Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My first U.S. trip – Stay at Minneapolis and return

Travel season throws surprises at all places, U.S is no different. I’d like to cite this example, to prove that point. I opted to travel to Minneapolis from Seattle which, on a direct route is about 3hours of flight journey. Instead the itinerary I got took me to Dallas which is in a totally different direction all together and in itself was a 3.5hrs journey and after a wait of about 1.5hours at Dallas I was routed to Minneapolis, again a 2.5hrs journey. So if you try to make a mind map, I flew the sides AB and BC of a near equilateral triangle ABC, when I should be flying just the side AC directly. A chat with Deepu sometime before revealed that during holiday season this is quite common to happen. I seemed to be lucky enough only to go down the sides of an equilateral triangle, some are known to have flown the redundant sides of quite an acute angled triangle for 6hrs when the shortest side could have taken them to their destination in 1hr. Pity them. No more math, as I am getting closer to describe my stay at Divya-Vamsi’s place and Divya hated that subject ever since she learnt how it was spelt and continues to do so. Given the acute lack of sleep the night before, I really hated the journey that day, particularly the Seattle-Dallas portion of it, as my body nauseated owing to fatigue and sleeplessness.

Divya was a constant over-the-air advisory for me throughout this trip, where she was the one to welcome me (over phone of course) even before the airport staff announcements at all destinations including Mumbai, London, Seattle, Dallas and Minneapolis of course. As I landed in Minneapolis and collected my bags (which contained more than half the items for Divya and all those items remained majorly in-tact), Vamsi and Divya approached the curb side pick-up point right in front of where I was to exit out. Vamsi was quick to dump the bags into the boot and off we exited, headed to their apartment. It’s a 20min drive and Vamsi was good at the wheel, but I must admit I was always jittery as he drove past the yellow lights while I anticipated that he’d slow down and halt. However, his timing was perfect and never were we moving on red for sure.

The apartment was cute and tidy, just about the thing needed for a young couple. It had all that is needed (except for a few items like TV/TV stand that are debatable) and nothing that is not needed. After I freshened up, we all sat down for dinner and Divya was more than proud to show-off her culinary skills with shrimp fry, methi-chicken and sambar and all of them were delicious. With a plan decided for the next day, we hit bed. The next two days were filled with some relaxed shopping/window shopping at the local malls, premium outlets zone as well at Mall of America, checking out food outlets (loved the Lucé Pizza store) and enjoying some good situational comedy shared by Vamsi all throughout. My customary visits to Walmart, Macy’s and McDonalds too happened here. The evening before my departure to India all three sat together to stuff the return bags with all the shopped stuff. Quite contrary to my expectations we are overweight by an order, thanks to the extra set of dinner plates and dishes Deepthi insisted. Most chocolates were the ones to get the first omission, followed by dove soap stack, followed by nuts tins. The rest was allegedly ‘indispensible’ if I were to see the light of the day once I return home. So that meant stuffing the carry-on as tightly as I could as well as my laptop bag (this really reminded me of journey to and fro Germany while as a student, though I’d admit that this wasn’t as bad as that was where I was wearing literally six shirts. Everyone has their share of fun, experimentation and of course innovation as a student, won’t they?).

After having a sumptuous breakfast, boxed lunch for consumption at airport, baggage zipped and stove in the car boot, we set out to Minneapolis Airport. The plan was that Vamsi and Divya would be circling outside the airport and if in case any items were to be removed because of excess weight, upon a call they’d return and collect the same back to their home. Luckily at the check-in there wasn’t any problem and the baggage was checked-in for collection at Hyderabad. The flights to Chicago and from there to London were uneventful and normal. Just that I went overboard and strained my eyes with two movies back to back in the flight to London from Chicago which fatigued me certainly. At London I bought my permissible quota of liquor to treat the tongue buds of those yearning for an imported malt tinge on them and set out to depart to Hyderabad. After I landed in Hyderabad, true to my hopes, customs was no hassle and I’m out of the Hyderabad airport fairly quickly. As I arrive towing my luggage out of the arrival gate at around 4.50AM, I saw Noori Travels driver waiting from me with a name placard (I think it’s the first time I ever had a placard welcome out of airport – good or bad?). I took a cab drop to my home and controlling the temptation to take sleep, I decided to get ready for office just so I may synchronize my body rhythm with the rhythm of the life back here in Hyderabad.

Just when I began to feel what a smooth return home this was, I realized that I left my beloved watch behind at Minneapolis and soon after from inside the bedroom I heard my wife cry – ‘Oh God! The Correlle dish bowl in the baggage broke into pieces’! Only time will disclose what more got messed up.

My first U.S. trip – 24 carat friendship

Talk of my friends in U.S, I knew before I landed here that there would be some, but I witnessed more than I anticipated, many already married just like me, thereby increasing the community size even further. In the short time that i was here I got a chance to meet Bindu-Siva Krishna, TKPR-Alekhya, Swamy-Prathibha, Pratapa-Bindu, Santosh, DP and most importantly my dear friend Deepu (for G. Pradeep and not Deepthi), most of them multiple times. I'm not joking when I say, of all the dinners I had, I hardly dined without the company of one or more of these friends. And in each get-together a sense of genuine interest is seen in their eyes for participation. I felt privileged, I felt special. Those B.Tech and intermediate education college days of 24-carat pure friendship worked miracles even after a decade, situational comedy all along and thanks to mother tongue Telugu that allowed for a great timing. Thanks to the choice of hotel quite close by to the office and home locations of most of these folks, commute was not a problem even if it meant they picked me and dropped me in their cars all throughout. Deepu was the first guy to get in touch with me, second day after I landed and till he left for his vacation he was always eager to take me around places. The one Saturday I was there, he drove me to all the major site seeing places, practically possible on a wintry day - Snoqualmie Falls, Space Needle, Casino, Alki artificial beach, Seattle downtown, good Indian lunch buffet and Chinese restaurant for dinner. And to top it all the wonderful time spent simply idling through the Redmond campus buildings in the night and an ever memorable game of snooker that inculcated my interest in the game, i must admit. Thanks dude, if you do drop by at this post.

Monday, November 29, 2010

My first U.S. trip - Life at Redmond!

I took a cab (I knew transportation is on Company's expense) from Seattle-Tacoma airport directly to my hotel in Redmond and reached there by late evening on 15th November and checked into my room. After finishing the much postponed ablutions all throughout the entire journey I visited a colleague of mine staying in the same hotel, Kundan, who was here for the same purpose as me but a day in advance. We went out, had dinner together and returned to hotel. After a few mails to office folks back home in India, I forced myself to bed early so i may not be plagued with jet lag the next day. It all worked as planned, and starting early morning the next day I'm all set to work in U.S time zone… normally! Series of meetings, knowledge sharing sessions with regular updates to folks back in India office followed for the first half of the week. In all those sessions that I interacted with folks in U.S, my respect for Redmond work culture just doubled. There is frankness, no information held-up (as I perceive to happen with many people back home in India) is sensed. People know and show that others inputs are valuable and that their success is interdependent with success of their associates. Little did I see anyone of the sick mind-set that 'information is wealth and with-holding it allows to exercise power', which when i reel through is unfortunately pampered heavily by some of the Indian counterparts I ran into. People feel the importance and even demand for knowing how things are changing in the environment and at the same time show a commitment to the work overall as a team they have to accomplish, without looking for excuses. That's what I'd say is a better approach towards a successful team work than anything otherwise.
Last few days of that week and the subsequent week went in to prepare for and run a series of reviews for my one pager specs and for my colleagues’ specs as well.

It's thanksgiving time in U.S and add to that Seattle snowed in November after many years, the temperatures went so low (sub-zero) on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (22nd through 24th November) that people stopped coming to work. We took a cab drop on Monday, the 22nd to office, but had to come on foot in the evening and that's when we learnt the lesson why people here dread snow so much. Roads were skidding with precipitated ice; vehicles are swaggering when the tyres run onto icy portions on the road. The next day even cab service folks threw up their hands and didn't come to pick us up, which made us 'work from hotel' (status message still remains WFH) and make the scheduled appointments into online meetings. Thanks to Lync, business got accomplished. Tuesday the promised 1 page spec review with feature team back in India finished and on Wednesday after the sun showed up in the sky close to noon I visited office in one last attempt to catch hold of anyone who could impart some more 'gyan'. Not surprisingly, building was so lonely. Weather coupled with holiday season beginning Thursday onwards was reason enough for the regular ones to remain at home on Wednesday. In the evening after waiting for 1hour we were lucky to get a cab back to hotel. I returned to hotel and packed my bags ready for an early morning check-out, as I had a flight to catch the next day morning. As a closing ceremony fete Bindu-Sivakrishna hosted a dinner (second one in a span of 7 days) which was duly followed with a game of least count where the subtle cues of Santosh tricked me fall flat. I successfully attended a conference call with India office while at their house, thanks again to Lync. End of call, end of dinner I headed back to hotel, weighed my bags and hit bed at around 00.30AM only to wake up at 4AM to get ready and head to airport. Given the snowy weather outside as well as possible delays likely owing to full body scan protests, I did not want to take chance so started early to airport and was there before 6AM for a 8.15AM flight.

Enough of work, the actual reason that prompted me to pen down a blog for my U.S trip is the affection and hospitality shown by my friends and family relatives back here in Redmond. More on those to follow in my subsequent posts!

My first U.S trip – Reaching there!

14th November - There was great amount of excitement flowing through me. Not because the kid inside me picked the hint that it was Children's day, but because it's my marriage anniversary and more importantly that I'm about to make my first U.S trip. It's a short trip, focussed (or may be not) business agenda for 8 working days and 2 days holiday and then return back to India, that's the major blue print for the visit. The excitement at home was even more palpable in house mates, much earlier than it occurred to me and at a much greater magnitude as well. It's an occasion to prepare the list of 'sends' up-stream and a separate list of 'asks' down-stream. Everyone is set in their preparations, all I had to do is choose an airline that allowed maximum free baggage allowance and prepare myself for few weight (read heavy suitcases) pull exercises. I did those two and rest is all taken care by the seasoned 'experts' back home. When the day (more correctly evening) arrived on 14th November, all items to stuff in are ready. After a quick yet tiresome exercise of arranging things between bags I'm all set to head to airport in the company sent cab.

Journey began with a 1.30hr leg to Mumbai from Hyderabad on Kingfisher. I checked the bags in Hyderabad for direct receipt at Seattle. Journey was peaceful with KF's in-flight customisable entertainment. I landed in Mumbai airport domestic terminal. I was 'advised' that I check if my bags actually came, personally collect 'em and deposit (thankfully not re-checkin though) at KF booth for further loading onto the connecting BA flight to London. After a long wait for a domestic terminal to international terminal shuttle followed by a re-scan of baggage (I totally did not understand utility of this scan at all) and a subsequent ride of 20mins I reached the international terminal. Though a short ride, i got to know from my neighbour in the shuttle bus, how it sucks to enter India with Mumbai as port of entry. How 'squeezy' the corrupt customs officials are who would litigate even the underwear you wore to be brought for 'commercial use' and not personal use. Such a senseless cost of living place that it turned into, the expectations of the corrupticians (the word came naturally to me, probably inspired by the word politician) are so high, at least 10 folds than what other ports of entry counterparts expect. For once i thanked god that it is not the port of entry for me.

Departing from Mumbai it was a 10hour long journey to London. With a strict mandate that I set to myself, i restrained myself from watching any in-flight entertainment but gained as much sleep as possible (which in the hind-sight seems to be reason why I didn't tire out much through the journey). Much I may wish so, i couldn't tame the way I get/end sleep so only for about 5 hours of the journey time I had good sleep rest of the time I was either watching some entertainment channel or struggling to find a comfort posture that induces sleep. The flight landed on time in London Heathrow early morning at around 7AM and my connecting flight was only at 2.30PM. In the beginning I felt happy that I had enough time to move at a relaxed pace between terminals if needed and be on time to my next flight, but I later realized that the time gap is rather too long and it began to make me feel the forgotten fatigue. The real threat that the extremist terror groups have turned out to be can be witnessed to some extent at the Heathrow airport, i left my bag outside the

washroom to freshen-up and then I see an airport official barging in and crying out whose bag would that be outside, when i answered in affirmative he asked me to carry it along with me all times, no matter ‘where’ I go else it would just be lifted off and destroyed without any liability. When I heard him repeat the word 'destroyed' for the third time, my early morning dormant senses sprung to life - holy cow, I definitely don't want that to happen.

All ablutions done, I set out to security check-in. Seeing the way passengers were asked to take off everything and place in those plastic boxes - shoes, belts, ornaments, for once I felt if officials conned to exercise a mass strip-tease sort around in the airport. Breakfast completed, all sign-boards verified thoroughly at frequent intervals until my connecting flight information popped up on those, terminal width ad-measured with my snail walk around the entire terminal 5, all my emails in the computer including junk were read twice I still see that it is not yet time for boarding. Boy, beyond 4hours you don't need a flight connection transit time in how much ever busy airport.

Finally the much awaited boarding began and I eagerly entered into the flight. The journey was yet another 9.30hours of air time during which I had yet another 4-5 hours of sleep before I landed at Seattle. I had advices all through from the beginning of the journey from Divya, my wife’s sister and an ‘expert’ in U.S travel, on what forms to expect and how to fill those Dept. of homeland security related immigration forms. After confidently filling them, I'm in the queue at the immigration stamping. There were two brief questions on my purpose of visit which I answered with confidence and I'm allowed 'IN' to United States of America. It was certainly a feeling of accomplishment; don't know why exactly I felt so though. After I collected my baggage and passed through one other desk of airport officials I was asked to place my bags on a conveyor belt and collect it upstairs, raising questions in me if any of those infamous sad anecdotes I heard from previous visitors that their so and so items were thrown off as precautionary measures by airport officials, is going to repeat with me as well. Thankfully none of my items were perceived as suspicious and i've all my baggage received in-tact.

Seattle-Tacomo airport had $4 charge to rent out a baggage cart to help your luggage out (possible to dissuade carts being thrown all over the place and the subsequent manual labour involved to collect them all back), that's when I first witnessed the touted expensiveness around any manual labour action involved in U.S. After making a 'hi, i reached Seattle' calls to few people i inquired with a man of my dad's age which way to get to Taxi location, he was more than happy to help me out and even helped me with my luggage to the destination floor probably because in me he identified another 'desi' that he too is/was. All through my journey be it at London airport or in the flights or here in Seattle I could feel the Indian presence. Where there is opportunity, it’s tough to stop the talented secure their place, isn't it?