Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fabulous Las Vegas

We decided to spend our Christmas break at Las Vegas also known as the Sin City, entertainment, gambling, and marriage capital of the world. One just can't avoid the glitz and glamour of this happening city.

After the detailed trip planning of the San Diego tour, I decided to go easy on this one. There was no real plan for the four days that we were there. Visit the Grand Canyon and experience Las Vegas-that was about all I had in mind. And that was exactly what we did. I'll cover the Grand Canyon tour in a separate post.

Las Vegas, as everyone knows, is famous for gambling, entertainment and prostitution-a heady mix for sinful living. All the big names in the hotel industry have huge resorts and casinos with lavish decor and over the top lighting. Each one has a theme which is very unique and makes it stand out from the others. 'The Luxor' has an egyptian theme and is shaped like a pyramid. 'Caesar's palace' has a roman theme complete with roman architecture and sculpture. 'Paris' has a half size replica of the Eiffel tower while 'New York New York' has a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

The best part about the hotels is that all are interconnected. You can easily walk from one casino into the other without having to come on to the street. They even have free trams running between different hotels.

The casinos have slot machines, poker, blackjack, roulette & craps tables and digital versions of these games as well. Smoking is permitted in the casinos so there is a horrible stench in the air and I found it very uncomfortable. Drinks are served free of cost to those gambling and you can see waitresses in skimpy costumes strutting around taking orders. ATM machines are located at multiple, convenient locations inside the casinos so that people are never short of funds to gamble. I found it really funny how everyone was standing in a queue at the ATMs only to lose their money.

In the connecting walkway between hotels, you can find food courts, designer apparel stores, beauty salons, gifts & souvenir shops and the likes. It is designed to ensure you get every opportunity to blow away your cash!

It being December, the weather was very cold and chilly. However, once you step into the casinos, the temperatures are so high and I found it very uncomfortable. It looks like some plan to keep people inside the casino all through out. I was surprised to find that the slot machines and tables were occupied right from the morning.

The hotel buffets are very popular. They are known for having exotic food, especially sea-food, at very low rates. Every restaurant inside the casinos had a long winding queue during lunch-time. Since I'm vegetarian, the buffet did not offer anything to me so I skipped it and opted to eat outside. However, there was not much luck there too. Unlike the Bay area, none of the restaurants had any good veg food options. I had to make do with a salad, fries or pizza on most days.

Las Vegas has some of the best shows to offer. Dance, comedy, magic, music, acrobatics-everything under the sun! Some of the big names in the industry regularly perform in Vegas. The streets are filled with people who sell you "cheap" or "free" show or event tickets. The best way to get tickets for the shows is through the 'Tix4 tonight' counters located along the Strip. They usually have very good deals for the same-day shows. I decided to watch a magic show by Murray-the magician (he was one of the America's Got Talent finalists). He was amazing and very goofy. Most of the tricks were something that I'd already seen before but his presentation filled with humor made it a winner.

All three days were spent walking from one casino to the other and still we couldn't cover all of them. Since it was the Christmas weekend, the place was crowded and I was surprised to see a lot of families coming on vacation. Kids, teens along with their parents and even grandparents were enjoying their time off at Vegas. Of course, children are not allowed to loiter around the casinos. We found that out when we were asked for our IDs while we were watching a game. I found it amusing and flattering at the same time :D

Although my vacation was nothing like the one in the movie 'Hangover,' I definitely had a great time being awe-struck by the extravagance and hedonistic way of life. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

San Diego-Day 4: Cruise & Gaslamp

On the last day of our tour, we took the 2 hour cruise from Harbor drive. It was a narrated tour that took us down the south bay and the north bay.

The guide showed us a large number of ships used by the US navy. I learnt that San Diego is the second largest naval base and has one third of the naval ships. Since I'm not too keen on ships, I didn't pay much attention to it and was interested in taking in the beauty of the ocean.

At one point we saw 3 islands which marked the Mexican border. We also saw the Shelter island marinas, Maritime museum, Naval training building, Coronado bay bridge and the downtown skyline.

After which we walked to the downtown region known as the Gaslamp quarters. It has a lot of eateries and businesses. It was a complete contrast to the cosy restaurants of Old town. Here, it was more about flashy and shows hotels. We walked along the entire stretch checking out all the places until we got hungry. We had an early dinner (5.30 pm!) at a fancy Italian restaurant and then headed back to the hotel as we had to catch a flight at 7.30 pm.

San Diego has so much to offer and appeals to everyone's tastes. Some of the things that we could not cover were Sea World, La Jolla Island, Sea Port village and Coronado island. There is just so much to do and four days was just not enough. It was a perfect break for us. 

San Diego-Day 3: Visit to Old Town

After spending an entire day in the Zoo, we decided to head out to Old Town. It is the birthplace of California and was the first place where the Spanish explorers settled. The heavy Spanish influence can be seen in the people, art, houses and music.

Old Town park

The Old Town Historic park is a fantastic cultural hub with quaint museums, arts & craft stores, numerous eateries, ancient homes and musicians playing Spanish songs. 

We first went to a cafe called 'California Cottage' It was a cottage converted into a cafe. We sat outdoor with the gas fireplaces and brilliant lighting. As I sat sipping my Hot white chocolate (which was simply out of this world) an elderly gentleman with a Spanish guitar moved to our table and asked us if we'd like to hear a song. V immediately agreed and the gentleman said he would play a romantic song for us. He played a Spanish song-although we didn't understand the meaning of it, we thoroughly enjoyed the melody.

We then walked to the park and looked around the stores with their old-world charm selling pottery, tobacco, masks and others. There was live music, freshly baked mexican goodies, wine sellers, olive oil tasting and open air restaurants. I will never forget that scene in my life-colorful, lively and buzzing with activity.

Decorated shops
The streets are lined with a wide array of mexican restaurants. I had a tough time picking one. However, one of them 'Old town cafe' has a separate section for vegetarian food and also mentioned that vegetarian food is cooked in separate oil. I hadn't heard of such a thing in any other place and immediately decided to go in. This was also very quaint and cosy. We ordered and surprised to see the huge portions-one dish enough for two people.

There is a haunted house -Whaley's house which is supposed to be the most haunted place in the US. We briefly passed by the house and saw there was a huge queue outside waiting for the ghost tour. I was not interested in paying money and getting sleepless nights.

We were so glad that we picked this place to spend the evening.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

San Diego-Day 3: Visit to the Zoo

Zoo Entrance
The 100 acres San Diego Zoo is one the most famous attractions in San Diego. It has 400 endangered animals and 800 different species. It also has a wide range of flora. It is located inside the Balboa park campus.

It is divided into several different sections: Africa Rocks, Asian Passage, Elephant Odyssey, Lost Forest, Northern Frontier, Panda Canyon. As the names suggest, each zone has its unique theme and special attractions.

Like the other attractions in Balboa park, one needs to plan ahead and identify the areas one wants to explore as the zoo is huge and cannot be covered in one day. We saw the Polar bears, pandas, apes, african lions, elephants and a whole bunch of deer-like animals whose names I forgot.


Panda-The star attraction
Polar Bear

The zoo has a skyfari which takes you from one end of the zoo to the other giving you a bird's eye view of the entire zoo. As expected it was crowded but we managed to get 2 rides in it. A wonderful view from up above.

We also saw a 4-D movie 'Ice Age and Christmas.' It was fun and kids love it. We also took the 35-minute bus safari that takes you on a trip around the zoo and gives very interesting info about the animals. Plenty of shopping and dining options available throughout the zoo.

Bus Safari

What: San Diego Zoo
Where: 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, CA 92101
When: 9 am-5 pm (changes during winter/fall months)
Fee: $42

San Diego-Day 2: Balboa Park

Balboa Park is easily one of the best attractions in San Diego. It has a little something for everybody. 14 museums, parks, 19 gardens, gigantic zoo, tennis courts, gym, theatre, shows, restaurants and more. Since V and I are both museum lovers, I decided to allocate an entire day to explore the park. It was a tough call to choose from so many museums. We finally picked 5 and armed with a map of the park in hand, we began our journey. 

It being a Friday, gave us some more time as some museums operate longer on Fridays. The five museums we visited were:
Museum of Man

Mayan Statue
Mummy coffins
A beautiful display of exhibits that trace the journey of man. Right from replica of fossils of the early man to the Maya statues and modern photographs. My favorite part was the Anthropology section that showed the evolution of man. The changes in the brain, bones, teeth etc over time from monkeys and apes to modern man. It was amazing to see all the stuff that we learnt in history. Only this time, instead of text books, it was more of visual learning. I also saw mummies-real Egyptian mummies. They are truly fascinating. 

I would have loved to spend more time here but we had other museums to cover so had to limit ourselves to only an hour at each place. 

Evolution of Man Exhibits

2. San Diego Air and Space museum:

Aircraft used during World War II
The receptionist at the previous museum recommended that we check out this one. Although, neither of us was too keen on visiting it, we decided to go as she made it sound very exciting. This museum houses all the planes that were used during the world wars. It also has flags, clothes etc used by the astronauts who went to the moon. To some one who is interested in this subject, this would be a wonderful place but to me it was quite boring. The only fun part of this one was the 4-D theatre.  Three five-minute movies were played and the 4-D effect was mind-blowing. I would visit this museum again only for the 4-D show.

I have no words to express what I felt at this museum. I was stunned to see the collection by Ruud Van Empel. Each work was a result of stitching together several different photographs together. I was surprised to find out that every individual represented in the pictures was put together using features from many different people. There was a haunting quality in each of his works-almost surreal yet piercing. Fabricated reality-that was the term used to describe his works. Photography was not allowed inside the museum so could not click any.

An interactive science center that has numerous exhibits that allows one to learn the different science phenomenon. Interesting, educative and fun. I'm sure my relationship with physics wouldn't have been so bad had I got a chance to learn it in an interactive way like the science center. All the models were thought provoking and had detailed info about the phenomenon it described. However, the place was crowded with children who were more interested in playing with the models rather than learning anything. It was quite sad that most parents too didn't try to use the exhibits as a learning tool and let the children use them as toys. The best part about this museum is the dome shaped IMAX theatre. We opted to watch the movie 'To The Artic'. The theatre is like a planetarium-the screen stretches from the ceiling all the way down to the floor. The movie depicted the sad state of the polar bear due to the melting of the arctic snow caps as a result of global warming. It was an irony that it was both touching and beautiful at the same time. 

The last museum for the day. We only had 40 minutes to explore this one before it was closing time. There are several galleries for Asian, African, American, European and Modern Art. Since we were pressed for time, we chose the European section. We walked through the Renaissance, Impressionist, Post-impressionism paintings from Italy, France and Germany. V explained to me how the themes and art evolved during each of the periods. It was quite overwhelming to see paintings that were so old yet were magnificent.

Overall, the visit was very informative and fun at the same time. I would definitely recommend keeping an entire day for this activity. A day well-spent!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

San Diego-Day 1: Cabrillo National Park

I had read a lot of interesting things about the Cabrillo National Park and had put that on our itinerary for two reasons. One, it would give V a chance for photography and two, it was supposed to be one of the most scenic places in San Diego.

Cabrillo Monument

We were in for a surprise when the cab driver said he had never heard of such a place. He had to ask at the hotel front desk for directions. I was prepared to be disappointed because cab drivers told me that he lived here for 25 years and had never heard of this place. But the drive to the top of the hill where the park was located was totally worth it. We could see the bay and the city skyline from there. A breathtaking view. I even learnt that the harbor view is considered one of the best in the world!

The two most famous things about the par were the Cabrillo monument and the old light house. We learnt a little bit about the history of the place as well. Cabrillo was a Spanish adventurer who along with his team entered California through the harbor at San Diego. He came on the famous ship 'San Salvador' which is currently being reconstructed by the San Diego Maritime Museum. There is a museum near the visitor center that has a collection of tools, instruments, clothing and other artifacts about the Spanish conquistadors.

The old lighthouse at Point Loma is also another attraction. Visitors can climb up the lighthouse and take a peak at the house of the keeper. The rooms are furnished in the old fashioned way and gives you an idea of what life was back in the day.

Point Loma Light House

Also, there is an area for tide pooling. During low tides, one can see a variety of sea life in the rocky intertidal zones. We weren't able to see that as it wasn't the right time of the day for it. For those who are interested in hiking, there is a beautiful hiking trail that starts from the lighthouse. Since I was already tired with all the walking, we walked for 10 minutes and returned. 

Harbor View

What: Cabrillo National Park
When: 364 days (except Christmas) 9 am-5 pm
Where1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive San Diego, CA 92106
Entry Fee: $5 for vehicles, $3 for walk-ins and bicycle

Sunny San Diego

All set for the trip

It was our first Thanksgiving in the US and so we were very excited about the long weekend. It was a very special vacation because right from choosing the destination, booking flights, making hotel reservation to chalking out the itinerary was my responsibility. Even the packing of bags was done by me!

 After a lot of deliberation and thinking, I zeroed in on San Diego as the destination. Until the night before we left, I was reading reviews and travel recommendations to make sure that it was a memorable trip. Now let me jump right into the details of the vacation. 4 days of absolute fun and entertainment. I wouldn't call it relaxing as there was a LOT of walking around to do but then it wasn't hectic so neither of us complained.

Hotel where we stayed
We started from San Francisco on Wednesday evening. After a yummy dinner of Broccoli and cream cheese soup and bread at the airport, we boarded the flight, all set to embark on our adventure. It was a very short flight-although the ticket said an hour and a half, we reached San Diego in an hour. The hotel (Humphrey's Half Moon Inn) sent a courtesy shuttle to pick us up and we reached the hotel in 10 minutes.

Since we had to begin our day early, we crashed in as soon as we reached. Instead of cramming everything into a single post, I figured it would be best if I broke down each tourist attraction into a separate post. That way, I will be able to do complete justice to the place. So keep reading!

View from the hotel

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


My first diwali in the US. Since we don't know a lot of people, I knew it was going to be a low key affair.

The fun and exciting part of my diwali was that I prepared a few of the traditional snacks and sweets at home all by myself. I went grocery shopping and got all the required things and tried out 5 different things-4 of them turned out well. But hey for a first timer, that is a pretty good number.

Take a look-this is what I made.

That is chivda, shankarpali, namakpare and maladu for you. Doesn't it look yummy?
Since I'm all about healthy eating these days, I baked the shankarpali and namakpare.

On diwali morning, I got all dressed up and then distributed the sweets to my neighbours and got some sweets in return. And that was my simple diwali celebration.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Disney on Ice

While browsing through the internet for interesting things to do in and around the Bay Area, I came across the 'Disney On Ice' show. Since I'm a huge fan of animated movies and love all things Disney, I was very keen on attending this one. To make things better, I found an awesome deal on the ticket prices-50% off. There was no stopping me now. I immediately booked the tickets 2 weeks in advance and waited for the day to arrive.

 However, on the day of the show, I had the day packed with back to back job interviews. I was so caught up in the interview prep that it almost slipped from my mind. Later during the day, while checking my email, I got a notification from the ticketing company that there was some mix up with my seats and new seats were reserved. I was kicking myself for forgetting about the show I was so eagerly looking forward to. That email really saved me. I couldn't care less about the change in the seating. I came back home from the interview and kept looking at the watch for the right time to leave. V came home early from work and both of us set out to the Caltrain station to catch the train to HP Pavilion in San Jose. Thankfully, the pavilion was across the station.

The place was buzzing with activity. For a moment I felt out of place because it was dominated by children. Parents were bringing in their kids-most of them dressed up as their favorite cartoon or fairytale character. I saw several fairies, princesses and even a Hulk! They all looked so pretty with the wands, glittery dresses and crowns.

The show was held in an ice-skating ring and we had our seats in the Upper bowl. Fortunately, they were good seats and we got a clear view of the show. Although, all the seats behind were completely entry, the show had a very good turnup.

Disney on Ice basically is a ice-skating performance by Disney characters with the usual song and dance sequence. From their website, I gathered that they have several themes for this. The one that we attended was '100 years of magic.' Disney was celebrating their 100th anniversary by having 65 of the most popular disney characters all in one show.

The ever-popular Mickey mouse along with Minnie, Donald and Goofy were the hosts of the show.

Pinnochio, Alladin, Jasmine, genie, chipmunks, lion king, Mulan, Nemo and several others came and put up an absolutely scintillating and dazzling performance. There were fireworks, glitters, laser, colors and music. It was no less that watching a Disney movie on screen.

The spectacular skating show recreated some of the magical moments from the famous Disney movies which was a complete delight to watch. The performers were incredibly talented and watching them dance transported me back to the movies and cartoons. All the performances promoted a message of friendship and celebration of life. I thought they did full justice to the money that I spent. Total entertainer!

San Carlos Art & Wine Festival

Ever since I came here, I have been reading about Art & Wine Festival but somehow never got a chance to attend it. It's a festival organized by the Chamber of Commerce of each city in the Bay Area. The biggest one of them all is the Mountain View Art & Wine Festival.

I was very upset that I couldn't attend any of these due to some reason or the other. Luckily, while browsing through the Caltrain brochures, I found out that the last of these festivals is going to be in San Carlos. I checked out the dates as well as the location. Close to the Caltrain station-that made things easy. Actually, most of the Art & Wine festivals were held in locations that were very close to the station.

The one in San Carlos was right across the station. It was a two day event. I was quite taken aback by the number of stalls at the festival. Hats, scarves, pottery, dolls, sculptures-everything on display. It was fun checking out the vast array of items. Not to mention the wine. There were equal number of wine stalls selling wine by the glass. People had to buy a glass and a token to taste the different types of wine.

There were a few food courts too. And of course the downtown was full of restaurants on either side of street. As usual, vegetarian choices were very limited. So I settled for a veggie gyro which was ok-tasting. Since it was scorching hot, instead of sampling the wine, we headed to the nearest Starbucks store and got a milkshake.

Tattoo, mehendi, face painting and other fun booths were the main attraction for children. There were music performances on both days too. Sadly, we didn't have time for any of them.

Overall, the festival was more like the exhibitions in India which have a lot of items on sale but most are ridiculously expensive. Yet, we all love going there despite the crowd. This was something similar except that I wish it had more yummy food.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Palo Alto International Film Festival (PAIFF)

I came across the details of this film festival on a flyer outside a store while strolling down California Avenue downtown. I came back home and checked out the website. It was exciting to me that it was very close to the Caltrain station (accessible to me) and that they had some interesting volunteering opportunities. I immediately signed up for two shifts.

Now, this is the second year of PAIFF and they mainly showcase independent films across different genres. It is a four day festival in the last week of September and the movies are shown in 3 different theatres-Palo Alto Square 1 and 2 and the Aquarius theatre. They also have free movie screening for the public in the outdoor theatre at the festival village.

I volunteered on two days. The first was at the office before the day of the festival. I was in charge of answering phone calls. Honestly, I was very nervous as I didn't know what kind of questions I had to answer. A few calls asked me details like parking space which I had no idea about. Then the volunteer manager handed me a list of names and phone numbers and asked to call each one to see if they are available for volunteering. It had 120 numbers! Imagine the horror of having to call each one and repeat the same message over and over again. Most of them went directly to voicemail. Overall it was a tiring process and honestly I had expected something more fun that this. To compensate for this boredom, I took an hour long break and treated myself to yummy burger and fries at a nearby restaurant called 'Workshop' On the whole my first volunteering experience was nothing like I'd imagined it would be.

My second shift was on Friday. It was but natural for me to be skeptical about it after my first experience. Nevertheless I still went there. This time I was working at the Festival Village. I was assigned to the Information Booth. My responsibilities included answering questions about the event, directing patrons to the appropriate places. This definitely was fun. I got all sorts of questions ranging from details about the movies playing, show times to silly questions like if I had chewing gum. It indeed was fun interacting with so many people in one day. There were two other kids assisting me at the booth. One of them had no idea what he was doing and was giving all sorts of crazy, wrong answers. I even suspected he was talking to himself. A total wacko.

There were food trucks selling very yummy and cheap food. When I got a chance I went to check out the food there. I must admit, I had the yummiest sandwich in the Banjara Bistro truck. I reminded me so strongly of 'Kachi dabeli' I got into a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was also volunteering. We had a nice chat while devouring our food.

Digitally remastered version of the movie 'E.T' was being screened on the big screen to celebrate the 30 anniversary of the movie. Before the movie began, there was a small Q&A with some of the members of the technical crew who worked on the film. Although they were all Academy award nominees or winners, sadly I didn't recognize any of them.

 Though I didn't stay back to catch the movie, I received this

and saw this. Which I thought were really cool.

As for the actual film festival, I used my free ticket vouchers (volunteer perk) to watch 2 movies back to back (yeah, I love doing that). I saw the movies 'Butter' and 'Zarafa', both of which, I thought, were absolutely wonderful.

Overall, it was totally worth volunteering and participating in the Palo Alto Film Festival. I'm definitely going to attend it next year too!