Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Chicago connection..

One thing that I have learned on this whirlwind trip to the US is to “Never say never”. Firstly, I never wanted to visit the US because I thought about it as being a very materialistic place. But, as luck would have it, I have completed 2 trips to this free country. Freedom is very relative and I would like to reserve talking about it, to a separate thread.

Secondly, I always thought lasting friendships are created only during school or college, but this myth was debunked when I made some real good friendships at work. One of them is the reason for my one trip to Mumbai and two trips to Chicago, so far. I made the trip to Mumbai a few years back, just to visit her, thinking that it would be the last time that I would see her as she was moving permanently to the US – something that she thought she would 'never' do. Couple of years back, I made a trip to the east coast of US, courtesy some of my good friends from college and I couldn't miss the trip to Chicago to visit this friend from Mumbai. The timing was perfect too – she had just had a baby. She took time out and we went around Chicago downtown where I was introduced to Panera Bread – an uptown alternative to Subway sandwiches. Chicago, I got to know from my friend, is known for its architecture. I did notice that the buildings were different from one another – unlike in New York City where everything seems like a tall rectangular structure. Chicago is home to the famous Bean by Indian born artist Anish Kapoor.

How the next visit to Chicago happened is something I cannot explain – just as I cannot explain how my other friend and I started on the crazy road trip from Indiana to California. My friend from Mumbai calls it a “karmic connection”. I guess it must be true. We were treated like family as we chatted heartily over yummy food and the little one entertained us throughout our stay. It was a very short stop-over, but a memorable one. My friend told us that she was jealous about us making the road trip – I guess true friends are like that; they do not hide anything :)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Public transport in the land of the automobile

In the land of the automobile, the thought of taking public transport raises many eyebrows. Except for known, straight forward routes, very few venture to hop onto a bus/train. When I wanted to go on my own, my friend was concerned, but I was adamant. I thought nothing is impossible when I have the power of Google. I was very impressed with Google maps providing even the cost difference between public transport and car; next should be carbon emissions.
I spent a good part of the day researching on how to travel from Fremont to Stanford and then onto San Francisco for Critical Mass(CM) and then back home. This trip involved taking the BART train, AC transit bus, then a free shuttle bus, then Caltrain, then BART and then BART again after CM. It was quite a lot to write down; but I noted contingency plans as well.
Since I had to take my borrowed cycle on all these modes, I researched on that too. It looked pretty easy to take it on a bus and even easier to take it on Caltrain. I had already taken the bike on BART, so that was no longer an unknown.

Everything looked fine, till I realized that the tickets are different on every mode of transport. And, everything is automated - there is no one to ask too. I googled and was happy to find a combined ticket for all modes of transport - a clipper card - even my friend did not know much about it. My happiness at my discovery lasted only a few hours since we found that the clipper card was not easily available. And I was too stupid to ask her for her comments on my itinerary. Well, I missed a bus - but I had plan B. So, I took BART, but had already missed the connecting bus to get to the other side (SFO side). The next bus was an hour later. When the bus finally arrived, I handed out a 20$ bill, the lady said 'no change' (You have to bring in your own change all the time - luckily, BART stations have change vending machines). I learnt the hard way - by losing a dollar - that you have to give 'exact change' . I still had to load my bike onto the bus and the bus driver gave me a grumpy look at my struggles, but who cares! Loading the bike was damn easy, but I was not very confident. I always had an eye on the bike and missed watching the sorroundings, until someone put another bike in front of mine. I was now able to take my eyes off the bike and completed the first leg of my journey without any more events. It was relatively easy to find the way to Stanford from Palo Alto. I cycled on the wide bike lanes in Stanford, trying not to make any comparisons with IISc.
As I approached the next leg of my journey, I stopped looking at my notes as they longer made any sense. I went around the Palo Alto transit stop but not even a small info kiosk, nothing.. just a couple of automated ticket vending machines and a map of Caltrain and a whole lot of other transport 'companies'. I so much missed mapsearch and SBB of Switzerland - just one ticket that lets you take any mode of transport - train, tram, bus, boat.. u name it. But, here, you just cross the bay and its a new transport company and a new ticket. The train to SFO did not have proper naming too - just a number on the front - how do they expect new comers to know all this! I finally reached SFO and a native American girl asked me if we had reached SFO - I was happy to be treated as a local :). She also had a bike, so it was now my turn to ask her if she was going to critical mass. Yes, she was and she knew the route to the meeting point. We cycled on the narrow bike lanes along with trams, buses, cars, sharing the same road. Critical mass was exciting - I expected nothing less - and then I was back to the familiarity of BART.
So far, BART has been the most efficient and easy to understand. Still a long way to go for public transport in the US of A.