other hand, the bright daylight highlighted the rather sorry state of JFK. It wasn’t the most impressive airport from the inside – in fact, it looked (and felt) rather like Chennai International Airport before the improvements. Not much to be said for the outside either, once we got out of the inside.

I was actually dreading Passport Control, but it turned out a lot less hassle in one way (I expected to be given a body search but that didn’t happen, phew) while getting on Pete’s nerves royally in other ways. After waiting in a rather haphazard queue for over an hour, we finally got to where we could see the passport control officials sitting in their little plastic cubicles. (I was unpleasantly quite shocked that all of them were carrying guns! They weren’t cops – just regular employees at passport control!) Person after person was called and eventually sent on their way.

At first there were about 7-8 officials checking passports and visas. Then, as the throng dwindled down, a couple of them closed up shop and wandered away. And then there were 5. Amma, Pete and I (and a Malay lady) were the very last in the queue. There was an officious lady who directed us to a cubicle but the official just locked up and went away. She then told us to wait at another cubicle - but it turned out that every time we went and stood in front of an official, they would get up, lock their station and walk off – even though we were stood there waiting right in front of them! They totally ignored us even though it was obvious we needed to be officially let through.

This happened three times and finally Pete lost his temper. He stomped up to the officious lady and politely (but forcefully) explained the situation to her. She looked pissed off (but I’m assuming it was with her colleagues, not with us) and went to the last remaining official. HE wasnt happy at being the last working man, but he was nice enough to us. He fingerprinted us, photographed us and finally told us to have a nice stay as he sent us off towards the baggage carousels.

The first thing I noticed out on the road was the size of the cars. Every other car seemed to be half a truck long and about as high – absolutely huge! Coming from a country where the cars are usually little, and even the SUVs seem small in comparison to American cars… well, I was a little shell shocked. Not to mention dwarfed.

In daylight, the part of New York that we were in looked rather grubby. Even the drive to Manhattan wasn’t madly impressive, unless you count the maniac drivers in their monster vehicles. I’ve never seen such a display of outright bad driving outside of Belgium – methinks even the Belgians would be impressed. Yes, India is a country of TERRIBLE drivers, but at least they’re not changing lanes and muscling their way ahead at signals at 60 miles an hour! Frankly, New York traffic terrified me. I’m all admiration for Kumar who has actually driven there and braved the local traffic. I wouldn’t do it for worlds.

The architecture – such as it is – of New York was quite fascinating. The skyscrapers were all properly impressive and some of them even stunningly beautiful in their symmetry and soaring size. Sandwiched between them in odd places, though, were buildings that looked like they’d been transplanted whole from Europe. Gothic spikes, fairy-tale towers, little brick-and-stone constructions – it was a real mish-mash of styles. I guess that’s a legacy of the immigrants who came there in previous centuries.

The New York subway system is not geared for tourists or amateurs, that’s for sure. First of all, the signs for stops were strange to people who are used to actual names for streets and avenues, instead of numbers (3rd, 5th and so on). The grid system is a thing of wondrous sensible logic – but one has to get used to it first.

Quite apart from sussing that out, we had some serious trouble getting INTO the subway stations. The swipe-your-card thing didn’t work for us very well – at one point, the four of us were on the right side of the turnstile entry while Pete was stuck outside, desperately trying to get in. It was amusing the first time, but the experience soon palled when one or other of us was left outside trying to get in. Or inside, trying to get out. I didn’t notice any fire exits at the stations – the only way to get out was through the turnstiles, and those didn’t allow for a mass panic exodus – I couldn’t help wondering about the mayhem that would be caused if there was a bomb explosion or some other disaster and people had to get out in a hurry. All in all, I didn’t take to the NY subways. (So it’s even possible to forgive my brother for making us walk in three different – and wrong – directions before finally setting off in the fourth direction which by elimination was the right way out!) The subways in Singapore, Paris and London are much more tourist-friendly.

New York by midnight was very nice – the city that never sleeps, isn’t it called? Times Square was lit up like Christmas, with really HUGE neon signs and advertisements and bright lights everywhere. There were loads of snap happy tourists (I admit I was more snap than happy at that time of night, so I didn’t take any photos – luckily my brother did), shops were open, road-side food vendors were selling their wares and in general the streets were very much awake and populated. It certainly was nice to be there and I can only imagine the sort of buzz you’d get from being there around Christmas or New Year’s.

One really cool thing I saw in New York (and for this I do wish I’d got some photos) was a sort of 5-seater cycle. It’s a tourist gimmick and I’m not quite sure how it worked, but basically it was for 4-6 people, all pedalling away while facing in different directions. I’m not sure who would have been the main driver or how the brakes were meant to work – I mean, there were people pedalling with their back to the traffic, others were sitting sideways-on while pedalling. It had to have been legitimate or I’m sure they would not have been allowed to ride in traffic. Whatever, it looked like good fun, and it’s another of the things I’m gonna try the next time I’m in NY!

After two days in New York (I wished we’d had more time there – I wanted to check out a few restaurants and bistros recommended on various food blogs, and I also wanted to meet a couple of blogger friends… but it wasn’t to be, this time), we left for

WASHINGTON DC, which was a 4 hour drive (could have been 3 hours, but felt like 6) in a big car hired by Kumar. Big on the outside, that is. Right then I discovered another thing about American cars. They’re mostly huge on the outside but tiny on the inside and totally uncomfortable to sit in. Talk about bad design! It was meant to be a 7- or 8-seater Ford (cant remember the model) van but the floor was so high up that I was sitting cross-legged. It was either that or have my knees touching my chin. It was the single most uncomfortable car I’ve ever been in. (Kumar discovered this for himself later on in the trip – he actually lay down on the floor of the car, wedging his head by the side of the seat, against the door, in preference to sitting on the seat. He even had a nap in an “L” position! And there are photos to prove it!)

Lunch by the Inner Harbour in Baltimore was nice because of the setting (sailboats, sun shining on little flippy waves and that sort of thing). I wanted to go on the Duck Tour – an amphibious vehicle that does a land and water tour - but we didn’t have the time.

After that we set off for the hotel where we were to stay the night. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the New York hotel had been just about “okay”. But oh my, the Radisson was fantastic. Ultra modern and so comfortable that we were very nearly inclined to just stay there and never mind going out and being touristy! The beds alone were worth that inclination, believe me. The American tendency of making everything the “large economy size” was advantageous in the case of the beds – there were acres of it, soft and inviting and simply lovely. (I might be going on about this rather a lot, but good beds, wherever found, are worth going the extra mile for and worth the extra descriptive sentence or two. Please excuse the mixed metaphor. Rest assured, if I found a good bed anywhere, I would not go an extra mile from it in ANY direction!)

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the beds, we went to an area called Greenbelt, to meet with Kumar’s bosom buddy, his best friend from the age of 5 or thereabouts. The poor guy was recovering from a bad case of the flu (or some such debilitating attack) but was still happy to have us all drop by. He took us on a long(ish) leisurely walk around a nearby lake – a very peaceful, beautiful post with a couple of absolutely gorgeous houses on the far side. After the lovely evening and the walk, the siren song of the beds was too tempting to ignore, so off we went, back to the hotel.

The next day, we set off all gung-ho, ready for a day of museum hopping. My bright and shiny outlook had wilted a bit by the time we got out of the metro station and walked towards the museums – it was such a very hot, blindingly bright day. Exactly the wrong kind of day to be carrying a warm, furry coat.

The Air and Space Museum was nicely air-conditioned and despite the fact that there were lots of people (mainly school kids) around, it still didn’t seem crowded. We were lucky enough to get into the Imax theatre and other places of activity and fun just before the crowds got there. It was good fun. There wasn’t much time after that to look at more museums, so we decided to get on a hop-on hop-off bus tour of DC. We managed to see a few places but since I was to meet up with an old friend of mine (and, as it turned out, his new fiancée), Pete and I got off partway so that we could take the Metro nearest to his home.

After a couple of hours spent with Jason and his fiancée (now his wife, actually) Anuja, during which we incorporated a leisurely walk to his little apartment as well as the obligatory photos outside the White House, we went back to the Smithsonian to meet up with amma, Kumar and Radha. (Cant begin to describe how unimpressive the White House looks, by the way. Buckingham Palace it aint, and even that I found rather bland, actually!)

Then it was back to the hotel for our car, and thence to

ERIE, where Kumar is based. It was a long drive, about 6 hours, and Kumar did all of it. We got to his place around 1.30 in the morning. Although we were all tired and very sleepy, we couldn’t help coming rather wide awake when we saw his house. It even had its own plaque outside, as it was Erie’s oldest building (circa 1828, I think). The inside was impressive – tall ceilings, large rooms, very nice furniture (not indigenous to the house) and a very nearly cavernous cellar. On the whole, most impressive. Around 2.30 am, we finally got to bed, with Kumar dropping heavy hints about an early start so as to get to the Niagara Falls nice and early.

Early start, right! I like a leisurely start to my day, whenever and wherever possible, so we left the house only late in the morning. It was about an hour and a half’s drive to get there, and we made it without any hassle. The best part was that there were no crowds whatsoever at the Falls. We didn’t have to queue for anything!

My brother was extremely blasé about the Niagara Falls, having been there half a dozen times. Kind of understandable, because that’s how I felt about Sentosa Island & Jurong Bird Park when I was in Singapore, and how I feel about Madame Tussaud’s, the Tower and the hop-on hop-off bus tour of London. Been there, been there, been there, been there, been there…. No more! Never again!

Anyway, he was kind enough to suffer through yet another visit to the Falls. I absolutely loved it – it was such a breathtaking experience to see the volume of water that rushed over the rocks. The Maid of the Mist was a lovely experience as well. I know it’s been “done” by millions of Indians and yet it’s still something to write home about. The experience is awesome.

Better yet – because you get REALLY close to the waterfall – is the Cave of the Winds. Kind of a misnomer, because it wasn’t a cave and there were no winds. What it was, was a platform built extremely close to the roaring, rushing falls so that at its closest, you were actually standing under the water. Obviously not enough to get knocked off, but just enough to feel the exhilarating rush. The water was cold, but not freezing. There’s no way I could or would have done that in the winter – it would have been way beyond unbearable in freezing temperatures. Worse, it would not have been an enjoyable experience.

After our Niagara tour, Kumar decided that he wanted to show us the views around Lake Erie, so we headed back, trying to beat the setting sun so as get there with enough light to see by. As it turned out, it was a doddle. Plenty of sunshine, plenty of light.

Lake Erie was amazingly huge – it could well have been a sea, if I hadn’t known better. It actually had a quite substantial sandy beachfront, and were it not for the fact that the water wasn’t salty, I would not have believed it to be an inland lake at all. Even more amazing, it actually freezes right up in the winter. Completely. The entire lake! Man, what a sight THAT would be!

The next thing was deciding on how to get back to Washington the next day, to catch the 4pm flight to Seattle. I was not at all keen on 6 hours again in that vehicle of torture aka the Ford van, so Kumar kindly booked tickets on an early morning flight for me, Pete and Radha back to Baltimore. The road trip HAD to be done as the vehicle was hired and needed to be returned. Kumar and amma were to do the road trip, along with our luggage, back to Washington and to Ramaswamy’s house where the rest of their luggage awaited.

Back in Washington after a short flight, the three of us went back to the Smithsonian, this time to the Museum of American Indians which we thought might be interesting and reveal more about the ORIGINAL denizens of America. The building was beautiful inside, cool and air-conditioned. There was a live dance and music performance happening on the ground floor, but to our mystification, it was a Hawaiian hula dance. Why a hula dance, complete with fake grass skirts, in a museum dedicated to the American Indians is anybody’s guess.

The museum was unfortunately a bit disappointing. There were lots of artefacts and things, lots of arrowheads and dolls – but with rather vague descriptions as to time and history. Things that purported to be over 1000 years old were right next to a cheesy modern hard hat painted in “traditional” designs in 1993 by some guy – but why put THAT in a museum??? Is there really so little original work left from the tribes that they have to include whatever junk passes for indigenous art? Still, to be fair, there were some fantastic pieces of extremely intricate beadwork garments on display. As an amateur

Pete thought – and I agree – that it could have been a good chance for the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of America to be propagated, but instead it turned out to be somewhat less of a learning experience and more of propaganda to the tune of “We are all Americans but we still have our own culture and pride and an important role to play in modern America”.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, by the time Pete and I had had a look around (Radha sat down in one of the comfortable sofas that were scattered around and refused to budge), it was time to head to the airport. We were too bummed to bother with public transport so we took a taxi. It was a long ride, but the driver was a polite, dignified gentleman whose previous job profile was as an Afghan diplomat! I dozed pretty much all the way, but Pete had a long chat with him. They became such friends that at the airport, the taxi driver happily took less fare than he was owed (none of us had change), saying he would take it “next time”. What a nice man!

As it turned out, we very nearly missed the flight to Seattle because apparently Pete was on the FBI and CIA “no-fly” list. There was 5 minutes left for the final security check call, and Pete didn’t even have his baggage checked through! After some frantic running around (and dealing with unhelpful people), he managed to convince them that he was a different Peter Edwards, not the criminal that Interpol was on the look out for. We were literally the last persons to board the aircraft – in fact, the steps were wheeled away the moment we set foot in the plane! And then we were on our way to

SEATTLE, Radha’s chosen place of residence. The flight was uneventful enough, and we had a choice of taking the shuttle or one of the limos from the airport to her house. And in honour of our first visit to Seattle, Radha hired a long black stretch limousine. It was fun to actually be inside one of those things instead of on the outside wondering what was on the inside! J Well, there wasn’t that much inside, to be honest. But then, it was still an airport taxi sort of vehicle, not really geared OR set up for five-star luxury or celebrity occupants. Still, it was fun. It must take some getting used to, when it comes to parking a car that’s more than two cars’ length! My new ambition now is to ride in a Hummer limo. I know, I know… Hummer limos are monstrous eyesores. But I still would like to ride in one.

It was about an hour's drive from the airport to Radha's house. And a very nice house it was, too. With a very comfortable high bed in the room allotted to Pete and me. (Ok, I'm obsessive about beds.) But even better than that was her recliner chair - like the ones that Chandler and Joey have in "Friends". (Ok, I'm obsessive about Friends, too.) That to me is the last word in luxury... until something even more luxurious comes along, that is.

I have to say that we didnt do much in Seattle by way of sightseeing. I didnt get to see the Seattle Needle, and apparently Frasier had re-located to San Francisco (although I didnt meet him there either. Yes, ok, I'm obsessive about Frasier too!). What we did do there, in the couple of days available to us, was shop a lot. We spent one day, more or less, shopping for clothes. I didnt get much that I liked, but Pete spent absolutely HOURS and came out with what was an entire new wardrobe of new clothes. He's set for the year, I think.

Radha was obliging enough to drive me around to food shops where I browsed for things not available in the UK. In Uwajimaya, an oriental food store, I got a few spices and sauces and dried lotus stems and things like that. In a Mexican grocery store, I stocked up on strange dried herbs and lots of different kinds of dried chilies. I havent got around to using most of them yet, but it's only a matter of time. I also tried out what was called "guava candy" - but it wasnt really candy, it was exactly like the aam papad - dried pressed mango that you get in India. Except, of course, that it was guava papad. It was scrumptious, sweet and a bit sour at the same time. I wish I'd brought back some to the UK!

I also went to a Trader Joe's. It was sort of disappointing after all I'd read about it in various food blogs. But only because most of the items available couldnt have been transported back to the UK... Trader Joe's is best for people who live locally. Sigh.

Oops, this is my travel blog, not my food blog.

Some of the shopping we did was for the party we were having in celebration of my mother's 60th birthday. In fact, the whole trip was planned for and around that event, with Radha inviting her friends over. It was a sort of pot-luck party, with each guest bringing along one item. It was good fun, with great food, and I had a gala time with all the little kids.

Again, there wasnt enough time for sight-seeing or trying out the various eateries and restaurants for which Seattle is famous. (It's another matter that I might not have been able to find much to eat, being vegetarian.) But one place we DID go to - and long-time residents of the US might groan at this - was a Krispy Kreme outlet. Oh my god, I've never had such melt-in-the-mouth doughnuts EVER! Every one of them was a revelation of fresh sweet warm softness. Those doughnuts are to die for. I could have eaten them all day despite my distinct lack of a sweet tooth. I really WISH Krispy Kreme would open outlets in the UK, like McDonalds, Burger King & KFC. And of course Starbucks.

After that hectic weekend, we were off early Monday morning to

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK. Of course, we had to fly to Salt Lake City first. When I looked out at the countryside, I couldnt help thinking of all the Westerns I'd read and trying to imagine what it must have been like in the times of cowboys and outlaws and shootouts in saloons. (I tried not to think about the Mormons, though it would have been kinda nice to visit the Mormon temple.)

Directly from Salt Lake City's airport, we went to the RV (Recreational Vehicle, to the uninitiated) centre, where we hired ourselves one of those large vehicles, ready for the 400-mile drive to Yellowstone Park. It was all exciting, especially as neither Radha or Kumar had ever driven anything as big as a large bus! It was a first for everybody... and we had a 400-mile drive, first-timers all.

For Pete especially, the sheer staggering size of the US was driven in yet again - I mean, in the UK, it's a 400-mile drive from Shrewsbury to the Scottish Highlands, and that covers nearly 3/4 of the country's length. And here we were, ready to cover the same distance merely to GET to the National Park from the nearest RV centre!

Staggering, I tell ya.

After a long drive, with Radha and Kumar taking turns to drive the RV, we reached the RV camp quite late at night - 11 pm or thereabouts. It was very quiet and still, but since Radha had phoned ahead to the camp manager, she was awake. Very quietly, we hooked up the RV to the electricity and water outlets and, once everything was fixed and ready, went to sleep.

We were in Yellowstone Park at exactly the right time of year - yet again, it was timed to perfection. The season hadnt quite begun yet, and the Park wasnt fully open. The weather was perfect, the hordes of tourists hadnt descended on the area and there was peace and calm all around. Apparently during high season, there are actual traffic jams on the roads inside Yellowstone - brr! I doubt we would have had as good a time with more traffic and people to contend with.

Yellowstone Park is huge and only a very small section of it has been "civilised" - I mean, laid out with roads and signs and things. The best way to see it, of course, is by hiking or climbing. But for the more comfortably-minded, driving around in a car is much the preferred method. The views are fantastic, the sheer scale of the mountains is breath-taking.

We saw lots of bison (or buffalo) - usually on the road, blocking our way. With typical bovine stupidity, they would amble across till they were in the middle of the road, then stop and just stand there. Maybe they forgot what they were gonna do, maybe they were waiting for inspiration to strike. But since you're not allowed to honk the car horn or otherwise disturb the wildlife on purpose, all we could do was wait and hope that they would move on. It IS exciting to see wild animals close up, but there's only so long that you can sustain the excitement of looking at a somnolent shaggy cow. Or bull.

Mind, we also saw lots of elk. Boring deer, really. But at least they werent on the road. We saw a coyote, too. And a wolf. Which also, strangely enough, was in the middle of the road. It actually looked like a normal Alsatian dog, because it was wearing a collar. But since nobody goes to Yellowstone Park to look at a domestic canine, we decided that it was a wolf that had been "collared" for scientific head-count purposes. The darn thing trotted along the central line on the road almost as if it was taking a sobriety test, making it impossible for cars on both sides of the road to progress along. Eventually, after we had all taken photos, it loped off to the side, and we could all carry on driving in search of MORE wildlife and wild views. You'd think the animals would have learnt to stay off the roads, considering the hundreds of miles of forest and wilderness available to them! (This is called irony.)

Oh, talking about views... Yellowstone is one of those places that you have to see to believe. Words cant describe it and photographs show only a fraction of what we saw. The waterfalls we came across were ginormous, and so fantastically placed that from every angle they were perfect for picture postcard photography. Kind of like the Taj Mahal - it was difficult to take a bad picture.

What I would have loved to see in the way of wild animals was a grizzly bear, but unfortunately those were not wandering around in herds. We DID stop by the roadside at one beautiful viewpoint, to be told in hushed tones by the other people that "there's a grizzly over there". "Over there" turned out to be at the furthest point of naked eyesight. We didnt have binoculars so we couldnt tell for sure if it was an animal, or if the vaunted grizzly was really only a distant bush masquerading as one. In any case, after straining our eyes and trying to get a closer look via our cameras' "zoom" facility to no avail, we moved on.

It was probably only a bison, anyway.

As it turned out, we didnt see any grizzlies. Nor did any grizzlies see us, I guess. Just as well.

Two of the most vivid experiences of Yellowstone were, for me, Old Faithful geyser and the enormous Yellowstone Lake. The park has lots of areas of hot springs, geysers, sulphur pools and mud pools, much like New Zealand. Old Faithful is, of course, THE most well-known geyser. We had to wait nearly an hour (which time we whiled away by dozing through two interesting documentaries in the shop-cum-office area). There seemed to be quite a lot of false starts and spurts but eventually Old Faithful lived up to her name, putting up quite a show of scalding water and steam that shot up into the air.

Not only are there volcanic pools, but bacteria that can live in the scalding, sulphurous, acid waters and are being studied by scientists to see how life developed. Nobody is allowed to step off the raised paths onto the ground for two very good reasons: One, it would compromise the bacterial mat and 2. One could end up sinking into a pool of corrosive acid.

I have to admit at this point that I DID compromise the evolution of these bacteria - but not on purpose. An extra strong gust of icy wind whipped my beautiful red leather beret (bought as a souvenir in New York) off my head on to the ground a few feet away. Alas, I couldnt retrieve it because of the two reasons stated above. So with a heavy heart, I abandoned my beret to the tender mercies of the hot sulphurous waters and the bacteria. I wonder how they will incorporate my beret into their evolution... and what the scientists will think when they come across leathery red bacteria...

The second unforgettable sight in Yellowstone was the vast frozen Yellowstone lake that we came across more or less by accident. We'd hired a car that day (thinking the RV was too big to drive around everywhere) and taken a wrong turning somewhere after a set of bubbling sulphurous mud pools. When we came across a sign for "Yellowstone Lake", it was a choice between carrying on that way or turning back the way we had come. Luckily we decided to carry on, although Kumar thought it couldnt be much of a tourist attraction. We werent sure if it was a loop road, or whether it led away, or how far, from our RV. Still, we carried on.

And what a fortunate choice that turned out to be! Once past a Ranger Station on our right (brand new buildings, and a new service station coming up as well), all we saw was a vast sheet of ice on the left - Lake Yellowstone was still frozen solid. Towards the edge, near the beach, the ice was fairly thin and translucent, but further back, it was an opaque white. The lake stretched to the horizon, with a semi-circle of snow-covered mountains at the furthest. Puffs of steam could be seen here and there on the far side, from the hot springs and mud pools. It was an amazing, awe-inspiring, completely unexpected sight.

Then Kumar had a brainwave - he suggested that we go back with the car to the RV and come back with it, hopefully in time to take photos of what would most certainly be a spectacular sunset. The reason for returning the car being, of course, that the RV was a lot more comfortable and even if got late, at least some of us could get some sleep even if the RV was moving. This seemed like a good idea, so we raced back to the caravan park, saying rude things to the few bison that dared to get in our way and slow us down.

The decision to let Pete handle the RV on the way back to Yellowstone Lake was unanimous - we had only an hour or so to get there if we wanted to catch the sunset. Although Radha and Kumar had both proved very good at driving the monstrous RV, neither of them were quite comfortable with the idea of hurling it around the fairly narrow, twisty roads. Pete was the only one of us with experience in driving large vehicles over narrow roads at unsuitable speeds. Back at home in England, he's very used to driving the Range Rover with a large trailer attached - so an RV would more or less be the same length (if not the width). It was quite awesome to be in the RV at that point, and believe me, we were all belted in as he hurtled the RV onwards at speeds somewhat in excess - like 3 times - of the maximum speed limit (If any cops are reading this - I'm lying like a rug, officer.)

As it happened, despite Pete's speediest efforts, we didnt make it back to the lake in time for the sunset. (It was another matter that the sunset was in the opposite direction.) But we went onwards regardless, because that was The Plan. Once we got there, Kumar decided that he wanted to stay overnight so as to see the sunrise the next day. There was some argument about whether it was legal to park the RV there, and if it was safe, and whether we would run the batteries down by having the heating on all night, and so on. I have to say that Kumar made the most impassioned pleas for staying on, getting all poetic ("Just imagine, you're standing there with a cup of coffee in your hand, watching the sun rise over the mountains, watching as the sky lightens to pink, as the first rays of the sun hit the frozen lake" etc ad nauseam). I know I gave in just so that he would stop babbling like an out-of-control travel agent!

My main reservation about staying there was perhaps meeting a grizzly or even a bad-tempered bison in the dark (while on the short walk to the toilet, for instance). For all that we hadnt seen any grizzly bears, I couldnt stop imagining a particularly sore-headed, hungry bear behind every bush as it got dark. It didnt help that I'd read a book about really grisly grizzly attacks, day and night, on unsuspecting people who were out walking or even in tents. I mean, just because I couldnt see or smell a grizzly didnt mean that any passing hungry bear couldnt see or smell ME! I knew for a fact that bison had been around, because of the lavishly large droppings that that had been deposited here and there. One, I might mention, rather close to the toilet cubicles. Anyway, I decided I would venture out only in broad daylight. The last of the intrepid adventurers, me.

To give Kumar his due, he really was enthusiastic about the whole thing, making up for any shortfall in the levels of enthusiasm in the rest of us. He got up at around 4am the next day (if he slept at all, that is) and was out in the cold pre-dawn darkness fiddling with his tripod and camera, getting everything just right. By about 5.30 we were all out there, shivering quietly but marvelling at how utterly eerie the lake and mountains looked. Everything was an intense blue, much like looking through a blue filter - the photos will attest to that.

The sun was quite tardy in rising, and we amused ourselves by betting on exactly which valley the sun would appear from. Eventually, extremely reluctantly, the sun made its first appearance over the mountains at around 6.30. Coincidentally, exactly at that moment, there was a huge "CRRACK" - the ice at the forefront of the lake, where it wasnt very thick, was breaking up. Even as we watched, cracks zigzagged their way almost quicker than the eye could follow. It was stunning. I dont know if it was sheer coincidence or whether the sun's warmth caused the cracking. If it was the latter, all I can say is that any change in temperature was totally imperceptible to us.

The sunrise itself was pretty - more pastels than anything else, not as spectacular as some I've seen. Perhaps because there wasnt enough pollution (dust, etc) in the atmosphere? Whatever, it definitely was worth the trouble of getting up early and I guess we have Kumar alone to thank for the experience - so, thanks, Gopes!

The rest of the travelogue will follow in the next post.