Monday, March 13, 2017

Day 7 - Flying Over San Francisco

I had the morning off on my last day in San Francisco, and I took the chance to take a chopper ride over SFO - and as luck may have it, I was asked if I'd like to join the pilot in the cockpit. Boy, what an experience! You know those 7D theatres where you take off and zoom around shooting zombies? Well, it felt the same - expect this was for real, and a few thousand feet up over SFO!

Here are a few pics - how many landmarks can you recognize?

Yeh Hai Amrika

This was my first trip to America after almost 12 years - during which I made multiple wonderful trips to Europe, visiting Spain, France, Portugal, the Nederlands, Italy, Switzerland, and the UK. For the first time in over a dozen earlier visits to America, I did get a chance to really get out into the country, away from the they-all-look-alike downtowns. From the majestic snow-clad Yosemite National Park, to the beautiful Pacific coast, and the vineries of Napa Valley, this trip was really about seeing a much more palatable America.

However, some things haven't changed at all. A profusion of fast food chains have only deepened the obesity crisis, and you have to actually see it to believe it. It's like a different species of humans altogether, and I guess 300 Kgs no longer gets eyeballs in the US. Pull over at highway stops, or walk through downtown looking for some grub, and all you can see are Pizza Huts, Taco Bells, McDonald's, Burger Kings and Starbucks. Yes, there are the odd restaurants, of course, but I'm a foodie, and after 8 days in the US, I have only ONE meal to reminisce about. I miss the street side cafes, the mom and pop ice cream stores, and the wonderful and varied cuisine that's an absolute delight no matter what restaurant you walk into in Europe.

The small talk continues. Whether the receptionist at the hotel, or the lady at the spa, and it's not just the weather that's fair game. Not that I mind it, but when you are on a 350 km drive back after a long day, sometimes you really don't want to listen to incessant, irrelevant chatter between the tour bus driver and everyone else on the bus! Europeans are a lot more reserved (expect the wonderful Spanish!), Indians have no respect for peace and quiet in public spaces, and the Chinese never ever talk to you, but the Americans - well, they are a different breed right? :)

The cops. Where are they, America? I mean, in a whole week in the States, I must have seen like 5 or 6 cop cars on the streets (and 2 of them pulled over where I was having pizza to grab some grub)! In contrast, especially in continental Europe, major cities look like they are at war with heavily armed soldiers and armored vehicles at every nook and corner. Aah, the luxury of being surrounded by oceans, and the freedom to lecture the world without having to face it yourself. Jealous!

Some things have definitely changed. I saw a lot more gloom and negativity all around. Dozens of homeless men in the streets, something I never noticed in the US a decade before (also very rampant in mainland Europe now). And the TV ads. OMG. Even on news channels like CNN, half the ads are from legal services, encouraging you to sue someone or the other, on some pretext or the other! And the other half are equally depressing - mortgages, insurance, old age care - at low cost. No energy, no smiles, nothing about living your life! Compare it to Indian television, and the contrast is so amazing!

The news channels are the same, though. So many petty discussions on Trump, a distinct shift from reporting real news and analysis, and instead, pandering to their biases. CNN, for one, desperately needs a revamp to stay relevant as a news channel - it's starting to feel more like a anti-Trump tabloid! And we are talking about the legally elected President of the world's oldest democracy, not a dictator in a 3rd world country!

A decade back, I used to gawk at the 10 lane highways, the fast cars, the subway systems and the infrastructure in general. But that's another thing that has changed. India has seen a dramatic change in its infrastructure, and roads like the Pune Mumbai expressway (not to mention the Yamuna Eway) can beat many US highways for surface quality. Yes, a lot more needs to be done about road discipline, and pollution and smog is a serious problem (so obvious when you come back to India!) that will take at least a decade to tackle. But we are getting there!

And maybe it's just in my mind, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable when white men asked me where I was from. Maybe it was the Trump effect. But I have never felt as insecure and unsafe as I did this time in the US. Now that's a trend that desperately needs to change.

Day 6 - Monterey, Carmel and the 17 Mile Drive

If you happen to visit San Francisco at any time in your life, taking a day off to drive down US highway 1 to Monterey and Carmel, and the 17 Mile Drive, should be an absolute must do. Spellbinding views of the ocean, majestic Cyprus trees, multi-million dollar homes, rolling greens and golf courses... it just can't get any better! Yes, there is Napa, and there is Yosemite, but trust me on this - nothing beats US Highway 1!

We set off in the early morning - SFO was blanketed in a thick layer of fog that completely blanked out Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge, but the weather changes dramatically as you pull out of SFO. Our first stop was at Montara, the breath taking cliffs looked just so dreamy!

It's been a long wet winter with lots of rain, and even though Spring isn't really here, the greens are absolutely beautiful, and carpeted with beautiful wild flowers.

Our driver was a jolly old brother, and pulled over to give us a peek at one of the weekly farmer's markets, for some gorgeous, fresh, organic, local produce! 

Monterey is a lovely seaside town with a "western" feel to it. I spent a few minutes at the local aquarium, which is worth a visit if you are travelling with kids.

A wonderful triple grill combo at Bubba Gump was food for my soul!

I had a sumptuous lunch, and then headed out to the piers - and was admiring the view when lo and behold, I heard some Konkani. It was the Kudchadkar couple from Panaji, along with Sanjay Bakal, my Prof from Goa Engg College way back in the 90s! Small world after all.

Things got even more exciting after Monterey, Between Monterey and Carmel, is what is known as the 17 Mile Drive - a gorgeous stretch that rolls between majestic forests of Cyprus trees, exclusive golf courses and multi-million dollar homes, all by the gorgeous ocean. Truly, #LifeGoals!

Carmel itself is a quaint little town, with Hansel Gretel homes, exclusive shopping and more of those gorgeous views of the ocean.

Now, besides being so beautiful, Carmel has a few other very quirky stories - none of which are untrue!

First, you need a permit to wear high heels (the permit is for free, but fines, never imposed, are 500 USD). Yes, no kidding! Selling and eating ice cream on the streets was banned (with a 50 USD fine), until Mayor Clint Eastwood (yes, the same one!) repealed it. A tradition that hasn't been repealed yet is one that bans houses from have street addresses. And no, you won't find a Starbucks or a MacDonalds in Carmel-by-the-sea. In fact, the village permits no chains!

For more details, do have a look at

After a long and wonderful day out on the coast, it was time to head back to SFO. A day well spent!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Day 5 - Yosemite

Yosemite, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, around 350 km east of San Francisco, is a nature lover's delight. And lucky as I am, even though it had rained and snowed heavily on Sunday, just 3 days later, the sky was deep blue, the air a nippy 12 degrees, and the ground still covered in snow - the best possible combination!

The tour bus was small, just 15 seats, and that made for quite an uncomfortable ride, with a few bad stretches of the road resulting in a lot of rattling. However, the guide was great, and stopped for many photo ops in the valley, before stopping in the Yosemite Village for 3 hours on our own. I grabbed some lunch, and then set out to explore on the nearby trails. Yosemite provides miles of hiking and biking trails, although in the short time possible, there wasn't too much I could cover!

If you don't mind the longish drive, Yosemite should be on your bucket list!

And to wrap up, here are some HDR pics from Yosemite...

Days 3 and 4 - The Napa Valley

For the better part of 2 days, we were shuttered inside the Silverado Resort and Spa in the Napa Valley, better known for its excellent wines!

The resort itself is expansive, with large, beautiful rooms, tennis courts, a market, and a classic spa (none of which we really got time to enjoy!) The views from the main mansion, which also houses the conference center, are impressive!

After the conference, we took some time off to drive further into the Napa valley, to the Stirling Vineyards, where we took a cable car to the top of a hill for excellent views, and a wine tasting session.

Now, Napa is highly rated as a destination if you are in the Bay Area, and the drive down into the valley from SFO is decent, the terrain reminiscent of the wine country in France or Italy, or even the Spanish countryside, combined with the gently rolling hills of Switzerland. However, unless its the wine you are after, there are much better things to do and get to around San Francisco (see my next 2 blogs)!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Day 2: San Francisco - Crabs, Cable Cars and Cats!

Day 2 dawned bright and clear, although the weather prediction was cloudy skies and heavy rain. We might be aiming for driverless cars and bots, but weather prediction still remains the domain of the aliens.

I walked down to Union Square, a short distance from my hotel. Union Square has the grand Westin Hotel, more than a hundred years old, and one of the few buildings to have survived the big earthquake and fire of 1906. Union Square is also where all the big departmental stores and shopping is - from Macy's to Nordstrom. But for me, what was more interesting with the cable car turn table at the end of Powell Street, a unique mechanical contraption that allows the cable cars to turn around at the end of the line :)

The cable cars, of course, are a major attraction in SFO, and a ride on one is worth it - where else in American can you literally hang off the edge and be legally allowed to do that?

I took the cable car from one end to the other - near Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, the hub of tourist life in SFO. I gorged on a giant crab sandwich, which cost me a bomb and could have fed my whole family - but then I realized SFO does have a lot of homeless people (and I was reminded of the travails of Bob's master in The Street Cat Named Bob), so I carefully wrapped it up and left it for some hungry soul to pick up.

I had a couple of hours at my disposal, so I hopped aboard one of the modified cable car buses, for a short hop on hop off tour of the city.

First stop, the iconic Golden Gate bridge, arguably one of the most beautiful structures in the world (I rate it much higher than the Taj, by the way!) And yes, the pic does NO justice to it!

Passing through the beautiful Presidio neighborhood and Golden Gate park, I also spent a few minutes gawking at the imposing Palace of Fine Arts (remember where SRK marries Kajol in My Name is Khan?).

I was running out of time, and wanted to have a quick look at the other unique icon of SFO, the very, very crooked Lombard Street. It was a short walk away - but OMG, I did not account for the fact that I had to climb the steep hill first. At almost a 45 degree angle, and over a couple of kms long, the approach to the crooked section sucked out every bit of juice I had in my poor legs, used to climbing, at best, the bed! Given how steep some of the slopes are, I wonder how often the parked cars just tumble over!

Tough to capture the crookedness of the street on camera unless you break into a tall building close by, and it was significant less prettier than I last remember because SFO is just coming out a long cold winter and the flower beds lining the street are yet to bloom.

Just as I finished walking up and down the crooked street, the weather turned on the dime - the sun disappeared, and out of nowhere, we were battered by a hailstorm! It was time to catch an Uber, and get back to the hotel for the second part of the day - a mega long trip (again by Uber, costing me ~120 USD) to Napa Valley's Silverado Resort, for the Persistent Annual Sales Kickoff.

But not before I took a small detour along the way! Cat Town is this amazing cat-friendly cafe in Oakland, where you can enjoy coffee and snacks while spending time with the beautiful furry animals - for a small fee. The cats are up for adoption, and gets a steady stream of visitors, all forgetting their worldly problems for a brief moment while they become hoomans!

Do check out, and if you are in the Bay Area, do pay it a visit!

Signing off from Day 2 while munching on some dried fruits at 5:57 am on Day 4 - that's jet lag for you!