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The US Diaries

Dated: 27th Jan 2013

I have now come to an end of my two week trip, a trip that was so packed that I missed the entire Australian Open (anyone who knows me will realize that's quite a big deal!).

As soon as you land, you immediately know that you have landed in USA, as there is Obama's face peering at you from every TV screen and every poster at the airport. There is also the debate about gun laws going on in every news channel. And, when you step out of the airport, the traffic is going the opposite way, and when you go to any burger place for a bite, you watch NBA basketball when just the day before you were watching cricket while eating your burger at the same Mc Donald's burger joint. I am not saying anything new here. Everybody knows these things, but, these are things that nevertheless strike you as different as soon as you land.

The things that really strike you if you're coming from India are:

1. The cars greatly outnumber people and in any case, the population is quite sparse here compared to that in India.
2. The roads and streets are all well planned. Once you figure out how the streets are named, you face no difficulty at all in going anywhere.
3. The freeways (which are roads with a great number of lanes) make the ride very smooth with hardly any traffic jams, through which one can reach anywhere in the shortest time.
4. The train ride is very comfortable and the countryside (in my case, the seaside, as I traveled to San Diego) that one sees from the train is simply beautiful.
5. There are street performances on the busy and famous streets of the city, and this is the only place where one can see people walking about on the road.
6. If you have not googled your way to reach a place, you are doomed, as no one here knows anything apart from their own destinations and routes. So, you definitely cannot find your way here by asking around people. That I think is the biggest disadvantage and advantage. Everyone here is so well equipped with their devices that they don't really need anyone to show them anything. That maybe a good as well as a bad thing. 

I visited New York, Los Angeles, Ventura, Pasadena and San Diego. This was quite an experience as I traveled to places on my own and felt like a proper tourist, albeit with my very primitive phone camera and a piece of paper with directions and bus routes scribbled on it. I think traveling to new places alone too has a different kind of joy, such that you don't experience when you're in company when you are more distracted and you probably don't look at everything and everyone present! I had my set of fun...I noticed everything and everyone around me, the beautiful weather, the clean blue sea, the roads, the parks, the trees, the kids jumping around, the girls with their high-pitched giggles looking like they've come straight out of a fashion magazine, the couples getting all coochy-cooey in public (including gays!), the boys with their baseballs on the beach, the kids with the skateboards, the people on bikes (what we call cycles) who carried their bikes with them wherever they went- on buses, on trains, just about anywhere and everywhere they went, the many different kinds of dogs that people walked- the smallest to the largest, the homeless people sleeping in their sleeping bags on the pavement. I even witnessed a minor squabble between a black woman and a white woman in the bus. And, in the opposite scenario, I witnessed two men (a black and a white) spontaneously start to discuss the most recent match of American football, even though they were complete strangers before their encounter on the bus. I liked the way the New York subway was connected to every place in the city. New York's Manhattan area had people walking on the streets and that I guess is the most crowded you can get in the US. Ventura (the harbour city) on the other hand was the quietest, with no people in shops or even restaurants next to the harbour. The quiet blue sea of Ventura was the one I loved the most. It was the most serene experience of being with nature with just the sea and the sea gulls. Comparing this to the beach of San Diego, it had more people on the beach enjoying the sun and the warm weather. The beach in LA was probably the dirtiest of the lot, but still much much cleaner than any beach in India. It too had a lot of birds gliding across the waters. And, I noticed a poor little bird with a broken leg as well that made me quite sad. I think it was one hell of an experience, something I'll cherish for years.

On the science-y aspect, I visited two universities, UCLA and Caltech, apart from my participation in the conference. UCLA is a huge university with approximately 20,000 students. It is a very lively campus, unlike IISc. There were students at every corner of the campus, and it felt like the entire place was bubbling with enthusiasm. The physics and astronomy building's elevators were all marked with all the important equations of physics- from Schrodinger's to Navier Stokes to Maxwell's equation of electromagnetism. Somehow, entering such a place gives you a very profound feeling of being surrounded by ideas of important research questions. The effect it creates is something worth experiencing. The people of the campus were extremely friendly and some of them even walked me to the exact building I wanted to reach. I won't bore you about the mundane details of my talk. All I can say is that I left the place awed and enriched!

And, if UCLA had that kind of an effect on me, Caltech went several notches higher. Caltech is more like IISc. It has fewer students but nevertheless when you look around the campus, the scientific roots that it has leaves you overawed. It currently has three nobel laureates in the chemistry department. It has seen so many prominent scientists during its history that you can encounter the marks they have left all around the campus. It has housed numerous nobel laureates and other prominent scientists. The pH meter (used for quantitatively measuring the acidity of a fluid), the richter scale (used to quantify the energy released during the earthquake) were invented there. The campus itself has small structures that add to its beauty. There is one fountain in the shape of a DNA. There is a sundial through which you can accurately tell the time by looking at where the shadow falls during any time of the day. There is a structure of the ferritin (which is a protein that stores iron) next to the biology building. Visiting Caltech  for a science student is nothing less than being on a pilgrimage.

There were two other places I visited in Los Angeles: The Griffiths Observatory and The Natural History Museum. I visited the Griffiths Observatory at night and one could see almost the entire LA city lit up in the night sky. It was beautiful! The observatory itself had a tour of sorts into the world of astronomy, its history and its various phenomena related to the sun and stars explained. The Natural History Museum was on the other hand a tour in the history of evolution of species of the earth. The huge dinosaur fossils that they have gathered over several decades left you awed at just the size of each one of them. Had they walked, they would have looked like a building that is moving. Both the places had a lot of kids and it made me realize how lucky they were to get exposed to science in its most magnificent form at so tiny an age.

I think my US visit gave me new experiences every single day of my stay and I enjoyed it thoroughly!

-RS

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