Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

Los Cabos Musings

January 31, 2009

I have wanted to visit Mexico ever since moving to California in 1996. Why, you may ask. Over the last dozen or so years, on more than one occasion, I have been mistaken for being a Mexican. This has piqued my curiosity to see for myself what the country was like, what the people were like, and settle the mystery once and for all. Maybe there was some deep genetic connection between Indians and Mexicans.

In this part of the world, depending on where you are, one needs to keep in mind that the word ‘Indian’ is over-loaded. It is not just the Native Americans who are called Indians. I have been called an ‘East Indian’ in Puerto Rico to distinguish me from the people of Indian origin who live in the  West Indies. So, there is more to being called an Indian than meets the eye. My interaction with the ‘Indian’ shopkeeper in Puerto Rico, and subsequent conversation about being ‘East indian’, has a lot of fascinating historical context. That will have to be the subject of a different post. This is about Mexico..

Mexico is a fascinating, rich culture and we decided that with a three year old, we would first experience the new Mexico, namely the vacation resorts. We knew that Keshav loved the beach and we could spend a lot of time on the beach keeping him entertained, and more importantly tire him out. The visits to the Aztec ruins will have to wait for a subsequent visit. We picked Los Cabos as a destination, booked air tickets, and a resort and off we went. The flight into Los Cabos was through LA and was uneventful. We thought we would get a cab to the resort and be done with it. This is where we could not have been more wrong.

Los Cabos, it seems, has an over-abundance of vacation resorts that want to aggressively push fractional ownership to anyone, even if they are not interested. As we gathered our luggage, finished customs and immigration and came out to the main lobby of the airport, there were many polite people talking in English who were offering to help people with transportation, i.e., cabs, rental cars, etc. Now, I had not made up my mind whether I wanted a cab or a rental car. Plus, I did not suspect that folks helping with transportation would be pushing vacation resorts. I thought they would push their transportation service. One of the polite gentlemen with a name tag on, approached me, and took me to his station and before I knew it started convincing me that a rental car was better, and that he would give me a free rental car if I were to agree to visit some random resort with my family. Of course, he made it sound like his family would starve if I did not visit the resort. He also made it sound as though my family would have the time of our lives on this visit. Now, I do not know why, I decided to go with the rental car at that point in time. I had not yet read Dan Ariely’s ‘Predicably Irrational’  (www.predictablyirrational.com) to know that I was irrational like everyone else and when something was offered as ‘free’, I had the propensity to take that offer without completely evaluating the potential downside.

Anyway, the guy took me to a car rental across the street from the airport, ‘negotiated’ a two-hundred dollar discount for the car rental, and told me to meet him the next morning on the highway outside the Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar resort where we were staying for the next four days. He also told me to not tell anyone in the resort that I had spoken to him. I thought this was an odd request. I could see the strategy of trying to make this ‘personal’, and trying to create the feeling that I ‘owed’ him something for the ‘discount’. Little did he know that I was truly undecided, and that his strategy was unlikely to work. In my mind, I was prepared to pay about 200 dollars for a car rental for five days because that is how much the car would have cost me anyways. In my mind, the justification was that instead of paying about $150 for cab both ways for the three of us, I am now paying $200 for the freedom of moving around wherever I pleased when in Cabo.

The drive to the resort form the airport was quite good. Cabo San Lucas is at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, and the airport is in a town about 30 km north in a town called San Jose Del Cabo. The drive from San Jose to Cabo is dotted with vacation resorts of all sorts along the way. The peninsula itself is essentially a desert, but it looks beautiful from the air and on the ground because of the contrast with the blue ocean. Our resort was about 2/3 of the way to Cabo San Lucas from San Jose Del Cabo. We made it to the resort, parked the car and checked in. While we were checking in, the reservation lady asked us whether anyone had approached us about visiting vacation resorts, and I told her about the transportation agent. On hearing about that she immediately told me that I could get a discount at the resort for whatever amount the other guy had given me, i.e., $200 in my case if we looked around this resort instead. I was stunned. The timeshare business was everywhere here.

Anyway, we then settled in and decided to have a late lunch at the italian restaurant at the resort. Later in the evening, we drove down to Cabo. Getting the right kind of food was a challenge We wanted to see the marina, and this was to be the place we would come more often the next few days were in Cabo.

The Marina in Cabo was definitely a very interesting place, with hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes. Cabo, it seems, was a pirate base from which pirates attacked Spanish ships carrying gold and produce between the Americas and Spain. In some ways, Cabo still has some of that ‘anything-goes’ feel to it even now, although the marina is definitely ‘gentrified’ with malls, restaurants, bars, antique shops and street vendors hawking wares. Deep-sea fishing is a big deal here, and there are many boats and yachts that can take you out into the sea for fishing Marlins. There were some very impressive yachts, some even had helicopters on them and resembled yachts used by rich villians in James Bond movies.

The street vendors looked like native folks who were selling artifacts made from things like coconut shells, etc. The pricing strategy though was quite interesting. They first told us that the price was, say 10 pesos, only later to say that it was 10 dollars. It was about 10 pesos to the dollar. I guess, the mexicans in Mexico were quick to see through my ‘fake mexican-ness’. The lack of ability to speak in Spanish probably gave us away. 🙂

One of the featured items in the marina was a pirate cruise where the tourists are taken in a ship that looks like an old pirate ship. I was skeptical at first, but the experience definitely surpassed all my expectations, the open bar probably did the trick. Keshav had a blast in the pirate cruise as well. We were lucky that the sea was quiet that afternoon. We had not spent as much time on the beach as planned because it was too dangerous to go for the first three days we were there.

We flew back via Dallas, and Keshav created quite a racket on the ride back, especially the leg from Dallas. It did not help that one of my friends was traveling on the same flight, one row behind us, and Keshav and his daughter hit it off. He calmed down a little bit when one of the fellow passengers told him to behave. It was a trip that was to teach us to prepare to travel with Keshav, and we have hopefully learnt our lesson. 🙂

Advertisements

Keshav in Switzerland: Part II

November 10, 2008

In part I, we had just checked into the hotel, Keshav and I had freshened up, napped a bit and waited for Pavitra to get back from work. She came back at 7 pm, and we headed out across the Aare river to the center of the city.

KornhausBrucke on the River Aare

KornhausBrucke on the River Aare

The river Aare is crystal clear, and on a sunny day, one could actually see the bottom of the river from the bridge several hundred feet above the river. Pretty amazing. The river had a pretty brisk current, and on a warm day one could see people swimming along, enjoying the weather and a good swim. I have of course seen people enjoying the river in Kolkata and that has its own charm, but, the beautiful Bernese Oberland surroundings made the Aare a sight to behold.

There were many interesting places to eat, but we had gotten in the habit of asking Keshav what he wanted to eat and to take him to a place where what he wanted to eat was available. Keshav did not like ‘surprises’, and if we took him to a place he didnt want to go, it often meant that we couldnt eat there either. Keshav was in the mood for italian food, in particular spaghetti, and so we went to a busy spaghetti place. Thankfully, most restauranteurs in Switzerland speak English in addition to Swiss-German, French, and to a lesser extent Italian. This restaurant we went to also had menus in English. They must get a lot of tourists. We ordered a kids portion for Keshav, and I had an extra-spicy dish with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes. I topped off the spicy pasta with some beer, and that was good. After finishing his dinner, Keshav decided that he wanted to top off with chocolate ice cream, and this became a standard part of his diet in Switzerland.

We walked back to the hotel and settled in for the night. The Hotel Allegro Kursaal Bern, the place we were staying was a hotel casino complex. Having visited Las Vegas recently, I had a mental image of hotel casino complexes. That image was one of garish excess, pullulating with people on slot machines. The Allegro Kursaal, fortunately, was nothing like the MGM, or the Bellagio. It was a quiet place, and one almost could not tell that it was a casino. In fact, the casino was hidden away on the top floor. There were a handful of top-notch restaurants in the hotel with some vegetarian fare as well.

Switzerland is in Cenral European Time, a good 9 hours ahead of pacific time. This in addition to the fact that we had not for much sleep on the flight meant that on Saturday, we were very jet-lagged. Rather than fight the jet lag, we decided to sleep in, and by the time we woke up it was well past noon. We decided to just amble into town in the afternoon, see the zytglogge, the medieval clock tower in the old town.

The Bern Clock Tower

Zytglogge: The Bern Clock Tower

The old town in Bern is a world heritage monument, and walking through it, one can easily see why. The cobblestone streets, the historic facades, and the medieval wells that are now fountains, beautifully preserved. The center of the town has more than a dozen wells that have survived since medieval times. One could easily imagine folks living in the houses along the street, coming down to the street to gather water for their use. These houses were built right next to each other, not unlike houses in an agraharam in Thanjavur with the local community well, etc. Of course, one of these apartments was rented by Einstein for a few years between 1903 and 1905, and he is said to have done a lot of research that went into his seminal papers in 1905 while staying in this apartment. We visited the apartment, and I was suitably impressed.

One of the amazing effects of globalization was that we saw a McDonalds right next to the Zytglogge. We had never taken Keshav to a McDonalds in california, but this day, Keshav decided that he wanted to eat nuggets and fries. We went into the McDonalds, and the menu was familiar. Ray Kroc’s vision had made it to Bern Switzerland, from Los Angeles. There were some commonalities, but some significant differences. The price for one was different. One had to drop at least 10 francs (about 10 dollars) to eat almost anything at the McDonalds. In addition, one had to pay for additional ketchup. We picked up dinner for three people that cost us $35, though eating anywhere else would have easily cost us twice that amount. Eating in Switzerland is expensive. We picked up the food and went to the eating area on the next floor. I expected to eat quickly and get back to the hotel to retire for the night. McDonalds, after all was a fast-food place.

What happened was different. There was a PS2 console in the eating area and a few boys were playing some ATV racing game on it. Keshav was absolutely thrilled! He had a PS2 at home and loved car racing games. He pestered one of the boys enough to make him give up his seat and settled in to play the ATV racing game. There were other TVs tha were showing the olympics, so Pavitra and I kept ourselves amused watching TV. About 90 minutes later, we headed back to the hotel. What should have been a 10 minute dinner became a 90 minute dinner.

Keshav was so thrilled by this discovery, that he christened the McDonalds ‘Bern’. Indeed, as far as he was concerned, the place with the PS2 was the only interesting place in the whole city. From that night, I had to take him to the McDonalds everyday, either first thing in the morning, or for dinner so that he could get his PS2 fix for the day.

On sunday, we ventured to Luzerne. By the time we got up, went to McDonalds, had breakfast and got Keshav’s PS2 fix, it was almost noon. We then went to the train station, and I decided to get a 3 country Eurail pass valid for Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. The idea was that I would take Keshav to Salzburg to see Mozart’s house because he was an avid Mozart fan, and slept to Eine Kleine NachtMusik, and Rondo Alla Turca. Germany because i thought I would take him to Stuttgart to see the Mercedes-Benz museum and the Porsche museum.

The train ride from Bern to Luzerne was about an hour long, and was comfortable. We did the standard touristy things, and then Keshav decided that he wanted to be carried by me everywhere. This was likely because he was really hungry, but, he would not eat most things we would try to feed him. Luckily, we found an ice cream shop and he helped himself to some chocolate ice cream. We got back to Bern in the evening, and decided to call it a day because Pavitra had to go to work the next day.

Back in the hotel room, we were flipping channels on the TV, and one of the channels had a german program called KiKa Lounge. Keshav was transfixed to it, honestly, so was I. It was this sponge-like character with two small arms that spoke in german, kept pushing over some glass balls that would shatter, and the background music was very interesting. We could watch this for hours, not understanding a word of what the character said, but still be entertained. Of course, this meant that whenever we turned on the TV and Keshav was in the room, we had to first check if KiKa lounge was playing, and could watch something else only if KiKa Lounge was not playing.

Pavitra had to go to work on Monday, so Keshav and I did the usual breakfast and PS2 fix at McDonalds before heading out. It was almost noon by then. We decided to take the train to Zurich, to check the place out and we did that. We walked around the central part of the town, and took some photographs. We hopped on the train back to Bern. When we got off at Bern, we noticed that there was a train going to InterLaken. Since it was only 4 pm, we decided to take the train to Interlaken. The journey to interlaken was breathtaking with some amazing scenery, especially close to Interlaken. Once in Interlaken, it started to rain, and we could not spend as much time or go around as much. I wanted to go to Jungfraujoch, but, Keshav was not in a co-operative mood. I decided that we will have to come back to see jungfraujoch when Keshav got bigger.

The other amazing thing about Interlaken was the sheer number of tourists of indian origin. The people on the trains as well as people waiting for trains in stations seemes predominantly of indian origin. Reminded me of Niagara Falls. In some ways, interlaken is probably the ‘Niagara Falls’ of Switzerland. No self-respecting Indian will visit Switzerland for a vacation and not make a trip to Interlaken. For us, we made it to Interlaken, and as it was raining, we couldnt take many photos since my camera was not water proof. Even if it was, I was not prepared to risk exposing it to the rain.

After having done two places in one day, I decided to head back to Bern for the evening. We make it back without much incident. Keshav would occasionally get very excited, and as we had first-class tickets, we could find cabins where KEshav could scream and not disturb the rest of the passengers. We were also equipped with the PSP that had a golf game, and with music so that Keshav could be kept entertained.

We decided to go to Stuttgart on Tuesday, do some local sightseeing on wednesday, and try to go to Salzburg on Thursday, and squeeze in a trip to a new place on Friday. Pavitra would be free on Friday afternoon, so we thought we could squeeze a trip to some place we had not managed to see.  At least, that was the plan.

Stuttgart was a good four hours away by train, and we had to change trains in Karlsruhe. Salzburg was going to be more interesting. The concierge at the hotel said that it would take at least 7 hours to get to Salzburg from Bern by train. I was still hopeful of making the trip. Even going to Stuttgart meant that we needed to leave Bern by 8/9am to be in Stuttgart by noon or 1, have 4-5 hours at the Mercedes museum, and get back to Bern by 9 pm in the night.

The next morning, we got up early, grabbed a quick coffee and boarded the train to Karlsruhe en-route to Stuttgart. The journey took us through the city of Basel. We crossed into the German province of Baden-Württemberg close to Basel. Baden-Württemberg is the province where Stuttgart is, and indeed, Stuttgart was the capital of Württemberg Kings prior to German unification. It has a variety of museums that provide a unique glimpse into the history of that region from multiple perspectives. The region does not have natural resources like some of the other regions of Germany, but the people here are very enterprising and industrious. Indeed some of the most well known German companies across industries are based in this area, Daimler, Porsche, SAP, to name a few.

I had spent a couple of weeks in Stuttgart a couple of years ago, and knew the town quite well. The region borders France and Switzerland, and has its own sub-culture that is different from Bavaria, or Saxony, or any of the other German provinces. The cuisine is also distinct, called schwabian, and with signature dishes such as spatzler, the pasta/noodle dish that Württembergers eat with many other things. This region was also the region from which many germans emigrated over the centuries. Indeed, Charles Schwab’s ancestors must have been amongst them.

Anyway, the train journey was very interesting, Keshav and I had a late breakfast on the train, and Keshav surprised me by trying the different kinds of breads with butter and jam. We reached Stuttgart at noon, and I went to the tourist center ono Konigstrasse right across from the train station to get directions to go to the Mercedes-benz museum. I took a local train, and got off at the Daimler stadium and walked to the museum.

The museum did not disappoint. It is a post-modern structure that starts at the top, and gives a sense of the models that the company produced throughout its history. as you walk down the ramps from the top. Keshav had a complete blast. It took us more than two hours to get all the way down. By now, Keshav was hungry, and we decided to eat in the cafeteria below. After a late lunch, we went to the shops located in the complex. I told Keshav he could either get one ‘expensive’ model or five ‘cheap’ models. Keshav went for the five cheap models. and we got them. In addition there is a showroom where pretty much every model mercedes is on display and people can try them out. Keshav spent almost an hour trying out various cars. At around 4 pm, I decided to drag him out of the showroom. Keshav was not happy with that, and made me carry him back to the train station that was a mile away. Anyway, we got back to Stuttgart in time to catch our train back to Bern at 5:30. This would get us into Bern at 9:15 or so, and we would be back in the hotel byu 9:30. The journey back was pleasant, because the PSP kept Keshav busy. He crashed by the time we got back to Bern. This meant I had to carry him to the tram station, and back home, but, we survived. All my training with my gym instructor meant that my back and core muscle groups were in a position to carry him for extended periods of time without too much of a problem.

The next day, after our pilgrimage to McDonalds in the morning, I decided to take Keshav to the Bear pits in Bern. These bear pits apparently have continuously had bears for the last 500 years. It is one of the landmarks in Bern and a good walk from the hotel. We strolled down the other side of town and tried to go to one of the museums. Keshav was enthusiastic at first, but when it came time to enter the museum, he changed his mind and demanded that we go back to the hotel room. Rather than push my luck, I decided to call it a day from a sight seeing standpoint, and decided to try to find out what it would take to go to Salzburg the next day. We went to the train station, and asked the tourist center there what it would take to go to Salzburg. It turned out that we had to take the train to Karlsruhe, and change in Karlsruhe to go to Salzburg. The shortest train ride would take 7 hours and would require us to change trains thrice each way. When I mentioned that I wanted to go int he morning and come back the same evening, everybody looked at me as though I was insane. I began to see the writing on the wall, and started preparing Keshav for the fact that we will have to come back to see Mozart’s house. He was not as disappointed as I thought he would be.

The next day, thursday, we went back to the McDonalds, the bearpit, and the main cathedral in Bern. We had to go back to the bearpit because Keshav wanted to see the bear again. The previous day, he had seen the bear doing ‘poo-poo’, and when he went today, the poo-poo had disappeared. He kept asking who cleaned the bear’s poo-poo?

This cathedral was an amazing piece of architecture with amazing stained glass windows. There was a climb up the steeple, and I bought tickets for that but Keshav decided that he did not want to go up the narrow staircase. The church was kind enough to refund my tickets when they saw that. Outside the church, there was a line of cars, and as usual Keshav decided to ‘name the cars’, which is essentially identifying the brands. Keshav was going through the list when an elderly lady was walking by and heard him say ‘bmw’, ‘ford’, ‘toyota’, etc., and she was suitably impressed.

Stained glass window in Bern Cathedral

In the evening, we had made reservations at the Chinese place in the hotel. This was a restaurant on the terrace of the hotel with amazing views of the city across the river. Keshav got special treatment from the staff and he added a Porsche boxster to his collection of toy cars. The food was good, and the dinner set us back about $150, but was worth it.

On friday, we decided to do some shopping. I took Keshav to Luzerne to one of the shops we had seen there with very good trinkets. In the afternoon, we did some more local sightseeing and shopping for chocolate in Bern, etc., and we had to prepare for our trip back home on saturday. Keshav and I had to fly out of Belp at 7:30, and we had a cabcoming in at 6:30. We hopped into the cab, checked into the flight and as we boarded, we saw some hot-air balloonists take off from close to the airport. This was a sight to behold.

We landed in Munich at 8:30. Our flight out of Munich was only at 5:30. As we were passing through a security checkpoint, I asked one of the agents what it would take to go to the BMW museum. It was a 90 minute train ride from the airport to the museum. The BMW museum was in the Munich Olympic village. IT was as impressive as the Mercedes Museum, and Keshav had a blast in it as well. We made it back in time to the Munich airport, and got on a place back home.

The journey back was also uneventful, and Pavitra’s flight landed soon after Keshav’s and mine, and I had time to pick up my car from the lot and drive all of us back. We had landed on a saturday and monday was a holiday was a holiday as well. Keshav was starting a new school on Tuesday, so we needed the time to prepare him and ourselves for that adventure.

Keshav in Switzerland: Part I

October 29, 2008

The decision was made somewhat impulsively. My wife, Pavitra, had to go to Switzerland on business, and me and my son Keshav, would have a full week to explore the country. Seemed like an ideal opportunity for a great summer vacation and to do some Father-son bonding.

Not that there would not be any challenges. Keshav and I would have to spend 15-18 hours traveling each way because there were no direct flights from San Francisco to Bern Switzerland, which was to be our ‘home base’. I was anxious, not only about how Keshav would take to the journey, but how my fellow passengers would react. The last couple of times we were on long flights with Keshav, he had worn the patience of some of our fellow passengers thin. In particular, he had the nasty habit of kicking the back of the seat in front in spite of our imploring him not to do so. Of course, part of the problem was that the portable DVD player did  not hold its charge as well anymore. And there was only so much that I and Pavitra could do to keep Keshav engaged without his disturbing the passengers nearby. This time, I was better prepared. I had a PSP with an innocuous golf game that I had shown Keshav before boarding the flight. He showed moderate interest in the game, and I was going to pray that the Li-ion battery in the PSP would last long enough.

We spent the last couple of weeks prior to the trip preparing Keshav for the trip. Keshav had taken a particular liking to some key classical music composers such as Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart, and we told him we would go to see Mozart’s house. We tried to use this possibility as a carrot to elicit better behavior from Keshav in the days and hours leading up to the trip with limited success. Keshav was also very fond of cars, and in particular, german cars such as BMW, VW, and Mercedes. I promised him I would take him to see cool cars in Germany as well. So, I am sure Keshav was eagerly looking forward to the trip.

One of the reasons Switzerland was interesting was that it did not need us to get a visa to travel there. As luck would have it, the ticket that I was able to get required Keshav and myself to take a ‘local’ flight from Frankfurt to Munich in Germany. This meant that I had to go get a German visa. I did not anticipate any issues since I had traveled to Germany multiple times in the past for business, but the rules had changed recently, and the consulate wanted to make sure that I had medical insurance in Germany, and my United Health Care insurance card was no consolation. I had to buy medical insurance for myself for a period of 10 days on top of my existing insurance to convince the german consulate that I had medical insurance!

Anyway, we were all set for the flight on the 21st of August. Keshav was a pleasure to travel with, and the PSP’s battery held on for its dear life and we were able to get to the airport in Belp close to Bern without any incident. We were of course, helped by the fact that Lufthansa had personal entertainment systems at each seat, and Keshav was now old enough to enjoy some of the programming available there. The only challenge I had to face was to try to change Keshav into new clothes in Frankfurt airport after a grueling flight from San Francisco, and to get him to eat something reasonable. But cheese, crackers, chocolate, ice cream, and water the main items of his diet on the flight.

The only slight inconvenience was that Keshav fell asleep on the flight from Munich to Belp after having willed himself to stay awake all the way from San Francisco to Munich. The gentle humm of the turbo-prop plane was irresistible for me as well. After landing, I woke up and realized that I had quite a situation on my hands. I had two pieces of checked baggage, two pieces of hand baggage, and a sleeping 3.5 year old who weighed 20 kg to carry. Somehow, I managed to carry him and the hand baggage pieces, get a cart, and pick up the checked-in baggage and hail a cab. The Cabbie was a Sri-Lankan who was kind enough to lend me a hand with the luggage and we were off to Allegro Kursaal Bern, the hotel casino complex where we were going to stay.

I struck up a conversation with the cabbie as we drove towards Bern from Belp. My first impressions of the country were that this place looks as prettier in reality than in picture postcards. The small airport, the lush greenery, and the cute cottages strewn along the country-side bely the incredible influence this tiny nation has on world affairs. Pretty much any place you pick has both historical and economic significance. May it be the banks in Zurich, the Chocolate Factories in Luzerne, or the Pharmaceutical companies in Basel, to name a few. I asked the cabbie whether there were many immigrants in Switzerland, and whether they were assimilating well with the rest of the society. His response was amazingly positive. It seems, at least at first glance, like Switzerland has been able to gain access to labor/talent pools from around the world, while still maintaining its centuries-old traditions as of now.

We reached the hotel without any difficulty, and Keshav got up on the way to the airport. Once there, I picked up the keys to the room, and we freshened up and settled in. My wife returned from work in the evening, and we decided to walk across the Aare river and walk around the old-city. The Hotel gave us a Map of Bern that was very useful. The hotel was on kornhausstrasse, and we had to cross the kornhausbrucke and that led to the kornhaus where there were some great places to eat and drink. I presume in ancient times, this was the route that the peasants used to bring in their grain to be stored in the granary in the center of the city. The basement of the kornhaus, kornhauskeller, was used to store wine, and is now a lovely place to experience Swiss hospitality.

Now that Keshav had arrived in Switzerland, what would he do? Would he go and visit Einstein’s house? Would he visit Mozart’s house? Would he be able to go see some cool German cars? Find out in the next installment of Keshav in Switzerland.