Guilty as charged!

I’ve ignored this space for so long, I’m surprised the folks at wordpress still kept this alive! (Bless them). So, long story short, this year so far has been pretty big. I landed job offers, published papers, wrote my dissertation, defended it, wrapped up my Atlanta settlement, got my family over for commencement, got a truck load of pics and fancy dresses (for the same), moved to Buffalo, bought a car, settled in and wait for it… got Whisky to stay with me (which was the best graduation gift ever!)!
So, I’m ready for the new innings as not-a-student. I’m still a pretty new not-a-student ( I hate being called – grown up, working woman blah blah) and I’m loving it so far.
But this post aint about Buffalo (that one is in the works) or the immeasurable joy of not asking anyone for rides anymore. This one is for Texas, where everything is bigger and badass.
I experienced the joys of being a chemical engineer and visited an actual, functioning, refinery. (I think 10 years of training as one should suffice. )Those things are just insanely huge and complex. First few hours, the intricate network of pipes that are hundreds of kilometers long, wrapped around each other, emerging from some of the biggest crackers and distillation units amazed me. It is like intricate zardosi except done by drafters and probably some of the best engineers the world has ever seen! The second thing that got to me was that these things work, and not just work, they function almost as per design. Now that is something I’m still grappling with. Unless modeled to perfection and designed so accurately, there is no way that reactors and reformers who work with energy levels equaling that of atomic bombs everyday, can function so accurately without dramatic events unfolding on a daily basis! Motivates me to turn into a perfectionist next time I’m designing one of these babies.

No, I’m not turning into a plant engineer. I am here to do research and the opportunity to see these engineering marvels up close has revived the sedated engineer in me. It is a tough life no doubt. But this is a completely different world, far from the swanky glass and wood buildings, cubicles, cafeterias that serve hundreds of cuisines, bustling restaurants, health conscious bicyclists, runners, dog-walkers and discussions on the viral memes or videos. This is full of pick-up trucks, dirt roads, Texan barbecue restaurants serving a host of animals slathered in homemade sauce, tattooed burly men in steel toed shoes and overalls (I wore them too btw and contrary to popular opinion (the few that exist) the overalls actually help in the scorching heat) and folks who can pinpoint the exact malfunctioning valve among a million just be looking at a single number. It ain’t desert like though, it is actually very green and crisscrossed by a number of estuaries and the town sits prettily right next to the port. It looks spectacular at night. Oh, did I mention the breeze at 150 ft late at night? It is gorgeous. Just like the sea breeze on a cool November evening in Chennai. You can see the bridges, the port lights, the tankers waiting to fill up the liquid gold and the horizon dotted with flares from all the refineries lined up on the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, life ain’t easy for anyone here. The work is interesting but physically taxing, sometimes the antics of the plant are frustrating and the accents are mentally taxing to process. But this was my glimpse into the reality of my models, the stuff I’ve studied and researched on a computer for half a decade – and it is nothing like I ever worked on. It is different and in a league of its own. It is like waking up from the cozy virtual computer controlled lives and looking at the places where things are actually made and being shocked into reality.
I liked it. I don’t know yet if I’m coming back. But it is nice to sit high off the ground, listening to country music on the radio in steel shoes and a hard hat and watch the million flickering lights of one of the largest refineries in the world.

Ps: Happy Birthday India. Have a good one!

Yes, I’m back in business. Follow this space for more 🙂

To the moon and BACK!

This post is long due. By long, I mean its more than a month late. Early last month, I took off on a fun weekend to Florida, my first visit to the Orange State. Apart from a super fun road trip that lasted 7 hours with a break at a mexican restaurant where I was so fraught with laughter, that I dont remember what I ate at all, I got a chance to explore my favorites – animals and space exploration. ( NASA was a dream once upon a time). Now, I hadn’t been to a beach in the east coast of US till now. I wont say Atlantic coast since I spent my summer of 2006 basking in the Bahamas beaches. I drove past Gainesville (where a lot of BITS-Pilani, Goa is) but didnt make a trip down there for lack of time. Only 2 days and so much ahead!

If the road trip wasnt fun enough, the night got even better as we got tickets to the IMAX screening of Endhiran. It was the day of the release and my! the movie brought the entire tamil community of south florida together!. Such a large crowd with no space to walk and all tamil words floating around prominent among those being “Thalai!” Now, call me a traitor if you will but im not exactly a Rajnikanth fan. Infact, Im not a fan of anyone in particular with the exception of Kajol and Johnny Depp but again that is because they deliver such consistent performances. I like performances, movies not the people. In short, in my opinion, the movie was an utter waste of time and money and when the super-awfulmax climax began, I was only squinting at my watch to calculate how much time remained. Shee! What choice man!

But I think the movie was the low point of the trip. After hardly sleeping for 3 hours, all groggy eyed but full of excitement we headed from Tampa to Orlando’s Sea World. It was my choice to go here instead of DisneyWorld because of obvious reasons. Once into the park, it was a delight of sorts. I saw all sea animals I had been wanting to watch. The first one and my favourites (I made the folks go around it twice) was the penguin enclosure. It was amazing. There were two huge enclosures – Puffins and Penguins. The penguins HAVE to be the cutest little birds out there. I saw all varieties and was trying hard to match images with Happy Feet (movie). It was fun to watch them do what they do. We went to the Clyde and Semour show which was performed by Sea Lions.I saw all the possible sea animals – Manatee, Sharks, jelly fishes, smaller fishes, fed dolphins and also caught a lot of shows that day, the best being the Dolphins, the Cats and Dogs and the obvious spectacle – The Shamu ShowThe Shamu of the Shamu Show performed by Killer Whales or Orcas. It was infact the same shamu that had killed the trainer a few months ago. It was amazing to see their size and marvel at nature. Really. Only when you are sitting feet away from a full grown Killer Whale which is the largest predator in the entire biosphere, do you realize how small we are. The interaction between the trainers and the orcas was significantly reduced because of the accident but it was spectacular nevertheless. And then my favorite exhibit – The Arctic circle animals. I thought this was wonderfully done with the lighting and temperature inside the dome mimicked to match the Polar regions. My favorite since childhood was the Polar Bear and I saw it! Beluga Whales, Polar Bear and the Walrus. Polar bears are HUGE. Period. They are really bigger than what you imagine them to be. The Walruses! WHOOOOOAAA..that is the reaction. They are SO HUGE. Almost everyone there is awestruck by its size! They are mammoth creatures, fat and one can only ogle and the zeros describing their weight. After a tiring day, we headed to cocoa beach which was our next destination. Space coast!

Cape Canaveral is the spot where NASA has its launching pad. It is the same place that shuttles land after their missions. Being a big space enthusiast we headed to the Space Coast , an hour and a half drive from Orlando. We dumped our belongings in the hotel, bought tickets to the Kennedy Space Center for the next day and headed to Cocoa beach where we ate Thai food like pigs. (Dont ask me why Thai, it was not my decision). The next halt was the Ron-Jon Surf Shop. It is the surfing mecca of the world being the biggest and most famous. It was a lot of fun to go around the store and invest in some nice beach towels! We also made it to Cocoa Beach Pier, which extends half a mile into the ocean and it was enchanting to sit at the very edge and listen to the waves. Without any energy left and sleep forcing our eyelids shut, we crashed at the hotel for a good night’s sleep knowing the next day was going to be longer with the whole return drive before us.

If Sea World was a humbling experience in terms of marveling at nature, Space Center makes you applaud and revel in the magnitude of human achievements. The most striking was the fact that we sent man to the moon using a slide rule! I saw the launching pads and the Discovery strapped on one of the pads( the launch was held on Nov 1st) and also saw the gigantic NASA crawler. Everything there is an engineering marvel. To watch the exact spots where the Apollo missions launched, to the marshy greenery filled with alligators, it was a wonderful experience. I saw the control room where people actually worked to control the missions and the reams of design papers and slide rules that designed the machines where there was zero tolerance of error. There was also one of the real Apollo mission rockets which had parts of it recovered and assembled kept as an exhibit. You wonder how they propel such humongous stuff into space! Moving it would be an achievement!One of the Apollo's. Apollo V. The real thing! More than anything, that place is inspirational. Infact, the motto that keeps them going forward is that Nothing is impossible. The last thing we did was enjoy a flight simulator which simulated the launching experience. In reality, you experience close to 15-g. They simulated only 3 g. It was not scary but the build up was! Overall an amazing amazing day!

The rest was all routine with dinner at Udipi, Tampa and a beautiful night drive back home. It was unusually cold at 5 degrees in Atlanta when we reached and that kept us awake for a while.
It was back to work on Monday but the memories of this trip are definitely here to stay for a long long time.

India and the Indian Railway

I believe that the best and quickest way to have a tour of India is to travel in the long-distance trains. I enjoy train travel more than any other mode of travel. Plane rides are comfortable and rather convenient but the shock of the quick travel sometimes gets to you. Like two hours back, you were sleeping in your mom’s lap and BAM! you are sleeping on your cold bed in the hostel room. Trains have an aura around them. The constant chug-chug sound, the cacophony of the bearers walking up and down the aisle, plus the opportunity to glimpse the astounding diversity of our country make the journey all the more pleasant. Never mind the dirt or the lack of opportunities to bathe. It is indeed India at its quickest and best.

A long train journey across the length or width of India gives the best chance to savour food from all parts of the country. The most authentic cuisine of the particular place is served at the railway station. I remember being ever so hungry on the trains almost eating everything that that particular station had to offer as its specialty. The idlis down south, the piping hot biryanis of Andhra with the Gongura chutneys, the Missal-pav and Vada-Pav of Maharashtra, the Bhakri of Madhya Pradesh, the aloo chats, chikkis, doodh pedha, everything you can get to have in its authentic style in just one train journey! Coming to the locales, its like a mini-sightseeing trip. More than the destination, it is the journey that is worth enjoying. You can watch the landscape melt into different forms, from the dense jungles, arid plateaus to the hills, cities and towns. Who can forget the numerous rivers cris-crossing our country. It was always fun to watch the river from the train. People drop coins hoping for good-luck, you can watch the dry river beds, the water meandering through the plains and the tiny boats hoping for a good catch of the day. It is like a movie playing before your eyes.

You meet different people, get to watch them closely traveling with them in such close quarters for such long periods of time, strike conversations, get lucky in love sometimes, enjoy the journey playing board games and cards, chat and gossip and read books uninterrupted. Every platform goes into a frenzy the train stops and it is fun to watch the intense activity suddenly erupt in the otherwise calm station. People filling water bottles, coolies trying to get clients, people hunting for change, hawkers selling all kinds of things, relatives and friends welcoming each other or saying good-byes, grandparents welcoming grandkids for their summer holidays, all of this makes every journey memorable.
Of course, there are certain aspects not that welcoming. The dirty toilets, the unreserved people straying into reserved coaches and occupying floor space, the thefts, the robberies are some of the many things that Indian railways should not be proud of.

I know many will wonder why the sudden post on railways. As I was reading the paper that Mamta Banerjee will mostly be the Railway Minister, my thoughts went to railways and the changes in the pre and post Lalu days. The days when tea was still sold in cups and not Kulhads, the days when railways were not so prompt or clean,when 24 hour delays were commonplace, when accidents hit an all-time high to the recent pasts when railways are once again back in form, maintaining even better time than even the Airlines sometimes, posting huge gains, improving service and speed and becoming the delight they truly once were.

Railways are like a throbbing lifeline of our country. One of the most coveted ministries and the largest government agency, the numbers they transport, employ, earn, serve are simply mind boggling. The number of trains operating, the reservation system are all technological marvels. Sadly, we never seem to look at it in awe. All we mostly do is crib about the cleanliness, the food, the heat or compare it with others like the Euro-rail and boast about the things being better there.

Overall, nothing can beat Indian Railways.
All the best Mamta Banerjee, you have a lot to live upto.

Travelogue: Pune

The last month has seen a lot of travelling on my front. First to Pune and then to Mumbai. It has been hectic with back to back weekends spent in these two cities. This post is about Pune, the place where I visited to give the CAT. (Do not ask me how it was btw).

I spent an uncertain evening waiting in Vasco waiting for the Cozy Nook travels bus to take me to Panjim. I stood waiting near the bus on which “Cozy Nook” had been painted in bold red paint, only to be told half an hour later by some man to board the bus on which “Laxmi travels” was written. Uncertain to believe him (he looked scary and had been staring in my direction for sometime), I continued to stand where I was periodically glancing at the bus he mentioned. I finally found someone from college, one of the dc-regulars-but-never-met-in-person friend. He turned out to be another novice at bus travel and we stood there uncertain about which bus to board. Finally when the Cozy Nook travels bus showed no signs of movement we boarded the bus shown by that man. He was the driver!

The rest of the journey was pretty uneventful apart from the numerous drafts I wrote in my head about complaining to the Panjim authorities about drilling some traffic sense into people. I kept dodging cars as I stood in the bus stop waiting for my bus to arrive. Once into the bus, I slept off almost instantly. The a/c felt so comforting after the long hours in the electricity-less sweaty campus.

The nip in the air was just about pleasant as I got off the bus at the Swar Gate bus stop. The car took me to my destination. Surprisingly the drive was very short, less than 15 minutes long which is rather unusual for a defence organization because usually they are located on the outskirts of the city.

The day I spent catching up with my sleep. The weather was pleasant and the occasional TV kept me entertained though the day. The next day was all the action.

Pune is a beautiful city. I liked the fact that it was small, takes no time to travel from one end to another, has loads of old british buildings and is not too polluted. My exam center, Nowrosjee Wadia College was one of the most pretty colleges I have been too. Huge stone arches, an imposing library and the British architecture appealed to me. After the exam, I went to meet a college friend at a popular theatre complex, E square. Being a sunday afternoon, the crowd was immense and no tickets to any show were available. We killed time talking about various things right from future plans to campus stories to personal lives. It was refreshing.

He took me to Fergusson College in Pune, the place where he did his 11th and 12th from. Again, it was extremely pretty with lots of empty spaces, trees, a unique structure “Kimaya” which served as a stage for plays and campus hangout. We spent a lot of time there walking around the place and then settled down at the Kimaya catching up with each other. It was nice to have a personal conversation unlike the electronic ones we have everyday. Somehow those are so soothing and enjoyable. Something that this cyber age simply cannot replace.

After a huge family pizza at Papa John’s, I left for Goa. Pune had brilliant weather. Not hot, not cold and not smoky or dirty. One was perfectly comfortable riding pillion on a bike even in the most crowded roads. Something unimaginable in places like Chennai or Delhi.

I reached college early morning next day. It was a short, fun trip to a place Ive always wanted to go. I felt that one way this place beats Bangalore is that the city is not stretched to its limits. It seems just about full and has the perfect amount of everything. Of course, Bangalore is much bigger and commute within the city takes longer than it takes to travel from Chennai to Bangalore itself, but there is something about Pune that makes you feel at home.

I would love to go to Pune again. Sometime, hopefully. 🙂